“Sound is the sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” the poet Ronald Johnson wrote as he contemplated matter, music, and the mind. A generation after him, a young woman discovered that Bach remains when the reason is suddenly unmastered.
One midwinter day shortly before the pandemic paralyzed the world, Clemency Burton-Hill — an underground London garage DJ turned BBC host turned creative director of America’s oldest public radio station for classical music and a lifelong lover of Bach — suffered a catastrophic hemorrhage in her left frontal lobe. She was thirty-nine, her children one and five. She survived but was left unable to see, move, or speak.
Multiple surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation began restoring Clemency’s comprehension and sight, but the right side of her body remained paralyzed, and her speech voided. Slowly, slowly, the words started forming again out of the primeval matter of the mind. Eventually, we spoke — Clemency still in her hospital bed, skull bandaged and face radiant with life, each word a triumph, as deliberate and precise as a Bach note. I found myself wondering what the world might look like if we spoke to each other that way, our words tender with our mortal fragility, resolute with reverence for the aliveness in us and in each other, this grand shared mystery.
Not long before her hemorrhage, Clemency had made a passionate case for a daily dose of music as “a form of sonic soul maintenance” in her book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day (public library) — the music counterpart to Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong journal of delights. She wrote:
We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express, and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts… We evolved by coming together around the fire every night, singing songs and telling stories — invariably, telling stories through singing songs. That’s what our ancestors did; that’s how they made sense of the world and each other; that’s how they learned how to be. It is an impulse that is still fundamental to who we are.
Fittingly, the musical calendar of wonder begins with a Bach liturgy for January 1. Bach punctuates Clemency’s sonic year as a maker of music that “contains all of everything” and maker of “the blueprint for everything that was to come,” his influence reverberating through the hallway of time to shape genres as diverse as techno and funk. As the year unfolds, there are his Goldberg Variations with their exquisite mathematical precision, rumored to have been composed as an insomnia cure, their original manuscript bearing an inscription in Bach’s hand: “Prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”
There is his violin solo in E major that always comes as “a shot of musical caffeine” for Clemency: “In just a hundred seconds or so,” she writes, “this piece has the effect of apparently rearranging the molecules around me, making me see and think more clearly.”
There is his Ave Maria in early June, and his Partita no. 2 in D Minor on my late-summer birthday, and on my father’s autumnal equinox birthday, a chorale cantata translating to “As a father has mercy.” (This, too, is Bach’s singular enchantment — how we project ourselves onto him and focus our own existence through his lens.)