Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thunder, and Practice?

Thunder rolls through Manhattan, rain spatters, and only Ignaz's waltzing, promptly at 9:30 AM, stood between me and sleeping until noon. Outside, the honkers honk, displeased I am sure by weather and traffic and having woken up early to deliver goods and services; a snarled mess of roughly parallel-facing cars sits at the east end of my little corner of 91st St., and from this human and vehicular knot a recurring musical sequence emerges: long honk, followed by a series of screams. A Morse code meaning frustration. I shut my window to this aggressive music; it makes my coffee taste funny.

On my piano, behind me, sit three volumes: one is Book I of the WTC, the other the complete Beethoven sonatas. In months coming (April, and February respectively) I have to do my duty to those volumes and admittedly I feel a heavier-than-usual responsibility towards them. And with thunder and rain making the joyful streets of Manhattan a battlefield of frowns, puddles, and umbrella domes, what better time than now, in my own dry apartment? Certainly this is not the time to prance through Soho streets, admiring the beautiful people in the Apple store, lusting after $175 sneakers in Camper; it is no time to lay on the lawn of the Park, except encased in plastic; enthusiasm seems lacking as I consult my inner self for museum attendance; it seems even inadvisable to walk one block to the grocery store--there are three corners at least between here and there and at each may lurk a grayish puddle of uncertain depth through which an angry taxi may crazily swerve, sending forth fountains of sooty spray. So it appears to me from the eighth floor: a dangerous world.

But I have to admit those Beethoven Sonatas seem a bit dangerous today too, with metaphysical puddles and soot which will have to be wandered through before any "happiness" can be attained. For sure, I will run through them the first time and they will sound really good to my new ear and then will begin that magnificent erosion of self-delusion where the true difficulties of playing the piece well (for me, now, at this moment--is there any other time?) will appear, icebergs in my ocean of practicing. This fear and anticipation of the larger, difficult process plays against the desires of the moment, the lamplit pleasures of a few chords in E-flat major in my apt with a cup of coffee on the shelf in its usual place, which admittedly seem like insane, effete, aesthete, capitalist-luxurious pleasures compared to the people below trying to drive their trucks full of fish, bagels, and pipes between double-parked cars. This is my work?

All of which boils down to the same childhood classic moment. Your mother from the next room: "Jeremy, time to practice!" (in various tones, from reasonable to shrill). Your response (always whiny, unjustly interrupted, a young man with things TO DO): "Aww, mom, just a little more TV?" With the years, I have fortunately cultivated an inner mother to remind me to practice, but perhaps I have also unfortunately cultivated an inner TV, or an inner child, or an inner whine: I cannot decide which.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I'm delighted to report not only did this blog appear in the Wall Street Journal, but has been selected at Top Ten Sources as one of top ten sources for classical music. Thanks to both. And while we're tooting our own horns (thereby causing horns of a different sort to sprout from the top of our heads), anyone in the New York area is cordially invited to Friday night's concert at Miller Theatre (Columbia campus), where I will be playing the Berg Chamber Concerto with the amazing Mark Steinberg and Reinbert deLeeuw is conducting a tremendous band of wind and brass players.

Enough of all that. Jeez.

Such is my influence in the classical music world, now: regular reader R J Keefe is apparently dreaming up pretentious things to say to his wife at the Dec. 3rd Carnegie concert, so that I can overhear them and write about them disparagingly! I advise all attenders to keep their ears perked, and not solely to the performance. An update: he was not the person I overheard, so I issued an unnecessary apology for offending someone else; but I stand by my weaselly retraction. So there.

The question remains: do I have something to say of substance in this post? Or am I just wasting pixels? Well, yesterday I came out of the gym at around 9 PM, having turned the Stairmaster up to an unprecedented level 12, and my brain was awash with nearly hallucinogenic inspirations. I had this vision of myself beginning Op. 111 Beethoven (the thousands? of times I have begun it), and all the different mental states and types of attention I have brought to it. It was an image hard to hold in the hand, with immense variety of scale: sometimes just a flea, trying to mentally get myself squeezed in the space between the fingertip and the key, trying to calibrate those micro-motions, and sometimes telescoping out, not just to the whole piece, not just all of Beethoven, but trying to take in all of Western music--since Op. 111 kind of stands out as a landmark in it somewhere, perhaps on the edge of a cliff.

