August: The Sex Issue
Updated: Aug 26
It's about time, some of you must be saying. When is he going to admit that playing music is the only satisfactory substitute for sex? That Bach is one of the sexiest composers ever to put ink to a notesheet? Why - wait for it - do you think he had so many children? (Thank you - I'll get my hat.)
It has long been my considered opinion that the people who protest against abortion rights are protesting against the inconvenient fact of sex. Yes, there are Catholics who follow papal encyclicals, but do you really think American evangelism gives a Jesuit toss about the immortality of the soul? It's the fact that in order to have an abortion someone either got pregnant from someone having an unexpected emission next to them in a swimming pool (as we all used to think in eighth grade) or the thing that men have went into the hole that women have and made a baby. And that just grosses some people out. This was a determining factor in the protests against the transmission of the HIV virus through the gay population of 80s America. Fundamentally, the people who found themselves demonizing other human beings didn't understand or appreciate that people could like having sex with each other. All the squawking about Monica Lewinsky, all the abstinence projects started by earnest eleventh graders from white suburbia, all the protests against masks being a violation of one's right to breathe air: virgins. In one classic Twitter retort, a person called "Chelsea" (I think Chelsea Handler) took down a man who said that he "literally couldn't breathe" when wearing a mask: "Way to announce to everyone that you've never had a girl sit on your face." Mic drop.
The men at the Michigan State House with posters saying "My body: my choice" in Hawaiian T-shirts and AK-47s: virgins. The couple straight out of Applebee's holding their Cabela-purchased weapons in front of a suburban palazzo in St. Louis: definitely virgins.
Let us leave aside the terrible and peculiarly American fact that this pair of twatheads would be dead if they were black. That doesn't seem to have escaped anyone, though I doubt that we would be making fun of the mustard stains on a black woman's striped shirt or the awkward grip of a black man's hand on a machine gun barrel. Instead we would be reading about their funerals. (Update: As it happens, the St. Louis Prosecutor charged the Izod lizard people for unlawful use of firearms, though these charges were later dropped. Then in a wretched example of farce repeating itself as history, the couple spoke on the first day of the 2020 Republican Convention.) The main thing here, and the thing relevant to Bach, is that these two people have clearly never enjoyed the sexual act. It is an age-old antipathy to sex that drives this country to defame its women and dehumanize its men. The most important thing about sex education is how sex educates us. It teaches us, for a precious few moments, to care completely about another human being. To displace the I and become a We. D. H. Lawrence knew this, and John Donne, and John Lennon, and Richard Wagner. In the second Act of Tristan and Isolde, the two people having sex together in King Mark's hunting lodge for 40 minutes of an ever intensifying Liebestod BECOME EACH OTHER. If that sounds scary to you, you should really get out more.
Which brings us, by commodious vicus of recirculation, back to Bach. The Prelude in B-flat Major (cut #17) is the first piece in the book that I ever played. [PLAY CUT #17 NOW.] It's a flashy piece of tinsel, always said condescendingly to be written "in the Italian manner," as if only Italians could possibly be this superficial. It's super fun to play, especially when your hands cross in the arpeggio at the end, in what the French unforgettably call the "jeu des mains" (hand play - seriously).
The Prelude in B-flat Major is basically foreplay, which is what every self-respecting Prelude should be about anyway. Triumphantly and emphatically, the key of B-flat joins the male and the female together. There are two flats in the key signature, two hands playing at the same time, and two distinct moods or opinions on the business at hand. The first mood (up to 0'28" on cut #17) is fast and playful, running around the keyboard like a dog chasing its tail. The second mood (from 0'28" to the end) is elegant and serene, in blocked chords that demand attention in a completely different way. In the Lawrencian play of binary oppositions, the first half of the piece is a peacock dazzling with its display of a hundred eyes, a blue-footed booby doing its curious mating dance to impress his intended. It is irretrievably masculine. The second half of the piece is the receptor to that vector, the egg waiting for the tadpole to settle down and get on with it. It is unabashedly feminine. There's a moment of such lush suspension (0'46"-50" on cut #17) that I just waited for the echo to die down before moving on to the next chord. By the end, when both hands are racing towards a climactic conclusion on a high B-flat (see illustration above), the bodies open to one another, and rhythm begins. [PLAY CUT #18 NOW.]
The first thing I wrote about the Well-Tempered Klavier, six months, 43 pieces, and two waves of a pandemic ago, is that the Preludes and Fugues in Book I are paired together by mood. The two pieces n C major that start us out are stately and plump, opening the book of Bach the way that these same two adjectives begin the book of Ulysses: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed" (Ulysses, 1). Whenever I reached this sentence of Joyce's book (which was fairly often, since it was the first one), I would expand on the idea of the mirror as the feminine, reflective surface, and the razor as the masculine, phallic object, essential ideas which hold true for the rest of the book. (Don't blame me, blame Joyce.) Each set of Preludes and Fugues is both mirror and razor, reflecting each other in their differences. If you think of the Prelude in C Major as a mirror, the Prelude in C Minor is a razor: just listen to those two pieces again if you don't believe me. The reflective limpid pool of Bach's opening arpeggios is scissored into jagged waves of sound. And so it goes. The two pieces in the key of D major are pompous and grand, the two in the key of F minor are rustic and driven by death. Now, in the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat major, we celebrate the sexual dance.
OK: now I ruined a perfectly good piece of music, the way I often do with poems in class, by making it all about sex. But it is all about sex, and so is the next piece I want to talk about today, the death-defying loveliness of the B-flat Minor Prelude (cut #19). Do me a favor and listen to it. [PLAY CUT #19 NOW.] And don't, whatever you do, think about sex during the nearly three minutes of your life that listening to it will take. Did you listen to it? Did you hear the suspensions of the opening chord, building stroke by stroke, and the inner voice, swimming against the tide, moving in a longer ascending line? Did you really listen to it? Did you hear the gentle play of the fingers as the melody moves downward to where it started, falling and rising again? Were you able to make out the gorgeous lines in the middle voices, the delicate airbrushed sequences, three fingertips each, and then--then--the heartache of suspension after suspension at 1'45", with pedal, fortissimo, G-flat against F natural, minor ninth after minor ninth, a sobbing whirlwind, a cry for comfort, a longing to reach the other side? And, if you really did listen to it (and I'm having my doubts now), what happened in the silence at 2'27," after the music reached its climax, pausing on a diminished chord and aching for resolution? Was there a half-second too long there - a pause out of time, a moment (Virginia Woolf would say) of being?
Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over--the moment. (Mrs. Dalloway, 47)
That's sex, ladies and gentlemen. Get over yourselves. And vote for the body, and for people who care about the body. Live bodies, dead bodies, black bodies, women's bodies, antibodies. We're all dying without leadership. Get educated, have sex, call your mother, vote Democratic. [PLAY CUT #20 NOW.] That is all.
To listen to my recordings of this month's pieces, or to listen to all 20 recordings from April, May, June, July, and August 2020, please click here. To listen to the full set of 24 pieces in the first half of Book I (recorded during the month of February 2020 as WTF: The Well-Tempered February), please click here. All pieces are available as a free download. To read my commentary on all the pieces, please click here for Volume 1 and here for Volume 2. To sign up to receive the next set of recordings automatically and subscribe to the blog, please click here. There will be one more set of recordings to complete the journey: the four pieces in B Major and B Minor in September (#21-24).