Wednesday, June 29, 2005


I am dangerously attempting to begin this post without having truly consumed an appreciable amount of coffee. Sip sip. But it may not kick in soon enough...

I just thought this event was surreal enough to warrant mentioning. Yesterday afternoon, I went down round 5 to the hotel fitness room, to do some stairmaster. And I was full-on sweaty and stepping and dazed, when I heard the door open; I turned my head, and to my utter shock and disbelief: Leon Fleisher entered the room. For you non-pianists or non-musicians out there, this may not seem like such a big deal, but pianists will understand... (for a scientist, the parallel might be that Einstein entered the room; for an author, Salman Rushdie... I don't know, you get the idea). It is the sort of thing that would happen in a dream. Listen to this, man: last night I dreamed I was washing the dishes, and Leon Fleisher walked in and told me to do it more spiritually, etc. What's more, it was too late for me to turn off the drippy romantic comedy about three aspiring country western singers I was watching (at FULL volume), starring River Phoenix and a young Sandra Bullock and other people too mediocre to mention. (I certainly could not claim I was NOT watching it; the stairmaster faced the TV completely and closely). They were making their way onscreen to success via love, loss, and the sober road of experience. Leon seemed not to notice this more profound aspect of the film as he cast what I (perhaps overly) interpreted as a rather dismissive glance in the movie's direction, and headed for the treadmills. How could I explain to him, without becoming ridiculous, that I had brought Cervantes' Dialogue of the Dogs with me to read (certainly a philosophical and profound entertainment), but that this particular stairmaster had no holder for reading material? That therefore I was a helpless TV consumer? That I had read much of Proust on the stairmaster as well, in years past (in lost time)? How could I explain that I was allowing myself to be moved (were they beads of sweat or tears on my brow?)by country-western music just hours before my Mozart Double (my debut, for God's sake!) with the Philadelphia Orchestra? Why was I watching this drivel instead of, say, the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour? No. All explanations were moot; all I could do was finish my routine, and slink out of the room. So it goes. I noted, as I left, that he was watching the weather. Ah, indeed, sigh, that is what a great artist does on the treadmill, I thought! Perhaps he did not even notice the weather forecast; it was only a background for his great treading thoughts, as the ever-changing weather is a background for our lives.

My new favorite quote: "The best part of repentance is the sinning."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


I'm better today, thank the powers that be. I thought I would post another installment of the subway poetry "experiment"... zipping back and forth from 91st street to Mozart rehearsals on 58th street, I found plenty of time to contemplate the #1 trains... for those who don't remember, it is a not-so-subtle attack on the whole "subway verse" thing, by intermingling lines from the posted poems with the surrounding advertisements and public service announcements. I wish I could say I was continuing by "popular request," but really I'm just continuing for my own perversity. The following, to my mind, gives the nihilistic and famous speech from Macbeth a kind of post-modern, ironic punch, which it probably didn't need:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Investing in futures
creeps in this petty pace from day to day.

Tighten skin without surgery
to the last syllable of recorded time.

Lighten up!
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools.
Please don't rush or push on
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Number One makes all stops.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player.
My future: a theatre director
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
What you thought you knew is history
and then is heard no more; it is a tale
it's a work in progress,
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury--
He may be without a home, but he's not without help,
Signifying nothing.
Get prepped for success!

I feel the end is even more bitter than the original? Comments, including cease-and-desist orders, are welcome, but may be ignored.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Carter and the Things You Want

I'll admit it. I'm in a foul mood today. For me there are three kinds of foul:

1) "Irritable" foul: where everything just peeves me, from the wait in line at Starbucks to the cheery hello of my doorman.
2) "Overwhelmed" foul: when the volume of unopened mail and unattended crap gets all metaphysical on me, and makes me feel panicky.
3) "Seriously" foul: where something deep has shifted, and part of me has yet to adjust.

Today's foul is a bit of 2, mixed with a lot of 3. It's funny: I'm cheering myself up just a bit, even enumerating these foulnesses. Ironic that my foul day should be the longest day of the year. (Bitter laugh)

What does all this have to do with music, you ask? Well what I'm suffering from is a fascinating medical condition known as the Post-Festival Blues, COMBINED with a little bit of Pre-Festival Panic (since I am simply between festivals). Post-Festival blues is like the melancholy of the last day of summer camp... all of us overgrown classical-music-children, going to camp every summer, making friends and enemies, not writing home as much as we should, and then it's over... This one is particularly bad, for reasons that are hard to pin down, irrational reasons; it feels as though something were given to me, and then taken away. And I want it, even though I'm not precisely sure what "it" is.

