Sunday, December 25, 2005

According to the Text

Like millions of other Americans, I find myself celebrating Christmas morning by immersing myself in the form and analysis musings of students at DePauw University. Only an insane man with a Venti drip in his hand (please, people: not "VENTAY," "VENTEE"!) could possibly survive these multiple, deeply redundant analyses: except that the students seem to try to put a little bit of themselves in there, to be Cheeky with their Theory. I suppose there is no other defense.

To be fair, I don't think this blog was meant to be read "for pleasure."

For you non-music types: Form & Analysis is a REQUIRED COURSE for all "serious" music students at the Conservatory, something like Anatomy for medical students, except for the fact that the skeletons of music theory have almost no basis in any kind of observable reality. (I said "almost"! But I "almost" deleted it.) So while it may be useful for a doctor, say, to know the heart has a certain number of ventricles, musicians find themselves wondering why they need to know whether a section of a particular Chopin Mazurka is "terminative" or "developmental." I am sounding terribly cynical on this Christmas morning; it is hard, I admit, to think of the baby Jesus as a music theorist, promising perfect authentic cadences in exchange for our sins (although in a way that is exactly what happens). And as you know I am actually a HUGE FAN of musical analysis, and I wouldn't have brought up this mean-spirited topic at all except for one student's little acts of revolution, which made me smile so very, very much.

Self-named "Snoop," presumably one of the students, analyzes the Chopin Mazurka in e minor, Op. 17 #2. He begins in the traditional manner, carving up the pie heartlessly into pieces:

The piece is ternary - mm. 1-24 are the first A section, mm. 25-52 are the B section and the second A section is mm. 53 to the end.

Yawn. I was at the point of scrolling to the next analysis (why, oh why, on Christmas morning was I reading these at all?) But the beginning of the next paragraph arrested my scroll:

The first section is expository, like the beginning of most pieces.

I love these moments, when students bump themselves against the fairly obvious idiocies of music theoretical jargon; they bang their heads and wonder "is that all there is to say, other than putting it in fancier words?" Perhaps they don't realize that at that very moment of pain and frustration they should scratch their bruised heads and look around; they are lost in the vicinity of truth. What tickles me about this little sentence is that I can't quite tell whether the student is being sarcastic or not. I like to assume he/she is. You see, a great object of Form and Analysis is the reduction of vocabulary. Instead of whatever words the student comes up with, the textbook comes up with a limited set of words, which can be used "objectively," so that the wishy-washy notions of the student can be measured. A great premium seems to be placed on making these words as heartless and scientific-sounding as possible, so that the student can experience the maximum disillusionment and pain in reducing his/her musical experience into them. Section B: is it "expository" or "developmental"? It's gotta be one or the other. Choose, now!!! I can see this battle at work in the following passage from Snoop's analysis:

In that sense, the B section could be considered to have developmental function - it starts off with previous motivic material, or at least a melody that is very similar. However, the second part of the B section (mm. 39-52) seems more like a transitional section, in that there's a lot of agitation and harmonic activity. Basically, it's a stretched-out, undulating passage that goes through lots of chords and eventually ends on the dominant, which leads into the return of the A section.

Snoop is trying to choose between "developmental" and "transitional" to describe this B section, both of which terms presumably are elucidated in the text. But between these generic terms, poor Snoop can't help using more evocative ones: "agitation," "stretched-out," "undulating." Danger, danger! Luckily, he is able to bring this veering ship to shore, with words like "dominant" and "A section." A term like "harmonic activity" straddles this divide interestingly: it suggests something intriguing, some kind of unusual event; and yet it describes it in the most nonspecific possible manner ...

Finally, Snoop delivers the coup-de-grâce:

The second A section has a terminative function - the extension to the final cadence reinforces the tonal center, which is the primary attribute of terminative sections, according to the text.

"According to the text"!!!!!! Fantastic, Snoop. Now that's good stuff. What is this mysterious "text" to which the student refers? Presumably a book wherein "terminative sections" are defined. I'm sure all you readers, even the ones who are bored stiff by this whole post, can see how asinine it is to use a term like "terminative." (Not just to use it, but to force it as a generic term for every analysis.) The connotations and associations are horrendous (termination, terminator, California, death, term papers, term limits, bringing to term, terminology, oy); and like expository it could be seen as just a fancier, uglier, meaner way of saying "ending." And how tersely Snoop draws our attention to the reductive nature of this unspecified text! Reinforcing the tonal center is the "primary attribute" of terminative sections? Oh, REALLY? Magnificent, transcendent codas pile themselves into my mind one after the other; the endings of Beethoven Sonatas, the "Waldstein" Sonata, Op. 110, the final passage of the first movement of the Schumann Fantasy... and on and on. Life-changing conclusions which, while ending in the same old home key, leave everything else (connotation, meaning, affect) completely altered. But wait! this is not Music Theory.

"According to the text." But not, perhaps, according to Snoop. Snoop delivers his skepticism in a little verbal pill, at once deferential and destructive, a bomb cleverly written in the very language of conformity ("According to Hoyle," the gospel according to X, etc.) As I write this, I begin to wonder if Snoop intended this double meaning at all, whether I might be over-reaching. Haha. The muffled, affirmative snickers of blogreaders reach me even here. I have even gone so far as to muse on Snoop's signature, "word out": is it really a commentary on the nature of words, as applied to music? Really: kidding.

This post would seem to be an attack on Music Theory, but it most definitely isn't. When I posted, a little bit ago, about the condescending tone of a particular concert review, I haplessly tapped into some deep-seated anti-critic sentiment, which I perused in the Comments section. Wow! Let me be clear: I disassociate myself from those comments (critics as frustrated performers, etc.) I feel sure that there will be some anti-theory people out there too, who may jump on my bitter bandwagon. But I want to preach a more positive Yuletide gospel. I do not feel that "talking about music is like dancing about architecture;" actually, I have always detested that quote, which I consider to be patently untrue. Moreover, I think dancing about architecture would be a very interesting thing to do. Let's imagine the baby Jesus, analyzing the song of the Magi. I think he would love and tolerate talk of cadences, even Schenkerian diagrams. Why do I imagine him treating theorists as he did Mary Magdelene? This suggests a conception of theory as a particularly unsexy form of prostitution. No, wait, I can do better: the expectancy of the Christmas ritual, the presents wrapped under the tree, the smell of the tree, the candles, the late night, the early morning awakening, stumbling out to the family room in your pajamas, getting ready to convert the whole beautiful waiting thing into a storm of crumpled paper. Sometimes it seems Theory wants you to unwrap the gift, but not to see what's inside. It is cold-hearted: it wants you to "understand" expectancy. But I assure you, Theory for all its jargon wants you to receive music's gift too; to receive with gratitude the ingenuity of the composer, the generosity of invention, to appreciate the process of composition, a kind of wrapping and unwrapping of the human spirit. That is why, finally, we suffer through Form and Analysis. Mr. Spiegelberg's students seem to be in good humor about the whole thing, interjecting irony, sarcasm, etc., which is a victory for both student and teacher.

