Monday, October 31, 2005


It is hard to choose a chief sin of the modern Hollywood film; there are so many, the seven deadlies hardly suffice. But for me, one reigns: forgettability. How many times I have walked or subwayed down to Loews Lincoln Center only to return, two and half hours later, with only a vague sense of what intervened... The look and feel of the "down" escalator, the click of the double exit doors onto 67th (?) Street, the sense of emerging late onto a barren sidewalk (the accompanying sense that I have been "digested" by the movie theatre, processed in and processed out), the glare from the Food Emporium across the street, always meeting me there, somehow, with a reminder of stale, unwanted groceries: these sensory, homely, homemade data, repeated over years, are more vivid and lasting than almost any of the lavishly constructed images I came and paid money to see. If the reasoning is escapist, as it often is for me--why not see a movie and forget about everything for a bit?--the bargain is Faustian. It seduces you to forget life for two hours, but conceals its condition: that those two hours are lost, that you forget them too.

I saw three excellent films in the last few weeks, two of which are still, sadly, forgettable. Capote, for instance, a movie I would not dare to impugn, except, except... honestly, what did I take from it? I realized its most vivid moment for me came when Truman was reading excerpts from his book: not the scene, nothing of its filmic content, actually the prose itself, what he was reading! It was so far, in artistic quality, above any part of the film that it constituted an (unintentional, obviously) shattering indictment of film-as-art. Truman reads about the heads of the Clutter corpses concealed in cotton; we have seen this image--literally, enacted--in the film, but our glimpse of it onscreen is child's play compared to its prose rendition, chilling and magnificent. And I went also to see Good Luck, and Good Night, or however it's titled... I can't even remember the title. What I took from that viewing (again being savagely honest with myself) was mainly the opening scene, where the camera passes over faces in black-and-white, at a glamorous party, smoking and chatting, smiling in complicated ways, faces that are slightly worn, made up bravely beyond our present-day standards: a whole ethos of appearance heartbreakingly different from our own, the acceptance of wrinkles and edges and severities and strains, and all of them observed by the strangely modern camera, while wonderful Jazz Era music plays... Ahh, I thought, settling into my seat, sipping my 7-Up, this is great, but at no further point in the ensuing short film was I so satisfied. If the film had been about the substance of all of those bit characters' personal lives, about whatever they were discussing while the camera panned over them, I would have probably died of pleasure; instead it was about journalistic integrity. The transposition of Truman Capote from bleak snowswept Kansas to bleak rainswept Manhattan seemed a stage shift, not a life-shift (ah yes the noble trains criss-crossing wide, savage America), and both of these locations, even, seemed blessedly real compared to the Spanish villa where Truman and his lover get away, and eat perfectly set breakfasts against blue, cloudless Mediterranean backdrops; a drama played out in film terms, in "locations," in "scenes." So, too, the anxious newsmen fretting in the booths of CBS, the heroic frowns, the conjured banter of men with writers.

Both very good films. But in relation to the other very good film I saw in this period: fakes. Sadly--or perhaps not that sadly--this other film, Garcon Stupide, is very hard to see (playing in "alternative" venues according to an exceedingly limited schedule); and also I cannot recommend that squeamish viewers venture it, either; it is not a film for Grandma, unless she is terribly tolerant, and I'll leave it at that.

I needn't lie to myself to say it was good; I needn't force myself to remember anything; a clamorous group of images pops up in my brain, demanding attention, whenever I call the film to mind. For example, a scene where the main character goes up to the top of a mountain, to its pure overwhelmingly white snow: the film is washed out by the light, you feel that even your viewing experience is "threatened," seared away, and a surge of unexpected music merely confirms a tremendous release from the dark, indoor, night-filled, pasty, fluorescent, seedy scenes we suddenly realize we have been watching non-stop. And all he needs is that metaphor, that confluence, that departure; the filmmaker lets it go at that; there is no need to hammer in what the metaphor "means," it radiates all kinds of possible meanings in every direction; just as he merely needs to follow the glance of the 20-year-old, for a few seconds, around the little artifacts of his boyhood room to encapsulate all the traversed loss. But what is the boy feeling as he looks around? Thank God, there is no way of knowing. (Whereas in Good Night & Good Luck you always know that Murrow is stressing about the consequences of his aggressive journalism, about ideals, standards)... A conversation in the parking lot of a McDonalds; a drive-through order; cars passing through traffic circles at night; half-conversations in front of the numbing TV; Garcon Stupide is full of all kinds of authenticating, depressing realities; and yet I didn't find myself resentful at being dragged from my escape into life; I was grateful to be reminded of things I see every day: grateful to be reminded not to forget them.

Always be suspicious of people who tell you that something is "real," and something else is not. That I suppose includes me in this blogpost. I have my own agendas. I don't want to make a case for reality, however, so much as for memorability. I should add to the list of this movie's virtues that it rekindled in me an appreciation for certain aspects of Rachmaninoff (for that is what I have been told the music is)... perhaps I will finally buy that recording of Weissenberg playing Etudes-Tableaux. But Garcon Stupide has that rare asset: a director who seems to understand something about music. The concluding two minutes of the film seem musical, not by accident, but in essence. The onscreen events are reticent to declare themselves ("I am a happy ending" or "I am a sad ending," or even "I am an ending at all"?), and they take refuge therefore in the music (which cannot really declare itself either); the two enigmas are tied to each other, timed as a gradual release and disintegration, an unfolding of images and motives.

And instead of the usual spitting out down the escalator, out the corporate downward ladder, I found myself shaking, walking down the sidewalk in the Village, in no mood for bulls*** statements or any kind of interpretive crap. That means I really liked it. In this case a different bargain was made; I left with more time than I came in with; I had not sold my soul to the cinema, but instead it had sold mine back to me.

Friday, October 28, 2005

SWM, Seeking Fortune

I had just finished my tangerine peel chicken at the China Rose restaurant in Rhinecliff, New York, when three fortune cookies arrived, perched atop the check. I was waiting out a train delay. My dinner companions were accidental, or serendipitous; they have just now detrained at Poughkeepsie, and their continuing fates, other than the putative fortunes they received in Rhinecliff, will most likely be unknown to me forever.

But at that moment we were briefly together. I handed them their cookies, unwrapped mine, cracked it open, and read:

"The fortune you seek is in another cookie."

I laughed my most natural laugh, with only a dash of irony. Indeed: if only I knew in which cookie to look! How many cookies would I need to eat in order to find the fortune I seek? The question was intriguing... I loved the self-referential nature of the fortune, its void where meaning or guidance should be, its promise of an infinite, futile, sweet future. It was more a implied description of its recipient than a prediction of his future; it leaves open the possibility that my desires will always be in another cookie (my pessimistic reading), or may simply be found in some Nestle Tollhouse in February, some Petit Ecolier tomorrow.

Sometimes koans are too much for me, in their cutesy-pie profundity: just too elusive and silent to appeal to my gregarious Western mind. I like this one, though: a Mandarin fell in love with a courtesan, who told him "if you will sit outside my window for 100 days, I will then be yours." And the Mandarin placed a stool outside her window and sat for 99 days, whereupon he got up, picked up the stool again, and left. I feel this is related to the fortune I received in Rhinecliff somehow. And has wider resonances for my life these days.

My chamber group at the new Bard Conservatory just posed me a musical koan: "How do you rehearse?" I stared dumbfounded at the question. But they genuinely wanted to know. I suppose you may as well ask, "How do you speak English?" Do you have a little time? But, oddly, I had the attack of a desire to answer this question somehow ... and began talking, without any plan, and found myself interestingly circling around the topic of individual desire--rather than the more intuitive, obvious chamber music issues of listening, cooperation, sharing, interaction. It has seemed to me lately (and I think it is fair to say I play a fair amount of chamber music!) that sharpening or making more vivid what I bring to the table--purely in terms of my playing, on its own--is the most reliable way to improve a chamber music performance, and may be possibly thousands to millions of times more effective than any verbal comment I may make to my colleagues. In other words: look after your own house. I may have gotten this idea, or at least the clear expression of it, from Peter Wiley, who was (and surely still is) always asking his colleagues to play it how they want it, asking them to lead. And then, as you ineptly lead, you figure out you're actually the problem.

