Sunday, January 15, 2006


Well, well, you never know what will be in the dreaded INBOX. One private email suggests, on the basis of my recent posts, that my mind must be a "quite fun but cynical place." Another private email deduces from blog "evidence" that my Beethoven preparations are "agonies."

I was surprised and depressed by both. No, no, I wrote back to one: my current practicing is intense, but never agony: for kicks, let's call it an "arduous ecstasy." And to the other, who suggests I am cynical, I don't know what to say... A cup of coffee sips by while I mull.

Before consulting my INBOX, I had just performed, rather dramatically, but for myself, a raw groan of disgust at politicans and pundits of all stripes grandstanding on talk shows and C-SPAN, and it seemed only coffee and Beethoven would soften my irritation with them, and their emptiness. But here I was, passing vocal judgment on their awful cynicism, and the charge came sneakily back at me, through pixels and packets, karmically. It is not the first time the c-word has been levelled at me, but it seemed odd in this case... to receive it when my motives had seemed so "ideal."

I guess my motivation in the last post had been idealistic in the sense of being impossible: to "explain" the beauty of the coda of the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 10 #1. This coda has always made me feel something very unusual. I wanted to translate a vague sense of my feeling into words other people could understand. To do this, I ignored a cynical voice, and personified the theme (A), (what if A were a person?) and by this metaphoric extension attempted to explain its transformation in the coda as a kind of epiphany, an emotional turning-point and completion. Some people may find this distasteful--too personal, too intrusive, too specific, too Oprah--and I completely sympathize with their qualms; some people prefer to refer to themes as "generative cells," or "gestalts," or whatever... I prefer to shift as the situation suggests. To me the abstract voice saying "It's just a variation on the theme," though appropriate in some cases, does not satisfy here. Often when I hear pianists I admire I feel what I can only describe as "animation," phrases imbued with a kind of momentary personality; there may be hundreds or thousands of these in a piece ... or only a few ... and when you see certain pianists perform, you also see some of these mini-possessions take hold, you see a schizophrenic flitting across their face, a nanosecond glint in their eye, reflecting a clear harmonic shift or even some unheard cadential possibility, which molds the music into people you know, you once knew, or wish you knew. And this metaphoric cast of characters, this invisible infinite operatic company, is part of much of the language of our "Western art music." Sometimes pianists prefer visually to remain impassive, to look on and not let their faces register the changes of the music; in this case, though, I think there is another personification going on: pianist-as-God. Many people prefer this impassive approach (which I have never been able to manage), but I am not sure it is not the more "arrogant" solution: why must the musician always be "above" the music? Can't we get down in the muck also? Or do some audience members prefer not to be reminded of the (necessarily imperfect) humanity of music?

Back to my point. I guess it seemed so clear to me that the whole gist of my last post was a certain emotional fulfillment laid bare, that I was shocked by the "cynical" characterization. Also, it expressed a certain (perhaps foolish) confidence in the idea, against all odds, that even very elusive things can be shared. True, I began with the bit about being a jerk: but the point of that was somehow partly hyperbole, partly that I regretted it, that I wished I could/would communicate more clearly certain emotional, personal things about music at all times; and the post and the blog as a whole are often kind of an outlet for these confessions/communications. Perhaps though, I should think like a pianist practicing and try to hear "outside myself," outside my own desires and intentions to what is actually communicated. Did it communicate a cynical message? I sure hope not.

I will be controversial: I think there are certain aspects of the meaning of that coda that can only be expressed in words. Music is not "above everything." Reaching into music for "mundane" words can be a redemptive act--a humanization of music, a connection back to ourselves--so that music is not a circular, isolated ritual in concert halls but a part of the language of life.


Anonymous said...

Cynical? To me you seem more of a romantic trying to find "meaning"
through music. More a lovely young talented intelligent fool

Bleepfork said...

I'm a fan. Check out I feel if not you then you probably know someone who can help me with this. It's a pretty insurmountable task. I need as much support as I can get.

jen said...

Have you read any Galway Kinnell? A good poet to read, especially
for someone that writes the way you do. Plus, he also said once in an interview, "I became a poet because I was looking for someone to talk to."

Also, the next time a date asks you, with a gleam in her
eye: "What's it like to be a pianist?" - hopefully she really just wants to "skip to the good parts."

Anonymous said...

Pianist as God????? I thought Beethoven was God. Perhaps Denk is the Devil????? He sure plays like one!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I seem to be the schmuck spoken of in the "cynical" comment. I've apologized to Jer for this slander and have taken the appropriate self-flagellating measures.