Monday, May 28, 2007

Changes, Transformations

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment."

So says stodgy old Ralph Emerson, muse of Proust and Charles Ives. And, so, I IMPLORE all readers of Think Denk, wonderfully, ENTHUSIASTICALLY, to abandon blogspot, and send your browsers cruisin for the new site:

(still of course called Think Denk)

It has a new look, obviously, and the idea is for it to be more readable!!! Constructive suggestions are extremely welcome. You can also visit my homepage, if you want to see pictures of me with pizza, and self-congratulatory reviews, etc. etc. Also, my complete summer schedule has been posted, very official-like, for you whiners and complainers out there who wanted that. And, a couple little MP3s can be heard. So there!

There is a neato search thingy, and also, if you click on "Older," you won't get older any faster, but a little slider will come up with which you can kind of randomly dip back into the archives. So you can revisit the past, which may even make you feel younger?

OK, so you can see on my schedule that I'm pretty much )(*&@Q#$ed for the rest of the summer, so I better get back to practicing my "Concord" Sonata, yikes.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Oh, Newt! ... and, Why Classical Music Is So Boring, Episode 3,423

[PARENTAL WARNING: this post is extremely unreadable until paragraph 5 or so. It may be occasionally unreadable after that. You can't say I didn't warn you.]

So, Newt Gingrich has written a novel:

James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.

—Gingrich/Forstchen, Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8

Bravissimo. As I struggled to swallow this sentence, which felt suspiciously like a day-old dish, swerving through clausular inanities towards my unshowered cortex, I realized, due to the direction of the piano bench, oblique, while pointing my disheveled eyes at my bookshelves, with the added realization, but darn good piles of cookbooks to be found, squeezed next to Ulysses in company with Kafka, it was not too far a stretch to leap from Newt’s sentence to this one:
Then as she is on her behaviorite job of quainance bandy, fruting for firstlings and taking her tithe, we may take our review of the two mounds to see nothing of the himples here as at elsewhere, by sixes and sevens, like so many heegills and collines, sitton aroont, scentbreeched and somepotreek, in their swishawish satins and their taffetaffe tights, playing Wharton’s Folly, at a treepurty on the planko in the purk.

Wow! I rejoyced to see the simil-Eire-ities.

But I think Finnegans Wake still makes more sense. Which should be exciting for Newt; he is more avant-garde, more pomo, more staggeringly innovative than he ever imagined.

Moving on. I had some family in Houston for my concerts, and relative X apparently asked after the concert, “Why is everything so long?” Oh, lovable family. Broadsided by the question, sprayed like Diesel jeans in the acid wash of the real, of the ungeeky, coming to grips with my irrelevance, I lay awake, fingering Pringles and other morsels from the minibar at 2 am in the humid darkness, asking myself, indeed, why IS Sibelius 2nd Symphony so long? C-SPAN was no comfort; even HBO, solace of so many hotel hours, left me high and dry.

The so-called silly query hung in the air, cheekily profound. One after the other, the plain Pringles crunched into their new forms of existence, seeking reincarnation as a stomach ache in the morning. The piece is as long as it is, I thought. Would you ask why Spiderman 3 is so long? Yes, actually, you might. In fact, the length of movies (the true genre of our times, along with the pop song, the advertisement, the billboard, the reality TV show, the Starbucks paper cup) is always up for debate, and the editing room is much valued, even fetishized. But no! … in the classical world, things are as long as they are, dammit, and that’s just that. Sit back and take it.

Theoretically, the classical music “demographic,” being somewhat elderly, has less time on its hands, and yet is drawn mysteriously to the long-breathed, time-sucking works of our great canon. While youths in full flower, with the decades of their lives spread out before them like Cheez Product on Movie Nachos, or like Hijinks in a Sitcom SubPlot, mainly confine themselves to the 4 minute musical experience: they will not waste their bounty.

Relative X rephrased her question, something like, “why do they play for a long time, and then just everybody sits quietly for a little bit, and then they play again?”

Again, the questions, the obvious questions. I adopted a reasonable tone of voice, sipped heavily on my martini, began to explain: “well the parts of the piece are called movements, and they’re sort of like chapters of a book, you see …” and as I found myself giving this tedious little lecture, a little mocking voice in my head said bowel movements, bowel movements and I was unable to continue … I looked around the table uneasily; I had slipped and fallen on a ellipsis, as so often on Think Denk (how self-referential!); where was the entree?; why was everyone staring at me? It seemed to me the very words I had to use to describe classical music were against me. A mountain of jargon loomed in a booth across the bar, laughing.

Well, I’ve had it with this state of affairs. I’m done mourning over chips and other snack foods.

Some mornings, I have to tell you, I wake up and I really don’t even like the word “Sonata,” it looks at me across the piano keys like a stranger. Why on earth, I ask myself, am I playing a "Sonata"? Don’t get me wrong, I love the sonatas themselves, just not the titles. (I also can become very uncharitable towards the sort of hip names that composers these days give their pieces, like “Fractalization Doping,” or “Nascar Deconstruction,” etc. etc.) But here, why not replace so many of the words we normally use with other words, start fresh with an uncorrupted, unknown vocabulary … ?

I have, just for a starting experiment, taken a passage from Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, replacing fuddyduddy terms with fresh, deck chatter. See if you don’t feel it is improved:

This snarky E is, of course, the pre of the pre: its very nature implies the traditional first dressingroom almost by definition. Accordingly in cop 18, E is established as the deck of a crossfire using (a); and then in cop 23, after decorated forms of (a), it is established as the coaster. It is interesting to note the ‘is-enough trannies, and to see at how many levels the E is made prominent. The zing now has such force that it no longer demands rubdown, but can itself be used to rub. To bring out this force, an F-natural is set up against it with a shoutout repeated four times under (a) in cops 26-29, an F-natural that also serves to prepare the splendid surprise chipper on an F-jor rowr postjaws at cop 38. This F is now earlgreyin for six cops (cops 39-44) with all the penguins’ power Haydn’s Imhotep can manage, using the opening meme (a): cops 38 to 47 are essentially an inner expansion—a withholding of the chipper at cop 37. A new whatev’, square and decisive, is finally introduced in cop 48 to renovate the real estate. To appreciate the full mastery of this pose, we must rock it with the trackback. When the opening meme returns it has an entirely different sense: it is now a dressingroom from the pre back to the post.

