Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Like a Where's Waldo? gone wild, I cannot help but search for Bach in everything I come across these days. That all-Partita concert transformed me into a junkie, jonesing for a J.S. fix. What a sad addict, though, rooting through the Tchaikovsky concerto for something resembling the Sarabande of the 6th Partita! There is not even a self-important fugato (horrible, recurring crutch of 19th-Century composers looking for something to do) at which to point one's shaking, withdrawal-addled finger. What would Bach have made, for instance, of the octave passage at the beginning of Tchaikovsky's development section--E-flat major octaves as far as the eye can see, heading first up, and then crashing down the keyboard? The harpischord would be in smithereens. He would have considered it some act of terrorism, no doubt. At the very least: a sin.

I love, by contrast, Bach's judiciously audacious use of octaves. For instance: the end of the 5th Partita. This fugal, complex gigue has a kind of manic insistence on not letting a moment go--and here's the counter subject, and here's the main subject, and here they are together, and no wait! don't rest! here it comes again in another voice! At some point an idea with a trill is introduced, and boy! do we get to know that one, and the piece comes to its climax with a sequence--a deliciously superfluous reiteration--of this quite-familiar trill, sequencing it wildly up the scale to the tonic... the kind of joyful obsession with this trill, we just can't stop trilling! not till we get there! (I can definitely see Bach smiling here, even grinning, holding a mug of coffee or a stein of beer while still somehow managing to play all the voices) ... and when he does get there (and this is "the point"): wonderful octaves in the bass, B, D, G... resolving to the tonic, once and for all, stopping the madness. Take that! (I could even imagine a kind of Miss Piggy karate chop):

That extra "display of strength" in the bass, its brusque simplicity of resolution, contrasts amusingly with all the intricate weavings, the chatterings, of what came before. The octaves are out of the frame of the piece, an intrusion: and yet only this alien element could bring us home. My former teacher, György Sebök, tried to instill in me something I probably have not yet totally learned (though nonetheless I think it is true): that endings in Bach do not say "I have finished the piece," do not declare any individual accomplishment, but rather indicate: "God wrote it, and it is good." Not especially religious myself, I nonetheless can hear this musical distinction, and sadly am often too caught up in my own sense of accomplishment, and desire for finality, at the end of a Partita, to let Bach's God speak.

Returning to the Tchaikovsky passage, I got a wonderful suggestion from the concertmaster of the Lubbock Symphony, based on the premise of its motive of four descending notes. Any person acquainted with a reasonable percentage of popular culture could be expected to conflate this moment with "meow meow meow meow," and indeed it is pleasant to contemplate how different the piece would be (how much more feline!) if the pianist at that point broke into the Meow Mix jingle. I feel sure Tchaikovsky would have found some slightly long-winded way to develop those motives too. By an odd coincidence, the clarinetist of the Lubbock symphony is an old classmate of mine from Oberlin, and we reminisced over Texas white wine, while surveying the not-so-rolling nightscape of Lubbock, about how once we felt inspired to break into "Roll Out the Barrel" amid the last movement of Bartok's Contrasts--in studio class, no less. The professor, a man of considerable wry wit, compelled the audience to a stony silence, and we forced to pay for our prank with an awkward minute of nothing, no response, on stage... total humiliation.

All of which, I am sad to say, is by way of introduction (!) to my main point, but I can never recall being so exhausted by my lead-in as to contemplate breaking off entirely. Courage!

While I've been hard-pressed to find Bach in Tchaikovsky, Bach peeps out everywhere in Bartok's 3rd Concerto, assuaging this wigged-out junkie. Its first movement is full of gentle, playful, concerto-grosso-esque counterpoint: canons, inversions, dialogues, various "procedures" made tender and transcendent. (This constant back-and-forth makes it delicate, difficult to pull off, a real piece of concerto chamber music). But the second movement is a particularly extraordinary homage to the master, a re-framing: a "re-Bach-ification project."

It has basically three components:

a) What the strings play at the beginning: almost modal, a kind of pre-Bach counterpoint (like Palestrina?)... which leads to...

b) A chorale stated by the piano... a deliberate evocation of Bach chorales, "touched up" with harmonies from a more modern world... which leads to...

c) "Nature music": the hum of insects, bird calls, night sounds, breezes, falling and rising ripples... the absence of melody, per se ... simply sound, contour, time...