I myself have caught the Christmas spirit lately too. I released something and allowed in myself the (imagined) possibility of light-heartedness (which I didn't know I had forbidden), and somehow then the external world complied and "real" light-hearted things came into it, flooding my weird days. Yesterday (I am not kidding) I was thinking through the form of Op. 110 with a joyous spring to my step. Perhaps the danger is the conflation of Music Theory's terms with the real. And is the music itself any more "real" than the Theory it has created, like a monster? Let's toss reality and truth aside, and Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Care of Maud Newton:

It is my heart-warmed and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.
- Mark Twain's Christmas greetings, 1890

Friday, December 23, 2005

Holiday Cheer

As I walked past the Dive Bar on 96th and Amsterdam last night, a woman and her friend stumbled out those saloon-style doors, clinging to each other for balance. "Good night," she said, "I'm headed to the liquor store." He did not dissuade her. We won't let these little sordid city moments, or a subway strike, cloud our Christmas cheer. Admittedly, the city in its profusion gives mixed holiday signals, and in this spirit I would like to do a little blog experiment, a first for Think Denk: a holiday reading list. ACTUALLY two lists: one for the optimist who wants his or her heart warmed ("Just what I need," said Woody Allen, "hot cockles") and another for the black-hearted Scrooge who wants to wallow in holiday depression. Choose your poison.

Anti-Holiday Reading List

1. Dostoevsky: The Idiot. I think Crime and Punishment is probably too heartwarming.

2. Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps the most nihilistic Shakespeare play? Certainly a contender. For instance: "... thou great-sized coward,/ No space of earth shall sunder our two hates./I'll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still,/That moldeth goblins swift as frenzy's thoughts." Or how about: "O false Cressid! False, false, false!/Let all untruths stand by thy stainèd name, /And they'll seem glorious."

3. Baudelaire, Selected Poems. I am referring to my beloved Penguin Classics edition with ugly English literal translations in small print at the bottom of the page. Imagine waking Christmas morning as a family to read "La Squelette Laboreur":

Are you trying to show ... that even in the grave the promised sleep is not certain; That the Void betrays us; that everything, even Death lies to us, and that for all eternity, alas! we shall perhaps, in some unknown country, be obliged to flay the stubborn earth, and to push a heavy spade under our naked, bleeding foot?

4. Nabokov, Lolita. Lost laughter of childhood, incurable perversion, etc. ("Picnic, lightning.")

5. Mann, Doctor Faustus. "In those days Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair." Etc.

6. Sebald, Austerlitz. Especially the passages about the futility of fortifications and the organization of Theresienstadt.

7. James, The Golden Bowl. For instance its final line: "And the truth of it had with this force after a moment so strangely lighted his eyes that as for pity and dread of them she buried her own in his breast." Ahh, and they lived happily ever after.

8. Atwood, Cat's Eye. More childhood cruelty, yippee!

9. Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I've never finished it, but I assume everything turns out horribly. Am I wrong? Have always enjoyed the first third of it though, before casting it away out of dread. Perhaps I got too caught up emotionally in the story; I am not the "ideal" reader.

10. (Of course) Kafka, the complete works, but if you had to select one: The Castle.

Okay enough enough. In the list above, with only one exception, I tried to choose books that I actually ENJOYED despite their high depressive quotients. But, on to the heartwarming recommendations:

1. Nabokov, Pnin. For just being beautiful: "Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags." Or for being tender: "... the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of disance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle would happen." Or both.

2. Chabon, Wonder Boys. No, not the movie. I will hold to my opinion that this is the best of his books. Its tale of renunciation and self-awareness, brilliantly plotted over the weekend of a writer's conference, makes me happy again and again. How dare they cut the f**&()#$ tuba from the movie!

3. Capote, A Christmas Memory. How topical! How about this passage:

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard's owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sounds as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. "We mustn't, Buddy. If we start, we won't stop. And theere's scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes." The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

That's what I call musical prose.

4. Proust, Time Regained. The catch of course is that there are six essential prequels, which makes the title of this last volume somewhat ironic.

5. Emerson, Essays: "We grizzle every day. I see no need of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young ... In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be setlted; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." And more in that vein.

6. Frazier, Coyote v. Acme. The title essay alone probably worth the purchase price. Don't forget Boswell's "Life of Don Johnson," however.

7. Thoreau, Walden. "Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perhaps the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then through a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlour of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

8. Marianne Moore, Nevertheless.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through the little thread
to make the cherry red!

9. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings. I know it's a bit of a stretch. How about this passage:

"I used to think of Hell as a place from which no one returned. My patients have taught me otherwise."

Okay, so far, not so heartwarming. Going on:

"Those who return are forever marked by the experience; they have known, they cannot forget, the ultimate depths. Yet the effect of the experience is to make them not only deep but, finally, childlike, innocent, and gay."

10. Cervantes, Don Quixote. What more needs to be said? If you own the new translation by Edith Grossman, my favorite passage is on page 145.

Okay, really got to get back to Beethoven now. So far behind, so much to do.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The X Files

The desire for a treat steals upon me, wickedly, in every dutiful day. A day of rehearsing, some practicing, and of course strike-related walking, left me vulnerable in the final minutes of my favorite show, House. Though I had eaten wisely, with perhaps an excess of conscious prudence, the grocery downstairs beckoned; my stockinged feet were shod, a jacket donned, and I was out the gloomy entrance of my building in a flash.

Newly expanded, Barzini's is even more of a pleasure dome. Its single automated door is now cruelly, Satanically stationed before a barrage of cheese; though I had intended to pass by, it was as though I were suspended, held, in the very idea of cream. My meals of the day, I realized, had been so fat-free as to leave me morally ill-equipped for a night in the Valley of Temptation. My eyes even lingered on the pates, for a moment of aspic desire. No no! And I would have made it, too! except just as I turned the corner, the dust of other customers' impatience kicking beneath my heels, a hidden bank of Shropshire Blue met some inner feast of my imagination in a field of joy, and I snapped up cheese and crackers without a further qualm. On to the ice cream freezer, my original target. Cunningly some organic English Ale (perhaps the perfect mate for my Shropshire Blue?) caught my eye on the way and it too was gathered up into the folds of my now burgeoning winter coat, and then just as I rounded the home stretch and approached the cash register and opened the door to the adjoining freezer, just as I felt the first frost on my bare fingers, twitching to choose a flavor, I heard a horrible sound. The very symbol of perversion and guilt. The Dominican girl with dyed blonde, curly, greasy hair at the register began to dance along to the rockin' beat. She understood it better than I! As my hand further froze, and my eyes tried to distinguish Homemade Ice Cream Ben & Jerry's from Frozen Yogurt Ben & Jerry's through the now-misting glass (through a looking-glass, darkly), I realized it--the horrible sound--was a ringtone, and Beethoven's four fateful notes had filtered through two centuries only to be slapped together with this horrendous rhythm section, to indicate and signify nothing except to the owner of Barzini's that someone, anyone had called. I marvelled briefly at Beethoven's universality, and then fell morose at the sheer horrible cooption of it all, the way in which anything can become anything. Hadn't I just yesterday taken a little cheap shot at the Fifth Symphony, here on the blog? And here it was coming back to haunt me, perhaps--even?--to dissuade my gluttony. But I paid it no mind; I chose my flavor, paid my tab, and shunted back out past the cheese to the cold lanes of Broadway.