As I was walking home I was thrilled by the idea of somehow capturing in writing, seizing with the pen, my sense, all at once, of this "total 111 experience." No, I don't think any one, even unbelievable, performance, can capture this total experience... an individual performance is not a sufficient place for all your past learnings to take shelter. Each performance is partial, part of a larger text, which you write within yourself, which you gradually compose. If only you could pour out that larger text onto an audience, how wowed they would be! But they are busy composing their own texts.

So this all-at-once vision is impossible. But when I reach into my brain to find it, this impossible entity, I come back with things. What I saw mainly when I was trying to find my total 111 was much closer to forgetting, closer to a series of false starts, than to any integral, faithful memory. The piece for me, more and more, is a million (now a million plus one) fragments, and each performance is like a desperate attempt to reassemble. I know too much; luckily the piece seems partly to be about knowing too much. (Beethoven has seen so many sonata-allegro movements, so why not dispense with some formalities? Condense matters? But perhaps we miss them?) When I reach in, I get a strong vision, for example, of practicing it in my friend Evelyne's living room in Bloomington, while she was working in the next room, and what I remember was enjoying the very grain of C major, how beautiful it was, in the live acoustic of that wood-filled room, and how I wanted to prolong and understand simply the consonances, the thirds and sixths, and partly to eliminate anything that intruded on the C major, on the sensual satisfaction of it. But the piece is full of things that must intrude on this sensual satisfaction... therefore my love for it at that moment was in part a reduction, a disservice. But Evelyne came in and we were talking about how beautiful it was, and it was a sincere moment of communication about music (reasonably rare) in which both of us seemed to understand the terms on which our tentative statements were based. And then there is the moment where I played it at a noontime concert in Spoleto, Italy, after a jetlagged night of absolutely no sleep, and all I remember is a really wild jazzy variation in the second movement, a sense of total technical command and lack of fear for that moment.

All day long we dredge into our brains to solve some impossible problem ... we ask it "What is my total experience of 111?" or "What do I want to do with my life?" etc. etc. and somehow the brain is not a computer that freezes up or crashes in the face of impossible demands but bravely offers SOMETHING, anything, temporarily even, to make its owner (?) happy. And I find it fascinating to see what my brain offers me about that piece right now: what comes up from the murk and says hello, why is it important to me, what do I take for granted and what is missing. This little collection of memories, fragments of intense moments I shared with the piece (including a night when I practiced the opening trill the "wrong way," a night when I was cramming the piece for a concert that was too soon, an exhausting evening in Bloomington after a long day playing it in Indiana Univ., etc.), these come up, and I extract from each some insight about the piece, something to add, something once ventured and never found again.

Not to belabor the point, but I feel like Beethoven's compositional life must have been, at some point, like that. Asking his own brain an impossible musical question. Reaching into the murk (the world of compositional possibility) for one thing, one idea, change, something your brain offers you to do different; then so many consequences following on these little revolutions. Which is partly why we think of the searching, heaven-storming Beethoven, the questioner; which is not just the questioner of musical "tradition," but the questioner of musical language, of expression itself, of how to attach ourselves onto some end of the impossible infinity of the questions we ask ourselves.