Now, each of these elements has its emotional baggage, its connotations, its "meaning"; but more importantly, so does the juxtaposition of these elements, the unabashed mixture of opposites (like "Meow Mix" in the Tchaikovsky concerto?). The different musics, passing from one to the other... The Bach chorale, with its more pungent, more "tonal," more directed, harmonies, and its more grammatical rhythm, is "born" out of the purer, more aimless, statements of the strings. The piano soloist, metaphorically, speaks the individual voice of experience (pain, loss, reaching) in response to some collective, earlier innocence. And though the piano is "more modern" than the strings, both are colored with a sense of being impossible styles: things that can no longer be written--past, lost, irrecoverable.

Bartok apes Bach, but not literally or systematically; he leaves traces of himself in the chorale: hints, signposts, reverberations. It is a chorale, reaching out to Bartok, sometimes becoming entirely Bartok, then reverting, returning, relinquishing.

Let's take one phrase of the chorale, my sentimental favorite:

It reaches up, G to A, A to B, and when it lands on its climactic C... a twist. Instead of the E-natural one might expect, the C is harmonized with the note a half-step lower: D#. This D# is "not Bach," it is a painful mis-harmonization belonging entirely to Bartok's world... to his world so prominently peopled with tritones (A-D#)... and yet, and yet, can't one recall certain similar major-minor twists in Bach movements? But on the way down--how Bartok resolves away from this C--is the most clear, extraordinary, heartbreaking Bach homage. The treble descends: B, A, G; while the tenor voice ascends: G#, A#, B. Any music theorist worth his/her salt (not that I necessarily advise you spend a lot of time consulting music theorists) will tell you that this is called a "voice exchange," (B-G/G-B) time-honored procedure of four-part writing, of counterpoint in general... and FURTHERMORE that the chromatic alterations of some of the notes (G vs. G#, A vs. A#)... the sense that A "grinds" against A#, and G against G#, is called a cross-relation. Assume it has a name not just because it recurs so often, but because it has a special, beautiful effect.

To the internet! It took mere seconds on EveryNote.com to find the score of a Bach chorale with a similar cross-relation: you can't miss them, the chorales are peppered with them, those hidden, temporally displaced dissonances in the procession of concords. Here's the example I found:

At the end of this passage: In the alto voice, a descent, E through D-natural, C-natural, to B... in the bass, a corresponding ascent: C through C#, D, D#, to E. We are intended to hear the C and C# jangle, the D and D# conflict--then all is resolved. BUT THE SINGLE EXAMPLE DOESN'T MATTER! This is like a Bach "personality trait," a virtual calling-card of his chorale harmonizations, and when we hear it in the Bartok, we just know... this progression is achingly familiar, it taps into the musical/cultural memory, evoking Bach's ghost. It is one of the most beautiful idiosyncrasies of the chorales... a birthmark of the style.. and Bartok summons it obviously lovingly, like we summon to our minds the endearing oddities of an absent friend or love.

In the Bartok phrase, the A and A# are heard simultaneously, on the same "weak beat," as a passing tone; but the G# is heard on the first beat, while the dissonant G-natural is heard on the third (check the score again if you feel like it). We are meant to hear the dissonance displaced over time, and the displaced dissonance is no weaker than its simultaneous cousin... the memory of the previous note grinding against the new note we now hear. (Power of memory?) Yes, though the note is gone (though Bach is gone), it is still present, it affects events, must be understood... a cross-relation, a relation across time and across a musical interval, a deliberate paradox inserted in the counterpoint, two conflicting notes coexisting and resolving.

