Sunday, May 29, 2005

Call of the Wild

"Fie on Charleston for clogging your blogging." So writes reader Erin, and though Charleston deserves no fie, I am grateful there are readers to know when there are no posts. I have returned from two concerts (11 am, 1 pm) where I played that joyful, bounding, cloudless Schumann work Faschingsschwank aus Wien. God, what a wonderful piece! And in the somewhat dry Dock St. theatre I felt able to articulate all sorts of things, to come out from Schumann's occasional muck. (Sometimes one wished for a small helping of muck). And then I have had the delicious pleasure of peeling off my somewhat dampened concert clothes and draping them semi-carefully on chairs and bedposts, and reverting to shorts and flip-flops... aah. Flop I go on my wicker sofa. The relief after a concert, after what one considers a semi-successful performance, is luckily almost as deep as the anxiety that precedes the next one.

Charleston is one of those places that makes you think sensually, constantly. So now, as I go over in my head the eternal question "how do I want to spend the rest of my day?," what occurs to me is not a list of tasks but a rush of feelings. For example: sand beneath my feet; the cold of a coffee gelato; the breeze as I pass through Charleston's historic alleys, fast, on my bicycle; the taste of a grilled tender scallop; and certainly not the godawful cold clammy fluorescent light of the one practice room with its poor bedeviled piano, which is acting like a Northerner unused to the heat and becoming grumpy, with several sticky keys... new ones each day! Oh the sensual deprivation of practicing! Only after a hour's persistence do you finally get to the meat of the matter, to the place where you can deal mentally with your issues... and during that whole hour the outside world calls to you, you imagine people streaming down King Street, their sandals slapping against the pavement as they window-shop, as they stop for wings and beer, as they attend cute cultural events and jibberjab and argue about parking. Today it may be too much for me; the sensual may overwhelm the cultural; and so off I go....

Saturday, May 28, 2005


It is 8:33 AM. I have been awake for 33 minutes and have to play a concert in slightly less than 2 1/2 hours. I am on my second cup of coffee and have to judge how much will keep me alert until concert time, without sending me into a mania. I shake my head back and forth, wiggle my cheeks, and make silly sounds ... will that help? Charleston life is so very different from New York life, and my brain does not seem to function in a linear, Northern way, I begin to think like a mint julep and blogging seems exotic, bizarre, impossible. Post, an inner voice says, post! And yet the gelateria beckons. Perhaps a walk around the battery, or just a sit in my own lovely garden. Or a casual bikeride around this most beautiful of towns.

Curse the man/woman who invented the morning concert. And I have played so very many. The morning is already the "difficult" part of my day, the mini-crisis of every day. In the afternoon, I often look back at the person I was at 10 AM and think, what a silly boy, what complicated, difficult thoughts he deluded himself with, life is really so uncluttered and simple... but then again at 10 AM the next day it is the same thing, the same morass. Coffee is the acid with which I cut through that primeval, post-sleep ooze. Then add the stress of pre-concert preparations, etc. (where's my suit? is my shirt ironed? do i have my music? blah blah blah) to the whole mix: a morning with a concert is just a mess... i have to evolve from dinosaur to aristocrat in two short hours. Just not enough time: too often a Tyrannosaurus Rex walks out on stage...

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Yesterday morning I awoke in a shuttered suite, bathed in pastels, sunshine leaking through the cracks, and when I flung open the curtains (averting my bleary eyes) I saw pristine white boats preparing for a day of fishing in a calm ocean. And I finally put my head back down again in my darkened New York apartment, lulled by "Manhattan waves": the rush of cars up and down Broadway.

Both places had clutter in common. It is amazing; no matter how spacious and sumptuous the hotel room, it seems I react to it like an artist to a blank canvas: I must fill it, or die trying. From the bed yesterday morning, I could see sneakers, dress shoes, socks, shirts, boxer shorts, etcetera laying a trail into the distance, until they reached the living area, where leftover cheese, crackers, and fruit took up the slack: a clump of Boursin here, a used red wine glass there, the wrapper of the crackers placed "just so" on the floor next the coffee table. It was a composition! I had replaced the sanitary perfection of the suite with my native, magnificent disorder, and in record time! Is there a market for this sort of art?

There must be a Latin saying along the lines of "If it is there, it will be consumed." (Perhaps in Spanish: "the tapas will always be gone by evening"?) This hotel was certainly a marvel of consumption. I was not blameless; I fell in with the herd; I ached to consume every inch of my room, every lotion in the bathroom, and in a fit of pique over my $34 room service charge for oatmeal, coffee, and juice, I shoved all the unused toiletry items into my suitcase. (Needless to say, I do not recommend this resort for my more frugal friends). The room service bills were like veritable poems of greed, an endless tally of fees and surcharges which you would hopefully forget about on the beach, in the sunshine.

