Saturday, February 25, 2006

I Have A Question

Are dumplings the answer? Yesterday, a steaming circle of them looked like a bundle of immaculate food-children dropped by a divine stork: fecund, promising, chaste. To mar their whiteness with black soy sauce was a necessary, beautiful sin. I curse today limitations on the parameters of questions and answers, their too-easy, too-obvious pairing... i.e.:

Are you hungry? Eat something.
Are you tired? Get some sleep.
What would you like to drink with those nachos? A margarita.

Yes, these catechisms seem timeless and indisputable. But I submit that answers often jump ship and interpose themselves on questions to which they do not belong. For instance I did not eat the dumplings; they were not an answer to my hunger, which was solved by spicy soup; but they seemed an answer to another question: something having to do with relaxation, the comforts of lunchtime, of workday routines which are not oriented towards evening concerts, but which revolve around more predictable effort, into which steaming dumplings may come as a soothing relief... it may sound ridiculous to say that when I saw the dumplings (I did not need to eat them, only see them) they relieved me internally and made me cherish my nook for the moment, in time and in space. I was the satisfied filling of a dumpling. I felt like someone settling down to a good old-fashioned novel, or squishing into the perfect armchair by the fire for a conversation that does not promise to be usual or tiresome. And also yesterday evening, when a chilled bottle of white wine approached the table, and four of us were arranged around its square with our waiting glasses, I felt it was an answer, not to thirst or stress or food, but to some larger question of ritual and companionship...

At the opening of the "Kreutzer" Sonata, I sit idly but reverently by while the violin poses a very beautiful and difficult question (difficult to play, difficult to answer). It is a major-key question, filled with consonances (thirds, octaves, sixths, fifths), and trailing off.


The last note (the resolution) is short; after the breadth and lyricism of the idea, it gives itself over abruptly to silence. I think this is one of those unusual, extraordinary beginnings that distinguishes itself from the greater mass of classical openings not through any outrageous harmonic maneuver, ambiguity, or daring, but through the audacity of its sudden, naked Appearance: the Idea itself, presented whole (immaculate conception). It does not ask the typical questions of "famous" openings, such as What Key Am I In? or Where's the Downbeat? or What's the Tempo? or so forth (all more or less rephrasings of the common life question Where Am I Going?); all those questions are dismissed as unimportant (the neurotic concerns of other pieces), as the initial Idea speaks, presents to us its "grain" (like that of a piece of wood). A lot of times listening to the beginnings of classical pieces, I can say to myself: yes, this opening idea comes from the tonic triad, and this is the coy reply moving us to the dominant, etc. etc ... in these cases the opening ideas, the premises, their questions and answers, derive from the familiar and common, and allow us to experience the music gradually, as an unfolding of "logic": drapery on the scaffolding of tonality. Not as a shock of identity. I have a hard time seeing where the opening of the Kreutzer "comes from." There are no easy sources for its particular beauty. The sort of question I feel it asks is Why Do I Exist? or How Did I Come Into Being? And that is what gives it, for me, a kind of surreal beauty: an oddly certain question, a fragment that is strangely and prematurely complete. The piece is mature beyond its measures.

[Regular readers of Think Denk are not deluding themselves if they imagine, or anticipate with sinking certainty and dread, that I am drawing some implicit comparison between the opening of the Kreutzer Sonata and a steaming plate of dumplings; BUT do they suspect I am willing to sink yet sillier and imagine the ensuing piano phrase as soy sauce? This may yet have been left to the imagination; too late, now. I am sorry.]

After a half bar of silence... a silence that might be interpreted "how do I respond to that?" ... the piano finds something to say: what appears to be the same idea, but from its second note shifting dramatically into the minor key.



