Sunday, December 31, 2006

Autobiography of a Practice Session

I detest autobiography. What is it but a footnoted freakshow, a whipped, tired, suburban casserole of failed ontology, or more simply: a pathetic excuse for the past? And yet I've been seized, compelled. My hands shake with scribbling tremors. I find myself--yes, me!, after all my patient perfectionist hours!--acting like an impulsive homo sapiens, thrusting my words out, yawping and yelping to the wide world my so-called swansong.

I was born when the butt hit the bench, more or less. It might have been 4:32 pm, 10:08 am, Eastern time, Midwestern time, dead time, nap time, pre-concert time, whatever time--it hardly matters when, just how much, always "how much?," the question haunts me. And in that there is never certainty: my life might be as brief or as long as my master pleases ... I live all my time in the shadow of my death, and if that sounds over-dramatic then you really understand nothing of me whatsoever. My death, anyway, matters hardly at all to anyone. Perhaps I lied. Perhaps I was not officially born at the butt-bench moment, but just before, with the first intention or thought, with the first prehensile gesture of the mind; I have no doctor or midwife; no one keeps count except my master, and even he has begun to neglect the ledger.

Does this satisfy you at all? I have an uneasy relationship to satisfaction. You want to know what I am, and the joke's on you: even I am not sure. You want some comforting data and comfort's not my style.

So, enough on my birth! On to my youth ... My earliest memory is that out of silence, came a series of sounds. The sounds coalesced, took form, became a phrase, and this phrase seemed to multiply in my mind, like the Sorcerer's brooms: I saw it again and again, ad nauseam... Even as young as I was, I began to ask myself: who is making this and why? But then, one time was different: I was walking along the green hedge of the phrase, admiring its flow, and some twinkle just caught my eye around the corner, some distinguishing rustling event, I couldn't really tell what. I stopped in my tracks ... Perhaps it was the dangling, curling tress of some girlish note, flirting with my fancy, or the smell of some earthy mouldering harmony, something minorish, ambiguous, something tempering the onward rush of my life and making me scent threats to my innocence, threats deeply desired? Yes, it happened just like that--a glimpse, a flash--and yet when I walked by the same phrase again, peeped around its corners, in search of the same sensation, it seemed like there was nothing there at all! But that nothing was dangerously something. The phrase appeared empty, innocent, vacant, but not as nice as before, it grinned at me toothlessly, and lacked what I had seen but could not grab or find ... To that moment I suppose I can date my ravenous lust for glimmers, for something better "out there," my shameless greener-grassism. You could say, in short, that the roots of my personality were watered and nourished by nameless dissatisfaction.

I went to school for whys and wherefores. This was cruel, for I found myself multiplied into a thousand mes, each dissatisfied in his own way. But, in return, I began to be able to name my dissatisfactions. For instance, one particular C-sharp was "bumped," and therefore disrupted a certain "line;" a bassline began to present itself as "going to" a particular note, and "goals" were defined, everything began to organize itself into patterns... patterns dissolving into patterns ... My life seemed to make sense, I seemed to attain purpose. Those were probably my halcyon days, with mornings spent at school learning about the phrases I was living, then bounding home, to my garage, covering myself in musical grease, tuning things up, getting things in order, wiping my sweaty brow in inspiration. I was a model of industry--solving, creating, recreating. Life existed, passed like a dream, in my flow.

But, of course, one day a wall was struck. I couldn't at all tell you why, though I was covered in reasons from head to toe. In fact, in my ceaseless excavation of reasons, I had tunnelled to find no causality at all: only the blue sky on the other end of the world. The one phrase, and all the others that joined it, seemed to stare at me blankly, and I was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied... I searched myself and had no feelings and sat in my heartless standstill and beat my head against a wall.

