Monday, October 30, 2006

My Umbrella

My umbrella needs no Viagra. It jumps at every chance. It attempts to come open under tables, in drawers, as I am passing through doors; it is coiled kinetic energy; it is a teenage umbrella in heat and I have considered buying it Judy Blume books just to calm it down. I am nervous it will embarrass me at any moment. If it is possible to screw up the purchase of an umbrella, in every imaginable way, I have done so. Attention to detail, even in failure, is my strong point. Fed up with the evil person who stole my last magnificent green domed colossus from the locker room at New York Sports Club in the middle of a tremendous downpour (bad, bad karma, whoever you are!), and no longer willing to humor its substitute, a tattered, paisley, hopeful but pathetic remnant of cloth, its frame poking crazily askew like a squashed metal spider, I finally strutted into Duane Reade on a rainy morning with a mad, to-do-list-checking, umbrella acquisition urge. But every New Yorker knows, you should NEVER buy an umbrella in a store: you should only buy them on the street, from suspicious vendors, in the middle of a precipitation event. Only then do urgency, need, opportunity, and economy-of-scale meet in a flash of cash-only swiftness which makes one glad to be alive. Haste makes waste, and bad taste; my foolish desire and unusual simplicity-of-action bade me ignore the sign reading "The I Love New York Umbrella," with its typical, disgusting, rebus-substitution, and I bought what appeared to be a black normal umbrella (is that so much to ask?), but which turned out horribly to be a TOURIST umbrella, broadcasting on two of its panes "I [heart] New York," a sentiment which this magnificent city, in all its industrial bespattered grimy cynical splendor, can only regard with utter distaste. Yes, we [heart] you too, all you people from Iowa, or Minnesota, and let us express our love with refrigerator magnets.

Wow. Kinda lost it there. Apologies to all from Iowa/Minnesota. That burst of Manhattanism was really just an emotional reaction to the stress of walking down Broadway in the rain, suffering all the trials of a New York resident, living in what other people would consider a cupboard, but still having to appear to all the world like a tourist. And moreover that Duane Reade, the ultimate depressing New York City drugstore, would betray me thus! Et tu, Duane?

Speaking of losing it, and Minnesota. A week ago, I was slated to do a rather ridiculous thing, i.e. fly altogether too late to a concert, fly the morning of a concert out to Bemidji, MN.

Now, it is a journey out to Bemidji, and I had played it semi-safe by booking, through my manager, the earliest possible flight. My schmancy alarm clock thus buzzed most unwelcomely at 5:30 AM, in the palatial West Wing of my apartment, and there ensued that daze and misery of the sudden urgency and the socks that won't go on properly and the assembly of clothes and the impatient phone call of the waiting limo driver and the scurrying of my various butlers, all of which I survived to find myself at JFK's Terminal 4, at a respectable 6:35.

But my hubris of timeliness was ill-rewarded. There was no reservation under my name, or under any of my many aliases (all very sexy and mysterious), and I ended up with a quivering cell phone under my ear, learning from a very sweet lady that I would have to buy a fantastically expensive ticket then and there to get to my destination, and, there was nothing available on the 8 o-clock flight, and, so I'd have to leave at 11:30, and pretty much barely make it.

Please understand! I am already in a very vulnerable emotional state in those early-airport moments, something like a baby that emerges from the womb only to face a firing squad.

Nonetheless I am a proud frequent traveler, averse to exhibit the base emotionalism of all the "amateur travelers" who get all cranky when their rental car is not the color they requested. I was the soul of politeness to the Northwest Airlines staff, whose fault this situation was not, and did not let the depth of my distress leak to them ... except for occasional aphorisms such as "life is a vale of tears." But once I had my ticket, and I found myself adrift in the food court for several hours, with just not quite enough time to get home and back again, a whole new existential situation began to present itself. I began to think the saddest thought I have ever had: my bed, lying empty, without me in it.

Bed. And again bed. Rustle of sheets; sensual whisper of pillow. The glow of the pre-sleep moments, the soft sinking of consciousness, the surrender to rest and relief. I imagined myself in a fetal position, clutching Marcella Cucina, my favorite cookbook, as I sank into dreams of Risotto. Meanwhile, the fluorescent light of the food court bounced horrendously off the yellow formica of my table, and I squirmed painfully on my concrete bench, and sipped another in a series of recurring coffees which did not wake or calm me, but exacerbated my neither/nor-ness (not a word). Ranting cell phone calls were placed, and many weekend minutes were tossed casually into the vault of wasted time. My rage spun slowly around its object: whatever had happened to my reservation. And then I paced, Rilke's panther in the cage, paced again and again past Sbarro and McDonalds and Sharper Image, the bars behind which no world appeared, and when I unwrapped my Egg McMuffin I dropped the egg upon the floor (indignity of the imprisoned man!). I sought relief in the world of ideas, i.e. the bookstore, and unbelievably! the first book that presented itself on the first shelf I came to was William Hazlitt's On the Pleasure of Hating:

In private life do we not see hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly, and impudence succeed, while modesty shrinks from the encounter, and merit is trodden under foot? How often is "the rose plucked from the forehead of a virtuous love to plant a blister there!" What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, - seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy - mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; - have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

How comforting.

