Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Seattle Vanishing

Quietness of a blue afternoon. Cars are streaming down highway 520 in the distance and a bird honks occasionally and there are little crescendos and diminuendos of occasional sounds which all seem to build a larger sense of silence. I lie in the tiny bed, upstairs, where other children grew up and look at their wallpaper and books and rocking chairs. Curious, I pulled a child's copy of To Kill a Mockingbird off the shelf one night, and that very night, after reading a few drowsy pages I left it out by the open window. By the time I woke up the roguish breeze had scattered its yellow desiccated pages across the room, under the bed, among my clothes: pages "on tour," seeking a home elsewhere. I gathered them up and stuck them back in the cover, but did not reorder them; maybe in some future summer? The title page had a crude, scrawled inscription, "[such-and-such] is a dork and a jerk": a cruel and simple classmates' critique. I arrived on the scene way too late to console this wound, but it stung as if I myself were such-and-such. Robbing the book of completion, I threw this one page away. No one needs it. It will sit out in the green garbage container by the curb and then go somewhere else and the house will be purer, lighter.

Summer, the warm blossom of the year, my favorite season by far, has been transformed by my life into a endless summer camp without canoes or make-out sessions (for the most part). Affections, rekindled, flying wildly, for places and people and pieces, each tossed off, checked off at the rental car return, and I suppose each loss or fulfillment must make a mark on me somehow. What is the chain that holds this mess together?

I have come to realize that the corner of the year I spend in Seattle has rented a roomy room in a corner of my psyche. Short drives to coffee bars, steaming Pho for lunch, jelly beans backstage, and a thousand other particulars ... One classic Seattle thing I do, guiltily: late at night, I drive down Broadway to Dick's Hamburgers, and people-watch while I wait for my order (Dick's deluxe, fries, chocolate milkshake). Young white girls with dredlocks, in tattered clothes, hip and disaffected; pierced boys with skateboards; high school double dates, conforming to cliché, returning from movies; strung-out clubbers snacking to absorb other substances they have ingested, succumbing to layered, unhealthy indulgence: motley dissipated bunch waiting on the calmish street under a merciless fluorescent bulb which speaks truth to image. It is quiet and awkward like the moment the audience hushes before the concert begins; people by unknown consent--perhaps because of the light--don't speak loudly; they wait till they get in their cars for further misbehavior. Alone, I aim to observe people invisibly but I'm sure people must look at me too and wonder why the guy is coming, alone: what his weird tale must be, what botched date or other social encounter, or other personal frustration, must have resulted in this solitary binge. Ha, I'll never tell. I have my own strange motivations, unclear even to me. A pianist contemplating anything but music. I pull up in the driveway and sneak up the stairs to the house, like a teenager coming home after curfew, and try to undo the door quietly, and at those moments of dark stair-climbing I am very far from Beethoven.

On this my last day in Seattle, In a little strip mall, I sucked down a spicy beef noodle soup with a tremendous bricky flavor of red chili, almost New Mexican (which is the ultimate compliment), and a lighter seafood soup with eggs and a wonderful floating pool of sesame oil. These flavors had a profound effect on me. The blue beautiful Seattle sky was just icing on the cake. The night before, food spoke powerfully to me as well: I felt had been visited mournfully by the very spirit of beef as communicated through a short rib, tender and melting, atop a crumbling onion tart; pickled peppers surrounded this tower like sour sycophants. And I am just envisioning, as I sit here, next to the brown piano which the girl who grew up here practiced, the crema on top of a perfect double espresso served at the Victrola Cafe in a white porcelain cup. Symbol of a propitious happy morning, of embraces not long past? All of these images and flavors seem to cut deep, ridiculously deep, and to engage mechanisms of desire more appropriate for greater things, for causes, for relationships, for religion. What is it about the simplest sensual stimulus? And it occurs to me that many of the people here seem to have "real lives" or narratives against which festivals, and associated stimuli, are mere contrast, a kind of distraction; but I may not be able to make that distinction. For me the Festival is, or must be, as real as anything; I must either choose to live comfortably in bubbles or choose some other way.

Is this some side-effect of being a musician? Or just some Denkish anomaly? Ugh it's so hard to decide. As a last Seattle gasp, I played the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata and there is so much sensuality in there; I must admit I have occasionally mocked it. Particularly, the second theme in the first movement has long been overshadowed by one afternoon when Janos Starker hummed it to me by way of pedagogy ("to make the theme work, you have to cut it up") and his demonstrative "la la las" have echoed in my head and made it difficult for me to take this theme seriously. But some sensual things simply find their moment to present themselves to you as tremendous inescapable facts; they fan or color a particular mood; and I played the second theme before the concert that night and it just seemed beautiful without baggage, or... if it had baggage, just the sadness that like every other theme it eventually ended. It made me happy that I could see it simply, plainly, and feel it "straight up," without my mind's second-guessing; and I was sure that it was my Seattle-leaving sadness that made it possible, that sponsored this musical happiness, and I was still humming it and hearing its inner voices as I checked my bags and pulled my laptop out of the bag and sat down in my small airplane seat and counselled myself patience for the next journey.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


As I roam FestivaLand I encounter a safari's worth of beasts, either persons or ideas or intractable problems which will never be resolved in a performance. Yet the solution is always the same: a performance, a reception, and an outgoing flight. Confrontation, followed by escape. Take two bows and head for the airport in the morning.