Later I had another disturbing revelation: that the world was not at all what it appeared. I had assumed the world took shape in phrases, in notes, quavers, slurs, melodies; I lived happily there, in musical space; but I began to realize that I was also existing in another, more profane dimension. Not only that: in that dimension, I was caught in between, wedged in some primitive struggle. On one side there was a giant black structure, strung at tremendous pressure, with levers, escapements, releases... a kind of civilized torture mechanism, I imagined... And perched on the other side there was a human being, my master; I began to realize that my master and this black torture device were locked, if not in some sort of life-and-death wrestling match, then in some bitter ongoing argument. Judging from the odd way my master was wobbling his head back and forth, it seemed that this struggle exhausted him, or caused him some spasmic mental derangement (which worried me not a little, since I was after all at his mercy); but the black structure on the other hand seemed impassive, immovable ... despite the continual application of irresistible force. Could I make sense of this at all? It seemed clear that my master was coming at the fight, so to speak, with nothing more than ideas and that he was begging the black structure to reproduce them for him, if that were possible, in sounds and vibrations. But then, too (and this was more peculiar!) it would seem that something contingent or occasional in the sound, some accident or mere frequency, would be a source of inspiration for my master, would give him ideas in turn; but how could the inanimate object, heavy and wooden, be a source of pure, flying thought, or of that even more ethereal stuff comprising the soul?

And then as if that were not puzzle enough... who was I, how was I placed, in this situation? Before, I had thought myself a creator, an imaginer, and particularly a solver! In my Romantic vision of myself, the Romantic scientist of musical truth, I dissected, labelled, and improved ... But I now had to come to grips with this person, this device, and their odd interspecies relationship, of which I was a byproduct or mere effluent, if I were not, in fact, the main point, the sun around which their struggles orbited. That was it: I was either bystander or essence... I was the substance of the argument or simply its terms. I was having an identity crisis. I began to perpetually rock from one end of a dilemma to the other: I obsessed about one problem until it was more or less solved but then, as if from a dream, woke to realize that, in solving the one, I had created another! The things I suddenly seemed to need to know about the particulate, spatial human world frightened me: physics, gravity, speeds ... sensual things too ... and my expertise, confronted with dimensionality, felt pitifully small.

The sensual seduces. And perhaps I had never realized how much I wanted, needed, to be seduced... At that point in my life, with all these crashing, disconcerting, realizations, I caught another one of my fateful glimpses. You should know that one of the curious ongoing observations I had made up to this point was a physical mannerism of my master (... yes, I could observe him as though I were not entirely his servant, as though I had my own independent life! and perhaps that too was part of my meaning?...) From time to time, and particularly at moments of great musical intensity, I noticed that his shoulders would tend to raise up, a habit which would inevitably complicate the free and easy motion of his arms, which is to say the flow of his meanings: how I remonstrated with him about this! He was ruining my field of action, don't you see? And I was helpless to stop him, except by reminding him constantly; it was a frustrating, repetitive tedium, which is exactly what I am always trying to avoid. But this one time, when I reminded him, a deeper change in his body seemed to take place (I never really understood these bodily transformations!), bringing some greater, more global, restfulness to his frame. He breathed in, out... I adore the windy flux of this human necessity. And I had the sense, the most exquisite savory sense, that he listened, for a moment, more carefully to the sound he had just thus produced. With a breathtaking sense of inner--almost metaphoric--correspondence, the black hulking thing at that moment also seemed to resonate more fully: the dead wood found its dryad, and the chord in question blossomed like a flower, both in the mind and in the air. It was like the ideal "thock" of a billiard ball, struck and swishing into its pocket, but it was so much more than that, as if the ball in moving and sinking altered the very color of the room, or of the universe. That chord seemed, in relation to the preceding, like the only meaningful coincidence in a random world.

I had not allowed myself to love, before then. But I was swept away. There were problems, indeed, that needed no solutions... My purpose, I had thought, was to correct, but "correct" was often an empty word. What's more: I needed to be loved, for my own sake, and despite all systematic drudgery, for these sorts of magical moments I might produce; for I was capable of love too and what I wanted more than anything was to live to be forgotten, or to forget myself. I implored my master, I gazed at him to love me, thank me, for what had just occurred, but he was in some distant place, in love with himself, or with the sound, or with those silly scribblings on the music rack, or with the ceiling, or the black structure, who knows what? That ungrateful jerk. And then, the crowning indignity! Some mysterious buzzing destroyed the sonic sanctuary of the room, my master leapt up, the black monolith reverted to its lifeless cryptic insouciance, and with the words "hello! ... no, I'm not doing anything ... want to have dinner?" I began to feel myself fading, falling, dying. Ahhh! My story is ending, readers, so soon! Worst of all, I detected emanating from my master even some element of glee... as if he were actually happy that I the Practice Session was over, that I was fading into the bland limbo of abandoned thought. I felt wronged: how dare you! after all we have just shared together, master! And with my remaining moments I implanted one seed in his sorry, selfish brain ... an evil, vengeful reminder ... the magic mantra that would bring me back to life, a few well-chosen words: your next concert is in two weeks.

