Friday, March 31, 2006

Passions of the Denk

So much and so little has been happening more or less at the same time here in Denkland that I am at a loss what and how to post. I feel like my receptors for sadness have gotten bigger, as if swollen by some emotional MSG, but the slow sorting and consideration of this sadness has cheered me up.

The other night I was in the subway, on my way to a totally pointless social encounter, and my eyes wandered. Across and far to my left sat a petite girl of 18 or so with way too much mascara, high leather boots, and quite tight jeans. She was thin, alert, linear, upright; but in contrast her boyfriend lay slumped loosely, diagonally against her, with his face turned entirely into her neck; a scarf was draped over the meeting-point of their bodies and for all I knew he was a vampire drinking her blood. Her face was slightly turned away from this neck-spectacle, as if she couldn't bear to look. The oddest thing was that she held her cellphone cocked to her ear, and appeared to be listening, though there is of course no signal down in the tunnels; was this to prove to observers that she had business more pressing than the amorphous, passive, man/parasite she was with: an imaginary agenda? But sitting directly across from me, a very different sight: a mother and her two twin boys. The boys (who were probably 7 years old) from time to time gazed across at me disquietingly; my heart wanted to run to them; one ate Animal Crackers one at a time from a well-used Ziploc bag, and the other sent his open eyes around the car like me, hungry for people's meanings. The mother's face was clear, free of makeup, with her hair short and pulled back so that her face and especially her eyes seemed to stick out, tired and honest: plain, beseeching. At least it seemed to me there was no parasite or agenda here; only dependency and sufficiency.

I am obviously addicted to the tenuous connotations of appearance. Something about the juxtaposition of these two groups made me quite sad; I felt them both as metaphors for elements of myself, the "cultured" and the plain, the affected and the needy; and while following this therapizing train of thought suddenly I imagined everyone in the car's destinations for the evening, all the beds for which they were headed, and imagined all the unfamiliar smells of their pillows, bedmates, and even the switches on the lamps they would turn off before their bedrooms were dark. It was an overwhelming thought; I imagined myself like Superman following each of them, in turn, to their homes and beds, and how strange it would be to have to pull the covers on myself in all of those odd-smelling places, to trust myself to fate in so many foreign rooms. A New York subway car, itself hurtling, in process, an engine of fate, contains so many fates running into each other at any one time; each other person is a path you have not taken, a randomly avoided--some would say unchosen--self. Finally I imagined my own life as others in the car might see it: settling down into my bed, covered with clothes, books, remote controls, in an untidy strangely shaped room, and I judged myself like a butcher eyeing a piece of meat.

This is the sort of meditation spring has brought to me, when I should more appropriately be obsessed with sex, new asparagus, and shortsleeved shirts. And this same mildly gloomy muse followed me yesterday morning into 60 Centre St., where I was called by the Supreme Court of New York to do my civic duty and possibly judge my fellow beings. In a severe mood, I brought only two pieces of reading material: Cortazar's experimental novel Hopscotch, and a collection of translations of Montale's poetry, entitled "Montale in English."

My time in the jury room became a renewed love affair. Which is good because my "real" love life can easily be sneezed at. I couldn't swallow the novel but the poems came in bite-sized, mind-sized scrumptious pieces, and I sucked them up greedily, again and again, no matter how bitter or sorrowful the inner pill. The frenzy began, really, with the following poem:

Low Tide

Evenings alive with cries, the garden swing
Flashing in the arbour of those days
And a dark veil of mist hardly hiding
The sea's fixed face.

All past, all gone. Rapid slanting flights
Cross the wall now, and the crumbling, the fall
Of all things without respite is a confusion
Burdening the steep bank, burdening the rock
That first bore you on the ocean.

Now I am brought with the light breath of spring
A ghostly eddying
Of the drowned swallowed times and lives; and at evening,
Dusky convolvulus, only your memory
Twines, and wards off time.