Monday, November 14, 2005


The Berg Chamber Concerto ends with four notes, F-G-A-B... I should say, it doesn't end with those notes, but with their reverberation: a fading memory of those notes, what they used to sound like. The final scattered, scattering, disintegrating events of this piece are in fact directed by the composer to be timed to the pace of that fade; they need to be attuned to that slow vanishing. A series of quick running gestures throw themselves away into that persisting chord; against the very, very slow process of the sounds diminishing in the piano, we hear these ephemeral, ever shorter, fragments; a weird, disturbing disjunction of quick and slow; the slow gesture is, as always, more "powerful;" and so the last fragment "conforms," does not fight the piano's stubborn but softening pitches; the violin simply plays the same F-G-A-B, quickly, which we then barely still hear, as if an echo or shadow, in the piano (are we sure we still hear it? do we imagine it?) ... an odd gesture, full of uncertainty of perception, for the final moments of a piece.

Those notes, as far as I can tell (and I do anticipate/dread corrective acidic commentary from theorists galore) first truly come to our attention at the beginning of the slow movement. Though I don't play the slow movement I look at it with longing. I have played through its opening bars hundreds of times just for the pleasure; a mixed, intense pleasure; suffice it to say I often feel the need for a cold shower or cigarette afterwards. It is that good. Yet again Berg proves that the moment when the pianist stops playing is the best. I do not relish being replaced by such beauty.

Again, back to those notes, in proper order G-F-A-B. They emerge, cleverly, as if having been played for some time, out of the chaotic, accelerating waltz of the end of the first movement. There can be "no solution" to the circling and re-circling wildness of the first movement, no solution in that direction anyway; only the violin, entering from a totally different direction, can answer it, can make any progress. The switch of instruments is a metaphor for a different world, a voice "from the wilderness."

To be technical (bear with me), the four notes the violin plays are separated by whole steps. Then it plays an ascending, sensual gesture of all the remaining eight pitches (only those damned 12 pitches in all of our Western music); a gesture which means anything which is NOT G-F-A-B; then it returns to the "motto" G-F-A-B. It keeps returning to these four, a broken record; this returning is its meaning; it is an answer, a refrain, a cipher. Its "whole-step-ness" (another made-up word which I stand by) is essential, and not just as a technical name, of course, but as a sign. Debussy is of course famous for tearing down the Western tonal structures of meaning with the simple whole-tone scale. Instead of directed dissonances and half-steps, instead of asymmetry and territory, there is the evenly spaced, "unbiased" world of notes all equidistant. It is as if he wanted to wipe the slate clean, to start fresh with sound. How else can you counteract the powerful German narratives, the tonal imperative? In this very German work of Berg, dissonances of course abound; it is a massive architecture of leaning and resolving half-steps; but these four notes G-F-A-B, without half-steps, represent therefore something separate, something uncontaminated by dissonance, resolution, direction. Which it is why it is so powerfully affecting that the violin keeps coming back to them, keeps seeking out the whole-steps, that "blank" sound. That is it for me, the sign: these notes, and I am influenced for sure in this by the fact of their being all "white keys" on the piano keyboard, are a blank, an absence. The piece keeps wanting to retreat, to come away from itself and its contrapuntal, functional madness, to find shelter in this nothing. And so, when you hear these same notes, persisting at the end, as a recurring answer to the little fragments, it is like an existential non-answer to all the piece's questions, all the more powerful for the fact that the pianist need not replay the notes but simply let them resound, with the pedal (the piano stands by its earlier statement, nothing, no matter what you have to say about it). I don't know whether to take comfort or not...

I'm reminded of these lines of Montale (trans. Jeremy Reed):

Then obliterate if you wish
the errors of a life,
as a sponge erases
the chalk marks on a blackboard.
I need to re-enter your circle,
find help in my fragmentation.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Mary Quite Contrary

I eased the seat back a few degrees, gazed fondly at the crumbs of my now-departed muffin, sipped at my piping coffee-of-the-day, and savored the accelerating embrace of the train as it sailed up the west side of Manhattan, up the Hudson. Soon I would be in Bard, fulfilling my duties to some aspiring pianists. Meanwhile, as in life: enjoy the ride. To that end, I picked up my book, which I had chosen in a time-honored manner, rooting around the crowded shelf while putting on socks, shoes, looking frantically around the apartment for keys, etc.: an impulse read. And in the book, a college president was lecturing a prospective faculty member:

... we don't punch a time-clock here, Miss Rejnuev, but we must ask you, in all conscience, not to emulate Bard and Sarah Lawrence and treat us as if you were a commuter...

