Monday, November 27, 2006


Things happen, life happens, directions veer and sway, paths blur and whir like blades of a fan, your best lays go agley, and overall let me put it this way: you have no idea what will happen next. This can even be true in the boring Classical world.

I had plans, magnificent plans! I was playing a four-hand work with a certain music director of the San Francisco Symphony (anonymous of course), a beautiful slow movement which is one of those marvels of Mozartean simplicity. But, content on the reprise I was not. I yearned, the second time around, to fill its basic intervals with elaborations, like a chocolate bar with nougat, and said music director encouraged me at our first rehearsal, averring that by historical accounts Mozart ornamented heavily ... that it was "like Chopin." Haha. I barely need encouragement in general, in almost every facet of my existence, so watch out! The next day, submerged in the pit under the Davies stage, I spent my "practice breaks" concocting ornaments... like Christmas ornaments really: some quite cheesy, some unnecessary, some beautiful, some graceful, some edible (?) and some making you wish you had never come home for Christmas at all. I laughed and giggled and generally ridiculously entertained myself, which calls to mind the magnificent line of Homer Simpson: "But I was getting lonely being happy all by myself."

The point was I was going to be an audacious ornamenter, and catch Anonymous Music Director by surprise onstage, etc. I used just a few of my ornaments at our dress rehearsal, and even this mere sampling elicited the following remark: "Jeremy, what have you been smokin' the last few days?" This I considered a success; yes, it's a slightly different kind of success from what most people yearn for, but we all set our bars in different places, so to speak. So, anyway, I was feeling very pleased with myself, but as usual, the first night I didn't really have (to use the vernacular) the cojones to do everything I had planned; I did some things but couldn't go "all the way."

The second night, there we were in front of a couple thousand people again, and I was ornamenting away, self-satisfied, and we got to the second half, where I play this little new theme in D major, all alone:

Yes, it's a very nice theme. And after my little treble "solo," very adorably the bottom part is supposed to play the same thing in a bass-ish kind of way, and it's all very cute and humorous. Now, only later I came to understand the motivation behind what happened next. Apparently, I played my theme that evening particularly Puckishly and optimistically, like a kind of "in the mist" fantasy of treble frequencies, and this music director had had it with my demonstrative happiness. Instead of the major mode, then, the music director played his version in a sober, sad minor, something like "Let me tell ya somethin' punk, you need to learn something about life":

A whole different MODE??!?@?!@?# Of course I had been outdone. The smallest smile spread on his face; he turned his head ever so slightly towards me, smugly. All my dreaming of surprising the Anonymous Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and he had trumped me, magnificently. I consoled myself: of course, we were playing on his turf; he had the "home court" advantage. Let him come to the Greystone Hotel in New York City and try that kind of garbage! But, the rest of that sweet little tender piece, playing my pretty melodies, I was skewered on irony: I had to just stew there and emote happily in the knowledge that I had been outimprovised, beaten at my own game, hoisted by my own petard, and a host of other clichés that we don't need to mention.

Perhaps still suffering from the trauma of this incident, which you can well imagine (any good therapists out there?), I found myself in Portland, Maine, playing a rather meaty recital consisting of the 4th Partita of Bach, the last Sonata of Beethoven, and the Liszt Sonata. I was in elbow deep in Liszt; I had just rounded the climax of the slow movement (from which the following sound file begins), and well I was basking its afterglow.

Liszt Sonata Excerpt, Portland Maine 11/16/06

(The sound quality is not unbelievable... you will need to turn it up?) Everything seemed to be going fine. It had been a busy November; perhaps I was a bit tired, and I thought for a moment, at a thorny chromatic descent, that I had played an incorrect accidental... though I hadn't. The cover-up is often worse than the crime. The non-existent imaginary mistake derailed me. I corrected the non-mistake, and suddenly I was descending through clouds of the totally wrong harmonies and who knew what dissonances might result, where I might land? A musical, cognitive free-fall. Somehow I landed on the dominant of B major which would have ended the piece, well, rather too soon. Heh. It was a tempting thought... but no.

