Friday, April 29, 2005

Love, Music-Style

I've encountered several musical love stories this week. To sum up:

- Damp, yet oddly thirsty, long-lost brother meets married, miserable sister; forbidden love stirs unquenchable passion (otherwise, the opera would end in a big hurry); chromatic, Germanic harmonies are encouraged to run amok; springtime breeze conveniently causes door to fly open; large "sword" not so coincidentally appears. Curtain falls on lovers, just when they stop talking and things get interesting. Adultery+Incest=Extra Points? [Wagner Die Walkure, Act I]

- Two ghosts still nagging (!) each other in a graveyard, misusing eternity to hash out former love; one is clearly "over the relationship," the other is still codependent; is there a ghost therapist in the house?; harmonies are elusive, sexy, French-ified. What does it all mean? [Debussy Fetes Galantes]

- Woman loves physician; physician in turn loves her parts (her esophagus, her epiglottis, etc.) but not her entirety; music is detached, jilted lover shows admirable knowledge of anatomy, tempered with healthy "move on" attitude (love all of me or nothing, you cad!). Love's a game. [Cole Porter "The Physician"]

-Various undisclosed persons make voyage to Cythera; orgy ensues; pianist plays many notes; 5-against-3 cross-rhythm indicates that people are too drunk to even sway together. Trills, spills, chills. However, seems relatively committment-free; how will they feel the next morning? Is this any way to build a relationship? What would Dr. Phil say? [Debussy L'Isle Joyeuse]

- Father confides in daughter; daughter disobeys father; father loves her so much that he punishes her with a really severe grounding: to languish on solitary mountain, ringed with fire, awaiting acned super-mensch Siegfried in a later installment; tender hug makes it all OK. Really cool special effects. [Wagner Die Walkure, Act III]

I'm not sure what lesson to draw from all this.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Nothing for Granted

So I just got back. There is nothing like smelling the storm that has just passed, with the weird whiff of camaraderie that comes from people ducking out a sudden downpour. The city was washed clean, streets slick and shiny with flowerpetals and leaves clinging to the pavement...

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the courtyard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshhold.
--Ezra Pound

Anyway, the point is I was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, at 111th and Amsterdam, where I had a delicious poppy strudel, and there was this girl, reading Ulysses. Don't get all excited, this is not a boy meets girl story. She was clearly kinda nuts (though this could, to be fair, be blamed on her reading material) and she would cough loudly and talk to herself and to anyone who dared to go to the bathroom and I felt her eyes on my shoulder quite a lot. I finally turned around briefly, making my big New York mistake.

Though I quickly turned back to my work, she had found her niche, and began to talk to my back, very loudly; I had no escape. "Is that an iBook?" Any Mac person would know that my black G3 Powerbook is the very aesthetic opposite of an iBook... grrr... anyway... "No" I replied patiently, "It's a Powerbook, it's old." A few more silly Mac remarks passed between us. Then she asked: "are you writing a paper?" (I was working on my superduper SECRET PROJECT which is somehow related to the location of the pastry shop.) I lied to her, I don't know why. "Yes, sort of," I said. "Are you a grad student ?" she asked. I had got myself in deeper, had to keep lying: "Yes" (why would a concert pianist be working on a paper?) "What are you studying?" I told her I was studying musicology. Lies, and more lies.

"Cool," she said. "I took a course once in music theory, and it was hard but I liked it a lot." I nodded, barely, turned away. "You know what I really liked?" she continued, relentlessly... "I liked the melodic minor."

Now, some people think I'm easy to please. Even I think sometimes I'm too easy to please. Anner Bylsma once referred to me at Marlboro, with a weird look in his eye, as "the boy who likes things." But if you can get off on the melodic minor scale, then you are really something. It is like loving subtraction. She elaborated: "I really liked how the sixth and the seventh ..... the way down ..." She faltered. I finished it for her, "yes, the seventh is different on the way down." This did not satisfy her. I imagined her, late at night, picking out the notes of the melodic minor on an electric piano, with occasional tears dripping down her cheeks.