Haha, I could see, though he put on a brave face, that I had injured him to the quick. He gave me one last worried, surreptitious glance, and as I faded completely I informed him irrefutably with my dying eyes "I'll be back for you tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ..."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006


Feeling bereft of nuanced, thoughtful musicological comparison? Well, fret no further; the Rev. Al Sharpton is on the case:

"[Brown] made soul music a world music," Sharpton said. "What James Brown was to music in terms of soul and hip-hop, rap, all of that, is what Bach was to classical music. This is a guy who literally changed the music industry. He put everybody on a different beat ..."

Friday, December 22, 2006


Today's entry begins with a truly essential Ethical Question. Suppose you quip to a friend, "what am I? chopped liver?" Does the acceptable range of responses include: "Yes, in this context you ARE chopped liver"? Is it not understood that the question is rhetorical? Is it not just a little bit insulting, even linguistically, to be taken literally and dumped in your own metaphor? If your friend is staring at some extremely attractive fellow behind you, how does this make you feel? Please discuss.

Something that is definitely not chopped liver literally, metaphorically, or in any other way is the slow movement of Schumann's D minor Trio. (Please see: The Art of the Graceful Segue, by Jeremy Denk, Hyperion Books, 2031, p. 5,832.)

Of all the fantastic pieces I have played over the last six/seven weeks, this one has lingered the most powerfully and become kind of an obsession: I've gone all Fatal Attraction on it. Even more unhinged than usual, I have found it difficult to organize my thoughts into nice, neat paragraphs; so in the spirit of Schumann I will just present what I've got, how I've got it.

1. First issue: is this a melody?

(Listen to this played on my out of tune piano here.)

To some this may seem an unnecessary semantic issue (can you really define melody? isn't it whatever you want to call it?), but I am not quibbling. The passage itself raises the question, and moreover: I think the presence of this disturbing question is essential to what the passage "means." Imagine a melody archetype, and this ain't it: a melody (whatever it is ... in all its infinite playful variation ... ) is more self-contained, more continuous, more "of a piece"; its peaks and valleys are clearer; it is more centered, supported, structured.

So, part of what makes this passage extraordinary is that it asks itself and the listener: what am I? It seems nearly anti-Melodic (or, perhaps more precisely, ante-melodic). One vision of Melody is as a sort of statement or declaration ("the violin states the theme, which is taken up by the cellos", and so forth). But for me this is the crux: the violin here does not so much say something, as it wants to say something: something that won't exactly take.

It makes me want to divide the world of melody into two parts: those that are, and those that aspire to be.

2. My hero, Roland Barthes:

To state that [a character] is "active or passive by turns" is to attempt to locate something in his character "which doesn't take," to attempt to name that something. Thus begins a process of nomination which is the essence of the reader's activity: to read is to struggle to name ...

... reading is absorbed in a kind of ... skid, each synonym adding to its neighbor some new trait, some new departure: the old man who was first connoted as fragile is soon said to be "of glass": an image containing signifieds of rigidity, immobility, and dry, cutting frangibility. This expansion is the very movement of meaning: the meaning skids, recovers itself, and advances simultaneously; far from analyzing it, we should rather describe it through its expansions ... the generic word it continually attempts to join ...

--from S/Z, tr. Richard Miller

Yes: the very movement of meaning! I love that phrase. I wish more performances felt like the movement of meaning.

3. Now consider violin plus piano:

Listen here.

The violin, often syncopated, appears to be bouncing off events in the piano, taking inspirations or stimuli from the beat. However, the piano part on its own is, I must confess, not particularly noteworthy. It appears to be--I can't believe I'm saying this!--accompanying (I feel dirty even saying the word), providing chordal support for the violin; it avoids strong profile, directionality or purpose. Here and there a note or two leap out, but constantly (as if repeatedly accepting a "role") the piano recedes into the background. In its texture, in its deference, it calls to mind an organist's attempt to harmonize, to harmonize the violinist's wayward hymn. But, a hymn should have a simpler melodic profile ... and it usually starts on a beat ...