But as I was describing it to these coachees of mine, finding some way to verbalize my concept of an ideal rehearsal (when they probably just wanted something simpler, a flow-chart perhaps), it found its expression not so much in leadership but in the idea of communal imagination. As in, everybody imagines things about their parts, and brings these imagined concepts into the forum, and tries to make them understood to others--to express something truly imagined is difficult. The rehearsal is, therefore, not a place to smooth out differences but to let difference speak. Realizing that disagreement can be the least of a group's problems. I would say chamber music most often suffers from too much agreement. (Too "easy" an agreement, both with each other and with the music.)

Of course the imagined ways of playing things butt up against realities, impossibilities, personalities, etc. etc. Rehearsal, like practicing on one's own, is shot through with the tension of the desires/realities (cookies of tomorrow, unattainable cookies) and can only be truly productive if everyone perceives and accepts this tension. If I let myself become the obsessive practicer that lurks inside me somewhere, at some point things go awry; if I want to cross every T and dot every I, I find that new T's and I's start cropping up, making a mockery of my diligence. My dream of completion is a trap. Sometimes it is better if I leave on the 99th day... then the hundredth day of sitting somehow happens "by accident."

Well my train is hurtling down the Hudson, and I am babbling like the Dr. Phil of chamber music, arrgggghhh. I look around, and the fellow next to me catches my eye, and then feels weird about it, and then shakes his head more violently to the music pumping through his headphones, as if to say: "See, I'm really listening to music! Not staring at you!" And how could I have known this morning when I put on my socks and, not finding any matching pairs in my dresser, settled for one black and one blue--how could I have known then that I would have an insane desire to pull off my shoes in the overwarm train and put up my feet on the opposite bench of the cafe car and that my mismatchedness would then be evident to all passing Amtrak riders? This fortune must have been concealed in yet another cookie.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Brahms Imperfect

Today is one of those clear days when my mind is casting about, in its freedom, for something to be unhappy about. Move on, I tell it (my mind), as if jostling someone on the subway; there is no woe here; but presently relentless motion itself becomes that cause of unhappiness which my mind had sought in stationary, obsessive contemplation. Another day, another Catch-22. I know, for example, I want to choose something to do, I am the child in the candy store, but after choosing, what then? I do not want to do the thing I have chosen.

Today's earbug is the "2nd theme" from the final movement of Brahms' Clarinet Trio. It is appropriate that it plays over and over in my head, as the theme has an imperfect subjunctive quality. I await correction of my grammatical insights here, but I believe this tense (which doesn't really exist in English) refers to things which are "repetitive, ongoing, incomplete." My wonderful Musicology prof at Indiana, Leslie Kearney, gave a riveting lecture in which she discussed the prevalence of this tense in the Russian language, its relation to Russian culture and history in general, and its applicability to Russian music. Just today, wandering around the city, I found Oblomov by Goncharov prominently displayed at the Three Lives Bookstore, which was one of my prof's pieces of cultural proof. An odd coincidence: Oblomov is the comic/tragic story of an inactive man, a metaphor for Russian apathy.

This theme I am thinking of, the one from the Brahms trio, is an odd bird. It begins with four singing notes, which could be the beginning of any melody at all. Stop. Then a second, more active, idea is tried; this idea is reworked. No overall arc is yet evident. Then just the beginning of this second idea is tried: stop. Again, the beginning of the second idea: stop. As if unable to continue. Finally, on the "third second thought," the theme finds an ending, sort of. (And begins again). It is full of unquiet rests, open-ended, frustrated phraselets. Each part of it, even the ending, seems like a new beginning, like a struggle to keep singing. And though the notes change, the theme seems to keep trying to say the same thing--not one long thing, but whatever is hinted at in each fragment as it ends.

It hangs in the brain heavily; I was singing it over and over to myself on the streets of New York, and though I was on solid Manhattan ground, I felt seasick from its fragmentary heaves. My brain was woozy; I bored myself singing it; and yet I kept on. Though it seems to get somewhere, and though it seems to have the phrase structure of a "normal theme," it is definitely not normal. It is repetitive (obviously), ongoing (it constantly wants to go on, to find the next phrase), and incomplete: though the melody has a cadence and a structure, it is hard to grasp it all in the hand or mind at once; it is made up of fragments, and these fragments "contaminate" the whole.

Brahms, perhaps, had a clear day like mine? This melody is "casting about," also; in its perpetual, searching motion it finds something reflection and stasis would not. I know my mental pacings will release themselves in some future directed energies, and this makes me want to (with your permission) add to the quasi-grammatical metaphor of imperfect subjunctive the quasi-scientific metaphor of potential energy. The Brahms theme is full of potential energy (try saying that in rehearsal at Marlboro, sometime), which becomes kinetic energy in the ensuing "gypsy" passages.

It would seem, with these kinetic energies of the virtuosic, sweeping coda, that the movement finally addresses and fulfills these lurking, dangerous potential energies of the second theme. I'm not so sure. Though the coda is full of valves to release tension, do any of them finally work? When performing it, at the moment when the audience begins applauding, I find myself looking back over the last line of music, searching for something. I skip back past the last two measure of A minor chords, and also past the two measures before that (the rather conventional cadence I-IV-V-I), in other words past the releases to what must be released: a held D minor chord in the piano. This chord for me quivers with energy, and encapsulates the horrible helplessness of the pianist; how I wish I could "do something" with that chord, rather than just play it and sit there! Once I have chosen how to play it, I must live with it; sit and wish and want is what I must do. I am powerless at this moment of great musical power. I realize as I look at it (and as they applaud, and as I get up to bow with my colleagues) that the F at the top of the chord is a dissonance against the E from the beginning of the melody--with two upward sixths, E-C, A-F, Brahms takes us up this dissonant ninth--and that temporally displaced contradiction is part of what I feel: the D minor chord, though uncontradicted in its moment of existence, though standing alone, defiant, for two and a half measures, is actually in the larger scheme irreconcilable, charged with unstable energies.

As to the final, resolving measures I often feel so what? This is how the great Brahms Clarinet Trio ends--after all its inexpressible longing--with a I-IV-V-I? I long again for the defiant, impossible D minor chord. And I wonder if that is how Brahms intended me to feel.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Regrets and Bumps

Every performance is a regret to be assuaged (and celebrated) at the next. This is not a pessimistic statement. Yesterday I was playing Beethoven's Op. 111 and had this familiar experience: just as I was playing, at that very moment, I began to realize what I really wanted to say...

What I noticed (and what it was therefore too late to express) was a specific quirk of the organization of the variations. I have often felt impatient, at chamber music coachings and lessons, when the coach insisted on dealing at length with the timing of the transitions between variations. (No, wait a little longer here. Try to end this variation "up in the air," but more finality after the next one, etc.) It always seemed to me a bit of musical "bean counting," where one focused too much on the bread and not enough on the meat of the sandwich, so to speak. But yesterday, the joints were "all up in my face." There are several very odd connections, in which Beethoven seems to deliberately introduce a disjunction at the transfer... (at the moment when you would think he would want to "smooth things over") ... just as it seems when I walk from one car to another of the Amtrak train I am in now, the connectors between cars are bumpier, wobblier, and I am more likely to spill my decaf coffee on the way back from the cafe car. Not a very transcendent metaphor.

Between the first half of the theme, for instance, and the second, there is this one barren note, E. It is the only unison (unharmonized) note.

