Saturday, May 20, 2006


This last week in New York was supposed to be an organized and organizing diving board for the summer. Instead, it was a frenzied jumble of experiences, which I grabbed at uselessly like a tray full of dishes I have dropped. No way to hold on to any of them: they slip and fall and I accept their breakage as a receipt for time.

Some were good. A broken, ruined afternoon became a miracle. I had to wait in the dentist's office for a couple hours and my only possessions were the clothes on my back, an insurance card, a credit card, and Faulkner's Light in August. This poverty was enriching. Hilarious women stumbled in and out of the office, wagging their damaged mouths incessantly at their cellphones, arranging playdates and pickups for their children, while their cavities and abscesses were X-rayed, and the sarcastic Jewish dentist poked his head out from time to time, summoning them like naughty but amusing children, and arranging treatment which was always too late. Normally, a fertile Petri dish for Denk irritation, but no, all this fluorescent bustle ignored me; I was in a magic circle, traced by the power of the written word. You do not need a beautiful place to read a book, no forest nook or bay window, no idyllic lighting or comfortable chair; this office was poorly lit, crazed, uncomfortable; what you really need is a great book and some mild willingness to surrender.

This was one shard of the week. In another, I was gazing at the chilly dark blue of an evening sky somewhat up the Hudson and sipping a cold white wine, and admiring the perfect shape of a tree. Then we were hurtling down the road in a car, and I was looking over the trees at the perfect bluish glinting of the river, which the sun was just leaving behind, and I was nearly screaming at the driver about beauty and trying in some way to hold onto the moment: a moment defined entirely by its own waning. (Are there any moments defined by their clinging?) My dear driving friend, and the oncoming summer, in which I feared mere repetition, and the year past, now appearing as a sum total, as a lost, accomplished thing, all merged into a windy blue journey to catch a train, the last train of the year, as if I would not escape from the past if I didn't make this fucking train. We were rushing for the train, which was rushing; and the sun was slipping away too; trees slipping from green into black; the river never rushes, but unlike the train alongside it, it never stops. This was my birthday.

In a third shard, I was listening to a wonderful concert in Zankel (David Robertson, et al) and this movement of the Ligeti piano concerto began with a transcendental, eerie lament, and concluded with the most ridiculous harmonica passage, something like a barbershop quartet cadence: totally absurd. Wawawawa. And I laughed out loud, and looked around and saw no one else laughing, and wondered why. Luckily friend S looked over and clearly acknowledged that something was afoot, so I knew I wasn't just going mad, quietly there, in Zankel. Then post-concert I found myself at dinner and I looked up from my plate of pasta, and briefly and suddenly had no memory of walking to the restaurant whatsoever, or the concert; it suddenly seemed as though this post-concert dinner were not connected to the immediate past or future, but to all the other post-concert dinners of my lives, which were now freely floating in a timeless haze. What was I doing there? It seemed I could leap off one cloud and end up on another, for example, at some post-concert dinner in Louisville with a mint julep, or at the coffeeshop eating nachos in Marlboro, or any number of places, having just played or listened, and consuming in the wake of applause. Suppose we could organize the passage of time in our lives using items in the Hold Everything catalog. How would we sort the past? Chronologically, or by subject matter, by import, or by genre of experience? If we put all the post-concert dinners in one basket, would some hidden pattern appear, or would we just stuff that basket in the closet as far back as it could go, in the hopes that it will not have to be opened? Would it be a tasteful rattan basket or one of those plastic dealies from Staples? Luckily, somebody does the organizing for us.