That evening, exhausted, I played two Bach Partitas and the Liszt Sonata. Moments after I finished, a woman about 50 years of age came by my dressing room and told me in a Midwestern rhythm that she felt it was a once in a lifetime experience and that many of her friends felt the same way and she thanked me for coming and making the long journey and her face was as plain as a blue sky. She let her eyes sit with me for a while and I could see that while many New Yorkers' faces seem to be a miracle of added-on layers, of wrinkles of experience and cultural accretions, her face over the many harsh winters seemed instead to have been whittled down; things had been removed with time and what was left seemed very honest. She politely excused herself and, as I heard her steps going down the corridor, something snapped and finally I felt myself let go of the held breath of the morning's frustration. I was still exhausted but now in a good way, in a real way which could be solved with sleep. I sat in front of the dressing room mirror and recognized myself. I was happy. I remembered a few phrases I liked in the concert and knew why I was doing what I was doing. And just then the Spirit of New York City came into the dressing room; it was pretty pissed off, yelling at me for getting "all CBS After-School-Special," and threatened to beat me senseless with my [expletive] tourist umbrella if I didn't pull myself together and get good and miserable for the long return flight home.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Favorite Quote of the Week

"We've done Peter and the Wolf so many times, we're starting to root for the wolf."

--unnamed person affiliated with the St. Louis Symphony

Most Ridiculous Quote of the Week

"There is absolutely nothing artificial about Glenn Gould's playing."

--Bruno Monsaingeon

Polite response: a certain stylization is actually somewhat characteristic of his work. Less polite response: I mean come on, what kind of Kool Aid are you drinking? Is there anything NOT artificial about his playing?

Favorite Meal of the Week

An egg-salad sandwich on toasted white bread with iceberg lettuce, a pickle, a glass of ice water, and a Wild Turkey on the rocks.

and finally,

Runner-Up Favorite Quote of the Week

A photographer friend is looking desperately for an apartment, and has been in email contact with all sorts of persons to that end. He received the following philosophical missive which seems to stray off the subject of subletting considerably:

"Thanks for giving the world nice photos and for being Gay. I'm not Gay, but I support full Gays rights, and I wish that I would wake up in the morning and find the 95 percent of the world population has turned Gay. The world would for sure be a better place. This might save the world because it's too over populated and mother nature doesn't have a chance."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In Which All Is Explained

Dissonance is cool. Its cool-factor and yuck-factor are often, however, at war.

For every elderly concertgoer who wrinkles his face and complains "it's so dissonant!" there's a conservatory student in his late teens at a carrel in a listening library hearing Gesualdo or Kreuzspiel for the first time, beaming, eyes wild, thinking "dude, that's f*&*()#$ awesome!" You know I'm right about this. So am I suggesting youth cherishes dissonance and age consonance? Or just bandying stereotypes? I know, for example, my parents are in their 70s (I don't know if that's considered young or old anymore) but they can be quite dissonant in the mornings, especially when my dad's making green chile and eggs and mom gets in the way of his frenetic journeys to and from stove and sink. Anyway.

Syllogism: Dissonance is cool. The Fonz is cool. Ergo: dissonance is the Fonz. He (or you can imagine a female Fonz if you like) strides in in a leather jacket; he does what he wishes; he cares not for convention; he is not fazed by conflict; he makes waves, stands out, attracts attention; he is seductive; he attracts and exists in clusters; he resists resolution, i.e. conformity, but he values his relationships; he knows where he is going, but is in no hurry; he loves to be prolonged (aeyyyyy!); he has a distinctive identity; he lives over the garage... Imagine if you must all the dissonances living in a little apartment over a garage, partying harder and harder through the 19th-century, testing their limits, until finally Schoenberg comes along and emancipates them all (the Abraham Lincoln of dissonance); suddenly with a shudder and one last mournful Tristan chord they come to realize all the fun's gone and that without limits the party's just a lame bunch of drunken dissonances above a garage, getting old and with nothing to do.

