'The imperfect is our paradise./ Note that, in this bitterness, delight,/ Since the imperfect is so hot in us,/ Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.' ' Wallace Stevens, 'The Poems of our Climate'
Silence and slow time. These are what the 'classics' require of us, we are told, so that we might discover them properly. Nothing more, and we may add, nothing less. In Calcutta ' and I'm sure this is true of every other subcontinental city ' the story of one's private contemplation of the classics is always intertwined with another picaresque tale of one's hopeless search for silence, for a quiet, minimal space, away from human insistence and the free market, where one might read a book, listen to music or reflect on a picture for a while. In European cities, there are always the Sunday afternoons ' those vast deserts of eternity, with their desolate streets and empty restaurants and shops, and the sense of little to look forward to apart from Monday morning. On Sunday afternoons, as the days grow shorter and the light begins to fail, and while the Smug Marrieds domesticate in the lamplight, the solitary aesthete reaches out, before emptiness becomes panic, for his Proust or Glenn Gould, or wonders what might have made the Girl with the Pearl Earring stop and look back, with such unwitting seduction, over her left shoulder. And what follows is often a kind of joy ' a joy that does not banish the bleakness, but makes of it something rich and strange.
But Art happens differently here, especially music. My room, for instance, is on the ground floor of an old, variously peopled house. A wall does surround the house. But between the house and this wall runs a passageway whose function is exactly the opposite of the medieval moat. It is a thoroughfare built to let Life in, so that it might circulate around the house, its many noises mingling with the medley of sounds coming from the other houses that crowd around. So when I sat down last week, early on my day off from work, to listen once again to all of the Bach Goldberg Variations, I soon realized that simply switching off my phone wouldn't do at all, and it was too hot to shut the doors and windows.
In no time, polyphony and counterpoint, as Bach had perfected them in these variations, actualized themselves again in quite another way, perhaps entirely unforeseen by the composer himself (who did live, though, in a household of two wives, twenty children and numerous pupils). As a result, an altogether different classic was born that morning ' helplessly, yet vitally impure, timelessly in time, and acoustically far more complex than originally envisioned ' once the hapless listener decided to let go of his exasperation and let life come breaking in as usual.
I was listening to Gould's 1981 recording, which is, in any case, like Pablo Casals's recording of the Cello Suites, wonderfully adulterated by the pianist's grunts, groans and hummings along ' a continual reminder of mortal effort, the 'intolerable wrestle', that prevents the sublimity of Bach's achievement from becoming purely transcendent. This time, almost immediately as the theme aria (Hannibal Lecter's favourite music) began playing, the neighbourhood water-pumps whirred rustily awake in miraculous unison, and our cook's little son, Raju, woke up and started running around the passageway, dodging his mother's attempts at getting him ready for school. By the time of the fughetta, Raju was sitting on the potty, and during the canone alla quarta, I heard the hard little turds drop (a sound-effect memorably used by Bertolucci in The Last Emperor). At the andante, he screamed for his bottom to be washed ('Au Ma, chhuchiye dao-na go!' ' untranslatable). With the sesta, the sweet-shop next door woke up and the moiras started their morning ablutions. Lush, death-defying expectoration; long, Rabelaisian farts; vigorous cold-water baths (the metal mug loudly scraping the bottom of the choubachcha); then the lusty calling for the cats to drink up last night's milk-gone-bad; and finally the acrid, equally death-defying stench of ghee-making interlaced the slow unfolding of the sestima, ottava and the nona.
Then, with the great, penultimate quodlibet, in a feat of pathetic fallacy, one of the two huge, ancient palm trees that stand at the border between our garden and the sweetshop's outhouse chose to shed a gigantic dry leaf. It fell with a tremendous crash, like the wrath of Jehovah, on the asbestos roof of the unauthorized outhouse. In the end-of-the-world silence that followed, I heard the opening aria return unchanged ' but of the last simplicity ' bringing the thirty variations of exponentially increasing complexity back to where it all began. Bach's mystic circle had closed, but had not been able to shut out the 'stubborn sounds' of Ballygunge. And, at least to the marvelling ear of this listener, both Ballygunge and Bach were the richer for it, in spite of being so sublimely unaware of each other.
