Saturday, August 26, 2006


Music gazes at its listener with empty eyes, and the more deeply one immerses oneself in it, the more incomprehensible its ultimate purpose becomes, until one learns that the answer, if such is possible, does not lie in contemplation, but in interpretation. In other words, the only person who can solve the riddle of music is the one who plays it correctly, as something whole.

--Theodor Adorno, The Relationship of Philosophy and Music, tr. Susan Gillespie

Every since I picked up a volume of Adorno essays at my beloved Labyrinth Books, I have been going through a mild Adorno phase and I especially enjoy hauling this volume to the New York Sports Club and barely stuffing it into the little bookslot of the Stairmaster and staring smugly at my neighbors with their pitiful People Magazines. They stare back at me with empty eyes, and I must admit as the sweat begins to pour down my face that it becomes hard to concentrate on a passage like--

Hence the ontological definition of music as a language sui generis is either so abstract that it says nothing more than that between the individual musical facts there exists an articulated context that is "logical" in its own way, as Harburger, for example, has attempted to demonstrate in his book on meta-logic.

--A footnote suggests there is more to learn about Harburger, but I do not interrupt my workout to check.

Somehow that sentence about the empty eyes and the interpreter solving the riddle of the purpose of the piece made it through to my brain, despite all the distractions of the NYSC, and left an impression. I abandoned my dampened Stairmaster more pensively than I climbed it. A piece, even one you know well, can feel like you just dropped all the items in your shopping bag and they are rolling across the floor in every direction. Every day, every performance, every iteration you have to gather them again (freshly, or else). But in this case, extending the metaphor as usual ad absurdum, before you return an item to the bag you must know how it belongs with the others, and even why you wanted it in the first place: a very emotional trip to the supermarket of musical ideas. You tie them together with (hopefully) invisible thread (the act of interpretation?), which can be drawn too loose or too tight.

Adorno had put into words what I realized was one of the motivating (subconscious?) themes of my practicing: the desire to bring all the parts into a whole, or to put it another way, the desire for the whole which allows the parts to exist meaningfully. I have been feeling this process and the tugs of these desires very intensely as I prepare the 4th and 6th Partitas of Bach. The Partitas are collections of dances, pieces written in genres, in a fixed stylized order; they don't have the obvious, free literary or narrative sweeps that one is assisted by in works of Schumann or Beethoven, for instance; but despite being collections and varied and myriad and stylized and fixed they each seem to be hovered over by some sort of guardian angel, a uniting spirit. Each seems like a miniature cosmos. Without trivializing, I hope I can say that the D major feels to me like some sort of total vision of happiness (which includes melancholy and reflection). Its final gigue is a virtuosic release: the most overt, affirmative kind of joy, and it seems to sum up without needing to "answer" or "correct" or "propose" or right any wrongs that may have occurred before. (Unlike, say, the last movements of Beethoven 5th and 9th Symphonies, to name some ridiculously contrasting examples.) It is the one I find myself most passionately attached to right now. I can even discriminate between the "type" of happiness of the D major and the more extremely comic, lighter (but perhaps less profound?) happiness of the G major.

The E minor, by contrast, lies in some uneasy relationship even to the idea of emotion or mood. Its first movement seems to have an obvious "emotive agenda;" it deals with the most prevalent tropes of musical tragedy: the falling sigh motif and the descending tetrachord. The first movement explores them exhaustively, in improvisation and in fugue, then the subsequent dances are haunted by the same ideas in disguise, most remarkably in the Sarabande. But the signifier and the signified are in a strange dance around each other. After the Gigue, is it possible to feel the piece has a tragic or melancholic effect? (Even after the Toccata I am not so sure.) The minor keys in Bach so often do not seem centrally about sadness, do not seem a vehicle even for an emotion primarily; they seem to have a dual role; they evoke the tragic while simultaneously creating a pathway to daring, to intellectual adventure, to compositional wildness. I am not saying that Bach thereby drains the music of emotional content (the hackneyed charge of Bach as an "intellectual" or "cerebral" composer); but the affective content becomes a conduit and not the subject of the discourse; this kind of altered state is evident in the Gigue, which to my mind is lit by an intense fire, with its leaps and constant interplay of voices, sometimes altogether overwhelming, more intensity than "can be played." Its difficulty (aside from technical demands) lies in that there is so much going on, so much density of tension, an unbelievable compression ... But after an altered state like that, it is not so easy to say what the whole "tone" of the piece is (it represents no emotion that I know); its very daring makes it difficult to compress into a whole, to solve its riddle.