So we have an unusual, paradoxical discourse, where both parties are looking to the other for a core of meaning, a supporting structure, and neither is giving it. They are both leaning against each other, but neither is solid. They are see-sawing, continually passing meaning off to each other, relinquishing. Pianist and violinist restlessly wander through. I can't help but think Schumann wants them to feel lost together; he wants them to give each other false clues, non-answers; he wants them to skid and wipe out on accidents of meaning (and start again).

4. Let's take the melody in sections...

It rises and falls:

It rises and falls again:

A couple more starts:

Then finally a sort of strange, culminating curlicue:

Such carefully composed impulsiveness. Rising, wanting, halting, falling: from these the question forms, what are we looking for? What is it to which each phrase aspires? If only some clear peak or solution would present itself! To the question "Is this a Melody?" we can add, "When will a Melody, or whatever it is, arrive?"

5. I think this is the sort of "melody" that could not exist before musical notation. It is too diffuse, too ready to fall apart, too unmemorizable: at once too self-similar and too dissimilar. It leans towards recitative, towards the stream of consciousness; instead of strong intervallic or motivic repetitions, each iteration works through "soft recollection": each new version takes one element as given, unaltered, and changes everything else. We move forward barely, on thin threads of connection.

And this is the audacity of Schumann: taking something so personal, something that seems to be a collection of fits, starts, half-formed ideas, reflections, and making it a contrapuntal essence, making of it a "ground." It is not a one-time event, something that unfolds randomly according to passing thoughts, though it appears to be so. For this non-melody recurs, won't let go; its role (persisting) and its nature (dissolving) are at odds.

6. Each section of the "melody" lands, or more precisely does not land, on a half-cadence. Each segment, in other words, concludes inconclusively ( ... is answered with the same non-answer.) Perhaps through the variety of the ways in which we get to the same place, we don't quite realize it: we don't realize at all how confined within a circle we are. Both this repetitive quality and the deceptive, disguising variety are written in. Schumann wants us to know, and not to know.

7. Schumann is painting exclusively on a bleak, uniform rhythmic canvas of eighth notes. There is power in deliberate omission; in the first nine bars not even a single sixteenth note is allowed to disturb or enhance the unfolding composite rhythm ... We walk haltingly forward in this unstoppable, similar stream.

However, Schumann allows us one wonderful anomaly, in the form of rising triplets:

Appearing from nowhere ... vanishing back into eighth notes ... the violinist stumbles on these triplets like an accident (accidents of meaning!). Which adds something to the world we have seen, blurs its boundary; we skid and recover.

The triplets outline the Neapolitan chord (look it up, music theory scaredycats!), which, as always, by harmonic law, brings us to the half-cadence (not again! yes again). So in a harmonic sense (pedantic, literal) they are just part of the inevitable, the usual, the inescapable. But a contradiction: the new rhythm, the new B-flat "color," if we allow ourselves some metaphor, or connotation, suggest some form of escape, either real or imagined.

Even the shape of the triplets colludes in this metaphor: rising from the lowest note of the melody ... reaching up ... this metaphor will reach us again, more profoundly.

8. A most extraordinary moment: the violin passes off the "melody" to the cello. The cello appears here as epiphany, as the melody that the violin could not achieve. It poses a putative answer to the question: what have we been looking for? The timbre of the cello, too, brings color to the preceding monochrome. The cellist's first notes, with their dotted rhythm--big event, rhythmic variety, disturbing the procession of eighth notes--appear to be a motto, a statement, a crystallization:

Yes, finally, something we can hold onto. But, in a bait and switch, the "real melody" has moved to the piano's left hand...

(Listen here.)

This movement of voices is a transformation of meaning: melody becomes ground. Impulsive recitative reaches to its contradiction and becomes deep harmonic foundation, a startling fusion of opposites. This at once is a very archaic idea (voice exchange, invertible counterpoint, etc.), and a kind of ultramodern Romantic transgression, the violation of the antithesis, the impossible, extravagant juxtaposition.