When I was an undergrad student at Oberlin, I often felt rhythmically chastised, and unjustly corralled. I guess I was semi-famous for being rhythmically ridiculous, and it seemed to me my teachers were bores, kind of Ward Cleavers of pulse, leaping on rhythmic diversions as if they were mortal sins. I would plead "Daddy, can't this beat be a little bit late?" and off to the confessional it would be. By my doctoral days, at Juilliard, I felt freer to express my disdain, and mocked mercilessly an endless talk by a very famous music theorist which spent an hour attempting to "prove" that it would be reasonable to take (a bit of) time in a particular measure of Mozart. (As if this phrase "taking time" could mean anything except in the very act itself; as if one needs permission; time is different in every single phrase you play, is conditional upon tactile sound. I'm sorry, but we performers, even more than composers, and so much more than theorists, own time. So there.) But now, these "wiser" days, I often find myself asking of any rhythmic event: "Why?" Cunningly, analytically, heartlessly, I ask myself: is note X late because of my mind, or my finger? I feel the creeping need to justify any departure from the beat--this tyrannical beat to which I have become addicted. Rhythmic organization seems more beautiful to me now, whereas chaos seemed better then. I believe I have to take this onrushing wisdom with a grain of salt, as a partial lie; to place it in quotation marks; to not accept the solution of conformity too easily, not let its power and fashion seduce me. It is possible I was right then and I am still right now, when my convictions are so different in nature.

A week like this last one suggests the allure of the beat, of routine, of pattern. Slipping, sliding from Monday to Friday I found each day a bit terrifying, in my own lack of preparation, and the intensity of each experience. No, wait, I'm not ready to feel that way! And indeed, as I was playing through my beloved Davidsbündlertänze, warming up for a Friday night recital, I was surprised how surprised I was; where are those feelings coming from? They seemed the cadence of the week's phrase, and no ridiculous harmonica anti-conclusion, but as logical a conclusion as emotions can summon to tie together the unprepared jumble of a week's worth of dropped dishes: events cleared of their connecting, supporting strands, coming like accidents, but crashing into a floor which is no accident whatsoever. And then the new Denk reorganizing the old Davidsbündler, finding all the ways in which 21-year-old Denk was lazy about the beat, and stripping time away like varnish, and looking purely at beats without pull. This takes time, and I was still stripping things clean minutes before the recital, and it seemed there was a lot more to do, and each act of temporal cleaning made the piece look unfamiliar, an alien beautiful thing. The piece was once again outside me, rather than the old, absorbed friend. I felt the pastness of the old way, the age of my experience. I was not able to prepare myself for this shock. Playing something with a conscious change and having it sound different from ever before is a mild out-of-body experience, the proof of unpredictability. And particularly in the last three dances, moving from humor to uncertainty to lullaby to memory to tragedy to some thing well beyond any of those, in which Schumann attempts to "summarize" the unsummable, there I felt I couldn't hold on to the piece which was changing and bucking below me like this last week. And I felt suddenly some reason and unity to the preceding days, leading to that moment; sometime, yes, there will be time to gather and organize, and really you should get on that, but in the meantime: break what needs to be broken.

Monday, May 15, 2006


"The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth. The usual view explains this with the argument that they are products of an uninhibited subjectivity, or, better yet, "personality," which breaks through the envelope of form to better express itself, transforming harmony into the dissonance of its suffering, and disdaining sensual charms with the sovereign self-assurance of the spirit liberated ... It is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality.


Death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory. The psychological interpretation misses this. By declaring mortal subjectivity to be the substance of the late work, it hopes to be able to perceive death in unbroken form in the work of art. This is the deceptive crown of its metaphysics. True, it recognizes the explosive force of subjectivity in the late work. But it looks for it in the opposite direction from that in which the work itself is striving; in the expression of subjectivity itself. But this subjectivity, as mortal, and in the name of death, disappears from the work of art into truth. The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself. Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.


[Beethoven's] late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as a catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity. Between extremes in the most precise technical sense: on the one hand the monophony, the unisono of the significant mere phrase; on the other the polyphony, which rises above it without mediation. It is subjectivity that forcibly brings the extremes together in the moment, fills the dense polyphony with its tension, breaks it apart with the unisono, and disengages itself, leaving the naked tone behind; that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been, marking a subjectivity turned to stone. The caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterize the very late Beethoven, are those moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward ... Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which--alone--it glows into life. He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal."