Now, I don't find the theme "sad" as a whole--its overall emotional state is wonderfully abstract--but the A minor to which this unison note leads is to my mind quite desolate. I am always struck, whether practicing, performing, or listening, at this moment: how unusual (how powerfully still) the A minor sounds, how perfectly it represents its own harmonic identity. If I am performing it, I often feel a kind of inner deflation, a call towards listening and reflection rather than playing and communication. It is deeply opposed to the raging, searching C minor of the first movement, it is not at all the same kind of minor: this A minor seems a kind of negative, exhausted mirror image--a sadness now past. These few bars of A minor are absorbed within the theme, like a bubble of minor floating in the major; each subsequent variation perpetuates this (essentially emotional) architecture, revisits the minor only to "reconvert" it to major. So, too, the moment of despair in the larger scheme of the movement, the chromatic wandering moment, the slippage, is absorbed in a larger transcendence and affirmation. I shouldn't say "despair" as Beethoven so carefully rides the line; the sadnesses in this movement are so beautiful that you cannot really get depressed about them. (Not everyone who is lost is sad.)

To return to this one unison note, E: I love it. It has its own color: dark, unmoored. It does not belong. The framework, the certainty of the previous C major is removed, but not absolutely. It is simply a pivot, the very minimum possible of transition: any more harmonic "explanation" would ruin it, would make the transition too obvious; its enigma is its meaning. Also: its short duration. It is like a vacant moment in the narrative (hollow is the word I keep coming around to in my head), a hiccup during which something is perceived.

At other junctions Beethoven introduces different kinds of hiccups. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to "fit in" all the interesting voice-leading happening in the first two variations of this movement--particularly the voice-leading between halves. A lot happens. How can I give all this beautiful stuff its due, without slowing down, without losing proportion?

Let's take the first variation for an example. Things are going along fairly smoothly, according to a certain pattern of filling in the notes:

But towards the end of the first phrase the activity level jumps, the pattern is extrapolated, stretched: the chromaticism spikes. It is hard to put one's finger on it, but Beethoven introduces new, "unnecessary," complications at these cadences (A-flat, A-natural, B-flat, B-natural):

The music becomes thornier, harder to follow, a labyrinth of near-resolutions. It is as though something is building up, some excess of meaning, and Beethoven has to "cram it in" at the ends of the phrases, has to make things denser, more compressed, more fraught.

Interestingly, the transition to the A minor in the first variation is particularly fleshed out--"explained"--here a whole series of chords "stands in" for the one enigmatic E.

Precisely where the theme said the LEAST, this first variation says MOST. Beethoven is thinking end-heavy; the piece is tending towards profusion (not simplicity) in general, or at least towards an uneasy truce between profusion and simplicity, and these halves of the variations, in microcosm, tend to mirror this macrocosmic crescendo of activity.

Thomas Mann, in Doctor Faustus, has a wonderful passage about Beethoven Op. 111 and he focuses on something I had hardly noticed... he concentrates on a C C# D G at the end of the movement, and the emotional importance of the introduction of the C# passing tone: which, in music theory speak, might be referred to as ... the lingering on, and complication of, the cadence.

But when it does end, and in the very act of ending, there comes--after all this fury, tenacity, obsessiveness, and extravagance--something fully unexpected and touching in its very mildness and kindness. After all its ordeals, the motif, this D-G-G, undergoes a gentle transformation. As it takes its farewell and becomes in and of itself a farewell... it experiences a little melodic enhancement. After an initial C, it takes on a C-sharp before the D ... and this added C-sharp is the most touching, comforting, poignantly forgiving act in the world. It is like a painfully loving caress of the hair, the cheek--a silent, deep gaze in the eyes for one last time. It blesses its object ... with overwhelming humanization...

Mann's effusion gives me some comfort, some assurance that I am not the only one out there waxing perhaps over-poetical at times... But as the musical examples above show, this C-C#-D is not a new event at the end of the piece... these little, complicated, transitions at the end of the theme halves that I have been obsessing about, these disjunct moments of crammed meaning, are intended to introduce and develop that very motive, that "most poignantly forgiving act in the world." (Did Mann make a mistake? Not look hard enough? Or did he not care?)

The "reason" why Beethoven fills out that simple E (destroys its simplicity) is to readdress this melodic idea... essentially the creation of a new mini-theme, a new object of concern, a "theme of variation." Something that happens, interestingly, only at the ENDINGS. The theme is somehow "not enough," somehow does not stand on its own... unlike in Op. 109 where the theme, in all its simplicity, proves to be plenty, and is reiterated at the piece's conclusion. Op. 111 dissolves into profusion, fragments, second thoughts.

This commentary on the theme becomes like a cameo role that steals the show. As I was playing yesterday I began to feel this second entity, its eruption at the ends of the phrases, its emergence as a competing, asymmetrical force. And I wanted to feel it much, much, more. I wanted to rewrite the piece in my head, so to speak, giving this cameo its true, central role. It was too late of course for that particular concert, but how could I regret my illumination?

Another hiccup I found irresistible yesterday as I was playing the Sonata through was the little soft half-measure at the end of the second variation, before the forte explosion of the third ("jazzy") variation:

There it is: a tiny expression of the dominant between tonics. Beethoven insists on creating another registral space (bass-free, "inessential") for this essential chord; he makes the transition parenthetical, a non-event. (Just business.) Partly this allows the new variation to explode into being, rather than to simply occur... it complicates the transition quite a bit, like a musical "double-take," (it's loud, no it's soft, no it's loud again; it's tonic, it's dominant, no, it's tonic again!): a little flurry of activity, compressed switching of mood, register, etc... I felt yesterday as I played it that I had not yet found the right joy for that moment, the right twinkle in Beethoven's eye, and it is hard, because it goes by so quickly that, like a rural town, if you blink (or if someone in the audience coughs) you'll miss it, and yet I had the feeling as in the other transitions that it was essential, that a lot of meaning lay there in the elusive nanosecond. Many musical moments are more important than their duration would suggest.

The gradual emergence of wit from this transcendent movement is one of its most fascinating (bizarre, unexplainable) elements; yesterday as I played it, I began to feel the evil urge to let its silliness loose (sacrilege, the elephant in the china shop) but I think it lovely that Beethoven managed to sweep that aspect of the cosmos in too; the first movement has not a silly bone in its body, and the overall message of the second movement is not silly either, to say the least; but in decorating this theme, some element of the outrageous, the unassimilated, the ridiculous, creeps in and Beethoven did not, like some too-serious artists, want to let that part of existence go.

The bumps at the connections, the omission or cramming in of meaning at the ends of things; in his supreme control over materials, obviously a conscious desire not to be too smooth. "Slick" is the dangerous thing that smooth leads to; it lurks at the bottom of smooth's slippery slope. Not slick at all, this Arietta; my urge to be a "great interpreter" and sweep all the notes together in one vast arc is counteracted by Beethoven's interspersion of craggy details; and I have the feeling Beethoven wants me to continually cross-refer, from macro to micro, to constantly wonder why certain things happen, what principles they manifest, and to struggle to fit everything in, and to always feel, as I do when packing my suitcase or contemplating my schemes for life or trying to understand another person, that something, some stubborn strange something, has been left out.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Apparently I have underjudged the readability of my blog, as I think (though it is subject to doubt) the very person who I rather unpleasantly depicted in my last post seems to have written me a rather clever comment... and I suppose I should take into account that the target demographic of my blog would tend to include people who regularly go to Carnegie Hall (and ranges, perhaps, not far beyond). Though too little too late, I should stress the unfairness of depicting someone on the basis of a few words uttered in a concert hall (which he, if it is he, suggests to be misquoted), and my own painful eagerness to rant on occasion, and also (most importantly) the irony and hypocrisy of my ranting about disliking musicological discussions when my own doctoral document, shamefully, was entitled "Studies in Musical Continuity: Towards An Alternative View of Analysis and Form." Mea culpa. Let he who is without annoying concert-hall comments cast the first stone. Particularly I apologize for the snarky comment about "minutes immersed in music appreciation textbooks," which was a selfish, peevish gratification and little else.

However, there is a silver lining to my shame. He signed his comment "Structure Man," which gives me a whole new wonderful idea, sort of Musicology as a comic strip, with battling, macho superheroes: Structure Man vs. Moment Man!!!! How many delightful aspects of music could be covered in their battles!! More later, perhaps I will find a friend to illustrate a strip for me on Beethoven Op. 111...