The cool "Fonzian" dissonance of the day (should this be a regular feature of Think Denk?), which prompted these "profound" reflections, comes from good old J.S. Bach BWV 1052:

Just look at that puppy! Madrigalian, searing dissonance. The F-sharp there in the bottom of the cembalo, travels down to F-natural, on its way to E-natural, just slidin' on down "innocently" (nobody here but us chickens!); meanwhile the A in one treble voice is heading up to C# and has to pass through B-natural, and there it is, the "Fonzian tritone" (I so TOTALLY invented that term, dude) that results, F-B, the ultra-hip diabolus in musica, a viscerally satisfying traffic accident of passing, colliding lines in which no one needs to get hurt but there is all the thrill of conflict and the onward rush of the incompatible. The B-natural is also wonderfully dissonant against the A pedal (the dominant pedal, that is) and the general D minor-ness of everything (music theorists, moan if you must, at this imprecise labeling, moan on and on, I'm not listening lalalala), and its searing ascent reverses a large extraordinary pattern of preceding descent, so it's also semantically dissonant, so there! These dissonances are linked, spiritually connected, to the ongoing tension of the dominant; they symbolize and represent the music's captured, caged, not-yet-allowed-to-hit-the-tonic fury. If you are at the Carnegie concert on Dec. 2, or at the other Orpheus appearances, and you recognize this moment, and you remember to think of the Fonz, please say "Aeyyy!" to yourself, quietly, in your mind. If you say it out loud, it might be distracting. Or say it to me backstage, I'll be delighted.

In a mostly unrelated note, one of my exes delightful, dear old friends studied my concert schedule and casually invited herself to stay in my apartment while I was away playing. During her tenure, my dish soap apparently gave out (certainly not due to overusage on my part!) and she replaced it not with Palmolive but with one of those so-called Natural Soaps from the Organic Aisle. For months I have been using this Natural Soap, as if under the evil, irresistible spell of Whole Foods, and I had apparently forgotten the real nature of suds; for today when the natural stuff ran out and I had to use some new Green Apple Palmolive, it was like being reborn in the Scrubbing Garden of Eden. The suds fairly overflowed the sink with joy at returning after long exile to my besoiled domicile, and I too couldn't help smiling as the smell of a green apple jolly rancher filled the kitchen, and I meditated that dissonance is a lot like a green apple jolly rancher, sour but tasty and eventually melting, etc. etc.

P.S. I have never been and probably will never be a fan of the show Happy Days. I obtained the proper spelling of the Fonz's catch phrase from this indispensable website, in which the cultural milieu of my pubescent years is enumerated.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Matters Major and Minor

Yours truly settled warmly into plush, red row W at Carnegie Hall, in a single seat at the end. I felt suspiciously glanced-at in my unaccompanied state (no, really, I have a life!) by my more elderly neighbors, and little suspected I had forgotten how K. 503 went. I thought I knew my Mozart (idiotic mistake), I smugly clutched my glossy program in preemptive assurance, and was later so abashedly, completely happy to have forgotten. Perhaps a professional classical pianist should not "be able" to forget 503, or should not admit it, but I really don't care.

As all those "in the know" know, the piece begins with a rather grand gesture, taking its time through two 8-bar phrases to say "here I am." (Benignly, nobly: not at all like, say, Jack Nicholson making his axed entrance near the end of The Shining). This Mozartean hello matched my memories; things were proceeding C-majorly, according to plan. There was even time to observe the similarity of these opening sixteen bars to the archetypal first four of the Well-Tempered Clavier:

But, as those "in the know" also know, the second 8-bar phrase is met at its conclusion by a little accident, a 2-bar extension. That's the evil jargon we boring musicians use to express the idea of some "extra" measures at the end of a phrase, some kind of musical so-called superfluity. Extension, by the way, like so many music theory words, always seems like much too heartless a descriptor--it calls to mind a reprieve on a paper, or some add-on to a house, rather than some deliberate, beautiful volatility or asymmetry introduced into an evolving text. (Any readers who wish to propose a substitute name for "extension," please do!) By the dastardly genius of Mozart these two bars are pretending to be no big deal, just a little echo, i.e. the same as the last two bars of the phrase, but in the minor key. They are, however, a big deal.

It was at this moment, just after the little echoing 2-bar minor key pivot, that my memory failed. Precisely at bar 19, I had no idea what was happening or was going to happen. And what seemed to be occurring onstage, in my ears, or brain, or near the ceiling, or wherever (no specific site for the happening) in this new unknown space seemed to be unbelievable, at least for a moment: a moment of creation and possibility. I say this without exaggeration. I felt: if that could happen--

why, anything could happen.

At intermission I ran into friends E and J and I tried to put my 503 excitement into words, but the words coming out of my mouth were flat and unsuccessful: something "wouldn't take," something elusive, crucial, misplaced.