Whoever can reconstruct the original (without recourse, of course, to the Rosen text) gets some sort of dubious award. The sentence in bold translates as "To appreciate the full mastery of the exposition, we must play the repeat."

By the way, yes, I’m (trying to) read Finnegans Wake. Sigh. How could you tell? Yes, that’s pretentious. But is it, I ask you, as pretentious as invoking hipster terminology to vanquish the haunting Pringles of my lost adolescence?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Regrettable Zeitgeist?

Here at Think Denk, we try to keep abreast and astride and athwart of all the most meaningful, semiotically capacious internet trends. Woe betide the blogger who heeds not the flittering flutter of the zeitgeist! I have had my attention drawn, lately, to a certain captioning, captivating phenomenon: it goes by the mysterious name of "LOL cats." It fuses the concision of Webern and the haiku with the immediacy of the image and relies heavily upon the magnificent erosion of usage that is the lifeblood of language.

You can read about it here at Slate, or else go directly to the source.

Which led (of course, regrettably, inevitably) to:

and perhaps I can include the contribution of a fellow admirer of LOLcats,

Clearly these are humble beginnings. I await, tenterhooked, the contributions of the wider classical blogosphere.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day 8 (just kidding, sort of)

For a different take on the Allemande (and ensuing movements), I have long been neglecting to link to the good people at Houston Public Radio, who had me on their program... I begin playing at 8 and a half minutes in. Otherwise, I simply babble away, it seems.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Day 7: Microphone Where My Mouth Is

"I'm speechless," I said to friend B.

"Finally," he replied.

So: here's the Allemande as it seemed to me today, my birthday, at 2:45 pm. It is recorded in the legendary studios of the Greystone Hotel. A couple twangy notes (no, really, I did get the piano tuned) and the ineffably poignant call of a police car are included, free of charge.

[Click to play.]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Day 6: In Which I Lose My Mind

It was late. A steaming, congealing plate of nachos had just emerged from my microwave oven and my esophagus steadied itself for yet another ill-advised insertion. On the windowsill, my score of the Allemande stood, begrimed, bravely withstanding my strung-out glances, surrounded by poignant, desiccated remainders of Vietnamese takeout. Skeletons of spring rolls, mummies of dumplings, dark phantoms of prawns. Ah, some people really knew how to live; if only I were one of them! Outside, in the breeze beyond Bach, taxis honked, buses squeaked and squealed, and distant domestic disputes were carried, reverberant and miffy, down invisible Amsterdam Avenue; then, all was quiet. I heard only my keyboard clicking, seemingly of its own volition, googling scraps of my subconscious while I sat helpless in a salsa stupor. Day 6, day 6.

And then, I found myself staring at these words on my computer screen, program notes for some Bach Society:

[The D major Partita Allemande:] Typical of all allemandes, this one begins with a short upbeat. It is written in 4/4 time, and makes frequent use of scalar figures …

... riveted, I read on ...
Harmonically, this allemande is relatively straightforward, set clearly in D major, with the goal of the first half being the establishment of A major, the dominant key. The second half returns after a fashion to the tonic key. Nonetheless, Bach includes a few more colorful chords periodically either to help promote the progress towards the new tonal goal, or simply for variety.

Friend M, the other day, theorized, through motion, what might happen if a Roomba were ever allowed to function within the geometrical confines of my apartment. His pantomime involved a number of spastic jerks, rampant confusion, finally perhaps a shiver of rage, and, inevitably, an explosion. It’s exactly how I behaved upon reading this passage on my computer, which is why I should never ever be allowed to read program notes. My dutifully crafted nachos were forgotten; I glowered, expostulated, seethed, leapt from my chair sending takeout containers flying into dusty corners, where they remain.

My friends tell me I just take it all too personally. They’re just program notes! But really: “this allemande is relatively straightforward”? Are you KIDDING me? In what zoned-out crazy harmony land is this allemande straightforward? And then I bet Bach would have loved the bit where he returns “after a fashion” to the tonic key ... (you try returning to the tonic better than that, buddy! he would say, brandishing a heavy foamy stein, cussing all the way home on cobbled streets to indulge in activities leading to child #14) and if this program-note writer is to be believed, we are to imagine Bach there throwing in unusual harmonies, just for kicks and giggles, just to spice up life a bit, in the same way that I might decide to get a Mr. Pibb on the plane instead of my usual Ginger Ale.

But perhaps my least favorite sentence of all: "the goal of the first half is to establish the dominant." Oh yes? That’s the goal of the first half? Behind this sentence hides a terrible rhetorical monster, through which so often classical works become like patients on the operating table; doctors observe their symptoms, nod sagely, do more tests, come back with answers. But luckily every so often the patient sneaks out of the institution we are keeping him in, breaks through a window or sneaks out a back door, and heedless of his hospital gown, moons the wide world.

I hate seeing this Allemande (I almost wrote “my” Allemande) treated like one of the patients. What draws me to this Allemande is, in a way, how little sense it makes, how undiagnosable it is. As an Allemande, indeed, it has issues, you could even pronounce it "irregular" or a bit "bizarre," but its illnesses are only to be celebrated.

We are familiar with Debussy wanting to forgo the "musical mathematics" and declaring "pleasure is the law," i.e. separating sound from function ... but Bach too, though in love with function and perhaps its greatest practitioner, is also simply a lover of sound, sounds. Each day a different cluster of pitches in this Allemande draws my gaze, seems like the hidden beauty I had been missing all my life; each day I find a different one (even if it's the same.) Without those changing wows, I would not have been drawn to this obsessive blogging maneuver, which has weirdly brought my brain to the threshhold of the place where I think the Allemande lives, somewhere just on the edge ...

