Saturday, September 23, 2006

Learish Addenda

As I was rereading King Lear, I came across the following lines of villainous Edmund:

Pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o'Bedlam. -- O, these eclipses do portend these divisions. Fa, sol, la, mi.

A helpful note in the Arden edition reads:

Fa ... mi Edmund sings, as if unaware of Edgar's approach, in order the fourth, fifth, sixth and third notes of the scale of C major, a discordant motto, Hunter suggests, appropriate to the character of Edmund: 'He thus moves across the interval of the augmented fourth, called diabolus in musica (the devil in music).'

Now, without really doing any hard research except a Googling, it seems this footnote must be wrong, and I am so very eager to ascribe it to a general cluelessness about music prevalent among some theatre people... I smell a rat discussing "C major" per se in the 1604 environs ... and F, G, A, E, does not outline a tritone; there are even no tritones within it. Before I burn my Arden edition in a fit of rage, are there any Shakespearians out there who can clarify this mystery? Pretty pretty please?

Also, to add to my last post about Bach and Lear, the following wonderful quote:

instead of one unitary passage of time, then, there are many temporal dimensions leading us back into Bach's fugal workshop, in which musical thinking and the relations between musical ideas and God-given principles of harmony exist in a tension with the ultimate order in which the results nominally appear.

And lastly, a dear friend has sent me the very first Think Denk T-shirt:

Many thanks.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rereading, Rewriting, Being

Whole painstaking books vanish from my mind like dreams. I stare at their spines on my shelves and wonder what they were ever about. I completely forgot I had read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I “began” to read it with enthusiasm until, about 40 pages in, familiarity overwhelmed me, dusty characters came to life, and I closed the book, smarting with an unpleasant sense of uncontrollable deja vu: a sense of being lost in a memory labyrinth, with no bread crumbs or string. We are curiously attached to knowing the when and where of the beginnings of our memories, the origins of shreds of information (where do I know that person from?, why is this important to me? etc.), perhaps because without the labeling system, without a chronology and a cause, information and events become depressingly infinite. Infinite in the manner of Kafkesque, recursive visions. Proust asks himself a question: why is this madeleine meaningful to me? and seven novels later he finds, more or less, an answer: an answer which simultaneously “solves” the problem of happiness.

This business of forgetting books makes me question the purpose of reading them in the first place. In order for me to really remember a book, some extraordinary thing must happen; I have to almost rewrite it within myself. The process of remembering is painstaking. The book must lurk around, by the bed, in the kitchen, floating around the floor, hanging around my feet like a pet: a friend or foe who won’t go away; it must turn up at unexpected, undesired times; it must be picked up on random, elusive, unmotivated occasions and read and reread until its cadences and turns and twists begin to separate from from the contingent, temporal crossing of the novel-from-beginning-to-end. I imagine Bach’s pupils copying out by candlelight the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

There are of course many musical works I have absorbed in this fashion, so that I could perform them now at a moment’s notice, or probably write them down with only a few mistakes on manuscript paper; these pieces have made the difficult journey from outside to inside... Come to think of it: music is constantly being copied onto the hard drive of my brain. I’m sure there are occasional “errors” of overlap--in the jargon perhaps “buffer overrun,” please correct me here--where the music gets written into the parts of my brain I use for, say, interpersonal interaction. So when a friend comes to me in a bad mood and I am trying to cheer them up, some of what I do and say is actually Op. 111, encoded, almost by accident. Because total disentanglement is impossible. I’m sure this is true: that bits of music are floating around my brain liberally, radically, and influence my behavior at all times--when I’m ordering coffee, or when I’m sticking my bankcard yet again in the ATM. Just a few days ago, I began practicing the first fugue of the Well Tempered Clavier, and I can feel now the subject and its permutations working in me, like a spider, spinning webs of remembrance which get blown apart and reconstructed; the piece is trying madly to write itself within me before I can forget. Probably the “sensible” (but ultimately stupid) part of unconscious me is trying to fight these memorable notes, whose will is so strong, to make place for other, newer, less important memories. I am walking home from the gym, in the first coolness of fall, surrounded by mangoes on carts and ladies with canes and offers for rent and bottles for sale, and in the chaos of the city street the fugue subject stays with me absolutely: at the ends of sentences, around the corner of every other thought, behind every approaching face, an incorporeal yearning friend. I ascribe the powerful will of the notes to be learned to some greatness of the notes themselves, to the composer’s skill and invention; but this is partly a copout. I have with long practice turned myself into a note vacuum and now the mechanism cannot be stopped; I am, let’s face it, a machine for absorbing music. And, like any useful or useless machine, I am for sale.

