… as she teaches me the special care necessary when playing variations (don’t study them linearly! focus on structural similarities not visible in the melody! play in a sequence of different ways (eyes closed, fingers lingering not pressing the keys, air playing, repeating note names, mute playing, etc.) each passage…) I start to see the potential dreariness of variations not well played out, the possible drift into vapidness … and by symmetry, the extreme richness and brutally meditative mind state that may be attained when really playing variations linking the various possibilities opposing richness and structural similarity…

the final movement of Hob. XVI 24 (cf. Richter)

Enigma Variations (not the Elgar orchestral piece, but the Aciman novel) is a long-winded, extremely well-crafted extended novella. Aciman takes up the main subject of his now very famous Call Me By Your Name and literally unfolds it through variations in later life, variations of an early, burgeoning sensual/sexual experience of ¿love? that leaves a boy, a man, marked throughout his entire life, and whose many additional loves are lived as variations of some sort of the first (unaware) one. Paolo falls in love (without really knowing it, without even being able to detect it, let alone phrase it, without as much as a language for his feeling of infatuation) with a cabinet-maker, a falegname in an island off the coast of Italy where his family spends summers. Paolo, at twelve, slowly discovers his own love for twenty-something year-old Gianni, for his hands and nails, for his trim frame and green eyes, for his face he doesn’t dare look directly – and in uncovering his own outsidification and othernessifaction ends up building from rough pieces a language for what his eyes, his racing heartbeat, his breath, his arms, his skin hair raising, his balls tickling, his ¿unwanted? erection have already given him the knowledge he cannot yet phrase… This first theme, so reminiscent of Elio’s story in Call Me By Your Name, has later some variations. Alternating love for women and for men, in a kind of odd nod to Virginia Wolff’s Orlando, the rest of Paolo (later Paul in New York)’s loves continue playing a note of untold arousal, mental courting, projection of images, smells, textures that Paul knows are often best left unexpressed. A triumph of the non-explicit (made explicit in Aciman’s prose, of course). An endless set of variations of his early theme.

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (mentioned often in Paolo’s conversation with his father in the island in Italy, hummed by both to the exasperation of the mother, as a secret key-code between father and son) – and then Paolo’s understanding of his own father’s infatuation with the same young man that he as a young adolescent lived through – Paolo’s un-judgmental and again implicit camaraderie with the memory of his own father. And the Diabelli underscoring those memories.

Photographic variations (on Finnish glass geometries):

Mathematical variations are always tricky. In some unacknowledged sense, whole swaths of math are really sophisticated variations on themes. But we do not really, we do not truly call them that, we do not truly think in those terms. Usually.

(I feared when first seeing this overhanging Möbius strip that it would be too contrived, too cliché. The Möbius strip is an almost immediate image coming to mind when evoking the main theme of the Salón Nacional de Artistas this year, “the reverse/back of the threading/of the weaving” (el revés de la trama) and the special exhibition Aracne’s Fable under the curatorship of Alejandro Martín. Yet on second view I found this variation on a classical theme, by Adrián Gaitán, very powerful. The heavy physicality provided by the used mattresses, apparently taken from some whorehouse in Cali (at least according to our guide at the exhibition). And that seems to be the case. The mattresses, made of cheap polyester-like material, woven and rewoven and repaired after many uses, bear stains and traces of bodily exertion, of many possible sexual acrobatics but also of sweat and blood, sperm and urine, vaginal and anal secretions, saliva and tears; all those human fluids and traces of people (and suffering and moaning and exploitation and delight, money transactions and childbirths and hopes for the lives of those children) also woven into the fabric, also immanent and impossible to efface. All that heaviness turned by Adrián Gaitán’s variation into a floating symbol of a primal kind of reversion, into a pristine and ideal and immaterial shape.)

La Folia is, without any doubt, the single most fashionable melody of all times (at least, in Western music). Emerging from Spain or Portugal around the end of the 16th century, La Folia captured the imagination of all sorts of composers (including Bach, Marais, Vivaldi, etc. – all the way to Vangelis more recently) for a very intense 250 years! I wonder which melody could be a (distant) second to that. Some Beatles’ song, 230 years from now?

There is even a Folia website dedicated to tracing all instances of the melody across centuries of music, with many variants, two major stages of use of the theme, and all sorts of interesting trivia around the subject. The list of composers who wrote variations on the La Folia theme is long, long, long!

Why is the melody so catchy? What accounts for the response across cultures, across eras, across musical languages? What would be the jazz equivalent (but still a long way behind) of La Folia? Is there a similar phenomenon across other musical traditions, outside the Western “cathedral”? [Of course, across popular music, one sees mini-Folia phenomena, such as Yesterday, Guantanamera, María Cristina, etc.  But all of these really seem very recent and local, by comparison.]

The fragment above is a piece of Vivaldi’s variations on La Folia, as played by Daniel Hope and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Enjoy.