Goldberg: An Unexpected Thrill


In a massive room full of people seated in hammock chairs wearing noise-canceling headphones, you could still hear coughing.  I gave up counting the coughs after 40 but a healthy reminder of the vexing problem of shared artistic experiences.  

Marina Abramović’s new work, Goldberg, involves a partnership with pianist Igor Levit and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum.  Staged in the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the audience is intended to find their own personal silence at the start.  Then at the sound of a gong place the noise-cancelling headphones on.  The second gong signifies the moment to take off the headphones and Levit plays Bach's Goldberg Variations in full.

Before we placed the headphones on, rather than engage in “silence” most people just chatted with their friends. Some woman loudly exclaiming something about some Skarsgård to her friend.  I shut my eyes and tried some yoga breathing.   Every time I enter the Drill Hall I feel something church-like about it.  With this soaring ceiling and massive frame, I'm always driven to quiet.  But alas, I'm the only one. 

After the gong sounded, the headphones were a welcome respite.  Intentional conversation died away.  I could nearly feel my heartbeat in my ears.  I was tingling. Like an astronaut waiting for the blastoff.  Muscles tensing and relaxing.   Suddenly I could feel cold air and smell perfumes. My nostrils ached with stimulus.

Many people took this as a time to close their eyes. But I found I didn’t need to blink away the now muffled crowd anymore.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move. Should I turn my head? I peeked. The piano originally installed at the far end of the drill hall was slowly sliding towards us on a long black runway.  Levit was on board. He was glancing into the crowd which was now largely ignoring him. I nearly waved.  

He looked like this man adrift on a boat looking for some connection. His fingers were visible below the keyboard.  Moving but not playing anything yet.

With the ring of the second gong, we took off our headphones and a line of light lit the perimeter of the nearly endless room. The only other light was a thin streak of illumination over the keyboard.
The piano rotated on a slow turntable and so depending on the piano’s position you could see Levit playing at times or not.

When I couldn't see his hands and only watch his shifting and swaying body in silhouette it was if music was emerging from a moving void of darkness--like an inky black swirl generating this disembodied sound.  It was kind of magical in its own way.  

But when I could view his hands, I was overcome with emotion.  Whether the musical movements were jubilant or somber, his hands no longer seemed connected to a human. Flesh morphing and moving with speeds that were incomprehensible. Like rabbits bouncing and skating across the keyboard, his fingers seemed to barely touch the Steinway piano.  At this pace and in the dim light, all shapes started to bend.

There were moments when my mind wandered, as I expect durational work encourages. But when I'd tune back in and focus on the music I'd cry again.  The feat of Levit’s playing overwhelmed me.

Near the end, Levit took a long pause between movements.  For a moment there was true silence in the room. A holding of collective breath, questioning whether this was the end. 

Besides that long beat of stillness, it seemed as if the audience otherwise was aflutter all the time.  Rustling fabric. Shifting bodies. Constantly adjusting. Self-awareness to the max.

And after his pause, he started to play again. With that the audience returned to their fidgeting.  

When Levit finished, he shook his hands. He clutched the piano bench beneath him before he could stand for his bow. Could he even feel the bench in those hands?   He wiped bleariness from his eyes and looked wrung out. He was human after all.