That sounded rather dreary, or negative. I do not mean to be; I was just helplessly and tangentially following a thought. The theme of Bach which is coursing through me right now has nothing negative about it...

And as I sing it to myself (though without singing, actually... what is that way of thinking a phrase without singing or humming? is there a word for that? we should invent it right now...) it lifts me up, makes me feel like I am becoming... To escape its perpetual it-ness and this tension of happiness I try to account for the vector of this little constellation of notes and dip in my reservoir of words for a few sad pseudo-synonyms: “purity,” “ascent,” “balance,” “transference,” “intervallic space,” “intersecting fourths,” most too general to be meaningful at all. And when I think about Op. 111 “as a whole,” for instance, when I try to call to my mind the idea of the piece, what is the piece?, inevitably the return of this operation includes, for example, a night when I played it in Philadelphia, and my parents locked their keys in their rental car; a certain turn of my head at a certain moment when I felt the phrase went just so; an afternoon in Beacon when the high pianissimo notes seemed to fly into the rafters, looking for the stars they seemed to symbolize; a lecture in Vermont about trenchant anomalies; a party in Bloomington; a late night of practicing it in my apartment interrupted when my mate came in to complain about me practicing so late, which ended predictably, with us making out at the piano, smashing out inadvertent clusters; a sad morning hungover in South Carolina eating barbecue at the airport, waiting desperately to either stay or go home: in other words, the piece in all its immaculate musicality and purity, in order to express itself in my brain, reaches out for bits of me (some quite impure) it can use as “words;” it reaches into the other areas of my consciousness, grabbing onto the other areas like walls it wants to climb into meaning.

I began to think about “rereading” for the silliest (and therefore most wonderful) of reasons. The other day, in my farewell to the WB channel, I referenced King Lear, and suddenly felt like that play was way too far from me, my vision of it was too vague. In the middle of paying bills, sorting mail, vacuuming, practicing fugues, and a million annoying errands, I began to reward myself with a page at a time of Shakespeare. The horror dawned; I had made a most colossal, embarrassing error in my WB post, as of course Lear’s eyes are not plucked out, but Gloucester’s, and what kind of idiot (i.e. me) would forget that, as the meeting of the two complementary victims of fate--the now totally senile Lear and the eyeless but still lucid Gloucester--could possibly be regarded as the emotional climax of the play:

GLOUCESTER: ... Dost thou know me?
LEAR: I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squint at me?
No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love.
Read thou this challenge, mark but the penning of it.
GLOUCESTER: Were all thy letters suns, I could not see one...
LEAR: Read.
GLOUCESTER: What? With the case of eyes?
LEAR: Oh ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light, yet you see how this world goes.
GLOUCESTER: I see it feelingly.
LEAR: What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears...

The madman lectures the blind man on vision and truth. A passage that every musician should have at hand or at mind. The difficult question pokes at me: how could I have read this painful, incredible exchange, and forgotten it completely? (I feel sure I’ve read the play at least twice.) The Moment seems indelible, unforgettable ... but somehow I had not managed to write it within myself; perhaps I hadn’t looked with my ears?