My friend D. insists that I am an "unreliable narrator," (i.e. liar) in that really I'm a structure man--perhaps "wishing" I were a moment man? Perhaps I'm compensating? People often say to me after performances that my playing revealed the big structure, etc., was "all of a piece," or whatever, and I can't help wondering on these occasions if that's actually a good thing. Wait! Didn't you like the details? (Ah, the endless ingenuity of a performer's insecurities!) D. however does not dispute the likelihood of moldy dishes in my sink.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Happy birthday, Charles Ives! If I had a dollar for every sour look I have gotten when I have mentioned a work of Ives, or simply his name... Perhaps the Greatest Sour Look Award must go to pianist Andras Schiff, who pronounced the name with an unforgettable, Grinchian sneer which seemed to want to rob not just me, but every citizen of planet Earth, of any joys I or they might now or later find in his work. Luckily the looks always wear off. The scores themselves give much more powerful, long-lasting looks, and I look back at them, with amazement and love. And so just now, just playing the simple "Alcotts" in my living room--as a birthday tribute--I found myself touched again by something that is only a hair's-breadth away from hackneyed Americana... "common" beyond belief, deeply and embarrassingly sentimental; something that is not really at all of my experience, which dredges up an America utterly different the one I know; how can I associate with transcendentalism, hymn-tunes and marching bands, while watching Seinfeld and eating Baked Cheetos? (I don't know which is more cynical, the show or the snack.) It definitely drove home for me how much America has changed: culture's drifts and trends, our post-post-modern predicament...


The other night I was sitting with my friend in Carnegie Hall (that American cathedral of music), preparing to hear Richard Goode and Orpheus play a truly astonishing Beethoven C minor Concerto, when a man in the row behind me piped up. "The piece we're about to hear," he said, "is the fulfillment of the piece we heard on the first half." He was referring to Mozart's K. 271. He went on: "In the first three concertos, Beethoven stuck with the classical mold; in the last two, he broke the mold... this piece does not break the mold, it fulfills it." He was quite audible and so I was able to commence my listening experience with delicious thoughts of fulfilled mold. Need I say?--the comments were offered in a fairly tendentious tone, bespeaking minutes immersed in music appreciation textbooks. I wondered: did his companion find these comments helpful? Did she (or he, I couldn't see) listen to that menacing, dark opening tutti, attuned solely to how Beethoven conformed to the mold? Or did she/he just go with the flow, let the mood carry her? Or (option three): did she/he just sit there, unable to listen, stewing about how annoying her companion was for talking mold right before the piece was about to start?

Later that evening, at the Redeye Grill, over a Sierra Nevada, having managed to survive the whole backstage deal, I let my true feelings fly to my friend. He felt the arrogance of the tone of the speaker was the chief irritant, but I had other fish to fry. For example (Rant #1): so K. 271 needs to be fulfilled?!??!? Like that perfect, joyous masterpiece of Mozart was just sitting around, waiting for Beethoven to fulfill it, to make it bigger, badder, better? And Rant #2 had more to do with a general aversion to talk of structures, esp. "in the moment." Like whipping out an anatomy diagram before sex, for instance. Rant #3 was more sober, and analytical (ironically): I debated whether the 4th and 5th Concertos were actually less classical than #3... Though there are good arguments on either side, the Third has plenty of derring-do, plenty of foreshadowing, plenty of nineteenth-century passion; and the way Richard played the cadenza was totally electrifying, with harmonic outbursts, cries of the heart, staggering virtuosity, impetus--i.e., Romantics need look no further. The third has always been my sentimental favorite, and this performance fulfilled something in me that was not a mold at all, and my friend and I looked at each other after the first movement with wonderful smiles--elated, wowed smiles. I was breathless, and forgot I was a pianist in my pleasure. Which is hard to do. The Beethoven was so dark, angry, searching... and yet we found ourselves happy... there is always some mixture of elation in hearing a great performance, even of the saddest work.

I've been thinking about this lately, and as much as I love talk of molds and patterns and structures (and I gotta admit they matter), I'm really a moment man. That's what got me into this whole business, some beautiful short phrases, melodies, whatever, and I guess I would say that its the ability to fuse, weld, a whole bunch of amazing moments into a giant supersized moment... that is what keeps me coming back to the compositional buffet. And indeed the performance had that quality -- or, more accurately, I had that quality while the performance was ongoing -- of hanging in a moment, like in a drop of some fantastic fluid, and I was still hanging there at the Redeye, and only maybe later, after the cab dropped me off at 91st and Broadway, and after a quiet 10-second elevator ride, and some minutes staring out of my window and at the dishes in the sink (some of which were quite moldy), did the drop finally fall and splash.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


As an Oberlin grad, I was touched by this mention in Slate:

As Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald mulls possible charges in the Valerie Plame investigation, the gloating in liberal enclaves like Manhattan, Oberlin, and Arianna's dining room has swelled to a roar.

I went to Oberlin and live in Manhattan, but have never been to Arianna's dining room.

But seriously

What can you take seriously? This morning on Amsterdam Ave I saw a young man dressed like a catalog, in chic-prep regalia, being dragged back and forth on a leash by a small brown dog. The gravitas of his uniform was seriously undermined by this paradoxical power struggle, and other persons than me found it amusing, laughed as he passed; he was a spectacle. By his dress he seemed to take himself seriously, but life, at that moment, did not.

In assaying my various moods of the last seven days, chronicled in part on this site, my ability or desire to take things seriously has been a fascinating index. Staring out at the clouds of last week (which seem impossible on this sunny morning), I finally roused myself from the last cold dregs of a bowl of oatmeal and went to the piano, where my little spherical lamp shone especially weakly. It shone its yellowish light on the first page of Beethoven's Op. 27 #1 in E-flat major, and with no particular warm-up, after just a couple desultory arpeggiated chords, I breathed and set out through the opening bars:

Though I adore this piece, I never found its opening movement to be particularly "serious" or profound; I had viewed it, I think properly, through the lens of play. The dialogue between right and left hands seemed over-simple in the manner of a Dr. Seuss rhyme, and this simplistic quality seemed like a smile, a joke, a pleasure of Beethoven, something he wants you to share his amusement with... (grammatically dubious? I welcome suggestions from blog readers.) One might even consider the movement a bit "silly."

But in my cloudy mood, that morning, I found its silliness very serious: mirth with consequences. Perhaps I needed to take happiness more seriously? So while I had always enjoyed this music, this time it was more like a slaked thirst, as if E-flat major were a vitamin I were deficient in, and I had just swallowed a supplement. The very basic left hand scales seemed very expressive suddenly, invested with meaning as they criss-crossed from tonic to dominant, and now (you see) from this point onward this extra, more serious, meaning will be absorbed into my total concept of the piece, can never be erased or forgotten--even if I cannot ever totally recover it.

I just finished this last weekend playing the Franck Quintet for piano and strings, a piece which apparently many people have trouble taking seriously. Last season I played this work at the end of a tour in Sayville or Islip (I don't quite remember) and a man afterwards said some very unkind things about the piece, in a tone of voice I cannot forgive. This kind of dismissiveness I find very upsetting. Suddenly it seemed to me the five of us had driven out in the rain in a rental car, very tired, had nearly gotten lost in Long Island, and had worked hard in an unpleasant-sounding hall to bring the piece across, and some jerk had to mouth off... I worked myself into an inner rage about this, and came as close as I ever had to yelling at someone backstage. The Franck Quintet is, anyway, the Franck Quintet; either you "buy it" or you don't. And if you don't buy it, don't take it out on the musicians...

Perhaps I could have used the time playing the piece this weekend to indulge inner passions of my own, as indeed the Franck is awash in angst, but somehow connecting my inner moods to pieces I am playing seems to be a dangerous bet. I could take the Franck seriously, when I was practicing this weekend, as music, but when I tried to use it as therapy, I could only laugh. So: I would concentrate on simply the finger attacks, the relationships between the finger attacks, in the opening phrases; I would try to make the notes relate beautifully, and try to make the phrases not die but be longing fragments; I would think about the virtue of not doing too much ritard; I would try to get interesting, unearthly voicings in particular chords in the second movement... etc. And the deeper I delved away from "life," the closer and more seriously my attention was engaged. The piece seemed to be laughable, as reality.