And let that be the lesson. At two in the morning, when the combined forces of cheese, ale, and ice cream awakened me unpleasantly, I was confronted both with the discomfort of my stomach and another mysterious sonic sensation, emanating from a screen at the other side of the room which I did not quite yet understand. The screen said: "Mulder, be careful." Believe your omens.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bach the Romantic

I want to follow up on a remark I made a post or two ago about Bach seeming "more Romantic" than Beethoven. According to a conventional view of music history, Beethoven is leaning out the window of the Classic, and seizing the Romantic by its budding ear. In the meantime, he is a bad tenant; he leaves the Classic house he inhabits in ruins. But there is a second layer to the Beethoven myth: the perpetually modern, the adventurer who knocks on every door, who makes any avant garde look tame. Neither decadent Romantic nor well-proportioned Classic, he is the force which converts one to the other: distilled Revolution.

Bach is distilled Something Else. He composed against the currents of his day; he swam upstream; he was a reactionary (for example: composing elaborate difficult counterpoint when the musical world was simplifying into homophony). His genius, according to the usual view, is not that of inventor or destroyer, but belongs to that colder virtue of perfection. Separation from Time is part of the Bach myth; against his island of perfection the vicissitudes of music history uselessly and cyclically break their waves. He ushers in no new Style, no Movement, no Ism; he opens the door to no Revolution; and therefore he is "pointless," historically speaking. He would not "Stick it to the Man;" he is The Man.

It is harder, therefore, to empathize with Bach than with Beethoven.

After immersing myself a long time in Bach, I was reworking some familiar Beethoven Sonatas, and from the first moments of playing them I had a odd, unsettled feeling. Even the most revolutionary passages seemed somewhat quaint, like the customs of another era. I blinked and tried again, but the feeling persisted; I was being roughly jolted from one culture to another. And further: the Bach (in my mind) seemed to be, in a reversal of the "actual" chronology, more modern, while the enunciated phrases of Beethoven seemed outmoded... like a style to be shedded ... how can this happen with the "eternally modern" Beethoven?

Suppose we take one of the "hallmarks" of the Classic style: dialectic. The question-and-answer construction of phrases, merged with the pendulum of tonic and dominant, and peppered with contrasts of loud and soft, changes of character and material; the reasonable disposition of opposed phrases, like sentences in an comparative paragraph, or the argumentative model: phrases in conflict. Classical style so often depends (on a red wheelbarrow?) on the juxtaposition of two- and four-bar ideas, of different character... he said/she said, etc. ...

All of this sounds hopelessly general. But in Bach, so often you have a short, clear phrase at the beginning, circling I-IV-V-I, outlining the home key, followed by a much longer outpouring in which beginnings and endings are far less clear... an opening answer followed by a much longer question? The logic of his comparisons is held somewhat beneath the surface, not always enunciated or articulated. And at the ends of these arcs, when the sense of "wrapping up" threatens to destroy the carefully preserved aerodynamics of Bach's writing, to close the enigma, to bring it in a sense "down to earth": often at these moments Bach inserts an unexpected, bizarre dissonance, some inexplicable nuance or event, some mitigating shade of light or dark. I was recently savoring with a student how, towards the end of the E-flat Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach provides in the right hand an almost "Arabian-sounding" descending scale; it is difficult to reconcile this bizarre scale with the overall gist of the fugue; is it a taint, an impurity of conception? I feel these events are not just meant to be quirky (though they often are), but work to create a more comprehensive sense of enfolding, a more inclusive cadence: an answer that is still a question, that allows for non-answers. (How Romantic is THAT?) Whereas, so many of Beethoven's answers are indisputable, almost irritatingly conclusive (end of 5th Symphony). Their certainty is powerful but is this kind of certainty really modern?

And I have been thinking a lot lately about the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven, in which the shifts, jerks, and starts of the Classic are answered or rebuked by long, gradual processes: continuity as antidote. For example, Op. 109: both the first and second movements are riven by dialectical shifts, by rhetorical emphasis, by sturm und drang; but the last movement begins with a tremendous UNITY of conception, with the affirmation of long, uninterrupted line. Different solutions occur in Op. 110, in which fragments of classical ideals and molds are gradually replaced by chaotic recitative (reminiscent for me of Monteverdi's Orfeo, of early Italian monody), and evolving fugue (reminiscent of you-know-who). And of course the two movements of Op. 111: notice, for example, the tremendous dynamic contrasts in the opening Maestoso and compare them to the still, unperturbed dynamics of the opening of the Arietta. Beethoven teaches us, in these late works, that the grass is always greener, in every style. I am not sure he is yearning for the Romantic, so much as for anything that is not the Classic, any way whatsoever to define a different space. This dissatisfaction is ironically married to music that gives the appearance of total renunciation and serenity. These works are culminations, yes, but also they seem to cast a skeptical, destructive eye back on the whole language of Beethoven's lifetime, on the Classical rhetoric itself.

I do not think Bach manifests this kind of dissatisfaction. His styles do not yearn for other styles.

Lately, I find myself making emotional, "Romantic" decisions about the Partitas, and feeling nervous about them. Bach is universal, beyond the personal, I tell myself guiltily, and try to get back at the "purity" of the notes. But then the guilt passes, and I dwell on different shades of elation in the 4th (D Major) Partita, for instance; the more I immerse myself in this idea of elation, paradoxically, the clearer and purer the music seems to get. My Romanticism does not seem to obscure anything. I make comparisons. The 5th (G major) Partita is happy, in a playful, down-to-earth kind of way; sometimes jokey, even silly, unpretentious; but the D major's joy is more exalted: a spiritual happiness far from a joke. And in each movement, the dark comes in to shade the light. Bach works his way, kaleidoscopically, through the keys; no matter how buoyant the gist of a movement, somehow a minor-key episode manages to exist. In Beethoven, perhaps, these different keys are willed; they express by turns anger, suspense, doubt, affirmation, melancholy, happiness, playfulness; a whole spectrum of conflicting emotions, motivations, characterizations; dramatic turns of events, forces in opposition. The minor keys in the major movements of the D major Partitas do not seem to oppose the prevailing mood but to fill it out; these momentary sadnesses seem to make the overall joy believable.

In the second half of the Courante, for example, Bach finds himself in the vicinity of E minor. A short plaintive passage follows, a descending sequence, which concludes by confirming that we are, in fact, in E minor. But then there is no knowing what will happen next, what this minor key will inspire. With no hint of contradiction or rebuke (E minor is not "a problem"), Bach pens an extraordinary passage, taking us out of E minor, and towards the home key, with a sustained line in the top voice and cascading, replying arpeggios in the other voices...

For me these measures are unplayably beautiful; in short, a miracle; turning on a dime from minor-key melancholy to a kind of flourish of joy, without appearing at all manic. There is no sense of transgression or shift, just the turning of a corner. The turn to major arises from the confirmation of minor; sadness is a cause for celebration and vice versa; the happier and sadder moments do not rebut each other, they are no dialectic; even the terms "happy" and "sad" may not be applicable; they each draw on the other, and blur the other, in a chain of logic, inspiration and cause.

