I am listening to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, probably the same one referred in the text, as I re-read this scene; there are 30 variations to get through, but the first aria is what I focus on, what I try to understand. Not having learnt music, I feel incredibly stupid as I attempt this task; it is as if I were a child playing at surgery with a plastic knife. I play the first aria again and again, I look for something, anything to unlock its mystery, and for some reason I resort to images: first it's rain, each note a drop striking the street or roof; and then I happen upon the impression of someone dancing across a dark stage, each note a step. This helps; this is something I can cope with. In the first five seconds she is tentative, but still in control: first that one quiet yet decisive step, followed by another, and then a sudden tripping forwards, totalling at most three or four steps, before the resumption of control and grace, so that the earlier faltering appears to be mere coquetry, promising and then withholding passion. In the next five seconds the tempo picks up and then pauses, resumes and stops, as if multiple ripples were being beat out by bursts of rain on the even face of a dark pool. And this goes on, there is caprice here, order yet surprise, as what the ear is taught to expect descends into a muffled pause or rise, sometimes close to panic, but never quite losing composure. But through it all, there is a perceptible rise in volume: something is gathering force, gaining momentum.
Why not a violin but Bach? Because she is not interested in listening to herself; she wishes to remember Sparrow. For we know that Bach's genius is what Sparrow strives for, and Bach's music is at once what he fears and loves, because the Variations is that towering achievement which inspires him and worries him, it represents what he wants to create but fears he will never attain. She had told herself "Sparrow will understand"; in the end, the reader does not know whether Sparrow notices that record left on the gramophone, whether he understands.
Time extended inside Bach, there were repetitions and canons, there were circles and spirals, there were many voices and honest humility as if he knew that reincarnation and loss were inseparable.
Time is compressed, hurried, measured out in spoons, and stretched and quartered in the Variations. The first two variations practically hurtle forward with careless haste, like chariots or horses; the thirteenth appears completely dainty and gracious, ladylike, and consequently somewhat unmemorable. The fourth reminds one of a general marching without looking back to check if his troops are following behind. The 25th may be the slowest of all: it is elegiac and nostalgic, it is practically sadness itself; if music is to convey silence, this is how it's to be done, by the introduction of pauses long enough to threaten the integrity of a piece — the question it poses seems to be: how long can a pause be before a piece of music gets broken into two? And so I see and feel what I previously only understood: yes, the Variations contains an interpretation of the story itself; yes, there is hurry and urgency, there is work and industry, and there will be pomposity and vanity, and of course loneliness, loss, dreams deferred. And in each and all of these the same theme is at work, or being reworked; life itself, like an aria, finds itself re-formed or subject to reformation, progress or reversal, but its original shape and rhythm, sometimes sure but often faltering, in the main beautiful and rare, remains.