--Adorno, Late Style in Beethoven, tr. Susan H. Gillespie

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

In accordance with the Denk Law of Bags and Possessions, the outer pocket of my new "hip" shoulder bag is now filled with the pulverized remains of a Digestive Biscuit. No blender or food processor, no matter how powerful, could attain the sheer level of dispersion that simple Denkage is able to achieve, through the regular processes of Life. The Law of B&P cannot really be put into words (being one of those mysterious, generative laws of the cosmos), but its essential effect is this: no matter how much Jeremy Denk invests in a new backpack or bag, and no matter the care taken with it, eventually its insides will be coated with the diffused remains of many inappropriate items, sometimes foodstuffs (bananas, muffins, Clif bars, ketchup, stewed prunes, etc.) and sometimes other sundries--provided that these other sundries are able to somehow damage or affect the bag irreparably--for instance glue, indelible ink, or Hydrochloric Acid. One can thus "carbon-date" or "scum-date" the bag's existence conclusively on the basis of a perusal of its insides.

I have come to accept these accidents, in short, as essential: the ink with which my history is written.

By accident, I became a good guy yesterday, for seven minutes. I was getting off the LIRR from Jamaica, at Penn Station, when an elderly lady with a cane asked me to help her with her luggage. Throughout the slow walk to the elevator, I felt both the pleasures of patience and the unfamiliar glow of simple virtue (helping a lady with her bags, how quaint!), and this glow warmed when she began to talk to me about opera. Her accent dripped Long Island; it was a thousand Greek salads eaten in a thousand diners; she told me she went to Rigoletto and found it "so beautiful." The word beautiful took a long time for her to say, and its sincerity was unquestionable ... so different from the standard formulas we musicians are forced to exchange with each other backstage ... beautiful without any reservations, and self-contained, like a flowerpot. As the elevator ascended, she asked me about another opera, "Cavalry something," and I pronounced it for her in Italian, "Cavalleria Rusticiana," with a slightly overdone, proud pronunciatory flourish, and she smiled at me such a charming "look-my-son-grew-up-to-be-a-doctor-and-he-also-speaks-Italian" smile that I realized I had much more than recouped my investment of time with her; it was I that was exploiting her; I had replaced a harried luggage-hauler (the Jeremy-who-would-have-been) with a charmed elevator-rider who might as well amble, since time is not money but infinitely more precious.

The scales at least partly came off my eyes. We emerged onto the concourse, and she started to ask me "when are you playing in New York? Can you..." I told her I wasn't playing really much until October, or December in New York... she asked me where and I told her and her eyes googled in amazement. "Can you...?" she began again, and I assumed she wanted my name and contact info; I asked her if she had an email address, and then the terms of our dynamic changed. "Goodness no," she said, as if it were the most absurd thing in the world, and her eyes hinted vague distrust. A nice lady like her, using email? I offered my number, and she looked even stranger ... I thought I saw my error, and wrote my name on a Harrod's receipt and gave it to her, told her to look for me in the concert listings. This crumpled inscribed receipt, especially, did not impress her. This was understandable; I had no card, no official thing; I wracked my brain. But the source of her disappointment was elsewhere: "What?" she said, "You don't have any tickets?"

I laughed. What else was there to do? It is so nice to laugh in Penn Station, a relief from the linear harassment of the concourse. Yes, I was carrying around free tickets for all my upcoming concerts, and giving them out like candy? I saw in her eyes that while I had once impressed her, I had already travelled deep into a ravine of disappointment. I was also slightly disillusioned myself; she was, after all that, like the rest of us, looking for a free ride. In that short space of the elevator ride, I had travelled the full gamut of a parent-child relationship; from the first mysteries of her discovering who I am and what I like to do, through pride in my accomplishment, to the inevitable coloring of disappointment; the drawn boundary inevitable, as the child asserts its own self, finds its own way, and begins to see the parent as human too. Was this a pre-Mother's day message? Or just, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "a bunch of stuff that happens"?