'Music survives,' the poet Geoffrey Hill had written in 'Tenebrae', 'composing her own sphere.' She is the 'Angel of Tones, Medusa, Queen of the Air': 'and when we would accost her with real cries/ silver on silver thrills itself to ice.' Yet it is difficult not to feel that this chilling composure, this angelic, deathly or imperious turning of human clay into stone, silver or air, is not the only way that music might survive. For after composition, music lives only in performance, in the very medium or 'sphere' ' the temporal ' in which human lives, voices, bodies, memories, acts and utterances begin and end. Yet, the purest music ' the most 'classical' ' does not 'imitate' life in the way C'zanne's apples or Van Gogh's sunflowers depict real apples or sunflowers. It does not even transform spatial structures into musical ones in the same way as, say, Rothko's great abstractionist canvases turn human shapes into gigantic coloured squares, although musical design or harmony, especially of the symphonic kind, may often create the effect of three-dimensional space, of depths and distances.
But, at a very real yet intellectually elusive level, composed or improvised music coexists with human life; they are always, quite literally, contemporaries. Music happens while, and as, life happens, in human time and in human spaces, and often comes out of human bodies, and therefore seems to transform or re-compose time and space and bodies. Hence, when artists and intellectuals who work with media other than music ' poets, novelists, dancers, painters, sculptors, film-makers, linguists, anthropologists, philosophers ' use, write about or reflect on music, they are struck by the dichotomy of music's disembodied carnality, its being both in and out of time, its seductive ability to parallel the structures and accidents of language, myth, mathematics or society even while seeming to breathe far above all these ' its capacity for being simultaneous, immanent or homologous, yet mystically apart and self-collected, a condition to aspire to.
Perhaps the greatest exploration of the simultaneity of music and life, the classical and the human, is opera, culminating in the mythic and psychological inclusiveness of Wagner's art. Yet, much of post-Wagnerian, modernist opera ' the work of Richard Strauss, for instance ' is about the breakdown of this unity, when the realm of the human, with its 'real cries', remains stubbornly outside, and even alien to, the composed 'sphere' of music. At the end of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (1911), the Feldmarschallin Marie Therese, magnificently Hapsburg and in her mid-thirties, confronts the Rococo kitsch of her 17-year-old lover, Octavian, falling rapturously in love with the sweet little Sophie ' an inevitability which the Marschallin herself has inscrutably and perversely facilitated. Strauss writes his lushest, most beautifully elegiac music for this final trio, as Octavian dimly wakes up to the point of the Marschallin's bizarrely magnanimous erotic fatalism. Used to the Marschallin explaining him to himself, he turns, even at this moment, to her. 'Marie Therese,' he sings, 'how good you are!/ Marie Therese, I do not know ' But it is at the Marschallin's response to this appeal that the music suddenly stops, and Strauss's great work steps outside the melodic and harmonic plenitude of opera. Turning away from Octavian, in a hoarsely whispered aside, which Strauss does not set to music, the Marschallin says, 'Ich wei' auch nix, gar nix!' 'I too know nothing, absolutely nothing.' And then that high, ravishing music breathes again. The young lovers are discreetly left to themselves on stage, as the music blesses them with saccharine indulgence. They are then ushered by the Marschallin's little black boy into her entourage, as she waits offstage.
The Marschallin's disavowal of knowledge ' harsh and tuneless, with its sharp German sibilants ' is a moment, at once desolating and transfiguring, that seems to exist outside the generosity of great art. Suddenly, the classic knows nothing, and standing numb and blank, has nothing to say ' the coldest of pastorals and no friend to man. The failure of grace becomes, here, the failure of music. Yet, life and language survive this tragicomic failure, as Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, come upon what Art, at its wisest and saddest, gives ' precisely when it intractably withholds.