But to regain my senses, and to erase those program notes from the brain, perhaps this passage of Nabokov will suffice:

In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles--no matter the imminent peril--these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Day 5: One Plus One

An Allemande has two halves. There is something about this "two-halviness" that I think often gets forgotten, or taken for granted.

For me the following image is useful: suppose the first half of the dance is a drawing. Now for the second half, imagine Bach putting a piece of tracing paper over the first drawing … and retracing it, but not exactly, and then pausing and removing an arm from the original drawing and putting in another face, or part of a totally different drawing … In other words, he is passing over the ideas of the first half, but the translation is free, the words are affected, refracted, changed. The image of tracing paper is compelling to me, because it partly veils the original, the veil of the past.

Studious analysts, we can go through and chart all the alterations, note the composer’s developmental handiwork (here’s x, and here’s y, and they are reordered, etc. etc.) …

1st half A B C D E F G H I
2nd half A B C E J !!! a bit of F D K G H I (L) I

Whoa … that is one screwed-up anagram … but after you catalog all the changes, and reorderings, you are left with just this disheartening data and you may find yourself wondering what is it all for?

It is the already-heard-ness of it that is amazing… and perhaps often ignored ...

In the second half, we are not visiting, but revisiting; we are haunted by a continuous deja-vu; everything same, but different; it is as if our steps (our “dance steps”) are compelled by some force, some previous outline; we are puppets, dancing in our own footsteps … In the interaction between the present moment/will and the memories/imperatives of the past, there is a tension, a drag … so not only is there the drag between the notes as written on the page, in measure x or y, but there is the drag between those notes and their preceding paradigms, how x and y seemed to us before … a pull of meaning in two dimensions.

The power of 2 then: the text and the reread text, a thing and its reflection. Again Roland Barthes:
…rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality: rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology (“this happens before or after that”) and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after); it contests the claim which would have us believe that the first reading is a primary, naïve, phenomenal reading which we will only, afterwards, have to “explicate,” to intellectualize (as if there were a beginning of reading, as if everything were not already read …); rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return of the different). If then … we immediately reread the text, it is in order to obtain, as though under the effect of a drug, not the real text, but a plural text: the same and new.

The second half of the Allemande is rereading, is play; that play which is the return of the different… I would like to observe 3 things about this rereading …

Thing 1: the second half of this Allemande is “darker” than the first. There are longer, more painful, sustained minor key passages. I have found myself imagining, fancifully, that the first half is the day and the second half is the same thing seen at night.

Thing 2: This darkness does not obscure; it provides new visions too. Most prominently, Bach inserts a totally new passage…a passage dwelling on the Neapolitan of b minor:

And the question is why? Why did this passage need to be added, when the dance was reread? What does this dark diversion do? It leads to a cadence in b minor … really the only full, internal cadence, the strongest punctuation within either half …

(a division in the night)

Impasse. Closure. we have reached something fatal to the chain which is a cadence, a dangerous entity within the continuous river of the Allemande. Bach creates puzzles and dangers that he must then solve. What is the answer? well: here it is:

Look at it! It’s neutral, simple; the syncopations are gone; the changes of rhythm gone; strip all that away and what do you get? Just a beautiful passing chain of 16th notes (like any other Allemande). Three bars of this, three bars, three harmonies…

If the second half is the night, then these three bars are some quiet strange hour around 2 or 3 AM, some perfectly still moment when harmonies come out from behind their clouds, strip off their usual melodic clothes, and stand before you, naked … an island of stillness, before and after events (after the b minor cadence, but before the final working out) but comprising no events in themselves. Three harmonies, heard, almost pure sound, only reluctantly passing from sound into meaning:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only

These three bars are, I believe, a rehearing of the bar I cited in yesterday’s post, the bar where I claimed I felt that the various voices were “in love.” Here, now, lovers are, love is asleep … and what took one bar to do in the first half--to emerge, to resume--now takes three ...

Finally: Thing 3, my last thought about the rereading. The first half ends this way:

and the second half then, some 31 bars later, appears to be poised to end in more or less the same way:

and it would, except Bach inserts this:

This act of addition, this last stretching … don’t you see, it’s one last tracing (retracing, rereading) of the opening up-stretch of the melody, one last radiating 9th chord?

And that G# in the middle, a new “blue note,” a last little beautiful mishap?

So Bach is just delicately glancing on all the ideas he has crossed ... Sometimes I would like to scream out, like a crazed Bach preacher, to the audience at this point that this is EXTRA, that Bach ADDED it, don’t you hear what I’m talking about?!!?, that this addition is not mere insertion, is no diversion, that this is one last precious, priceless seized moment, delaying the end of the river, the end of this unbelievably beautiful time we have shared, like the last moments of a day when you are refusing to say goodbye to your dearest dearest friend …

… except of course this explanation would ruin everything.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day 4: A River Runs Through It

In many Romantic lieder, the pianist is the river, while the singer is the melody above: the person addressing the river, throwing themselves in the river, or participating in other river-related mishaps. I’m down there burbling or babbling or sometimes even burping (if I’ve had enough to eat just before the concert), and the singer of course gets to be all emotional and crap like that.

The pattern works; it separates the texture (here’s the melody everybody! and here’s the accompaniment! follow the bouncing ball!); it makes for easy listening of a sort; and later Romantics can be forgiven (perhaps?) for simply having no imagination except to do the same, but more and more and more. By Rachmaninoff, for instance, it has to be torrents and torrents of river in the piano and the melodies generally need to be pretty intense too just to be heard over his gushing faucets. (At the beginning of the 2nd concerto, the pianist is the river, at the beginning of the third, briefly, the orchestra is the river, etc.) I like to think of these Romantic rivers always being situated in really dramatic but cheesy locales with savage drops and rocks and flowers and sea lions (?) and of course all these notes cost me countless hours of my life, putting in stupid fingerings so I won’t be splatting all over the place (but I’m not bitter at all about that). Audiences seem to get a big kick out of these vast numbers of notes, and sometimes I enjoy them too.

