THEME AND VARIATIONS

Today's blog post was written by Sharon McCawley, a current docent at the Museum who moved to Santa Fe three years ago from Los Angeles. She was an educational therapist and the Coordinator for the Arts Program for her school specializing in drama, opera, dance, playwriting, and visual arts.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH – THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

PAUL  AUSTER – 4321

FREDERICK  HAMMERSLEY – TO PAINT WITHOUT THINKING

Sheet music for Bach's Goldberg Variations

He could not sleep. Count Kaiserling, the Russian Ambassador to the German Court in Saxony suffered from chronic insomnia. He tried many treatments and finally turned to music as an aid. He travelled with a musician in service, one Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was honored to be a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. Kaiserling commissioned Bach to compose a series for the keyboard for Goldberg to play for him during those restless nights. If Kaiserling could not fall asleep, at least he would be comforted by the music. Bach accepted the commission and the result is the GOLDBERG VARIATIONS (1741), a suite consisting of an aria played twice, and 30 variations making a total of 32. Here is the paradox, if the variations were successful and the Count, or anyone else enjoyed a good night’s sleep, then the listener would never completely hear them, for sleep would preclude completion. If the Count did fall asleep, we can only surmise that Goldberg did not play the pieces very well. Listening to the music today does not encourage sleep, but rather rigorous attention followed by deep appreciation for its beauty and structure. This origin story is not thoroughly documented, but it is legendary and quite lovely.

What is undeniable, is the strict organization which supports Bach’s artistic decisions on harmony, melody, rhythm, and tempo for the composition. There is a theme, a recognizable and melodic tune probed for ornamentation and experimentation. There are 32 variations each consisting of 32 measures . Every third variation is a canon in which the melody plays over itself like “Row, Row Your Boat”. The variation after the canon is a dance, and the variation after that is an arabesque with complex fingerings, comprising a three part pattern. What has been created is structured freedom within a multiple artistic vocabulary.

These terms – composition, harmony, balance, repetition, rhythm, structure, reflection – are all pertinent to the art of music, the art of writing, and the art of painting. Bach has composed music about music. The author Paul Auster has written a novel about writing. The artist Frederick Hammersley has painted about painting.

Paul Auster's 4321 novel cover

4321 (2017) is a novel by Paul Auster which consists of four versions of the life of our hero, Archie Ferguson, from his birth to his early 20’s These are four stories told simultaneously and labelled as Chapter 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and so on until Chapter 4. There are alternative characters and events, but the essential character remains the same. The four Archies are simultaneously the same, but different. He has the same parents ,the same friends, but their relationships reflect their settings. Circumstances and characters interact resulting in diverging patterns.

“One of the odd things about being himself, was that there seemed to be several of him, that that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.”

Archie aims to become a writer. In some variations, he is a journalist, a poet, or a novelist. In each version of his life, he makes different choices within the confines of his history and his environment, but his core values and emotions are constant.

We have more terms to add to our vocabulary list for music, literature, and painting – relationship, revision, duplication, interaction, exploration, similarity, arrangement, alternative, identical. Consider the various applications for each artistic medium.

Scene One, a lithograph by Frederick Hammersley

Frederick Hammersley, Scene one, 1949, lithograph, 3 x 3 in. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Frederick Hammersley, 2005 (2005.16.1) Photo by Cameron Gay © Frederick Hammersley Foundation 

Finally, we meet our final artist with his Theme and Variations, Frederick Hammersley, To Paint Without Thinking. The New Mexico Museum of Art is privileged to exhibit, not only finished paintings, but most revealing the exquisitely detailed Painting Books and Composition Books in which Hammersley documents all the possible variations for his choices in shape, size, color, arrangement. He starts with a series of small sketch permutations, the size of postage stamps, done in colored pencils. He then moves on to a larger sketch book using a compass and a straight edge to further refine his chosen subjects. Then he will choose a variation to be expressed on full size canvas. Within this series of discrete steps, the viewer becomes a witness to Hammersley’s analytical and compositional thought experiments.

It is a series of “tinkering and refinements” so close to 4321 and The Goldberg Variations, Hammersley selects colors with these vivid names : Vandyke Brown, alizar crimson, French ultramarine blue, cobalt violet, cadmium orange. The values of the colors change with propinquity. The canon affects the arabesque; the school Archie attends affects his future development.

Hammersley has written these notebooks and is an author himself like Auster. Hammersley wrote “…the whole point of painting is another form of talking. I’m talking out loud. I’m talking with shapes.” He composed lists of possible titles for his works, full of puns like “ Cool de sac”, “hear after”, “uneven steven”, “four awhile”, “Sacred and pro fame”. The name of Auster’s protagonist, Archie Ferguson , is an example of a linguistic pun. When his grandfather arrived from Eastern Europe, he was questioned at Ellis Island. He had forgotten some important information and called out “vergessen” which was interpreted as Ferguson, so this Jewish immigrant and his descendants were given a Scottish name, a fitting joke.

Hammersley, Auster, and Bach did not create linear and identical elements. They each devised a rigorous structure of repetitions with different values and interactions. Each modification, whatever its symbolic presentation, alters our interpretation of what comes before and what comes after. The artists’ ultimate choices are neither right nor wrong. They are relentless.

Listen, Read, Look. Practice your vocabulary.