Three Months (Bach, an Autodidact, and a Tree)  2021

(Three-minute preview of) 25-minute video documenting a performative action in which, for the time it took to learn to play a piano piece by Bach, I repeatedly visited the same oak tree near my home.

The action took place between 21 October 2020 and 21 January 2021. The piece I was attempting to play was 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 three 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 transition into 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.

Documented through the video, the performative action 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.

Three Months (Bach, an Autodidact, and a Tree) has been shown at Sounding the Depths, Casting Oneself Head First, Yearning at HilbertRaum, Berlin in 2023.