Monday, May 28, 2007

Changes, Transformations

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment."

So says stodgy old Ralph Emerson, muse of Proust and Charles Ives. And, so, I IMPLORE all readers of Think Denk, wonderfully, ENTHUSIASTICALLY, to abandon blogspot, and send your browsers cruisin for the new site:

(still of course called Think Denk)

It has a new look, obviously, and the idea is for it to be more readable!!! Constructive suggestions are extremely welcome. You can also visit my homepage, if you want to see pictures of me with pizza, and self-congratulatory reviews, etc. etc. Also, my complete summer schedule has been posted, very official-like, for you whiners and complainers out there who wanted that. And, a couple little MP3s can be heard. So there!

There is a neato search thingy, and also, if you click on "Older," you won't get older any faster, but a little slider will come up with which you can kind of randomly dip back into the archives. So you can revisit the past, which may even make you feel younger?

OK, so you can see on my schedule that I'm pretty much )(*&@Q#$ed for the rest of the summer, so I better get back to practicing my "Concord" Sonata, yikes.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Oh, Newt! ... and, Why Classical Music Is So Boring, Episode 3,423

[PARENTAL WARNING: this post is extremely unreadable until paragraph 5 or so. It may be occasionally unreadable after that. You can't say I didn't warn you.]

So, Newt Gingrich has written a novel:

James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.

—Gingrich/Forstchen, Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8

Bravissimo. As I struggled to swallow this sentence, which felt suspiciously like a day-old dish, swerving through clausular inanities towards my unshowered cortex, I realized, due to the direction of the piano bench, oblique, while pointing my disheveled eyes at my bookshelves, with the added realization, but darn good piles of cookbooks to be found, squeezed next to Ulysses in company with Kafka, it was not too far a stretch to leap from Newt’s sentence to this one:
Then as she is on her behaviorite job of quainance bandy, fruting for firstlings and taking her tithe, we may take our review of the two mounds to see nothing of the himples here as at elsewhere, by sixes and sevens, like so many heegills and collines, sitton aroont, scentbreeched and somepotreek, in their swishawish satins and their taffetaffe tights, playing Wharton’s Folly, at a treepurty on the planko in the purk.

Wow! I rejoyced to see the simil-Eire-ities.

But I think Finnegans Wake still makes more sense. Which should be exciting for Newt; he is more avant-garde, more pomo, more staggeringly innovative than he ever imagined.

Moving on. I had some family in Houston for my concerts, and relative X apparently asked after the concert, “Why is everything so long?” Oh, lovable family. Broadsided by the question, sprayed like Diesel jeans in the acid wash of the real, of the ungeeky, coming to grips with my irrelevance, I lay awake, fingering Pringles and other morsels from the minibar at 2 am in the humid darkness, asking myself, indeed, why IS Sibelius 2nd Symphony so long? C-SPAN was no comfort; even HBO, solace of so many hotel hours, left me high and dry.

The so-called silly query hung in the air, cheekily profound. One after the other, the plain Pringles crunched into their new forms of existence, seeking reincarnation as a stomach ache in the morning. The piece is as long as it is, I thought. Would you ask why Spiderman 3 is so long? Yes, actually, you might. In fact, the length of movies (the true genre of our times, along with the pop song, the advertisement, the billboard, the reality TV show, the Starbucks paper cup) is always up for debate, and the editing room is much valued, even fetishized. But no! … in the classical world, things are as long as they are, dammit, and that’s just that. Sit back and take it.

Theoretically, the classical music “demographic,” being somewhat elderly, has less time on its hands, and yet is drawn mysteriously to the long-breathed, time-sucking works of our great canon. While youths in full flower, with the decades of their lives spread out before them like Cheez Product on Movie Nachos, or like Hijinks in a Sitcom SubPlot, mainly confine themselves to the 4 minute musical experience: they will not waste their bounty.

Relative X rephrased her question, something like, “why do they play for a long time, and then just everybody sits quietly for a little bit, and then they play again?”

Again, the questions, the obvious questions. I adopted a reasonable tone of voice, sipped heavily on my martini, began to explain: “well the parts of the piece are called movements, and they’re sort of like chapters of a book, you see …” and as I found myself giving this tedious little lecture, a little mocking voice in my head said bowel movements, bowel movements and I was unable to continue … I looked around the table uneasily; I had slipped and fallen on a ellipsis, as so often on Think Denk (how self-referential!); where was the entree?; why was everyone staring at me? It seemed to me the very words I had to use to describe classical music were against me. A mountain of jargon loomed in a booth across the bar, laughing.

Well, I’ve had it with this state of affairs. I’m done mourning over chips and other snack foods.

Some mornings, I have to tell you, I wake up and I really don’t even like the word “Sonata,” it looks at me across the piano keys like a stranger. Why on earth, I ask myself, am I playing a "Sonata"? Don’t get me wrong, I love the sonatas themselves, just not the titles. (I also can become very uncharitable towards the sort of hip names that composers these days give their pieces, like “Fractalization Doping,” or “Nascar Deconstruction,” etc. etc.) But here, why not replace so many of the words we normally use with other words, start fresh with an uncorrupted, unknown vocabulary … ?

I have, just for a starting experiment, taken a passage from Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, replacing fuddyduddy terms with fresh, deck chatter. See if you don’t feel it is improved:

This snarky E is, of course, the pre of the pre: its very nature implies the traditional first dressingroom almost by definition. Accordingly in cop 18, E is established as the deck of a crossfire using (a); and then in cop 23, after decorated forms of (a), it is established as the coaster. It is interesting to note the ‘is-enough trannies, and to see at how many levels the E is made prominent. The zing now has such force that it no longer demands rubdown, but can itself be used to rub. To bring out this force, an F-natural is set up against it with a shoutout repeated four times under (a) in cops 26-29, an F-natural that also serves to prepare the splendid surprise chipper on an F-jor rowr postjaws at cop 38. This F is now earlgreyin for six cops (cops 39-44) with all the penguins’ power Haydn’s Imhotep can manage, using the opening meme (a): cops 38 to 47 are essentially an inner expansion—a withholding of the chipper at cop 37. A new whatev’, square and decisive, is finally introduced in cop 48 to renovate the real estate. To appreciate the full mastery of this pose, we must rock it with the trackback. When the opening meme returns it has an entirely different sense: it is now a dressingroom from the pre back to the post.

Whoever can reconstruct the original (without recourse, of course, to the Rosen text) gets some sort of dubious award. The sentence in bold translates as "To appreciate the full mastery of the exposition, we must play the repeat."

By the way, yes, I’m (trying to) read Finnegans Wake. Sigh. How could you tell? Yes, that’s pretentious. But is it, I ask you, as pretentious as invoking hipster terminology to vanquish the haunting Pringles of my lost adolescence?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Regrettable Zeitgeist?

Here at Think Denk, we try to keep abreast and astride and athwart of all the most meaningful, semiotically capacious internet trends. Woe betide the blogger who heeds not the flittering flutter of the zeitgeist! I have had my attention drawn, lately, to a certain captioning, captivating phenomenon: it goes by the mysterious name of "LOL cats." It fuses the concision of Webern and the haiku with the immediacy of the image and relies heavily upon the magnificent erosion of usage that is the lifeblood of language.

You can read about it here at Slate, or else go directly to the source.