I swear, I looked around the train guiltily. (Perhaps for some perching ghost of Mary McCarthy? for some accusatory fellow passenger?) I, commuter I, had been BUSTED by my own book. At least, I mused, some things never changed (the book written in 1951). How had it known, how had it schemed to be picked off the shelf?

But never mind, I managed to forget this eerie coincidence with the following hilarious passage about a French professor taking his students abroad:

As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Returning home, usually minus one student at the very least, he always deprecated what had happened, remarking that there had been "a little mix-up" or that the Metro was confusing to foreigners.

All of Mary's wry, caustic appraisal of academic politics, her magnum opus of the faculty meeting, her "Tenure Lost", did not however spoil for me the scene on arrival in Bard, which seemed a sincere, ideal "quiet Saturday." The students seemed quelled, pacified, content with their hangovers; I spied a girl in torn jeans on sunlit dorm steps with a notebook open, a pen, a serious grappling look on her face... ignoring the alluring sunny outspread November early afternoon ... I walked to the music building through breezes, empty campus roads, students scattered widely, dispersed, their voices from afar, laughing. I felt so jealous of the girl with her empty notebook, though I often stare at empty notebooks myself. I wondered what she would write.

On the train ride home I was forced to watch the sun of that afternoon set, to experience piece by piece, in dimming red-orange light, the close-parenthesis of the day. In the train you cannot evade the light and the ending of that day was sad; it had been so beautiful, so opportune.

In Berg's Chamber Concerto, towards the end of the final, very complicated movement, a rondo, Berg prunes away the complexity for a few clear glimpses of the preceding slow movement. It is a hackneyed maneuver--the "reminiscence"--and easily (in some works of Liszt, say) falls into bathos. Perhaps it is a question of how the reminiscence is approached, how it is "justified." In this case they are not surging re-arrivals but something like removals (like dimming light). Every time I hear these moments, or play over their chords at my beautifully rebuilt piano (which seems particularly to "take to" the harmonies of this sunset piece), I get a fresh ache. Did Berg mean for the rest of the movement to sound, at that moment, like insane modern chatter, like the "wrong answer"? (The piece refutes itself). I thought to myself, while hearing this moment on my stereo: yes, the modern world IS numbing. I had no idea how numbing, until now. Relief and overwhelming sadness simultaneously, a wonderfully Viennese, heartbreaking contradiction ... a piece definitely for the evening, not for perusal over a muffin in the morning, a piece for when you are slinking down the Hudson in the last reddish moments of a beautiful day and about to emerge into fluorescent light, into the crowded, anonymous no-man's-land of Penn Station. Forgive me my metaphors.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Berg Reception

I should probably create a whole separate blog to catalog reactions to my practicing of Berg's Chamber Concerto. The elderly lady living down the hall from me, though often friendly, merely scowls these days when we meet by the elevator; she sullenly awaits more euphonious days. I am offending her, personally. But another young fellow's mixed reaction was quite enjoyable. I closed and locked my door, and found him standing there, and he said "you're the guy playing the piano all the time right?"

There was no denying it. I was caught red-handed. Only seconds ago I was retrograde-inversioning away (quit your quibbling, it's close enough to a real word). I nodded.

It's funny how some people feel the need to reassure you, without knowing you, that you are actually capable at your craft. As a musician, I suppose, you are by definition "handicapped," provisional. He said, channeling Ward Cleaver, "You know it's pretty good. Good work." (Pregnant pause) "There's some pretty strange stuff you're playing though, pretty disjointed..."

I beamed at him. "Yes, isn't it wild?"

He slowly asked, "Ummm. What is it?"