The removal of Gloucester’s eyes has horror-value, of course, and also drama-value, serving as a climax proving the cruelty of Regan (until then somewhat in doubt), but its most seductive function is, I think, theme-value, or its terrifying resonance in the world of ideas (idea-value, language-value, meaning-value). To state the obvious: the literal blindness is really only the creation, in so-called reality, of Gloucester’s earlier blindness to reality, i.e. to the real nature of his two sons. It is a stripping-away; but it is the removal--we are made to understand--solely of the appearance of sight (a beautiful paradox), of sight’s external manifestations, as punishment for a deeper truer preexisting blindness, a terrible forced coincidence of state-of-mind and state-of-body. And just when he can no longer physically see, suddenly moral sight begins to come to torment him: similar paradoxes and Catch-22s of life run off in every direction like rats in this play, as if Gloucester’s predicament were a virus of meaning that everyone must catch. Shakespeare’s unfolding of the drama, his conception of the plot, is obviously shaped and forced to include numerous “rereadings” of this blindness theme, seemingly infinite permutations where Gloucester’s condition is subject to linguistic, metaphoric, thematic play: Gloucester comes into contact with his son, but does not recognize him (“see” him); he is led to his desired suicide by this disguised son, but is tricked (once again blind, doubly blind, living in a world others create); he lives and is lectured by mad Lear, who is oddly sounding truer than ever before (what is “to see,” “to know”?); he sits on stage looking obviously at nothing while the battle rages and defeat for Cordelia and Lear results (blind injustice?); he finally learns his son’s identity and at that moment of solace dies (to see equals death). Magnificent riffs on sight and sense are everywhere:

GLOUCESTER: I have no way, and therefore want no eyes:
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen
Our means secure us and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again.

So, one can reread King Lear. But within the space of the play, Shakespeare is also rereading; his writing is a rereading, of an idea, a character, a node of meaning... Every time that we graze over this theme, there is a kind of resonance; some deep string is plucked again, at a frequency very different from Plot; this string crosses over the temporal order of the play, creates an atemporal order, a second plotting, a second vision, a second sight: a contrapuntal voice?

I was sitting on the stage of the Academy, playing for the second or third time through the Sarabande of the E minor Partita, when this aspect of the Partitas became very strangely and hauntingly apparent to me: tangible-ghostly. Why do ideas occur to one at a particular moment rather than another? (Why does one remember one book and not another?) It was an odd, tired moment of extenuation when the body and mind were wrung for one last drop of inspiration.

The dialogue of the various movements suddenly seemed like a process of remembering or retracing: a holding-on, like trying to find some meaning in the notes that will stick, that will not vanish. Why is this motive meaningful to me? Or perhaps: through struggle and recurrence and varied contemplation, trying to find and create a new meaning (a new “invention”), a new definition in the dictionary. And the Sarabande seems to rove farthest and dig deepest. Blah blah blah; I could reiterate what I have said here before, replucking a tired theme, throwing out yet again the Music Theory Lecture Talking Point: that the Sarabande “reworks” (all that meaning into one stupid verb) the opening motto of the Toccata. But--after all the searching for a way to say it, it does so much more than that: it is completely woven from the earlier idea in such an extraordinary way that it seems to be grappling with it, addressing consequences, ramifications, connotations: pursuing the chain of musical metaphor.

After all, the opening idea of the piece is not really a theme (in the musical sense); it is more a Theme (in the literary sense).