I laughed, and we parted ways, and I could tell she wasn't going to keep my receipt for very long, but it was all good. I ate a Red Sicilian slice in honor of her, and thought of her sitting through Cavalleria Rusticiana, smiling and clapping ...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Novels, Ghosts

The ghosts of ten thousand take-out meals hover in my kitchen, a haunted cubicle. I wander into the apartment one day; I'm innocently staring out the window, when quietly, secretly, a vindaloo from 2002 calls to me, a wild vindaloo downed with beer and a giggle, the memory of my friend telling a story while my mouth burned; but trying to speak over it, yelling like some irascible Jewish lady at the deli, is a miserable meal from Teriyaki Boy, a quasi-Udon from the turn of the millennium, and with its raspy uninviting styrofoam-encased memory it attempts to remind me that not all take-out is pleasure and conviviality; most is grim, lazy Necessity. There they are, the consumed spirits, auras arguing in the kitchen; each having made its way into my body and out and somehow (somehow!) determined the course of events, the course of now and the course of future years; but all variables are still in play (except the years now past? ... perhaps even they are in play). Just two days ago, I gazed at the withered remains of a corned beef sandwich, in transition to ghostliness. Have I betrayed you too?, I wondered ... we deserved each other less than we hoped. The meal as pure joyous ritual: I have betrayed that ideal, time and time again; though I believe it is not entirely my fault.

But upon arrival in London you should have seen me in the Marks & Spencer, the way I scoured the aisles. How delightful to find a new food paradigm. There they were, banks upon banks of sandwiches in little plastic containers, and with my child's fervor I smirked as I chose exotic titles only partly for their flavor-appeal:

Wensleydale Cheese Sandwich with Caramelized Carrot Chutney
Hoisin Duck Wrap
Black Pepper Potato and Lentil Crisps
Gala Apple Juice
Milk Chocolate Digestive Biscuits

It seemed impossible they (the nameless clerks) would even let me purchase such an odd assortment. Cross-legged on my hotel bed, clicking the clicker, I giggled and punctured and ate, until my coverlet was stained, tell-tale, with brownish-orange smears, the guilty wake of passionately spilled carrot chutney, a sandwich to which I made such love as I deemed appropriate. How many times have I tiredly wiped my eyes and stroked an eyebrow and moaned wearily of how much the classical musician must travel, but really I'm a terrible hypocrite. Even a foreign sandwich can send me to ecstasy.

As if the chutney-Wensleydale weren't enough, I could probably compose a passionate ode to the potato crisps; oh wait, "inspiration" is coming on:

Oh spirit of peppercorn
Blinking on an oily horizon:
Spice which sank a thousand ships:
Bless me once more.
Make this potato sing.

One symptom of traveling is the loneliness of watching other people's reunions. I was waiting for the Heathrow Express train with a youngish couple, who ended up sitting across from me. They were evidently and manifestly very happy to see each other again, and thus their physical contact increased exponentially with distance from the airport. The dimensions and contours of the seats were their only limitations. I tried looking away, thinking of other things, but the girl's foot ended up in a curious place, and matters were getting--so to speak--out of hand; the train thankfully pulled up at Paddington Station. This couple bounded out the door, enlaced, deeply impatient to get where they were going... and I looked up at the arching roof of the station, and sighed with my luggage. I had too much pride to plod, but I walked pensively, and searched the vast space for some relief; as you have read, I sublimated their energy into sandwiches. It was the available option. You must always accept what is available, as a starting point.

To conclude this rambling post, I would like to ask my readers to offer their suggestions what to do with a barely used copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I was ambitious and hopeful; I thought to myself "stop being a fuddyduddy and read something young and hip and current;" I began reading with (a perhaps somewhat contrived) enthusiasm, which quickly dampened. It is futuristic and dark (one might say darkly comic?... whatever) and rather monotonous, and even more overwritten than Think Denk. I skipped forward three hundred pages or so, and found more of the same. And it is written in the manner which I am so displeased to find as the modus operandi of the modern novel: each chapter leaping to a new story... using the opportunity to set an entirely new scene, go into yet another "backstory." Ack, so tiresome; if there are many strands to the story, is there not a way (a less lazy way) to weave the strands into a more continuous narrative? This is not always possible, but consider music as the model? Whatever other stories you have to tell must be connected within the ongoing fabric; the second theme has its own story but must be created out of the momentum of the first, etc. The continuity of a musical work is its discipline, and I guess I'm just a fuddyduddy who doesn't like too much leaping around in my novels; I am not a dog, I don't want to be jerked to and fro; the novelist does not control me, I'm my own man and I have my own sense of time, my own demands; and the point is I loved my Wensleydale sandwich so much more than Infinite Jest and if you have any ideas what to do with a huge, unwanted novel, please let me know.