And I did; I opted against practicing (using the trusty "when in Rome" excuse) and ambled to the beach with nothing other than my shades and my Moleskine notebook (in which I wrote nothing). There I cell phoned my friends, who were amused and/or jealous (my intended effect). I ordered a mango frozen beverage. Then I sat, and baked, and tried to imagine Beethoven. I am not kidding. Actually, I think it was Beethoven (that dead European jerk) who wouldn't leave me in peace. Phrases from the "Spring" Sonata (which I was supposed to play that evening--a piece for which I have never had a totally natural affection) kept popping into my head (how will you play me tonight? don't you owe me something?), and then, when I tried to ignore them, more imperious phrases from the last Piano Sonata (Op. 111) attacked at will. In front of my eyes, the world's most perfect surfer girl and boy settled themselves on chairs to tan (though they were spread perfectly with brown, as if to demonstrate the very Platonic form of "tan"), pulling off shirts, stretching their lithe bodies, with almost comical languor--it was like an Abercrombie & Fitch poster--and while I was observing this, sweating profusely, attempting to appear like I naturally "belonged" here on the beach, like the crabs and the jellyfish, the dotted opening phrase of Op. 111 kept jarring my brain awake:


Could Beethoven have written that piece, here on the beach? I imagined him sitting there, in his shades, with sheafs of manuscript paper, his brow knitting with anger and anxiety, getting ready to notate that first, shocking diminished seventh chord ... when suddenly a 17-year-old girl in a tight, becoming shirt comes up and says "may I take your drink order?" Would he scream at her, tell her to go away? Or would he crumple up the manuscript and have a daiquiri? And could you imagine the surfer boy and girl listening intently to the variations of Op. 111, following them to their transcendental conclusion? No; Op. 111 and the beach are irreconcilable.

Problems basically have two categories of solutions, either to hold on harder (concentrate, buck up, pull up your bootstraps, put your nose to the grindstone), or to let go (release your tension, get some perspective, some sleep, some peace of mind). A lot of my work these days at the piano is directed at increased attention, sending my brain more intently and constantly to the tips of my fingers, trying to keep track of both hands, make them lively, active, willed. And the music I play rewards this attention, richly... I realized on the beach how difficult it was to let my attention wander completely, to "let go," how strong the boundary was between practicing and tanning (as strong as that between Beethoven and surfer chick). I was so used to paying attention; I could even feel myself bringing concentration to bear on my relaxation. I wondered if lying by the pool or ocean, drinking daiquiris and reading People magazine, slathering lotion and eating quesadillas... well, is that really the ideal way to let go? It seems to be a societally recognized method; Florida is one vast spigot through which Americans drain their anxieties. The pool was mobbed with reddened relaxers.

And so, on I theorized... I won't say I didn't enjoy my time at the beach, but I enjoyed the evening performance much more. The release of acting, of creating a phrase more or less the way I wanted (in the "Spring" Sonata which had molested me earlier)--it felt enormous, true, complete. But that's me. Probably I just need to learn how to relax. But in the meantime, I better go practice.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Yesterday morning it was on ABC News, and today it hits the New York Times: mystery "Piano Man" is now a big-time star, complete with an alluring photograph, where he clutches his music and the sun glints through his hair. (Kudos to Dean Olsher for first alerting me to this breaking news; he knows what is and isn't news!) The Times shares my cynicism, opining obliquely: "There is, of course, the delicate question of whether the man is a bona fide patient..." The "of course" says it all; it's a figure of speech intended to bring us all into communal agreement, whether or not that agreement exists; it is the implication of hushed, huddled gossip, of connivance; it says that what it's about to say needn't really be said, since it is obvious, and yet it will say that thing, since something needs to be made manifest, has to be expressed... "There is, of course," [what?]

Let us hypothesize for the moment that we have a delicious sham on our hands, and that Piano Man is a monstrously clever chap who has decided to create a career through this bizarre and instantaneous publicity. What he has done is very simple. He has merely externalized the internal metaphors which we all carry around in our mythology of "the artist." He has made the cliché into reality:

The artist is a loner. Check: he was found wandering alone on the Isle of Sheppey. No kin have come forward.

The artist speaks only through his art. Check: he has not spoken to hospital personnel; he only communicated one thing, his drawing of a grand piano (drawing=art, not speech).

The artist is a foreigner, an exile, "not one of us." Check: he seems to have emerged from the sea itself, soaked in ocean water (though wonderfully, in a Kafkaesque touch, still in his concert attire). From what distant, exotic land could he have emerged? My bets are on Atlantis.

The artist is the survivor of trauma, which he communicates to an audience. He suffers for his art. Check. This trauma is even more powerful because we have no way of knowing what it is. It is, therefore, unimaginable. Did he throw himself overboard because of a lost love? Etcetera, etcetera. Or more appropriately: yadda yadda yadda.

The artist is attractive. Since what he/she communicates is beautiful, he/she must be beautiful too. Check. Without this, the whole scheme would be ruined. One must count one's assets.

The artist is insane. Check, as defined by his current accommodations.

The artist has no identity, outside of his art. Check: No kin have come forward. Labels, even, were cut out of his clothing. Nothing about him is inscribed. On the contrary, the artist inscribes, does all the writing, the telling, the showing. He himself is a blank slate, a pure expressive instrument. No one can truly know the artist, since he has no "self." Artists, therefore, only truly love their art. Etcetera.