It is too universal and too brief to be Melody; it seems constantly to ask the question: what will I create? It has tendencies; it has combinative force. All but a few (exceptional) moments of the Sarabande can be understood as satellites, as Its creations. The composer does not just vary or rewrite it; he rereads it, obsessively, like someone desperate not to forget. In the Toccata the Idea appears, paradigmatically, as a pair of discrete, marked question-and-answer phrases; or at least it is made to form them, just as Gloucester’s spiritual blindness is made to be an actual blindness (incidental, but essential). But, in the Sarabande, these binary pairs, these simple phrases, are gone, are subsumed into winding, sinuous, inescapable totality: the Idea is now read as a run-on, elusive, impossible sentence, still however rambling constantly back into its selfsame Idea. Each strange miraculous corner of this sentence is marked by this Different-but-Sameness; each chord of landing, each instance of the motive is a different event, a new “interpretation” of the idea. Sometimes the winding brings us into major keys, contradicting the tragic connotations of the Idea, creating heartbreaking paradoxical readings (“I stumbled when I saw,” “a chance which does redeem all sorrows/That I have ever felt.”). The grammar of the Idea is [dotted rhythm:dissonance:release] and Bach rereads all of these, concealing or exaggerating the dotted idea, extenuating the dissonances, transforming the releases into further dissonances. Particularly at the outset of the second half (which begins with a kind of dutiful inversion of the Idea), Bach toys with enormous expansions, almost beyond hearing, of the dissonant chords. At these moments he wanders so far afield that you barely think it is the Idea anymore (at this moment the annoying student in Music Theory class pipes up to say “do you think Bach really heard that--irritating whine here--as a variation of the main idea, aren’t you stretching things a bit?” and you give them the look of death and you wonder where they ever got the notion in their undergraduate heads to define the limits of Bach’s hearing), but you are forced to wonder anyway; he forces you towards the border where the individualized Idea (the motive, the essence) begins to melt into the total, undifferentiated possibility of all Ideas, of everything: the terrible place where the Idea could be forgotten, like so many books on my shelves.

Is this chain of readings intended simply to make us remember the Idea? Just to implant some sort of “hook”, to get us to whistle the tune, to come back for more? Of course not. The myriad readings keep leading us back to the Idea and then back out to the next reading, and on and on in an endless loop, a loop which delineates and symbolizes, I think, an attempted act of understanding: something as simple and unattainable and infinite as a human thought.

On the stage there, in my socks and not at all well-dressed, leaping around between takes like a puppy, by turns caffeinated out of my mind and fading fast, I added each take to the last and trusted/hoped the microphone would remember at least some of my meanings, some of my thoughts. I felt haunted, by a sense of Bach haunting himself, grappling personally with the material, like any other human, grappling and seeing the limits and possibilities of the Ideas he himself had created or invoked. His musical ideas were his books and he wanted to really know them, not to look at them like strangers. This vision ended on the train ride after the session, where I looked out the gray window at the impending hurricane and felt a slight fever begin to come on, dark evening, the houses with lamps depressingly distant and me passing by in the wracked train, stressed out for no reason, making nonsense of the simplest possible thing. I typed on the computer: “To recover the powerful experience, the archetypal experience, and to believe it.” And I went on about the fugue/Gigue, talking about it as if it were a book to be read:

“In the fugue subject ... melody as self-sufficient character or identity (I am what I am, take what meanings you can); then the second subject is a layer of clarification (the theme can “take comfort” from the other subject, from a bassline); the third entrance... gradually it is harder and harder to hear the theme through the density of other voices.... so the theme loses itself in its own understanding... the “miracle” that the various voices are able to coexist, the thrill of more going on than the conscious mind can simultaneously process; the constant onset of dissonances, like a kaleidoscopic grammar; the abandon of counterpoint.”

And I fell asleep and forgot everything.


Some good friends of mine are heading out today to Laramie, Wyoming to play a concert. I have never played there, which really doesn't seem quite fair, for obvious reasons:

There once was a pianist named Jeremy
Who flew out to give concerts in Laramie
But as he sat down to play
A rip at his rear made him say
"My buttocks are really quite bare, Ah me!"