It climbs on the parapet, on the tunnel in the distance
Where the slow slow train crawls into its lair.
Then comes a sudden gathering on the hillsides,
The flock of the moon, invisibly browsing there.

(Eugenio Montale, tr. Edwin Morgan)

I clutched at silver linings like I clutched my coffee on the subway; there seemed no more magnificent reason for me to be pointlessly sitting on my butt than to be forced to fully digest this beloved book of poems. That last image (the sudden gathering of the flock of the moon on the hillside) blew me away, and--I assure you I don't exaggerate--I emitted a slight moan, which was heard by the crazy woman sitting across from me; she smiled at me, baring dubious teeth and almost completely concealing her googly eyes, one of which meanwhile weirdly winked, and I felt it was time to flee posthaste to the vending area. When I returned with my cool fizzy ginger ale, she no longer smiled or winked, and I sipped and moaned in peace.

The jury gathering room with its enforced silence and prohibition of cell phones and aura of waiting was a pretty ideal venue for digestion of verse. Really the Winner of All Time, the best possible place to read poetry, is the monument in Tappan Square in Oberlin, of a mid-to-late April afternoon, with a light transformative breeze, and the coolness of the stone underneath you, and the wild quasi-castle of Peters Hall looming, and with your shoes and socks strewn on the surrounding steps, and the cries of frisbee-playing Oberlin students coming across to you like birdcalls from various points in the campus, near and far, and some classmates, nearby, ignoring books and thoughts and finals and all nonsensual activities, sunning themselves in as little clothing as they can get away with, whispering to each other in the grass, and cuddling, and taking themselves off to their rooms from time to time to ...

Oh, excuse me. What was I talking about? Yes, poetry, hm. Yes in those days I was a poetry-reading nerd amidst the herds of students stunned by spring. But anyway, the jury room made it possible for me to really hear the poems in my head, and savor them, in a sense, in the same way I do pieces of music... as temporal, visceral unfoldings... The parallel of poetry and music became very vivid to me, and I kept dipping into the same poems again and again for similar thrills, in the same way you press repeat on your CD player. This one was a favorite:

Portami il girasole ch'io lo trapianti
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
del cielo l'ansietà del suo volto giallino.

Tendo alla chiarità le cose oscure,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
è dunque la ventura delle venture.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.


Bring me the sunflower so that I can transplant it
into my soil burnt with brine,
for it to show all day to the sky's mirroring blue
the anxiety of its amber face.

Things that are dark lean towards clarity
the bodies of things flow out and empty themselves
in colours: colours in music. Vanishing
is therefore the luckiest of chances.

Bring me the flower which leads
to the springs of transparent gold
where life like an essence turns to vapour
bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

[trans. Bernard Spencer, c. 1946-8]

The first stanza is really "just" the presentation of an image: just a flower planted in parched soil, in the sunshine. But I really love this image, the idea that the blue sky and the yellow/amber face of the flower look at each other, face each other; they stare across their divide like I stared at my subwaymates... and then the added, illogical, unreal, beautiful touch, my favorite: the flower's anxiety.

Whatever meanings one may draw out, this first stanza is couched, expressed, planted in sensual reality: in colors, tastes, things (blue, amber, soil, briny, flower). But the second stanza takes a different approach; it is entirely fashioned of abstractions. It is what in poetry passes for a syllogism, illogical logic, a series of magical deductions, proving the unprovable:

1) First proposition: a tendency: dark/obscure things lean towards clarity.
2) Second proposition, paralleling the first: bodies exhaust themselves in colors.
3) Conclusion: To vanish is the "ventura delle venture," the adventure of adventures, the luckiest of chances... hard to translate.