Phrases ... sounds produced at the piano ... seem to be "facts," against which the contemplations of "real life" can seem like wishes or dreams. I can take a certain harmony seriously, while in life often it is hard to know what to take seriously. But then, if you don't take certain things in life seriously, can your music making really be good? I have often wondered.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

What else? Dualities

A six-hour flight from JFK to Oakland last night proved not nearly so tedious as expected, due to a confluence of media. I had brought Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, thinking myself sorely in need of hero-myth analysis, and meanwhile had forgotten about the saturation satellite television proffered by JetBlue.

It is hard to read one myth after another; the action goes by too quickly, is too vast and sweeping, filled with labyrinths of metaphor. And so, paragraphs of delight would be followed by long stretches where my eyes wandered over the words, searching forward, without comprehension or attachment, looking for some place to grab back on. Meaning overload.

Presently, the solution reared itself... a marathon of South Park episodes on the Comedy Channel.. and I settled into the strange routine of watching South Park and turning back to mythology only at the commercials (which I cannot abide). So there I would be, reading how

... the future Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand roars, so that the elephant of the Antagonist fell upon its knees in obeisance ... The army was immediately dispersed, and the gods of all the worlds scattered garlands.

... that was one good day! ... and then I would head happily back to the story of Cartman leading a band of drunken Civil War reenactors on "invasions" of Topeka and Fort Sumter. Cartman, assuming the guise of General Lee (a juxtaposition of genius, I have to admit), writes tender letters back from the "front," expressing condolences at the loss of Kenny (inevitably, mythically), but never failing to mention, no matter the letter's recipient, "very very much I hate you, Stan and Kyle." Oops, commercial. Back to the Buddha:

... the conqueror acquired in the first watch of the night knowledge of his previous existences, in the second watch the divine eye of omniscient vision, and in the last watch understanding of the chain of causation. He experienced perfect enlightenment at the break of day.

All in all, time well spent. Meanwhile, Kyle is dying of a severe infected hemorrhoid; he has lost his will to live, simply because Cartman has experienced undeserved good fortune. If Cartman is happy, how can there be a God? (Another mythical question). Oddly, coincidentally, serendipitously, the writers of South Park took this opportunity to deconstruct the story of Job; they summarized its amorality deftly, cruelly, brilliantly... I was helpless with laughter... I was caught unaware in mid-sip, as God rained down ever more ruin on poor, helpless Job, and I spit up ginger ale on my book, and my aislemate glared. The connection to my now damp book of myths was peculiar, and I was reminded also that I had been taking life altogether too seriously. Compressed in a metal tube 37,000 feet up, I felt liberated; their deliberately evil humor punctured some balloon of mood that had been inflating for some time, and let my gases free. I was free to laugh about anything...

The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Just cause

Last night I dreamed that I had the most wonderful idea for a blogpost, and this morning no amount of coffee can bring it back. Black, black coffee; grey clouds; the wind came along last night and blew my neatly piled mail into a total chaos, a tempest of notifications and receipts. Demons, tricksters, loosening my tenuous grip on organization. I blame the rain. How can one fight it? One dark, humid, drippy day after another.

I am posting this in revenge against the rain, partly suggested by darkness (the sunless week past), partly just because it's beautiful:

I experience alternately two nights, one good, the other bad. To express this, I borrow a mystical distinction: estar a oscuras (to be in the dark) can occur without there being any blame to attach, since I am deprived of the light of causes and effects; estar en tinieblas (to be in the shadows: tenebrae) happens to me when I am blinded by attachment to things and the disorder which emanates from that condition.

Most often I am in the very darkness of my desire; I know not what it wants, good itself is an evil to me, everything resounds, I live between blows, my head ringing: estoy en tinieblas. But sometimes, too, it is another Night: alone, in a posture of meditation, I think about the other, as the other is; I suspend any interpretation; I enter into the night of non-meaning; desire continues to vibrate, but there is nothing I want to grasp; this is the Night of non-profit, of subtle, invisible expenditure: estoy a oscuras: I am here, sitting simply and calmly in the dark interior of love.


X confides: "The first time; he lit a candle in a little Italian church. He was surprised by the flame's beauty, and the action seemed less absurd. Why henceforth deprive himself of the pleasure of creating a light? So he began again, attaching to this delicate gesture (tilting the new candle toward the one already lit, gently rubbing their wicks, taking pleausre when the fire 'took,' filling his eyes with that intimate yet brilliant light) ever vaguer vows which were to include--for fear of choosing--'everything which fails in the world.'"

--Roland Barthes

In an unrelated development, apparently we are now to seek tranquility in our dish soap:

I laughed in the aisle of the Duane Reade... The image of a tranquil dishwasher, therapized by Palmolive, smiling idiotically; smelling, scouring and scrubbing. Though the drugstore is supposedly a place one goes for health and personal care, why do I feel so often that everyone in there is up to no good? Other Manhattanites might understand my desire to re-write Dante's Purgatory, placing most of the action inside a Duane Reade; the new location on 94th Street is suggestively cavernous, looping, illogical; one has to penetrate beyond cellular service, into the bowels of the building, in order to get the simplest things (soap, paper towels); the staff seem surly guardians of a dubious salvation; I myself often feel an urge to call a friend (some temporary Virgil) to help me "get through" my visit, to explain my path back out...

You'll notice I'm in no mood to address the new Beethoven manuscript.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Puppy Love, Proven

What better morning than oatmeal, juice, coffee, whatever CDs strike my fancy, and a pile of books (Bellow, Baudelaire, Montaigne) on my bed, while the clouds gloom it up outside? And playing a phrase of Schubert over and over, for kicks, and running to the piano, trying to figure out the harmonies in Rufus Wainwright. I know these hours (the first, "most productive" hours of the day) are sinful idleness, an egghead's Eden, and only marginally my profession; I know that my own pleasure is unreasonable but it exists. Afterwards I do not feel a stomachache as I do after nachos, popcorn, etc. How can I harvest my own positive energy at these times for the world's greater good? I must be plugged in there somewhere.

I am very insecure about what I'm about to do: "prove" a puppy love. Today, and yesterday, and the day before, I am truly loving Memphis Skyline from Rufus Wainwright's album, Want Two. I am worried this blog contains nothing but love letters to pieces whose right to be loved is already beyond dispute (though these pieces are, therefore, loved less than they deserve--like old friends taken for granted). So, let me stick my neck out into dangerous territory of which I know little. Will this bring me any "street cred"?

I want to be specific (even rational) about this affection, not just gesture at it. It has to do with these lines:

So kiss me my darling
Stay with me till morning

Not noteworthy, maybe even banal? In fact, of all the interesting, playful, allusive lines in this song, the least so. Rufus sang them; I was reading on my bed; I stopped reading, and looked at the stereo as if to ask the appliance itself to explain the mystery. Lines that could be in any song, that would take no poet to write, but set and sung with tremendous, individual, poetic intensity. The lines do not speak for themselves; the music speaks for them. I did not know yet they were addressed to the dead.

The HOW and WHY of this passage became important to me. And so I tried to trace it back, its causes and effects; is it possible for Holmesian deduction to be applied to something so frankly, completely emotional?

The first idea of this song is (just) a spoken-sung phrase, which (always) begins on the tonic, and (always) ends on a half-cadence. The cadence is a pretty common thing:

A deliberate, unassuming cliché. Where does it come from ... ? Nowhere and everywhere. I wouldn't even think about it, wouldn't bother about it (in the same sense you wouldn't analyze a comma), except that it seems to be a subject of contemplation in the song: the song ITSELF submits this cadence to analysis. It does this by toying with cadential possibilities. The example above is the "basic" version--ending in a root position V chord (G)--but Rufus colors it most of the time with the third below, E:

And some of the time he goes further, adding a more disturbing, questioning, intruding note (B-flat):

The E (voiced carefully down) simply makes the cadence somewhat "multivalent," softens its too-classical tonality. But if this E is a "coloration" of the dominant, the B-flat feels more like a "contradiction." In music theory terms, the B-flat heads us in the other (the wrong?) direction, back towards the subdominant ...