[If you’ll indulge me …]

The Allemande of the D major Partita is a river, too. I totally feel the line of the whole thing, like something I could never fit in my hand or in my mind, with a maddening lack of boundaries, but I know it’s a line, a stream, and it can be followed. In its sinuousness, it wants to be followed, navigated.

To be super factual and comparative! … the D major Allemande is unique among the Partita Allemandes (and perhaps Bach Allemandes in general) in its rhythmic treatment. The B-flat Allemande is a continuous stream of 16th notes … the C minor Allemande also … the A minor is more ornate but still duplish, with little dotted rhythms and flourishes of 32nd notes … I could bore you with more … but here in the D major, various “incompatible” rhythmic elements are coexisting, rubbing against each other. Even mid-phrase, the melody drifts from 2s into 3s, from one groove to another … it is one stoned tune! Sometimes I have the sense that, for Bach, something is going “too easily,” and then triplets have to intervene, creating drag, braking, and then too this drag must be released into florid 32nd notes: in other words, the melody is tractable, willing to shift its own flow, malleable, reasonable if not rational.

In the spirit of carpe diem, I’d like to take this juncture in the post to really get down and funky with one of the most boring terms in classical music: style brisé. What is it? There is no article in Wikipedia (leaving me helpless); the term comes back to me mainly, hauntingly, from music history class, and yet even in notes from my wonderful music history professor, there seems to be some sort of helpless flailing around meaning, a sort of you-know-it-when-you-see-it-ness.

It’s an arpeggiated style (whatever that means). It’s a French thing (ha). It means “broken style” and (here is the point?) it’s this sort of constant interlacing, crossing of the voices. Clarity and simultaneity are not its virtues or desires. Broken style is broken up like ground beef in a pasta sauce. It does not like to settle down a chord, chunk! It likes to let chords unfold in time, in facets, details … but you see, it’s not at all like Rachmaninoff in that way (those arpeggiated passages are mainly written out simultaneities, sort of time-fillers, ways to make the chord “last longer”) … here the arpeggiations are all melodic, or close enough … and somehow Bach is “all up in” the idea of the Allemande, its kind of raison d’etre which is: through constant interweaving of different ideas and textures, to create a kind of evasive, sinuous, non-repetitive flow.

As a corollary, Bach is not too stern with his voices. There’s kind of a live-let-live vibe going on. if they feel like hanging around for a while on one note, they do; and if they feel like they have something to say, they do, or if they have to move, etc. etc., and there seems to be little hierarchical angst or attitude. Unlike in fugues or fugatos, there is no sense of “order” of entrance, of strictly staggered schemes; stuff happens. Yes, in the D major Allemande the top voice is a diva, but one unusually receptive to all sorts of suggestions from below, which is good, because those other voices have such spectacularly beautiful things to say; they relate to the top voice subtly, not overtly, like friends who know exactly what to say in a heart-to-heart. This all goes with my contention that this Allemande is somehow not something that happens, but an enchaining of happenings, or the way something happens (to quote Charles Ives): a sequence of things that cannot be untangled from the other; the voices are not separable, the rhythms are not separable, all is subject to drift and fusion.

Along these lines, I have a favorite spot in the piece:

There is a lot of “crossfire” in these two measures, many interactions, twists and turns; it is a kind of strange juncture, almost a “breakage,” but particularly in the second measure, I feel such a sweet amity between the voices, I really really do. The concords they reach are so touching. The (3 or maybe 4) voices seem at this and similar moments—if this does not strike you readers of Think Denk as ridiculous—to love each other. (Or to show us humans what love might be.) Though, it is true, the bassline “does a naughty” by cadencing deceptively on the downbeat of measure 18 (E should go to A, not F#, right???) the naughtiness is quite felicitous (aka awesome) and the rest of the voices don’t seem to mind; they even celebrate their deep sibling’s flight of fancy, each contributing in the course of the measure, helping, agreeing, moving things along, passing the current through, up, around whatever obstacles any of them might have thrown in the way.

This river’s not going express; nor does it feel like a local. It’s able to smell the roses but it does not let stoppages become static. And therefore it can break itself constantly into fragments, disperse, and then again, again, it seems to refashion itself on the rebound into a radiant whole.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Day 3: Love Meets Livestock (G-rated)

My favorite scene in Don Quixote: Sancho is telling a story to calm himself and his delusional master. It’s about a goatherd, Lope, who’s in love with a shepherdess:
… Torralba, the shepherdess, who was a stout girl, and wild, and a little mannish because she had something of a mustache…

But eventually, despite this sizzling babe-itude, he gets over her, and decides (reasonably) to skip town, in order never to see her again. And at that moment:
when she found herself rejected … [she] began to love him dearly, though she had never loved him before.

Whereupon, Don Quixote offers his magnificent wisdom:
That is the nature of women … They reject the man who loves them and love the man who despises them.

… this sage cliché offered up by a man, one feels, who has never ever gotten laid. The layers of irony, absurdity, oh, and yet the familiarity: how many times have I, too, pronounced confidently and yet vacuously on topics I barely understood? A million humiliating moments from my life suddenly flash before my eyes, and I am willing to own up to them. I am sitting at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana with various drunken Sanchos or Dons, telling wandering stories and drawing conclusions from them that I have simply ladled up from the giant well of things I have already heard said by people who also don’t know anything.

Anyway … resuming the story: the goatherd is fleeing town with his goats (naturally) and Torralba is running, wildeyed, after him. He comes to a river. And with this, subtly, brilliantly, the poetry and emotion of the story get mired in the practicality of goat transport. Lope has exactly 300 of them, we come to learn, and we find ourselves discussing the size of the ferry boat, the muddiness of the riverbanks, etc. etc. … Meanwhile Torralba looms, ever closer, the baleful Lover, trying desperately to remind us of the “point of the story,” which narrator Sancho blissfully ignores, though he requests that Don Quixote count the goats as they get ferried across.

