Variations

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 The tape had always irritated him, in a vague but frustrating way, like an aborted sneeze.  The very sight of the reel would summon an unpleasant tingle from the nape of his neck to the back of his knees.  For years, it seemed to mock him, its loose, trailing end stuck out like a tongue.  And why shouldn’t it bother him?  It was, after all, Bach.  And Bach, Martin felt, deserved respect.

Not only was it Bach, but The Aria with Thirty Variations – the so-called “Goldberg Variations”, Martin’s favorite Bach. And, considering how Martin felt about everything Bach wrote, his marvel bordering on worship, that said much indeed.  The Master’s brilliant use of chromatics and quasi-trills, the scales that chased one another and the pounding chords, all thrilled Martin like the rush of some powerful drug.  Never before or after, he knew, had the harpsichord been put to such creative, astounding use as in those ten sets of three pieces each.  Listening to the small universe of expression the Master had created, to those thirty small wonders that went from delicately wistful to explosively joyous, Martin would hear his heart pound and flutter, imagine it weeping the torrents of blood he felt course through the arteries in his temples.

Others might prefer the sweeping, intense emotion of The St. Matthew Passion or the almost scientific approach of The Art of Fugue, Martin had often mused – some might ever prefer Mozart or Beethoven.  But no composer made Martin feel quite like Bach did, and nothing Bach wrote quite like the Goldberg Variations.  Martin found it hard to believe the legend that had Bach composing the thirty pieces as a favor for a friend named Goldberg as a cure for his employer’s insomnia.  The Variations, Martin mentally intoned, were anything but a soporific.

Back then, when he had made the tape recording, Martin could only dream of a time when a simple man like him might have access to the fancy machines professional studios used.  And the world of compact discs and digital recordings still lay decades in the future.  So Martin’s dreams back then were limited to a decent cassette deck with a patch-cord capability; his realities, to an old reel-to-reel deck and a monaural phonograph.

Which comprised the technology he had used to make his recording of the Variations.  He had borrowed the used but blessedly unscratched vinyl record from the local library and placed it delicately, reverently, on the phonograph, a machine that must once have been state-of-the-art but which had long since been humiliated by newer models.  The thing worked, though, and at the time Martin thought only of the music as he carefully set the recorder near the record-player’s speaker

He had to get it just right, he knew.  Too close to the speaker and the sound would be muffled, or an uninvited, annoying buzz would materialize on the tape.  Too far, and precious nuances of the music would be lost entirely.  And Bach, Martin mused, was meant to be heard in as perfect a state as possible, to be heard as the Master had himself had heard it in his own astounding head and heart.

Once the recorder was properly positioned, Martin’s hand turned it on and watched the two reels lurch into action.  They were like an eerie pair of mismatched eyes, with the power not to see but to magically, silently hear, and make heard.  And as the generous reel began to slowly feed the hungry one, Martin, careful to avoid making the slightest sound, reached over to the already rotating turntable, raised the machine’s single arm and placed its sharp, solitary fang gingerly on the edge of the vinyl plate.  He listened as, after a long, expectant moment, the lush music filled the room like an ethereal perfume.  Then he silently moved to the easy chair.

He sat there and in heaven simultaneously until the first side of the record was finished, then he rose to stop the tape and turn the disk over.  As soon as he had sat down a second time, though, he immediately jumped up again.  The sound of the phone ringing in the kitchen had not likely been loud enough to register on the tape, he thought thankfully, but Martin didn’t feel like having even a faint sound intrude on his reverie.  Better to just answer it, he told himself as he silently opened and slipped out the door.

It was his wife, calling from her mother’s house in Florida.  Martin had taken his vacation days that week so that he, Eleanor and their four-year-old, Martin Jr., could make the trip together, but the boy had come down with chicken-pox and so Martin had stayed behind with him.  No sense, though, in Eleanor passing up the chance, he had told her, and so his wife had journeyed alone.