So, Rufus is toying with options, with shadings of this cadence--and the music keeps coming back to this incomplete cadence, almost irritatingly. (No matter what). Again and again starting tonic, going to dominant; each phrase a question, never really answered. No corresponding, replying phrase: no "consequent."

It is in this consequent-free context that my magical moment appears. Towards the end of Memphis Skyline, the piano is ruminating (obsessively) over this same cadence. We hear it three times in a row! (The cadence is now isolated, seprated from the phrase, understood as "the point"). The first two times, the E is present, the B-flat is played; an impasse; an unanswerable contradiction; let's try again. But the third time, the piano plays a conventional V, a good old-fashioned V-7, actually... sounds almost hymnic, barbershop quartet? ... perhaps it will simply resolve, finally, this cadence, this obsession?

But Rufus, so close to the ground, seizes this opportunity to take off, to make a visit to an implication: the B-flat, that "contradiction."

So, when this B-flat is heard a third time, it is not an accident, not a "wrong note" (though it has posed as one). Rufus, inspired by it, enters a third above this B-flat ("So ... "), on a D; a high F tremolo is heard. Voila! A harmony: B-flat; D; F. Are we in "pure" B-flat major, is this what the B-flat has "meant" all this time?

Before answering that question, obliquely, another: If you were going to set those lines ("so kiss me my darling, stay with me till morning"), give them a melodic contour, would it be this?:

This is Rufus' setting. (I have flattened out the rhythmic relationships to make a point). It seems like the setting of an idiot, someone with only three notes on his electronic keyboard. These (E, D, C) are "cadential" melodic notes ... (Three Blind Mice, Lebewohl, Schenkerian 3-line) falling, relinquishing, and if only Rufus could settle on C, it could end, the tension could be resolved... but you can see that he keeps going over the three notes, reiterating the obvious. The texture explodes into shimmering, quiet, pulsing arpeggios. The whole purpose of this passage is to introduce a shifting cast of characters beneath these familiar notes (to think over the cadence!). Rufus visits upon these basic, relinquishing tones (E-D-C) a tremendous amount of expressive resistance. The melody's desire to resolve (leave, depart, be finished, pass away) vs. the harmony's desire to prolong? ("Stay with me till morning.") And so each go-around has a different harmonic connotation... first D-C ("kiss me"):

Then back through E-D-C with an especially long wait on the beautifully harmonized D:

Then my favorite! He takes another spin through the 3 notes, with a fantastically unexpected bassline. Rufus must love this one too because the bass slides down from A to D, calling attention to itself. I always feel a little desire to jump around, to make some frenetic movement at this moment, because there is this supercharged static electricity for me here, some sense of repressed force:

And one last, incomplete, version... E E D ... (where's my C?)...

Don't forget that that dominant cadence (from before we ever got into this beautiful mess) is still waiting to be resolved. Rufus has not forgotten. With that B-flat excursion, he merely wanted to make us forget; so we can be made to remember. He was written a purple patch. And on this last D ("-ning") he seems to notice at once that the dominant's time has come (though of course he has prepared it inexorably), and to want moreover to make the "simple dominant" as thrilling as all the rest has been. Wonderful, ranging scales in the bass, unexpected voicings, permutations of the dominant, the dominant is alive! And no simple ending either. At the moment of resolution, while the strings are still holding a suspension (C), a "wrong-note/right-note", a muted trumpet enters with B. B and C blur against each other: another contradicted cadence.

I was on the phone with a good friend who told me, if I "ever ran into Rufus," to tell him that the sucking, breathing sounds he makes between phrases in the live recordings are "very distracting." Hopefully I will "run into" Rufus someday, if only to tell him how much I have enjoyed even just thinking about this one passage, but I will not pass on my friend's advice. I sympathize with those sounds. If you have a simple melody note to sing, over complicated harmonies, there is a gap of meaning which you are dying to fill. I often take complicated breaths before simple notes at the piano, trying to put as much meaning into my little E or D or C as I can, as much as I feel is in there. It is never enough, and my moaning and gesturing and whatever body language I bring to the piano will never be enough either. But: the gap is thrilling. I am glad Rufus (someone out there!) is writing melody notes that have so much to yearn for, that are so incomplete. Listening to this acoustic desire, I wallow in my own desires and let them carry me to elation or melancholy, by turns. Isn't that puppy love? QED.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

See You Later

Unearthed in my desperate attack on the mail, a program from the Great Lakes Chamber Festival, with texts:

Non c'e un unico tempo: ci sono molti nastri
che parelleli slittano
spesso in senso contrario e raramente
s'interseccano. E quando si palesa
la sola verita che, disvelata,
vienne subito espunta da chi sorveglia
i congegni e gli scambi. E si repiomba
poi nell'unico tempo. Ma in quell'attimo
solo i pochi viventi si sono riconosciuti
per dirsi addio, non arrivederci.

[Montale speaks of time in terms of parallel paths "that rarely intersect." When these paths do cross, the observer experiences their intersection as a single moment, negating their multiplicity. Yet in that moment, the observer perceives that only addio (farewell) is possible, not arrivederci (see you again).]

The poem is by Eugenio Montale, the summary by Elliott Carter. Even this dispassionate, deliberately non-poetic summary (oddly, describing the poem from a place "once removed") managed to blow me away, the night of the concert. Two days ago, when I came across it in the pile, it seemed less earth-shaking, but then yesterday it hit me again, full force, with one of those lovely non-insights. (Poetry not as a collection of insights, aphorisms, truisms, but as the expression of lack-of-knowledge.) It came in and out of focus, like a lens. You know there is a truth there, something that speaks to your experience. But you hesitate to nail it down. Once you have nailed it, it will seem less beautiful. Anyway, it is sufficiently "nailed" by the poem, right? (But something tells you you still want to know/name more.) I will chance a metaphor from my own daily experience: a piece of silverware falls behind the refrigerator, but you know this only from the sound, from the clunk; you cannot tell which; a knife, fork, spoon, spatula?; is it one of the essential utensils, that you cannot go another day without?; or can you wait till the next spring cleaning?; is it worth leaning, reaching blindly in the near-dark brought on by the burnout of my halogen bulb?

Such hesitations do not trouble one of my dear friends, for which I tease her unfairly. In the midst of my gesticulating ecstasies on a passage of Roland Barthes, she will fix me with the gaze of a woman judging vegetables at the market, and ask "but what does it mean?" And I will stumble to explain. In the process I discover how little of its meaning I possess, perhaps even how little I want it to mean anything at all. Curse your pesky questions and meanings. I am often satisfied if it simply beautiful, well-phrased, intriguing, if it has the "appearance of meaning;" I am a dandy of ideas, like the man in the gold leather zip-up boots in the Barney's catalogue I also recently unearthed.

So, annoyed, I wait for my friend to leave and then I pursue her question in solitude. This is often productive, but of course I never admit to my friend that her skeptical question was helpful. (Except now). I played through a recital program for her once, which included Beethoven's last Sonata, Op. 111. And I came to the Arietta:

Well, it got better as it went along, but the opening theme really didn't "click." I was tentative, didn't have the sound I wanted, was playing on edge. This theme is so spare. If you don't "get" the essence of that basic motive (C G G), you're building a pretty massive structure on sand. Well, I finished, and my friend gave me one of those looks again, a look with a small portion of "so what?" I'm sure it was not intentional; it just seeped out of her. My (internal) reaction: don't you get it? This is a towering masterpiece of Beethoven? But how could she "get" what I didn't give to her? More relaxed, and by way of illustration, I replayed the opening theme for her. Ah, if only all recitals were the second time around! It was now solid, and she looked illuminated. The theme seemed beautiful to her, now; but they were the same notes as before.