But what do you know? This G#-G-natural cross-relation--the juxtaposition of major and minor thirds--seems awfully similar to one of the most characteristic elements in Bartok's "native" harmonic style. (The layers of relation: first simply the G#-G-natural; then the way this relation evokes Bach; then the way this, in turn, draws comparison between Bach and Bartok.) Bartok's adaptations of Hungarian folk music pay special attention to the pungent, wonderful coexistence of major and minor thirds. Very often his cadences make no effort to decide, and simply splat down on both. Just a coincidence? No way. In the return of the chorale, Bartok makes this correspondence crystal clear; he insists on it, dwells on it, materializes it: the piano improvises at the end of this phrase in Hungarian style, repeatedly emphasizing the dissonant G-natural against the G# being held in the orchestra, like a folk lament gone virtuosic and wild:

Bartok has "discovered" a correspondence, a musical pun, a homonym, a common ancestor between himself and Bach... the cross-relation... this slow movement is its demonstration and revelation. The pianist, improvising counter-melodies to the chorale in its return, simply cannot help "expounding," making more steps in this direction, bringing Bach and Bartok together, reaching across the gulf. This juxtaposition of "opposites" is at once audacious and thrilling (hearing those Bartokian clusters superimposed on chorale cadences!) and, to my mind, often deeply sad and touching: dispossessed. A conversation from a distance, where neither party is entirely at home. Dissonances from two worlds, touching.

I haven't even touched on the most "dissonant" section, the middle section of movement, the "nature music." To my one remaining reader: we are in the home stretch.

After the opening section, where the piano says--with difficulty, by steps--what it has to say, the chorale gives way to a second form of innocence (not the strings' modal innocence), something outside the realm of music entirely, something once again collective. How can I account for the feeling that takes hold of me when, after the chorale's final cadence (tonal?), and the modality of a string interlude, I hear the Bartokian cluster of the middle section, the intrusion of modernity, leaping across centuries? A leap of faith. The way in which it is done is extraordinary: one doesn't hear a beat or a pitch to start the new section, but instead the "quantified" pitches of the opening section are replaced by a hazy, elusive tremolo. Suddenly we are lifted from musical "statements" into a world of pre-musical, musical being. We are hovering above music. The piano states a bird-call, injects the minimum of purpose and pulse into this soundscape...

If we think of the string music as evoking the beginnings of counterpoint, of musical artfulness and cultivation, and the piano chorale as a step further along, slightly more cultivated, the middle section is a paradox. While clearly modern, sophisticated, full of technique and developed craft, this craft is brought to bear to express something absolutely non-cultivated: pure nature. This slow movement can't decide whether to be cultivated or not; it is ambivalent, torn. It relies so heavily on memories of culture, on associations, on musical history, on nostalgia ... as we have seen... but also reaches out to non-culture, to the absence of culture.

But all this is academic-speak. I want to get in words, finally, this sense of joy at the junction, when Bach/Bartok chorales are "replaced" by bird-calls and breezes.

It is as though Bartok thought so deeply through the sentences of his chorale, its heavy, beautiful meanings ... but then thought suddenly that the world needed to be wider. The piano's chorale is self-sufficient but not enough. (Even Bach, the great master, is not enough.) When the soloist switches to the intermittent voice of a bird, away from the continuities of the chorale, I feel a tremendous elation, born of distance, of the impossibly strange traversed. Bartok's vision of nature here is so generous, tweaked with dissonance, but nonetheless entirely good: regret-less. Against which the cross-relation of man's chorale: so much painstaking, heartbreaking thought.

Friday, September 23, 2005

On the Road

As if the glamour of a touring pianist's life needed any further confirmation or evidence, I am now blogging from a Denny's in Lubbock, Texas. Outside, Lubbock's wide, dusty Ave. Q bakes in seemingly endless sunshine, while inside, and particularly backstage at the concert hall, one freezes in extreme air-conditioning. I just left the piano technician safely behind in the chilly hall, a friendly man with a gentle west Texas drawl, and asked him to remove some of the metallic quality from the upper octaves--though I have to admit that asking any technician to do anything to a piano fills me with fear, with second thoughts and self-remonstrances... the devil I know so often seems preferable to the devil I don't. I will have to drown these unnecessary, futile fears in spicy chicken and fries.

Anyone could imagine that after weeks and weeks of just Bach, leaping into the Tchaikovsky piano concerto could be a shock... perhaps only paralleled by the cultural sea-change of leaving Manhattan for Lubbock. As I sat on the floor in the Lubbock baggage claim, awaiting my giant gray bag, beneath an advertisement for irrigation pumps, my face made wan by the inevitable banks of fluorescent light, I charged my phone at a lone necessary socket, and chatted with a dear friend back east--lone, necessary comfort after a long trip, and he seemed to recognize this, and his voice warmed in response. I was grateful. You never know which plane trips are going to be tedious.