Now suppose you are the Don. Sancho’s request is really a violation of his listener’s rights. If you are hearing a Mahler symphony, you do not file away your reactions in color-coded folders (do you?). And anyway! If anyone should be counting the goats, it’s the storyteller, right? … cause he’s the one in charge of making sure the story “makes sense.” Accounting concerns and the joys of narrative are smashed in a trainwreck of genre and function. The Don (reasonably?) ignores his request, with this result:

”How many have gone across so far?” asked Sancho.

“How the devil should I know?” responded Don Quixote.

“That’s just what I told your grace to do: to keep a good count. Well, by God, the story’s over, and there’s no way to go on.”

“How can that be?” responded Don Quixote. “Is it so essential to the story to know the exact number of goats …?”

“… as soon as I asked your grace to tell me how many goats had crossed, and you said you didn’t know, at that very moment I forgot everything I had left to say, and, by my faith, it was very interesting and pleasing.”

I LOVE how Sancho rubs it in at the end! Bravo! Fantasy meets the humdrum counting of reality and neither gives ground.

The way this story undermines itself is fantastic, and you realize that this story of the disintegration of the story is far more entertaining than the actual story would have been. What would have awaited Lope on the far riverbank, with his three hundred goats? Perhaps a trip to the feed store? Who wants to know? Lope and Torralba vanish into thin air, and good riddance.

In Balzac’s short story Sarrasine, a man agrees to tell his mistress the story of a mysterious stranger, in exchange for sex. But as he tells the story, his mistress is horrified by it, and when the story is over—Catch-22!—she refuses to sleep with its teller. So speaks Roland Barthes:
Caught in his own trap, the lover is rebuffed: a story about castration is not told with impunity. This fable teaches us that narration (object) modifies narration (action) … there is no question of an utterance on the one hand and on the other its uttering …
Sarrasine is not a “story about a castrato” … as meaning, the subject of the story harbors a recurrent force which reacts on language and demystifies, ravages the innocence of its utterance: what is told is the “telling.” Ultimately, the narrative has no object: the narrative concerns only itself: the narrative tells itself.

I began to write a post about the Allemande of the D major Partita ... and it seems I have now written a post about Don Quixote. Let’s see.

Yesterday I told a story about the Allemande; it went something like “the Allemande is about the appearance of blue notes;” the day before it was “the Allemande is about the wonderful extension of triads into seventh and ninth chords;” and if you had to ask me, what do I do when I practice?, it seems to me that much of what I do is tell stories to myself. Not stories like: I’m in love, but X doesn’t love me; or, I’m happy now but life is short; I tell those stories, tediously, to my friends over drinks or on the phone; no, none of that crap (though occasionally these things help to set an atmosphere). No: musical stories that have to do with notes, configurations of notes, relationships of notes … things that often seem on the written page a bit like technicalities, like counting goats.

But the music keeps reneging on the bargain, either, like Balzac’s listener, horrified by the story I have told, or like Sancho, presenting another tale mysteriously in place of the compelling one I was following. The Allemandes particularly love to wend, and wander. They are stories that are not hung up on themselves as stories, or on one storyline.

Near the end of each half, the D major Allemande oddly coalesces, becomes patterned:

It is very beautiful, rising, hopeful, not so clouded as the rest; and further more, the sequence is simpler, easier to see and count! One counts, 1, 2, 3, 4…

and then the pattern stops (so close to the end!), something new, minor-key, more halting, harder to grasp, takes over …

If you are a super good listener, you realize that you can be counting bass notes, now, descending, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (the narrative has shifted) …

And then that pattern too ends … and at that impasse it’s as if Bach asks “how many?” and the listener is frustrated, perhaps; doesn’t know between the two very different stories which to follow, which is “the story;” you are entranced, stunned, in the middle of many different accountings, or maybe you’ve simply lost track, and you say “How the devil should I know?” or “isn’t that your job, JS, to hold this whole thing together?” … and the composer stares back at you the performer or the listener too, says no it’s your job, and at that moment, of course, the story ends:

I don’t think of this movement as funny at all, of course; and yet there is some redemptive touch of the comic in here, something touchingly bizarre, hunched on the edge of the impossible, or the unworkable …as if Bach has to ferry all 300 goats across in a one-seater, and manages … One more dissonance (one more storyline) is piled on, like the last fateful piece of bologna on a massive teetering Dagwood sandwich, and yet the cadence still arrives. What was it all about, lovers or goats, major or minor, beauty or distortion? You cannot decide. In your perplexity, you have been drawn into the story; you are one of the characters, whether you like it or not.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Day 2: Case of the Blues

It is rare, and delightful, when The Onion provides something themed perfectly for Think Denk; today is one of those magical, blessed days. All hail The Onion! (And also, the onion, a marvellous vegetable which was even used to pay rent in the Middle Ages.)

I was really bored one midmorning in Houston, at my hotel, with weekend downtown emptiness like a raging tornado of nothing around me, and I decided to count the “blue notes” in the Allemande of the 4th Partita. I assert there are 15, more or less! Here are the ones in the first half:

Since my expertise in the blues is mainly limited to my Nina Simone album, the Onion article cited above, and occasional regrettable late evenings in Chicago in which many cigarettes were pretended to be smoked by me causing me to cough all my Caucasian pseudo-misery onto gentrified sidewalks, I had to do some scholarly research on Wikipedia:
In jazz and blues, blue notes are notes sung or played at a lower pitch than those of the major scale for expressive purposes. Typically the alteration is a semitone or less, but this varies among performers. The blue notes correspond approximately to the flattened third, flattened fifth, and flattened seventh scale degrees …

AHA! Though there was surprisingly no mention of Bach in the “blue note” article, nonetheless I felt triumphantly vindicated, and massaged my eyebrows pretentiously. All of the blue notes I found in the Allemande are flatted thirds, fifths, or sevenths, so there, and you nosy theorists who think I’m taking the term ridiculously out of context can just go (*&)*#@$&(*).