After the shock of this, one can come to an understanding: Beethoven is setting up a dualism of light/dark. The violin idea, unmarred by accidentals, seems to represent light, pure A major; whereas the pianist wanders into a darker place, the shadowy antithesis. But interestingly, the pianist's phrase, for all its dark F-naturals, concludes on a luminous G major chord (with a beautiful F-sharp suspension!)... it cannot decide whether to be night or day. I sense four separate moments of shock in the piano's opening statement: 1) the pianist's first note, the opening forte/piano, breaking the silence; 2) the pianist's second note (shifting unexpectedly to minor); 3) the downbeat of the pianist's third bar, with the deceptive bass motion up a half-step; and 4) the G major "arrival" (subito piano... a beauty, a sweetness, which was not anticipated). Such a density of surprise is hard to absorb; I realize, that for the "average" concertgoer, it may not even exist; but I think it is there. At one level, one perceives a very simple light/dark antithesis, but at another, events present a much more complicated question/answer in which the nature and identity of the essential dualism is in doubt.

From the outset, the piano is not an original thinker; it (he/she) is repeating, rethinking, reassessing... derivative, complex, living in a world already created by the hand of the violinist. (Pianist as original sin? curse of knowledge?) As events unfold, the violinist and pianist together undergo the darkest, most searing moment of the introduction--a moment which basically repeats the bass motion, and thus the essential "meaning" of the pianist's opening statement--



And they, too, together come to realize that fragile G major is the precarious answer. How can G major be an answer, in the key of A major? Through the obvious expedient of two rising fourths, A-D, D-G, (or two descending fifths) Beethoven arrives impossibly far afield. This, too, I think the "average" hypothetical median concertgoer (who does not really exist) does not always perceive. Sometimes, while I am playing the piece, and when we get to that moment, and someone coughs a bored cough right then, in the shocked, supreme, post-G-major silence, I want to get up from the piano and explain to them how incredibly amazing it is that Beethoven takes us there, how he tries to rock our world and propose that 2+2=3. It is like that scene in Ocean's Twelve where Clooney and co. want to rob a house in Amsterdam and the window is a foot too low for their scheme, and so they decide to dive underwater and raise the entire building up a foot using winches or something. That's how weird and wild it is to move from tonic A major to G major (flat seven!!!!!!); imagine the two root position chords next to each other, all the parallel fifths and octaves; all the rules and taboos that are broken to be there. I would deliver this little speech and people would be weeping for amazement, fainting for pleasure, and paralyzed by the marvel of Beethoven's audacity; one small sob would break out from the back of the house, and be reluctantly muffled; and then we would sit back down and play on. Haha.

For G major is the "wrong" answer to A major; it fits in no nacho/margarita category of the obvious. Its answeritude (answer+attitude=the quality of being an answer) comes from another source; it is more of a spiritual, metaphorical answer (light passing through dark to get to another, different light), which of course spins around on itself and becomes the question. I cannot help juxtaposing the strangeness of this answer against the circularity and precocious completeness of the violin's first statement; what kind of world is it where the opening idea can be so serene, beautiful and extraordinary, so insular and perfect; and then the harmonic basis can tectonically shift down a radical whole-step? A world where dumplings don't have to be eaten to be savored, where questions and answers are like free radicals, bonding with unexpected mates.

Towards the end of the first movement, after all our storm and stress, there is another wonderful, disturbing nexus of questions and answers. The violin proposes a cadence in B-flat major (impossible), in Adagio:




Every night at the piano I offer up a little prayer of thanks to my bassline of that moment, sinking that unthinkable fifth from F to B-flat. As always, V goes to I; the cliché spawns the revolution. A revolution because the "grain" of B-flat grates deeply against the prevailing A minor... literally and metaphorically. The moment is temporally distended; we are forced to sit and listen to the impossible. As in so many Beethoven angry minor-key movements, the metaphor of the island of calm is engaged; little patches, oases of lyricism, scattered throughout the movement (the second theme, for instance), call to each other structurally across stormy expanses ... and this is the crucial last one, farewell and summary, the violin's last halt to the movement's urge of relentless motion, so unutterably beautiful, expressing so much in the concision of its three chorale-like notes, distilling the idea again back to its essence... saying "stop, wait." To which the piano responds fatefully, without speeding up, twisting the harmony with the same three notes:



Although the rhythm is still stopped, though we are yet suspended in the standstill (marvelling, waiting), the harmonies have wended their way back to A minor, which means we know with that sinking feeling that we are back in the tragic world of the movement's overall gesture. The piano is again "too complicated," it answers with mixed messages; we are stopped, but wary; we know that an outburst is coming (we fear it)... there is a realization but it is fatal. I will never play to my satisfaction those last two Adagio chords; the connection between them has to express so much (falling, relinquishing, inevitability, despair).