Though I had dismissed her as a nut, something about this melodic minor business bothered me. I worked on my superduper secret project and tried to put it out of my mind. But standing on the 110th Street subway platform, it came to me, I couldn't believe it, it was too much. A million times I have tried to express to my piano students (maybe I'll be able to get it off my chest now, and be able to shut up about it from now onward) how often we forget to find beauty, expression in even the simplest intervals of scales: how we overlook the obvious, how we take certain intervallic motions for granted, particularly (!) passing downward from the tonic: the tonic to the 7th passing to the 6th. As a prime example, I would cite the piano playing of Ignaz Friedman, whose recordings managed to show me the beauty of so many intervals I had passed by. And the first piece I would choose to use as demonstration: the Mendelssohn Song without Words in C minor, and particularly the first few phrases, where the melody first touches the "normal" seventh (B-natural), then curls back around to the "flatted" seventh (care of the melodic minor)--the way that man plays that B-flat after the B-natural, and the way he makes you feel the movement from the B-flat down to the following A-flat, it's enough to make you want to throw so much modern piano playing in the wastebasket. And that was the crux of it: the melodic minor, and how much Ignaz liked it. The deeply touching quality of a shifted tone.

To celebrate the odd coincidence: a delicious dish of bucatini with mussels, tomato, fava beans and pancetta, in which the intervallic/flavoric relations between the ocean, smoky ham, hearty bean and fresh, acidic tomato were explored exhaustively and not at all taken for granted by me.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Posted from bed

Every morning, my CD alarm clock just starts spouting off:

Just in time
You found me just in time
Before you came,
my time was running low,
I was lost,
the losing dice were tossed,
my bridges overcrossed,
nowhere to go.
Now you're here
and I know where I'm going.
No more doubt or fear.
I found my way.
So let's live today, anyway
Change me!
Change me once again...
and lucky day.

I suppose I could Google the words, but I LIKE not knowing exactly how the song ends. I'm wondering: is this too intense a song to wake up to every day? It definitely plays on the "time" motif well, but is it useful to think that "time is running low," that "the losing dice were tossed," each and every morning? I really like the "anyway." It could be just another carpe diem sentiment, but the "anyway" makes it casual, suggests that "living today" is just an (arbitrary) choice, not a command or a need... am I reading this right?

I realize as I listen this morning that Nina Simone albums represent the present for me, they are the characteristic new CD in the soundtrack of my life. By the present I am including last summer (already separated from me by some serious landmarks), when I bought her Blues album in Boone, NC. She is the sound of now (if now means this academic year). So by listening to her, am I truly "living today," prolonging the moment, or am I dangerously close to creating an enormous chain of yesterdays?

Can a classical pianist admit that late Brahms Intermezzi would not be his first choice on his CD alarm clock? I could bore you and tell you that Nina went to Juilliard, was classically trained ... if I ever have that conversation again ("they were classically trained, you know" speaking of some harmonica trio) at a reception you will know, because you will read in the paper that I murdered some nice person with a (probably plastic) fork. But if you don't know this track, you should listen. It is harmonically thrilling, and you know that essay by Charles Rosen where he says that Schubert achieves much of his effect by gradually expanding the melodic range, by in effect making each note count, making each new note a discovery? Well maybe Nina read it cause towards the end while the piano is buzzing around doing the most thrilling kinds of suspensions and dissonances and figurations, she's sticking to that tonic E-flat and its lower neighbor D like a fly on flypaper. She holds to her guns but then climbs one note, then another, and of course the climactic new notes are on "Change me! Change me!" which she sings twice like a cry of the heart. Hardly any notes and tons of heart.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Originally uploaded by Jeremy Denk.
As I enter the east wing of my apartment, the half-unpacked suitcase from last week's concert often growls at me. Perhaps after I finish my coffee...

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Lying to Myself

Sitting with two friends in an apartment downtown, doing the iTunes shuffle. Lovely lazing, shlumped out on a sofa for hours, blabbing about nothing.

