Video/audio-documentation of performative action, in which, for the time it takes to learn to play a piano piece by Bach, I repeatedly visit the same oak tree near my home.
Begun in October 2020, the work will conclude in early 2021. The piece I am attempting to play is Ich ruf’ zu dir Herr Jesu Christ by JS Bach, arranged for piano by Wilhelm Kempff.
I’ve never had any formal musical training, and in fact only started playing the piano two years ago as a distraction from my PhD studies. Aside from a couple of teach-yourself-piano books and an occasional YouTube tutorial, I have received no instruction. My attempts to learn the Bach piece represent, in other words, a pointed act of autodidacticism.
The arrangement is technically simple enough for a relative beginner to learn to play to a modest level of competence within 3 months. Nevertheless, my musical progress is methodical and slow, and my early attempts are banally simple and full of mistakes. As each day goes by, however, incremental improvements in my playing begin to emerge, and hints of the sublimity of the piece begin to shine through. Although my playing remains laughably bad by any professional standards, my efforts stand as an authentic document of a committed act of self-learning.
Throughout the process I repeatedly visit the same oak tree, documenting its slow progress towards its winter state. Beginning in October, with its leaves beginning to show the first signs of autumnal colour, the appearance of the oak (Quercus robur) continually shifts according to the daily variations in light, weather, and wind.
The video documentation is long, slow, and (superficially at least) uneventful. Set against the backdrop of various social, economic, health and climate crises playing out in the wider world – whose urgency continually demands our daily attention – the parallel journeys of my own playing of the Bach piece and the tree’s seasonal change appeal to a slower, quieter, and more meditative understanding of the world.