At each node, a paradox, a seeming contradiction: oscure/chiarità; corpi/tinte; Svanire/ventura. Obscurity towards clarity, bodies towards colors: in between each, a missing, implied transitive spirit, the yearning of one for the other: the passing between, the verb. But I have left out a step: "Queste in musiche." After the two propositions, and before the conclusion, music appears, the interloper, the renegade abstraction: colors in music? No further explanation. The poet barely pauses for breath. I really felt this moment, as I read it, as a sort of deceptive cadence, a central slip or skid of meaning, an accident which holds the key. "Queste in musiche." For we as readers are suddenly forced to leap from the visual to the aural, to imagine bodies into colors into music, the passage of the corporeal into the intangible; and this is precisely the point, the flash of another world of unimagined meaning: the passing over between states: our mind must transplant itself elsewhere, into intangible soil.

The annoying, analytical musician in me calls this poem a ternary form, ABA, in which the outer parts concern the flower and the inner is a contrasting other. Perhaps: Images/Ideas/Images. But Images #2 is not remotely the same as #1; when we revisit the flower in the third stanza, the wonderful deductions of the second have had their effect. In place of the separated dualism of flower/sky, Montale provides a thrilling constellation, a chain... The flower is connected both above and below, to some deeper spring of transparent gold, which vaporizes through it like an essence of life; it passes this essence up to the blue sky, through light (which is what color? an intangible color?); and this whole process is "crazed," a passionate giving-over. Before, we saw the flower staring at the sky, anxiously, we perceived the opposition; now we know what passes BETWEEN the sky's blue eyes and the face of the sunflower, what look, what force they share: the verb is light, which comes from the sky and radiates from the color of the flower; the sunflower is crazed with it, and we too are seduced by the image as action. Between the first and last stanzas, the flower has been poetically brought to life.

Life as verb? We can isolate the verbs of the poem and consider them: transplant, bring, show, tend towards, flow out, vanish, conduct, vaporize ... A relentless catalogue of transferences. (The poem is about transference.) These kind of magnetically attracted words remind me so much of the grouping of ideas in music, of the way certain related musical motifs call to each other ... The energy from word to word, from idea to idea, seemed deeply musical: not the sounds of the words (one aspect of poetry's musicality), but their thought-associations. The musicality of ideas?

I suppose a musical motive can feel at times like a thing, an image: when it is presented, when it is framed. The incredible E-flat Major Prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (which I brought to the courthouse just in case I got sworn in, so that I could propose it in place of the Bible), begins with a beautiful but generic flourish, and then presents us with a specific musical image:

Ahh, the texture is familiar: vocal polyphony, with the rising fourth, passing gently from voice to voice. It is a musical image in so many ways: not just the motive itself, which is powerful; but an allusion to genre, to venue (church), to style (Palestrina?), to countless rules of composition, to a whole sacred musical tradition. The "holy moment." But this image, however beautiful, runs its course, and begins to peter out; the main motive appears in the bass "one last time;" it falls onto a dominant cadence, and you imagine it might be over ... Amen?

But this is not The End. Bach, lover of elision, picks it up just as it flags ... Now the fourth motive is back, with new flowing countermelodies. It is back, and back, and back; it passes between the voices relentlessly, in canon, in stretto... So many times that you cannot believe it... For me, after a certain point, this repetition is the very opposite of tedium or monotony; paradoxically, the rising fourth is almost completely irresistible, the very spirit of rising; I begin to feel that I cannot go any higher and yet I do... (this sense of infinity which so many modern composers try to create through extreme dynamics and repetition and all the tricks in the toolbox: Bach already got it, so there.) Gradually, I am crazed with the idea of the rising fourth, I realize now (hopefully not too late) that this elation is the point, that the few notes are just the emblem of the essence (golden transparent springs), which the piece gradually brings to life, the rising fourth, the simplest possible thing--the idea, the image--finally understood, finally traversed by the arc of the piece, illuminated and resurrected. I really think this is how it feels. I love to be crazed; I love to play this prelude over and over again and to feel the thing, the image, become a verb: to be crazed with Bach's light.