I have digressed? The skeptic may call the 4th Partita simply seven dances in D major, to which I say (being the Romantic I often am): a transcendental vision of a possibility of D major. At least so it has seemed to me these days: each dance a complicated emotional state of its own (excepting perhaps the Menuet and Aria), elation ranging from still contemplation to crazy overt display, to pouring enthusiasm ... and all of them together a kind of impossible, infinite constellation, a kaleidoscope with a message. Bach, to my mind, creates little mini-universes with these Partitas, like the fantasy houses I used to invent in daydreams as a child, with endless rooms and closets and nooks ... Beethoven's houses have open floor plans; you tend to see an architectural arc all at once. The uselessness of a word like Romantic! In some ways the dialectical traumas and narrative gestures of Beethoven are perfectly, stereotypically Romantic (the conflicted Romantic soul), but this less dialectical vision of Bach suggests to me another kind of Romantic. The Romantic shaking his fist at the world; vs. the Romantic looking to make a new space within.

When I returned to Beethoven, it was as though I had to abandon an internal quest I had been on for some time, and come back to the world. I'm sure after some more time with Beethoven I will have forsaken some other world. But: Bach the escapist? He escaped from the drama of music history; he merely had to create masterworks and wait for rediscovery. The kind of personal, emotional associations I have been making with the Partitas do not seem like indulgences to me, as much as a kind of extended meditative act. I have always had a grudge against meditation: that it seems to forgo sensual pleasure. Not so with my meditations with Bach! We seem to share all kinds of sensualities, across centuries. And not so for another famous meditator:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window and lo! where yesterday was cold grey ice there lay the transparent pond, already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon. I heard a robin in the distance, the first I had heard for many a thousand years, methought ... O the evening robin, at the end of a New England summer day! If I could ever find a twig he sits upon! I mean he; I mean the twig...

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty ...

Call me crazy if you will, but in my Romanticism I am imagining some affinity between Henry, patiently building his cabin and farming his beans and looking at the bubbles in the ice as it changes all winter long ... and Bach working, day in and day out, at his tonal ponds, exploring every permutation of happiness.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I'll Have the Combo Deal

Whether we like it or not, the morning is the time to ponder dreams of the night past. It may also be, for us non-morning types, the part of the day in which we are least capable of dealing with them.

Last night's dream found me at the Marlboro Music Festival (really School?) preparing some transcribed piece for a performance the next day; from this work whole pages, sections, appeared to be randomly missing; problems were cropping up all over the score in that crazy, dreamy, infinitely regressive fashion. In the midst of this chaos--of course--appears former significant other X, with whom things are "as they were": communal happiness, embracing, holding hands, and other activities over which one may pseudo-modestly draw a veil. Heedless of the need for rehearsal, we drive together, crazily, down a dangerous road to a surreal beachfront, more like a pool, where people are wading in cold clear water; a path leads out through a crowded comedy club to a hotel where X and I settle down for the night. In the middle of the night, but only moments later in the dream, I wake up in the hotel, alone. I search the beach (eerily lit, even at 3 AM) both for X and for the keys to the rental car which we used; I am distraught and stranded; but somehow I am magically transported to Marlboro in time for the doomed, unrehearsed performance. The dream (by some tradition of such dreams) ends with applause and my exhausted entrance on stage with music I do not recognize at all.

A musical anxiety dream would not bear mentioning. I have long learned to laugh at the whole genre (the contract for which one signs, invisibly, in blood, from the moment one begins to take music lessons "seriously.") It is, however, the first time I think I have had a COMBO performance-anxiety/lost-love dream (with some travel anxiety thrown in for good measure!); I have to respect the dastardly ingenuity of my subconscious. Anyone else out there in blogland had such a combo? And when a friend calls that morning and says "how are you?", how do you reply?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Poetic Hubris

Some years ago, for some totally random reason, I wrote a poem about not being able to get out of bed one Sunday morning. It was fairly terrible, and fate conspired to double the mischance, as later that week an Internet site ( popped into view that suggested you enter a poem for a possible cash prize. Since the poem was just sitting on my desktop, and I didn't imagine I would probably write any more poems in the next year, I copied-and-pasted the thing in the pop-up window and sent it off, in hope of undeserved reward.

I had banked on the gentleness of poets. Little did I know what remorseless demons of marketing I had unleashed, more callous than death, and less avoidable. I wish I had preserved all the countless emails they sent, to document the sheer wheedling to which they have subjected me: the invitations to conferences, at my own expense; the holding out of further prizes, further inducements; the leather-bound, gold-inlaid editions of my own work; the subsidiary conferences at which only we elite poets would appear, in Orlando, Florida, etc; the promise that only if I would ...

But today they went too far. I received the following:


The Editors of The International Library of Poetry were thrilled to inform you that your poem was bestowed the prestigious Editor's Choice Award because of your artistic accomplishments and unique perspective--characteristics found in the most noteworthy poetic works. To further commemorate this prestigious achievement we have elected you to receive the 2005 Editor's Choice Published Poet Ribbon Award Pin.

This stunning pin proudly displays your elevated status in our poetic community. Since only an elite group of published poets were selected to receive this special honor, imagine the sense of pride you will feel when others see you wearing the 2005 Editor's Choice Published Poet Ribbon Award Pin. What an impressive way to show off your status as an honored poet for the year 2005!

This striking jewelry piece has the International Library of Poetry name prominently displayed across the top, the Editor's Choice commendation appears on the ribbon, and the entire pin is set in bronze. It is truly a masterpiece that honors your outstanding and well-deserved accomplishments, and it is a must-have for all esteemed poets.

To take advantage of this special offer to commemorate your exceptional poetic talents, simply click here. For a limited time, this exclusive pin is only $19.95, plus shipping and handling...

Each email seems more flattering than the last, only to end in ignominy. I read no further. Any blogreaders who come up with a good reply to Mr Howard Ely, chair, president, and soulless merchant of, please forward to me! Is that all poetry means to him, to sell pins for $19.95?

I have an objection on literary grounds as well. Look at the thickly scattered code words: "elected," "elevated," "elite," "pride," "status," "impressive," "honored," "esteemed." If you were going to make a ham-handed, manipulative appeal to a group of poets, would you really choose hubris as an avenue? After all, poets should know something about pride:

Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The vertue of that Fruit, in thee first prov'd..


The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and forehead of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking of our designs.


And that if our works could
But vanish with our breath
That were a lucky death,
For triumph can but mar our solitude.

Back to my pinless solitude. Any suggestions how to spend $19.95, in a karmically satisfying fashion?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


There is no emotional wall that misery cannot demolish. (Happiness, I'm not so sure.) A few days ago, I was playing through Beethoven Op 10 #1 (the C minor one), and I had the disheartening feeling that it was "classical," tame; that in comparison to the Bach Partitas I had been playing, its universe was too partial, too contingent. (Bach had come to seem more "romantic" than the Beethoven!) But I had felt the shivers of this Sonata before; at 22 I found it spellbinding; it has always been a favorite of mine, for various reasons; I tried to re-sell myself on it, to look at it as revolution, and not as piece of the past.