At a certain point we came upon a series of meditative songs which seemed to go on forever. Certain modern "popular music" crawls over and through me disturbingly; I don't feel in my own skin. It is melancholic, pulsing, repetitive; it makes me feel suddenly "this is what it's like to be modern" (me who's probably stuck in the 19th century somewhere), all that 20th century crap of existentialism comes to me in a wash, and I realize, yes, it's a dehumanizing routine and mankind's progress is merely a self-destructive path, etc. etc. I said, with my usual eloquence, "it's so sad." And I realized that normally I am a happy person...

But then a Cole Porter song came on, and I turned off the shuffle, and we kept in that world. The charm of one phrase obliterated the whole preceding morass. Above all, there is what is not done: not too much emoting, the rhythm swung but not too much, not too overt. It is always stylized, refined, smooth, cultured; this music is like a graceful, natural pose. But the refinement (the pose) is not snooty, not stifling, it puts no limits on this music's joy, on its eternal internal smile, its bemused, knowing survey of harmony and verse. It creates its own syntax of style, class, wit. There is no visceral push/pull, all that is behind the curtain: considered, absorbed, relegated.

Think of it: from the Baroque endlessly flowing phrases of Bach emerged the "early classical style," the new simplicity (Rousseau, etc.) and the four-bar phrase as God. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven: all mainly in thrall to this phrase ideal. Then the Romantics start putting quotation marks around their phrases, start wondering if phrases exist, melting them, expanding them, denying them; they expand the harmonies which define the phrases, begin a general semantic blurring.... What if a seventh chord actually could be the "tonic"? And Wagner did it. The harmonies get more lush, more plural, more ambiguous. Think Brahms Op. 119 #1. There they all are, those seventh and ninth chords, almost too beautiful to be functional. Wandering, almost meaningless, fragments of phrases ...

It struck me! In Cole Porter, all the "Romantic," blurred chords are there... but there is also this tremendous "last gasp," or resurgence of the four-bar phrase, of the classical ideal! In these songs, the simplicity of the phrase structure (always subject to exceptions, deviations, but nonetheless persistent, essential) is God again. It absorbs and subjugates the tremendous and refined harmonic language. It is like a game, to make these Romantic harmonies fall into place, to make them obey their phrases. And how delicious it is, what an odd couple the harmonies and the phrases make; and how many subtle transformations and voice-leadings and enharmonic tricks are required to merge them!

I listen to a lot of music and love a lot of it. But on those days when you are tired, weak, feeling a little cynical about the hospitality of the world... then, when you can no longer lie to yourself, you turn to the music you really need, which lies next to your heart, which literally feeds you. And I have to admit that Cole Porter and that whole era: I need it.

Vive Sarah Bernhardt

Found this passage in her memoirs, hidden among the books in the guest room of a concert presenter:

"It matters very little to me whether people believe one thing or another. Life is short, even for those who live to a ripe old age, and we must live for the few who know and appreciate us, who judge and absolve us, and for whom we have the same affection and indulgence. The rest I look upon as a mere crowd, lively or sad, loyal or corrupt, from whom there is nothing to be expected but fleeting emotions either pleasant or unpleasant, which leave no trace behind them."

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

New York Surreal Edition

After a glittering black-tie gala, I made my way downtown last night to a poser bar. There was only a slight difference between the socialites posing for the cameras and the New York youthful clubsters posing for each other. We were forced to wait in line outside the club, while others (friends of the doorman, regulars, and those too beautiful to wait) went right on in... which made my friend almost insane. I had to calm him. I was oddly patient; standing on 4th Street in my jeans was delicious after a night spent sitting in my tuxedo. Nights in tuxedos are the inevitable price of a career in classical music.

Once inside, my friend headed for the restrooms, and I for the bar in quest of drink. I sat, patiently awaiting my turn to scream "Tanqueray and tonic." My eyes wandered, and, sitting in a section of the bar that could only be called a "nook," was an elderly gentleman in a striped cap, speaking animatedly with a swarthy young man. Perhaps this was one of those situations that would be best ignored ... but something rang my inner bell. I gave him a long look, and he returned it with a slitting convergence of his eyes--and I realized then that this was one of the old men from the final vignette of Jim Jarmusch's movie, Coffee and Cigarettes.