Against which, I must counterpose the "reality" of myself as artist, on May 18, 2005, in a Manhattan apartment, clutching coffee in one hand while I stab at my laptop keyboard: the difficult reality that I must once again go to the piano and try to begin again, with that giant pile of wonderful, clamoring music. The labels are still on my clothing. Like my apartment, my playing is full of things I would like to "fix up;" there are some things that could be remodelled in a single go, but most things require constant care, mundane attention, a daily calisthenics of the fingers and the mind and proddings for the imagination... The greatest pianists I know seem to approach even their most familiar pieces like blank crossword puzzles, as something to be filled in fresh; each time just as daunting, the whole piece must be "understood again." This is reality as I know it. The clichés of Piano Man can be understood in a flash, as a totality; that is why they make great news. They have the completeness of image. But the Schubert Trio (the E-flat Major) I am about to practice: I know I will never traverse it completely, ever. Which is a good thing.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Desire and Forgetting, a Birthday Blog

Birthdays are usually days where I insist on indulging myself to the fullest, to the point of making myself very unhappy. Case in point: my 21st birthday, where, extrapolating from my love of coffee, I declared that I would drink as much coffee as possible (based on theorem more=better) resulting in an irritable, cranky, wired mess. Today life seems to be indulging me however, and I am content to let it. For example, this morning at 9 the TV provided me with not just "any" episode of Charmed, but the very first episode, so that I could see exactly how the three witch sisters first came to be aware of their awesome powers, and I could wonder how the show ever survived its pilot. A highlight: when Piper's boyfriend, "Jeremy," turns out to be a horrible, murderous demon--much as I was on my 21st birthday after three thermoses (thermi?) of Kenya AA.

Then, I received a delightful email from my friend regarding a lonely, speechless, piano player found wandering a windswept road on the Isle of Sheppey. Though the article is meant to be somewhat touching and melancholy, I laughed and laughed. The "windswept road" is my favorite touch; the article author is given over to literary pretensions, to be sure, a la Thomas Hardy, perhaps, of The Mayor of Casterbridge? Are we sure these are not the shenanigans (the brilliant maneuvers) of some out-of-control publicist? Perhaps this "mystery piano player" will soon be touring the world, appearing in Carnegie Hall to sold-out crowds, etc. Please be assured, this is not me! I have never been to the Isle of Sheppey.

Finally, though, on my "indulgent" birthday, I had to make a choice, between a carton of butter cookies and some delightful leftover chocolate sauce (Belgian chocolate with cream):


or oatmeal with honey, strawberries, and banana:


Basically, a choice between virtue and vice. I am happy to tell you I chose virtue. But what does the Bible (or any other religious document, for that matter) have to say about choosing virtue in order to feel less bad about subsequent vice? For indeed I chose oatmeal as a sort of counter to expected and likely overindulgence in food and drink with friends this evening, in the Village. It would seem just to be a roundabout way of choosing vice, of ameliorating vice. I turned not to the Bible, but to the Tao Te Ching, trans. by Stephen Mitchell:

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Hmmm, not too helpful. Seems to free me to do just about anything! How about:

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the oatmeal and/or chocolate sauce.

(I have slightly edited this translation for current circumstances.) This is better; perhaps I should not get caught up in desire for either oatmeal OR chocolate sauce, or margaritas, or that delightful dish I can't wait to have this evening with the stuffed poblano peppers with the pomegranate seeds. Oops. Turning back to timeless wisdom:

... the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come,
as for example pilots of Charmed,
and emails about piano players,
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Actually I REALLY LOVE those last two lines, the business about forgetting! They gave me another delicious birthday pleasure, which was a connection to another quote I love, which is my true birthday blog indulgence, just for me... some more Roland Barthes:

"Yet reading does not consist in stopping the chain of systems, in establishing a truth, a legality of the text ... it consists in coupling these systems, not according to their finite quantity, but according to their plurality (which is a being, not a discounting): I pass, I intersect, I articulate, I release, I do not count. Forgetting meanings is not a matter for excuses, an unfortunate defect in performance; it is an affirmative value, a way of asserting the irresponsibility of the text, the pluralism of systems: it is precisely because I forget that I read." --S/Z

And I will now (finally) take the advice of the Tao:

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Schumann's Sleight-of-Hand

I read a wonderful quote the other day: "A mathematician is a device for converting coffee into theorems." (Don't ask me to source it, I forget.) And today, from my first sip, blogposts bloomed in my brain, begging to be let free. I want to follow up on some Schumann stuff... Yesterday I compared a passage in Roland Barthes' Lover's Discourse to the various "manners" of Schumann, and lying in bed this morning, further examples of the three "stages" (affirmation, doubt, re-beginning) leapt to mind. For you Schumann fans, the Fantasy, Op. 17, last movement, is a perfect example of this "let us begin again," this return which is not a repetition, the affirmation of difference, and the love affair in question here is between Schumann and Beethoven, an austere, distant, but intense love, visited with all kinds of anxiety and power imbalances, like any good relationship. Haha.

But I would like to get technical today, and for those of you non-musicians, don't freak out because I am going to make all kinds of oversimplifying analogies to language and physics which will have two virtues: 1) to make it easy to understand what I'm saying and 2) to infuriate any music theorists who might be reading. In fact, I will forward this post on to a couple especially crusty music theorists I know and hopefully there will be all sorts of withering commentary, like my favorite remark scribbled on the margin of the first draft of my Juilliard doctoral document: "Yuck."

Oversimplifying analogy #1: Music is a language, i.e. it has a grammar and a syntax. For a given phrase, we've got a "home key," which we call (don't freak out) the TONIC. And the harmony which leads us to the tonic is the DOMINANT...


and then of course before the dominant we might have the dominant's dominant, the pre-dominant...