Remember I was in the afterglow, and I was so shocked that my brain went into a strange frenzy. I remember thinking, with one sector of my brain, "You're supposed to be in F# major, you [expletive]." Another sector was curiously devoid of harmonic thinking and could only offer up a melodic fragment it knew to be true:

But in the wrong key. My melodic and harmonic minds diverged. You don't have great presence of mind at those moments. Now, you can hear me try out the melodic fragment a few times, and settle on F# major, as a foundation (at the very least); and my favorite part is when, out of ideas, I play a sort of wistful little F#-major arpeggio, which tries to stand in for a whole Lisztian resolution... pathetically... as if to say, that's all I've got, folks! I play it with a certain sincerity, a kind of tender offering of complete and total nonsense. Luckily at that moment of crisis, I suddenly grab onto a high C major scale... a swimmer finding shore...

The incident occurs 55 seconds in. By 1:10, we are free and clear, back to our regularly scheduled programming. You can stop listening, or whatever; it's a free country. But I included more of the performance, because, by the mysterious totally emotional ridiculous logic of performing, the unnerving effect of this memory moment caused me to take the ensuing fugue unbelievably fast, almost as if I wanted to derail myself again. Haha, you won't make it, I seem to be saying to myself; but: I do. I am satisfied that the result is demonic and wild; the fugue is, yes, too fast, but I'm glad that it hovers on the unplayable; you never know ... even failure, or doubt, can inspire.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It's dangerous to roam the Classical Internet. Surfing and clicking from the discomfort of my ancient Hoosier sofa, it seems that every time I turn around, I run across yet another article entitled: Who (or What) Killed Classical Music? Or, more optimistically present tense: What is Killing Classical Music?

Seriously: I can't take it anymore. I really don't know how to say something like this, but I need closure.

I killed Classical Music. That's right; just me. No accomplices. Hahahaha! And here's how ...

[sitcom-style dream sequence transition, distant saxophone]

Rain caught and held the reflection of red neon; the innocent night street looked washed in blood. Halfway through my third double bourbon I realized I had forgotten something a third-and-an-eighth-of-the-way through my second. I stared at the spattered greasy window, aching for a view; with flabby, twitchy fingers I played a forgotten melody on the chipped edge of my highball glass, and dug in my memory for the last comforting remnant of loss.

"History," I growled, and knocked my glass over, spilling ice, liquor, dispersing the smoke and mirrors of self-destruction. I was not trucking in abstractions; History was the name of the bartender.

He came by ineluctably. "Spilled your drink again, did you? ... You spilled your drink."

History tended to repeat himself. It was something you got used to. "Another bourbon," I said, grimacing.

"Those who don't learn from their mistakes," he murmured. But he filled my glass with fresh ice and let another healthy finger of poison drizzle over it, and I listened to the ice crackle and the rain whip against the window, and just at that moment four miserable pitches yawned out of the sullied night:

Those four fateful notes were what I had forgotten, the four voices of my inner Gesualdo madrigal, the horsemen of my Apocalypse, through-composed and yet monotonous, not quite repeating and never explaining the eternal, haunting, profound-yet-superficial madrigalisms of my subtexted so-called life ... The four notes, I yearned to know what to call them, if I ran across them in a deserted alley. Were they the dominant of a dominant? A predominant? Some sort of modified two chord? And for God's sake which of the notes was a dissonance and which a consonance and if we couldn't answer that, if there was no kind of moral-contrapuntal-tonal framework, how was I, or any of us, going to go on?

The door creaked open. A body settled into the sagging stool next to me. "Oh hi, Jazz," I said. He just grooved, passing time. I couldn't help imposing my problems on him, disturbing his detachment.

"You see it's a F a B a D# and a G#, what the hell is it?"

Jazz chuckled. "Call it what you want, man. That's some multivalent whatever. Just let it go where it wants to go, baby."

Oh I love Jazz but when he gets all tolerant on me I just want to smack him. Maybe, I thought, he's just playing into my own clichéd preconceptions? Speaking of which, the door creaked again and in came World Music, with an entourage: fawning ethnomusicologists, dancing around her gorgeous copious bejangled body in myriad tempi and costumes; they stared at her every incensed inch, concupiscent. Oh and who else should the cat drag in but Classical Music, dressed soberly, oozing stifling refinement, following at a greater distance, but giving World Music a watchful eye.

You see, Classical Music was my childhood sweetheart. Even in the sixth grade, when I was King of the Nerds, we would dine on cafeteria pizza and tater tots and talk of Opus Numbers. We would go to the Multiplex and sniff at John Williams and hold hands across dimly lit tables at 2 am at the Village Inn and stay up all night inventing Developments and Recapping with green chile and eggs in the morning. Classical Music was more than love. She was a sea in which my life was drowned. But: not even a glance. Classical brushed right by. I got up to say hello, but... Jazz grabbed my shoulder. "Don't do it man." His voice was a gravelly flatted seventh. "It's gone, just let it go. I hear Classical's got somethin' goin' with World Music, and it's pretty intense."