Apologies. Real post later. It seems to me the first two lines are pretty much set; if you come up with any better conclusions, please let me know.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Not Arrivederci, but Addio

There are some cultural events so momentous, dear readers, that I must suspend the daily rotor of events, must pause even mid-Venti, unfolding and plugging in the aluminum square which skeptical future generations, uncomprehending, will have to speculate was some sort of universal God or Icon, and lay fingers velvety over the clicking surfaces, and scrounge around in the inaccessible, ever-disappearing-behind-a-curtain gray matter for some appropriate thunderbolt of expression, some wordnugget to convey their magnitude to you (“Hypocrite lecteur,” cf. Baudelaire, Fleurs du Mal). Such is today’s WB Farewell (link here).

My friend A was first shocked by this news, as she knew what a blow it would be to me. Before she could shield, deflect, and conceal the rush of empathetic emotion, her naked sense of my vulnerability leaked through: “But your fantasy world... will shrink ... and dry up ... like a raisin ...” (I’m paraphrasing a bit here, she was more eloquent and her simile was less nutritious.) It is not every morning that you contemplate pre-coffee the destruction of your extended adolescence. It is true:

--I have spent lamentable hours banging head against wall wondering whether Ben or Noel would be the preferable mate for Felicity;

-- I have imbibed numerous margaritas on my nearly astroturf carpet and swallowed back horrendous oily torrents of Chinese food watching unlikely boyfriends get run over by buses and submit to all sorts of preposterous plot twists;

-- I have wept in Middlebury on a cloudy cold afternoon (when I should have been practicing) while watching wobbly VHSes of season 5 of Buffy (yes the one where she dies, twice), and have seriously compared the cold onset of early winter, and the running of half-icy streams, to Buffy’s Dostoevskian trials, her angry submission to fate, the teenaged opposite of late Beethovenian peaceful resignation, but with the same result;

-- I have laughed at Angel’s supernatural irony, at the postmodern pancake of vampire and teen cliche, and have allowed it to permeate my pores, contaminating my aesthetic judgment permanently;

-- I have winced and groaned under the sheer obvious manufactured pathos and lesson-learning of Dawson’s Creek, and I fought the pain of perpetual insults to my intelligence, and still found time to get teary-eyed whenever Joey gets conflicted (often), or when Dawson and Pacey throw their man-child tantrums with elicited unconviction, or when slimy nostalgia vomits all over the script and no one bothers to clean it up, including me;

This and so much more, I have done. I cannot confess it all; the sins I have committed with the WB are beyond number, like strollers in my 93rd Street Starbucks. And now, having defiled me, having taken the virginity of my image-repertoire, the WB plans to just up and leave, to dissolve into some other corporation and leave me adrift, high and dry, in my 30s, with a heap of desiccated psychobabble at my feet in the sands of unplotted time. As A wryly observed, “you might see this as an opportunity,” a time to quote-un-quote, “throw away the short pants.” I pretend to have no idea what this expression means. And yes I deliberately put quotations redundantly around the quote-un-quote, do you have a problem with that?

I’m not sure if this is true, but that of course will not stop me from saying it, in a really exaggerated, declarative manner: I believe the WB represents a climactic, pivotal event in the transformation of the American Pop Culture Narrative, in which all stories, no matter how great or small or implausible or profound, can (nay, must!) be transferred into the theatre of the American campus/schoolyard. In fact, I think there can be only two choices for the writer of a modern script (as Barthes points out, “there is only what I can choose to write, to put forth in this world of mine, and what I choose not to”): high school, or college. Once you have chosen, your casting is pretty much done, then pop whatever timeless narrative you wish into it, superimpose the element of Wanting to Be Popular if necessary, contrive a scene with a swimming pool (to get your money’s worth out of the Young Bodies you have employed), save it to disk, and await royalties. Soon, I am sure, there will be a King Lear set in high school, and the doddering protagonist will be played by an over-the-hill senior, who has been driven senile by too many late nights at the drive-thru, or by some chemicals they put in the tater tots (King Lear meets Erin Brockovich?). He (or she) will pass power down to some nascent popular boys or girls and I think the rest writes itself. I will call it King Larson. Larson/Lear will be played by Chad Michael Murray.

