Sunday, March 19, 2006

Better

"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.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Loved that post

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Denk,

I really enjoyed reading the post and had to printed out and read twice with the help of my dictionary. Great thinking of the happiness and sadness. It reminded me a famous story of Zhuangzi (Chinese philosopher). Here it is:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, "See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!"
Huizi said, "You're not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?"
Zhuangzi said, "You're not I, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?"
Huizi said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!"
Zhuangzi said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao."


Hope you are not bored by this story!

BTW: No wonder you and Joshua get along so well. You both love food: you like to talk about food and he likes to eat.

Just kidding!

Have a great spring!

Steinwayliz said...

Taking joy in the process is what "being an artist is all about", or should I say, the "essence of the experience".
We re-creative artists really have the best of it: we spend our life-times studying and performing the masterpieces, and we never tire of them, because we thrive on the act of "knowing"--hopefully also sharing these insights with appreciative audiences.
Hence the post-concert let-down that some of us (whose schedules are not as full as yours!!) often experience. And then there is the transition back to the "real" world --of anwering phone calls, paying the bills, etc.

Anonymous said...

I guess what worries us the most is who we are, and what we don’t want to become. Maybe the comedian is the one who can find joy in what is available, and maybe the joke is on us.

Phillip said...

You're really onto something with the idea of worry as the opposite of happiness. Interesting that the worry or lack of such in Stravinsky's and Ives' music (according to your astute analysis) finds its opposite in their actual lives...Ives "unworried" himself right into a bunch of heart attacks before he was 50 and wrote nothing in the final 30 years of his life, whereas "worrying" Stravinsky kept on chugging along, re-inventing himself and creating nearly to the end of his 89 years.

Wonderful writing and really appreciate what you're doing. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the computer, the modern day composer can create brilliant works, listen to them,and delete them without telling anyone.

I Want My Brain Back said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
I Want My Brain Back said...

I was on the floor laughing when I read what he said to you. I have since found many opportunities to use the phrasing "It's better ... than you end up in the hospital" or "You might be ... but at least you're not in the hospital." Thanks for constantly bringing me amusement intertwined with ingenius thought processes. On another note, I saw you and Joshua Bell at Clowes Hall a couple of weeks ago--amazing.
~Bec

R J Keefe said...

Great post. The French greats (Ravel &c) often do what you speak of - let the music out of the frame. It usually sounds like bad taste on first impression. Poulenc is prolific in this way.

noreen said...

Thanks for the fantastic post, Jeremy! (I love your mention of food in these blogs.)

It is very interesting that you consider worrying as the direct opposite of joy. I disagree with you because life is generally very linear, and happiness and sadness are more like peaks and bumps off of this straight line. They are not constants like worries; we worry about school/work, bill payments, family, friends, monetary loss (for example, the hood ornament on my brother's car was just stolen as I was posting my comment - the car alarm sounded, we were out the door, ornament was gone, but so was the thief), etc. There is always something to worry about in life. To me, worrying would seem like another line parallel to life, just as linear and continuous, and the direct opposite of worrying would be "not worrying," which really cannot exist in reality.

Just my two cents ...

By the way, will you post a picture of you practicing on your piano someday? You have painted such a vivid image of your hours of practicing in your piano room in your previous blogs. Thanks again for the enlightening blogs!

Margarita said...

I liked your thoughts on Stravinsky. As for him "worrying" too much... It's in Russian blood. :)

The Sanity Inspector said...

I liked the contrast between Stravinsky and Ives. I've boosted a chunk of this post--with credit--for use in the usenet group alt.quotations

Jennifer said...

Congrats on your benefit performance with Josh Bell & Sting... here are photos if you haven't already seen them: http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=8553

bro said...

Just looked at the photos, and it sure seems like they went out of their way to put you in the darkest corner, out of sight and as far from Sting as possible...or perhaps you were shielding yourself from the irrelevant-adult-contemporary-music force field that surrounds him these days. Either way, he will be sorry when Igor and Charles bumps The Office from the Thursday 9:30 time slot on NBC.

LishaZ said...

"I was thinking that the opposite of happiness is not sadness, but worry."
Amen
Saw you perform at Disney Concert Hall - amazing. Finé After reading your blog I think you're brilliant in prose AND piano. Happy musings.
A fan

Claire said...

i'm just continually fascianted by your food posts. :P

Late comer said...

Better if food is late than your order is refused (Remember Soup Nazi).

Better if food is late than you get manic depression and end up in an asylum (as did Schmann.)

Better if food is late than you injure your finger (so sorry for Mr. Perahia.)

Better if food is late than you fall off your bike and fracture your cervical (as did I.)

Better if the benchmark is lower than not you are in love at all. Good Luck on your next Great Love. :)