Thursday, March 31, 2005

Musical Examples, heavens!

Originally uploaded by Jeremy Denk.
For those musicians who are reading, who want to "follow along" with the last post...

The chromatic tenor line in question begins in the geographical middle of the page, continues for two measures ... savvy readers and analysts will note that it is a continuation/response to a chromatic descending line in the top voice for two measures before that (starting on G, desc. to E).

Sorry to all you non-music-readers out there!

Memo Pads?

I must feel some extreme subconscious need to "explain Falstaff," because this morning I awoke from a vivid dream where I was doing just that. At an upright piano, in a beautifully furnished room (seemingly drawn from the set of the WB show Charmed), I was explaining to an unknown woman the beauties of Verdi's only comic opera. Feeling like my audience wasn't quite getting it, I pointed to the score to show one of Verdi's incomparable markings. I was translating from Italian, a language I don't know ... "Look, here it says to 'sing as though it were an aria written on an old memo pad.'" Somehow I attempted to demonstrate this at the piano; at that point, the dream became too impossible even for a dream, and I woke up.

Last night I was walking down the street (a memory which now seems like a dream) and I found myself unable to locate the downbeat in the Sarabande of the 6th Partita. Somehow the piece, which I have played so often, has become worn at the edges: the barlines have rubbed off. I placed the score on the piano this morning, and just looked, and played little bits, with their meters intact, reasserted. Clear as day! Though when I played them, they threatened to dissolve again, they wanted to disappear (just like my dream's bizarre reality wanted to evaporate). I thought through the whole thing, the pulse and its disappearing act, while I washed the dishes. Hooray.

Even last night on the street, adrift without the meter, I thought through the pitches, trying to clear away the undergrowth (all the ornaments which "clutter it up", which make the meter and the structure opaque, distant): trying to hear only this recurring motive (obsessive, idee fixe) of the falling second (the first motive of the piece ... and a symbol of pathos), and the way Bach plays on the two notes, perversely resisting any too-clear direction, wandering over them, only allowing them occasionally to accumulate into larger sequences (2+2=3 in this musical language, two falling seconds makes a third, two thirds makes a fifth).... There is a wonderful moment towards the end--when one might get distracted by the top voice--where the tenor emerges with a sequence of chromatic versions of this motive (E to D-sharp, to D-natural, to C-sharp, to C-natural). Every time I come at this piece, this place tugs at me, this tenor voice seizes my attention... and every time I get closer and closer to letting it dominate, to "understanding it." But something about the piece, the way it is written, resists this reduction to "truth." Is it my laziness or Bach's wiliness? I know, though, that i want this tenor voice to be the fundament of this passage, its entrance to be a climactic summary, and the hemiola that follows to be "just" closing, "just" resolution ...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bach Continued

Practicing, practicing, practicing: my hummus and pita is strangely unsatisfying (if necessary) after 6 hours of Bach. What is amazing is how IDIOTIC the "old ways" of playing something seem (and by old I mean six months ago): how incredibly self-critical you become. And the idiocy is usually inattention... and so I force myself, bit by bit, to pay attention. This is painstaking work, measure by measure, repetitive (sometimes to no apparent result)--trying to truly "pay attention." It is weird to repeat paying attention; repetition tends to give way to tedium, and inattention. Practicing is straining towards the opposite of this natural tendency. But then, invariably, you run across another problem: mental attention translates inaccurately into muscular tension (this movement from intangible to tangible runs through piano playing, in every direction: printed score to evanescent sound, for example). Your perception of attention is misplaced; you confuse a hunched muscle for a sparking neuron.

Then you must think about something else, on top of the impossibly intricate music: you must think of your OWN BODY, you must consider it separately while the music goes on. The real goal is the "how," in between the "whats" of you and the piano: the perfect superimposition of motion and desire. But this goal hovers in the middle, is an impossible thin "balance state;" sometimes you must think purely of desire, and sometimes purely of motion, just as sometimes you must think by turns of your right or left hands. The Parkinsonian patients in "Awakenings" cannot sustain themselves there, between total lock and manic motion, they cannot be in our in-between, normal, human state; and while I am practicing, sometimes, I feel it too, the difficulty of remaining in the middle. It is a comfortable, beautiful place, and my happiness often depends on finding it.