As it is impossible for me to deal with any personal issues in my life without sublimating them into music first (just kidding, kind of) it got me to thinking about musical passages where this sort of thing happens: and it seems to me that this giving and taking away is not a bad thing in music, but an essential part of its meaning... I've often enjoyed the quality of certain music where only a few notes are made to suffice (not TOO many notes, because that would ruin it, overwhelm it): one of the great virtues of modernism. Late Romanticism: a giant surplus of notes, of "explained" meanings, of overblown programs, of chromatic complexity. Modernism converts

O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver's loom,
Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow--
See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
Round as the round moon shines in heaven above ... [etc.]


O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

Less is often more; the single word (the single note) connotes more, is free, open-ended. (For example, the fabulous

I played the Elliott Carter Piano Sonata this last Saturday, and while I was practicing it I kept playing over the final section; it seemed at once elusive, impossible (because of its spareness) and also to hold, behind its reserve, the most profound and beautiful thoughts. The piece continually plays with the giving and taking away of harmonic information, the expansion of one or two notes into an complex harmony, and then back again, until you are made to find satisfaction in fewer notes, to find resolution in absence. It is so beautiful to trace his thinking in this manner in the last bars of the piece: he carefully delineates which notes should be retained with the pedal, and when precisely should they be made to vanish: a constant game of resolving to "too few notes," then adding some other notes which raise new questions, which necessitate further resolutions, which keep the piece alive. Just when there is too little, he adds something new (which is "too much," which needs to be dealt with in some way, just like I need today to deal with my unresolved, undirected wants)...

Each time I played it, I couldn't get over the beauty of the final bars, of the piece's "answer." Let me be analytical for a second: here Carter summarizes and merges two main themes of the piece, this melodic cell:


and this rhythmic motive:


Both of these are "protagonists" of the piece; we have heard them millions of times (seemingly). But not like this, their merging moment:


F# (high), F# (low), C# (top note of chord)... that would seem to be it, one more recap of the "tune," BUT as you slowly release the pedal, the B emerges from beneath its cloud of notes, a lonely, uninflected, uncluttered tonic. This note, on the "weak beat," the unaccented syllable of the sentence, a rhythmic aftershock ... turns out to be the strong foundation, the center, the fundament from which the other notes have radiated. Carter does not want it to be played so much as revealed. Instead of overtones coming off of a played note, Carter here allows the "undertone" to come from its overtones, allows cause to follow effect.

And there it is: just that B. You hold it until it fades away. The other notes, beautiful B major notes like A#, F#, C# linger in the memory more faintly (vanished overtones). And why do I find this so affecting? When I start to hear just the B, there is at first a rush of pleasure: it is so pure, perfect, so resolving; then I begin to feel its relation backwards, its threads of connection... I want to go back and play the whole piece again, to hear his flights of fancy, racing through fifths and fourths from B up and down the keyboard... those amazing scorrevole passages from the first movement, the giant jazz fugue in the second. But no, it is over. The B is a relinquishing of all the other notes, not at all a triumphant arrival, but a removal...

Right now, in my foulness, in my apartment with laundry and dry cleaning to do and millions of unopened bills and pieces to practice, I would love to go back also, perhaps to the last festival, and argue about Schumann with quirky musicians in the sports bars of suburban Detroit; but today, there is only the B and the thought of what notes might come of the B--entirely hypothetical musings, speculations. I am awaiting the return of my overtones.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


For those who suspect classical musicians are a different breed, I have solid scientific evidence. The other evening, I was playing a concert with violinist Soovin Kim and cellist Peter Stumpf. In a distant (15-20 miles) suburb, cellist Andres Diaz and violinist Chee Yun were also playing a concert. After our concert, Soovin and I parted company with Peter, who went home to drop off his cello. Soovin and I then decided, on a whim, to go directly to the grocery store for post-concert treats...

