Bach Fest

Designed by Zawar Ahmed

My parents and I share everything, including a fervent love for Bach. From midnight on December 14th to midnight on New Year’s Day, WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, broadcasts nonstop Bach for their annual Bach Fest, and during those fifteen days, the three of us gorge ourselves on suites, cantatas, and passions. We listen to Glenn Gould (the world-famous classical pianist known for his Bach interpretations) quiver, flurry, and march up and down the Goldberg Variations while my dad and I peruse the New York Times crossword on drafty December afternoons. The music’s fugal counterpoint materializes in my mind as the black and white boxes before us, and I know my dad is thinking the same thing. St. Matthew Passion echoes in all its shrieking, obfuscating opacity throughout the cathedral of our 800-square-foot apartment while we boil pasta for dinner. This sacred Catholic music is my cynically atheist, culturally Jewish family’s only faith.

One lonely gap-year afternoon while I was practicing violin in my bedroom, I heard the woody outbreak of my dad’s clarinet in the adjacent room. As I played through the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita for solo violin, I heard a peculiar echo and realized that my dad was playing—attempting to play—the same movement. The Sarabande, which consists almost entirely of chords, is literally mechanically impossible to play on the monophonic clarinet, and I wanted to kill him. I heard him trying to figure out a workaround for playing four notes at once: he scrambled up, he flipped and mangled the chords. The next day, he showed me that he had recorded himself playing each line separately and crudely stitched them together into a single track. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas are sacred. Any violinist, no matter what else they are working on, is always learning (or re-learning, or re-re-learning…) one of the movements from the light blue volume that we carry with us like a bible. 

“Can’t I have this one fucking thing?” I wanted to scream. “These five minutes of music are mine, they don’t belong to you! Play your own repertoire!”

Truthfully, nothing belongs to anyone and everything belongs to everyone in my house. Our apartment consists of three multipurpose rooms—bedroom, office, yoga studio, practice space—between which we wander freely, leaving trails of detritus: music stands; books; crumbled, ink-stained slips of paper; socks. My mother’s morning tea, abandoned on the table, becomes my afternoon pick-me-up. My father’s Levi 505 jeans march an eternal procession between our three closets. We share everything, including, I realized, the Sarabande.

My month of communal living at college does not begin to compare to communal life at home. My suitemates and I tiptoe around each other, careful not to touch. Sealed bottles of Poland Spring stand carefully labeled with their owner’s initials in the minifridge. “Can I use the room?” I ask apologetically when I want to make a phone call. My desire to return to New York City for the weekend is all-encompassing. I long to feel, even for a minute, like I’m not a guest. I long to take up space without feeling like an inconvenience, to get back to my room and throw my things on the floor without worrying that I’m infringing on our Suite Rules. Seeing how long I can force myself to stay has been like digging a thumbnail into the back of my hand for as long as possible, feeling the crescent indentation deepen. When Parents’ Weekend was announced to be virtual, I jumped at the opportunity: “I was supposed to see you guys anyways, so I might as well come home for the weekend.” We started calling it Child’s Weekend.

As Child’s Weekend approached, I began daydreaming. I entered my home address into Google Maps again and again, tenderly tracing the route with my cursor. I imagined disembarking at Grand Central, the familiar discomfort of wielding my violin case through a crowd. I imagined coaxing my house key, currently lying dormant in the front pocket of my backpack, into the lock, where I can remember the feeling of every bump and ridge, the thunk as the door swings open. I knew exactly what the apartment would smell like when I walked in—it’s the smell of a place that never changes. I imagined my dad still listening to Bach as he cooked dinner.

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