So, perhaps, there IS a point to all this practicing and crap. (But what IS it? The illumination of meanings? Communication to others? Fidelity to a score? Preservation of cultural heritage? Exploration of the self? I don't want to nail it down.) But you never know when it will precisely pay off. The other day, spontaneously, my friend Eddie asked me on stage to play the final waltz of Davidsbündlertänze, to illustrate a point he was making in his lecture on Schumann. Well I hadn't really prepared it, but I think anyway it was one of the best times I had ever played it, and I felt I "got" it in a way that I had not before. It was a pleasure to play it and simultaneously listen to it (a rare performing pleasure), and simultaneously also--learn from it. Time sort of stopped; threads intersected; many past practicings came together, unexpectedly. And at that moment, I also knew something of this epiphany was irrecoverable... what I was feeling was definitely not a confident "see you later," such as you bid to a friend who you are soon to meet for coffee, lunch, whatever, but was much closer to "goodbye."

Friday, October 07, 2005


A top ten list of things prone to put me in a foul mood would certainly be headed by 1) my mail, paperwork, bills, matters of accounting; 2) daytime television after 10 AM (not coincidentally when Charmed ends). So: off goes the TV. But I have to confess it took some time and mental energy for me to choose some music to put on the stereo. I cannot deal with the mail in silence.

I reasoned thus: if I'm going to be grumpy, let's take it all the way! So on went some late Schubert: Schwanengesang. It was the perfect choice. Admittedly, long periods went by where no documents were fondled, where I lay on the floor, feet propped up on my bed, blood rushing to my head, eyes closed, and I pretended to myself I was productive in a worldly way, while letting the music wash over me. It was a nice relief from the effort of trying to produce the music myself. Nice that I was patient enough to truly listen, and admire. The bubble of my ego must have temporarily burst.

Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are both pretty familiar to me, but this last cycle (not really a cycle), even after many listenings, still feels wonderfully, powerfully alien. Not confined to a single plot, or dramatic arc, it ranges from subject to subject, from world to world: the familiar dialogue of lover with nature, with the brook; meditations on the unhappiness of Atlas; a man confronting his shadow; a barely-sketched-in scene of a tearful, fateful encounter on a beach (between lovers? friends? who knows?); the tender cliché of the letter, posted in longing and love. All these people, characters, populating Schubert's plane of existence; they would never meet in "real life." The music is often classical, no doubt; it calls on its own classicism, say, for comfort, and sometimes simply because there is nothing else; its simplicity is often heartbreaking; but between the classical lines (exploiting them) the austerity occasionally takes over and leads to bizarre, spare harmonic and melodic moments... the equivalent of musical empty space? I imagined a stretch of desert, in which ruins of Greek temples (disturbingly) rise from the ground intermittently instead of mountains, rocks, or mesas. Was the blood rushing too much to my head?

I don't think the desert that far-fetched. There is definitely a sense of being on a frontier: at the edge of truly desperate, extended emotional states, depressive places. The one-two-three punch of Die Stadt, Am Meer and Der Doppelgänger ... I mean, really... how are we supposed to survive these three songs in a row? Why don't I just stop listening and go shopping at the Gap? I feel like Mahler took the DNA of Am Meer off to his lab in the mountains, mad scientist that he was, and cloned it into his entire, angst-ridden oeuvre. If I were a more diligent blogger, I would find the passages in Mahler directly copied from this song and display them (trophy-bearing hunter of lineages) proudly on this page. It is an extraordinary song; it seems to distill some Viennese vein of thought, of musical pain; distilled it enough that Mahler could then dilute it without loss. I had listened to this song for years, not knowing the text (for shame), and therefore was surprised to see what was there:

... The tears poured from your loving eyes.

I saw them fall onto your hand, and fell on my knees,
and drank the tears from your white hand.

From that hour my body has wasted away,
and my spirit is dying of desire.
The wretched woman has poisoned me with her tears.

First reaction? THIS poem is the one Schubert devoted THAT music to? It did not seem to "deserve" it. The music seemed more metaphysical than that, not just a lover's farewell (?... which it could be, but may not). But the composer, in setting it to music, has reread the poem for you... has found preemptive meanings. I began to think more about "my spirit is dying of desire" ("die Seele stirbt von Sehnen"--what an unbelievably German line), the triumvirate of tears, poison and desire... Things became clearer; the barbed, enigmatic poem began to grow into the song.

And I ran across these lines from Montaigne:

Why does no one confess his vices? Because he is still in their grip now; it is only for a waking man to tell his dream. [Seneca].

The diseases of the body become clearer as they increase. We find that what we were calling a cold or a sprain is the gout. The diseases of the soul grow more obscure as they grow stronger; the sickest man is least sensible of them.

Diseases of the soul. The man who sees his terrifying double image; who is poisoned by his own desire; visited by apparitions of loss. I feel I can connect Schubert's spare austerities, these extenuated harmonies, those enharmonic slippages, to this sense of encroaching disease...classical harmonies and phrases visited by anomalies, by small and large symptoms. Another image (hallucination?) came to mind while my feet were propped: the music, or was it the way it was being performed... had the eerie quality of a child singing, but the anachronistic sentiments of a dying, hopeless old man. Does the child believe what he is singing? Is Schubert sensible of this disease (this disconnect, this rift), or is he too sick to tell us his dream?

You can see how low the mail can take me. Wow. You'll notice I blame the mail and not Schubert.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Shortest post ever

When I say American I mean uncorrected by the main history of human suffering.

--Saul Bellow

Such as myself, in this photo (yes that is the hat from Lubbock):

Baudelaire and Rufus

I have mixed up two poems in my head, poems about mixing it up. One is Harmonie du Soir:

Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Sounds and perfumes circle in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!

and the other, Correspondances:

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Like extended echoes which mingle far away
In a mysterious and profound unity,
Vast as the night and as light,
Perfumes, colors and sounds answer each other.

A recent leak in my bathroom ceiling has led to a new, mildewy scent in my apartment, and this morning I decided to begin again using my French coffee press. Stepping in my PJ's from bedroom to living room, I got the full, mixed-up effect ... the lovely smell of ground coffee, the heated-metal smell of the cheap stove in my apartment, the grassy mildew smell, and probably others too faint to mention. All of which was bound to conjure mornings in 1992, in my student slum house in Bloomington, at Hunter and Highland, permeated with moistures past and present, with baseboard heaters, sometimes with the smell of cut grass, and always full of coffee grounds and us three students jolting up. Memories particularly of "how I heard music then." Fascinating. The famous, heartbreaking quintet from Mozart's Idomeneo among these memories: music that seems otherwordly, aristocratic, supernatural. Heard in a hideous cinderblock library listening carrel, frantically preparing for a final exam (M 451, "Mozart Operas"), but wideeyed with wonder. How to connect from mold to Mozart?

Coffee in hand, I begged off my sunny, grassy, studential memories of Idomeneo and turned the stereo on--again--to the Rufus Wainwright disc my friend lent me yesterday. Like an archaeologist picking through ruins, I looked at what needed to be done in my apartment. Meanwhile, Rufus crooned:

I don't know what I'm doin
I don't know what I'm sayin
I don't know why I'm watchin
all these white people dancin

As if on cue (and this was the disturbing part, the part that made me feel some force out there had already contemplated my reaction, was toying with me), my alarm CD clock came on (must have forgotten to turn it off?), and good old white Ignaz Friedman starts waltzing away. ("Valse melancolique et languoureux vertige!") Battling sound systems! The combination of Rufus somewhat pretending to be a modern Schubert, and Friedman playing a souped-up suite of Schubert waltzes was unexpected and horrible. Rufus began to sing about "waltzin" around that time too. I put down my coffee. I was just contemplating a blog entry about the Schubertian harmonic twists in Rufus, and other classical quotes... also about the suspension of disbelief required to be touched by a song rhyming "cruisin" and "bruisin"... but the cacophony seemed to want to dissuade me from these easy amusements: it was a deep, ugly mass of conflicting sound. Like a nightmare, I wanted to interpret it.