Dominant of Dominant
goes to
goes to

(Musicians reading this will be bored. My apologies. This is all, like, basic musical "logic.") Now the tonic is, in a sense, the "object" of the phrase. Oversimplifying analogy #2 coming up. Let's take the sentence "Last night I ate risotto." If I say simply "Last night I ate..." your listener will certainly be wondering; did you eat a roast beef sandwich at Subway, or New Zealand red snapper with caramelized persimmon and coconut-candlenut foam (as I did at Jefferson just the other night, highly recommended)? Analogy: what you ate (object of sentence) = tonic of musical phrase. Take it or leave it. Now, take this phrase of Schumann, the opening outburst of the Intermezzo from Faschingsschwank aus Wien:


In this phrase, we have all the "logical" ingredients above: predominant, dominant, tonic. I have labeled them all up there in the score ... take my word for it, or ask a crusty music theorist to confirm it for you. But the way that Schumann writes the phrase, ALL THE EMPHASIS IS ON the subject and verb (predominant/dominant), and THE TONIC IS NOT really a significant part of the gesture. Consider the melody: there is a leap up to an accented note (the predominant) then a beautiful turn-around gesture (the dominant)... on the tonic harmony there is no melody, only absence--the resolution only occurs in the left hand. All the semantic emphasis is in "the wrong place." Last night I ate (risotto).

Schumann in this phrase is acting like a magician. Through his sleight-of-hand, our attention is "misdirected." Instead of the harmony to which all the harmonies are headed--instead of the goal--we are made to notice the predicates, the preparatory harmonies. The resolution, the conclusion, is parenthetical, a "non-event." Schumann slips it in where it won't be noticed, "under our noses."

What's more, radical Robert Schumann persists in these sorts of phrases, perpetually putting the accent on the wrong syllable, and by this inversion creates a kind of reverse syntax. This mirror syntax is on the one hand perfectly logical (since all the harmonies are there, in the right order), and on the other hand unsettling, asymmetrical (as the emphasis is always away from the proper place, as if the rhythm of tonality constantly has to be rewritten, challenged, undone).

Now, Schumann can build whole pieces on these "imbalanced" phrases; he loves them. Let me take this a step further. For me, as a listener and performer, I feel like the main force here is not any one chord, but the tension between the predominant and dominant. ("Music is between the notes.") They exert a kind of gravitational pull towards each other. When I play them, I feel a kind of tension and release in my gut, or somewhere... Oversimplifying analogy #3 coming. But: the main sun of this solar system is the tonic, it is the ultimate source around which the other harmonies "orbit." Without that tonic, the other harmonies would have no "meaning." The tension which Schumann adores is between two moons; he neglects the sun.

How does one build on swirling tension (for that is what this Intermezzo does)? If the brick is a "feeling of tension or pull," how can those be solid enough to hold up a musical building? This tension is not quicksand; those "preliminary" chords, those pairings (predominant/dominant) feel awfully strong; the piece, though unsettled, has tremendous energy (note the tempo marking, "with the greatest energy.") Schumann... revolutionary, Romantic... redefining the terms, forcing us into a different frame of reference, finding strength in reversal.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Today I Bite the Hand that Feeds Me

... Never bite the hand that feeds you. But today I will.

Yesterday, apparently (according to an urgent communiqué from my mother), my performance of Brahms E-flat Sonata with Richard Stoltzman was played on NPR's Performance Today. Apparently the host of that program, the delightful and eternally curious Fred Child, mentioned my blog, and there is a link on NPR's site!!! I am grateful.

But then, by a curious twist of fate, today I read an article on Slate ... an article also featured on NPR's Day-to-Day... which has enraged me, beyond reason. In it, the author attempts to "reconstruct" a recipe for Proust's madeleine from Proust's own words. Read it yourself, if you must; he comes to the conclusion that the madeleine, such as Proust describes it, "never existed." Short rebuttal: duh. Longer rebuttal, with ranting:

1) Anyone who obsesses about the madeleine and Proust hasn't really read Proust. ("Oh yes, Proust, the chap with the madeleine, rather long book, that.") There's a lot more book out there, kids, go to it! If you get past page 40, let me know! I'll be really proud of you!

2) The WHOLE MASSIVE NOVEL is ABOUT the elusiveness of experience, memory, time... it debunks "realist" description at every turn. Nothing is ever as it seems; everything is in flux, subject to change, perception, etc. etc. Therefore, it is not a place to seek "recipes." Again: read the book! The whole thing!

[Insert Howard Dean-esque scream here. Magnify times 10. Then imagine me in my pajamas running around my bedroom yelling like that as I read the article, and write this post.]

3) OK, I'll quote from the article: "Many cookbooks claim that you can reproduce Marcel Proust's magical madeleine in your own kitchen. But do any of the recipes yield the genuine article? " Aaarrgggghhhhh. Repeat after me! THERE IS NO "GENUINE ARTICLE." Keep repeating until you have a literary sensibility. The whole proposition is patently absurd! Then later on, he refers to Lydia Davis' translation as the most "accurate." Again, with the ridiculous words!

It's enough to send me scrambling through my volumes for the perfect debunking Proust quote, and within 5 minutes I found:

"For things ... as soon as we have perceived them [i.e. the madeleine] are transformed within us into something immaterial [are you listening?], something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend. A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it. And this is why the kind of literature which contents itself with 'describing things,' with giving of them merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces [refer again to article, and various diagrams in it], is in fact, though it calls itself realist, the FURTHEST REMOVED FROM REALITY [emphasis added, mea culpa, I'm in a mood] and has more than any other the effect of saddening and impoverishing us, since it abruptly severs all communication of our present self both with the past, the essence of which is preserved in things, and with the future, in which things incite us to enjoy the essence of the past a second time. Yet it is precisely this essence that an art worthy of the name must seek to express; then at least, if it fails, there is a lesson to be drawn from its impotence (whereas from the successes of realism there is nothing to be learnt), the lesson that this essence is, in part, subjective and incommunicable."