The basis of my happy disquiet was the feeling that there were two worlds, or two spaces. Mozart first poses the obvious, the overt and harmonically noble, the world of grand operatic entrances and declared high purpose (musically speaking, a world of slow unfolding I-II-V-I, circular perfect tonic-establishing entities). But then he immediately poses an undermining counter-text: a chromatic, agitated sequence in the minor key ... Later on, in rampant caffeinated pursuit of the something that wouldn't take, I indulged myself and tried to make a little table contrasting the two materials, grouping simple musical contrasts with associated metaphors:

I realized: this contrast, this shift to minor, would not nearly be so riveting if it did not seem to immediately and fundamentally strike at the very meaning of the opening material. (Bar 19 is not different in kind, but different in essence.) The first sixteen bars are all about certainty; they define, they enumerate, dispose, declare, set forth. They confine themselves; there is nothing to call a melody; there is simply harmonic assertion; there is no fancy, no diversion; the phrases are rhythmically identical, martial, symmetrical; they flirt with the conventional, even: the stodgy. Having gone to such lengths to dispel doubt at the outset, to create such a capital-O Opening, why suddenly intervene so early on, so disturbingly? I think this (rhetorical) question is near the crux of what was hitting me so hard about the piece.

I love those moments in music (but perhaps not so much in life) where you feel the ground has been pulled out beneath you, and inexplicable profusion ensues. Here in bar 19, certainties vanish, the musical ground vanishes--easy to define and enumerate (rhythm, major-key, texture, style)--and so also disappears a whole set of associated metaphors and ideas, which are harder to define. There is a sudden vacuum created by dispersed certainties, by this vanishing of meaning, and the thing Mozart creates, places in this vacuum, poses as a new possibility, is compelling, suspenseful, with unprecedented rhythmic energy, as if we were suddenly inserted in medias res into the really interesting part of some high, tragic drama, perhaps some moment of wonder or enigma in which various characters are at odds or wondering what is going on, a point just before some sort of climax or revelation. But (!) we are not at the climax of anything yet; we are barely settling in.

To rephrase, this moment is essentially double-edged: with one turning act Mozart creates and destroys; he creates a void only in order to fill it; he erases certainties in order to inscribe a new world. This world does not naturally coexist with the first, but it is "in communication" with it. It is not enough to say the turn of events is a surprise; it is more fundamental than that, a more revolutionary change of perspective. For some reason a ridiculous analogy comes to mind: those moments so common in movies where a character is standing on what he/she thinks is solid ground which turns out to be the hand of a monster, or a giant living tree (when the camera pans out), or the mouth of a whale. The walls are alive, the moment seems to say (the harmonic walls of the piece). There is something quickening in the heart of the piece which is antithetical, perhaps threatening, to it.

The magic, oft-invoked word in The Classical Style is "synthesis," which the great 3 composers are said to have achieved. Mozart is praised for balance, proportion, grace, naturalness, ease, among so many other things. But I'm not sure this moment feels "organic" or "natural." It is, rather, perfect but unnatural; it feels like a rhetorical interjection, the insertion of an Idea, the intervention of Thought. Its genius is not an easy flowering and development, but a sudden dizzying epiphany, a slippage of the mind.

Though the minor literally comes after the major, I'm not at all sure succession is the primary communicated meaning. To me it has a much more interesting relationship to time, something like coexistence, not narrative: the side-by-side vision of opposites. In other words, its message is not "this happens, then that happens" but rather something more disturbing: "it could just as well be this, or that." And then when the major returns after our "bubble" of minor, does it seem to other people that it's just a little too eager to assert itself, that its rising scales and triumphant sequences almost ring a bit hollow, too much of a muchness? Come to think of it, perhaps the opening was a bit too certain of itself as well. Why does it feel to some extent that that grand façade of the opening is peeled away to reveal this inner minor-key angst (raising questions of opening as façade, as curtain, questions of musical "truth")?

I wouldn't obsess over this moment if Mozart didn't set me up for it. This first minor key intervention is so striking, that it forces us to ask: if it happened once, why not again? It isn't really possible, in the Classical cosmos, to have something so extraordinary happen and then not to follow up on it (events follow, in the Classical world); and yet, and yet, this minor-key shift isn't really typical of the Classical cosmos either; how can a non-Classical event be understood or developed in a Classical way? The listener is on high alert, even in the gilded, privileged confines of Carnegie Hall. And Mozart treats this uncertainty as a Theme, in the literary sense. The minor key keeps poking its head in, at regular and yet unpredictable intervals, enough to maintain a perpetual doubt-of-meaning, a constant waver in the fabric of the piece; it shimmers to show the dark minor side and shimmers back into major so that gradually you begin to perceive the work not as a solid entity but as a window, always promising or threatening another side. One can no longer say, comfortably, "this is an antithesis," or smugly: this is major and this is minor. You begin to see yourself, as perceiver, as narrator, stuck between.

