We catch up with Janine Harris from Sydney Symphony to discover a recording that has inspired her.
Anybody who has ever spoken to me for more than five minutes knows that I have a morbid fear of air travel. I travelled by plane a lot as a child, and I recall even as early as 6 loving the independence of leaving my parents, hanging out with the hosties on the plane with ‘six seats and no dinner’ and arriving in NT to hang out with my Yolgnu friends and stir up Nhulunbuoy’s numerous green ant colonies. But fast forward twenty years, and somewhere along the way the thought of a plane – six seats or 600, no dinner or three first class meals – started sending turbulent shudders through every part of me. Of course, the fantastic experiences at the other end are always worth the hours of crippling (and aptly named) ‘fight or flight’ anxiety. For a while there I was even flying back and forth across the country fortnightly for a lovely boy – a pianist – whose appreciative embraces at the airport added to my list of things to be grateful for on touchdown.
Never having been one to wander around with earplugs in my ears (admittedly, something of an anomaly for a Gen Yer), the iPod I spent years convincing my parents to buy me was relegated to use on long journeys, and often forgotten even then. I never consciously curated the playlists, so on the device was whatever happened to live in my computer – mostly discs ripped from my university’s extensive music library. One day, the anxiety of the looming flight to see my lover was compounded by a lengthy delay. Equal parts bored and frightened, I remembered for once that there was an orchestra in my pocket. When I pressed play, the first album in alpha order was Andras Schiff’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations. It was not a work I was familiar with, but I was immediately entranced. Since my teens I have been an early music fan, and particularly of choral music. Handel, Palestrina, Schütz – these are a few of my favourite things. But my knowledge of Bach’s keyboard music was limited to the two part inventions I learned under duress as an eleven-year-old. Hyper anxious, couped up in a freezing cold A330 for hours on the tarmac, once again coming to terms with the fact that I was about to meet my doom, I discovered for the first time the simultaneous complexity, beauty and simplicity of Bach’s mature counterpoint (not to mention Schiff’s flawless execution). The hour long disc finished. The plane took off. I listened again. Something about the forward compulsion of the never-ending phrases – lines that continually unravel and then converge, variations which move from introspection one moment to feverish excitement the next – made the music so compelling and intellectually engaging that listening to it was endlessly and unexpectedly calming. What would come next? How perfectly the 30 variations came together as a whole! No matter how many times I played it over the next few flights (and you can fit a good nine cycles into a trip to Hong Kong) I never got bored, and I somehow assumed that as long as Andras Schiff didn’t get lost/stumble/go down, neither would the plane.
During one of the visits to the pianist, I mentioned that the Goldbergs were my coping mechanism. “What recording?” he asked. “Schiff.” “Rubbish,” he said, “It doesn’t get any better than Glenn Gould.”
So I listened to the Gould recordings for the first time. I was unimpressed at first. The muttering, the uneven sound of the piano, bizarre tempo choices… until it dawned on me that Andras Schiff’s recording pays tribute to Gould’s at the same time as it offers something new. By 2012 I was living in a sharehouse (and by now, broken up with the pianist). One of my housemates played me the arrangement of the Goldberg for string ensemble by Sitkovetsky, and it was a complete revelation, because the same music said something so different, dressed in string orchestra clothes. In September that year, as part of the International Pianists in Recital series presented by Theme and Variations Piano Services, I saw Angela Hewitt perform the Goldberg Variations from memory. While her particular execution didn’t move me in quite the same way, and absolutely divided the crowd, I learned so much from her program notes and her gestures – and I couldn’t believe I had listened to this piece 100 times and not identified the incredible mathematical structure that underpins it (nerd alert: every third variation is a canon, where the second voice follows the first at an interval one step wider than the previous canon. And that’s just one component). I have yet to listen to Andras Schiff’s 2003 recording, made 20 years after the original. I am a big believer in first time bias – I am so connected with Schiff’s first version, which has literally travelled everywhere with me, that I worry I will find his latest one inferior.
Most people with a fear of flying pick up a prescription for Valium. Somehow, knowing that the counterpoint of the Goldberg Variations (and the B Minor Mass, and the Passions, and the inventions we all hacked away at as children) are still inspiring generations of musicians 250 years after they were written helps me come to terms with my addiction to Bach. ‘Holding on’ to the counterpoint will somehow save the plane from falling out of the sky. And even if it doesn’t, at least I’ll be listening to the most endlessly imaginative music ever composed on my way to heaven, where Bach and Palestrina take turns to conduct the choir.
Janine Harris is the Corporate Relations Manager with Sydney Symphony.