My best, enthusiastic, used-car-salesman smile: "It's Alban Berg." (No recognition) "One of those German Expressionists." (Vague glimmer)

My enthusiasm caught him by surprise. He assumed (perhaps?) I was playing it out of obligation. My smile, the sense of delight in Berg I was trying to communicate to him, changed the expression on his face, from assurance to concern; he suddenly looked like the court psychiatrist in Law & Order assessing the competence of a mass murderer. Our downward elevator ride thus passed in uneasy silence, with several sidelong glances. To exacerbate the situation, I started humming one of the piece's many disturbed waltz-tunes (I find myself wondering: can other dances be doomed? Or only waltzes?). I smiled at him again, especially wide, as he exited the elevator and (is this my imagination?) ran for the exit: 91st Street, escape.

And today, in Logan, Utah, I was practicing wildly in a very nice member of the faculty's studio (and I had just finished proudly scrawling "Arnold Schoenberg" over a particular phrase); but his students were gathering outside for their impending studio class. At some point, they decided enough was enough, and a firm knock was heard. And in flounced perhaps seven girls, mostly blonde, smiling, and apologetic to interrupt me, but they had to have studio class. "It sounds good, though," one said, as if I might think they were giving me the hook. They looked at me sympathetically. I smiled again, a complicated smile this time, and packed my things. The same one piped up, "that thing you were practicing, that's really ... interesting." The others nodded, oddly. "What is it?" I rattled it off, "The Berg Chamber Concerto, for Piano Violin and Winds." As so often happens, they were bored with the answer, perhaps a bit annoyed by its exactitude. I'm not sure what I should have said instead, how I should have played it. As it was, they looked confused, their eyes variously averted around the small studio, and I made my exit... No no I wanted to tell them, this is one amazing piece. But the door shut behind me and I had to walk back in the Utah sunshine singing doomed dances to myself.

Monday, November 07, 2005


With two glasses of Chardonnay and an unknown but considerable quantity of Rigatoni Bolognese under my belt, I made the lazy choice and allowed a cab to carry me home. In a novel, perhaps, this scene would be omitted: "I grabbed a cab home, and it was only when I opened the door to my apartment that I realized ... " (whatever). But in my life, at once more real and surreal than any novel, this scene was the most vivid of the day. I realized it was part of a trend: the northward trips up 10th Ave. (subsequently Amsterdam) have been getting more charged over the years I have been living in this apartment; they are not habitual commutes; they are not worn with time; they are getting newer with age. These moments--when I am meditating on whoever I just met for a dinner, drink, concert, or movie, on the events of the day--well let me say my meditations are not local, but express... they range particularly wildly as we (me and the cabbie) hurtle uptown.

It is always the same street, the same stores. A city built in an impersonal grid, a series of numbers, with retail locations that shift and vanish, would seem to perversely discourage affection and attachment. But there is just enough persistence. For example: one night five or six years ago, I learned that my wonderful teacher Gyorgy Sebok had died, after a sudden illness. I was (obviously) very upset, and I sat in this very apartment playing some of his old recordings; my then-significant-other came by, and I was telling her what had happened, when the music came to the second theme of the A Major Brahms Violin Sonata (with Grumiaux):

I shudder at the prospect of "characterizing" his playing, which was always semi-miraculous to me, impossible, superhuman; he also cultivated this otherness, a kind of mystical distance. Of course this comes to you through the lens of a student's awe (still a student when I think of him). But many other, even skeptical, students also felt this same awe, for example, when he played the opening chords of the Franck Sonata; he could draw on irreproducible colors; make even this (!) common piece sound like a spiritual quest. But against this otherness, and against his search for beauties in the simplest melodies, his playing posed a tremendous restraint; he was always careful not to do "too much," according to stylistic antennae he kept well-honed; I don't want to say "classical" and yet a certain proportion was always important to him; he had an allergy to excess.