Which led (of course, regrettably, inevitably) to:

and perhaps I can include the contribution of a fellow admirer of LOLcats,

Clearly these are humble beginnings. I await, tenterhooked, the contributions of the wider classical blogosphere.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day 8 (just kidding, sort of)

For a different take on the Allemande (and ensuing movements), I have long been neglecting to link to the good people at Houston Public Radio, who had me on their program... I begin playing at 8 and a half minutes in. Otherwise, I simply babble away, it seems.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Day 7: Microphone Where My Mouth Is

"I'm speechless," I said to friend B.

"Finally," he replied.

So: here's the Allemande as it seemed to me today, my birthday, at 2:45 pm. It is recorded in the legendary studios of the Greystone Hotel. A couple twangy notes (no, really, I did get the piano tuned) and the ineffably poignant call of a police car are included, free of charge.

[Click to play.]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Day 6: In Which I Lose My Mind

It was late. A steaming, congealing plate of nachos had just emerged from my microwave oven and my esophagus steadied itself for yet another ill-advised insertion. On the windowsill, my score of the Allemande stood, begrimed, bravely withstanding my strung-out glances, surrounded by poignant, desiccated remainders of Vietnamese takeout. Skeletons of spring rolls, mummies of dumplings, dark phantoms of prawns. Ah, some people really knew how to live; if only I were one of them! Outside, in the breeze beyond Bach, taxis honked, buses squeaked and squealed, and distant domestic disputes were carried, reverberant and miffy, down invisible Amsterdam Avenue; then, all was quiet. I heard only my keyboard clicking, seemingly of its own volition, googling scraps of my subconscious while I sat helpless in a salsa stupor. Day 6, day 6.

And then, I found myself staring at these words on my computer screen, program notes for some Bach Society:

[The D major Partita Allemande:] Typical of all allemandes, this one begins with a short upbeat. It is written in 4/4 time, and makes frequent use of scalar figures …

... riveted, I read on ...
Harmonically, this allemande is relatively straightforward, set clearly in D major, with the goal of the first half being the establishment of A major, the dominant key. The second half returns after a fashion to the tonic key. Nonetheless, Bach includes a few more colorful chords periodically either to help promote the progress towards the new tonal goal, or simply for variety.

Friend M, the other day, theorized, through motion, what might happen if a Roomba were ever allowed to function within the geometrical confines of my apartment. His pantomime involved a number of spastic jerks, rampant confusion, finally perhaps a shiver of rage, and, inevitably, an explosion. It’s exactly how I behaved upon reading this passage on my computer, which is why I should never ever be allowed to read program notes. My dutifully crafted nachos were forgotten; I glowered, expostulated, seethed, leapt from my chair sending takeout containers flying into dusty corners, where they remain.

My friends tell me I just take it all too personally. They’re just program notes! But really: “this allemande is relatively straightforward”? Are you KIDDING me? In what zoned-out crazy harmony land is this allemande straightforward? And then I bet Bach would have loved the bit where he returns “after a fashion” to the tonic key ... (you try returning to the tonic better than that, buddy! he would say, brandishing a heavy foamy stein, cussing all the way home on cobbled streets to indulge in activities leading to child #14) and if this program-note writer is to be believed, we are to imagine Bach there throwing in unusual harmonies, just for kicks and giggles, just to spice up life a bit, in the same way that I might decide to get a Mr. Pibb on the plane instead of my usual Ginger Ale.

But perhaps my least favorite sentence of all: "the goal of the first half is to establish the dominant." Oh yes? That’s the goal of the first half? Behind this sentence hides a terrible rhetorical monster, through which so often classical works become like patients on the operating table; doctors observe their symptoms, nod sagely, do more tests, come back with answers. But luckily every so often the patient sneaks out of the institution we are keeping him in, breaks through a window or sneaks out a back door, and heedless of his hospital gown, moons the wide world.

I hate seeing this Allemande (I almost wrote “my” Allemande) treated like one of the patients. What draws me to this Allemande is, in a way, how little sense it makes, how undiagnosable it is. As an Allemande, indeed, it has issues, you could even pronounce it "irregular" or a bit "bizarre," but its illnesses are only to be celebrated.

We are familiar with Debussy wanting to forgo the "musical mathematics" and declaring "pleasure is the law," i.e. separating sound from function ... but Bach too, though in love with function and perhaps its greatest practitioner, is also simply a lover of sound, sounds. Each day a different cluster of pitches in this Allemande draws my gaze, seems like the hidden beauty I had been missing all my life; each day I find a different one (even if it's the same.) Without those changing wows, I would not have been drawn to this obsessive blogging maneuver, which has weirdly brought my brain to the threshhold of the place where I think the Allemande lives, somewhere just on the edge ...

But to regain my senses, and to erase those program notes from the brain, perhaps this passage of Nabokov will suffice:

In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles--no matter the imminent peril--these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Day 5: One Plus One

An Allemande has two halves. There is something about this "two-halviness" that I think often gets forgotten, or taken for granted.

For me the following image is useful: suppose the first half of the dance is a drawing. Now for the second half, imagine Bach putting a piece of tracing paper over the first drawing … and retracing it, but not exactly, and then pausing and removing an arm from the original drawing and putting in another face, or part of a totally different drawing … In other words, he is passing over the ideas of the first half, but the translation is free, the words are affected, refracted, changed. The image of tracing paper is compelling to me, because it partly veils the original, the veil of the past.

Studious analysts, we can go through and chart all the alterations, note the composer’s developmental handiwork (here’s x, and here’s y, and they are reordered, etc. etc.) …

1st half A B C D E F G H I
2nd half A B C E J !!! a bit of F D K G H I (L) I

Whoa … that is one screwed-up anagram … but after you catalog all the changes, and reorderings, you are left with just this disheartening data and you may find yourself wondering what is it all for?

It is the already-heard-ness of it that is amazing… and perhaps often ignored ...

In the second half, we are not visiting, but revisiting; we are haunted by a continuous deja-vu; everything same, but different; it is as if our steps (our “dance steps”) are compelled by some force, some previous outline; we are puppets, dancing in our own footsteps … In the interaction between the present moment/will and the memories/imperatives of the past, there is a tension, a drag … so not only is there the drag between the notes as written on the page, in measure x or y, but there is the drag between those notes and their preceding paradigms, how x and y seemed to us before … a pull of meaning in two dimensions.

The power of 2 then: the text and the reread text, a thing and its reflection. Again Roland Barthes:
…rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality: rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology (“this happens before or after that”) and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after); it contests the claim which would have us believe that the first reading is a primary, naïve, phenomenal reading which we will only, afterwards, have to “explicate,” to intellectualize (as if there were a beginning of reading, as if everything were not already read …); rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return of the different). If then … we immediately reread the text, it is in order to obtain, as though under the effect of a drug, not the real text, but a plural text: the same and new.

The second half of the Allemande is rereading, is play; that play which is the return of the different… I would like to observe 3 things about this rereading …

Thing 1: the second half of this Allemande is “darker” than the first. There are longer, more painful, sustained minor key passages. I have found myself imagining, fancifully, that the first half is the day and the second half is the same thing seen at night.