At the same time that the piece thrills you, it draws you into its strange questions, including the "useless" question: what does it all mean? Play it as a whole, Adorno says, and you the player ask: well what the *(&(*)# is that? But somehow you also know. And maybe you're sitting over a dinner plate and your friend is telling you something and it occurs to you, how to play some moment in an Allemande (some wending, wonderful moment of ambiguous arrival or departure status) and you stare at your friend with empty eyes and can't wait to get back home, you grab a cab instead of the subway and throw your keys on the floor and play it and why is it never as good as it is in the mind? (Charles Ives, a great lover of Bach, laughing in the background: "My God! What has sound to do with music!")

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Summer Clothes

Here is a picture of my closet after all the summer's dirty clothes have been piled in it, so I can walk to and from my bed relatively unencumbered:

Who among you, faced with this kind of squalor, this daunting mountain of drudgery, would not prefer to escape forthwith and tout suite into the perfect ideal world of music, into its dancing spheres and lines?

Ah, but the wheels turn and even before my first cup of coffee it occurs to me. Perhaps I create a situation in my apartment, deliberately but subconsciously, so that I will be all the more tempted, nay even forced, to get myself to the piano right away! Perhaps it is not really laziness and slobbery but the most fiendishly clever practice motivation technique ever invented! Anybody with me? Anybody buying it?

Monday, August 21, 2006


Rats scurry into subway tunnels, teens discuss real estate with premature machismo, and airconditioners hum and drip irregularly. Sigh; all is as I left it here in New York City. It is now night and some of the edge is off. Earlier today, I sat in the backseat of my parents' rental and stared out a tinted window at the totally clear pure blue sky and dreamed of my feet over the edge of a pier, dipped in a cool northern lake. But compulsion drew me in, inexorably, out of the infinite green beauties, away from the fields, silos and flowers, into a small tight gray corner-metropolis. As I drove myself (different stage of the journey) down the Thruway, I imagined all the other people, leaving their families and vacations and the purity of the mountains and forests for Reality, Vice, Career and Corruption. It was such a cliche. How many of us there on the road were doing the same thing? Pondering their families while driving 70 miles-an-hour away from them? (Really, officer, I was only doing 65.) I thought of all the strange citythings that could and should never be communicated at the family reunion. They would not only be inappropriate; they would be meaningless there, Sanskrit scribblings. I guess reality can sometimes make these two imaginary worlds intersect, strangely. I thought about how I had to return from one world to the other, I thought of the metaphor behind the miles. Then, restless, trapped in my white rental car, I moved from metaphor to my dream--I could escape, head up to Schroon Lake for one last breather of the summer--but I turned the car south and smiled and gritted my teeth and paid the tolls and here I am.

Let the record state that a) if the Arnold Palmer is Iced Tea and Lemonade, b) the Jeremy Denk is Cranberry Juice Cocktail and Ginger Ale.

Let me address a totally different question: how does a touring musician while away down times? I sat In my Rhinebeck hotel room, surfing channels and always seeming to stop at the WB or F/X before accusing myself of vulgarity, etcetera: an endless cycle of TV self-recrimination. I am an artist; how can I watch this drivel? My reading material had run out, and off the shelf came an extraordinary thick volume: Danielle Steel's The House. Ah, yes, something even more empty than television ... Ever in search of exotic experiences, I began to read, with an odd compulsion, and then I sincerely could not stop, though I skimmed madly, in search of understanding, through its 533 large-print pages; I told myself I was a cynical visitor in quest of the key to its badness, but also I was just a plain old sentimental sop wanting to know how she would bring this train-wreck of a plot to an end. I have a little file on my computer called "first lines" where I put all the cool first lines of novels I will (probably) never write; I spend endless hours dreaming of interesting hooks to bring the reader into the worlds of these hypothetical narratives. But Danielle is not hung up on beginnings; boldly, even impudently, she dreams up the most boring imaginable first sentence, and lets it fly:

Sarah Anderson left her office at nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning in June for her ten o-clock appointment with Stanley Perlman.

I LOVE it. There's so much uninteresting detail, and so little grace. I have wracked my brain, but don't think the Tuesday has any metaphorical significance, and Danielle really wants us to know, though there is no future plot juncture depending on it, that it takes a half-hour to get from her office to Stanley's place. I suppose the sentence does convey a sense of specificity and punctuality, a kind of no-nonsense, life-is-not-about-wiffly-waffly-images kind of thing. Curious, for a romance. A pragmatic romance? Along those lines, I love her choices of names: nothing quirky, nothing off-type. The men mostly have nice masculine one-syllable names (Jeff, Phil, Dave, George) except for the French professional bachelor, Pierre. The women are a more gentle two-syllable crowd (Sarah, Audrey, Mimi) except for the uptight French wife, Marie-Louise, who needs a lot more space to be haughty. Interestingly, the money-hoarding genius at investing is named Stanley Perlman. Surely, there's no stereotype there.

