Sleep is not something I easily slip into. I often wake up surprised I slept at all. Other times, I'm not even sure I slept. I have to scan my memory for some irregularity or something surreal, like a version of me as a count in a coffin in a bell tower with bats—I'm not a count, I say to myself, and I'm on a bed, and this is a regular house with no bats, so, I was dreaming. And if I was dreaming, I must have been sleeping. This confirmation immediately clears my mind and I'm ready for the day. But if there's no dream, no way to know if I slept or not, the fog in my mind never clears, and so my very long day is much like those short and dim ones Seattle experiences in the middle of winter.
This is where music plays an important role. If I command my music robot to start, at the lowest volume possible, a playlist called Acropolis, which begins with Harold Budd's Perhaps, an insomniac masterpiece I know by heart, then I can tell exactly where I fell asleep (if I fell asleep) because I will have no memory of listening to the album beyond, say, its opening track ("Templar") or reaching its concluding track ("Ghost Cloud").
It's here we can now turn to Insomnia: The Bach Goldberg Variations, a string interpretation of a musical composition with few equals in the classical canon.
If you are familiar with this work, you were most likely introduced to it (as I was in 1988) by Glenn Gould, whose 1955 interpretation made him the most famous classical pianist of the 20th Century. (Gould recorded it a second time a year before his death in 1982, and so his career pretty much begins and ends with the Goldberg Variations.) Now, it's impossible to deny the soporific power of the piece that initiates the variations, "Aria," and particularly Gould's second and final version of it.
But between "Aria" and its return at the composition's conclusion, "Aria da Capo," there is nothing in the variations of the "Aria"'s bassline, which number 30, that can in any way help you soften or slip from the solid links of wakefulness. The variations mostly keep the mind racing. Falling asleep to them? You would have have a better chance with John Coltrane's Giant Steps, another conceptually dazzling work.
But those promoting Insomnia: The Bach Goldberg Variations claim that the goal of the performance, which is led by the superb violist Kristin Lee, is to make the audience fall asleep?
Why this strange promise? It's all about a story found in Johann Nikolaus Forkel's 1802 biography Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke. In that study, the first of many of its kind, Forkel writes that the Goldberg Variations owes its name to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a student of Bach and Count Kaiserling's personal pianist. The count suffered not so much from insomnia than its cousin, hypochondria. When thinking about this or that illness he might be suffering from, he would be kept up all night. During these long and excruciating hours, the count would have Goldberg play the piano in a room next to his. What the count wanted from Bach, the greatest composer in Germany at the time, was a work devoted to his sleepless night. We now call this work the Goldberg Variations.
The story, of course, has no fit in the reality recorded by history. But thanks to Forkel, its key element, the name of the count's pianist, stuck. Also, Forkel evidently did not suffer from insomnia because a person who thinks you can fall asleep to it must be able to fall asleep in the middle of a construction site.
Kristin Lee, Juan Miguel Hernandez, and Efe Baltacigil interpret The Bach Goldberg Variations at 8 pm on Friday, May 13.