His name is Taylor Mead, and not only was he rather an odd sight in this bar of youthful dissipation, but that movie itself is so very surreal, and his totally unique face seemed such a symbol of that surreality, that I felt briefly as though Jarmusch's artificial world had come to life, and was lurking in the corner of the bar, waiting to swallow everyone.

That particular section of the movie had touched me rather deeply. Two elderly men sit in an strange, large, vaguely menacing, mostly dark, industrial room; a janitor is listlessly sweeping in the background. There is no way to know why they have come to this bleak workingman's fate, and what dark world surrounds them. They are drinking bad coffee on a break (from what?), and Taylor's character insists that they pretend for a moment it is champagne. This is, of course, their only escape.

But the essence of this vignette occurs when Taylor cocks his ear to listen, and thereby summons one of my favorite Mahler songs, a song which I obsessed over in my Oberlin days: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, "I have lost touch with the world." This auditory hallucination? visitation? is heard by both men (and we as viewers), in fragments... a voice from the other world, utterly foreign to the room we see onscreen. At first nearly inaudible, its volume gradually increases. We want more and more; it blooms, a phrase climaxes; and then, painfully, it vanishes, incomplete. We imagine we are still hearing it even when it is completely silent. This giving and taking away engages a visceral desire for music, like a desire for life itself. This desire can be seen inTaylor's eyes as he tries to keep hold of this musical "vision," but eventually it is just gone--he has to give up.

I feel as though I have given up (against my will) many things which I felt since I first heard that song, many feelings which that song virtually embodies. It is a dizzying self-referential dealie: I feel I have lost touch with the song itself, which is about losing touch...

I am surprised that I got up the courage to introduce myself to him (we are back in "reality" at the bar), but I did, and the young man with him was (apparently) an agent trying to sign him on. Taylor was precisely the childlike anomaly that he represented in the movie. He did some delightfully silly gestures when I told him I recognized him from the movie, and said several times "I love feedback." He told me that Jim Jarmusch loved it when he forgot his lines. He told me about his upcoming show at the Tribeca Film Festival, and his agent quizzed me on the vignette's dialogue. I said "champagne" in Taylor's way (French pronunciation), and tried to imitate his "eccch, this coffee's terrible," and etc. And he seemed pleased. But I couldn't stand getting embroiled in too deep a conversation... the risk of disillusionment was too great, like the time I saw a beautiful medieval play where Archangel Gabriel redeems the world, and found the "archangel" puking in an alley later that evening. So, I excused myself.

And this morning, feeling quite out of touch with the world, I came across the following note on my neighbor's door:

"Last night you woke me again with your noises, screams, bangs on the wall, and LEWD ACTS. This is not a fraternity house, but a place of rest. I will have to call the police..."

And etc. I know the fellow who lives in that apartment. He is a shy, sweet-seeming, 22-year-old former trombonist whose parents came to install him in this ridiculous building. They came and knocked on my door, to get my advice on being a musician in this building, practice hours, and etcetera. I feel sure this boy has done nothing to deserve this note, this intrusion of New York insanity into his existence--just as the men in Jarmusch's vignette do not deserve to drink bad coffee on a deadline while they dream of the past, Paris, champagne...