9. What you "do not know" is that the pianist has begun his left-hand melody on F. What it means, of course, is that by the end of the statement (by the law of the "theme") we will have to be in F; F is where we started, and that's we are headed, no matter what.

But Schumann has finessed and elided the transition from statement to statement so that F major nearly vanishes into the cracks. The cello (masterstroke) enters on E, dissonant against the foundational F in the piano's bass. (Compare this to the opening measures, where the violin simply, passively, enters within the A minor harmony supplied in the piano.) Aha, the cellist clearly doesn't want you to know; he is an accomplice, helping to disguise the entrance of the "melody," already murky in the bass of the piano, and to soften its key-defining function. I hear a lot of C major in here, though the key wobbles ...

So, though we must arrive at F, this imperative is disguised, concealed. And because of this disguise and its attendant mystery, the moment of F arrival (inevitable, unstoppable, but also in some senses unforeseen) is an astounding revelation, one of the most beautifully crafted modulations to my mind in all of music. The famous melody-non-melody runs its course in the piano's left hand, wends and wanders, and then--only at the last moments--appears fateful. At the cadence you slap your forehead and think, I knew it all along, or should have known; the obvious, unseen, perfect answer that comes to you ...

10. I nominate, additionally, for One of the Most Beautiful Notes Ever Written, this B-flat in the violin at this cadential moment, just on the brink before the "Bewegter."

(Listen here. B-flat comes at the end.)

And yet it is not much; you might almost call it Romantic cliché. Just the appearance of the seventh of the dominant seventh, in music theory speak. To me it appears impossibly pure and beautiful, out of nowhere, a visitation; I feel as though I have never really heard a dominant seventh before. How is this possible? Perhaps: the point of all that preceded it, the wandering and halting, the hovering around half cadences, the thoughts and rethoughts, the seemingly aimless harmonic motions: all a world from which we can emerge, look, shake off our fog and see the simplest harmony as beautiful again, as real. Schumann created all that darkness and enigma: just for one fresh vision, one newly born harmonic child.

11. I deeply, murderously, envy the violinist that B-flat. At least I'll concede that it wouldn't be so beautiful on the piano ("doink"); the violin can nuance it so it appears, from above or below, the deus ex machina that it is; I could only imagine it, play it "as if it were possible."

12. I am consoled that I get to play the little sixteenth-note triplets just before the violin's B-flat, which herald it. They are an extraordinary, associative hinge, part of an ongoing musical "subplot."

Remember our earlier triplets (see #7, above), the one anomaly/escape in the violin's opening ten bars? In the bars that follow, Schumann creates a gradual rhythmic drama, an evolving profusion, a brewing rhythmic revolt. After the cello's entrance more and more anomalies creep in, glimmers of escape propagate:

the dotted rhythm in 10:

then in bars 12 and 14, little unexpected 32nd note flourishes:

then in m. 15, the cello takes up the triplet idea (though it "belongs" rightly to the melody in the left hand of the piano):

and then, again, amazingly in the piano just before the F major "Bewegter," I play these triplets:

which then transform themselves into the embryo of the new radiant F major, now built entirely on triplets, and inspire the violin to further, tenderer versions, and the cello to call back with triplets again in echoing response etc. etc.:

How wonderful. Into the bleak eighthnote world, a gradual awakening of rhythm, of life ... And I get to play that lingering, hinging moment, the triplets "before the triplets," a magical harbinger, the small enchanted zone between different worlds. Imagine the piece as an antithesis: on the one side, in bar 7, the triplets amidst the eighth notes, barely knowing what "they are about," or even "why they exist." And by the "Bewegter" we have crossed over to the other side, the land of ecstatic triplets ... Gradually they understand, they dawn to their purpose ... Indulge me in one last metaphor. In the opening section, the triplets are a mere symbol, a cipher; they stand for something but what? (Where do they come from, why are they here?) By the middle section, the symbol is no accident; it is interpreted and released: the cipher is uncoded, and the symbol becomes reality (... the very movement of meaning ...)

13. The note I love in the violin, which ushers in the new section: B-flat. The "escape harmony" of the violin in its first phrase: the Neapolitan, built on B-flat as root. A coincidence that is no coincidence. These B-flats call to each other across the many measures that separate them.