And then the outburst happens ... the movement crashes to an end... The audience seems always to get caught up in this moment, to want to applaud; I too am thrilled and often feel demonically possessed by this ending, by our scales and ferocious concluding chords, dominant/tonic. But something about this last answer always seems misplaced. Its fury cannot possibly "answer" or resolve the pathos of those two preceding Adagios; there is no balancing, no summing up, what has occurred: there is too much. It is like a person in denial, a person who still thinks one question has one answer, and rages impotently against multivalence. Wow, how did I get there from dumplings? Perhaps via Beethoven.

13 comments:

L. said...

An image of reality conflicting with what might be...
The unknown of the future, that yet depends upon the present...
With a will to the present, a knowledge of the past, we still cannot draw the future picture, no matter how we try...
So many things are beyond human understanding: and to think, that we, (mere mortals!) can create in sound that which we ourselves cannot understand.
And yet it's as real as the future. Tangible in it's arrival, unavoidable: and yet, never predictable, indefinable...
It's like that poem that reads, "tomorrow will never come, for yesterday's tomorrow is today" (ach, or something like that!)

kristopher tong said...

I suppose that's why we don't clap after the first movement; the obsessed 'angry' state is fleeting, impermanent. I love your observation about the light-dark-different light; perhaps most musicians shy away from religion because the mythical journey is experienced through sonata form! Love the blog, you are a beacon of hope against those who are afraid to supplement their instincts with knowledge. Bravo!

Ken Easterling said...

After your Fort Lauderdale concert tonight, the reception/CD-signing line was moving so quickly I didn't have a chance to talk with you as much as I'd have liked. With the throngs passing before you, I'm sure it all becomes a big blur, but maybe I can jog your memory -- you complimented me on my loud blue tie and I told you I'd studied with Susan Starr. Then I was whisked along to the CD-signing ceremony with Joshua Bell. What I wish I'd had the chance to tell you was how fine I thought your playing was. Your musicianship matched his and your blending was remarkable. Appearing as you are with the (justly) celebrated golden boy of the violin, I doubt that you often get the appreciative recognition you deserve. I hope to see you back in South Florida soon in solo recital or as concerto soloist. Next time I'm lucky enough to catch you in concert, I'll try to get more than 15 seconds with you to chat and sing your praises.
Thanks for the performance.
Ken Easterling
kjeasterling@aol.com

Anonymous said...

I have a question too w/ the Kreutzer sonata.What were you thinking when you were playing w/ Joshua?.Did you arrive w/ the same interpretation when you played this difficult and emotional sonata w/him?I could feel there was great interaction bet.the two of you as if you were in a play.Was your play based on Beethoven's emotional life when he composed it or you were relating the music to that novella this sonata was named for?I wish I could have more time to talk to you and discuss this question of mine but meeting you was just too fast no time at all to ask this sort of question.
Do you have an e mail for me to send you my greetngs and my questions?not even a message board?Common JD we need an official website for people like me to visit you.

Taryn said...

Oh, delight! I'm so glad I managed to hear you at Carnegie...this piece was so magical - the highlight of the concert for me, especially the opening, which stopped me dead and left me breathless.

I had been dithering and procastinating with a ticket purchase - what a choice! Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk in Carnegie (I've been dying to see you, I so enjoy your writing) or Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt playing the lovely Brahms sonatas at Alice Tully...add to the dilemma my pregnant self...seven months...and I wasn't sure if I could last through either concert...by the time I could decide, only third tier tickets were left...no fun for a violin/piano duo.