But to no avail; I could not force conviction.

Fast forward through the visit of Eighth Blackbird to town, and commensurate carousing. Two nights of late meals, perhaps a drink or two too many, and the kind of sleep that leaves you feeling faintly blended or pureed in the morning. (As if you yourself were the frozen margarita you ingested 9 hours previous.) And on the third day ... I awoke with a vision. Advils churning in my stomach, water boiling on the stove, I played the opening C minor chord of the sonata.

Thud. Yes, that was right. The chord had a certain thickness, a toughness, that had eluded me earlier. Though my water whined, and coffee longed in its vacuum-sealed bag to be brewed, I kept at the piano, because I had found an interface between sound and feeling. The synapse snapped. Even the rest--the short silence between the first chord and the next ascending arpeggio--seemed to have a tremendous intensity. (Nothing like a headache to make you appreciate the value of the silences.) Now the C minor chord was "its own man," not just one of a generic class of typical classical chords (though it is this TOO); but now, I took it personally. Anger, despair, agitation--I took out my anger on myself, and I refused to get up from the piano until I was satisfied. What fun. The closing theme of the expo and recap: a wonderful series of hammer chords; I hammered them out (take that! and that! and that!) and even played that section several times to maximize my own suffering. There is also a tremendous sadness behind the anger. And the beginning of the slow movement, which is "just" I-V-I, tonic-dominant-tonic: its prayerfulness answered the first movement, seemed so deeply, profoundly necessary, and I was more patient suddenly with it, able to feel an Adagio where before I had leaned towards Andante ... Like an actor, I had my "motivation;" I had found inspiration in my own bleary, crusty eyes.

Today I can rehear, recapture that feeling, in bits and pieces, though I am comparatively physically well. (Mentally?) The memory of its crackle endures. I know what it sounded like; I know the physical things I did at the piano to create the sounds, and what differentiated those motions/sounds from the everyday. Thanks, stupid carousing self; the bar is set; the goal is there. Now some serious sober work is required to recapture it, to build it into consistent reality.

In a wonderful passage of The Master and Margarita, Styopa awakes with a terrible hangover to find himself in the company of the devil, who recommends "vodka and a spicy snack." Styopa as I recall takes his advice, and as I recall meets an untimely fate. Ponder on this, oh irresponsible blogger. Caveat: I am not "recommending" the method above for pianists seeking inspiration; but I feel sure I was visited that morning by some force... helpful or destructive? Only the devil knows for sure.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

On my way

As the cabbie turned right onto Lexington Ave., he asked me would I like to get off on the left or right side of the street? Very professional; well in advance; I felt shuttled by capable hands.

"Left side," I said.

"Ah," he said, "you're going to school."

I puzzled; I savored in silence this latest enigma from the yellow, peripatetic dimension of the Manhattan taxi. Indeed, there are classes held at the Y... I suppose...?

"School on Saturday night," he reiterated.

I couldn't lie to my cabbie, not after he was so professional. "No," I replied, "I'm going to a concert."

"Oh." He laughed. "I thought you only good person in Manhattan."

I mused in the back seat how wrong he was. Should I reply "haha," or the more dismissive "Hah"?

"Go to school while everyone party. Go to school Saturday night, church Sunday ... that's a good person."

Was he serious? There was a glint in the side of his eye, dimly visible through the plexiglass. "I'm zero for two then," I said.

Without approval or disapproval he turned to me as I stepped out, crunching in the Lexington Ave. slush: "then you're a real New Yorker."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mixed Feelings

I'm getting funny emails from my family these days. For example, a couple days ago, one close relation wrote to ask whether a particular review of a recent Richard Goode recital was "good or bad." As if I were some oracular interpreter of review-speak. I dutifully and shamefully googled up the thing, and found a worse review than I expected, in which the author, at least in part, assumes a didactic role. It was conceded that there were some good moments at the end; but mainly the pianist was accused of letting his passion surge ahead of his judgment. These sorts of reviews put me in a delicate emotional position. Firstly: without reviewers, our business would be in sorry condition; they create buzz, they evaluate, they stir up the human yen for judgment, they are patient through concert after concert which I cannot be bothered to attend, they are a public voice for our private art "in the wilderness," they have to write blurb after blurb, finding creativity in a difficult, limited art form... They are also a kind of "conscience" of the artist. I am, finally, grateful to them. On the other hand, (didn't you know that "but" was coming?) when a reviewer seems to condescend to an artist like Richard Goode, whose artistry ranges into extraordinary realms I dream about late at night, over espresso, wistfully... an artist who with one phrase has occasionally caused me to rethink months of my life ... for him to be treated like a naughty misbehaved child on the pages of a national newspaper makes me want to throw my coffee cup across the room and wreak other kinds of havoc, screaming and ranting. Also: aren't critics always complaining of the "overly safe" practices of classical music these days? Aren't they always wondering why we don't take more risks? But then, the Catch-22: if you take too many risks, or the wrong kind, you stand in need of a "palpable corrective" (to quote the review); you can be chastened in the New York Times. What's a boy to do?

As I say, mixed feelings. And I wasn't even at that concert (shame on me). Perhaps even this well-meaning expression of my emotional conundrum may cause me to have bad reviews for some time. Hopefully (I think it a safe bet) BH will not read this post. Otherwise, I say, like "our" president: bring it on!

Another family member writes to subtly suggest that the material in the blog can sometimes be pretty inaccessible. Haha. Yes, I know. There are people who feel the other way: that my musical analyses are often too cursory, compared to my philosophy-speak; that I should get down on my hands and knees and be a grease monkey with the notes themselves. I like to get down and get funky with the notes, a lot; and the problem is, I think it takes a long time and a lot of clunky prose to really get at the notes, to unfold their miraculous, wordless patterns. And meanwhile the big black bear with the golden insides lurks in the other room, growling the beginnings of unpracticed masterpieces, warning me that if even Richard Goode can be accused of lack of judgment, I am in a whole heap of trouble.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hemiola with a Conscience

If you want to know what I've been doing the last few days, I've been eating out and playing Bach Partitas. Thanks for asking: no, this is not helping to reduce global warming or global poverty or global hunger (except my own hunger and that of my mealmates).

I've been dabbing these familiar pieces with fresh paint, and on occasion taking out their whole foundations, roughly. Move aside, old Denk, the new guy's comin' through. When I have to do the latter, the heavy (re-)lifting, I get into a manic-depressive cycle: first joyful--so lovely to rip down the timbers which you thought were immovable, so interesting, invigorating, electric to hear the piece anew--and then grumpy and irritable, so that when my friends call I kind of bark at them. Occasional bites of pumpkin bread and sips of decaf Starbucks are not enough to stem this grumpiness, born of mental effort and Bach's tremendous demands.