Bach sets us up in the “color” of D major, a beautifully voiced, lyrical D major—luminous, tender, warm—something which in no way augurs the blues; but then he begins to scatter little dark stars in his constellation. Why?

The first one that really really gets me is the A-sharp which sneaks in at the end of bar 5 (a flatted third). It appears (sour, bittersweet?) and then quickly seems to resolve itself away.

But clearly, this resolution is not “enough;” there is something left to deal with, because this little A#-event sets off a sweeping melodic figure (which I discussed yesterday) …

On the one hand, the blue note (folding inward, vanishing); on the other this gesture (leaping upward, overspanning); do these two events “follow,” do they make sense?

Blue Note … Lyrical Outpouring
Sadness … Gesture of Release

Perhaps they do follow, but not as balancing acts: there is no symmetry there, no “exchange value,” just a strange, instinctive call-and-response. The blue notes are charged with meaning, meaning that cannot always be addressed simply, or purely “musically,” and at every step they raise new complications, new considerations …

The Allemande’s amazing blueness occurs not because just one or two of these incidents happen, but that they keep happening, and they begin to resonate off each other; they accumulate, echo, create a second “text” overlapping the first, seeming to contradict it. That first A# is a warning, a seed. It engenders, as I have said, a family of “dissonant” appearances. And then, all the blue notes in the second half are recollections, reminiscences of the ones in the first half: that is, recollected transgressions, like mistakes that you’ve made, and choose to repeat. With the various blue notes circled in my score, it looks like some sort of weird code hidden in the page; I imagine each note as I play as a sort of “bump in the road,” and then there is a strange topography to the whole experience, like passing your hands over Bach’s blue braille.

At the risk of trivialization, let’s imagine Bach at the Blue Note at 2 am, letting it all hang out baby, thinking freeform. Empty whiskey glasses are strewn around the harpsichord bench, smoke curls in the air, the smoke of the minor key … the haze, the blurring of thought … the in-between, in-the-cracks notes, trying to wedge themselves in that incompromising space between the black and white keys. Bach’s looking for some way to disturb the serene discreteness of the keyboard, some way to press the same old levers, but in such a way as to question their identity. (Don’t let the notes tell you who you are, man.)

But Bach is not just being a rebel. The more I play it, the more I feel that these blue notes are not at all “antagonistically” related to the main major key, that the main question is not at all happy vs. sad. The blue notes make the Allemande “real” somehow, make me identify with the singer or the voice of the narrator of whatever you want to call it; he/she is vulnerable, occasionally falling apart, stricken in various ways, strung out, prone to digression, musing, changes of mood …

If Bach is “thinking about something” there in the Blue Note, perhaps it has something to do with the incredible vulnerability of beautiful things … the Allemande seems to me the only movement of the Partita which addresses this issue, which allows beauty to be seen offstage, unpropped: the Gigue is overtly, virtuosically, audaciously joyful; the French Overture is grand, pompous, stylized; even the Sarabande seems safe in its melismatic D major world. But the particular fragility of mood in this movement is something very special, something that cannot be summarized by “sadness made transcendent” or “bittersweet” or any number of epithets I have considered. The closest I have come is this: when you are seeing or experiencing some incredibly beautiful thing, in the flash of recognition, how even the ramble of your own mind, the ticking of a few seconds, some restlessness or disturbance, makes you realize how even your perception and experience are utterly temporary, insufficient for the beauty you are experiencing, and yet the only tool you have.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Seven Days

[In the leadup to my 37th birthday, and perhaps to slightly ameliorate the pain of its arrival, now I present seven straight days of blogging on one movement of the 4th Partita of Bach, the Allemande ... just to demonstrate, if I haven't already, the extent to which I am capable of obsessing.]

Bach sees Jane run.

At the beginning of the Allemande of the 4th Partita, in the left hand, a plain Jane progression:

… which is (ho hum) the generic declarative sentence of tonal music. See the tonic run to the dominant and back, a scaredycat afraid to wander. But in the right hand I have a wanderer:

Behind the wandering “melody” hides a wonderful, arching arpeggiation:

So, schizophrenia. The left hand is saying something grammatical, prosaic, everyday, something that is common to a million pieces, a functional bit, while the right hand is radiating up a seventh, up a ninth, and then back down, fancifully testing intervallic space. This melodic behavior is not functional, in the same way that wearing a feather boa is not functional—but sometimes it just “makes” an outfit.

Bach is feeding off the contradiction, between this

and this

Notice how after the melody completes its dangerous self, the left hand tries to bring everything in line with a nice triadic tag:

… two musical “life forces” … the triad and the seventh … they tug and stare at each other, their antagonism fed by familial connection. Bach says: triads extend themselves into seventh chords, into ninth chords, by natural chains, processes, by the course of events, by association, by simple movement, by logic which blurs into fantasy … He demonstrates: a ninth chord (wild event) is two triads (common events) smushed together, like for example two normal words whose meanings for a moment get mixed together, becoming ambiguous, even semi-scandalous. Triads extend themselves as simply as reaching out an arm … At one point (for instance) the melody shoots up to this B, it imagines itself climbing higher and higher, and pursues its imagination and finds itself where it “should not be.”

And then we must watch it fall, third by third, back down

behind which I hear this

… hiding behind the “melody,” surreptitiously but structurally, an amazing chain of thirds (the thirds which had, in fact, built the ascent) … falling, an unfolding fan, or the slow release of some pent-up breath, into itself. The high B relinquishes itself into a lower B … just as at the end of a long journey you come back to the same place, with coiled awareness of the wider world you have seen.