I caught myself doing something, I think ... When bar 19 started and my familiarity dropped away, I caught my brain just for a second, like a swimmer in trouble, thrashing, trying to "make sense," to map the pattern of the present onto the past. But I was unable to match the events either to my memories or to the first 16 bars of the piece: to anything at all. There it was: my mind was searching for a pattern connection between the two parts, and Mozart's music at that moment depended on that activity, depended on its attempt and failure (its failure was Mozart's success). I realized, part of the work of the composer is to create roadblocks to pattern perception, beautiful areas where the brain gropes blindly. I realized, too, part of what makes some music sound "too easy" or vapid is the absence of that kind of challenge; allowing the brain to laze around like a couch potato processing patterns in a daze. Mozart, the easy listening, un-dissonant composer (so I read in an interview in the program, aghast, as if this music wasn't living and breathing dissonance nonstop), this long-dead Mozart was the one poking my brain, saying: stay awake, stay awake, keep living, you never know what will happen!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rules for Counterpoint

Life's dangerous. You could be walking down Broadway, round 94th Street, and find yourself in a near-head-on collision with a former student. These sorts of things happen all the time. Clutching cellphone to ear with another friend, you say a cautious external hello, wondering: what tutelage grudges have been stewing all this time, waiting to explode?

Take comfort, gentle reader, this is a friendly encounter; Former Student is harmlessly (?) heading off to teach Counterpoint. I am returning from Starbucks Odyssey episode 2,342.

One of my little life-improvement dreams is to ruthlessly restudy counterpoint until my species are all settled down and in their proper places. Back in the halcyon year of 1995, I studied copiously (like the little good boy I am) for my Juilliard Doctoral Placement Exam, in the New Mexico sun, while ingesting huge amounts of chips and green chile salsa, dripping and smearing wonderful amounts of salsa on my music notebooks which gave the counterpoint exercises a kind of antique quality, a spicy charm -- at least so I felt at the time. But this chile-induced crammed knowledge could not last long, it was bound to melt like cheese on a quesadilla.

"What are those rules of counterpoint?" I inquired hypothetically of Former Student. I was curious not to hear them, of course, but to know how he would express them.

He started with the curious ploy of the obvious. "Well, no parallel fifths." As if, ironically, taking the question seriously? Then continued, "no unisons... which is really funny." At least I think that is what he said; his mind moves faster than a Roadrunner across the top of a mesa in the creosote smell of the desert after a good rainstorm. Sometimes FS's thought processes leave even this Generation Xer mystified, I who should by right of Birth be cynical of Everything and mystified by Nothing.

I decided to leap in. "Parallel fourths are a problem too, sometimes?" He began to enumerate the situations when they might or might not work, then (I speculated) got weary, in the present moment, with the sun shining down, and the day beckoning, and the brisk cold reminding the skin of its own very existence, of the dos and donots. Perhaps it was all a failed experiment in postmodernism. "There are exceptions."

The breeze blew. A minisecond passed. My other friend waited on the cellphone to tell me something more that I should know about the strange way I conduct my life, or she hers.

Former Student's voice interrupted its own pause impatiently. "There are lots of exceptions. The exception is if you're dead you can't do any of those things." The Carpe Diem School of Counterpoint was thus defined and founded on the corner of 94th and Broadway, in front of a liquor store.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Scholars Unite!

Saturday 7:50 am. I woke to the wreckage of nail salons: crumbling glass, scattered particle-board, chairs, and three dusty men dismantling endless hours of beauty. Helpful sign explains: “WE HAVE MOVE.” It seemed early to be pillaging, at least on the Upper West Side. Why, most people haven’t even finished their Pilates yet, not to mention walking their pugs and baking their organic brioches. I was irritated to find that the new staffperson at the 93rd Street Starbucks seemed to think we were living in the ‘burbs. She smiled a TV smile (in HD) and threw me a perky plastic how-are-you, and when I (grudging, mumbling, quiet) returned the formality she went into a story about how tired she is [insert braying laugh a la Rachael Ray here]... but she’ll make it, thanks. My subsequent smile was like the crisper in my refrigerator: full of wilted, dried-up, and congealed things. If I had been carrying a volume of Sartre I might have climbed over the counter and attacked her with it. Morning is not my time.

Ah, safely back in the apartment. Whew. I try to really make an art of my grumpiness while it lasts, to live it to the last drop; I am not sure it is not a strange, amphibian form of happiness.

Speaking of grumpiness, I was over again seeing how a real blog works at The Rest Is Noise, and I read the following:
... the one [concert] that cannot be missed is the mainstage Carnegie bill of Electric Counterpoint (with Pat Metheny), Different Trains (with the Kronos), and Music for 18 Musicians (with Reich and his ensemble). I don't see anything as exciting on the entire New York season schedule...

Ummm, excuse me? What about Jeremy Denk’s super-wuper fantastically exciting all-Bach recital on Oct. 20th in the new exciting totally unusual late-night format at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center (tickets available)? Or Jeremy Denk’s thrilling debut wild-possibly-involving-naked-supermodels appearance at Carnegie Hall with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Dec. 2nd? Just to pick a couple items at random from the concert schedule, items I have no stake in whatsoever, you know, just, by the way. I thought I worked that in pretty well, don’t you? Not too pluggy, kind of seamless?