Monday, April 18, 2005


Just returned by taxi to my apartment, and convinced yet again of Verdi's greatness, whatever that means. Heard Deborah Voigt, Paul Plishka and etc. in Un Ballo en Maschera. I have always had a soft spot for the unbelievable contortions of operatic melodrama--a kind of game played by operatic composers and librettists, working with a small core repertoire of emotions (love, betrayal, duty, honor, etc.), and attempting to wring from this core some new twist, some extraordinary extenuation. In this case, the (at last) honorable king, renouncing his love (his best friend's wife!), is singing farewell to her to the backdrop of an elaborate masked ball... Somehow this heart-rending duet finds a "match," a harmony with the waltz of the frivolous crowd. This is stage one of Verdi's "game;" the lovers are not allowed to part in private, in a separate scena; they must coexist with this unrelated event. This musical correspondence, this crush of events, has symbolic overtones (the dance of life/death, things must go on, love is merely a dance, etc.) But, meanwhile, the conspirators are huddling, preparing to strike, seen by us (the audience) but not of course by the lovers ... this is done musically by adding to the waltz just one chromatic note, in a single instrument (obsessive, repetitive, not "musical," ergo symbolic). This is Stage 2 of the game: a small touch but impossible to miss; held within, not altering the larger musical structure (thus not tipping off the lovers, who are waltzing heedless to doom) but clearly audible to the audience, just as the black cloaks of the conspirators are visible. The death, then, is nearly incidental, passes by with only the "usual" musical attention, because Verdi's attention is directed elsewhere: to the king's forgiveness of his own murderer.

The game so far has been about polyphony, about the tragic, bizarre superimposition of layers. In answer to these dislocations--the masqueraded crowd; the frivolity of the ball vs. the tragedy of the impending events; the loyal friend now become murdering conspirator; the dissonant note underlying the waltz; and etcetera--this forgiveness is uttered with total unanimity--assembled crowd, ill-starred principals, everyone. Univocal, concentrated; the act, the emotion, is so intense that it submerges all individual expression.

Links and Presumption and Stereographic Writing

It appears I am now linked at Terry Teachout's very serious and thoughtful arts blog, for which I am grateful...

I am aware of how presumptuous and odious it is for a lazy, self-satisfied non-composer (such as I, heading out to tan like any serious artist in Central Park today) to lecture hard-working composers on their shortcomings, as in the last post. Mea culpa. But the point of that post is really not the (considerable) shame and decay of modern culture--and so-called "classical music" in particular--but the idea of a musical work as the counterpoint of various voices--not in the literal, "compositional" sense of soprano, alto, tenor, bass, but using the word "voices" somewhat as Roland Barthes uses the word "codes" in his book, S/Z:

"The five codes create a kind of network, a topos through which the entire text passes...

Alongside each utterance, one might say that off-stage voices can be heard: they are the codes: in their interweaving, these voices (whose origin is "lost" in the vast perspective of the already-written) de-originate the utterance: the convergence of the voices (of the codes) becomes writing, a stereographic space where the five codes, the five voices, intersect..."

And so, in accusing composers of not "multitasking," I am not saying that they are lazy, but that somehow their compositional approach is not open to this kind of interweaving. A voice (a style, a method, a logic, a sound) is found; it is cultivated, but other voices are suppressed, or never explored; this univocal cultivation sometimes results in something that is "well-crafted" (the ultimate in faint praise), but is not really "writing" or "composition."

What I love about Barthes is how he avoids placing works of art next to each other in some grand Hall of Great Art, where their qualities glower at each other and are subject to endless art-historical comparisons, proposing instead a much wider (infinite), nearly unimaginable context: the unimpeded, total plural, what he calls the "writerly":

"... the writerly text is not a thing, we would have a hard time finding it in a bookstore ... the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world ... is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages."

I imagine myself in a hall of the Metropolitan Museum, staring up at busts of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, etc. I have that faint headache I often get in art museums, that sense of standing too long, the ache in my feet, an irritation with the lighting. Barthes' quote above (despite its intellectualism?) makes the hall, the whole museum, vanish; in its place a starry, endless field with infinite crossing lines, where Op. 111 Beethoven is actually connected to me directly (by uncountable threads), where I myself might compose some part of Op. 111 (say), where there is no "pitiless divorce" between me and the music... The writerly is a "perpetual present;" and come to think of it, that is the perpetual goal of my piano practicing, in all its seemingly repetitive tedium. As Robert Mann once said to me in a lesson (and I am paraphrasing): you don't practice in order to repeat exactly what you have practiced on stage (that is in order to be a serviceable, reliable robot--and we are all familiar with those performances) but instead to be able to create freely at the moment of the performance... in order to access the "writerly," after all the initial freezing of the musical idea into the score, and the subsequent ossification of centuries and tradition, to do the impossible and rescue the text back into the present.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Club Soda

I woke up early this morning and was productive; I will not make that mistake again.