Then I am online, taking a break, surfing blogs, and a friend IMs... a non-musician friend. He asks me what I'm doing and I tell him; he says "I don't like Bach." It's impossible really to imagine, heartbreaking. My mother, too, actually professes not to love Bach, although she has stifled this over time, seeing me play Bach again and again. There is no more nourishing music, no more varied, no more .... how can one say you don't like it, as if it were a brand of ketchup? Sometimes we musicians need to be shocked into realizing how much people think of music as food, as something that one picks off the shelf, something used, consumed, enjoyed casually, stored in a pantry for when you need it. Some of my friends would say that that is good, that it is a healthy attitude... Obviously I can't be reconciled to this; turning Bach out would be to revoke part of the universe.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


As my friend put it, it is "All Bach All The Time" in my place these days, which is wonderful but overwhelming. One would guess that a lot of the work would be very cerebral: fingerings, sorting-out, mental gymnastics. That is true, and it takes a lot of patience-- but much of the work for me is color/affect/energy. It is so easy for the stream of notes to degenerate into motoric motion, or autopilot, or on the other extreme: manic characterization. To find just the energy necessary to propel the piece forward, but not so much that it flails.

And then there are those "miracle moments" where you find exactly the right affect for the material. For instance I am playing the D major Toccata, which I had usually experienced as mainly a joyous romp of virtuosity (despite a mournful, central fugue in f# minor). But thinking about the opening section of this Toccata as walking music -- I suddenly made the (fairly obvious) association to "happy pilgrims." Bringing a sort of liturgical element into it (a piece I had viewed as entirely secular) made the whole piece now a kind of meditation or service --and also it has been Passion Week... The minor-key fugue could be Good Friday, and the final D major gigue/fugue Easter Sunday! I played the final fugue again, with the sense of (and I am not a religious person) "Christ is Risen!" and I swear it was entirely different (though I had always played it joyfully before)... but this purpose behind it, the sense of communal joy, and the PROCESS of the entire Toccata culminating, all of this worked. I will spend the week trying to recapture that moment's inspiration.

Thus the form of the Toccata, its "sectional problem"--which I had never viewed as a problem, as these pieces are favorites of mine, but audiences seem to be puzzled to some extent--can be related to the parts of a Mass. The improvisatory sections linking the main elements are like "readings," or pastorly reflections on passages heard... however you want to draw the analogy, it becomes of a piece, a ritual, a happening.

Monday, March 28, 2005

More Falstaff

The following thoughts on Falstaff I find, today, scrawled into the NotePad of my Palm:

"The idea of comedy where the serious character is the one you DON'T care about. Depth of character for the fool. The most ironic utterances are sometimes the most beautiful."

Irony and beauty are not often coupled; fools are often cardboard.

In your typical Hollywood script, and in many sitcoms, the characters--like those of comic opera--are divided into buffa and seria; in your high school film, for instance, the nerds (with whom, of course, I sympathize) are buffa; they never really get girls in the end, or become central to the drama; they are around, like props, for variety and reality, and particularly for comic relief. Of course there are the films where a nerd "redeems" himself, though please observe (!) the cautionary fable of Ducky, who originally was to obtain his longtime love, Molly Ringwald: test audiences found this disappointing, and the ending was changed. So if a nerd is to pass from buffa to seria, he has to be somewhat ambiguous to begin with, he has to be a non-nerd trapped in a nerd style (a "transgender" nerd); if he is truly nerdy, like Ducky, he cannot find love.

Moreover: we do not "care" if the nerds find love; their fates are incidental. The narrative tie-up requires only that the seria characters become happy (or unhappy, or dead). The others are just around for color commentary.

This is also true, say, of Don Giovanni ("the greatest opera ever written"). Leporello sticks around, persistently humorous, from beginning to end; he witnesses murders, seductions, apparitions, flaming damnation, and remains unchanged. He is wallpaper. If Leporello were to find his soulmate, or undergo some sort of epiphany, it would be odd, for this reason: he does not have a soul, the genre has given him an exemption from soul-hood. But, you might say, Leporello is the "soul of the comedy"! This is true; the spirit of the opera would be so much less if he were absent. So why is it, then, that the depth he helps to lend the work of art is not reflected in his character? There is a discrepancy here, an artifice, a disconnect.

Enter Falstaff. Impossibly fat, broke, and (by the way) no spring chicken, he comes courting beautiful Alice at 2 in the afternoon, while her well-to-do husband is away. It is all a scam, of course; Alice is tricking him; she plays at the rituals of flirtation with him, mocking him (he is unaware of the mockery yet--his greatest folly of all). But the music mostly does not caricature; from the opening chords of the serenading guitar, Verdi provides unusually and unique beauties, inspirations one would be proud to have in a "serious" love scene ... For instance when Falstaff offers her jewels, and Alice sings "Every jewel dims my beauty -- I hate false golden idols./I need but a veil, some bauble at my waist, a flower in my hair." One could savor every detail of this flirtatious/modest moment--the delicate arc of the vocal line, the perfectly calculated chromatic inner voices, the color of the accompanying winds--a perfect phrase which "flickers its wings once, and is gone." She is flirting with him; it is ironic because it is false; but it is too beautiful to be just deception. Who is intervening and making this comic scene so beautiful? Does Alice want her show to be convincing? Or does she need, even in jest, to be irresistible? Or is it a composer's need here? One senses an allusion (a nostalgic nod) to all the love scenes that have ever been written, a kind of beckoning; Alice's "play at love" intersects with Verdi's desire to survey the landscape he has covered so often. Both are observers: Alice the married woman, Verdi the 80-year-old man; both, in a sense, schemers caught up in their own schemes.