In one oasis of pleasure in this desert of effort, I was trying again, again, again, to imagine convincing "phrase rhythms" for the Sarabande of the G major Partita. I may intellectualize the whole all I wish without getting an inch closer to my pleasure. But: I can't be satisfied without some intellectual effort ... and so I think, and hope that at some point, the "mystery force" (which includes some emotional quantity "x") takes over and my concept gets animated, like Frankenstein (or hopefully some more graceful golem) and whoops! I am there. This happens reliably enough for me to count on it, and when it doesn't work, there is always the martini.

My tongue is only partly in my cheek.

So, back to the G major Partita. What I find so UNSATISFYING in the CD I own of this piece is the total absence of the hemiola. Now, I know some of you reading out there couldn't give a crap about a hemiola, but I, and some of you readers, are probably also obsessed with these delightful rhythmic displacements. [Boring explanation for non-musicians follows: a hemiola is where two bars of 3/4, say, are made to sound like three bars of 2/4 -- or in other words, 6 is either two groups of 3, or three groups of 2. The three groups of 2, then, become magically a larger bar of 3, kind of a "double measure" or "super-measure."] And in my Bach Partitas CD, by an unnamed artist, the fact is you can't hear very well that this Sarabande is "hemiola crazy."

I know this sounds like a trivial characterization, but almost every phrase has one! The phrases always begin with a little "pickup thingy" (that is actually the musicological term); then continue with one "normal bar" of 3/4, and then have the HEMIOLA. Here are the first two phrases, labeled for your comfort and convenience.

For those of you wondering, "pickup" in the musical sense has very little (but not nothing) to do with the term "pickup line." Now, the normal bars of 3/4 tend to have some sort of dissonant intersection--lines in conflict, unusual intervals--but somehow the hemiola seems to wrap things up, because by the end of each one we seem to arrive at a pretty clear cadence.

Normal Bar

Don't ask me why this is so; it's just the way Bach wrote it. Heh. It's as if he wanted the composition to express the following haiku:

At first lines diverge,
But each harmonic puzzle
Hemiola solves.

Now, I associate with each past piano teacher some wisdom-pearl, and John Perry was the first to express to me, so that I really heard it, the very obvious notion: how much poorer Bach would be (nothing, in fact) without the dissonances. (A pianist in master class had forgotten to tie over a crucial dissonant note). This composer, who we imagine so in touch with the cosmic harmony, such a master of musical logic and organization: the logic is built, so to speak, on a sea of contradictions, an uncountable array of types of dissonances. (Ugly, ugly dissonances!) Sometimes you hear Bach performances where these dissonances really "speak," and also quite often you hear them only by the way... the dissonances become like fresh herbs stirred into a stew too early, losing their flavor in the slow cooking. It is so easy to take them for granted, to forget their edge.

It is hard (paradoxical) to practice freshness. At the beginning of this Sarabande, we have two "accidents" right away: an F-natural on the second beat of the first bar, and a G-sharp on the downbeat of the second bar. Fleshing this out: F-sharp would be the normal, confirming leading tone of the tonic; F-natural (its opposite?) is an odd early contradiction, a step in the "wrong direction" before our sense of the key is really established. And the G-sharp just piles on the unexpected; no more dissonant note to the tonic could be imagined (for your music theory types: an odd leap also in the bass from C to G-sharp, an augmented fifth! calls this note to our attention!) And at the risk of boring everyone to tears, it's worth pointing out that the F-natural in the left hand measure 1 makes a dissonant tritone ("the devil in music") with the B in the right hand; but when this "resolves," i.e. when the B in the right hand moves to C, this C is in turn dissonant with a D that has appeared in the left hand. (A kind of contrapuntal Catch-22.) This is the annoying, detailed way of expressing what I meant, earlier, when I said that in the rhythmically "normal" bars there is "dissonant intersection."

For me, the conception of the piece has to be based on these premises (as Hannibal Lecter lectures, while he listens to the Goldberg Variations: "first principles, Clarice")... has to answer this question: How is the beauty of this piece somehow derived from these ungainly uglinesses? For it is, above all, so beautiful; graceful and evanescent; kind of an enigmatic little dance, reveling in the asymmetry of its phrase construction (as enumerated above); reveling in its naughty dissonance and always exploiting the hemiola to zip things up; and like a well-constructed play or novel cunningly telling several stories at once, dovetailing them effortlessly. For example, the dotted descending scale, in measure one, outlining a fifth:

and, in the next phrase, now a fifth higher:

and, in the next phrase, replicating itself, between the hands:

and in the last phrase, Bach supplies a kind of "summary," the scale repeated, sequenced, now deep in the bass, a harmonic fundament, a continuity:

In each phrase, this idea appears and disappears; a character coming on- and off-stage; I feel as though it has a "separate existence" from the Sarabande as a whole, some sort of private life. It brings, contributes, to the dance when it can, and it leaves without overstaying its welcome. But I know how important it is; as a practicer, as a performer, I want to nod to it when it comes in and be polite to it on its way out; to smile at it with recognition, but not to scream its name across the room. A little congregation of themes, motives, as friends, around a table. And once you have established this dotted descending scale as a friend, then you are so touched by its calling into say hello again, in all sorts of ways which don't become tiresome; its little favors to your harmonic story. Towards the end of the Sarabande, for instance, it comes in rather normally, to assert the dominant:

No accidentals here; a nice friendly reminder. But then the next one ends on a difficult G-sharp (yes, astute reader! the same G-sharp from the second bar!!!!):

This appearance of our friend, then, has posed a problem... notice the bassline "shuts up" for a measure, as if shocked into silence by this impropriety (G-sharp, so late in the game!). The right hand goes on a little unprecedented wandering journey, disrupted, confused; the G-sharp stands, unresolved, uncontradicted; and then, whew, the left hand comes in again ("as if nothing had happened"), A down to D:

Thanks to this intervention, we are close now, on the dominant... And then THE MOST BEAUTIFUL thing happens; this friend says goodbye, with no tears. The left hand plays the scale "upside down," ascending from G-A-B-C-D; while the right hand, at the same time, descends, D-C-B-A-G. And in this mirroring dialogue the tonic, and closure, is reached; the piece is over. You are too delighted by the ingenuity of the disappearance to be sad.

All this tedious discussion for just one sub-plot; but examples have to be given! In case you forgot, I was on the subject of how the beauty of the piece is partly derived from ungainly things (strange dissonances, asymmetric constructions); I had been discussing both hemiola and dissonance, and I would like to just show the interaction of these two at one of my favorite moments in this piece. Though the hemiola divides two 3/4 measures into three groups of two, sometimes hemiolas, like human beings, have a conscience.

1 2 3 4 5 6

This is the hemiola division of emphasis: on 1, 3, 5. But if there had been NO HEMIOLA, there would have been an emphasis on 4 (the "normal" downbeat). And so often the hemiolas want to tell us, on the sly, in some mysterious expressive way, where that real downbeat is. In this case E in the right hand moves up to G... the G occurs on 3, the hemiola rhythm, but then, wonderfully, the alto voice moves down to A on 4 ... creating a fantastic dissonance on the mysterious downbeat:

The dissonance signifies the missing meaning, the rhythmic might-have-been. How, as a pianist, do you play a note like that, a G that is sustained and attains a different meaning on the downbeat, a G that must change mid-course (when the hemiola meets its nemesis, the normal rhythm), when no correction for a keyboardist is possible? A note in two rhythmic layers. Impossible enigmas for pianists to beat themselves silly over. I can say that I have heard this done so that I hear, by sleight-of-hand, the correction, mid-note, but only rarely.