And then to speak again of grumpiness, a while back I went a bit to town on the first episode of Greg Sandow’s book on the future of classical music. I have to admit I’m not in love with the formulation “performing” a book, but I let myself be carried full tilt into high dudgeon, overhastily. I went back there and it appears he took in a lot of criticism and decided to start again, writing more tightly and with less anecdote; he seems to be reangling it as a kind of historical account of how classical music got “boxed in.” The following passage made me pause uneasily:

This scholarly, detached, analytical view of classical music then gets translated into the formality of performances, the immobility and silence of the musicians and the audience, and the lack of communication, the lack of any explanation of what's really going on (which I've criticized so relentlessly in earlier episodes). All this turns many people off, especially since it runs directly against almost every trend in contemporary culture. How can people who (for example) listen to pop music that offers strong views about contemporary life, and about which listeners have really strong opinions--loving this band, hating that one--accept a classical music world in which they're told, repeatedly, in measured, unexcited tones, how great the great composers are?

But there is something courageous about it. Here on Think Denk, we try to get as excited as we can about Bach etc., and try to pass it on through verbiage and (soon to come, exciting exciting!) sound bites, but we (royal) have to admit Mr. Sandow has a generally true-feeling point. To argue with what he is saying seems like arguing with commonsense, with the same pros and cons. Go ahead and argue; you may be right, but ignore it at your peril. In fact he has a lot of points that feel queasily correct in the main though I get nervous about the wide net he is casting ... To cite my main qualm, I guess I feel he’s a little too comfortable with generalizations, and with the deadly Grouping Of Stereotypes Fallacy (“scholarly, detached, analytical”)... Scholarly does not have to be detached, or analytical, for instance. Analysis is not necessarily detached either. These are all free-floating "connotations." And then he equates the scholarly attitude with the detached immobile performances, claiming a causality. But often it seems to me just the opposite: the scholars are the ones getting excited about the music while the performers, who are too busy to hear from them or don’t want to hear from them or think they don’t have anything to offer, ignore them and offer up the same old same old conservatory crap. How’s that for blunt? Strike one for scholars!

So I have my Denkish qualms, but am impressed by the rewrite and new approach. Go read Sandow’s stuff, and I apologize for jumping on the first post: so very Jeremy and so impatient. The ocean is still teaching me (vis a vis last post).

Then, to survey other areas of the Classical-Web, I noticed there’s a big discussion of the “pretentiousness” of classical music going on at Sequenza21. This seems to me largely a discussion between composers, and am I generalizing too much (a la Sandow) if I see this discussion and the word “pretentious” as a euphemism for what is quickly becoming the Composers’ Eternal Question:
Should I write tonal, boppy stuff, or not?

I imagine the devil posing that question, slyly, in the postmodern wilderness ... Please enjoy, among other things, the myriad spellings of “pretentiousness” that sprinkle this forum, which made me doubt my own memory, and which evokes, charmingly, composers at play, perhaps multitasking, transposing on Finale or Sibelius in the background while burning CDs in another window and pondering music’s moral state in between, too busy to avail themselves of a spellchecker. This is all coming out overly snarky ... am a big fan of Sequenza 21 ...

Without being presumptuous, I guess it will have to be up to me to answer the Eternal Question for all composers for All Time. I would refer them once again to Roland Barthes’ wonderful dictum “there is only what I would choose to write, to put forth in this world of mine, and what I choose not to.” I apply this dictum daily, thousands of times, when playing the same old boring totally unexciting (just kidding, for those with no ear for irony) Bach phrase again, or some stupid out-of-touch-with-modernity (still kidding!) Beethoven thingy, and I am teetering between “Ways To Play This” and some are Interesting, some are Unexpected, some are Classic--oh oh oh, the burden of choice!--and then finally there is a period of honestly asking myself, “what would I choose to hear? how is this meaningful to me? what makes me sit back and say that is beautiful?” and there is the test, does this wow me, is what I’m hearing interesting to me, 2006 Jeremy?, and I look for the answers through that set of questions (and similar)... through the self-wow test ... It’s all really spectacularly beautiful heady totally tremendous stuff, so that when I have to go out of the apartment and away from my Linus-esque security blanket combo of piano and Great Masters to get some coffee from some perky young thing I get a little, you know, on edge.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Itinerary: Prussia Cove - Upper West Side

At Saigon Grill two black-haired, scruffy male singers are arguing over a melody, singing it to each other in solfège. I admit, I find this reprehensible. As I settle in for yet another Vietnamese luncheon, I wish to be sonically neutral, awaiting my steaming gleaming heaping plate; solfège gives me preemptive indigestion. “It is a joy,” one explains unctuously to the other, “it is nice.” Instantly I want to smash and pulverize their joys so they would sit, at least, in shocked silence, which would be--what is the right word?--preferable.

