Reflections as variations

Listening to English pianist Paul Lewis the other night at Hill Auditorium negotiate the trills in the eight variations on an original arietta that constitute the concluding Adagio of Beethoven’s sonata No. 32, op. 111 (1821-22), I started thinking again about the trope of variations in different kinds of writing.

Such a set of variations constitutes Γιατί γράφω ποίηση/Why I Write Poetry (2015), the new book by Greek poet, essayist, translator, editor, and faculty Haris Vlavianos, which consists of sixty-two itemized reflections on this issue. Even though each reflection begins “Because…”, I would argue that they do not represent answers to the question but variations on a theme, namely, the title itself. Thus they do not say why the speaker writes poetry but each time they reactivate the question on the cover. The book offers six two ways of positing anew the question “Why I Write Poetry,” not of answering it. Reading its reflections, I listen for note values, not quote values.

I would take this a step further and propose that several of Vlavianos’s books are composed as a series of variations on a theme, which theme may be a poetic genre (sonnet), a disciplinary discourse (philosophy), a theatrical unit (act), a children’s publication (alphabet book), and so on. Obviously an awareness of this structural principle generates an approach radically different from the one suggested by pagination or even typography. Whether he is composing in verse, prose, reflection, or compilation, this endlessly inventive author is very often working with a compositional technique of variations which, as in the second movement of what is known as simply the «opus 111,» resists with great resolve both resolution and identification.

My pianist self, Pantelis Polychronidis, would also argue that some trills of this last Beethoven sonata haunt the «trill of doom» in the opening of another last sonata, Schubert’s D.960, a trill whose dark trembling (here at 0:50) destabilizes the tranquility of a serene theme.

November 22, 2015

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