Yes, I am suggesting this movement has a Clark Kent and a Superman:
...triad Clark, the self-contained, the pure, with sense of limits, decorum, gravity, versus seventh-ninth Superman, tremendous limitless enchainer (this is why the sight of Superman in chains is so devastating, for he is by definition that which travels along chains, which transcends confinement) … Superman soars over that which should be painstakingly crossed. A harmony is (after all, Bach tells us) a territory which begs to be extended, an idea which wants to be questioned. The triad wears glasses, is simple, meaning-establishing, closing, codifying, works at a newspaper, establishes “facts”; its extension is complex, wondering, definition-blurring (but has issues with Kryptonite? … here, perhaps, the analogy fails).

A wild thunderstorm one morning in Houston last month half woke me up, and I spent unknown groggy time lying in bed wondering, in my dream, why I couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality. Daniel Day-Lewis talked to me in the form of a giant insect about the merits (or lack thereof) of You’ve Got Mail; this seemed very real to me, like a bleary morning lecture class I used to have in physics; I thought to myself He’s a real bug, not a dream bug; and thus, somehow, I proved to myself triumphantly, arrogantly, that I was still asleep … as though I were both Socrates and his idiotic interviewee.

That same night, I played the D major Allemande as an encore, and I made a connection between my morning daze and my evening haze … Bach’s enchaining seventh and ninth chords, and the resulting transitiveness of this melody, have some connection to the ability to dream, to wander off into what, in Bach, might be regarded as the illogical, though perpetually founded on logic, springing off logic like a comfortable point of reference …

The surrender to sleep is so delicious. Too, there is something so sensually alluring about all those thirds and the beautiful dissonant notes they reach from their starting points, something alluring and spellbinding about the hopeless, fantastic, curling attempt to make them all understood. (To prove himself awake.) You can see (hear) Bach touching back on them (remember this strange note?), wanting to make sure we rehear, refeel them as he resolves or almost-resolves them. He sweeps them (I think with a little grin on his face) under the carpet as he approaches the cadence, he sweeps away the dream, saying it all fits, drawing the curtain closed … finito! … but for me it never all fits, there is always something left over, some dream-remainder of difference, some magic dust the carpet will never hide. I would say this dust, this remainder is the “meaning” of the Allemande if I didn’t feel in some weird way that whatever it is, it’s quite uncomfortable with the very word “meaning.”

Friday, May 04, 2007

Sex and the City

[Posted on Craigslist]

Bemused but occasionally cranky pianist, 36, seeks similarly-minded other for longterm relationship “with benefits.” Does not enjoy discussing real estate or humidity. Allergic to nuts, the Tchaikovsky Trio, and unmarked retransition ritards. Serious candidates must be able to sit through the occasional slasher flick, mindless Hollywood thriller, or other piece of mass-produced drivel; must be subsequently able to endure endless pseudo-intellectual analysis of same. Gin drinkers preferred.


Hey, read your ad and was quite intrigued. Me: 5’7 and a half, sturdy, well-versed in music and related arts, something of a workaholic, but up for fun now and again, great lover of coffee, food, drink, and the pleasures of life… interested?


Well, you do sound interesting. But I’m finicky. What’s the catch?


Hmm, the catch: I suppose I should tell I have kids. And here's something weird: I wear a wig.


Wow, a double whammy. Kids … are those the little noisy creatures one sees perched in the small vehicles that often block access to my beverages in Starbucks? [snark] I’m looking for someone of substance, for sure, and I’m really trying not to be superficial about appearances … but I have to confess the wig thing has me a bit “wigged” out. Can you send me a pic? Also, you never mentioned your age…


Sigh, I guess it’s time to come clean. Here’s my pic:

People say I’m “timeless” which I guess means they can’t really tell how old I am? … whatever. One good thing about being dead, the whole age thing kinda gets less pressing …

I realize this is a lot to take in; hope it doesn’t freak you out. I think I’m worth it, though. Am enclosing my d minor English Suite so you can get to know me a bit better.


Well, this is … interesting.

As a dead European composer, you understand you’re sort of an unusual relationship choice. I was really hoping to date someone more or less alive. Of course, I’ve *always* dated living people so this might just be the fresh start I need.


I’m so glad you decided to give it a shot. Why don’t I come by your place sometime in the afternoon tomorrow?


OMG that was some date. Did anyone ever tell you you give amazing retrograde inversion? And I’m still dreaming about your descending chromatic bassline.


Glad you had a good time. IMHO chromatic and diatonic are really the two great linear forces at work in music and I love to watch them bump and grind against each other. Anna Magdalena used to help me with that in between minuets, if you know what I mean.


[3 months later]
… my friends will tell you I’m something of a committmentphobe, but I think you’re someone really special, a “keeper.” There’s just more and more to you, the more I look, and I never get tired of thinking about you …

I have to tell you, though, I really think it’s time to LET GO of the whole Telemann thing. I mean, so he got the job you wanted, and you had to keep teaching Latin to those “little brats,” big deal! I mean I think it all really worked out for the best … think of all the joy you’ve brought so many people.


You know, thanks for listening … sometimes I feel like I can go to peaceful places in my music that are hard to attain in reality.

By the way I noticed you had some unusual looking scores on your piano. Not anything I would write for sure! What gives?


JS, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the possibility of an open relationship. I mean, the time I spend with you is SO AMAZING, but I sort of want a little space, I want to be free to see other composers …


Honestly I don’t know what to say …

… the other night, after the 5th Partita, you just had a beer and went straight to sleep! ... after I slaved for weeks over a hot harpsichord writing it! Sometimes I can’t help thinking you just love me for my music. And how can you love that other stuff too?

… as they say in my native tongue, ich habe genug. Don’t be sad; we’ll always have the Allemande of the Fourth Partita.


[chat with anonymous third party]

J: Well I guess that didn’t work out ☹.
X: Live and learn
J: I’m seeing this other composer now, Charles. I think he has some gender issues, though, kind of obsessed with masculinity, etc. etc.
X: Oh, you know what that means [wink]
J: Yah. Ok, gotta practice
X: ttyl

Friday, April 27, 2007

Vernacular Appeal of Melodic Simplicity and Harmonic Redundancy

I know the classical blogosphere will be seriously mourning Rostropovich. However, I personally am finding some redemptive light at the end of the tunnel over at Prof. Heebie McJeebie's Classical Pontifications. I nominate "Simpleton Pleasures" and "Jazz Improvisations" by Ariodney Hussington to be possibly the worst pieces of music ever written by anyone. But why, oh why, can I not stop listening to them???