Then, a stroke of luck, a colleague who had to travel suddenly offered me her plum orchestra seats. What a joy! I could see every expression, hear everything so closely. My daughter danced inside me through the Mozart, then seemed stunned motionless by the opening of the Beethoven, just like me! I've heard the Kreutzer before, but somehow this performance was just magical! How wonderful, now, to hear your thoughts on such a beloved piece.

Thank you always for your beautiful writing and playing.

Claire said...

okay so i finally got the chance to fully read this post - i have final exams this starting tomorrow so i've been busy with all the work my teachers decided to pile on me at the last minute. now i'm sitting here in ap calculus, and we just have time to review, which i will do later alone with the assistance of a little music. instead i'll stretch my mind and comment on your blog (pretty fitting actually since i'm going to philosophy class after this and we're meditating today; maybe i can meditate on dumplings!)

"To mar their whiteness with black soy sauce was a necessary, beautiful sin. "

isn't it though? i venture to say that even though you mar the beauty of the dumblings with the soy sauce, the ultimate and greater beatuy lies in the combination of the two.

"Are you hungry? Eat something.
Are you tired? Get some sleep.
What would you like to drink with those nachos? A margarita."

ugh. it's just too easy. how can everything just be reduced to simple question and response? we make a mistake in grossly generalizing and simplifying everything. the beauty of life is in it's surprises and complications.

"For instance I did not eat the dumplings; they were not an answer to my hunger, which was solved by spicy soup; but they seemed an answer to another question:"

enlightenment comes in funny places. someting as simple as seeing a rock can prompt enlightenment. you found it in your dumplings (and a very yummy and satisfying mode of enlightenment i must say!)

"it may sound ridiculous to say that when I saw the dumplings (I did not need to eat them, only see them) they relieved me internally and made me cherish my nook for the moment, in time and in space. "

i relate this to my senior silent retreat experience. are you he type that keeps rushing around - do you get caught up in your work and forget to just sit and be still and silent for a moment and observe everything around you? that retreat helped me just look at myself and the cosmos...

oh darn. bell just rang. off to philosophy. i will continue later.

Claire said...

okay so where was i? oh yeah, kreutzer

"The last note (the resolution) is short; after the breadth and lyricism of the idea, it gives itself over abruptly to silence. "

ooooo i like that! okay will refrain from gushing over music. the way you describe it, it sounds like beethoven leaves you hanging there. question question question BYE! wait hold on a secomd! WHAT WAS THAT?! definitely unexpected (and that's where it derives it's beauty

"It does not ask the typical questions of "famous" openings, such as What Key Am I In? or Where's the Downbeat? or What's the Tempo? or so forth (all more or less rephrasings of the common life question Where Am I Going?);"

so unoriginal. show me something i haven't already heard. i think one of the things that annoyed me in music history about some of the earlier periods was the structure. i think that's why i had a fondness for modern music - the forms were tweaked and sometimes even dissolved, and the composers created music that was complete unexpected and ran far from the accepted forms (and annoyed many audiences) anyway you can figure out all the answers to those questions on your own you don't need an intro to do that. i feel like i'm challenging beethoven to impress me.

"A lot of times listening to the beginnings of classical pieces, I can say to myself: yes, this opening idea comes from the tonic triad, and this is the coy reply moving us to the dominant, etc. etc "

just curious... do you always start analyzing music in your head as you listen, or do you sometimes just simply sit and listen and let the music sink in? it's the same in theatre - you can go to a show and get caught up in all the technicalities of the stage direction and the lighting and costumes, etc. or you can just sit and watch and get lost in the show and absorb it all as a whole.

"The sort of question I feel it asks is Why Do I Exist? or How Did I Come Into Being? And that is what gives it, for me, a kind of surreal beauty: an oddly certain question, a fragment that is strangely and prematurely complete. The piece is mature beyond its measures.
"

a much more impressive and philosophical question than "what key am i in?" :P i think this intrigues you more simply because it's not easy and it's not laid out for you. it forces you to think and look into yourself as well as beethoven's mind.