This endless baker's dissection of Proust's description... reminds me so much of cocktail party conversations where nothing is ventured or gained, where trivia are exchanged endlessly and knowledge hovers in the background, unable to penetrate. Also to some extent, it reminds me of some post-concert receptions, where people come up, very friendly, wonderful people, and ask me all sorts of bizarre minutiae about composers, their eating habits, the strings on their pianos, their views on elephants--I don't know, whatever. And while I am telling them I have no idea, I am thinking "I could tell you a lot, maybe, if you'd ask the right questions."

Smart and Not-So-Smart

Writing about music: a hazardous enterprise. I'm comforted that sometimes even brilliant people can write stupid things about music. Roland Barthes is one of my heroes; nothing makes me happier, for example, than his unique book The Lover's Discourse; but then:

"... the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly) -- such is Schumann."

Schumann is a "minor" composer if you listen to him????? Can you see the smoke coming out of my ears? Actually, I tend to have the opposite feeling. My first days practicing a piece of Schumann tend to be awkward, uncomfortable, like a shotgun marriage--not at all a torrid, instantaneous love affair.

But my first Schumann listenings are torrid in the extreme. The first time I ever heard Davidsbündlertänze, for instance ... My brain retains things from the Oberlin (undergraduate) years in categories. Certain things are rawer, more vivid, they cut me more deeply. This Schumann is one of them. It is one of the chosen, cherished moments my brain has culled from exams, parties, study guides, dormitory meals, dormitory showers, piano lessons, lectures, rehearsals, first friends, lost friends, first kisses, and late-night snowbound walks. My brain said: REMEMBER THIS. And it is so. If I call that piece to my mind, a set springs into place: a dimly lit concert hall, a girl (now woman) playing the piano, seeming far away, and myself in the seat, blown away by the music, not quite believing what I am hearing... it is like a photo thrust in front of my face. It is odd. This is primarily a memory of a sonic event, of moving (affecting) sounds. The memory only came into prominence, gathered significance (like a rolling snowball) from the nature of the music. But it comes back to me completely as a visual event, a film still, a snapshot--timeless, soundless.

It also brings with it a feeling, a sinking, blurring feeling which is the collapse of the past into my present, and the sense of all the things I could teach that 18-year-old boy now if I were sitting next to him... He seems tangible; I want to touch him (though he is me). What would my then skin feel like to my current hands? Would I be able to reach that stubborn, enthusiastic, overworked teen and tell him what he needs? Would he laugh at 34-year-old me? But this is all after-the-fact.

The moment in Davidsbündlertänze is also after-the-fact, it is a recurrence, the recurrence: the second piece of the set comes back after a long absence. After the piece's many events, its varied cast of characters, its ebullient and melancholy dances, a memory arrives, the first (only) real memory, which then unexpectedly surges into a tragic, violent outpouring, a revolt (no this cannot be a memory, cannot be MY memory, no this sadness cannot return, I cannot take it again, no I refuse to allow the penetration of the past into my present), and the only solution: the final piece, a luminous, otherworldly waltz. The waltz is nonsense (not present, not past, only future?); though it feels like a memory, it is not; it is in the "wrong" key (therefore absurd as an ending, though it is one), it is fragmented, halting, and what does it mean?, perched as it is between comfort and farewell and anticipation and loss... in the words of Roland Barthes:

"Love has two affirmations. First of all, when the lover encounters the other, there is an immediate affirmation (psychologically: dazzlement, enthusiasm, exaltation, mad projection of a fulfilled future: I am devoured by desire, the impulse to be happy): I say yes to everything (blinding myself) ...

[Could there be a better description of some of Robert Schumann's music? I don't think so]

There follows a long tunnel: my first yes is riddled by doubts, love's value is ceaselessly threatened by depreciation; this is the moment of melancholy passion, the rising of resentment ...

[... which describes pretty well another goodly portion of Schumann's music... ]

Yet I can emerge from this tunnel; I can "surmount," without liquidating; what I have affirmed a first time, I can once again affirm, without repeating it, for then what I affirm is the affirmation, not its contingency: I affirm the first encounter in its difference, I desire its return, not its repetition. I say to the other (old or new); Let us begin again."

[And this, I think, accounts for the remainder... those unusual Schumann moments which are not consumed either in fevers of enthusiasm or melancholy but somehow define another, transcendent category... like the last waltz of Davidsbündlertänze.]

Now, I think that's pretty good stuff. Roland, let's make up. I forgive you for calling Schumann a "minor" composer (sort of). Let us begin again.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Touchable, Tangible

I was innocently "enjoying" a roast beef sandwich at my local Subway sandwich place when in walked a group of teenage boys, and one of them said something quite unexpected. He said: "I want something ..." (yes? pause for effect?) "Something tangible." He then went over to the counter to order.

I thought it was an interesting choice of words.

