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April 3, 2015

Book Notes - Alice B. Fogel "Interval: Poems Based On Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'"

Interval: Poems Based On Bach's

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Alice Fogel's poetry collection Interval: Poems Based On Bach's "Goldberg Variations", winner of the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature, is ambitious in form and subtle in wordplay.

Alison Hawthorne Deming wrote of the book:

"Alice Fogel's Interval is a marvel of poetic discipline that mines Bach's Goldberg Variations for formal inspiration. While the project has a mathematically precise conception, the poems have the feel of meditative inquiry--intense, introspective and informed by a keen eye cast outward."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Alice B. Fogel's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Interval: Poems Based On Bach's "Goldberg Variations":


If form is content, nowhere is that more true than in music, and perhaps it is almost as true for poetry. Certainly both can be expressions of the mystery we often perceive life to be. With this in mind, each poem in Interval: Poems Based On Bach's "Goldberg Variations," responds to one of Bach's Variations.

Bach created the GV's 32 sections using nearly all the styles of western European music at the time; I tried to match his approach with a range of contemporary poetic styles, including narrative, lyric, and experimental, all confined within the 32-line structure I took from Bach's 32-bar format. Interval also mimics the "baroque" or fugue effects of overlapping melodies and harmonies by layering sound, syntax, and sense in multiple voices. Taken together, they explore self, identity, mortality, and the way that music—a mathematical construct of intervals and durations—moves us beyond definition and form. A longer explanation of the process serves as the preface to the collection.

Readers could certainly go to the book without any Bach, but I could not have made it without the music. I studied and listened constantly, for years, to many different recordings, but my three favorites are Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord (1986); Murray Perahia, piano, (2000); and the incredible chamber music version by Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1985, revised 2012). Since there are so many cuts, I will try to keep my comments brief for each one. This is going to end up being a sort of annotated Interval, if not an annotated Goldberg Variations, but I do want to note that poetry is that which cannot be paraphrased (to paraphrase the 19th-20th century Shakespearean critic A. C. Bradley), so these notes don't really show how the poems do their work so much as how I made my connections between them and the Bach.

The Aria: The Aria, a sarabande, speaks of and to Bach, and sets up the themes and expectations that the rest of the whole will revisit: opposites that illustrate a repeated crossing over of thresholds in life and death, representing the way music's physical sensations embody intangible or even spiritual aspects, all rooted in time.

Var. 1: Yhwh. Most of the poems in Interval speak from the point of view of a specific, first-person living (imagined) entity identified in the title. The voice of this one is (forgive me) God's. Bach opens the variations with a bit of a bang—reminding me of the Zim-Zum, which is the Kabbalah's mystical take on the not-yet conceived-of "big bang." The way the universe in the poem is expanding and contracting replicates the way Bach's variations often climb up and down scales, sometimes involving the crossing over of hands.

Var. 2: Interval—is a playful three-part invention. This is the first of an intermittent series (every 3, based on Bach's own structure) that speaks not from an identity so much as from a state of being. My version indirectly refers to the kind of prayer in which one calls out for God's attention and then better get on with it quickly lest God actually take notice and zap you up right then. Like me, Bach was interested in the overlapping realms of logic and faith, demonstrated through sound.

Var. 3: Snapping turtle. The first of ten canons, this one is based on the interval of the (musical) first, and sounds like stepping or layering, and like many of the variations it has a kind of in and out motion. The turtle is innocent, thinking its eggs are going to fare better than the water's alternately reaching and receding ice, come spring, but we know that very few of them are likely to survive.

Var. 4: Child. The musical variation for this one has a simplistic and somewhat indignant feel to it. The child, about four years old (it is #4, after all), gets that life is pretty strange. But he still doesn't know the difference between dream and waking realities—they're equally real to him—and is just beginning to get an idea that something like death exists.

Var. 5: Spinning: A free-style toccata without an embodied identity.

Var. 6: Snake. A little more sophisticated than a child or a turtle, this snake speaks for a canon with a crawling quality to it, and gets to sort of reincarnate itself without actually dying.

Var. 7: Girl. #7 has a double-personality to it, like this girl who is on the verge of womanhood. She has her own multiple-voices: When she talks to her mother she's kind of fresh, but when she's thinking to herself she shows her vulnerability and imagination.

Var. 8: Request—for all the parts of a body, in order to experience the life of the senses in a self. An Italian "courante," the music has the feeling of a running list—this, no this, no this...how about all of it?

Var. 9: Potter. The potter is creating a form, on which she etches her fingerprints, even while the clay fills them in on her hands. Canon at the 3rd interval.

Var. 10: Moths. Var. 10 is a fugue with a number of voices—hence, a whole group speaks. Like caterpillars becoming moths (and unfortunately these rather pompous guys much prefer their more substantial pre-chrysalis selves to the flitty wings resulting from their metamorphosis), the music of a fugue is more procedural than any one defined form.