And so this theme of Brahms sprang upon me like a trap. It is the place in the rather traditional, classical movement... coming after some rather "stodgy" (forgive me, Johannes) transitional material, where Brahms chooses to soar, or release; the theme sits at the edge of sentimentality; it is just Romantic enough. It is so beautiful, but, because Brahms must, he preserves almost against its beauty some compositional craft: the hemiola of the melody against the prevailing 3/4; the dialogue with the little countermotive; the carefully plotted bassline; the rests in the left hand in each measure, preventing the triplets from total motion, keeping the melody to some extent in fragments: not utterly letting go. It seemed, in a way, as must be clear, almost a musical portrait of Mr. Sebok, and the way he was playing it, to my bereaved ear, was like a man looking in a musical mirror. It was pure, you heard all the intervals, all the bass notes, precise but tender; and I saw him again in his little studio, with portraits of Bartok and Liszt, looking at me with disappointment, lifting my left arm to find its independence, trying to pry my single-track student's ear open.

Brahms lets go, this time he lets the triplets continue, and the tender phrase surge:

The recording continued: my teacher didn't hold back, he surged as Brahms did, not superhuman at all but now really really human, and (wonderfully) rushed, and with his tremendous control, with a left hand of granite, played a shattering climactic note. And that was it for me, exactly, precisely that note (possibly the saddest note in this joyful piece); I broke down just then, mid-explanation, and the CD player was turned off and my T-S-O sat with me for a long time, until I was relatively quiet, and eventually she wanted me to eat something, and we agreed to go to Popover's Cafe, several blocks down from me on Amsterdam. And for a couple of hours I ate a steak and stared across the table at her and talked slowly. And I have not been back to Popover's since.

But, every time I come up Amsterdam in a taxi, it is there, on the home stretch to home. Sometimes it is late enough; the place is dark. But sometimes of course it is still open, well-lit, and I can see some other couple sitting at that table talking about whatever.

This is just the most intense of my Amsterdam landmarks. There are so many more, places where I forgot, met, said goodbye to... reminders, warnings, any number of verbs and moments; there is the restaurant owned by the weird guy's mother; the bar where I read Proust; the place you met the person you never see anymore; etc. etc. and the tornado set up by these associations is getting stronger by the year, so that I spend the entire bumpy ride in an emotional state, buffeted, overwrought. Also, my building is going condo. Perhaps the confluence of these two signs: time to move? I could cab back home down unfamiliar streets; I could impose my memories on other, unsuspecting, restaurants.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Friend and faithful reader D. suggests I make my blog more controversial, more "opinionated." But friend and faithful reader T. praises its persistent "positive attitude." Between these two devils, perched on opposite shoulders, I often know not what to choose. My blog head goes agog.

Yesterday, I followed Alex Ross' link to Greg Sandow's book-in-progress. I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise, as I poured boiling water over coarsely ground Arabian Mocha Sanani. It is (sigh, another) book on "what ails classical music," and I admit it, I can't help being defensive when the diseases of my career are enumerated. I am the patient on the table; I am not totally anaesthetized; but the doctors are speaking as if I can't hear anything. Don't disturb the pianist; he's practicing. But what is he practicing for? The market vanishes; the audience declines; I am a delusional psychotic, living in a make-believe world.

I wrote down some very argumentative comments but I slept on them and they don't seem valid in today's foggier light. Yesterday my demons were active (my inner D.) and I said enormously rude things to people in rehearsal, so I knew well enough not to blog. (Instead I practiced Berg's Chamber Concerto and watched South Park, both excellent outlets for rudeness). For example, I second all complaints about the lack of rhythmic freedom in modern classical performance... Greg Sandow and I agree about this, and how important it is to restore it... and yet somehow I wanted to find a dispute?

I would like to address one important point, however, at the intersection of language and substance. Mr. Sandow expresses a desire to write about the culture "outside" of classical music (already, you see? the power of language? we are "insiders," a clique, an elite), and so he contemplates the Cuban singer Beny Moré. According to Mr. Sandow, Beny Moré "[paces] the song any way he wants to, [takes] us with him, no questions asked, anywhere he goes." He "grabs the music."

