Monthly Archives: January 2017

Bach Cello Suite #1 in G

Although the Gelberg Variations has nothing to do directly with Bach, or even with the Goldberg Variations themselves, one of my very favorite pieces of music is the Bach Cello Suite no 1. I love the intense simplicity of it–just a single instrument, playing a very complex melody. It sounds to me like what a person’s thoughts sound like when he’s working through a difficult problem, and finding the answer. The melody is both the thought process and the result.

And I especially love this ad from a number of years ago. It’s by American Express, and it combines the prelude from the Cello Suite with a series of images of broken items, plus voiceover. Each item by itself is inanimate, mute, but when viewed together, in combination with the voiceover and music, we learn that something is wrong. The second half of the commercial shifts–the music shifts to the sound of resolution, and the items shown are positioned so that they now look happy. The intended message is that although things sometimes go wrong when we make purchases, American Express has the tools to make things right.

I don’t have an American Express card. I don’t work for American Express, nor do I have any relationship with them. But I keep coming back to this ad, because there’s something so pure in its expression–images of broken, then fixed, things, plus music, plus simple dialog. This ad achieves something that I want the Gelberg Variations to achieve: each post, each work, should be a single, cohesive piece, whose purpose and message is clear. If a post is long, it should reward the reader for sticking with it. If the subject or style seems random, there should always be a reason for it.

The Bach connection here is somewhat tenuous, but so be it. Enjoy, and until next time.

The pleasure of being there

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft)
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662
Oil on canvas; 18 x 16 in. (45.7 x 40.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21)

My favorite painting is “Woman With a Water Jug” by Johannes Vermeer. The painting itself is fairly simple: it portrays a woman in everyday 17th century Dutch costume and surroundings, holding a gold pitcher in one hand and a leaded glass window pane in another. Compositionally, the woman acts as a bridge between the room and the world outside. The painting has been analyzed in depth elsewhere, and such analysis is not my purpose here.

I love this painting not only because of the sheer skill of execution, or the beauty of its composition, or the richness of texture and light, though without these things, the painting would not be the visual and contemplative jewel that it is. I love this painting most because it portrays in the purest form I have ever found, a moment during everyday life (in this case, likely during a woman’s routine morning toilette) when someone stops and notices–not the glass of the window, or its frame, or the light that filters through it, though these things are plainly there and beautifully rendered. This painting portrays a moment of awareness of awareness itself–a moment when a woman pauses to see not only the beauty of what’s around her, but something beyond that–a moment of appreciation, and even insight, into the nature of existence–the texture of the universe. This painting portrays a moment when someone experiences the pleasure of being there. And such is Vermeer’s skill in every detail that the more one studies this painting, both as a whole and detail by detail, the more one is drawn into its intricacies and its calm, serene, and yet, very “present” mood. The more you look, the more you see there is to look at, and the more you experience the pleasure of looking.