You must love to be crazed, too. Otherwise, why would you subject yourself to Think Denk?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


I aspire to a principled blog (see "Touring Quiz," question 4, below); we here at Think Denk eschew name-dropping. I would never refer to famous musicians by their first names or nicknames, as in "yesterday I ran into Manny at the grocery store," or even "I remember back when Isaac invited me up to his apartment in the Beresford, just before Jerry bought it." No, no: here in this cybercorner it is all about the music; fame has no traction for artists searching after the eternal verities. In fact, I was just yesterday contemplating the harmonies and pacing in the famous Schumann song "Ich grolle nicht," trying to remember how Richard had played the postlude, and reaching back in my memory for Mitsuko's thoughts about Cortot and Schumann, when Sting came up to me and inquired about the tempo marking "Nicht zu schnell." Indeed, it is one of those puzzling wonderful markings which tells one absolutely nothing one can "count on," so to speak; and my companion Sting, with whom I was incidentally and casually discussing this matter, while he patted me on the back, seemed to reflect this amusing ambiguity of terminology with a little joke in which he held up his hand like a policeman and said "not so fast;" and I was thinking all the while, in my pure aesthetic contemplative state, in which I was completely unaware of the fact that I was sitting next to Sting, and in which moreover the fact that he had patted me on the back registered not one iota, that the marking "Nicht zu schnell" does not mean so much "slow" as it reflects the inevitable fact that any instinctive musician, faced with the intensity of this work, will want to respond with a surging tempo... so that the marking seems to speak from Robert directly, saying, "Yes I know you want to go fast, and I respect that, but try to control yourself." Or so I interpret it. I feel sure that Robert would have respected all sorts of desires for excess, unlike, say, Johannes. And I was going to communicate these purely high-minded musical thoughts to Sting directly, but perhaps he had already read my mind on this crucial matter and he was off to another part of the room. I should bring this all up with Josh when next we meet.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


"Better if food is late," the Indian man on the line informed me, "than you end up in hospital." Poof, snip: he neutered my complaint. Suddenly it was petty, silly, and short-sighted of me to be wondering why my Vindaloo was oozing so slowly up Amsterdam Avenue. If it takes an hour to make fresh food and carry it over, then so be it. Epiphany: a million little irritating things in my life were nonetheless preferable to ending up in the hospital; and I bounced around my apartment, starving, but bravely sucking up fumes of forcefed positivity. I could love irritating things: by comparison! Think how much lower the benchmark would be for my next Great Love: Shall I compare thee to a surgical procedure?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate, etc.

I quickly noted the utility of this technique for my own life. For example: suppose someone complains to me about the fact that I'm a few minutes late for rehearsal. Turn the tables, right away: "Sorry but at least you didn't end up in the hospital." Never mind the non-sequitur; go for broke!

One question, though: why would a man taking delivery orders at a restaurant leap so quickly for the drastic, Pyrrhic hospital option? Are those the connotations to cultivate in your clients? It confirmed my belief that the place was run by a strange bevy of often conflicting forces, a dysfunctional family of Indian take-out; I imagined a long-drawn-out TV primetime soap, like Dallas; in early episodes, the unstable self-destructive father of the clan controls the restaurant, and presides over its drip-drop decline; eventually he is ousted by the energetic younger son (the older son meanwhile squandering his oversated youth in Bali), who brings a light but bracing culinary touch to all sorts of quirky regional specialties, attracts a celebrity following, opens a hip club, a chain of resorts, reaches a fabulous zenith, and finally, in his somewhat deserved hubris, becomes the inevitable cause of his own unimagined destruction.

... I was obviously delirious with hunger ... After I finally received and consumed my order, I walked outside for some fresh air. I had been so many places on tour and had come back to good old New York City which many of my family members seem to imagine as some sort of bizarre piece of conceptual art, and not a geographical space. It seemed to me I had to wallow, kiss the pavement (metaphorically), get back in touch with the native "land." "My" section of the city definitely sleeps, and succumbs to a strange, quasi-serene urban desolation after 11 pm. There is a spooky to-and-fro of ghosts--or so they seem huddled in their coats--headed to the bodega for milk, or to the video store, or yanking their wrapped dog familiars along on mysterious, unknowable quests. Among this semi-bustle, which seems as if it is randomly generated by some computer program, I stood still outside the diner at 90th Street for some time, looking at faces. I enjoyed watching a man who in turn was looking very earnestly at his table mate, explaining something; there may be things in life that can only be explained in a diner, over a cheeseburger, between 11 pm and 3 am. I love those things. And then I focused on another image: an older man, sitting at a table alone, his head tilted back, looking pretty depressed, over an empty plate.