We wandered the lonely aisles, selecting the usual gourmet fare: an Entenmann's danish, white peaches, a frozen pizza, baked Cheetos... and there at the checkout counter, we ran into Peter, who had just then run into Andres and Chee Yun! We were like migratory birds, destined for groceries, magnetically and mysteriously drawn from distant climes to a single Kroger at a particular hour... What Beethovenian machination of fate was at work?

One further oddity: Soovin's and my white jacket and tie drew some amused remarks from some 30-ish ladies ("nice tuxes")... who then kept waving at us in the parking lot, kind of desperately, as if we were soldiers going off to war. Soovin thinks they were trying to "pick us up," but my theory is they were like minor divinities, somehow associated with the fateful musical convergence, trying to deliver us some omen or message which we will never, ever know. As Rilke says, "we must live the questions, and someday our lives will become the answer." Or something like that.

Following up, finally, on the narcissistic theme from the last post, I went to Barnes & Noble (boo hiss) to pick up some Montale poetry which had been very inspiring ... (texts for an Elliot Carter piece which I just heard). Alas, there was no Montale in the Bloomfield Hills B&N, as I was informed by a pierced, patchouli-scented aide; but next to where he might have been (again fate) was Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I drew out of the shelf to refresh my memory of the tale of Narcissus. What a beautiful tale! Especially the encounter of Narcissus (the boy in love with his own image), and Echo (the girl who can do nothing but echo what other people say)... what a spectacular, symbolic, heavy, association-rich episode this is in the tortured history of the Western mind! And super-fraught with associations for us migratory classical musician-birds: we are forced to echo pieces written long ago; in one sense, we are as helpless as Echo, we can only say what "has been said;" but what we get out of them, the return of our encounter with them, is always at least partly ourselves. We cannot help seeing and feeling ourselves, reflected in these pieces. These pieces (great masterworks, texts of seemingly infinite association and possibility) are like mirrors to us, like Narcissus' fatal pond... mirrors against which we cannot help but feel insecure, vulnerable, incomplete.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wow and Wind

Anonymous writes, "this entire blog is an exercise in narcissistic pretense." Hooray for anonymous! He/she is correct, as always. Pretense courses through every entry: things are omitted, rewritten, made readable, given "a style, a voice"... there lurks in the background that pretentious word "literary." I can't, therefore, present myself, whoever that might be; I seem to present how I imagine myself, or even how I imagine others imagine me, or--and these are the parts I admit, in my narcissism, I like the best--myself as illuminated by certain passages of music, the cross-section between my persona and certain sound patterns... Some parts of Jeremy Denk: did they exist until I encountered particular phrases, pieces of music? Chicken and egg: until the "Dumky" Trio, was humanity's sense of nostalgia less rich? (Or did "Dumky" depend entirely on preexisting emotional patterns in humanity?) Did those tender phrases permanently add to mankind's emotional repertoire, give nostalgia a definitive auditory example?

Today (for me) is a joyous day, with a fresh cool wind blowing through the suburbs of Detroit... (oppressive summer lifts)... I am so happy today and part of this happiness is stuck to, glued to, the act of putting my hands down on the piano keys a certain way and coming up with a luminous, sensual sound, a sound of which I approve, which suggests further sounds, further motions, further pleasures. The exact equality of the intention and the result; motion=sound; idea=event. Me me me. But add to this the liberating fact that the music is already written for you (Dvorak, Mendelssohn for me tonight), so that you just "throw yourself into it." I am a puppet with strings pulled by dead European composers; but I love it, this willing marionette is me. Don't you think the puppet influences the puppeteer? I think so (in my narcissism). Dvorak depends on me to express something about Dvorak. Pooh on the people who say it's all on the page; it most certainly is not.

In the puppet vein, I saw a production of Pierrot Lunaire this last weekend featuring Lucy Shelton's riveting, completely possessed sprechstimme, a delightful life-sized Pierrot puppet (Blair Thomas puppet theatre of Chicago), and my fellow Oberlin alums, the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. The work was frantically staged, and all the musicians performed from memory! It was tremendous to watch Lucy interact with the puppet, to "literally" address Pierrot (who eventually is brought out, poor fellow, in a wheelchair); but my favorite part was how she and the puppet interacted with the instrumentalists (and even their instruments). Musicians are usually "left alone," treated with deference (after all, they must concentrate!), but here they were treated irreverently, like just another part of the surreal gang. Music inspires choreography, which in turn rebounds back and influences the music, the musicians, draws them into the game... There they were, marching across the stage behind a prancing Pierrot, who jumps into the piano, turns back to look at them... the musicians in turn look back, as if to see what Pierrot is looking at... who or what are they looking for (is there some secret agent in the wings?)... Who or what is in charge? No member of the ensemble seemed to lead, to be privileged. Which to me is the perfect way to express the unhinged, expressionist mind.