Outside, at the curb: the airport emptying for the night, crews heading home, parking vans congregating, spewing diesel fumes; but against this: a wonderful Western breeze, reminding me of On the Road, Kerouac and co.'s constant sense of the call of the West, its vistas, promises, adventures. Endless rambling sentences, endless rambling journeys... (the endless rambling structure of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto?) But when I arrive at the hotel, I realize my time here will be circumscribed by the short walk across the street from the Holiday Inn to the Civic Center, and further it will be circumscribed by the usual: serious practicing.

Frustrated with these limits, I imagine myself disembarking in Lubbock as a non-pianist, perhaps as a cowboy. I get a delightful care package in my hotel room from the nice symphony people, which includes a cowboy hat. I sit in my hotel room, and put it on, pose for the mirror while I check my email. Ridiculous but pleasantly so. Coincidentally, the other day, in the wake of all 6 Partitas, I envied a cow I spied from a car, half-immersed in a muddy pond. I guess this envy was a symptom of the intense mental effort of all that Bach... a desire not to play melodies on demand but, rather, to moo at leisure... but I cannot be that cow for now, nor may I herd cows in my new hat ... I must simply corral the notes I have to play tonight...

Friday, September 02, 2005


I intend no slight to my friends who are still alive, but my most radiant, joyous hours over the last week have been spent living with the dead. For instance, the other evening, I found myself amid what one could only call "shop-talk" at that Upper West Side institution, that mecca of swift, savory Vietnamese cuisine, Saigon Grill. Musicians seem to gather there, over noodles and satay, specifically for the task of discussing who-knows-who and who-played-where and other aspects of the "music biz" (my least favorite phrase ever). Occasionally even the topic of who-slept-with-who may be remarked upon; I hope the delicate eyes of my blog readers are not offended by this last revelation.

But coming off six hours of intensive work on Bach partitas, I found my attention wandering, and I was not able to participate... so I took leave of my lovely dinner partners and headed up Amsterdam Avenue to my new favorite sushi restaurant--

(by the way, there is a point to this long story, I think)--

where it is possible, I have discovered repeatedly, to spend a surprising amount of money. I promptly ordered one of their best bottles of sake, and every special maki listed on the menu (only in New York does "today's special" not mean "on sale" but rather "you're going to get reamed"), and sat down with Henry James' The Golden Bowl. Though a table of Croatians seemed to be celebrating their ability to make noise a few tables away, this only bothered me briefly, and after a thimble or two of sake, I was astonishingly able and willing to immerse myself in James' enormous sentences (whose style I seem to be subconsciously--I promise!--emulating here).

I came upon the amazing scene where Charlotte--having embroiled herself in the devil's bargain of marriage to an American tycoon--is appearing in her full, moneyed glamour, for the first time, and conspicuously "going about" at a party, waiting rather theatrically for the Prince, her ex-lover, who is also her son-in-law (!). And as she stands there, mid-staircase, James brings full to bear the weight of his enormous perception, in one of those endless, nuanced, magnificently branching sentences:

The ordered revellers, rustling and shining, with sweep of train and glitter of star and clink of sword, and yet for all this but so imperfectly articulate, so vaguely vocal--the double stream of the coming and the going, flowing together where she stood, passed her, brushed her, treated her to much crude contemplation and now and then to a spasm of speech, an offered hand, even in some cases to an unencouraged pause; but she missed no countenance and invited no protection: she fairly liked to be, so long as she might, just as she was--exposed a little to the public, no doubt, in her unaccompanied state, but, even if it were a bit brazen, careless of queer reflexions on the dull polish of London faces, and exposed, since it was a question of exposure, to much more competent recognitions of her own.