I was driving down Broadway in Seattle (so different from Broadway of my homeland), and feeling completely free of intractable problems. I gripped a scalding coffee already in one hand; the other held the steering wheel; I stared at the blue blue sky through sunglasses, their opacity aching to express the inner, lost, disjointed pseudo-hipster that is the real, real Jeremy (or that which the real Jeremy wishes he was? Let's ask him.) Espresso stands flew by, and I ignored them with the comfort of caffeine-at-hand, with only the small, sour pang of a future desire. A pile of dry-cleaning sat accusingly, expectantly in the back seat, speckled with dust from backstage couches, and murmuring odiferously of sweat and piano benches. Everything was turning up metaphorical roses and I had felt this way since the first brilliant rays made a mockery of my half-drawn shade. It was one of those rare Denk occasions when beauty spurred to action, and not simply to awe, beverage, or repose. The clear, spread sky and the distant, utopian outlines of the mountains made it possible for me not to lie in bed and crave the dark. The bedroom was after all only a cage. Seattle suggests that nature's beauties will always be better than your own pleasures; they are always lurking visibly beyond the burbs. If it didn't rain, I think the people of Seattle would go insane from this realization; you can never be as beautiful as where you live. Like hip professors, the sun and air lectured me outdoors. I knew, like other morning people knew, the desire to do, to be useful: to be fruitful and multiply, to enact. And so off I zoomed in my crappy rental Kia, a man in a tin can ...

While I drove, in this happy state, with grungy hipsters dodging my artless driving, I confess I did not have a clean craw. A few days earlier, someone had said something at a post-concert or a post-rehearsal meal or drink or whatever: it doesn't matter at all who said it or when or how because it is so often said, and so often agreed with. The person said that the problem with such-and-such piece is that people don't know how to "leave it alone." And not just that piece--the person continued--there are so many others: people should just leave great music alone and let it speak for itself. There was general assent to this, and I assented also, though I had my doubts, but I have learned to shelve them, often, for the greater, or for my own good. Anyway this sort of statement is made often and so many musicians seem to agree with it in so many ways: it seems like a natural, virtuous thing, since the music we classical nerds play is often quite amazing and one feels queasy at the notion of "adding anything" to it. So: if tampering is option "a", the alternative is to "leave it alone."

In my opinion, music does not want to be left alone. It gets restless, then empty, and then dies. Music, "left alone," is just a score in the bottom of a bin, a score not piled for future use on top of the piano but in some file cabinet in the closet next to the vacuum cleaner and spare lightbulbs for your annoying IKEA lamp. Unless people are able to access it, chat with it, have an emotional conversation with it, a musical work does not exist. Like the tree in the forest falling.

Ah, you will say: you, Denk, are quibbling. When X said "leave it alone," he didn't mean it literally, but metaphorically, like my earlier roses. I think the substance of this metaphor is worth examining. Nothing is only rarely nothing. Most nothings are somethings in disguise. To find a true nothing, a nothing nothing, is a beautiful puzzle which can give you a headache, and maybe it's not even worth bothering, since nothing results from it har-dee-har-har. To "leave a piece alone" by contemporary standards means perhaps: to do what modern conservatory education tells us to do: play in time, observe markings, play expressively but do not add any extras: present the score, as if there were a perfect "acoustical correlative." This faith in an acoustical correlative is one of the strange cults of our modern classical musical religion, and it too I would like to debunk, but perhaps not today. What I'd suggest is that to "leave a piece alone," by modern standards, may have seemed to Romantic or Classical standards also a definite action, something tangibly "done to the piece;" an immobilization; perhaps something akin to taking a butterfly and sticking a pin through it and preserving it in a perfect display case. Harsh metaphor! But I think we have all heard such performances, preserved mimicries which seem to be right, which have wings on display, but do not fly. It is not possible to "leave it alone," no matter what we do; even our faithfulness can be destructive; and so we had better choose carefully how we plan to personally interact with the piece; shall we lie to ourselves, pretend not to have whims and impulses and biases and desires? The piece, any piece, is funny and fluid; you cannot touch it without changing it.