It was true. Even now I heard faint klezmer sounds; a clarinet blew in from nowhere, and the ethnomusicologists were braying abundant, dirty augmented seconds; and to my horror Classical Music looked on admiringly, swaying, daring to dance, to be caught up in the spell... Then without warning World Music began to rumba, and Classical gyrated along, smitten, living vicariously, stripping off sober clothes and ...

No, no, I thought; I couldn't watch this. Classical Music is not supposed to have fun without me! Not this kind of fun! A rage took shape; I was dizzy with jealousy; I was a naked, dripping, unlabelled Tristan Chord in the empty, burning staff paper of the World. Jazz tried to hold me back, but I realized I had the perfect weapon. I ripped my 3-volume set of Schenker's Der Freie Satz from my pseudo-hipster (no longer a nerd here! sort of!) messenger bag, and threw it with utmost force, and I caught Classical by surprise, right at a moment of joy ... it was an accident of course, some thorny middleground analysis caught her in the throat and she was allergic ... she fell over; the dance ended; jingles and jangles subsided into the rainy night.


World Music leaned over. "She's dead." I noticed a tear on Jazz's cheek. My throwing arm throbbed. It began to sink in. All those young people's outreach concerts were for naught. And then History, as always, said the obvious.

"Nothing to do but move on."

[sitcom return-from-dream-sequence effect]

So there you go. Now that I've confessed, can I go on Oprah and be absolved?

More importantly: if l take the rap, if I do the time, can we PLEASE not have any more articles about the death of Classical Music?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Escape From Breakfast

Do you butter your bagel as though it were a clandestine act? From the moment I set foot in the breakfast room of my hotel, my ears leave the normal world and I hear only the strange, squirming hush of repression. Typically, I wind up next to a couple, about to embark on a touristy fun day in beautiful San Francisco (a city I have a perpetual crush on). This single traveling pianist could imagine a lovely evening away from the kids in a hotel room, sharing a bed cozily, etc. & etc., and I guess one would HOPE that the situation would be a joyous one: a satisfied afterglow mixing with the anticipatory joy of a day spent together, not a care in the world: wandering about the hipster-strewn streets, eating chowder out of bread bowls, ignoring the homeless ... but perhaps my romantic notions are bound to crash against the wall of reality. One young couple sat in egg-cracking silence, broken only by:

This tea is nasty.

Crack, sip, slurp, swallow. And five minutes later:

Man: Hussein got sentenced today.
Woman: (Bored) Mmhmmm.

Then, simply more silence. Whatever thoughts may have followed upon this serious observation, were left hanging.

Yet another young couple was a study in contrasts; the boy seemed to be falling apart at the seams, clothes and limbs drooping on the floor, his hair a restless paragon of bedhead, the table before him a maze of plates and remnants, while his blond girlfriend sat bolt upright, as though in the court at Versailles, or at Alexander lessons, letting not a crumb fall from her muffin-eating mouth. She wiped her mouth gracefully ten times for every bite and I began to feel deeply unclean, like my body was a dust bunny that the Cosmic Swiffer had left behind. Then I have overheard several couples critiquing the hotel from within its very bowels (daring insurgency!), and on one occasion I leaned over and attempted to convey the poetry of the Huntington Hotel (the hotel on the hill!) to them; with my eyes I tried to express the blue of the bay as seen from my third floor window and with my hands the expanse of the luxurious bathrooms and the crisp sensual whiteness of the sheets on which ... Ahhh, but it was too much.

Woman: If you ate some protein with your breakfast, you wouldn't be hungry again in an hour.
Man: Mmhmmm.
Woman: Why don't you have an egg?
Man: I HATE hardboiled eggs.

This couple was easily in their sixties. Was this the first time they had managed to cover the topic of his hard-boiled egg problem, or (as I suspected) was it the thousandth or millionth time? Reasons for my singleness suddenly became luminously clear, like the sky over the airport at dawn, when you realize--as always!--you are leaving a town just as the weather turns perfect.