A highlight (?) from Ms. Hussington's interview:

McJeebie: Why is the piece called Jazz Improvisations if there's no improvisation?

Hussington: There is improvisation, but it happens in the composer's head, and, actually, it already happened. It was in the past.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Where the Heart Is

A small, recurring cast of characters works the lobby of the Greystone Hotel, my home. Behind the bulletproof glass are Joey (exhausted, balding, night school), Julia (curly, vociferous, lipsticky), Andrei (cheekboned, curt, blonde), and a surly short Hispanic woman in her 20s, whose name I have never heard. Behind a cheap table in the corner is a security guard, reading a Bible and guarding a notebook. Like a peevish comet, the owner of the building rarely orbits in; her facility, perhaps, brings out the worst in her, and I have really only encountered her pissed as hell. Lately she is absent, and waves of positive energy that are brave enough to venture into the lobby are not as quickly quashed. The building was going condo; which meant great changes were afoot; giant prospectuses were stuffed into mailslots; a new era beckoned, promising hardship for many helpless residents; but somewhere along the line inertia, muse of time, must have intervened, and I imagine some businessman in some office relenting, shrugging, in the face of some final Greystonian straw. Score one for tenacious decay. The owner has been defeated by the owned.

The lobby is not beautiful. A spectacularly boring picture of the building in its heyday (where the Hotel surely still exists, nostalgically) hung on the wall, pretending to be decor, but has been removed (the paint is lighter, yearning, where it used to be). A pot of plastic flowers stands on an Ionic dais and is moved to various seeming midpoints of invisible trajectories on the checkered floor. A sign reads “VISITORS MUST SIG IN;” I swear that missing “N” haunts me day and night. At 4 AM, after the garbage truck departs noisily, and while its honking and heaving fades into lonely quiet echoes, I dream abysses between “M” and “O.”

Most residents, like me, try to move through the lobby as quickly as possible, but some linger, and seem to enjoy it. There is one man who wears a giant gold medal around his neck, strung on a red-white-and-blue ribbon. He has liminal predilections, for instance: he leans near the door, or brings a chair into the windblown, cramped space between inner and outer doors, or stands just outside the door on the garbage-strewn sidewalk, looking longingly back inside. He adores rain-slickers, and is often impervious to water, even on the clearest days. He once ran the marathon. I know this because there is an explanatory card, also, hanging around his neck, in a plastic holder, which I have skimmed. (We could all use such cards?) He and I had absolutely no communication for six or seven years, though I saw him constantly; now, we are beginning to exchange smiles, and I have no idea what that means, or why it has happened. Some small random tenderness. It makes me feel cheaply good about myself to smile at him, and then I walk on to my destination, usually some heartless corporate chain.

To describe another regular: some eight years ago, I was in the elevator when a blonde woman in her fifties entered. Immediately the compartment reeked of scotch. It was around 11 AM. This was, I believe, the first occasion I really noticed her. She looked at me very intently, up and mostly down. “You’re an actor, right?” I applied New York Behavior Rule #1 and said nothing. “Yup. I knew it,” she continued, undeterred, “all the cute ones are actors.” It was a curious compliment, but we haven’t spoken since, and ever the jonesing approval-addict I catch myself, these days, wondering if she still thinks I’m cute. The other day, this same woman was standing at the bulletproof window, talking very loudly to Joey, with a different message. “You look terrible,” she kind of bellowed, pausing for a moment; then she said “I’m sorry” and began walking away towards the door. Joey said something through the muting window; it might have been a question; she turned back and yelled tautologically, proudly, “Because you look terrible!” She pushed the doors open, exiting the Greystone with a triumphal flourish (difficult to do). Promptly, my elevator door shut and I began to ascend. Joey was left alone, with no door.

One of the truly memorable regulars (for me) was an elderly man who sat near the door, in a corner, on a threadbare armchair (now disappeared, in an attempt to drive the elderly characters from the lobby and make the building more “presentable”). He never seemed to move. But one day, mysteriously, he was just there in the doorway, blocking my exit, and before I could summon a swift youthful refusal, he asked if I would do him a favor. He wanted me to walk him to his barber’s appointment, on Amsterdam. He had three or four hairs on his head. I stared at them and at his spotted scalp while he clutched my hand tightly in his cold hand and stood there and—as other busy normal people passed by—I started to wonder when we would begin to walk. But in a minute I realized he was walking. It was curiously intimate. Most of it was stillness and preparation, clenched breaths, but every so often he gave himself over to a passionate iota of motion. It was a harrowing, mindblowing five minutes until we were out on the sidewalk and fully thirty minutes more until we reached Amsterdam (normally a 15 second effort). I had no idea it was possible to walk that slow; Einsteinian dilemmas lurked; at that suspended speed, how could you tell if you were going forwards or backwards? I remember succumbing to fits of rage and eerie oases of calm and it was like being drawn into a black hole, maybe, while trying to hide the fact that your body is imploding.

At the corner of Amsterdam, he pitied me. His appointment (the existence of which I began to disbelieve) was allegedly on 88th and Amsterdam, and while I gazed into the receding line of buildings and onrushing stream of cabs with horror, imagining the whole day spent, he said the magic words: he would be fine, he would make it from there. I sighed in relief, wished him well, gave him hearty farewells. But, he added: he just needed to know which way was downtown. At that point, for me, the mathematics of the situation collapsed. I could bear the absurdity no longer. Sensing his helplessness, I fled from him, a coward; but he persevered, bravely, in the sunshine. I stopped near Broadway and watched him walk a few inches. To tell the truth, he’s not been seen in the Greystone in some years.