14. Let's take a long view.

1) The opening violin melody searches.
2) The cello entrance appears to be an answer, but is not; it too disintegrates into possibilities.
3) Even at the F major "Bewegter" things appear still to be expectant, the movement is living ecstatically towards something ... and then ...
4) falls back into the same thing; the opening melody returns several times, each less energized than the last, everything falls back into familiar stasis...

... the overall arc of the movement (rising, becoming, falling, returning) thereby mirrors its smallest, defining gesture, the opening two measures, say, of the violin.

15. What I so often wish I could communicate with audiences through my playing is this active self-referential drama, in which the music addresses itself, tries to make itself into something, finds itself at risk of falling apart ... etc. etc. If you press play on the CD player and the music comes to you like water from a faucet, don't you feel there is something in the medium that takes something for granted, in which this sort of risk does not figure? Recorded risk seems like a bit of a contradiction. I find myself even in certain concerts listening that way, as though the music were just flowing on by, happening externally, like something I can dip my hands into or not; something which is "just music." After all, it's just music. You hear that in rehearsal sometimes when people are tired of talking about a passage, and I empathize without agreeing. Music can be admired and consumed in this way but not loved; you lose the element of music-about-music, the magic boundary where, like every human being or endeavor, it becomes self-aware, turns and reflects on itself.

16. This movement reflects on itself in so many ways, even for example in matters of genre. I imagine Schumann is channeling some late chorales of Beethoven, like the slow movement of the last Cello Sonata (Op. 102 #2)... but, even in emulation, this hymn is not satisfied with itself. It is provisionally hymnic but not a hymn. As a performer, I find myself torn between two opposed motivations or styles of playing: an inevitable procession of the notes (the "hymnic" style, perhaps even a "Classical" style) versus a wandering, hesitating approach (the "Romantic," the lost soul). The notes seem to suggest both. And only in the play of difference, in my own hesitation between these possibilities, do I feel I can finally realize something of the score's intent.

17. Grappling, the struggle to name ... to me Schumann is the genius who explored and basically invented in musical terms the struggle towards coherence or expression, and he is greater for having often "failed." Plainly, in many cases, his goal was failure. His most extraordinary phrases are not formed, but wish to form; he understands that when music passes from action to object already some of its charm is lost.

Beethoven adores his themes and motives for their functioning; for all his genius, he tends to fetishize what they may build or achieve. But Schumann loves precisely their dysfunction, what they cannot do, what they will never be able to do: their unreachable prospects.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Mighty Contests

NOTE: The following post, on which I have lavished an absurd amount of time that I could have spent practicing (yippee!!!!!), is dedicated to Norman Lebrecht, who accuses classical bloggers of peddling "unchecked trivia," and of writing material whose nutritional level "is lower than that of a bag of crisps." I refer Norman respectfully (!) to a certain Pope poem concerning trivialities, and I hope he enjoys the appearance of chips, if not crisps, in the following homage. It is also dedicated to my delightful colleagues and friends, protagonists of this poem, with whom I spent the last week playing mostly Schumann.

(If you really want to suffer, you can hear the author read the poem by clicking here.)

JB, SI, and I, O hungry we,
all dithered at a crossroads made of three,
we stood near 1st and C, SE, DC;
near 2 PM, on 12/15/06,
to which the year AD let us affix;
the clockhand lingered 'fore the sunny hour
and so we lingered 'fore an awesome pow'r,
our burden made of choice, our yoke of freedom...
Before us stood a toothsome tawdry threesome,
a trinity of restaurants, T-obsessed,
Tortilla Coast, then Talay Thai, and next,
the oddly named Bullfeathers, with its T
ensconced amidst the word, a chickadee
disguised in feathers of the alphabet,
yet singing all the same its quodlibet ...

Of all us three, it seemed as though JB
had made a meal of his dilemma; see!
he chews on choice like gristle in the mind
and, pacing, weighs each dining room in kind
and though th'initial burger-urge was strong,
and had propelled our trinity along,
the white and shining brick of Talay Thai
yet lured with citrus, spicy, yearning cry,
and Josh turned shining eyes unto the sky,
and chanted first "Pad Thai," then "Tom Ka Gai"!
I swear it's true! With this entrancing spell,
well laced with fish sauce, I divinely fell
among the pillows of some dream, in which
a goddess poured from coconuts a rich
and creamy fluid; noodles wrapped long hands
around my hungry stomach, in exotic lands.