I was amazed at how amazed I was, how in my James "zone" I felt. Admittedly, I have occasionally been prone to petty irritation with James, and what one might term, ungenerously, his pompous verbosity ... but as I stared lovingly at the octopus, tuna, and salmon in the display case, I savored the afterglow of each sentence as it sunk in, and the complications each seemed to add to the characters, bit by bit, like constructing an enormous edifice. Indeed, the characters were getting themselves in deeper and deeper (so to speak), and I-as-reader was also, snorkeling around in the murk of the unspoken tension of this most complicated love quadrangle. The sentences were complex but like life... constantly adding to both the answers and the unanswerables. I looked around, finally, to find myself the last person in the restaurant. The sake bottle also appeared to be empty. Nonetheless the owners seemed not to be annoyed or impatient; rather, their eyes seemed moist with gratitude and solicitude, perhaps in anticipation of my check.

How happy I was, reading James in the sushi place! But when I returned home, I became even happier. I had left the music open to the Allemande of the 4th Partita, barely readable in the glow of my lamp, and I sat and was too impatient to begin in the beginning, and so I began playing nine measures in, which is the beginning of a sequence:

Now, for some heavy lifting. As in certain James sentences, in lots of Bach one cannot know beforehand where the clauses will start and stop... one only knows the structure (the unit-to-be-repeated, the thread of relation) "in hindsight." Measures 9 and 10 "mean something," but only in bars 11 and 12, the reiterated, reworked version, does this meaning, does even the mere fact of 9 and 10 being a unit, become clear. And it (the meaning) is defined by difference. By the time you know the meaning, the direction of events has already changed; it is time for another paradigm shift. (Meaning built on quicksand). Bars 11 and 12 make a change at the midpoint (the "crux" of the phraselet, also the melodic peak)... and this change struck me quite forcefully that evening... had I really heard it properly for the first time? In place of the dominant seventh chord at the crux in bar 10, bar 12 substitutes a diminished seventh chord, an accident which (though clearly no accident) suddenly seemed to me a major event, a kind of "slippage" of meaning, a crack through which the piece had suddenly fallen, not to reemerge for some time.

And though the next measure (a dominant pedal) is no great surprise, and could have been reached by any manner of ways, the fact that it was reached by that particular, odd, awkwardly beautiful way seems to affect the course of events, not out of necessity, but out of association, like a difficult memory from one's life that keeps cropping up and influencing your subsequent decisions. This is the way I began to "explain" to myself the remaining unfolding of the first half of the Allemande: the odd, beautiful, dissonant mingling of major and minor in bar 14; also, the extraordinary deceptive cadence to F-natural in the bass of bar 15; and the two fascinating tritones at the beginning of bar 17 (in the left hand) which make the subsequent cadence a sort of triumph over harmonic adversity. And on and on.


The major and minor coexist so uneasily, so heartbreakingly... in their interaction the music courts ugliness, awkwardness, infelicity... and yet manages "to escape." The melody seems like a fragile, eroding trail between these two options. In bar 19, we seem to be freer of this past complication, the meaning seems released: ah, yes, a rising major sequence. Very beautiful. We might predict: it will rise, and peak, and flourish, and resolve into the cadence at the dominant. But (of course) the meaning slips again, in the second beat of measure 21. And for me, it was this association backwards, this sense of connection between all these "slipped" moments, that made it powerful, that made the sentence, as I played it, enormously consequential. Henry James, or at least my copy of The Golden Bowl, was sitting on the piano, listening. He might have observed yet another second thought, becoming, reluctantly, a generative first thought for a whole other line of enquiry, which, finally though suddenly, almost "accidentally" (the last, most fortunate, accident!) slips back into major, and resolves, succumbing to the compelling imperative of "always."

I stopped. I looked at the page.

This is really when the practicing pays off; when music and all its business seems quite worthwhile: when you "get" something, even if it might mostly vanish tomorrow, and might never make it out over the airwaves to your listeners, even if it may end up, finally, being something you only share between yourself and J.S. ... I shouldn't have begun by saying I lived "with" the dead. Rather, for that one sentence: I lived through the dead. Visions of Bach in his candlelight scribbling. That crusty old Lutheran might have stopped having more children in Heaven and taken a moment to give me, secular self-absorbed New Yorker, a little life.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


This is not "that kind of blog." But I have been practicing Bach all day for a couple days, in my bubble, and then coming back to my computer to see ever more horrifying reports of New Orleans, Biloxi, and other places ... and I have been disturbed by my ivory tower existence. So, though this is really a music blog, and I don't want to opine on any of this human suffering, let's just take a moment to consider donating to those in need.