Thing 2: This darkness does not obscure; it provides new visions too. Most prominently, Bach inserts a totally new passage…a passage dwelling on the Neapolitan of b minor:

And the question is why? Why did this passage need to be added, when the dance was reread? What does this dark diversion do? It leads to a cadence in b minor … really the only full, internal cadence, the strongest punctuation within either half …

(a division in the night)

Impasse. Closure. we have reached something fatal to the chain which is a cadence, a dangerous entity within the continuous river of the Allemande. Bach creates puzzles and dangers that he must then solve. What is the answer? well: here it is:

Look at it! It’s neutral, simple; the syncopations are gone; the changes of rhythm gone; strip all that away and what do you get? Just a beautiful passing chain of 16th notes (like any other Allemande). Three bars of this, three bars, three harmonies…

If the second half is the night, then these three bars are some quiet strange hour around 2 or 3 AM, some perfectly still moment when harmonies come out from behind their clouds, strip off their usual melodic clothes, and stand before you, naked … an island of stillness, before and after events (after the b minor cadence, but before the final working out) but comprising no events in themselves. Three harmonies, heard, almost pure sound, only reluctantly passing from sound into meaning:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only

These three bars are, I believe, a rehearing of the bar I cited in yesterday’s post, the bar where I claimed I felt that the various voices were “in love.” Here, now, lovers are, love is asleep … and what took one bar to do in the first half--to emerge, to resume--now takes three ...

Finally: Thing 3, my last thought about the rereading. The first half ends this way:

and the second half then, some 31 bars later, appears to be poised to end in more or less the same way:

and it would, except Bach inserts this:

This act of addition, this last stretching … don’t you see, it’s one last tracing (retracing, rereading) of the opening up-stretch of the melody, one last radiating 9th chord?

And that G# in the middle, a new “blue note,” a last little beautiful mishap?

So Bach is just delicately glancing on all the ideas he has crossed ... Sometimes I would like to scream out, like a crazed Bach preacher, to the audience at this point that this is EXTRA, that Bach ADDED it, don’t you hear what I’m talking about?!!?, that this addition is not mere insertion, is no diversion, that this is one last precious, priceless seized moment, delaying the end of the river, the end of this unbelievably beautiful time we have shared, like the last moments of a day when you are refusing to say goodbye to your dearest dearest friend …

… except of course this explanation would ruin everything.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day 4: A River Runs Through It

In many Romantic lieder, the pianist is the river, while the singer is the melody above: the person addressing the river, throwing themselves in the river, or participating in other river-related mishaps. I’m down there burbling or babbling or sometimes even burping (if I’ve had enough to eat just before the concert), and the singer of course gets to be all emotional and crap like that.

The pattern works; it separates the texture (here’s the melody everybody! and here’s the accompaniment! follow the bouncing ball!); it makes for easy listening of a sort; and later Romantics can be forgiven (perhaps?) for simply having no imagination except to do the same, but more and more and more. By Rachmaninoff, for instance, it has to be torrents and torrents of river in the piano and the melodies generally need to be pretty intense too just to be heard over his gushing faucets. (At the beginning of the 2nd concerto, the pianist is the river, at the beginning of the third, briefly, the orchestra is the river, etc.) I like to think of these Romantic rivers always being situated in really dramatic but cheesy locales with savage drops and rocks and flowers and sea lions (?) and of course all these notes cost me countless hours of my life, putting in stupid fingerings so I won’t be splatting all over the place (but I’m not bitter at all about that). Audiences seem to get a big kick out of these vast numbers of notes, and sometimes I enjoy them too.

[If you’ll indulge me …]

The Allemande of the D major Partita is a river, too. I totally feel the line of the whole thing, like something I could never fit in my hand or in my mind, with a maddening lack of boundaries, but I know it’s a line, a stream, and it can be followed. In its sinuousness, it wants to be followed, navigated.

To be super factual and comparative! … the D major Allemande is unique among the Partita Allemandes (and perhaps Bach Allemandes in general) in its rhythmic treatment. The B-flat Allemande is a continuous stream of 16th notes … the C minor Allemande also … the A minor is more ornate but still duplish, with little dotted rhythms and flourishes of 32nd notes … I could bore you with more … but here in the D major, various “incompatible” rhythmic elements are coexisting, rubbing against each other. Even mid-phrase, the melody drifts from 2s into 3s, from one groove to another … it is one stoned tune! Sometimes I have the sense that, for Bach, something is going “too easily,” and then triplets have to intervene, creating drag, braking, and then too this drag must be released into florid 32nd notes: in other words, the melody is tractable, willing to shift its own flow, malleable, reasonable if not rational.

In the spirit of carpe diem, I’d like to take this juncture in the post to really get down and funky with one of the most boring terms in classical music: style brisé. What is it? There is no article in Wikipedia (leaving me helpless); the term comes back to me mainly, hauntingly, from music history class, and yet even in notes from my wonderful music history professor, there seems to be some sort of helpless flailing around meaning, a sort of you-know-it-when-you-see-it-ness.

It’s an arpeggiated style (whatever that means). It’s a French thing (ha). It means “broken style” and (here is the point?) it’s this sort of constant interlacing, crossing of the voices. Clarity and simultaneity are not its virtues or desires. Broken style is broken up like ground beef in a pasta sauce. It does not like to settle down a chord, chunk! It likes to let chords unfold in time, in facets, details … but you see, it’s not at all like Rachmaninoff in that way (those arpeggiated passages are mainly written out simultaneities, sort of time-fillers, ways to make the chord “last longer”) … here the arpeggiations are all melodic, or close enough … and somehow Bach is “all up in” the idea of the Allemande, its kind of raison d’etre which is: through constant interweaving of different ideas and textures, to create a kind of evasive, sinuous, non-repetitive flow.

As a corollary, Bach is not too stern with his voices. There’s kind of a live-let-live vibe going on. if they feel like hanging around for a while on one note, they do; and if they feel like they have something to say, they do, or if they have to move, etc. etc., and there seems to be little hierarchical angst or attitude. Unlike in fugues or fugatos, there is no sense of “order” of entrance, of strictly staggered schemes; stuff happens. Yes, in the D major Allemande the top voice is a diva, but one unusually receptive to all sorts of suggestions from below, which is good, because those other voices have such spectacularly beautiful things to say; they relate to the top voice subtly, not overtly, like friends who know exactly what to say in a heart-to-heart. This all goes with my contention that this Allemande is somehow not something that happens, but an enchaining of happenings, or the way something happens (to quote Charles Ives): a sequence of things that cannot be untangled from the other; the voices are not separable, the rhythms are not separable, all is subject to drift and fusion.

Along these lines, I have a favorite spot in the piece:

There is a lot of “crossfire” in these two measures, many interactions, twists and turns; it is a kind of strange juncture, almost a “breakage,” but particularly in the second measure, I feel such a sweet amity between the voices, I really really do. The concords they reach are so touching. The (3 or maybe 4) voices seem at this and similar moments—if this does not strike you readers of Think Denk as ridiculous—to love each other. (Or to show us humans what love might be.) Though, it is true, the bassline “does a naughty” by cadencing deceptively on the downbeat of measure 18 (E should go to A, not F#, right???) the naughtiness is quite felicitous (aka awesome) and the rest of the voices don’t seem to mind; they even celebrate their deep sibling’s flight of fancy, each contributing in the course of the measure, helping, agreeing, moving things along, passing the current through, up, around whatever obstacles any of them might have thrown in the way.