Var. 11: Reflection. This gigue features passages laid over a harmonic ground with glittery sounds and lots of up-and-down crossovers, like water's reflection of the moon whose light seems to sink down below the surface.

Var 12: Happy Prince statue's bird. I borrowed for this the characters from Oscar Wilde's story about the resplendent statue of a prince who looks out over the city's misery and begs a bird to take jewels off him to give to the poor. In this steady, quiet canon, the voices go in contrary, reversing motions, and that's how the bird feels, wanting to do what the Prince asks even as winter comes on, but knowing it will mean the end of them both.

Var. 13: Artist. Things have been moving from innocence to experience, as Blake would put it. Variation 13 is a lovely long, slow, chorale-like piece. On the page, the lines mimic the flow of the music and the shadows of trees on snow (the impermanent "snow dimension"). The artist, accustomed to seeing beauty in light, simultaneously projects her dread of change and loss onto the surface of the snow, much like the trees project those shadows.

Var. 14: Here after. This toccata is sometimes seen as "mapcap" or frolicking, but I hear it as kind of desperate. It makes me think of long and spreading grief.

Var. 15: Woman at the dam. This long canon ends with an upward turn, or question. In a minor key, with falling chains of sighs or tears, its contrary motion feels both dark and somehow accepting of time's natural forces of change.

Var. 16: Actor. Variation 16 is positioned as the first part of the second half of the GVs, and is an overture, somewhat theatrical. The actor gets to take on multiple identities, all without dying in between, and he finds that way of life appealing, if unromanticized.

Var. 17: Like waking. A quick, frantic, and scary toccata: Will death be like waking up from a dream we can't remember?

Var. 18: Baker. In this canon, only one beat separates the follower voice from the leader. The baker feels very little separation between himself and the spiritual work of making, breaking, and eating bread.

Var. 19: Fish. A pizzicato-like minuet that the movements of a fish seem to replicate.

Var. 20: Duration. A reaching that never quite reaches, that falls and tries again.

Var. 21: Dying man. Short passages that seem to pass back and forth, crossing over, as the man fades back and forth from life and briefly back into it.

Var. 22: Equivocator. Short, humorous, and defensive little piece. He can't make up his mind to commit.

Var. 23: Teatime. This toccata is as exuberiant as water coming to a boil.

Var. 24: Leatherman. Canon at the 8th interval, or an octave, which is a kind of rhyme of selves. It has a traipsing gait, and is in a time signature Bach seldom used—9/8—like something or someone going beyond time or beyond the physical self. The leatherman, walking through the woods, for the first time really senses himself as animal, with an animal scent that alerts others to his presence.

Var. 25: Freed slave. In a minor key, this variation is long, slow, sad, and noble. Glenn Gould called it "weary."

Var. 26: Winter solstice. Lively, but dark, this is a wild sarabande. There is no identified speaker other than "we," as if it were humanity itself trying to make sense of darkness, light, dimension, cause and effect.

Var. 27: Awakener. While the other canons are 3-part inventions, this one has only two parts, the bass abandoned as if the ground were pulled out from underneath. There is also more of the back and forth motion in the melodic inversions, like someone in conflict with herself, ungrounded. The speaker in this variation is waking up in the recovery room, not at all wanting to recover, after an unspecified injury, perhaps self-inflicted.

Var. 28: Transplanted heart. This toccata is out of the usual order they come in, and has a lot of rising trills in both hands, like sped-up heartbeats. The movement seems to go fast, then stop, then go again. The heart tells its story of having lived inside a young man who dies in a crash and is now in some ways living inside the woman the heart has been given to.

Var. 29: Boats. This is the place where the usual toccata would be, and, in opposition to the previous one, it has lots of falling motion. Its repetitions alternate between sounding watery and earthy. Here the boats are turned over and lined up alongside the lake, but they're reflected on the water as if right side up. The music ripples like waves against a shore, or like an indecisive wavering between solid or spiritual ground.

Var. 30: Husband. Variation 30 is a colloquial or personal piece of music, based on a pub song from Bach's day. Despite that fact, it's one of the most mellifluous and emotional, with a beautiful four-part harmony. In the poem, a prose poem, the husband pleads with his wife not to give up on the life of feeling and senses, which he knows she loves to the point of overwhelm, in her yearning for the other side. What if, he asks her, you are left still feeling, even when freed from the "predicament of embodiment"? Wait, he says. Stay.

Aria, repeated. Although the aria is the same as it was when it opened the GV, having it repeated after taking in all the variations lends it the air of something we have a better understanding of this time around, and there is a tentative, perhaps illusory, sense of closure, "as if thresholds allowed recrossing."


Alice B. Fogel and Interval: Poems Based On Bach's "Goldberg Variations" links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book ("Variation 16: Actor")

Keene Sentinel profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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