I was being ambushed by unexpected combinations in my own house. The little universe I have set up here at 91st and Broadway, though mainly detritus, still has gravitational effects and mysterious laws. Smells, check. Sounds, check. Which senses, which correspondences, were left, and how would they be linked?

Baudelaire's combos are tremendous, unnerving, they never cease to send me:

L'innocent paradis, plein de plaisirs furtifs...
[That innocent paradise, full of furtive pleasures...]

Et le ciel regardait la carcasse superbe
Comme une fleur s'épanouir.
[And heaven watched the splendid carcass
unfolding like a flower.]

Et que de l'horizon embrassant tout le cercle
Il nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;
[and when filling the whole circle of the horizon,
the sky pours out upon us a black daylight more gloomy than nights]

Something about the Rufus CD--even before the intrusion--unsettled me, brought Baudelaire to mind. It is, on occasion, so close to so much classical music; he summons its ways too easily? too glibly? and passes by. This makes me queasy at times, and other times is simply silly, but other times truly haunts me, gets me in the deepest places. In the song I have mentioned, there is a beautiful deceptive cadence just at the moment in the text where the narrator reveals his "underside"... this makes me very happy ... someone out there also knows this stuff, thinks this element of text-setting is still important ... but there is something falsely quoted about it too, something misattributed. I can sense a modern person re-hearing, and placing in the past, the tropes I have tried to make present to myself (in a sense, my whole world). The lostness of my repertoire is made evident to me. Its usage is stylized, and I am forced to contemplate a cynical definition of style--arbitrary combinations, at arbitrary times. If you dig Schubert up like this, does he open "like a flower," or is this just a holographic image?

Monday, October 03, 2005


I'm in love. Can I just say that? I'm over the moon for Humboldt's Gift. Will it last? Only time can tell. I have a book on my shelf entitled "Can Love Last?" by a perceptive, dead psychoanalyst. I have read it several times, remembering nothing.

Actually the last five days, their heavy servings of airports, subways, and hotels, have made of me a hungry, swift reader, a promiscuous lover of books. Books feel like rapids: I jump in them and am dangerously off. In Cold Blood went down my mental gullet in two disturbing days, with flashes of joy when the style zoomed. And now the late Saul Bellow, with whom I had dinner twice (I knew nothing but a name then)...

Bless the subway. When you are on the subway to/from Brookyn--a journey of 45 minutes or more from my house--you really have no choice but to read; it is a protected, hurtling interval; you cannot practice, clean, blog, or call people back. You are relieved of your contractual obligations, freed by an enclosing car.

But now, today, I have constricting choices; I am at home; the pile of mail beckons. Projects, projects. My beloved friends are calling, worried, where am I?, am I OK?, and I am reading. (Recovering, perhaps.)

Is reading so irresponsible? Today I saw an intriguing book in the Juilliard bookstore: Joseph Polisi's The Artist as Citizen. It tugged at me; I grabbed it, felt its dimensions, then dropped it like a hot potato. I sensed and dreaded a whole new raft of obligations, a whole new role: how I could transform myself into an upstanding whatever. A pianist with a conscience. Now, The Citizen as Artist: THAT'S a book I want to read! Polisi's book would be responsible reading, for me; which is precisely why I don't want to read it.

My bibliophilia saved me--if nothing else--from television, in Louisville. I got no further than the introductory channel, the hotel's default media launching point... On this channel, a woman was selling Pay-Per-View movies. But she wasn't selling them in a sexy way; she was EXPLAINING them. What is worse than crap? The explanation of crap. Standing in a faux living room, she explained that "the makers of 'Batman Begins' were faced with a unique problem." Oh yes, what was that? How to spend their money? No, she went on: "How to bring freshness to a story that has seen so many incarnations." Such a unique problem indeed (almost every piece of literature ever written). Actually what she really said was much more inane than that, my brain simply won't recall it... "we explore the young Batman," who in turn "explores the boundaries of good and evil," "tries to understand himself as a superhero," and--of course--"comes of age."

One feels like an idiot pointing out its idiocies. I turned the TV off, for days, favoring unintroduced books. What bothered me most was her insistence on a tone, the way she tried in her earnest way to elevate her subject-matter, to take whatever piece of drivel and toss explanatory sauce on it and serve it up like a real meal. Today's Special. Just like TNT replays a movie, and calls it a "New Classic." Ah, oxymoron! No: you have to earn it, you can't market it into remembrance.

I have verged into rant, doubtless at the subconscious behest of my new love Bellow. As a classical musician surrounded by a non-classical world, I sometimes get touchy, even misanthropic. (Is there a word like "misanthropic," applicable to a prevailing cultural milieu?) I love my books; I want to murder my TV. Today, though in love, I am grumpy and recovering and staring at my pile of mail (ever more daunting) and having to deal with real life, and therefore retreating into safe, magical books (like musical scores without notes). The outside world--for instance, people with double-wide strollers in Starbucks--unpleasant intrusion. I think this passage from Humboldt's Gift is applicable, and incredible:

For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar sytem. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies." So this, I was meditating, is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult.

Wow, that's harsher than I remember from the first read-through. Especially, the end. Rest assured I am not feeling that harshly myself today... except towards my pile of mail. After all, I'm in love.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

... to the punch

For the first time, a reader has posted a comment, in essence "blogging" about something that happened to me--something I was planning to blog about--BEFORE I HAD A CHANCE to do so. I can't decide if I'm angry about this, touched, or simply amused:

There was a magical moment around the time of the "tripped out" Sarabande. In the silence right before you started playing the Sarabande, one could hear sirens from a distance. Then the dance began with a hauntingly blurred not-quite-arpeggiated chord. The sirens became a bit louder. The music proceeded into what could best be described as a delirium. Soon, the boat started rocking. I could not tell what was driving what - the music's intensity making the barge pull against its moorings; the waves on the East River driving the already fidgety Sarabande into flights of further frenzy; or merely a cosmic coincidence. In any case, I was breathless.

All this is true. And there is more. Last evening, on the Barge, I began the Sarabande of Bach's 6th Partita to the accompaniment of distant sirens, which persisted, increased ... And then the boat began to shake frighteningly, noisily, excessively, as I ranged towards the movement's more extenuated moments. It did feel like a strange coincidence, or a conspiracy. I couldn't see the cause of the shaking, or of the sirens; in fact, I saw nothing; I kept my eyes painfully, intently closed. It was a tour de force of distraction; all the forces of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the East River seemed arrayed between me and Bach, and I had to keep staring him (blindly) in the face, holding the thread taut.

You will not believe what I did: I began to think of whoever's tragedy motivated the sirens (what could it have been? some accident?) and tried to connect it to the heavy-hearted Sarabande. I couldn't; it was both too abstract and too maudlin. (Too selfish? Using anything for my performance.)

Then (it is a long movement) I began to think of the music as an antidote to the sirens... a small battle was drawn. I couldn't drown out the sirens (they were external to the sacred, floating performing space: renegades), but I could try to make my phrases more compelling, more meaningful. It is hard to battle against a sound that was designed to penetrate no matter what, a sound bred for irritation and attention: only possible by fighting on "your own terms." And it was interesting, because the distractions were so great as sometimes to feel like they literally "got between" me and the music, like a wall, or like static which overwhelms bits of a transmission. I would miss words, lose meanings. I had to climb over the wall repeatedly to get back into the music's syntax each time. So there were ephemeral gusts of mental effort, where I climbed back into relevance, tried to sum things up even more cogently than before... because I knew I only had "that moment."

So there you go, blog reader, now you know what I was thinking. I often get that question after the concert ("what are you thinking about?"), and often the answer is quite dull, technical, or too complex to be answered in words. How do you cultivate the mental process of performing (what to think about, what to concentrate on) over 30 years? How do you summarize this to someone in 15 seconds? Ah, yes. Nice impossible questions. But last night was an exception, and I'm happy to finally answer this question in a reasonable, non-paradoxical way.