This river’s not going express; nor does it feel like a local. It’s able to smell the roses but it does not let stoppages become static. And therefore it can break itself constantly into fragments, disperse, and then again, again, it seems to refashion itself on the rebound into a radiant whole.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Day 3: Love Meets Livestock (G-rated)

My favorite scene in Don Quixote: Sancho is telling a story to calm himself and his delusional master. It’s about a goatherd, Lope, who’s in love with a shepherdess:
… Torralba, the shepherdess, who was a stout girl, and wild, and a little mannish because she had something of a mustache…

But eventually, despite this sizzling babe-itude, he gets over her, and decides (reasonably) to skip town, in order never to see her again. And at that moment:
when she found herself rejected … [she] began to love him dearly, though she had never loved him before.

Whereupon, Don Quixote offers his magnificent wisdom:
That is the nature of women … They reject the man who loves them and love the man who despises them.

… this sage cliché offered up by a man, one feels, who has never ever gotten laid. The layers of irony, absurdity, oh, and yet the familiarity: how many times have I, too, pronounced confidently and yet vacuously on topics I barely understood? A million humiliating moments from my life suddenly flash before my eyes, and I am willing to own up to them. I am sitting at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana with various drunken Sanchos or Dons, telling wandering stories and drawing conclusions from them that I have simply ladled up from the giant well of things I have already heard said by people who also don’t know anything.

Anyway … resuming the story: the goatherd is fleeing town with his goats (naturally) and Torralba is running, wildeyed, after him. He comes to a river. And with this, subtly, brilliantly, the poetry and emotion of the story get mired in the practicality of goat transport. Lope has exactly 300 of them, we come to learn, and we find ourselves discussing the size of the ferry boat, the muddiness of the riverbanks, etc. etc. … Meanwhile Torralba looms, ever closer, the baleful Lover, trying desperately to remind us of the “point of the story,” which narrator Sancho blissfully ignores, though he requests that Don Quixote count the goats as they get ferried across.

Now suppose you are the Don. Sancho’s request is really a violation of his listener’s rights. If you are hearing a Mahler symphony, you do not file away your reactions in color-coded folders (do you?). And anyway! If anyone should be counting the goats, it’s the storyteller, right? … cause he’s the one in charge of making sure the story “makes sense.” Accounting concerns and the joys of narrative are smashed in a trainwreck of genre and function. The Don (reasonably?) ignores his request, with this result:

”How many have gone across so far?” asked Sancho.

“How the devil should I know?” responded Don Quixote.

“That’s just what I told your grace to do: to keep a good count. Well, by God, the story’s over, and there’s no way to go on.”

“How can that be?” responded Don Quixote. “Is it so essential to the story to know the exact number of goats …?”

“… as soon as I asked your grace to tell me how many goats had crossed, and you said you didn’t know, at that very moment I forgot everything I had left to say, and, by my faith, it was very interesting and pleasing.”

I LOVE how Sancho rubs it in at the end! Bravo! Fantasy meets the humdrum counting of reality and neither gives ground.

The way this story undermines itself is fantastic, and you realize that this story of the disintegration of the story is far more entertaining than the actual story would have been. What would have awaited Lope on the far riverbank, with his three hundred goats? Perhaps a trip to the feed store? Who wants to know? Lope and Torralba vanish into thin air, and good riddance.

In Balzac’s short story Sarrasine, a man agrees to tell his mistress the story of a mysterious stranger, in exchange for sex. But as he tells the story, his mistress is horrified by it, and when the story is over—Catch-22!—she refuses to sleep with its teller. So speaks Roland Barthes:
Caught in his own trap, the lover is rebuffed: a story about castration is not told with impunity. This fable teaches us that narration (object) modifies narration (action) … there is no question of an utterance on the one hand and on the other its uttering …
Sarrasine is not a “story about a castrato” … as meaning, the subject of the story harbors a recurrent force which reacts on language and demystifies, ravages the innocence of its utterance: what is told is the “telling.” Ultimately, the narrative has no object: the narrative concerns only itself: the narrative tells itself.

I began to write a post about the Allemande of the D major Partita ... and it seems I have now written a post about Don Quixote. Let’s see.

Yesterday I told a story about the Allemande; it went something like “the Allemande is about the appearance of blue notes;” the day before it was “the Allemande is about the wonderful extension of triads into seventh and ninth chords;” and if you had to ask me, what do I do when I practice?, it seems to me that much of what I do is tell stories to myself. Not stories like: I’m in love, but X doesn’t love me; or, I’m happy now but life is short; I tell those stories, tediously, to my friends over drinks or on the phone; no, none of that crap (though occasionally these things help to set an atmosphere). No: musical stories that have to do with notes, configurations of notes, relationships of notes … things that often seem on the written page a bit like technicalities, like counting goats.

But the music keeps reneging on the bargain, either, like Balzac’s listener, horrified by the story I have told, or like Sancho, presenting another tale mysteriously in place of the compelling one I was following. The Allemandes particularly love to wend, and wander. They are stories that are not hung up on themselves as stories, or on one storyline.

Near the end of each half, the D major Allemande oddly coalesces, becomes patterned:

It is very beautiful, rising, hopeful, not so clouded as the rest; and further more, the sequence is simpler, easier to see and count! One counts, 1, 2, 3, 4…

and then the pattern stops (so close to the end!), something new, minor-key, more halting, harder to grasp, takes over …

If you are a super good listener, you realize that you can be counting bass notes, now, descending, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (the narrative has shifted) …

And then that pattern too ends … and at that impasse it’s as if Bach asks “how many?” and the listener is frustrated, perhaps; doesn’t know between the two very different stories which to follow, which is “the story;” you are entranced, stunned, in the middle of many different accountings, or maybe you’ve simply lost track, and you say “How the devil should I know?” or “isn’t that your job, JS, to hold this whole thing together?” … and the composer stares back at you the performer or the listener too, says no it’s your job, and at that moment, of course, the story ends:

I don’t think of this movement as funny at all, of course; and yet there is some redemptive touch of the comic in here, something touchingly bizarre, hunched on the edge of the impossible, or the unworkable …as if Bach has to ferry all 300 goats across in a one-seater, and manages … One more dissonance (one more storyline) is piled on, like the last fateful piece of bologna on a massive teetering Dagwood sandwich, and yet the cadence still arrives. What was it all about, lovers or goats, major or minor, beauty or distortion? You cannot decide. In your perplexity, you have been drawn into the story; you are one of the characters, whether you like it or not.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Day 2: Case of the Blues

It is rare, and delightful, when The Onion provides something themed perfectly for Think Denk; today is one of those magical, blessed days. All hail The Onion! (And also, the onion, a marvellous vegetable which was even used to pay rent in the Middle Ages.)