And then Falstaff reminisces about his youth, when he was so slender ... here is enormous Falstaff, singing delicately, pianissimo, leggiero--about the inconceivable person he used to be. But the music again is not sharply mocking, it does not take the obvious route; it is gentle, lithe, beautiful, and therefore heartbreaking; the ironic disconnect (the "humor") is simultaneously a perception of change, of time's changes on the human body; for a moment Falstaff IS his young, handsome self, strutting (Falstaff as icon of human imagination, perserverance in face of reality, change).

By contrast, the opera's seria lovers have no such beautifying irony. Their music is just lush, uncomplicated (also deliberately repetitive--atemporal, corresponding to their lack of experience, of sobering reality). It seems, in context, to be too ardent, too poetic ... an attitude reinforced when Verdi cruelly interrupts their climactic love duet at the beginning of the final scene for some comic business ("enough of this, we've heard it all.") They are there, they are beautiful, but they do not have the "traction," the tension of tone, which would make us truly care.

Buffa characters have never gotten the girl; they have always made do with injustice. Verdi shines a spotlight on this fact of narrative. And he rectifies the injustice; we care about Falstaff! So much so that we might wonder why he gets such cruel treatment (my friend hates this opera for this reason.) Falstaff is a buffa character--but the opera however lacks a balancing seria character and plot. It is an opera, therefore, centrally about something odd: his non-fulfillment. Of course his non-fulfillment, personally, is the fulfillment of his role. Why do I feel, then, that Falstaff "triumphs" at the end of the opera? The fugue (how appropriate for celebration of a role, where everyone "plays his part"!) seems to be his last laugh. Or the composer's: a celebration of play.

In Verdi's tragic operas, there is always this pressure: the pressure to be convincing, to be real, to tear at the heart, to lay open motivations. This is the pressure of seria characters, "released" occasionally by the comic, or by spectacle. Falstaff is free of this pressure--even of the pressure to maintain a certain mood for a certain duration. Moods shift, the music ranges from whim to whim. Is this an escape from the pressure of genre, which for a moment Verdi has managed to suspend? Falstaff the man, ranging outside of buffa's realm... absorbing the comic, the foolish, into the pantheon of sympathetic human emotions, like Sancho Panza.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Falstaff vs. Augusten Burroughs

Today on my way home bought a copy of Burroughs' memoir, 'Dry.' Spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on my couch, totally absorbed--or was I simply dragged along? I feel beaten. A completely harrowing account of alcoholism, and the addictive personality in general.

So, I finished the book. I can't say I recommend it--so dark and searing--but it is brilliant.

Then I put on my old recording of Verdi's Falstaff (one of my desert island pieces, see next post). And only one phrase is necessary to dispel all the modern New York malaise, to lighten and transform all his misery. It breathes like the breeze Burroughs feels at an outdoor cafe, while he is falling in love, "that seems to have arrived via FedEx for this exact moment from a resort hotel in Cabo San Lucas." But it is an Italian breeze, where foibles are only foibles, characters are flawed but humanized with a Renaissance, understanding glow, with an entomologist's love of classifying human bugaboos, arranged in the garden of "types" which is almost the garden of Eden... The husband is jealous, Falstaff is fat and lustful, the ladies are scheming... it all works, and Verdi loves them all, MUSICALLY, with one sympathetic orchestration after another, one perfect fragment after the next... one perfectly nuanced Italian phrase (sentence? poem? song?) after another... like Jarrell says "the little themes that come in, flicker their wings once, and are gone forever."

I can put this together: the piece always makes me feel as though I am in love. Every phrase is in its honeymoon period; it never has time to grow stale or tired; it is supernaturally fresh.

The affection that passes through the music to the characters is enormous, an affection inflamed by imagination, inspiration. Whereas some operas seem to be enactments, spectacles, in which the human emotions are "translated" into musical terms, (from character outward, like hurling the voice out into the opera house) here the musical language is the original, the source of the stream ... the characters are not "projected" by the music, the music seems to flow into them, to fill them, to caress them (music "making love" to people, to character).

Why did "Dry" yield so emotionally for me to "Falstaff"? Passing so quickly from tragedy--fatal flaw, inescapable cycle--to comedy (also with inevitable flaws, organic but not tragic), like emerging from a modern fluorescent light into Italian sun. From a young man's self-hate to an old man's love for everyone.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Cory Files, Volume One

I was in bed, happily contemplating the length of my just completed nap, when my cell phone rang across the room. Its odd frog-like burbling did not annoy me. With some suggestion of lithe energy, I threw off my down comforter and made it to the phone before it went to voice mail.