They chatted for a while, and when he returned to the den Martin found the phonograph needle near the center of the record, oscillating drunkenly between the label and the last groove of the disc, as the reel-to-reel dutifully recorded the room’s silence.  Martin smiled at his watch.  He and Eleanor had spoken longer then he thought

Then, in his periphery, he saw Martin, Jr., pockmarked and pitiful, fidgeting in place just outside the door to the den.  He held his hand out to his son and the boy scampered over.

Weeks went by before Martin found the right time and mood to play his recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It was then that the irritation began.

The music began pleasantly enough.  The harpsichord tones had come through quite nicely, Martin thought, and, as the second variation – a brilliant arabesque – began, he closed his eyes.  The magic of Bach carried him away.  But then, several minutes later, toward the end of a titillating fughetta, the intolerable occurred. Martin’s eyes sprang open and he shuddered as the tinny but unmistakable sound of his son’s little voice, first calling for his father and then making some silly speech about his mother and his cat, emerged from the speaker, shamelessly smearing the music’s perfection.  Martin was appalled.

It took him a moment to recall how he had left the room while the recording was being made, and only a moment more to realize that the boy had indeed been in the vicinity at the time.  So Martin couldn’t justify being shocked at what happened, but he was most definitely upset, intensely so, by the esthetic carnage he had witnessed, the violation of the sacred music.

Returning to the library several days later, Martin found that the record he had recorded had in the interim been borrowed by someone else – and decisively scratched.  And so the violated tape began to bother him even more.

For years, when he would open the desk drawer where he kept his reels, he would see the cursed thing and cringe.  It somehow scraped at something inside him, like fingernails against chalkboard.  Martin knew, of course, that he could always go out and buy a new copy of the Variations, but for some reason he never got around to it, and in the meanwhile the tape in his desk drawer just sat there, a mute witness to his attempted homage to the Master – and to his failure.  The fatally flawed reel seemed to sneer at him.  One day Martin simply threw it into a box of torn and tangled tapes he kept high on a shelf in the bedroom.

By the time Martin retired, forty-odd years later, times had changed in many ways. He had amassed a vast collection of tapes and CD’s, including two different sets of Bach’s complete works, and a sound system that was the envy of his friends.  He had, though, also saved the primitive recordings of younger days, and one afternoon he sat down and listened to them all, amazed at how he could ever have possibly considered their scratchy, dull sounds to be music.  He even retrieved the ancient box of damaged tapes.

He had, by then, all but forgotten about the hopelessly blemished Goldberg tape, but it too was there, right where he had thrown it so many eventful years before.  And though, inexplicably enough, the very sight of the reel and its identifying sticker evoked a strange and immediate ugly feeling, the tape didn’t seem unplayable at all, so he put it on the tape deck, threaded the loose end onto the empty reel, sat down across the room in his perfectly positioned listening chair, and poked at the remote control.

When the tape had played itself out, Martin remained motionless, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular, the barest hint of a strange smile bizarrely contradicting the message of his teary eyes.  He sat that way for almost two hours, until Eleanor finally walked in.

Every life, Martin had often remarked to Eleanor, was a roller coaster ride.  Nearly two decades had passed since theirs had left the track and taken the decisive, headlong plunge that had left them wet and shivering and utterly alone. They spent most of their retirement years envying their younger selves with dark, distant passion, wishing for a rewind button they knew didn’t exist.

Their friends often told them they needed to put the past behind them.  They told themselves the same thing, and tried hard to follow the advice.  Some things, though, simply would not be forgotten.

Surprisingly, there were moments, even days, of relative success, times when the present mercifully obscured all else. But every such success was short-lived, a mere prelude to a larger and more conclusive failure.

Yet, even though the times of failure were bitter and black, on occasion an utterly incongruous sweetness sneaked in.  And those wondrous moments – like the many times in their dotage that they would come to listen in the dark to Martin’s old, scratchy Goldberg tape – were unquestionably the brightest, most blissful times they experienced in those waning days of their lives.

© 2014 Avi Shafran