I was really bored one midmorning in Houston, at my hotel, with weekend downtown emptiness like a raging tornado of nothing around me, and I decided to count the “blue notes” in the Allemande of the 4th Partita. I assert there are 15, more or less! Here are the ones in the first half:

Since my expertise in the blues is mainly limited to my Nina Simone album, the Onion article cited above, and occasional regrettable late evenings in Chicago in which many cigarettes were pretended to be smoked by me causing me to cough all my Caucasian pseudo-misery onto gentrified sidewalks, I had to do some scholarly research on Wikipedia:
In jazz and blues, blue notes are notes sung or played at a lower pitch than those of the major scale for expressive purposes. Typically the alteration is a semitone or less, but this varies among performers. The blue notes correspond approximately to the flattened third, flattened fifth, and flattened seventh scale degrees …

AHA! Though there was surprisingly no mention of Bach in the “blue note” article, nonetheless I felt triumphantly vindicated, and massaged my eyebrows pretentiously. All of the blue notes I found in the Allemande are flatted thirds, fifths, or sevenths, so there, and you nosy theorists who think I’m taking the term ridiculously out of context can just go (*&)*#@$&(*).

Bach sets us up in the “color” of D major, a beautifully voiced, lyrical D major—luminous, tender, warm—something which in no way augurs the blues; but then he begins to scatter little dark stars in his constellation. Why?

The first one that really really gets me is the A-sharp which sneaks in at the end of bar 5 (a flatted third). It appears (sour, bittersweet?) and then quickly seems to resolve itself away.

But clearly, this resolution is not “enough;” there is something left to deal with, because this little A#-event sets off a sweeping melodic figure (which I discussed yesterday) …

On the one hand, the blue note (folding inward, vanishing); on the other this gesture (leaping upward, overspanning); do these two events “follow,” do they make sense?

Blue Note … Lyrical Outpouring
Sadness … Gesture of Release

Perhaps they do follow, but not as balancing acts: there is no symmetry there, no “exchange value,” just a strange, instinctive call-and-response. The blue notes are charged with meaning, meaning that cannot always be addressed simply, or purely “musically,” and at every step they raise new complications, new considerations …

The Allemande’s amazing blueness occurs not because just one or two of these incidents happen, but that they keep happening, and they begin to resonate off each other; they accumulate, echo, create a second “text” overlapping the first, seeming to contradict it. That first A# is a warning, a seed. It engenders, as I have said, a family of “dissonant” appearances. And then, all the blue notes in the second half are recollections, reminiscences of the ones in the first half: that is, recollected transgressions, like mistakes that you’ve made, and choose to repeat. With the various blue notes circled in my score, it looks like some sort of weird code hidden in the page; I imagine each note as I play as a sort of “bump in the road,” and then there is a strange topography to the whole experience, like passing your hands over Bach’s blue braille.

At the risk of trivialization, let’s imagine Bach at the Blue Note at 2 am, letting it all hang out baby, thinking freeform. Empty whiskey glasses are strewn around the harpsichord bench, smoke curls in the air, the smoke of the minor key … the haze, the blurring of thought … the in-between, in-the-cracks notes, trying to wedge themselves in that incompromising space between the black and white keys. Bach’s looking for some way to disturb the serene discreteness of the keyboard, some way to press the same old levers, but in such a way as to question their identity. (Don’t let the notes tell you who you are, man.)

But Bach is not just being a rebel. The more I play it, the more I feel that these blue notes are not at all “antagonistically” related to the main major key, that the main question is not at all happy vs. sad. The blue notes make the Allemande “real” somehow, make me identify with the singer or the voice of the narrator of whatever you want to call it; he/she is vulnerable, occasionally falling apart, stricken in various ways, strung out, prone to digression, musing, changes of mood …

If Bach is “thinking about something” there in the Blue Note, perhaps it has something to do with the incredible vulnerability of beautiful things … the Allemande seems to me the only movement of the Partita which addresses this issue, which allows beauty to be seen offstage, unpropped: the Gigue is overtly, virtuosically, audaciously joyful; the French Overture is grand, pompous, stylized; even the Sarabande seems safe in its melismatic D major world. But the particular fragility of mood in this movement is something very special, something that cannot be summarized by “sadness made transcendent” or “bittersweet” or any number of epithets I have considered. The closest I have come is this: when you are seeing or experiencing some incredibly beautiful thing, in the flash of recognition, how even the ramble of your own mind, the ticking of a few seconds, some restlessness or disturbance, makes you realize how even your perception and experience are utterly temporary, insufficient for the beauty you are experiencing, and yet the only tool you have.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Seven Days

[In the leadup to my 37th birthday, and perhaps to slightly ameliorate the pain of its arrival, now I present seven straight days of blogging on one movement of the 4th Partita of Bach, the Allemande ... just to demonstrate, if I haven't already, the extent to which I am capable of obsessing.]

Bach sees Jane run.

At the beginning of the Allemande of the 4th Partita, in the left hand, a plain Jane progression:

… which is (ho hum) the generic declarative sentence of tonal music. See the tonic run to the dominant and back, a scaredycat afraid to wander. But in the right hand I have a wanderer:

Behind the wandering “melody” hides a wonderful, arching arpeggiation:

So, schizophrenia. The left hand is saying something grammatical, prosaic, everyday, something that is common to a million pieces, a functional bit, while the right hand is radiating up a seventh, up a ninth, and then back down, fancifully testing intervallic space. This melodic behavior is not functional, in the same way that wearing a feather boa is not functional—but sometimes it just “makes” an outfit.

Bach is feeding off the contradiction, between this

and this

Notice how after the melody completes its dangerous self, the left hand tries to bring everything in line with a nice triadic tag:

… two musical “life forces” … the triad and the seventh … they tug and stare at each other, their antagonism fed by familial connection. Bach says: triads extend themselves into seventh chords, into ninth chords, by natural chains, processes, by the course of events, by association, by simple movement, by logic which blurs into fantasy … He demonstrates: a ninth chord (wild event) is two triads (common events) smushed together, like for example two normal words whose meanings for a moment get mixed together, becoming ambiguous, even semi-scandalous. Triads extend themselves as simply as reaching out an arm … At one point (for instance) the melody shoots up to this B, it imagines itself climbing higher and higher, and pursues its imagination and finds itself where it “should not be.”

And then we must watch it fall, third by third, back down

behind which I hear this

… hiding behind the “melody,” surreptitiously but structurally, an amazing chain of thirds (the thirds which had, in fact, built the ascent) … falling, an unfolding fan, or the slow release of some pent-up breath, into itself. The high B relinquishes itself into a lower B … just as at the end of a long journey you come back to the same place, with coiled awareness of the wider world you have seen.

Yes, I am suggesting this movement has a Clark Kent and a Superman:
...triad Clark, the self-contained, the pure, with sense of limits, decorum, gravity, versus seventh-ninth Superman, tremendous limitless enchainer (this is why the sight of Superman in chains is so devastating, for he is by definition that which travels along chains, which transcends confinement) … Superman soars over that which should be painstakingly crossed. A harmony is (after all, Bach tells us) a territory which begs to be extended, an idea which wants to be questioned. The triad wears glasses, is simple, meaning-establishing, closing, codifying, works at a newspaper, establishes “facts”; its extension is complex, wondering, definition-blurring (but has issues with Kryptonite? … here, perhaps, the analogy fails).

A wild thunderstorm one morning in Houston last month half woke me up, and I spent unknown groggy time lying in bed wondering, in my dream, why I couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality. Daniel Day-Lewis talked to me in the form of a giant insect about the merits (or lack thereof) of You’ve Got Mail; this seemed very real to me, like a bleary morning lecture class I used to have in physics; I thought to myself He’s a real bug, not a dream bug; and thus, somehow, I proved to myself triumphantly, arrogantly, that I was still asleep … as though I were both Socrates and his idiotic interviewee.