I really liked the sense that the musicians were forced to confront their own creation (like a mad scientist, like Dr. Frankenstein); the music they were playing almost attacked them! There are musicians out there who aim to be pure, uninvolved channels for music to pass through, who look on impassively while their fingers create... For them, this Pierrot would be kind of a nightmare. I have never been able to pursue this ideal (never cherished it especially, either), except to the extent that you don't want your personal involvement, your emotional attachment to the music to get "in your own way," to hinder auditory expression. In my narcissism I find that the music keeps turning in on me, and vice versa, and I cannot stop this wheel from turning, except every so often to send it back the other way, like a pendulum or seesaw. And so this Pierrot was like an actualization of something I feel so often: the meddling of music in my personal life, its lack of boundaries, of respect for my "personal space."

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Rubato from Another Planet; or, Waking Up Early

Last night, inexplicably, I put a new CD in my CD alarm clock. (Avid Think Denk readers--is this a plural? or even a singular?--will recall volume two of Nina Simone's "Tomato Collection" residing there previously.) I felt no particular urge for change; it just hit me, like the smell of sour milk emanating from a Mr. Softee truck. And let me tell you, there is nothing like waking up, bleary, at 6:50 AM on a Friday morning, after staying up stupidly late staring at an over-packed suitcase and a list of things to do upon awakening (1. Throw out garbage 2. Pack toothbrush and toothpaste 3. Pay rent 4. Check wallet for credit card and drivers license) and trying to remember music I might have forgotten to pack... there is nothing like waking up after one of those short, stressed-out nights to zany Viennese lilt, chords and notes flying everywhere, and sudden blasts of tender, lyrical playing unheard of in modern days: in other words there is nothing like waking up, exhausted, to Ignaz Friedman's Alt Wien. It coaxed a silent laugh out of what is often my darkest hour; I was awake for a strange non-moment before it came on (curse my inescapable, time-laden consciousness) and I drifted back to sleep; with a harrumph it began in B-flat, and I was smilingly, totally awake; its joyous abandon blasted into the half-lit, half-cleaned apartment like secular incense, blessing my early morning scramble.

I meant what I said about the "harrumph." In the boisterous waltzes, Friedman's downbeats have outrageous, tremendous impulse; they are huge, sprawling, but also springy, dancing catapults ... the intervening 2 and 3 beats are often overwhelmed, virtually swallowed within the downbeat's energy, in a way that modern conservatory education would find unacceptable (tut tut! don't swallow those beats!) I yell back: Yes Friedman, swallow them! Keep it coming! Go for it, baby! This is taken to almost comical extremes, admittedly; sometimes neither the rhythms or notes of the 2 or 3 are very clear or accurate, there is only a vague sense of intervening chatter between the rollicking, galloping 1s. This is when Friedman surrenders himself entirely to the waltz as frenzy, as leap, as twirl... then he stops, reassembles, recomports himself, a tender strain enters ... everything is suddenly placed again, the internal beats are nuanced, proportioned, perfect .... ah, Vienna, the good old days...

A very famous pianist (and irreproachable artist) of my acquaintance disparaged Friedman for being too crass. I know he is wrong. Or, maybe, I think he is right but I don't care; when he says it it passes into one ear, one lobe of my brain, and I smile an empty smile; the other lobe recalls all my favorite Friedman moments and adores them internally while I pretend to agree. Am I a hypocrite? Anyway, Friedman makes up for any vulgarities--his sudden accents, added octaves, etc.--with an abundance of grace. His B-flat Chopin Polonaise (which comes right after Alt Wien in my Naxos recording) is a virtual philosophical demonstration of charm (Hmmm, apply the Kantian Categorical Imperative: what if every pianist in the world today were suddenly compelled to play as charmingly as that? Would piano playing in the modern world come to an end?), he transfigures an "ordinary" piece: Chopin's filigree has never been so light, and not sugary-sweet-syrupy-silly... simply appropriate, decorative, the pianist's hand passing over the keys, "like a feather."