Exactly what "intangible" things might you expect from your Subway franchise? (I imagined going up to the counter and ordering the categorical imperative, on Parmesan-Oregano bread.) My sandwich, chips, and soda all seemed solid, real enough. I touched them to be sure. (No, I'm not lying, I really did this.) One of those annoying radio stations is always blaring in there; the walls are electric yellow, riddled with prefab maps and historical pictures; the lighting is odious and fluorescent; and perhaps particularly the tiled floor is the most inexplicable element, ugly beyond ugly... like the floors and the walls are locked in some life-and-death struggle to be more hideous than each other. Indeed, it is no Rothko Chapel, no site for meditation or simplicity, not a likely place to find the great Unknowns.

But of course I was sitting there, Mozart running through my head. The styrofoam sandwich I was consuming was somehow the perfect vehicle for my brain to come off its post-practice spinning, to idle back to rest. As I swallowed (taste had nothing to do with it), different thoughts about how Mozart puts his pieces together--and especially the ways that the opening solos of his concertos seem to really "open things up," to promise distance, future, invention-to-come--crystallized, became tangible. I was very happy, sitting there, looking out at the sunshine on Broadway, consuming nameless nutrition, singing fragments of phrases, hearing arpeggiated E-flat major chords...

Every day I start practicing with the idea "I must practice." (Tautology; a performative.) There is nothing less tangible than this "abstract" need for work, the sense something must be done. What must be done? No clue. It is a caveman urge. And I sit down at the bench, and I start to play at something, and it is always painful at first, halting. It is unfocused, my brain goes from one annoyance to another (no you are tightening here, no that sounds bad, no you must start over like this, okay finally, but look over here your left hand is a disaster! aaah!). But gradually as the session goes on something happens and the connection from brain to finger becomes somewhat electric. I "feel" each note (each note is "tangible," I am functioning as a vehicle for my own ideas.) This feeling grows, and at some point I become a bit cocky about it, it feels too good. Yes, this, and this, oh man, that's exactly what I wanted! And at that point, the point of maximum enjoyment, it is time to stop. It has passed from intangible to tangible to decadence. And it is time for a Subway sandwich.

Monday, May 09, 2005


I was doing the dishes the other day (applause, applause) when jealousy struck. Boredom and prune fingers are more typical side-effects. It was because Nina Simone was singing "The Pusher" in the other room (from her Blues album), and she'd just got to that place where she says "the pusher is a MONSTER!!!!!" It's a great place. Her voice (never lush) passes over into this astringent yowl, the honk of an existentialist goose; it buzzes and grates; the pitch wobbles but somehow sticks to its fabulously ugly spot. Yes, Nina, the pusher is a monster. (What sort of monster? The sort that would consent to sing like that.)

Now, the source of my jealousy: where in the classical rep can you really "let go" like that? Where can you howl and yowl and curse the very ground you walk on? (Metaphorically speaking.) I will allow that such a wonderfully expressive, sustained sound, growing and shifting like an amoeba, is not really possible at the piano. But are there similar places, where one aims for the wild and untamed. The first example that came to mind wasn't so good: near the end of the Strauss Violin Sonata, 1st movement, both players indulge themselves in a huge, operatic climax; it goes on and on and on, in waves, arpeggios... sigh. Yes, you "go to town;" but it's a clean town, sort of like Columbus, Ohio, or worse yet, Lake Forest, Illinois, with its faint, unappetizing whiff of elitism and polish and pride. Not that I'm complaining; I always enjoy playing the Strauss Sonata, and I certainly get my jollies during that moment; but it's not like Nina's "monster."

The second example I thought of was better: the final chord of the Bartok 1st Violin Sonata. It's a giant, wonderful splat:


Sometimes audiences are a bit thrown by this chord, the conflation of three "normal" chords. It's not that there's no harmony to deal with... there are too many harmonies to deal with, all in bluesy, dissonant relation to each other. I myself imagine Bartok (or the ghost of Bartok) saying, right afterwards, "that, my friends, was the TONIC," with a wicked, joyous smile which bursts into a cackle as he walks off into the night. He doesn't stick around for the puzzled applause. The real Bartok was probably too earnest for this, but who knows?

I end up thinking also about how at the end of the Nina Simone tracks there's applause, but through the applause the pianist and various other instrumentalists just kind of "go to town," as if letting free certain ideas which they had wanted to play during the actual tune... The pianist riffs up and down, crazily, and it all seems to be a transition to the next piece, a moment of liberated musical time, as opposed to the more structured time of the songs themselves. Of course, in the classical world, these in-between moments are known as "uncomfortable silence," during which people make catty or complimentary comments about what they just heard; during which girlfriends ask their boyfriends what they thought, and boyfriends try to think of something to say; during which programs are crumpled and uncrumpled, and really only repressed coughs are let free. In classical music the boundary between piece and non-piece is very rigid.

I think if the ghosts of composers do show up occasionally at concerts, they usually leave before the applause starts. In fact, they're probably making their way to the door during the final measures, hoping to time their exits exactly with the last moment of the piece (and if they're in Carnegie Hall, they probably have to fight with a considerable number of eager home-bound New Yorkers in the process). This isn't because they hate the performer, or the attention he/she is getting, It is because they envision the ends of their pieces are exits in and of themselves, and they don't want to let those exits get stale and overcooked. I often feel the end of a (good) performance as the beginning of a larger momentum, as inspiration to go and do and be fruitful and multiply etc. etc. In fact, come to think of it, I never think of the ending of a piece as a closure, or stoppage, as a dead end; the more satisfying the ending, the more of a beginning it seems.

