Building the Goldberg City with Bach

Lichtstudie. © Charles Thibo

Light and sound and the combination of the two have always fascinated me. Here lies the origin of this blog – tweets about a specific moment with a specific piece of music and a specific picture associated to both. But I am just an amateur. Meet the masters of sound and light, for instance the French artist Jean-Michel Jarre.

I recall my fascination at the age of 15: Jarre composed electronic music and performed it with huge laser shows. And yesterday I have seen and heard the Luxembourg pianist Francesco Tristano performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) and building a towering digital city on a screen in the concert hall – projections of the music. 90 minutes of (de)light and great sound… and great fun for that prepared grand piano is one fantastic toy.

Digital data and computer game software

I’ll better let Tristano explain the project “Goldberg City Variations” himself. “I play on a piano with MIDI technology (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) where each note of the 26,000+ notes of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is translated into digital data.” This digital data works as a timeline for the construction of the city. “It is […] actually a computer game software creating our 3D Goldberg City in real-time.”

The city being built by associating rhythm, pitch and duration of notes to graphic elements is not a random city. Actually it is a city imagined in 1959 by the composer and architect Iannis Xenakis: the Cosmic City. Xenakis tried to find a solution to the many challenges of urban architecture and came up with huge towers where people would live and work, reducing commuter traffic and land waste to a minimum. I found useful descriptions of this project in a research paper in English and on a blog in French and include them for anyone interested in utopian architecture.

Maths and music

Bach lived in a time when maths based science progressed by huge leaps. Half a decade before the Goldberg Variations came into being, at the end of the 17th century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, a universal genius born in Leipzig, had just invented integral and differential calculus, the key to solve complex mathematical problems. And Bach was obsessed on the one hand by numbers and on the other hand by the technological progress in the field of instrument building and tuning. In a pre-concert discussion Tristano explained that the Goldberg Variations are one of his most performed works and that he once transcribed into mathematical equations the canons Bach used in the Goldberg Variations. This experience led him to imagine Bach’s musical architecture transformed in a first stage into maths i.e. digital data and in a second stage into a graphic design.

Tristano has uploaded a short video of the show to Youtube, and I suggest you watch it before we move on to Bach’s keyboard piece as such. It’s a brilliant and innovative idea, appropriate to the genius of the composer, and if it can convince a younger audience that grew up with computer games to take an interest in Bach, Tristano has done a great service to music. For this is one of Tristano’s goals: to combine old music and new technology.

Tradition, tradition

As fascinating as “Goldberg City Variations” project is, if it comes to Bach’s piece, I prefer my own setting – that beautiful sunrise – and the recording by Keith Jarrett, who is mostly associated with jazz although he has explored several very classical pieces: Georg Friedrich Händel’s Suites for Keyboard, Dmitry Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Bach’s Goldberg Variations as the first deep sensory experience in the early morning – it fills me with optimism. And it makes me a better driver! Jarrett performs the Goldberg Variations on a harpsichord as Bach would have done it, however I call my own two other recordings, one by the German pianist Grete Sultan and another by Andrei Gavrilov for those who prefer the piano version.

There are plenty of mysteries around the Goldberg Variations. It is disputed whether the aria – the first piece of the set – has been written by Bach. There are arguments for and against this thesis and I will leave the question to the scholars.  Then there are the circumstances under which they were written. The Goldberg Variations were printed in September 1741 by the Nuremberg based publisher Balthasar Schmid under the title “Keyboard Exercises comprising one Aria with different Variations for Harpsichord with Two Manuals”.

The sleepless ambassador

So where does the name “Goldberg” come from? Legend has it that a Russian ambassador, Count Keyserlingk, staying in Leipzig suffered from sleeping troubles. His harpsichord player Johann Gottlieb Goldberg  was supposed to play for the ambassador at night, and according to the legend the ambassador asked Bach to compose a couple of gentle pieces to keep his spirits up during those sleepless nights. But at that time Goldberg was a teenager and it is improbable that he had been up to the challenge of playing this piece.

And guess what? Now that I am writing this, the Keyserlingk-Goldberg story, it occurs to me I that I have presented the Goldberg Variations already in 2016! I simply had forgotten to include that post in the index. Ha! This makes tonight’s job much easier. All has been said in the previous post already if it isn’t for the very specific twist that Tristano gave it yesterday night. And Bach may warrant a second look especially if a young pianist like Francesco Tristano takes up the challenge to do something very innovative with this Baroque piece. Baroque music in 3D real-time rendering! How cool is this?

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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