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Bach on the Bay

January 1, 2007

Saw out the old year and in the new from a 30-foot sailboat on San Francisco Bay. It was freezing and no one else was stupid enough to spend the night on the water. The most sublime part of the experience, besides getting up at 6am to complete stillness dripping with an opaque mist and the sight of basking seals and meditating pelicans, was the playlist. We saw out 2006 listening to the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Partita Number 4 in D Major, and 2007 in with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

The musical choices weren’t deliberate, but in retrospect, they couldn’t have better.Those lingering, slightly wistful cadences in Bach spoke of another year flown; they aroused in me a profound desire to be able to take 2006 back. Even though the piece is, by Bach’s standards, almost comically simple, plodding even, there’s a complexity to the emotion it evokes that kind of makes me wish for impossible things. Like the ability to stop time somehow. Notes hang in the air like the promise of time suspended, but then the piece walks peevishly onwards. Bach repeats his opening motif many times, note for note, and yet each repetition sounds different. There’s no going back. Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, heard at around 6.15am as we prepared to go up on deck and haul the anchor out of the frigid water in order to get the boat back to the dock in time for the next customers, was something else. All quiet majesty, the piece makes one feel bold enough to meet the new year bravely – or at least wearing a brave face. There’s a cosmic ebb and flow to the string melody, which suits being on water. Ernest Hemingway (and many others before and after him) think of the sea as being a metaphor for life and it’s no wonder that Peter Greenway used this piece of music so extensively in his engrossing film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I won’t forget this new year transition in a hurry.



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