His eyes will not be gouged, but his sunglasses will be seriously damaged. Thank you, thank you, send bids for the script to my friend A ... as revenge for her too-penetrating analysis of my emotional situation. Anyway, back to my serious point, which is that, in the world of American Narrative, (ridiculous generalization follows of course, but that is only my revenge on the generalizing nature of Narrative, generally), beyond the college years yawns an endless abyss where only pockmarked policemen and disillusioned spouses dwell in a purgatory of nondefinitive endings. Jack McCoy lurks as aging icon of sexless justice (world of the mind!). Need I mention NYPD Blue? There is no easy “venue” for these “late-life” dramas; they are always gritty, or tormented. I eagerly await a prime-time drama about graduate students doing their dissertations (let’s call it “ABD”, and of course it would have to be on ABC). If you want to explore this existence beyond the 21 mark, you must then do a story about elusive disintegrations, loss, memory, or put in a compensatory amount of violence; something must either trivialize or literarize the story. I loved You Can Count on Me, but case in point: it is tinged with sadness, regret, loss, and it is no longer really a STORY. It is just kind of a moment between further disintegrations. The Narrative, these days, is so dependent upon the geographical limitations of the campus; like a nervous child dropped at school, it gets frightened when it has to wander off; writers behave as if the geographical boundary also creates and implies some welcome emotional limitations: as long as they stay on campus they are safe and a story can be told.

The WB, by planting not just naive, sexually precocious youngsters (paradox?), but also vampires and demons, on campus, and by framing their shows, despite all contradicting transcendencies of time and space, to begin and end with matriculations and graduations (“behold this is the world”), created and glorified this campuscosmos and invited us to live in it, if only in the mind. And I today, between 5 and 10 Eastern time (4/9 Central) must bid farewell to the landscaped, hour-parcelled world they seduced me into; I must lose, finally, even the benefits of my Faustian bargain. If I arrange to videotape today’s episodes, and watch them again and again, will that still constitute some sort of mature moving on, or must I just let it go, watch and weep and let them vanish into ether and memory? What would Buffy tell me to do, I wonder ...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Overdue Recommendation

I advise readers of this blog to hear Gabriel Kahane's masterful setting of a CraigsList posting ("Neurotic and Lonely"), immediately. Go to his MySpace page, and click on CraigslistNeurotic...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Unnoticeable Variability

“Yes, I confess, to my eternal chagrin I am indeed a chip man.” I couldn’t really believe this sentence fell out of my mouth. If you haven’t traveled on Amtrak recently, you are in for a surprise; pursuant to some distant policy, the Acela workers are now aggressively pushing product. I came up, ordered a hot dog and a soda, and in those pregnant, magical moments while the dog steamed in a mysteriously recessed industrial microwave, the man behind the counter proposed a bag of chips. “Nothing could be better than a cold soda,” he said, his eyes seeming to mist, “a hot dog, and some chips.” I was swept up (as so often) in his faux emotion; I paused, teetered, acquiesced. He smiled toothily. “Yeah, I thought you were a chip man, just from the look of you,” he said, and I had to admit the obvious. And that’s when I said the ridiculous sentence. I got a laugh from the woman next in line, and went back to my car and smeared Grey Poupon on my sweaty dog with an undeserved smile on my face of comic accomplishment.