BUT for the meantime, let us watch SI:
while normal DC residents pass by,
in furtive espionage he sneaks and slithers
and leers into the windows of Bullfeathers;
abandon I my creamy dream, and peer;
I turn from sun to darkened, recessed fear;
O what is seen within? Gadzooks, eftsoons,
We spy nefarious knives, and sinister spoons,
and forks which might yet fork the soul in twain
all posed on papered tables, like to feign
their innocence ... and when we further crane
our spying heads, the waiters do then train
their baleful glances on our lurking forms,
we do then flee before their waking storms.

Accelerando, ma non troppo, say,
the story's gone a tiny bit astray...

'Tis said, there is but one preconcert meal,
and thus a deep decision doth one feel,
how best to feed your Schumann of the eve:
too torpid to become, or hungry leave?
I tend to err, 'tis true, on massish ground,
th'amount consumed pre-gig doth oft astound...
but never have I seen such indecision,
such angst, as in this JB/SI vision...
Like foxes on the hunt do prowl and rove
from hill to hill, so J and S did move
from menu fast to menu, so to know
from written clues, the choice with which to go.
Like priests of food they wished to read in code
the concert's fate, the day's unfolding road.

And just as Schumann heard his angels sing,
and thought they boons of melody did bring,
I likewise heard a voice from far below,
which spoke perhaps in Latin?: "Roberto,"*
a kiva in my soul did open wide
I dream'd of chips, tortillas, all deep fried,
a man with weathered hands came forward slyly,
and proffered me a freshly roasted chile.**
And so to J and S I said the magic word,
which once was heard, all felt their palates stirred,
made eddies of deliberation still,
and ceased the swamplike doubts of Cap'tol Hill...
I sang out to the sunny air, "FAJITAS!
just think, my friends, how well grilled steak will treat us
and with a spicy salsa that will heat us
and though we can consume no margaritas,
let's bravely towards Tortilla Coast now speed us..
Oh J and S, let's live las dolces vitas!"

But fate did with our settled choices strive
to table now our trio did arrive,
and S observed a burger on the menu!
Imagine if you can, oh reader, can you?:
J's eyes, a madly flitting swarm of bees
flew back and forth betwixt satieties;
a BURGER here, FAJITAS there, how best
a yawning gastric void addressed?
S too, across the anxious table, puzzled
while to his heart the twofold options nuzzled
so fickly, one by one, as though a youth
beset 'tween ladies fair, and I, forsooth,
no longer calm amidst such stormy seas,
I tabulated my psychiatrist fees.

A waitress came, explaining "Salsa Ranch,"
said dressing's explanation did not stanch
the flow of stress, my colleagues' searing question,
the road whose either fork means indigestion...
Ignoring these obsessing twain, I made
a munching sacrifice of chips, and prayed
that this, my off'ring to my hunger god,
might for my tablemates yet serve and prod
to find some philosophic resignation,
to seek at very least some mild sedation.
When Bedlam's nurses leave and no one's there
to watch their vices, madmen cease to care;
so S and J did seem like men of reason
but when the waitress left, 'twas open season:
the hunt for what to order was resumed,
th'excruciating question was exhumed,
and my descent to madness was presumed.
The burger's pros and cons were weighed and listed;
But meanwhile the fajita's charms persisted.

Our waitress-nymph then sallied tableside
and smiling at us asked: did we decide?
Now S with flailing confidence proclaimed
the Lone Star burger was his choice (so-named),
while J with vocal quaver did then state
that he would eat fajitas on that date ...
and sane men, then, would think the stresses over,
but they'd be wrong, since much like jilted lovers,
the twain now felt the demon Envy stealing
and like the fats they'd soon both eat, congealing,
in both there formed a deep regretful clot:
Each lusted for what he had ordered not.
Now J like Orpheus sings to melt the sun,
bewails the loss of burger, fries, and bun;
and S, he keens as though among the lepers,
he cries, he longs, he seeks his lost grilled peppers.
And I the fly entrapped in web of woe
want nothing but to eat and go.