Lest I get all skewered on this simplistic idea that jazz lets go, while classical holds in (jazz=freedom/classical=repression)... in which I am incidentally a repressive figure... I was noticing the ways in which the blues template "holds in" some of the extremities of meaning which the singer declaims. In "The Pusher" Nina says some pretty outrageous stuff:

If I was the President, hear me,
of this land
I'd declare total war
on the Pusher man
I'd shoot him if he stands still
I'd cut him if he runs
I'd kill him with Bible, my razor, and my gun.

And yet somehow these words don't feel so violent on record as they appear, written on the page. The recurring pattern, the blues syntax, seems to take the message out of itself, to displace it. It's still, after all, only the blues, the music seems to say; the chord changes (which never change) make it OK; the violence of the words is only "musical," a kind of expression of rage celebrated (there is something celebratory about this song, though it is about a tragic subject... is it celebrating the musical catharsis, the very existence of an acceptable expression of this rage?) In many classical songs, in those of Mahler for example, there is no such reassurance. The music is almost too responsive, will accommodate and mirror the wildest words. And when Schubert, at the end of Winterreise, shifts to a skeletal, nearly non-song, the barest, saddest outline of a hurdy-gurdy with only a few notes to play, he ups the ante even further, he almost renounces composition itself, he says "I give up, and you should too." There is no comfort, anywhere; the aimless patterning is totally unconsoling, amusical, music writing out its own demise. That's how far the classical world is willing to take it.

So I take it back. No need to be jealous. "My" repertoire goes to all sorts of extremes. So there. But if you see the ghost of Bartok (perhaps having martinis at the Redeye Grill after some concert or other), tell him thank you for me, I love his dirty chords, that he brought over from folk songs to classical, civilized climes. I love that I can play them and feel dirty, their rough feel in the ear and the hand, the naughty thrill of sinking into one of those "ugly" chords before a mildly tolerant audience, and (especially) that I don't even have to clean up afterwards.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Pencils and Nuts

Today I am a squirrel. I am stocking away fingerings for the long, hard festival season. The squirrel hoards for the winter, and I for the summer. Presenters (you know who you are) don't always seem to care about my peace of mind, and thus for a given trimester of festivals I rarely have a single overlap, a single piece played twice (unless I really throw a tantrum) ... At a certain juncture in the summer--the "tipping point"?--the pace of oncoming concerts overwhelms my accumulated credit of preparation, and at that point it is every man for himself ... no, every piece for itself. Me, I am adrift, a contestant on Survivor: Chamber Music -- stay tuned, will the next piece kick my butt?

I am squirrel in other ways as well. I have a huge pencil problem at the piano. Consider this "simple" process:

a) pick up pencil from music rack
b) neatly write fingering
c) put the pencil down in the same place for easy retrieval

Something about this confounds me; it can "gang agley" at a, b, and/or c. For example, I put the pencil back down on the music rack. I am playing along, happily, I feel I sound reasonably OK (as probably occurs too often), so I don't stop, I turn the page, swept up in the moment... (at the very least my page turn will be done with gusto, will express the spirit of the passage I am playing!) At this point the pencil, perched innocently on the music rack, gets caught up in the fracas, flies away, onto the floor--cruelly and perversely landing behind a huge pile of music waiting to be learned (and fingered). I bravely ignore this, but when it comes time again to put in another fingering, then I have to stop playing, crawl on the floor, look for it, and past experience (cruel mother of statistics) has taught me that I have at least a 40% chance of thereby bumping my head against the bottom of the piano (collateral damage). Usually this irritation overwhelms my desire to write in the fingering, and so no more fingerings will be written. So there.

My solution is brilliant, and yet socially unacceptable. (Luckily piano practicing is a deeply antisocial activity.) I keep a pencil in my mouth (!) at all times while practicing, and this makes me look rather idiotic... like a squirrel or chipmunk. But the pencil is thus always at hand (at tooth, I should say), and I have become quite attached to this posture; this idiocy tames my mind, arranging it in the ideal "flow state" for practicing. Sometimes all I need to do is put a pencil in my mouth to put myself "in the mood" (not tonight, Steinway, I have a headache). Pencil is to me as blanket is to Linus and yes I know Schroeder was the one who played the piano but Linus was and is my hero.

After three hours of fingering yesterday, I headed to my local sleepy Indian restaurant, which, judging from its takeout menu, is "Under New Management." There is of course no reflection of this in either the service or the cuisine. As always, I order "Balti Jalfrazi," and, as always when I eat in the restaurant, it is totally in another planet of tastiness from the same dish, delivered. A bowtied, elegant waiter wipes my plate with a pristine white towel before gently laying it down on the table in front of me. The dish is presented in a beautiful, miniature copper pail. Fragrant basmati rice steams from an oval platter. I refuse to believe the food suffers that much from the four block journey to my house. Here is my theory: when you sit in the restaurant, they are forced to confront you "as a person," to believe in your existence... they cook with courtesy, ethically. But as a mere delivery, a numbered apartment on a numbered street, it is just business, just the endless flow of curry up and down Amsterdam Avenue...