In each corner of the breakfast room, insanity: a teen spreading cream cheese obsessively on a bagel for fifteen minutes, punishing it with dairy as if the bagel were a bully who had tormented him in the fourth grade; a man in the corner turning over each page of the paper, sniffing dismissively at each turn, as if some new layer of absurdity was discovered (the sound of the pages turning and folding like the flapping of vultures' wings, scavengers of newsprint)... And finally the repression of all these little conversations, the accumulated deflection and squelch of behavior, gets to me... I begin to feel like a prisoner, all I want to do is run up to my room and throw open the window and scream out to humanity: Live! Live! Enjoy life, everyone! Buy some shoes or go for a walk! Don't sit in dark rooms complaining about tea! Instead, like any good boy, I go and practice, in a windowless subterranean room. Provisional escape for me.

The second movement of Mozart 488. Mozart invokes "what has already been written," the siciliano, a style? genre? dance?, a halting haunting rhythm ...

And by rights a siciliano, like any dance, should not really begin by falling apart. But Mozart, after a simple opening measure, breaks the texture, syncopates-interpolates-anticipates, all the while subjecting the melody to a series of seventh leaps:

The melody and rhythm both are subject to sudden fragmentation and confrontation, before the movement or premise can really get started. A siciliano with "issues." I am always struck playing it (as I did the last three nights in San Francisco) by the immediacy and the complexity of this breakdown. But later, at my second entrance, I am amazed--how do I put this?--in the opposite way: I get stuck on two harmonies and in a certain melodic compass, I circle around chromatically in that C#-A, unable to escape the sixth, the rising sixth (attempt) followed in each case by the inevitable fall back (failure) ...

This "stuckness" is horrible, it makes me feel even more lost than the opening (which is more daring), or: lost in a different sense. If the opening is a kind of broken dance, this second entrance is like a broken record, symbolizing a more fundamental breakdown/crisis: a deliberate moment of being at a loss what to say, a kind of sudden poverty of invention, something really truly incredible: the composer who always has something to say, deliberately choosing to find only the barest words; the pianist/protagonist can only see the pathos before him, the confining circle of his thought, and nothing else (like we humans so often) ... spiraling redundancy, with no way out.

When, the third cycle around, the strings enter and suddenly this hovering around F# minor ends ... the string timbre (which releases the piano from its prison) at that moment is (I think we can all agree) one of the most beautiful things ever, like an aura around possibility, a pure promise. It promises A major, in annoying music theory terms; but, A major is a metaphor. In the subsequent transitional passage (annoying music theory term #2) the promise of major and the presence of minor interlace constantly and the too-simple promise of the string entrance is understood to be more complex, more than you "bargained for" ... I realize this is all a very emotional reading of this movement, but can there be any other? Can the purists out there forgive me?

What Mozart manages to do, I think, is keep the A major feeling "provisional," almost throughout the whole middle section ... Yes, everything is somewhat lifted, the halting tread of the siciliano has disappeared, the mood is less oppressive, even happy?, but as I am playing and listening, I don't yet feel totally confident ... I feel I am exploring it (A major and whatever A major might "mean") rather than living in it. Only towards the end of the section, the piano seems to begin to exult in the key, in its majorness; we have a long, spun-out, establishing cadence (Mozart's amazing gift for the coincidence of emotional/harmonic function), leaping up to a high E (not at all coincidentally the highest note in the piano of the movement):

This cadence is simultaneously the harmonic certainty we have waiting for, and a kind of emotional release, an escape, a real difference! And it is, of course, PRECISELY at that moment, when the pianist's happiness is at its height, when the spell of mournful F# minor seems to have truly been broken, precisely at the hinge in the structure when A major is established for sure, that Mozart closes the door, the door he himself opened: the winds in two simple, terrible bars take A major and destroy it, twist it exactly back to the beginning. That is what is devastating: how little work it really is. Then, what else? I have no choice but to play the opening again; whatever I have glimpsed of the other is ephemeral, impossible, gone.

Escape is a theme of this movement, perhaps its most important theme ... On the Neapolitan 6th chord, one of those fated, fatal chords which MUST lead to the cadence, the pianist, before allowing the cadence, tries to leap "out of the register," tries a kind of virtual escape, thinking perhaps by postponing the cadence to postpone the inevitable:

... and so too again at the end, though the writing is on the wall and the movement is drawing to an end and nothing can really happen to alter the fate of things, the piano keeps reaching up the octave, C-sharp to C-sharp, as if it hopes to find something up there ...

Does the soloist want to escape from its own instrument, from its own compass, to get out of the world it has created? But the desire for escape is written into that world, intrinsically; it is part of the bars of the cage.