Humming Bourrée

The title of this post has nothing to do with what I am going to write here today. I am just humming bourrée because it is an irresistible tune. I thought it was Jethro Tull’s and what a surprise…it was originally Bach’s.

Must keep slashing at the musical cobwebs.

Speaking of Bach…it has been a year since I read this passage in Daniel Mason’s book Piano Tuner.

The piece began low, in the bass strings, and as it increased in complexity, soprano voices entered, and Edgar felt his whole body move toward the right and remain there, a journey across the keyboard, I am like the puppets moving on their stage in Mandalay. More confident now, he played and the song slowed, and when at last he finished he had almost forgotten that others were watching.

….And so he began again, now D major, now D minor, and forward through each scale, moving up, each tune a variation on its beginnings, structure giving rise to possibilities. He played into the remoter scales, as his old master had called them, and Edgar thought how fitting a name this was for a piece played into the night of the jungle.

That book had moved me beyond words and so had this passage within the book. My knowledge of music was even more rudimentary a year ago than it is now; if one can imagine such a lack of knowledge possible. But this passage where the protagonist is playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in the jungles of Burma was appealing for some strange reasons.

Soon after reading this book I remember investing in an iPod and the first thing I downloaded to it was Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Since then I have listened to it with some regularity and have even been humming some of it (even though this work is often criticized for being a technical masterpiece with zero hummability). But humming it doesn’t mean one understands what is going on.

A year ago the only thing I knew about music was the Indian solfege. I didn’t understand the configuration of the keys of the piano keyboard and had no idea what anyone meant when they said C major or D major and so on. It was dark and impenetrable terrain. Now there appears to be a tiny clearing in the woods. I know about scales and octaves and major and minor scales, I can attempt them on the piano keyboard and the violin and the Well-Tempered Clavier is as clear as clear can be! I usually let it stream into my ears through the iPod and never know which one’s playing and today, for the first time I noticed it started with C Major moved on to C Sharp Major then C Sharp Minor and I could predict that the next one would be D Major!! I was beyond thrilled at the realization! I stumbled a bit when where the D sharp major was supposed to be next but the title said “E flat major” but the stumble wasn’t long-lived as soon as I remembered that D sharp and E flat were one and the same.

Now I know what Daniel Mason was referring to in the passage above when he said, “…and Edgar felt his whole body move toward the right and remain there, a journey across the keyboard…”

Now I wonder why I didn’t start exploring music sooner…maybe there is a time for everything. Even though all conventional wisdom suggests five is the right age to start exploring music.

When I read Daniel Mason’s book any interest in music was still over a year away. But now that I usually have a violin in my hand at least for a half hour every evening, all my bookstore adventures lead me to books on the violin.

The first such book I read was Eugene Drucker’sThe Savior. Eugene Drucker is a violinist of renown but The Savior is his debut novel and an amazing one at that. One feels no compassion or sympathy for the protagonist here. His every action, leading up to the primary events of the novel, and as shown through reflective recollections, are laced with deep-seated cowardice in the face of evil. One wonders if he will ever act with conviction. But he is also an accomplished violinist, one who is conscripted for service within a concentration camp to be a part of a cold-blooded experiment…something akin to a predator playing with the prey before administering the lethal blow. As any retelling of the holocaust the inhumanity leaves one stunned and speechless, but the novel takes this one step further by showing how even something like music could be perverted.

Drucker uses the following Shakespearean lines from Richard II, Act 5, Scene 5 as an epigraph to set the tone for his work:

How sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.

Saying anymore about the novel would make this a spoiler, so I won’t.

But the reflections and associations that the novel sparked in me left me staggered with the realization that if one had music in ones life then one would need very little else to get by. There would be no moments of indescribable loneliness, no depression, no desire to seek any other forms of distraction. We would move onward from “Aum” and strive for every fractional representation of that one sound and its various combinations and representations as notes swirled and came together, rich with meaning.


  1. It takes great skill to write literately and engagingly about being an 'illiterate' (I would prefer the word apprentice) in music, but your prose meshes perfectly with your musical notes, a sort of polyphonic amalgam, and the Bach strand gives the whole an effect of counterpoint. Subtly, it is a musical education too!

  2. I like what you wrote about the Bach piece, and how surprised you were that it was, in fact, Bach and not Jethro Tull who wrote the piece. It's amazing how certain tunes seem so 'modern' and yet are not… and I wonder what is in those tunes that make us think so… or for that matter, what are the factors responsible for these 'sensibilities'. The same can go for other art forms as well, but I guess, music is in a world of its own because of the way it exists within the culture space.It looks like your musical journey is providing inspiration for some super writing as well. 🙂

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