Now, let us be the first to admit!: we are no strangers here at Think Denk to clumsy metaphors. But, one has to bow in reverent admiration at Miss Steel. Generally she avoids prose that is too far from naked fact, or generic account, preferring for instance:

Sarah came back to the apartment to put her dry cleaning away, and after that she went to the photography exhibit at the museum, and found it beautiful and interesting. She would have liked to share it with Phil, but she knew he wasn't crazy about museums. She went for a walk on the Marina Green after that, to get some exercise and air, and she was back at her apartment as six o'clock, after stopping at Safeway to buy some groceries.

Proust, eat your heart out. A passage like this makes me want to bring back Susan Sontag for a diatribe. But here Miss Steel goes trying out a little metaphor:

The day without him, his spending it with his friend without calling her, the way he talked about Dave's ex-wife and his girlfriend, and the exceptionally good sex she and Phil had had. All put together, it made for a puzzle where none of the pieces fit smoothly.

Aha! One tremendously awkward ("his spending it," "had had"), ungrammatical sentence, followed by an explanatory metaphor. Probably, I would suggest, "All put together, THEY made for a puzzle where none of the pieces fit smoothly." Anybody else agree on this? I'm not a stickler; plurals can become singulars and vice versa; to my mind, it's no biggie. But I sense Danielle felt she had gone too far out on a linguistic limb, that the meaning was not clear, and so she elucidates:

She felt as though she were trying to fit pieces together that showed trees, sky, half a cat, and part of a barn door.

And yet further, in case you missed the point:

All together they didn't make a picture. She knew what the images were, but none of them was complete, and she didn't feel whole, either.

Kerpow! Thud! Idea pounded into my head, for good, so hard that in fact my head hurts. Now some of you don't like it when I get too mean-spirited and snobby and stuff here on Think Denk and so you probably won't enjoy this little Danielle Steel moment. Can you forgive me? It's true, I can be a jerk. I'm just trying to show you that sometimes you can get so bored in your hotel room that in fact you will do ANYTHING, including read romance novels, and sometimes these unexpected, desperate diversions can be very diverting. I skimmed all the way to the end of The House and seriously had to know how it ended. In fact, once the heroine buys real estate, everything seems to fall into place. Her architect becomes her boyfriend, both her mother and grandmother find new husbands, the old boyfriend is revealed as a cad--

He could have been plunging into the spectacular blonde when she walked in, instead of whatever they were doing under the covers. Fortunately, it had been a cold night, and his apartment was always freezing, so they had stayed under the duvet.

--I admire the attention to climatic, and not just climactic, detail. Really a whole lifetime of growth and happiness seems to be compressed into one heavy mortgage, and I wondered if Danielle was in cahoots with the broker lobby. All my criticism is beyond useless, however; this authoress is laughing, has laughed, will continue to laugh, all the way to the bank, and if I got some laughter out of it too, and you readers do also, then who's really suffering? No one. I apologize to all Think Denk readers, in advance, who are Steel fans, and I hope Sarah and Jeff live happily ever after and I'm sure Phil will continue to be a selfish self-absorbed jerk and where's the remote?

Monday, August 14, 2006

If I Were

URGENT. Can someone PLEASE tell the programming folks at Air France that "If I Were a Rich Man?" from Fiddler on the Roof is not really classical music, per se ... though I hate to be a stickler about labels. But once the tune got into my head, sneaking in by a combination of headphone and misnomer, I was humming it all the way through customs, analyzing its phrase structure, etcetera. It was horrible. I will spare you my revelations.