From 10-12 AM I was occupied, in a quasi-professional capacity, listening to the music of young composers. It is fascinating to see all these different ways of throwing notes on paper. Mostly the music felt brackish, unclear, and when it was clear you wish it weren't. Perhaps I can find a way to blame modern culture (pop music etc.) for all this: but these young "classical" composers seem unable to multitask, to accomplish more than one compositional parameter at once. By parameter, I don't mean the conventional ones of rhythm, melody, harmony, etc., but larger, less literal ones that one might look for in a piece of music:


This is a partial list. Of course, if you just write a great tune, you might be able to avoid worrying about any of the above. But most composers (other than Gershwin and Schubert) probably have to slog along and think about these things. This morning from 10 to 12, I heard a lot of strange and varied omissions: logic without direction; beauty without invention; structure without surprise; absorption without logic... The one element absent most often was "invention"--closely followed by "imagination." How many reworkings of the same phrase rhythms can we really tolerate? Why is everything so rut-bound and modelled? I know there's nothing new under the sun, but do you have to prove it to me?

The thing is, you don't have to write a piece through in one go. You don't have to concentrate on everything at once; you can "gradually multitask," and devote yourself by turns to various elements ... There is this mythic notion that you conceive a piece all in one inspiration, but I think Beethoven's sketches very clearly show a different, gradual process--the fleshing out of a thought, the step-by-step addition of ideas, layers, unforeseen anomalies--the "hewing" of a piece, in the sense of this definition: "To cut something by repeated blows." The different cuts of the mind from different directions, finally creating a 3-dimensional musical object.

So, this afternoon I sat down and played through Stravinsky's Piano Rag-Music. After all those muddy, lukewarm pieces, it was like a cold club soda with lime, sharp and refreshing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


The premier blessing and curse of my life right now is its self-scheduling nature. Today I find myself in a familiar bind: I started practicing around 10, worked, put in fingerings, yadda yadda yadda, and around 1 I begin to feel the first pangs of hunger. I say to myself: "You should eat, you won't get any good work done if you are hungry." But then my eyes stray to one or another measure and I manage to eke out another 10 minutes on that... these "last-minute" practice windows are often the best ones, the most distilled. Then fatigue sets in again, my mind wanders back to lunch, and I have to be my own boss, and decide when I can eat. Delaying the decision, temporizing, I go in the other room, I check my email, I wander back to the piano, I find another productive 5 minutes, and then slowly rotating into this vortex of indecision is the question of what exactly do I want to eat? What, when, how, where: all these questions hover, unresolved. Perhaps I could decide every evening exactly what I will do the next day, make a precise schedule. But something bothers me about this: it seems to counter my free will, the joy of living in the moment. Then again, since each day of free will seems to bring the same, seemingly predetermined, indecision, what kind of free will is it?

Monday, April 11, 2005


The best part of this past weekend I spent alone on the stage of the 92nd Street Y. I had a propitious, quick, smooth cab ride across a sunny Central Park, with coffee in my left hand, and a score propped open on my right knee, and I was very happy to land on the east side just in time: an unlikely pianist in shorts, sneakers, T-shirt, and baseball cap (covering intense bedhead), trying to get his mind in order before an afternoon concert. First the mind, then the hair. Sometimes I wish I were one of those artists who could appear everywhere in glamour garb, who finds time for meticulous, persistent image control--alas.

Sometimes practicing feels like a chore (like milking cows, say) and sometimes like a solitary mystical rite. Yesterday it was neither: it was a particular sensual/mental pleasure going over the accompanimental arpeggios in Schubert's Auf Dem Strom, hearing them come back to me from the empty hall ... the kind of Schubert writing that when I was 16 (to refer again to this earlier Jeremy) would strike me as unthinkably boring. 16-year-old me was right, in a way; it is almost aggravatingly naive, willfully simple. So many bars of E major arpeggios! It is a real challenge to play these as though you were simply inspired to play them, as though nothing in the world could please you more than to play these rippling E major sounds, for as long as the composer demands.