Moré is a rhetorical device here, a foil: what classical music is NOT. Let us admittedly go further than Mr. Sandow would, and pursue the connotations of these seemingly innocent, descriptive sentences. Classical music is not grabbed, or grabbing; its performance is passive, not active (simply reproductive). Classical music is not about "want;" it is foreordained, fated, not-free; it is not "any way" but obsessed with correctness, legality. There are things classical music "can't do," Mr. Sandow points out, omitting the things that Moré's singing cannot do (suggesting nothing is beyond his freedoms); the can't is subtly but completely appropriated to classical music's side (how we "wish" classical music could be more like X, over there in the greener grass).

The narrative these connotations create is familiar. These statements seem so obvious, so engrained, so common-sense, so unarguably true, that their essential emptiness can be forgotten. This sounds harsh; I apologize. But how do I mean emptiness? These are clichés that promise more than anyone can deliver. Beny Moré does not "pace the song any way he wants to," he paces in very specific rubato-laden ways: he chooses, like the rest of us. (The question is does he choose beautifully or not? Do we wish to emulate his choices?) According to Sandow, we listeners will follow him "anywhere he goes;" he calls up metaphors of unlimited freedom; but there is no such thing; his freedoms are specific (or else they are nothing), like ours; he must make choices which omit other possibilities. Every performance is a set of choices, and therefore also a set of omissions. (There is no "absolute freedom" in performance). Mr. Sandow's use of language posits Mr. Moré, in a sense, Romantically, before choice, before the notes are placed on the page, before the tape is rolled, before a note is struck... in the hush before the concert, in this charmed preliminary state. It's not a fair fight; it is semiologically rigged.

I detect similar dangers in this ensuing passage:

For classical musicians, to sing or play like this would be illegal. You have to learn the proper style for everything you play—Bach goes like this, Mozart goes like that. And then you work within that style. But for Beny Moré (or for any pop or jazz musician, especially the great ones), style is anything he wants to do. He makes his own style.

Again, a metaphor substituting in for Moré's style, an alluring mirage: "anything he wants to do." Bach and Mozart function in this paragraph not as homo sapiens but as brand names, like Xerox or Kleenex; I am not suggesting remotely that Mr. Sandow wants it to be that way, simply that certain kinds of sentences have that power. The idea that they created their own styles (no, really, they lived and breathed and chose!) is missing, because it would blur the prevailing dichotomy. Again, following connotations but going further than Mr. Sandow's intent: Bach and Mozart are pools from which we draw rules, prisons in which we classical musicians lock ourselves, icons of obligation. Ahh, the damning words "proper style"! We are stuck with prefabricated styles while those great pop and jazz musicians can make their own. As if there weren't an infinite number of styles of playing Bach or Mozart... as if jazz musicians are not in some ways burdened by choice. (Here the patient miraculously gets up off the table and starts arguing with the doctors.)

I would also like to quibble with one statement:
From descriptions of long-ago performances, we can learn that classical pianists used to let the melodies they played with their right hands float apart from the accompanying rhythms that their left hands shaped.

I invite Mr. Sandow to my apt. any morning at roughly 8 AM when my CD alarm clock goes off, and Ignaz Friedman's left and right hands happily and messily diverge. We do not need "descriptions;" numerous recorded examples of an older rubato tradition exist, and are ignored, why? An interesting cultural question, of evolving or devolving classical music taste, perhaps one in which reviewers are not entirely blameless? No, no, I didn't say that. That was the Jeremy of yesterday.