MAGNIFICENT. I have been boinging around Europe with Josh (I realize I have narrowly missed a less felicitous but more suggestive turn of phrase), and in each city and country various items could be slated as gains or losses. For example, Air Iberia lost our bags for four days while we concertized in Mallorca/Menorca, and as I surveyed the baggage office in a cold sweat, I began to lose my faith in humanity's ability to combat chaos and disorder; and at that moment, I had too much of a stake in my bag to embrace the chaos as a liberating principle. In Menorca, this loss was translated into a last-minute pre-concert shopping trip for yours truly, where a loss of cash metamorphosed into the gain of some really outrageous ties. Which were totally, blissfully, unnecessary as Josh and I don't wear ties. Hah, so there, chaos. In the (tentative) gain column, somewhere around the Rhine, Josh and I picked up several bottles of wine and let me just suggest now and forever that bottles, packed in a heavy wooden box, are not precisely the ideal gift for a musician in the midst of a tour. But Josh and I were loath to part with all of them, as they promised to be delicious summery Rieslings, and off we carted them in shopping bags, hauling them onto puddlejumpers and into taxis and always carefully distinguishing them from each others', though they were identical. I enjoyed that part the most. The more airport security lanes we carried them through, the more our resentment began to grow, like a terrible Gifthorse Virus. The handles of the bags would eat unpleasantly into my fingers, and I would begin to feel numb in one or the other, and wonder how I might play that evening's gig without the index finger, for instance. We began to curse under our breaths, and over our breaths, and the phrases "that &*()#$# wine!" and "I hate the (&(#@#&*$() wine!" came like a refrain in a rondo, again and again, amusing and inevitable. Only the future promise of drinking the delicious wine, at home with friends or lovers, by candlelight, could redeem the endless misery of this recurring burden. So that when, two days before my return flight home, I began to hear reports of increased security, and it began to dawn that the wine would never be carried on the plane by me, I could only laugh and marvel and bow before fate's delicious ingenuity. At 5:07 AM, bleary and delirious, I stared at the sign at the check-in counter in Florence (not having slept since the 9 PM concert the evening barely before), a sign which read "NO LIQUIDS," and loved that it was specifically liquids that were forbidden, the ONE THING which Josh and I had persisted in carrying, and I just laughed and laughed, my inner wry laugh which can be confused by the outside observer for utter despair. I handed my bag of wine to Enzo, my very sweet driver with hilarious English (including the wonderful "keephouser"), and said "for you." And he said why? But I did not tell him why and I hope he is enjoying my Riesling right now on a Monday afternoon, before surveying yet another beautiful Tuscan sunset. Losses and gains spreading through the universe like tentacles.

Oh my I must stop, I have to run to the Hamptons. Steven Spielberg has some crisis or other that I have to deal with.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Verbier Dispatch

Inexplicably, the entry hall to my hotel has but two items of decor: an AC/DC poster ("Hell's Bells") and a "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" poster. Swiss chalet=freshman dorm? And though no one seems to work at the hotel at all, except to spread an unbelievable amount of lemon-scented cleaner on the floor around noon, making my hallway a deeply treacherous experience (perhaps this is meant to assist with the skiing?), somehow about 20 Swiss teeny-boppers found their way into the hitherto-locked entertainment room this morning (!) to have some sort of mild Euro-rave. Also this morning at 8 it was deemed necessary to move what sounded like an armored assault vehicle, slowly and scrapingly, across the terrace beneath my window; I could count the gravel bits as they were crushed under its weight. A nice touch of hospitality.

It sounds like I am complaining, but I must admit these disturbances haven't really bothered me at all; the Swiss air has made it possible for me to sleep epically, so that I feel I could have slept through the entire festival without too much incident, a Rip van Denkle. I would like to make the following astute cultural observations, cross-ocean: 1) Capri pants are in, for boys. 2) America needs to get on the crepe bandwagon, immediately. 3) We need to throw many more diva fits at American festivals, to make them interesting. 4) --which is a complex corollary to 3-- Black Audis, or black, somewhat evil-looking vehicles of any type, need to drive around ominously and importantly and pick us up at odd hours and transport us obscenely short distances; we need to put posters of ourselves in hiking gear shops, grocery stores, and other odd places; we need whole towns to make into shrines of classical music so that non-classical music people start wondering "what am I missing out on here?" etc. etc. If it is possible let's create these town/shrines in outrageously beautiful places with tremendous cheese and chocolate. The possible American candidates for this sort of thing must be limited; get to work! I think Aspen must be the closest (since they already have the crepe wagon) but like so many American locales they need to shore up their cheese credentials.

Right now I feel as if I am in a Mentos commercial. The fog is lifting off the mountain. I am on the terrace, breathing the cool fresh air. Fragments of horn calls reach me from afar, echoing off the mountainside (I am not kidding!). I am waiting waiting waiting for the waitress of the Milk Bar to come back and offer me another coffee, dammit! With all their sense of proportion they don't understand that we imbalanced Americans need more more more of everything. She will look at me funny when she finally comes back and I order a crepe on top of my croissant. But I don't care. I even get a kind of perverse pleasure in horribly fulfilling the gluttonous American stereotype; but really it's a form of cross-cultural love! it's because the crepes are so so so good and they don't start serving them until noon which is now!!!!! Are you enjoying this real time blogging experience, readers? I would give you a bite-by-bite account of my chocolate banana chantilly crepe but perhaps that might become boring. My gym membership is so far away, in New York, calling over the ocean, counting off hours of Stairmaster and Elliptical Cross-Trainer as chocolate appears on the table. Shut up you. I will deal with you when I get home, maybe. A new enemy: a vicious bee, having immersed itself in my confiture, buzzes greedily towards my crepe, it is a pitched battle, away you scoundrel, this you may not have!, as you can see I am very busy, there is no time for more blogging ...