They continue conversing semi-musically; I lose the thread. But then the more vocal one pipes up his instrument and says: “I was like” -- cluck -- “honey,” initiating the cadence so familiar to New Yorkers, the beautiful scraping rhythm and refrain of someone finally informing an irritating other exactly how clueless they are, “that’s the problem... you have NO technique.” His hands move quickly outward in a paradoxical demonstration of nonexistence.

Ah, I have travelled so far.

I climbed over and between black, brown and gray rocks, negotiating a route which just seemed too detailed. Patience-testing. Each rock, I thought, is a different shape. Very few were obligingly flat-topped, and some were slippery with seaweed, and the long beach was there in the distance like advertised paradise, awaiting my trip through rocky limbo. I crawled, stepped, braced, squeezed; time passed. Finally the rocks began to thin, and I found a sandy strip and pulled off my brown shoes and set them on the gray wet sand and also my white socks which looked so strangely luminous-white, and set them in a safe zone away from changing tides, and went out to the crescent of soft sand with the beautiful shallow approaching waves, waves an inch deep at most which crept up the sand like long water fingers.

Alone--on a huge isolated beach with water coming up which would eventually touch the crumbling cliffs at my back. Ah, I thought, addressing the ocean in my mind, now we can really get down to business. Now we must have that heart-to-heart we’ve been postponing for so long, great Mother Ocean, and I prepared almost to fight it like a child taking on a bully. Kick it, splash it, give it what fer. Give vent to my joy. But the most extraordinary element, really, was that it was so apparent there was nothing to fight. Or I guess: it was amazing how this became apparent. There was a rhythm to this revelation. Some vector of intention which I had brought with me eagerly to the beach, some totally undeclared purpose, melted as my feet numbed happily in the cold shallow water. I swear the ocean seemed to answer with a giant radiating slow silent word. No question was asked. The word, I repeat, was not the sounding waves; it had perhaps just as much to do with the slatish sky or the green gorse which hovered around on the perilous cliffs looking down to see what I, or it, might do. It was not spoken, it was situational, it was like air. Patient ocean, so different from I, hurried rock-clamberer. I searched my state of self; I did not feel affected, prideful, stupid, foolish, pressed, hopeful, hungry, insightful, wishful, accomplished, thoughtful, selfless, fretful, calm, centered, or scattered; adjectives fell off me like water off rock, innumerable.

If one thing could really be said about my situation is that I wanted to take greater advantage of it, to be worthier of it, to do justice to the word “experience.” And it was not following the conventional script, starting with “such a beautiful spot” and ending with a snapshot for one’s desktop picture... Yes it was incredibly beautiful and I felt enclosed, cuddled, sensually alive ... But most importantly some sense of presence occurred which reversed the conventional structure of action, not “I saw a beautiful place” but “A beautiful place spoke me.” Not spoke “to” me, for fuck’s sake; spoke me myself and myself only without prepositions, as if a man opened his mouth and out came a picture. My desire--more, more, experience this more--was only a kind of impatient vibrating at my own boundaries. If only I could be this way in the presence of other people, those dear to me, if only I would let them speak me, then I might speak them too; and it was very clear from the sea’s silent crashing that I was the only obstacle. Ocean was not approving or disapproving, just observing and for once I didn’t resent its personal advice. I was the only living rock on the beach, brightly clad, rolled-up jeans rock, pacing back and forth in the sunset, the only rock which was not married to the ground and sand and against which the sea might break itself merrily, if only I would let go of something more.

An hour or so later, I stared out the window of the main house at the Last Sunset, which daubed just the tip of the black promontory yellow-green, and listened to the crashing waves, now pane-muffled. Two banks of clouds sitting awkwardly in the sky were lit too at their tops with surreal sunlight and when I blinked, and looked again, a half moon had appeared between them, and it seemed like there were just too many beautiful events all at once and you just had to keep looking until some inner switch clicked off and you knew. Then: a melancholy dark dinner with candles and goodbyes; a short swift night drive down country lanes hurling headlamps against the endless curling green hedges; and white bunnies, lit up whiter-than-white, fleeing the oncoming car like scattered ghosts; and a long, clattering machine carrying me, us, back to civilization and do, re, mi.

7:37 AM, Paddington Station

A certain cellist who shall remain nameless (but whose initials are those of a very popular magazine with a recurring swimsuit issue) seems to think Clara Schumann may have not been a very nice person. I cannot supply a transcript of the late night discussion here, for reasons of decency. The Great Clara Debate, pro or con, rages on, as if we are somehow angry with Music History for allowing two of our Favorite Guys to fall in love with the same Controlling Woman.

However, I was shifting somewhat Pro-Clara (doesn’t that sound like a shampoo?), while playing her husband’s piano quartet.