But there in the hall yesterday, my dissatisfaction waned; I played them through until their long phrase rhythm settled in, (here is the dominant, here is the six-chord, here is the subdominant) until I understood the "hypermeasures"... which is as though Schubert finally intervened, walked into the empty hall, and said "there there, Jeremy, calm down, stop worrying about where it will go, it all fits into place like this and this..." Something like this happens with every piece at some point ... the composer shows you a way, and it "clicks." The problem is, I never know when this will happen, I have no particular system for arriving at this understanding. I have the feeling many composers don't want you to click too easily. You work, and work, and these epiphanies arrive in their own time. It lends itself to superstition: you must perpetually keep working, in case you miss the epiphany of the day. I suspect I am not alone in this, which is why I think so many musicians go around on edge, and become irritable in the periods before their concerts, waiting for the composer to help them out. Sometimes it arrives before the concert; sometimes not.

The thing is, everyone arrives at these understandings. And they arrive at totally different results, which are all nonetheless contracts or "truces" between themselves and the composer (and the piano, and the hall, and etcetera). Hopefully, most of these negotations are carried on "in good faith."

To contrast with this legalistic notion of a "contract" between composer and performer, I have had several ecstatic moments lately: yesterday, walking across the park after the Y concert, with the final bars of Auf Dem Strom in my head; Thursday, after a read-through of the Schumann Adagio and Allegro with Carter Brey; and Saturday night, during Mitsuko Uchida's cadenza of the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto. These were each musical elations which passed over into a personal sense of well-being. Each of these are major-key, joyful pieces; I was not elated, however, by their "general mood" (nothing can be more depressing than an empty, happy piece) but rather by moments from each I would describe as "flowing over": in the Schubert, the final quatrain's descending melodic lines, which seem to address a void, to provide a sort of beauty "missing" from the rest of the song (bestow a blessing); in the Schumann, the lead-in to the recapitulation, which develops the chromatic gist of the piece in even more passionate directions; and in the Beethoven, the appearance of this monstrous "tarantella" in the cadenza, the insistent intervention of darker, minor-key harmonies, the whipping-up of unprecedented tension, all aimed at a luminous release.

Each of these moments emerges from the piece's frame, is in a sense "illegal" (the composer breaks his own contract with the piece he has written), pours over boundaries. A tarantella cadenza? Impossible. But then, having been accustomed to winter's rules of coats and gloves, we all find it possible to wear shorts and even flip flops, we pour ourselves outside and drink frozen drinks... It doesn't seem possible that spring could exist, and further that it could be such a pleasure again (I have seen it before). But it does, and is.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


I am obsessed right now with a single memory: a 16-year-old me standing in the cafeteria line of Dascomb dormitory at Oberlin. I was studying the E minor Partita of Bach, which I am playing tomorrow night, and which I played at my New York debut recital, and on innumerable other occasions. Conservatively, I have played the opening bars of that piece thousands of times, tried to make every note clear, tried to play in tempo properly, to articulate, to enunciate, not to double-dot, not to swallow notes--I have obsessed. But then I mentioned to Leon Kirchner that I was playing that piece, and he sang it once for me, in an anguished tone of voice: a sweep to the top, and then an eloquent falling sigh. It was so much better than any of the times I had played it; it was so much closer to how I imagined it at 16 while waiting, tray in hand, for sloppy joes. So here's to you, Leon! Tomorrow night I will try to play it much closer to how you sang it, to replace the raw 16-year-old emotion in it, without forsaking my accumulated craft. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

New York Night

Although I did not admit as much to my companions, I had one of the best burger experiences of my life tonight: a turkey burger (!) at the Old Town Bar. Its fresh, juicy simplicity, topped with three thick pickle slices, was almost enough of a sensual experience to drown out the surrounding, overwhelming din of drunken college girls who sounded like geese.