That same night, I played the D major Allemande as an encore, and I made a connection between my morning daze and my evening haze … Bach’s enchaining seventh and ninth chords, and the resulting transitiveness of this melody, have some connection to the ability to dream, to wander off into what, in Bach, might be regarded as the illogical, though perpetually founded on logic, springing off logic like a comfortable point of reference …

The surrender to sleep is so delicious. Too, there is something so sensually alluring about all those thirds and the beautiful dissonant notes they reach from their starting points, something alluring and spellbinding about the hopeless, fantastic, curling attempt to make them all understood. (To prove himself awake.) You can see (hear) Bach touching back on them (remember this strange note?), wanting to make sure we rehear, refeel them as he resolves or almost-resolves them. He sweeps them (I think with a little grin on his face) under the carpet as he approaches the cadence, he sweeps away the dream, saying it all fits, drawing the curtain closed … finito! … but for me it never all fits, there is always something left over, some dream-remainder of difference, some magic dust the carpet will never hide. I would say this dust, this remainder is the “meaning” of the Allemande if I didn’t feel in some weird way that whatever it is, it’s quite uncomfortable with the very word “meaning.”

Friday, May 04, 2007

Sex and the City

[Posted on Craigslist]

Bemused but occasionally cranky pianist, 36, seeks similarly-minded other for longterm relationship “with benefits.” Does not enjoy discussing real estate or humidity. Allergic to nuts, the Tchaikovsky Trio, and unmarked retransition ritards. Serious candidates must be able to sit through the occasional slasher flick, mindless Hollywood thriller, or other piece of mass-produced drivel; must be subsequently able to endure endless pseudo-intellectual analysis of same. Gin drinkers preferred.


Hey, read your ad and was quite intrigued. Me: 5’7 and a half, sturdy, well-versed in music and related arts, something of a workaholic, but up for fun now and again, great lover of coffee, food, drink, and the pleasures of life… interested?


Well, you do sound interesting. But I’m finicky. What’s the catch?


Hmm, the catch: I suppose I should tell I have kids. And here's something weird: I wear a wig.


Wow, a double whammy. Kids … are those the little noisy creatures one sees perched in the small vehicles that often block access to my beverages in Starbucks? [snark] I’m looking for someone of substance, for sure, and I’m really trying not to be superficial about appearances … but I have to confess the wig thing has me a bit “wigged” out. Can you send me a pic? Also, you never mentioned your age…


Sigh, I guess it’s time to come clean. Here’s my pic:

People say I’m “timeless” which I guess means they can’t really tell how old I am? … whatever. One good thing about being dead, the whole age thing kinda gets less pressing …

I realize this is a lot to take in; hope it doesn’t freak you out. I think I’m worth it, though. Am enclosing my d minor English Suite so you can get to know me a bit better.


Well, this is … interesting.

As a dead European composer, you understand you’re sort of an unusual relationship choice. I was really hoping to date someone more or less alive. Of course, I’ve *always* dated living people so this might just be the fresh start I need.


I’m so glad you decided to give it a shot. Why don’t I come by your place sometime in the afternoon tomorrow?


OMG that was some date. Did anyone ever tell you you give amazing retrograde inversion? And I’m still dreaming about your descending chromatic bassline.


Glad you had a good time. IMHO chromatic and diatonic are really the two great linear forces at work in music and I love to watch them bump and grind against each other. Anna Magdalena used to help me with that in between minuets, if you know what I mean.


[3 months later]
… my friends will tell you I’m something of a committmentphobe, but I think you’re someone really special, a “keeper.” There’s just more and more to you, the more I look, and I never get tired of thinking about you …

I have to tell you, though, I really think it’s time to LET GO of the whole Telemann thing. I mean, so he got the job you wanted, and you had to keep teaching Latin to those “little brats,” big deal! I mean I think it all really worked out for the best … think of all the joy you’ve brought so many people.


You know, thanks for listening … sometimes I feel like I can go to peaceful places in my music that are hard to attain in reality.

By the way I noticed you had some unusual looking scores on your piano. Not anything I would write for sure! What gives?


JS, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the possibility of an open relationship. I mean, the time I spend with you is SO AMAZING, but I sort of want a little space, I want to be free to see other composers …


Honestly I don’t know what to say …

… the other night, after the 5th Partita, you just had a beer and went straight to sleep! ... after I slaved for weeks over a hot harpsichord writing it! Sometimes I can’t help thinking you just love me for my music. And how can you love that other stuff too?

… as they say in my native tongue, ich habe genug. Don’t be sad; we’ll always have the Allemande of the Fourth Partita.


[chat with anonymous third party]

J: Well I guess that didn’t work out ☹.
X: Live and learn
J: I’m seeing this other composer now, Charles. I think he has some gender issues, though, kind of obsessed with masculinity, etc. etc.
X: Oh, you know what that means [wink]
J: Yah. Ok, gotta practice
X: ttyl

Friday, April 27, 2007

Vernacular Appeal of Melodic Simplicity and Harmonic Redundancy

I know the classical blogosphere will be seriously mourning Rostropovich. However, I personally am finding some redemptive light at the end of the tunnel over at Prof. Heebie McJeebie's Classical Pontifications. I nominate "Simpleton Pleasures" and "Jazz Improvisations" by Ariodney Hussington to be possibly the worst pieces of music ever written by anyone. But why, oh why, can I not stop listening to them???

A highlight (?) from Ms. Hussington's interview:

McJeebie: Why is the piece called Jazz Improvisations if there's no improvisation?

Hussington: There is improvisation, but it happens in the composer's head, and, actually, it already happened. It was in the past.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Where the Heart Is

A small, recurring cast of characters works the lobby of the Greystone Hotel, my home. Behind the bulletproof glass are Joey (exhausted, balding, night school), Julia (curly, vociferous, lipsticky), Andrei (cheekboned, curt, blonde), and a surly short Hispanic woman in her 20s, whose name I have never heard. Behind a cheap table in the corner is a security guard, reading a Bible and guarding a notebook. Like a peevish comet, the owner of the building rarely orbits in; her facility, perhaps, brings out the worst in her, and I have really only encountered her pissed as hell. Lately she is absent, and waves of positive energy that are brave enough to venture into the lobby are not as quickly quashed. The building was going condo; which meant great changes were afoot; giant prospectuses were stuffed into mailslots; a new era beckoned, promising hardship for many helpless residents; but somewhere along the line inertia, muse of time, must have intervened, and I imagine some businessman in some office relenting, shrugging, in the face of some final Greystonian straw. Score one for tenacious decay. The owner has been defeated by the owned.

The lobby is not beautiful. A spectacularly boring picture of the building in its heyday (where the Hotel surely still exists, nostalgically) hung on the wall, pretending to be decor, but has been removed (the paint is lighter, yearning, where it used to be). A pot of plastic flowers stands on an Ionic dais and is moved to various seeming midpoints of invisible trajectories on the checkered floor. A sign reads “VISITORS MUST SIG IN;” I swear that missing “N” haunts me day and night. At 4 AM, after the garbage truck departs noisily, and while its honking and heaving fades into lonely quiet echoes, I dream abysses between “M” and “O.”