Clause one of the universal indictment: she applied pressure to her husband, encouraging him to write in classical forms (sonata etc.) when his genius was suited to a more radical reinvention of form: to shorter pieces linked in chains, or some other solution which he might have found if only Clara hadn’t been such a stickler. This indictment is irrefutably founded on hypotheticals. I too am impossibly seduced by what Schumann might have written. Yes, we have Davidsbündlertänze, we have Carnaval, and the strange sonata amalgam of the Fantasy ... but don’t you sometimes catch yourself imagining some even more revolutionary work, in which Schumann’s tremendous imagination dissolves the whole Narrative Ethos of Western Music into heartrending fragments, in which one no longer longs for, no longer requires coherence? Something which would have ended the whole infantile fetishization of Sonata Form, which at times debilitated even the greatest Romantics? I do.

Rufus Wainwright has something to say about Schumann; he just came on the Starbucks soundtrack here in Paddington ... but I can’t quite translate the message ...

But let’s consider another tantalizing hypothetical: without Clara’s pushing Robert might never have pondered in depth the delicate “fantasization” of the Classical harmonic world. Sitting in Prussia Cove, I find myself close to the place in my brain I inhabit when I am in love (substituting music as so often for elusive reality), listening to the unfolding opening of the Piano Quartet. The strings play E-flats, and the piano plays an ascending sixth:

This resounding sixth, made blurry totality by the held pedal ... a fantastic otherworldly sound, predicated on the simplest proposition: the first note, the bass, is not the root of the chord, but its third. Why couldn’t other composers think of that bar? Something Brahms only rarely (if ever) learned to do: make the first bar an “extra” bar, an unnecessary item, a non-event depending on how you count events -- a bar for listening, not telling (Beethoven slow movement of Hammerklavier opening). A bar in which semantic space is opened, not defined.

The pedal and the ascent from the deep bass--the bass which refuses to go away just yet, at least not until we have truly heard it--is a Romantic symbol, connoting space, aura: as if E-flat major (that most classical, refined, elevated of keys) were echoed off something greater, were the mere worldly reverberation of a more profound spiritual force. (Pedal: echo, overtone, undampened string, vibration.) E-flat has arrived from somewhere; the piano suggests somehow the existence of this other place without being able, in music, to show it. Incredibly, the phrase that the strings play in response to this enigma could easily be an opening by Mozart/Beethoven/Haydn--simple, textbook, linear, architectural, tonic-to-dominant.

The Classical Phrase is thus “born” out of the sound of E-flat major, out of the pedalled ambiguity. Classical clarity has been reframed, resituated--in the context, perhaps, of pure sound. (Schumann’s opening bar implores us to hear sound as sound, not as discourse.)

The opening, “listening,” bar is Romantic enigma, and the next two bars are pure Classicism; the slow introduction is a gentle (but absolutely riveting) dialogue between these tendencies: not a competition between them but an interlacing, in which fantasy and phrase (yearning and definition) use each other as points of reference, to supply each other’s lack.

So, too, the opening of the ensuing Allegro non troppo. Schumann launches us with what could be a classical antecedent:

but then composes a strange, spinning, asymmetrical consequent:

There is no way to know when the piano will finish; the chain of notes is endless, undelineating and undelineated, as if the pianist is simply lost in the idea, in the joyful setting-forth. So: in place of the answered question, we get a wandering curlicue. Schumann adores placing the ungrammatical in the grammatical niche, sticking an adjective where the verb must be. In this case, no resolution of the dominant seventh ... simply an elaboration of it, a giant Romantic ornament.

Somehow, Schumann’s cross-pollination of Classic and Romantic maintains a Mozartean transparency, a charm and elegance. The junctures are strange but not jolting. In the Piano Quartet he provides Romanticism without decadence or decay, in joyful, prideless, humorous possession of aesthetic discoveries, not collapsed into struggle or conflict or any kind of despair or confusion. In other words: a high water point, a magical moment in Music History. Where would all this be without Clara? Unanswerable question. Schumann’s encounter (in this case) with classical form produces an unbelievable and delicate fusion, a kind of perfection in which the gushing Romantic is not at all tiresome in his teenage accesses of passion and does not wear himself out yearning but makes his passionate singing useful to the adult world. He refutes Rilke’s annoying, pretentious Zen-ishness:

Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality...
Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice--learn
to forget that passionate music. It will end.

He (Robert Schumann) says: Rainer, I prefer not to forget that passionate music. I am a young man loving, and I will woo, and achieve grace. Which is why I (Jeremy Denk) will--for the moment--defend Clara from the besmirching hand, and live for a few more days with Schumann’s magical-classical E-flat major (like magical realism), and not so much with Rilke’s melancholy, oh-so-enlightened, resigned “reality.” Schumann's passionate music does not seem yet to have found its end, so there.