But as from deepest darkest vale of pain
the Phoenix rises into life again,
so now amongst a warm and melting dollop
of sour cream, belike the sweetest trollop
in soft caress and tender graces giv'n,
we darkened souls did find our private heaven
in warm and sundry plates which laid before us
gave spirit thence, and with their taste restore us,
be-wrappéd steak which yielded to the tongue,
and guacamole-burgers can be sung,
for each and each found pleasure in his own,
and seeds of sweetest hotel naps were sown;
the gentlest settling wings of satisfaction
in time dispelled the former putrefaction,
for all the waiting woe of choice did fade
as slowly smiles were on each face displayed.
While walking back to waiting beds we three
gave thanks for our returned humanity.

*The author is clearly confused, and so are most scholars on this point. "Roberto" is not a Latin oath, but the owner of a Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces, New Mexico, famed for its delicious and inexpensive green chile and meat burritos.
**The author is clearly unaware of the proper pronunciation of the word chile, judging from the ungraceful rhyme.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


I wake up in a hotel room with its shades drawn. Where am I? The only sound is the laboring vent, blowing way too much heat; when I move, I am a match, I strike static sparks. Sad Indiana fibers. From the gray glow around the shades, there is no way to know what time it is, time of day, and I am somewhat in doubt even of time of life ... I can turn on the TV and escape into that selfless screen but instead I watch my own mind and when I figure out where I am and why the weirdness only deepens.

I'm in a bar, drinking Long Island Iced Teas, college drinks, and eating jalapeño poppers, following forgotten ritual. The current Jeremy looks on with bemused rolling knowing eyes, as if to say "what are you thinking, you idiot?" and "call me when you're done, when you're ready to move on." The Jeremy that is drinking the drink is nobody, is unlocatable. College Jeremy is there as a consultant, insinuating the refuge of memory, traced from this same spot some ten years ago: stumbling back in the dark over broken sidewalks to a white crumbling house, playing incoherent ping-pong on a frozen porch, passing out on the living room floor, in the middle of a conversation about Expressionism and the Simpsons. Current J, bored with this often-watched movie, goes to to his/my overheated hotel room, wonders, am I, are you, a student, a teacher, an apprentice, an adult, an artist, a free agent, a question mark?

I'm walking down Kirkwood Street and the string of pieces I have played over the last month comes to mind, but in the form of names. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Liszt: pompous referents, to be carved in Indiana limestone. All the stress and seriousness of those preparations is suddenly seen as a lump in the past, and there is no purpose in the past, only in what you mean to do, are doing at that moment. At the moment I am carrying coffee through the gray cold day, which seems like very little to be doing. The coffee is cold. The music itself is unlocatable, at that moment; what, then, is the purpose of all I have done?

I am in a dark cab. An orange low moon on my right, the city skyscape on my left, we whir along the Triboro bridge, in the curved barricaded cab, there, again, I'm feeling a prisoner in its lumpy bumpy back seat. Periodic potholes, and my laptop flies all over my lap. The person whom I would like to tell about this experience, which is nothing, is nowhere; I lift my cell phone but haven't the heart. The History Channel billboard as always stares across the toll plaza. We curve around a ramp onto the FDR and there is the same jostling of lanes, the same contracting, expanding galaxy of brakelights. Same same self, same same ritual, but I'm a bit confused, I guess, not to find myself there in the same moving place.

I am walking out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall and find myself in the geometric center of everything, at the crux and focal point of both the orchestra and the audience and staring at the arrayed symmetry. Everybody's eyes crossing the space diagonally, in every direction. There is just the piece, that's all. I have to find it, that evanescent miracle of notes and thought, that culminating encapsulating text of human history, at that very moment, at 8:32 pm, on that bench, at that very place; that is, after all, the job. It is there, I am radiating it out, but while I am playing it, does it stick to me? Only a few moments later, it seems to be done, I am on and off stage at once ... the moment flickers, flares like a match. Only afterwards in the eyes of a friend, only then time becomes event, the flow circles, centers around itself, the piece comes back into view, and those eyes hold me in place long enough to know who I am.