Similar beautiful dissonances haunt each of the hemiolas of the first four phrases of the piece, and each dissonance is somehow different (questions of context, gradations of emphasis, shifts of voicing). Bach's ingenuity in these matters seems endless; though there are only four "solutions" to this hemiola/dissonance issue in the first half of the Sarabande, they somehow feel like an infinite number, like a prism of possibilities. Recycling certain elements over and over, nonetheless not finding a limit or end. I stomp around my small kitchen, ignoring crusty day-old oatmeal, trying to imagine the inflection for each phrase... I want same, but different. My sense of freedom is tied to the rigidity of the pattern; I have to know how to be free with the phrases, within the cage Bach has built for me. Somehow the CD's solution of ignoring, or downplaying, the hemiola, seems like a betrayal to me; a body with some bones missing. It is even, too even; a sentence without accents. I go over it again. Pickup; Dissonant Normal Bar; Hemiola (beginning dissonantly, resolving); Cadence. It is like a mantra, fleshed out.

Fleshed out, yes: each phrase of this Sarabande unique (complex, irreducible) like a human being, though "coded" with recurring genes. I think the recurring element of Bach is easier to capture in performance, so often you hear the motoric continuity of Bach, the motivic coherence, but so often this can regress into a kind of monotony, where the "difference" of each phrase blends out... The man has become a machine. We are so well attuned to Bach's machine element, his logic, his purity. But the other night when I heard the Magnificat I was more inspired to practice Bach than I had been for some time... inspired by humanity, vocality, even: human failing. I stomped around my kitchen and sang horribly; it helped a lot. So many of the phrases were closer to beer and bread than to the sublime, and better for it. These Sarabande phrases smile at me; they do not glower at me from above. And I can practice this Bach, who is ingenious not like a know-it-all but like a friend who somehow, after a lot of time, still manages to make you laugh.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

How to Climax

As I draw the last coffee cup out of my cupboard I sigh and note that these thoughts do not want to end. Apologies for length and ramble. Perhaps a lunch break could help?


I admit I'm a snob who sometimes, but not always, sneezes at Rachmaninoff. Is it that it seems too easy for him to whip up a climax? And the peaks seem too clear, too etched, too predictably prolonged? The other night, at the Harry Potter movie, I winced when the strings swelled, smothering a sugary soliloquy in redundant syrup. My ears, my ears! They alone would not exculpate this excess. I often wish I, or anyone, could come up with hard and fast rules, for when something will be "too much": rules of taste, which one could mail to Hollywood producers, to Oprah, to nightly news programs covering hurricanes, etc. But for whose sake do I wish this? Probably just mine: to save myself irritation, to avert the desire to avert my gaze, to quell my urge to flee the theatre, spilling popcorn, Pepsi, Junior Mints--what have you--in my headlong, heedless escape.

Climaxes are dangerous places, like peaks of mountains, I suppose, where a wrong step is extremely costly... places moreover "earned" with slow assiduous steps. Ugh: even stating this need to "earn" a climax, I feel like a fuddy-duddy in a leather armchair who earned success "the old-fashioned way."

The other morning I came to the climax (my climax) of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, in the living room of a friend, and while he busied himself emptying the dishwasher and concocting frightening smoothies I was frozen unhelpfully on the couch, in that uncomfortable, antisocial position you assume when you are really paying attention (or trying to). I read this book a year or two ago, admired it, but had forgotten nearly everything about it ... except just a few odd details and scraps. If I had forgotten it, how good could it be? But: "it is precisely because we forget that we read." (Roland Barthes). And also Barthes: "those who do not reread are condemned to read the same story over and over again."

And so: I attacked the book again. Again admirable, with a continuity and intensity of thought like a leash, dragging me places where I didn't necessarily want to go. But I had skeptical thoughts, along these lines: It is a Holocaust novel; the story it tells, rather indirectly, is a well that has been dipped into often, sometimes invoking (exploiting?) pathos from history without earning it, so to speak, artistically. What new could one bring to this story?; has the novel's overwhelming sadness and sense of alienation been "earned," or simply referred to history, which is supposed to justify it? And I had other problems: a passage depicting the beauties of moths in Wales, for instance, began to seem long; there were seemingly aimless lists of flowers, animals, incidents; and I at times awaited a payoff, which is no way to read.

Locating the climax of Austerlitz would be difficult; it is long, to be sure; but it seems to begin when the narrator goes into a dusty corner of a railway station, purely by chance, and begins to realize that this is where he arrived, many years ago, in 1939, a refugee from Prague, sent to England in a last-ditch effort by desperate, doomed Jewish parents. The climax begins there, but continues, and continues, with a slow decoding of past, fact, identity... the narrator goes back to Prague, meets his childhood babysitter, discovers the names and lives of his parents, retraces his escaping steps, and begins to make sense of all the haunting images of his lost years, to understand why certain sensory data were so important to him.

Ah yes, all the miscellaneous data from earlier now click into place! They were brought to our attention because, and because ... Whew, the novel begins to solve itself, like an automated puzzle. But the emotional problem is not solved. Left behind, as a sense of sad history and fact erodes the sad emptiness of the first half of the novel, is still the unshakable alienation of the narrator--stronger than revelation or discovery. And it is this that allows Sebald to sustain the tension (a very musical novel), to bring the climax toward a second wave. Though the symbols of the novel have been "explained," they still circle, forming various storms, configurations, nebulae... why won't they stop?

I guess I felt the "real climax" to arrive around here:

In one of the empty spaces not far from the station ... the Bastiani Traveling Circus had erected its small tent, much mended and wreathed in strings of orange electric lights. By tacit agreement, we entered just as the performance was coming to a close. A few dozen women and children were seated on low stools round the ring... We were just in time for the last number, featuring a conjuror in a dark blue cloak who produced from his top hat a bantam cockerel with wonderfully colored plumage ...

After the conjuror's exit the lights slowly dimmed, and when our eyes were used to the darkness we saw a quantity of stars traced in luminous paint inside the top of the tent, giving the impression that we were really out of doors. We were still looking up with a certain sense of awe at this artificial firmament which, as I recollect, said Austerlitz, was almost close enough for us to touch its lower rim, when the whole circus troupe came in one by one, the conjuror and his wife, who was very beautiful, with their equally beautiful, black-haired children, the last of them carrying a lantern and accompanied by a snow-white goose. Each of these artistes had a musical instrument. If I remember correctly, said Austerlitz, they played a transverse flute, a rather battered tuba, a drum, a bandoneon, and a fiddle, and they all wore Oriental clothing with long, fur-edged cloaks, while the men had pale green turbans on their heads. At a signal between themselves they began playing in a restrained yet penetrating manner which, although or perhaps because I have been left almost untouched by any kind of music all my life, affected me profoundly from the very first bar ...