"[Regular readers of Think Denk are not deluding themselves if they imagine, or anticipate with sinking certainty and dread, that I am drawing some implicit comparison between the opening of the Kreutzer Sonata and a steaming plate of dumplings; BUT do they suspect I am willing to sink yet sillier and imagine the ensuing piano phrase as soy sauce? This may yet have been left to the imagination; too late, now. I am sorry.]"

honestly i wouldn't expect less from you. it's a part of your style that i relish in. (silly me ending a sentence with a preposition)

and sadly, i have to go to british literature now. i will finish later. promise!

Claire said...

okay continuing sorry i ramble on so much!

"After the shock of this, one can come to an understanding: Beethoven is setting up a dualism of light/dark."

okay after reading that, i really want to hear you play this, because my favorite music has very dark themes, and the contrast with the light just magnifies its beauty. wish i had the recording while i'm reading your blog so i could hear what you are writing.

"And they, too, together come to realize that fragile G major is the precarious answer. How can G major be an answer, in the key of A major?"

well why not? :) i mean, i know that yes as far as music theory goes, it doesn't make sense, but that's the beauty of it - it goes against the rules!

"I want to get up from the piano and explain to them how incredibly amazing it is that Beethoven takes us there, how he tries to rock our world and propose that 2+2=3."

two plus two does equal three. you didn't know that? :P

"Its answeritude (answer+attitude=the quality of being an answer) comes from another source"

you should get that added to the dictionary.

"Wow, how did I get there from dumplings? Perhaps via Beethoven."

only you jeremy. only you. and that's why i love this blog!

Allison said...

In response to Anonymous' (fourth) from the top) suggestion that you add a message board to this site, I have mixed feelings about the idea; it may prove to be an unfortunate distraction. Many thanks, though, for posting your recital and concert schedule.

Marc said...

WE MISS YOU.. WE ARE STILL "OUT" AND ABOUT. SEND US A NOTE, IF YOU STILL Have OUR EMAIL..

MARC AND NOA
PORTLAND

Anonymous said...

Today I was listening to WGBH, Boston, and thinking "What a great piece of music!" - hadn't heard the name at the beginning. I loved the piano - so clear and yet never "banging." I was musing about my opinions about pianists and thinking about my plan to post a message on your blog to list the reasons why I like your playing - to validate myself as a disinterested fan. Then, lo!!! What was the piece, but the Mendelssohn Sexted in D major, pianist Jeremy Denk - played in Portland! Ha! I knew I had good taste in pianists.

As a matter of fact, as I thought about my planned blog posting, I had imagined beginning it, "To follow up on our conversation at Jay's Oyster... " different Portland concert, but we were at the Mendelssohn one too.

On to my planned posting. I want to list the things that I like about your playing, as I said, to validate my credentials as a disinterested fan.

1 - Passion
2 - Clarity. Every note is perfectly audible. You never go too fast for your skills. Which means, of course, that you can go lightening fast, but it never makes this listener tense up.
3 - You never bang on the piano. Well, not that I've heard.
4 - Control. No note ever "pops out" of the line inappropriately. I'm very sorry that I missed the perfect chromatic scale from that Portland concert when it was broadcast today.

Then, icing on the cake, you love analysis and your are beautifully articulate about it. It's a different kind of pleasure, but what a treat to have a performer of your skills be able to TALK about it (or write). I just love it. I can't wait to print out this edition of your blog and sit down with the Kreutzer, discovering it all over again. (Loved your blog from December or sometime about analysis itself.) (Do you have a copy of the Portland concert? Apparently it is an "Only on 89.7" not-for-sale recording. You said I needed to broaden my library of pianists. That would be a great Christmas present!"

OK. Good closure fix. Got this off my to-do list!!!

A fan in Watertown

Anonymous said...

P.S. from a fan in Watertown

5 - A different kind of clarity. When you play the music is always going somewhere - never static. The line is clear. It makes music I might not ordinarily choose to listen to pleasurable.

Linda Ely said...

Pleasure to chat with you at dinner last night, after your wonderful performance with Josh and Mis Janachek. Please tell your mother that she should not worry about you and your career - you are dazzling, and I hope to see you perform again in London or New York. Best - Linda Ely