Last night I found myself again clutching chips with amusement in a train, some baked KC Masterpiece Lays chips. Perhaps some distant delicious barbecued pork might, if perfectly cooked and served, be declared, after a beer or five, a “masterpiece,” with genuine slavering emotion, and yet, and yet! ... after the translation of the barbecue to the sauce and of the sauce to the sauce powder and the powder into the baked, processed potato chip: in that process somewhere the “masterpiece” may have been lost. After eating several chips I ran my hands through my hair and realized now the reddish powder was part of my “do,” and thus decorated (a soldier of Sodium Benzoate) I braved the fluorescent return to the city. I held my head high as I strode through Grand Central Station, a man who is willing to enter the metropolis becrumbed. I must admit, to return, like some composers, to a recurring unimportant theme: I am truly a chip man; I perpetually feel a tension between the finite nature of life and the seemingly infinite nature of chips to be consumed. Many evenings have I succumbed to late night chip-and-salsa cravings only to wake at 3 am with a sour post-vision of chile and garlic and the oily remnants of fried corn tortillas weighing down my pores. And despite all this punishment and regret beyond measure the chip still stands, still calls... like a Siren ...

I have been peripatetic of late and obviously the to-and-fro has tolled upon my brain horrendously. When you travel you often practice in strange places and of course, like any migrating species, you have to explore your new terrain, get a feel for predators, food supply, etc. I was sitting in a beautiful studio in NEC (thanks so much Ms. Byun!) and when you are in teachers’ studios and you find yourself unable to concentrate you wander and peep. There were several xeroxes on a counter and this one caught my eye:

But precisely the most important and best thing, namely, that unnoticeable variability of the tempo, of the timbres, simply does not happen in a mechanical way and through rehearsal...
The greatest technical correctness and control one can achieve does not replace the lack of inspiration; but it does have the most fateful consequences for music making as a whole. Excessive technical control, that is, the evenly executed technical perfection of all details, which as such take on a completely different character than intended by their creators, who in their conception always proceeded from the whole. The naturally productive route by which the details are viewed and interpreted by way of the whole, is turned around. The improvisational element is essentially lost, indeed it loses its very concept--this improvisational quality, which does not represent some mere accident, something one can do with or without, but rather is, quite simply, the ultimate source of all great, creative, necessary music-making.

Wow. I was really enjoying that quote, from very near the outset, with that enticing phrase the “unnoticeable variability of the tempo, of the timbres.” It’s so very true, that the smallest shifts in tempo feeling are what often make the difference for me between redemptive and annoying performances; or as my late teacher used to say, motion is not as important as mobility. It was late in the evening; Boston lights twinkled; and I was gradually giving in (not very reluctantly) to the notion that no more practicing could be done and thinking emotionally about the softness of my bed at the delightful Bertram Inn, when I realized I was listening, without knowing it, to some student practicing the Chopin G minor Ballade. Mystery Student X assayed a plain version of the coda, which all persons affiliated with the piano must view as one of those inescapable obstacles of music education; as one of those perennial iconic misfortunes which the great genius of Chopin visited upon the planet, in order that endless multitudes of students and faculty learn to suffer and endure; a passage of brilliance, originality and virtuosity so endowed with attraction that it must paradoxically be destroyed under the steamroller of endless repetition. I’m talking about:

And after one run-through of that, X was obviously dissatisfied. Perhaps it was uneven? It all sounded clean to me, through the wall, a notoriously unreliable filter, but perhaps (and I know it well) there was some lingering fear of possible future missed notes, even in the absence of present ones. And so X began practicing “in rhythms”:

AAAAAAAHHHHHH! I stared at the Furtwangler quote, propped on the piano, and he seemed to be speaking, screaming, begging for the Chopin to stop, begging for the Details to be forgotten and the Whole once more to be glimpsed and attempted; and I envisioned the forces of Evenness and the forces of Variability locked in mortal combat, grappling for the soul of the modern Conservatory. The student could never have known how ironic his/her practicing was to me at the moment. It was all too much, I snapped up my Chausson and my quote and my bag and left NEC behind in my dust, via the agency of an insane Boston cabbie (is there any other kind?), who wanted to take lessons from me (me! the madman who fled the Conservatory at 10 pm!) and back at the Inn half-dressed I watched doctors slowly and methodically remove a 200-pound tumor from a woman, and wondered how it got to be 200 pounds, and fell into a deep but unnoticeably variable sleep.