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In his program notes Barenboim mentioned the WTC, and for a moment I thought he meant the World Trade Center. Then I realized he meant the Well-Tempered Clavier. It was that kind of a night, necessary, hopeful, razor-quiet.

On the train, the bus, in the concert hall, strangers were united by enormous concentration. The fools vented false fears, others tried to make sense of incoming news of the presidential election. And at Carnegie Hall Daniel Barenboim was trying to make sense of the whole thing. Can you tune piano strings to allow a comple progression through the twelve imaginary notes of musical notation?

It was a frustrating performance, at once deeply moving because Barenboim thinks about music in a sensual way, he doesn’t get overwhelmed by his own thought, at once exhausting because he was unrelenting in rethinking Bach, throwing out the acceptable tempi, investing the passages we all take for granted with the kind of romantic ardor you’d associate with Beethoven. It was an experiment – a long, difficult concert, and quite a few left before the end. Meanwhile, in Florida I’m told, people waited six hours or more in line to vote.

Bach is a baroque artist. I’ve been teaching about Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, how a minor painter like Jan van Goyen undergirds his views of quiet sea towns with a geometric structure based (like basic music theory) on a simplistic version of the golden ratio. Descartes lived in Amsterdam for a while: the artists of the Northern baroque were concerned to bring the world of the senses into consonnance with the world of reason. Still, there’s a world of difference between the rapes of a Poussin, forcing his visual narrative into the frame of what it must be made to mean on one side, and on the other a Van Goyen, who repeats the same harmonics again and again, the Joey Ramone of Dutch Painting.

Somewhere in the middle there’s Rembrandt, especially the Rembrandt of the landscape drawings, toying with the most negligible asymmetry in the view of a farmhouse until the very toying, down to the amount of ink loaded in his quill, is a search for order through the most unflinching of examinations and cross-examinations.

Sometimes Barenboim indulges himself, and we were willing to indulge him in all justice, and besides, he himself is active in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in music. But when Osama ben Laden tells us the root cause of his own self-indulgence is the vicious Israeli attacks on tall houses in Beirut – can we make room for justice? 

There’s a French novel – I can’t find the source – in which a brother stands talking by his sister’s side while she plays the piano. He’s a doctor, and concerned about the confusion, the suffering he finds everywhere, until his sister breaks in with Bach: “I believe in the order of the Universe,” Bach says. Or at the author says she says Bach says.

Well, Bach is not Van Goyen. Believe in the Order of the Universe and you end up believing that all would be right if only things and people didn’t stand in your way. Or you end up painting the perfect cow, a cowardly concession to things. At intermission a woman was talking, outraged, to an usher: Barenboim wasn’t playing Bach “the way it’s written.” I wanted to ask her if she thought Bach used a metronome. It’s less important to believe in the Order of the Universe than to try, so patiently, to right the scales: to bend thought toward reality, not reality toward thought. 
Now go vote.

Paul T Werner, New York

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