This second image, a kind of distilled New York City sadness, hit me fairly strongly at the moment, but not negatively; I felt something run through me like a chill or current, which prompted me to keep walking and not dig too deep.

Then the very next night I got myself in a cab and some catchy silly song was playing and I smiled and at that moment, when I was infected with the virus of happiness, the image of the sad old man came back to me immediately, in full force. I followed this paradoxical train of thought and by the time the cab was passing the facade of Lincoln Center I was thinking that the opposite of happiness is not sadness, but worry. The sad, recollected image was of a piece, was contiguous with the silly song; I felt no contradiction, but the same surge of experience, and relief. Relief, that is, from the general bustle of wondering what you will do when and how you will accomplish it and scheduling and managing and predicting and fretting, which in relentless time-devouring madness conspires to push out the possibility of happiness or sadness, the raw beauty of both of which is thereby lost; they are forced out of their habitat, which is time.

I had just finished performing a beautiful work of Stravinsky's, the Serenade in A, which nonetheless left me unsatisfied. Indeed, I admit to my shame that the song in the cab seemed at that moment a more complete expression of joy than that 1925 masterwork. I might reiterate a fairly conventional complaint about Stravinsky: too much head, not enough heart. But I don't think this complaint is entirely fair; Stravinsky captures a special kind of tenderness, a kind of reflected happiness, bemused and brilliant. (The smile of an older man watching children at play?) For me, the limiting thing is his strength, his unerring sense of taste, and culture; a reluctance ever to go too far, ever to become swept away; at those moments when the music might sweep out of the frame, some dislocation occurs, some delicious irony... and though I love his irony, I often get the sense he is avoiding something, trying to steer clear of invisible cliches and patterns; Stravinsky is "worrying" too much, worrying about proportion, classicism, culture, style. Let us take a counterexample from a fellow modernist: Ives doesn't worry too much; sometimes you wish he might worry a bit more, and keep the reins a little tighter on his material. The two of them could be a madcap couple in a sitcom, or movie--one straitlaced, the other wacky and loose--with heartwarming lessons to learn from each other and a happy ending for musical modernism. (I'll get started on the screenplay, "Igor and Charles," immediately.) But I doubt either would take the other's advice well; no; they stand separately, worrying in their own ways. Ironically, Ives, who had no reputation and should have worried, compensated by worrying not at all, by thumbing his nose by and large at proportion, tradition, and system; whereas the established Stravinsky, comfortably settled on the armchair of an unshakeable reputation, worried himself into beautiful, restrained, cultured knots.

Happiness and sadness both seem to have shelf lives; they are both perishable goods, like us; I find myself clinging to both; whereas worry always seems to me to be a self-perpetuating nonsense, clinging to us, durable like a cockroach; necessary, but too immortal to be likable. There is a beautiful moment in the documentary film, "Rivers and Tides," about Andy Goldsworthy, where he has constructed an astounding spiderweb/latticework off the side of a tree, using the most fragile materials (weeds, twigs); he is sitting on the ground, adding bit by bit to one end of this impossible, gravity-defying spectacle, sprouting out of the tree horizontally, a fantasy of lines. He has obviously been at work for a considerable time, and we see this latticework lit by the sun, slightly stirred by the breeze. The breeze is actually picking up. Between wind and gravity (one might worry) this thing stands no chance. If he adds one more filament (one might worry) surely it will collapse; but he adds to it patiently, knowing the long odds. And as we watch, the breeze finally delivers the invisible fatal blow and in a short flurry of disintegrations the whole thing comes to the ground. Now we see the empty sky next to the tree which used to be filled with his fantasy. And he is still sitting on the ground, holding remnants; his work is gone.