It was my assistant, Cory.

"Yello," he said, and the greeting was returned.

A couple sentences passed, where we discussed his inability to attend my concert at the Metropolitan Museum this evening. But then we came to the heart of the matter.

"I think," he said ominously, "I've had my last Chantico."

Such crucial topics are often discussed by us, and though I was not surprised by the serious tone this conversation was taking, I laughed nervously. "Your last one?" I repeated...

"Yes," he said.

"How long ago was this final Chantico consumed?"

"Two nights ago."

He was referring to an evening shared by his girlfriend, he, and I, in the company of some large shaken drinks. I deduced, then, that Cory had not been entirely sober when he had his 'last Chantico.' Was there some terrible admixture of effect?

"What made it your last Chantico?"

Then he proceeded to outline a gradual diminuendo of joy, proceeding from the initial Chantico, which was "fantastic," to further Chanticos, each less delightful than the last. Drinks and mood had nothing to do with it; the spiral of diminishing enjoyment was seemingly outside the hurly-burly of contingent circumstances. was something greater and more terrible.

"So," I said,"aesthetic exhaustion is the reason why you have had your last Chantico." He concurred ruefully, and we agreed further that it was as good a reason as any to abandon an expensive beverage, although perhaps not as pressing as, say, should it become clear that animals or children would have to be murdered somewhere in order to make Chantico. On this sad, gruesome, but thankfully entirely hypothetical note, another of our essential phone conversations ceased.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Mountain Return

An early morning return. Hazy, sleepy Jeremy looks out the window at Adirondack wilderness: green trees against white snow, patches of gray rock, looming heights, reddish-blue dawn sky. If only I hadn't had those two sweet bean buns! They sit in my stomach as only piles of bean and dough can. Amiable (and so delightfully plump) at first, they become persistent, and eventually overstuff their welcome.

Thus we passed through the Adirondack state park on our way back to the city: Soovin and myself in the back seat with my bag and his violin, his parents in the front seat... His parents are extremely talkative even at 6 AM, eek! Clouded by buns, unable to really speak or think, I cannot fully appreciate the landscape. But I have a little pang around frozen Schroon Lake, where I spent some frustrating (and now frozen) quality time with an old love; suddenly I am paddling in a canoe, out to the center, reading Proust ....

What have I learned in the last week? Let's see. Surprising things about reading and alcohol. Take, for instance, the following passage, which I came across first while having a delightful martini:

"Schopenhauer's thesis is that the world presents itself to us under two aspects -- as Will and Idea -- and that these two aspects are always distinct and always conjoined; that they totally embrace, or inform, one another. To speak in terms of either alone is to lay oneself open to a destructive duality, to the impossibility of constructing a meaningful world ..."

Now, the sober Jeremy, rereading, would have probably glanced right on by this passage, in the course of an impatient skim; but he thankfully was given pause by the tipsy Jeremy, who apparently was quite moved, mid-martini, judging from a giant "WOW!" written (perhaps scrawled) in the margin ... the sentences were circled for good measure. Seemingly, drunken Denk is in some cases SMARTER than sober Denk, and is considerably more willing to walk with Schopenhauer into destructive dualities and whatnot. (Drunken Denk is also more willing to consume pints of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.) Now, the thing is this: normal, everyday Denk did a double-take, suddenly realized/remembered the beauty of this passage, its layers of significance yadda yadda yadda, because of these signs (like the markings of a caveman) left by his gin-soaked alter ego; the site of my revelation was in my brain somewhere, unearthed by a pencilled wow!, visible and valid currency to the sober eye, but somehow ignored.

So, the moral of the story, which I plan to pass on to all my children (should I have any), is: Drink Up! Blog readers: feel free to post your drunken or sober interpretations of the above passage. I am curious. See if it's possible for you to construct a meaningful world.

For those who want to be regaled with tales about kiddie concerts, teeny-bopper Q&A sessions, and howling winds over Adirondack slopes, I refer you to my other blog, which actually recounts the events of my life, and which does not exist. No, no, it was a really delightful week "out of time." There were many sweet people, and many sweets were consumed: cheesecake, cookies, glutinous rice pastries, Pepero-brand Korean chocolates... And we played hymns, and Ives, and Gershwin, and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

Monday, March 07, 2005

Off to the Adirondacks

Yes, after eating buffalo-pheasant-green-chile stew in Chicago, and egg salad sandwiches in Baltimore, I am allowed one fallow day in New York to contemplate the immensities of my apartment, and my carpet's filth. Why vacuum? Ignore! And off early in the morning, too early, to Penn Station (we used to enter like gods, now like rats), and up the Hudson to Albany to dazzle public radio listeners in the capital district.