Bon Vivant

If to seek the last beans out of the coffee bean bag is to "suck at the marrow of life," then consider me today a Bon Vivant:


A rough measure of the urgency of the coffee-making process is the amount of coffee spilled in getting from the grinder to the French Press:


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Poetic Experiment

New Yorkers know that their subway cars are peppered not only with advertisements for chemical skin peels and trade schools, but also with sponsored snippets of poetry. It would be noble, perhaps, to enjoy these bits of verse as an artsy escape from the maelstrom of the trains, the screeching of their brakes, the scurrying of rats on tracks, and the other, more generalized difficulties of the commute--but I am not noble in this respect. The choices are often insipid, and the poems seem to me so out of place, uncomfortable, artificial, on their little slanted panes. It seems too desperate, kind of sad, like raising a golden retriever in a New York studio. Poem, run free!

In response, therefore: this. I composed it on my way home tonight. It is the first (and maybe last, depending on feedback) of a series of poems in which lines of "Subway Verse" are interspersed with lines from other ads and posters in the specific subway car. Here goes:

Music, when soft voices die,
must be made available to people with disabilities,
vibrates in the memory--
Map it!
Odors, when sweet violets sicken
on the subway,
live within the sense they quicken;
please be aware that not all disabilities are visible.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead--
(you'll be seeing this a lot)
are heaped for the beloved's bed:
This is the symbol of our commitment.

And so thy thoughts
must be in one of the first five cars.
When thou art gone,
Become a dental assistant!
Love itself shall slumber on:
This could be the last ride of his life.

In case you didn't enjoy this, in the words of another subway poster: "It's a work in progress."

Monday, May 02, 2005

Children and Time

One could have paid a lot of money over the last week to see grown adults act like children. There was Dawn Upshaw , daring to prance around the august stage of Carnegie Hall on an imagined hobby-horse. And there was Richard Goode, tenderly coloring Mussorgsky's quirky chords around and behind her, making tritones sound like a child's wrinkled nose.

I find this Mussorgsky set -- "The Nursery" -- an unbelievable masterpiece: brilliantly funny, perceptive, so exactly mirroring a child's behavior, in all its innocence and inconsistency ... and quite sad. The child is visited by little tragedies (crashing on his hobby horse, for instance, getting a little "boo-boo") and in these melodramas, these minor losses-of-innocence, I feel the adult's premature, imposed regret: the implication that the child's miniature sadnesses are precursors of (rehearsals for) greater, later ones.

But then, Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Steinberg played the E minor Sonata of Mozart (among others) on Saturday night. The first movement is the adult tragedy that Mussorgsky foresees: stormy, brainy, beset. And so, too, the beginning of second movement, a melancholic, minor-key menuet. But finally:


She played with the wonder of a child. We have not really heard E major before in this piece; for me it was more like I had never heard E major before, ever. And certainly nothing like the seventh chord which the E major leads to... She played the beautiful, rising response:


And then there is the longer phrase, with the motion temporarily moving to the left hand, the phrase that connects, the longer arc that "justifies" the two preceding fragments:


In the Mussorgsky, a child's innocent pleasures are somehow colored, spoiled by adult awareness. (What could the child possibly be nostalgic for? his former life? Really, only adults are nostalgic ...) Time and events encroach. But here, in Mozart, the (extraordinary) adult's music is rebuked, refuted by this (even more extraordinary) bubble of E major, this frozen wisdom of a child. Nothing encroaches on it; time is, as they say, suspended; it is not threatened by possible decay; it is immortal, pure, rounded.

Mitsuko taught me many things in her playing of this section... In the longer phrase (3rd example, above) I had always looked for beauty on "the way up," on the leap from E up to C-sharp. But the most beautiful moment (the defining moment) of her version was, subtly, one measure later, on the way down. (The two arrows show the two places.) I had always deceived myself, or let Mozart deceive me. The phrase appears to be about rising, towards something; but it actually turns out to be about relinquishing. After all, we have heard that C-sharp already, in the second "phraselet;" it is letting go of the C-sharp that has yet to be accomplished.

I always found this place intimidating to play. If a musical moment is so concentrated, so distilled, you want it to last forever, or at least longer than "real time." It is easy to get in a Catch-22: no matter how much you stretch it out, it never seems long enough; and if you stretch it too much, it gradually falls apart, like dough. It is of course written in the "language of time;" without a certain timeliness, without its rhythm, it would become meaningless, and yet, and yet... it seems to grab at time, attach its hooks to it, not want to let go. So as a performer I feel torn between two selves, the person who must keep playing the quarter notes, feel the pickups, the meter; and someone else who just wants to listen, to savor, to enjoy ... between an adult and a child?

EVEN BEFORE MY COFFEE yesterday morning, the very first thing I did (usually I start counting events of any day from the moment of my first sip of coffee... not A.D. but A.C. ... nothing "really happens" before coffee) was go to the piano in my pajamas and try to play these phrases, try to absorb what Mitsuko had shown me about them. This means it was an emergency for me. After a couple tries, I won't say it was the same, but it was "good enough." I did not feel hurried, or distended; I could savor the beautiful chords (as sonorities in their own right) and still keep things moving and meaningful. I was happy and I made coffee with a serene self-satisfaction. I stole this happiness from Mitsuko, or borrowed it...

One more thing Mitsuko and Mark did to cement and circumscribe the beauty of this section... There is a pause in its second half; they waited out this pause, the last time; they both breathed a long breath. It was longer than it "should have been," but they entered together, without anxiety... So that there was this effect of infinite patience, combined with anticipation... for the last time we will hear the theme, for the final, rounding E major strain. That way, I could hear it, one last time, fully appreciate it, and let go. I'm not sure I've let go of my childhood with the same equanimity.