Most residents, like me, try to move through the lobby as quickly as possible, but some linger, and seem to enjoy it. There is one man who wears a giant gold medal around his neck, strung on a red-white-and-blue ribbon. He has liminal predilections, for instance: he leans near the door, or brings a chair into the windblown, cramped space between inner and outer doors, or stands just outside the door on the garbage-strewn sidewalk, looking longingly back inside. He adores rain-slickers, and is often impervious to water, even on the clearest days. He once ran the marathon. I know this because there is an explanatory card, also, hanging around his neck, in a plastic holder, which I have skimmed. (We could all use such cards?) He and I had absolutely no communication for six or seven years, though I saw him constantly; now, we are beginning to exchange smiles, and I have no idea what that means, or why it has happened. Some small random tenderness. It makes me feel cheaply good about myself to smile at him, and then I walk on to my destination, usually some heartless corporate chain.

To describe another regular: some eight years ago, I was in the elevator when a blonde woman in her fifties entered. Immediately the compartment reeked of scotch. It was around 11 AM. This was, I believe, the first occasion I really noticed her. She looked at me very intently, up and mostly down. “You’re an actor, right?” I applied New York Behavior Rule #1 and said nothing. “Yup. I knew it,” she continued, undeterred, “all the cute ones are actors.” It was a curious compliment, but we haven’t spoken since, and ever the jonesing approval-addict I catch myself, these days, wondering if she still thinks I’m cute. The other day, this same woman was standing at the bulletproof window, talking very loudly to Joey, with a different message. “You look terrible,” she kind of bellowed, pausing for a moment; then she said “I’m sorry” and began walking away towards the door. Joey said something through the muting window; it might have been a question; she turned back and yelled tautologically, proudly, “Because you look terrible!” She pushed the doors open, exiting the Greystone with a triumphal flourish (difficult to do). Promptly, my elevator door shut and I began to ascend. Joey was left alone, with no door.

One of the truly memorable regulars (for me) was an elderly man who sat near the door, in a corner, on a threadbare armchair (now disappeared, in an attempt to drive the elderly characters from the lobby and make the building more “presentable”). He never seemed to move. But one day, mysteriously, he was just there in the doorway, blocking my exit, and before I could summon a swift youthful refusal, he asked if I would do him a favor. He wanted me to walk him to his barber’s appointment, on Amsterdam. He had three or four hairs on his head. I stared at them and at his spotted scalp while he clutched my hand tightly in his cold hand and stood there and—as other busy normal people passed by—I started to wonder when we would begin to walk. But in a minute I realized he was walking. It was curiously intimate. Most of it was stillness and preparation, clenched breaths, but every so often he gave himself over to a passionate iota of motion. It was a harrowing, mindblowing five minutes until we were out on the sidewalk and fully thirty minutes more until we reached Amsterdam (normally a 15 second effort). I had no idea it was possible to walk that slow; Einsteinian dilemmas lurked; at that suspended speed, how could you tell if you were going forwards or backwards? I remember succumbing to fits of rage and eerie oases of calm and it was like being drawn into a black hole, maybe, while trying to hide the fact that your body is imploding.

At the corner of Amsterdam, he pitied me. His appointment (the existence of which I began to disbelieve) was allegedly on 88th and Amsterdam, and while I gazed into the receding line of buildings and onrushing stream of cabs with horror, imagining the whole day spent, he said the magic words: he would be fine, he would make it from there. I sighed in relief, wished him well, gave him hearty farewells. But, he added: he just needed to know which way was downtown. At that point, for me, the mathematics of the situation collapsed. I could bear the absurdity no longer. Sensing his helplessness, I fled from him, a coward; but he persevered, bravely, in the sunshine. I stopped near Broadway and watched him walk a few inches. To tell the truth, he’s not been seen in the Greystone in some years.

Friday, April 20, 2007

More About House

Ostensibly the subject of House, the wonderful television show on Fox, is the eponymous doctor’s attempts, week after week, to solve mysterious, tentacled illnesses. (Amazingly it always seems to take about an hour of television time, including commercials, to solve any illness.) Or else the real theme of the show is the character of House himself: complex, contradictory, savagely logical, flawed, somewhere between Richard III and Sherlock Holmes.

I prefer to dismiss both synopses. I propose that House is really “about” irony and sarcasm; it asks the question … what is the acceptable level of emotion in the modern world?

Let us take another famous medical show, E.R. I have come to dread the 10 AM arrival of this program on TNT, rudely awakening me from the supernatural, ironic meta-worlds of Angel and Charmed into an ever-so-gritty-and-overworked Chicago emergency room. Oh, the humanity! Mark Green juggling child and ex-wife, Noah Wyle struggling with drug addiction and the burden of aimless wealth, George Clooney rebelling and refusing to commit, and of course the evil heartless Romano, colder than any demon in Angel’s dark, manipulated L.A. nightscape. I have come to hate all these characters and, particularly, the writers who subject us to their maudlin trials and tribulations. Everything is so, so emotional, and yet not redeemed by soap-opera camp; interventions abound; doctors weep quietly in locker rooms, and are asked if they are “ok”; schoolbuses of children are wheeled in, seemingly, only to be wounded and pathetic, and just as swiftly wheeled out. E.R. is Dr. Phil, in dramatic form; it wants us all to tell all, to confess, and be emotionally healed in the great common waiting room. Sarcasm is not welcome. (And again, after an hour, get the hell off the set, please.)

Enter Dr. House.

House strums certain recurring themes. First: is House really a softy, hiding under a sarcastic veneer? Such seems to be the constant, desperate hypothesis of his friends and colleagues, and the scriptwriters perpetually tantalize us with the possibility of a sentimental breakdown. At the end of the last season, when House finally went into rehab, I felt with dread the sense that the show would become classically heartwarming, that he would finally “learn something.” But magnificently—of course!—it all turned out to be a sham, showing House to be more manipulative, deceitful, and selfish than one could have ever imagined. I cheered. Why do these evils make me love him? His evil is entertaining, satisfying; his reformation would be boring, saddening, life-destroying. But he is not a villain.

As one watches, then, one gets mired in meta-concerns: we think less about the fate of patient X or disease Y than the fate of the show itself; will it disintegrate into E.R.-esque empathy, or will the writers somehow prolong the moral strange ground, the absence of judgment? In other words, can the show survive its premise?

A second theme: House “needs to be healed.” The writers gave him a painful, lingering, physical wound (metaphor for the inner, emotional wound) which is almost a deal-breaker, almost dips the show in a disastrous pity-bath. The other characters in the show always seem to want to heal him up, to convert him into a lesson learned, a summable plot point; they are always thematizing, moralizing, empathizing. “House is behaving this way because he secretly loves me, or craves love …” “House loves his own mind more than other people, and needs to change …” “House is trying to destroy himself, since he has no joy in life …” And House stands alone, protecting the fort of cynicism, deflating each of these pat theories. The perpetual explainer of illnesses, he refuses to be “explained.”