I have often found the score to be a sterile resource in some crucial ways, particularly in arguments (i.e. discussions) over how something should be played. "But it's marked X!" you say, indignantly; and your colleague says "but couldn't that mean Y?" and you have to confess, depending on your bias, the words and notes on the score seem to evaporate and scatter into a surprising surplus of meanings. "Allegro non troppo," I said recently to violist Z about the first movement of the Brahms Quintet (that old thing), and Z replied "but he says non troppo about everything, he's always qualifying!" True enough, I sheepishly meditated, but my opinion is the same. Arguing about markings can be a truly idiotic enterprise. (Ignoring markings can be idiotic too.) If I need to make a point in rehearsal, I find there's only one sure-fire way: to play it in a way that rings true to my colleagues; the only possible asset is my personal account of, interaction with, understanding of, a musical moment ... To review: if I refer to the score alone, as absolute and tangible authority, I can get in a lot of annoying arguments and get nearly nowhere. If I refer to the score, as mediated intangibly by me, I can make a case, or learn from my failure. Score alone: useless. Score + me: useful, possibly. All of this applies equally well in reverse, whatever that means.

Am I tracing some sort of late-night continuum (for it is now late night in Seattle and I have just finished playing the Schubert E-flat Trio, I am no longer the sunglasses-wearing would-be hipster of beforetimes) between the composer's idea, the score, and the interpretation? The score is the deadest point between these two live fires, a cold conduit. Humans are huddled at either end of the written notes: the composer hoping for a good performance, and the musician like a detective looking for clues. It is so funny that this communication must happen through the scrawling of musical notation, that the piece must be killed in order to be brought back alive.

Is it my imagination or do many recordings also seem to dwell in this same continuum? They are not just "audible pictures" of performances, but with the intervention of digital editing, etc. seem to want to preserve the piece in some perfect, ideal form; something in which no mistake, accident, or quirk will disturb. Particularly, I resent the intrusion of some producers into the rhythmic conception of performances, evening out rubati that would have redeemed the whole. It seems like some recordings out there aspire not to be like an interpretation, but more like the score. The score can be xeroxed; the CD can be ripped and burned; both share that wonderful reproducibility that poor, impoverished ideas or interpretations do not have. Alluring to be immovable, indisputable, definitive. My continuum is now:

Composer's Idea --- Score --- Interpretation --- Recording
(alive) (dead) (alive, hopefully) (dead, possibly)

It is too tempting to press play on your machine and get the same moment a million times in a row. We fall for this spectacular temptation, with its intimations of infinity, and the particular shape of a particular performance becomes frozen in our minds. Perhaps the particular shape of a producer's biases gets frozen in there too, making a dire, spliced,musical smoothie. Sometimes when we say "just leave the piece alone," we might also mean make it more like some super-smooth, polished, varnished recording, and at that moment I think we should be particularly careful. Watch out! (As at the end of the wonderful Schumann song "Zwielicht": sei wach und munter!) Hug the piece closely; don't leave it alone; and after a while, when you begin to sense an entangling affection, when you begin to feel you might "get hurt," when the relationship is getting serious and you are getting nervous about your emotional attachment ... perform it right away! That alone is the best time.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lord, What Have I Done?

Oh my. While I have been peacefully practicing, rehearsing, and tubing in the mountains of North Carolina, I have been blissfully unaware of the tempest brewing in my comments section, and, to judge from the last comment, a tempest brewing at Frank Music. I should have put a kibosh on this much earlier.

The intent of my last post was humor, not critique! I adore Frank Music. It is the only place that really has the music you need, and I would never want to go to any other place for my music if I could help it. I am a frequent customer. I walk in and want to buy everything, and often leave with much more than I needed. I always semi-pretend to be vexed by her, when I go in, and she usually plays along. There are always works by Ives and Kirchner in the bins, two of my favorite composers. Only there was I able to find, just laying around, some beautiful little Romantic miniatures by Ignaz Friedman, one of my favorite pianists. One must confess that Heidi's phone manner is unorthodox; it would never be taught at Customer Service Workshops; but, if I think about it closely, I would much rather have her New York City, idiosyncratic, manner than the saccharine non-helpful helpfulness of most companies when they deign to take your call. I must say, I often find myself frightened by her--a situation which can only grow worse now--and the point of the post was much more about my own timidity and state of mind than Heidi's behavior; I thought the phone call, in sum, was very funny, especially my total failure with all my stratagems. I didn't post it to be mean!

Finally: the ultimate mea culpa. It appears that piece is not really published. I could have checked with the people I know who have performed it, before wasting Heidi's time. So there, Heidi was right: it does not exist, in the sense that would be meaningful to our transaction. Heidi, will you ever forgive me? Everyone reading this post, right now: go out to Frank and buy some wonderful sheet music, take it home and enjoy it and savor it for the rest of your music-loving days. For God's sake, don't Xerox it at your music library.