Friend M, who gave me the DVD, loves the look on the artist's face just then, and I have to agree: it is an amazing, complicated sadness that powerfully connects back to the joy of seeing the whole crazy latticework hanging there in the sun, and accepts the end of the artwork not as a price to be paid, but as the essence of experience.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Touring Quiz

1) Friend M carried both a violin and a viola aboard a plane, but found himself boarding nearly last. Tyranny of overhead bins! He was attempting to reorient some nearby bags when their owner spoke: "we are very well situated here." What, one may well ask, about their situated state precluded the reorientation of bags from x to y? Against this enigma, M pressed on. "If I could only turn this bag around..." And he was thus rebuffed: "I really wish you wouldn't reroute everything." So much irrationality and odd vocabulary cannot be easily confronted. M was flustered; a steward offered a closet; all was saved. But co-traveler L thought inwardly, "Reroute THIS, you [expletives deleted]!" Can she be forgiven this uncharitable moment? Explain. Extra credit: what is the Platonic form of an overhead bin?

2) Pianist J while on tour playing a transcription of Ysaye was excited to find that Ysaye's granddaughter would be attending that evening's concert. What an honor! J was expecting insights, or illuminating anecdotes. Afterwards, this rather elderly woman came up to J, who waited with baited respectful breath, and asked: "are you a professional pianist?" Insight to insult; honor to shame. J did not know what to say; at a loss, he laughed in her face, which was not nice. How should J have responded instead? Who is more to blame: the granddaughter, or the presenter who neglected to print J's biography in the program, in breach of contract? Discuss.

3) En route, post-gig, back to the airport, lovely woman states she has been a "star schlepper for 20 years." Shortly thereafter, amused pianist J muses happily and repeats the phrase "star schlepper" aloud. The woman qualifies: "I was being polite." J is yet more amused. What do you think the impolite version would have been? A riff on "star" or "schlepper"? Or both?

4) Musician X hosts unexpected but delightful companion Y overnight in X's hotel room, while on tour. Musician X and companion Y are single, consenting adults. In the morning, picking up X for an early flight, experienced artist liaison Z recognizes not only X, but also the emerging Y (Z met Y the night before, when Z helped X secure Y tickets for the concert). Z lifts an inordinately expressive eyebrow towards X. What is X's classiest response: a) a similarly lifted eyebrow; b) a muted smirk; c) total feigned ignorance and non-noticing of eyebrow; or d) other response to be determined? Please justify your answer.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

15 Minutes

Today I had 15 minutes to make it from pure sleep to the hotel lobby: from 5:45 to 6:00 AM. I lay still after the first heart-jolting buzzer; I sacrificed some time to inertia, a counterfeit peace. But the phone cruelly rang; the electronic, mystifying voice was Josh, checking if I was awake. I feigned sentience. I struggled over to the armchair and put on my shirt. My pants seemed arduous and I postponed them. Bathroom; toothbrush; toothpaste. My cell phone alarm went off. Its sound was muffled, mournful, as if a phone from another life; time passed (hours, years?) while I sorted out this mystery; where could it be? Ah, reality: it called from between the covers, where I had left it, next to my Sudoku puzzles. I was stabbed as I grabbed my phone, by my mechanical pencil. Blood of Sudoku. Pants on. I decided to try to zip up my suitcase. I was sitting atop, crushing my belongings into a convenient volume, when the phone rang again--my horrible, evil backup wake-up call, loud and vehement, a post-apocalyptic rooster of the pre-dawn. Back to the bedside I flew, picked up the phone, put it down... I fell on the bed, exhausted. And then passed 3 minutes of danger, when sleep's siren called. Now there was no time to waste; everything had to be done at once. Most of my 15 minutes had elapsed simply turning off the alarms I had set into motion. Let us hope our lives will not pass in the same fashion.