The Jeremy of yesterday, a devil yearning for sainthood, found an antidote to several hours of Berg in a 30-minute battle with the Stairmaster and some truly evil animation. The orgy of abuse to which the South Park folks subject poor Sally Struthers is appalling. Two men have a stilted conversation in front of a door, complaining about "rude shows which make fun of people for being fat," how "cruel and unfair" that is, which all makes it very clear that the cruellest, most unfair, wrongest mockery yet is lying on the other side of that door: and indeed, jackpot! we behold Sally Struthers now transformed... into Jabba the Hut, speaking in tongues, with subtitles (hilarious subtitles!), crumbs falling out of her twisted monstrous mouth. It was wicked; I laughed incredibly hard while my good side looked on despairingly; I turned off the TV and fell instantly into a long, peaceful sleep (the sleep of the damned), only to be awakened by rubato, by a pianist doing "anything he wanted to do."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Reading Updates

Recall my earlier paean to Bellow? Well I must admit to a personal failure: I lost steam three quarters of the way through Humboldt's Gift, and it is lying neglected on my dresser. So, too, Stephen Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare (someday?): adrift and crinkled in the bathroom. However, I raced right through Cesare Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfires (which now bakes on my radiator) perhaps because it is just short enough to be consumed in a couple train rides... I picked it up partly on the advice of the late Susan Sontag, who called him "essential," and--may I address her across the great divide?--thanks but no thanks Susan, he's not so essential for me. Summarizing:

In Italy, in the old days, we had the seasons, and everyone was poor and miserable. This, however, was all good, and I was happy. And since then things are even worse. In America, where I made my miserable money, there are no seasons, or roles, or festivals, nothing nifty. So I'm back home in Italy, where there are seasons. Many people have killed each other, and life is a horrible cycle of decay and death but I like it that way. See: death. Also: unhappiness, insanity, poverty, desperation. Did I mention about the seasons?

I feel sure irate Pavese fans will now be writing me in droves. Susan Sontag will rain destruction from above (or below). Surely they cannot dispute my essential point: the novel's a downer; the introduction by Mark Rudman concedes that in this novel, "the only absolute is sadness." Forgive me my impatience. If you, dear reader, are a consumer of the glum, then step right up; you may buy it here in bulk; it is a virtual Sam's Club of depression. Personally, I prefer my glumness mitigated.

For example, a very sad story: a painter who has a car crash and loses his ability to see colors. Oliver Sacks manages to concentrate the desperation of this loss in just a couple devastating sentences:

He would glare at an orange in a state of rage, trying to force it to resume its true color. He would sit for hours before his dark grey lawn, trying to see it, to remember it, as green.

Well done, Oliver: I get it. But as was the case in Awakenings, Sacks transforms the loss; he does not obsessively paint on added colors of misery, but finds a release in the patient's release, in the creation of alternative perceptions and frames of understanding:

At once forgetting and turning away from color ... Mr. I, in the second year after his injury, found that he saw best in subdued light or twilight, and not in the full glare of day... He started becoming a "night person," in his own words, and took to exploring other cities, other places, but only at night. He would drive, at random, to Boston or Baltimore, or to small towns and villages, arriving at dusk, and then wandering about the streets for half the night, occasionally talking to a fellow walker, occasionally going into little diners: "Everything in diners is different at night, at least if it has windows. The darkness comes into the place, and no amount of light can change it."

Yes, it is still quite sad; but I find myself shivering each time I read it, a shiver which includes pleasure. Am I, exploiter I, taking pleasure in Mr. I's tragedy? As I read it, though, it is a mixed bag: he is not passively shutting himself in, but heading out on his own terms to reencounter the world, to redefine it for himself, in his rare sad condition. He is not the barefoot-in-snow sufferer of the end of Winterreise; no nihilist. I adore this image of him wandering off to explore at night (when everyone "normal" is in bed, shut in), a tourist of shadows, exploring paradoxically when there is "nothing to see," and then randomly striking up conversations... looking for contact, finding comfort in diners, which I ordinarily think of as being lit with a horrible fluorescent glow--but no, he's right, the darkness of night is part of the lighting of a diner, is part of its wan appeal: to feel the surrounding darkness as the comfort of a lit room.

To discover your own places, the methods and moments for your own perceptions and pleasures, is so much better than to stare at an orange in a rage, wishing it were orange. Take that, Cesare Pavese.