I'm assuming the rain brought this on: the trip home and much of the evening was freakish. There was a woman in the lobby of the Village Cinemas East who made amazing, insistent, high-pitched alien sounds, like an exotic bird in heat. Standing in front of the ritzy club at the northeast corner of Union Square we came across a whole, zoological spectrum of hipsters: boys wearing both Armani suits and John Deere caps; strutting peacock men in well-cut shirts; sassy girls with tight, tight jeans. A drunken man came up to me as I was standing outside the Old Town, and asked me if they served food; "Yes," I said; he said "How fast?;" and what could I say? "Medium fast." He stumbled in, tripping himself on the threshhold. And then there was a cellist playing an amplified "Swan" with electronic accompaniment in the Times Square subway station; and a purple pile of vomit on the platform; and several homeless men cleaning out or sorting through a giant duffle bag in the 2 train, debating the worth of some weirdly shaped piece of silver (a retainer? whose?). Dirty socks, gloves, papers came out... "This looks like a welfare form." Everything went onto the soaked and filthy floor. What futile bureaucrat gave him that form?

It was a weird New York Night; I am home, buttoned up in my apartment with the remnants of the Indian food I had for lunch, and thinking about a clean tomorrow.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

B Minor Fugue

Bach must have known just how I would feel this morning (some 255 years after his death), dragging myself out of bed to practice on a rainy day after wings and beer with my friend last night--as he composed just this exact feeling into the last fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier:


Let us be clear: this theme is work. It was not tossed off in a moment's inspiration, light as air. It is heavy, gradual, painstaking (too heavy, too painstaking). And when the other voices enter, it gets worse, more bogged down; too many strings are attached. What possessed the man to create this alien, chromatic landscape? What made him choose precisely these bizarre voice-leadings, these ungrateful leaps?

But the fugue is visited three times by a miracle. The theme vanishes, and in its place we have bars of fluid counterpoint... These bars are not "difficult" like the theme, and they require no special compositional prowess: they are simple, almost banal. If the theme is an exercise in complexity, these passages, too, are like compositional exercises, but in a primer: dissonances and resolutions for three voices, example 1a. But they have an amazing power. They are a voice from beyond the fugue ... they feel otherworldly, the excessive gravity of the piece seems to lift.

They are scattered through the fugue irregularly: twice close together towards the beginning (as if trying to intervene)... and then the fugue proper takes over again, we are plunged into more and more elaborate counterpoint. We think, perhaps, it will never come again. Then, finally one last visitation, near the end. I think "visitation" is the right word, the appearance of a divine spirit, a revelation which must vanish, which must be postponed for the next life. Back to the chromatic vale of tears. And me, too, back to the piano, to get something done.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Alistair MacLeod

Richard Goode once told me that his ideal day would consist of reading and practicing, interspersed. This was intimidating; I don't imagine being able to sustain that "artfulness" (or artyness?), without healthy doses of the sensual, the silly, and the plain idiotic. Thus in between chromatic Bach fugues, I feel it is necessary to watch WB shows about tanned surfers and their difficult, complex 15-to-19-year-old life problems. While watching said shows, I tend to eat delicious spare ribs and house special fried rice from my nearby Vietnamese restaurant.

But the fact is, I have been reading, and really enjoying, this book of stories, Island, by Alistair MacLeod. And this passage sums up (though speaking about miners in Nova Scotia) some of the classical musician's plight:

"... I would have liked to reach beyond the tape recorders and the faces of the uninvolved to something that might prove to be more substantial and enduring. Yet in the end it seemed we too were only singing to ourselves. Singing songs in an archaic language as we too became more archaic, and recognizing the nods of acknowledgement and shouted responses as coming only from our own friends and relatives. In many cases the same individuals from whom we had first learned our songs. Songs that are for the most part local and private and capable of losing almost all of their substance in translation..."

It is funny when you are most absorbed in your work (as I am now) and most convinced of its substance (as I am now), that the pessimistic flip side raises its voice convincingly as well.