I still do not understand... what was happening within me as I listened to this extraordinarily foreign nocturnal music conjured out of thin air, so to speak, by the circus performers with their slightly out-of-tune instruments, nor could I have said at the time whether my heart was contracting in pain or expanding with happiness for the first time in my life . Why certain tonal colors, subtleties of key, and syncopations can take such a hold on the mind is something that an entirely unmusical person like myself can never understand, said Austerlitz, but today, looking back, it seems to me as if the mystery which touched me at the time was summed up in the image of the snow-white goose standing motionless and steadfast among the musicians as long as they played. Neck craning forward slightly, pale eyelids slightly lowered, it listened there in the tent beneath that shimmering firmament of painted stars until the last notes had died away, as if it knew its own future and the fate of its present companions.

As a musician, the goose got me (earned my attention). The sudden opening of Austerlitz's musical nerve played on my inner strings (me, whose musical nerve is always TOO open). Sebald creates this circus, suddenly, out of thin air--this musical, unrecorded, provisional moment--simply to destroy it, in order that in the following pages we can see the massive Bibliotheque Nationale erected upon the spot of this bizarre performance, in order that one priceless moment for one individual can (in a recurring cycle of humanity) be replaced by an enormous vault of bureaucratically organized information. Preservation=destruction? Earlier discussions of futile fortifications, the compulsive architecture and organization of German concentration camps, etc. all suddenly rush in (flood in)--this sense of "rushing," of symbols coming from every direction, makes the moment climactic for me--and these earlier "dispassionate" architectural conversations become relevant, with the appearance of this library, with its monumental style, four towers, arcades and staircases, forbidding easy access to information, which it holds and buries. (A building with an odd resemblance to Juilliard.) So that: the book is not about the death of the narrator's mother, nor his father, nor any of these countless human destructions or violences ... it is now just about a single goose's look, squashed under tons of archives.

Aha, climax: one odd symbol becomes the eye of the hurricane around which all the others suddenly organize. Factoids from previous pages swarmed before my eyes; I was overwhelmed by the book "as a whole." I sipped gallons of coffee unaware; my foot fell asleep. And in the aftermath, (after the goose is cooked), the book falls apart, ends in fragments. This climax is a confluence of creating and destroying, a kind of willful evil of the novelist. We do not mind that the author destroys what he creates, this does not seem immoral?

So earlier I had a metaphor for climax-as-place: a peak of a mountain, say. And now I have climax-as-force--as a nexus of symbolic energy.

What occurred to me later that day, as I was towelling off from one of my long long showers in which I dread the cold of the non-shower world, was the idea of climax as singularity, the way a point in time or a set of words or an image becomes a center, a reference (in this a climax is like a symbol); though we would like a climax (like a shower) to sprawl, by its nature it is ephemeral, and the question is always prolongation, enjoyment, sustainability.

A lot of the musical climaxes I feel squeamish about are about "pouring over," about excessive enjoyment; they "cling." Sometimes they outlive their moments, they outstay their welcomes. And they are focused to a point, like a lens: a few measures of unbelievable volume or intensity, against which all other points in the piece can be measured. But there are other kinds of climaxes, more like Sebald's goose. I am thinking right now of the Schubert Sonata, Op. 143 (which I warily remind myself I must play in Washington in April, alongside Winterreise): the exposition of the first movement. This piece begins in a very serious, overtly tragic "A minor mood," almost too much so, like someone who makes a show of his sadness, (like Austerlitz), in fragmented, lamenting phrases strangely suggestive of Russian Volga boat songs. These tragic fragments seem to not quite know what to do with themselves (like Austerlitz), they keep ending up in this rather unremarkable tag:

Can this tag become a climax? It tries to hoist itself up, but fails; there is a great deal of ominous, boiling rhetoric; tremolos, slippages, a loud explosion; then two soft chords, and then ... then the unbelievable happens:

Unbelievable because Schubert caused us not to believe in E major until this moment. The piece, to this point, has resided convincingly in a certain sound-world, an emotional province; though we may not have noticed, its boundaries have rigorously excluded certain kinds of voicings, nuances (certain very "technical" musical things); have excluded a lot. And when this new theme (why do we need to call it this annoying name "2nd Theme"?) appears, with its close, tender harmonizations, its suggestion of a men's chorus, or a slow dance, or a folk tune--so many possible associations come to mind--the exclusion is lifted; and in this absence the emptiness of the previous music becomes evident, and a space is opened for something else to rush in. After the first sense of disbelief (I am always amazed by this theme), I definitely feel that rushing, the theme's web of associations, symbols from afar, an awakening. (Austerlitz's musical sense is suddenly awakened by the mysterious Eastern music of the circus troupe.) Though there are no sweeping gestures, though it is uttered quietly, inwardly, pianissimo, though not in any way traditionally climactic, this passage is a climax. It does not pour over, exude, or demonstrate; instead it draws energy into itself, retracts, concentrates.

This melody is crafted around a single note, E--the inescapable note, the immovable object. Notice the intensities Schubert can weave around this pedal, this pivot; about what he can do despite--or because of--the limitation of that singularity. (Climax as singularity, as concentration into a point.) Everything is E, we are tied to that note, all of our energies must be drawn within that circle of attention; I feel that theme, with its "limitation," as a bubble, as an enclosed space, a created paradise which Schubert, like Sebald, will destroy.

What does Sebald's goose symbolize? It knows, he says, the fates of all the people around it; these fates are probably death, dispersion, erasure; replacement by a soulless monumental library. And yet the goose looks and listens, "motionless and steadfast," its neck craning in concentration; it is a symbol not necessarily of what-is-known but perhaps just the knowing, the perceiving, itself. If the listening goose is just about the vanishing, then why tell its story at all? Why would Sebald choose as a symbol of the music (itself a symbol, and on and on in an endless chain) something which emits no sound whatsoever? I am reminded of the wonderful Ives quote "My God! What does sound have to do with Music"? Which is ridiculous but true. And also I'd add: what does volume have to do with climax? or climax with plot? or emotional closure with knowledge? All of these can be uncoupled, recoupled, rethought. Let me mail this to Oprah. I will mail her, and the Harry Potter people, that scene in Pnin where Nabokov manages a climax with one elderly man washing his dishes, alone.

In the first part of the exposition, Schubert's tragic muse keeps exploring the relationship between the tonic and the subdominant ... a common neighbor motion, become a plagal obsession. (This is part of what makes it sound vaguely "Russian.") And lo and behold, the second theme, at its outset, presents us with the same motion: I-IV, transformed. There is nothing to this. There is so little composition, so little sense of craft: just the sudden existence of this same neighbor motion, in the major key. (But so beautiful!) So that I have the feeling that Schubert has not created this moment, but has evoked it, simply by listening, by paying attention: by "knowing the fates of the participants." I-IV is capable of tragic fates, yes, but what about ... He stares out at us, neck craning, concentrating, hearing the harmonies of the music around him, hearing the new major key take shape; at that moment he seems not to compose, not to demonstrate or perform, but instead to listen, remember, perceive.