I know what it is: Friedman's playing is not limited by a Beethovenian "es muss sein" (it must be)... it has a place for the arbitrary and the accidental. Sometimes he seems motivated by rhythmic/musical forces from another planet, and there is no way to know what he is thinking, and why he is thinking it. This makes me happy; I puzzle over his rhythms with pleasure. For example, Friedman's account of the opening (rather simple) bars of the B-flat Polonaise doesn't resemble any way that anyone I know would play the dotted rhythms they contain. It is as if some other layer of harmony and tension, unbeknownst to mortals, was apparent to Friedman, made it impossible to play the dotted rhythm in its typical tum-tee-tum; somehow the "tee" is too important to him, it's got something to say, it drags against itself. I adore these rhythmic displacements in his playing, irregularities born of secret expression which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. I know a lot of pianists out there cannot accept the "sometimes fail" (despite this, they still sometimes fail, as we all do)--they must aim for the "always succeed."

In case you don't own any recordings of Ignaz Friedman, go on and buy one. Obviously he is one of my heroes, especially at 7 in the morning. And when else do we need heroes more desperately?

If you thought the writing in this post was a bit fanciful, perhaps it can be explained by this photograph, taken "candidly" in the Northwest airlines terminal, awaiting the flight that Friedman woke me up for, which I feel captures my state of mind perfectly. I append it with no further comment.


Friday, June 03, 2005


For the first time, blogging by request... A friend suggests by email that I write about the Quartet for the End of Time and (what do you know!) I just finished playing my last one here in Spoleto at the 1 pm concert. I am happy to blog about it because the performance was totally overwhelming for me personally, for mysterious reasons. Was it exhaustion, or accumulation, or release? Daniel Phillips (one of my favorite musicians) was playing the last movement, and I felt that I was going to lose it on stage... i.e. burst out crying. This is rare for me... After some polite goodbyes, I decided to "celebrate" by walking home alone, away from cars and people; I ambled down quiet Church Street, and tried to give my brain its own time.

It is a piece for the "end of time," and yet the pianist (yours truly) has to be time. In the cello and violin solo movements, I simply play chords, awkwardly slowly, marking moments which are much slower than seconds, and marking (with my harmonies) a larger, really time-free, arc of meaning under the melody. In no other piece do you feel such a tremendous strain between something achingly large (something that only eventually will be expressed) and the snail's steps you must take to express it. But he (Messiaen) manages it; not a note is out of place in the last movement; every harmony is extraordinary, an essential step, a grammatical and striking word of the holy overall sentence... somewhere toward the middle of the last movement, I began to feel the words that Messiaen marks in the part, I began to hear them, feel them as a "mantra": extatique, paradisiaque. And maybe more importantly, I began to have visions while I was playing, snapshots of my own life (such that I had to remind myself to look at the notes, play the notes!): people's eyes, mostly, expressions of love, moments of total and absolute tenderness. (This is sentimental, too personal: I know. How can you write about this piece without becoming over-emotional?) I felt that same sense of outpouring ("pouring over") that comes when you just have to touch someone, when what you feel makes you pour out of your own body, when you are briefly no longer yourself -- and at that moment I was still playing the chords, still somehow playing the damn piano. And each chord is even more beautiful than the last; they are pulsing, hypnotic, reverberant... each chord seemed to pile on something that was already ready to collapse, something too beautiful to be stable... and when your own playing boomerangs on you and begins to "move yourself," to touch you emotionally, you have entered a very dangerous place. Luckily, the piece was almost over... When I got offstage I had to breathe, hold myself in, talk myself down.

It wouldn't have gotten to that state without the architecture of the whole, its obsessive completeness. The clarinet movement with its desolate slow melodies ("abyss of the birds")... total despair. Then the amazing, sensual cello movement ... As I walked home I meditated on the idea that the whole piece is somehow in E but only truthful about it occasionally... when the "E majors come," they are such solutions, total releases of implication, homecomings for the soul. I think it was a release for me: the release of all the stress of the concerts (true enough, if not that interesting), and/or the release of some bottled up affection? This second is more intriguing: Music as Therapy. I was therapized by today's concert, by the end of time. It was a difficult session, I but I think I enjoyed it... where will all that affection go?