A third theme of House: the patient-at-fault, blame-the-victim. House is always suspicious of the histories his patients provide; it is often some concealed fact of the patient’s life that makes the difference … The patients are somehow therefore complicit in their failure to be healed, and most of House’s most amazingly cruel, but funniest, moments have to do with targeting those-who-are-to-be-pitied, with refusing to respect the sacred cow of illness. House is ill, like his patients; he knows, moreover, that everyone is ill. The people around him who think they’ve got it all together, that they’re “normal,” usual-life-livers, who imagine that they represent a “standard” or acceptable life-method: they’re the real suckers. Plus (and here’s the kicker): they’re boring.

House is a show where two possible shows intersect: imagine the story narrated by one of House’s underlings or colleagues, an earnest tale of a flawed doctor at work, and heartbreaking patients; or imagine the story narrated by House himself, in which all are exposed for the posers they are … and you must decide which story you prefer. And then take this principle and apply it to the vast surrounding narratives of our society, to CNN coverage of tragedies, to movies, to presidential speeches, newspaper editorials … I personally fantasize about replacing Matt Lauer with Gregory House, for a week. Apply it, if you will, to music …

House confronts the vast emotional movie-music of our time. Am I supposed to feel bad if I don't like Oprah or Dr. Phil, if I feel uncomfortable with this vast buffet of amateur psychotherapy, of human emotion and confession, bundled and marketed like a creamy, filling psychic Frappuccino? Am I repressed, elitist? Letterman speaks for me (yay!) when he mocks Oprah, when he says enough is enough, and yet a disturbing question haunts me. Why do I feel (self-satisfied jerk that I am) that it is better to play Beethoven or Ives for people, displaying and communicating publicly all sorts of emotions, and receive a check … how is that “better” than Oprah doing her emotional thing and becoming fabulously wealthy? If anyone has a good answer to this question, let me know. I know Gregory House would simply snort disdainfully, reminding me how pathetic I am to worry about the question in the first place.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thanks, Rain

As the storm began to drip from the sky I found myself (as so often) in a back seat at the mercy of a madman. Lanes were shifting states of mind. First Avenue was a long vein (I thought in my daze) along which red lights like hemoglobin ran, glowing brighter as they slowed, clumping in difficult morasses and extricating themselves for a more perfect careening flow. My guide as he drove across intersections looked left not forward, in full motion, or barely and grudgingly slowing, glancing to gauge the souls of cross-streets. Few met his needs. His braking, even, was impatient. There is enormous space there in the back seat, too much space. I am a tossed toy there. The Avenue was a red compulsion, a motion guarantee, a bumpy lustful harrowing northward necessity: there, the next light, and the next. Beckoning, greening chain of blocks. I found the drive mysterious, I asked myself: again? The Food Emporium whizzed by, as always. I belted my body in, clutched my cell phone like a charm, found the constant left and right motion overwhelming, felt helpless, between a dream and an amusement park ride. On either side, narrow misses; we squeeze by. Even my thoughts seemed crowded, frightened, in the back of my brain, holding onto my skull walls for dear life.

The next evening I was crossing at 121st and Broadway to get a downtown cab and I stepped into an unexpected river near the median. It ran black, swift, cold, slanting down the great street, and my right foot went instantly frigid, suddenly aware of the world, like a college student graduating who must now find a job: the black shoe shiny like a beetle, immersed, emerging dripping and ruined. I stopped. There were no cars threatening in either direction, the bodega was shuttered, I was alone for a stark moment. Home and warm with shoes and socks abandoned around me the windswept rain just beat its random tap-dance against the rusty airconditioner, reminding me of that moment, and its manifold causes.

Music is amazingly well suited to depict rain … A particular favorite of mine is Debussy’s “Pour remercier la pluie au matin” [to give thanks for the morning rain], from the Epigraphes Antiques, which begins with an incredible 16th note ostinato, marked “doux et monotone” … soft and monotonous. I have always found this ostinato unnervingly beautiful, like a little plier or wedge inserted into time, forcing open some joint or nook in it which is normally hidden, smooth, continuous. Watching the water drip down taxi windows and sort of swoop and sweep around 91st Street yesterday, I was really enjoying (in a depressive way) its random endlessness: sensually, engagingly boring, a monotonous pleasure, like watching someone in a library writing their notes on index cards, hearing the soft scratch of pen across paper, the friction of molecules reflecting the strange ostinatos of thought, the lost encrypted hours. The code of a person: they sniff, scratch their head, shake their arm out, breathe uneasily, yawn, random bodily details. Each drop creeping slightly differently down the window, an endless array of data, but the net total a same down-drifting, a constant vanishing scribbling over the window landing in the drain. Over Debussy’s rain-ostinato, outrageously beautiful melodies begin to emerge and flower, but they do not dominate; they don’t become annoying apotheoses; rainy days don’t make for good apotheoses anyway… the rain speaks last, and most profoundly … The person in the library eventually gets up, stretches, heads back to world and friends, stuffing cards books pens into bag, and you know nothing more about them.

Composers mostly don’t wait for rain; they invent their own water. In the slow movement of the Archduke Trio, for instance, I feel Beethoven created the theme in order that he could simply swim in it. It’s a current which carries him, and the measure of his success is his surrender.

If it begins with duples, with the hymn and the hymnic, if it proceeds in stately quarters and eighths, by the first variation a different point begins to emerge. The music dissolves in triplets, the pianist is instructed to lavishly pedal, and Beethoven writes notes which float down and up in contrary motion, the hands like two mirroring waves, washing up against each other and retreating to the far ends of the keyboard, only to turn around and return (always, again, like tides). The theme has been “fluidified,” which is a ridiculous word to express the incredibly profound: abandonment of the discrete event and the washing-over of lines and demarcations: music’s love affair with continuity, the theme’s “passing over” into a different mode of existence, in which we no longer dole out our events and thoughts in bits and tablespoons of motive but simply turn on the faucet and let sounds flow. The flow is dictated, circumscribed, by the more discrete, previous theme, a structure which feels like the thin skin of the bubble which now floats.

I relinquish myself to the beauty of this variation, and try as much as possible to do as little as possible with it, whatever that means.

Beethoven’s choice, too, is clear: the premise establishes itself, and it runs on, then, more or less on its own. He tinkers, but only behind the scenes. The strings are made to do also as little as possible; they enunciate just the larger harmonic lilt, subtle self-effacing messengers of structure. In this way Beethoven draws the curtain aside to reveal no disappointing Wizard of Oz but the self-sufficiency of the idea: powerful, like a current; seductive, without deceit; the completely compelling, sustaining, non-narrative. In the next variation, we emerge somewhat from the triplet wash, to something dryer, more pointed, humorous; there is again a pointed edge to the variation after that, with its constant hocket of the hands; but by the Poco Piu Adagio, in the perfect words of my colleague the eminent principal cellist of our cheery NY Phil, we have come back again to a “great harmonic river.” The strings, in the middle register, hold down the harmonic fort, while from the left hand of the piano streams an unending undulation of 32nd notes, and the right hand offers an endless melody in its own time zone, a 16th note off from the other forces at play. A full but transparent texture, layers of motion, water passing over rock.

This slow movement slips in and out of this state—this fluid state. It passes from etched to brushed, and this drift, from real world to water-world, becomes its deeper theme below the theme.

As in so many Beethoven variation movements, the theme meets a “dark night of the soul,” where it questions its own identity by tearing itself apart. Beethoven has such an uncanny ability to do these things without a hint of contrivance, of the overwrought; he introduces the little free-radical note, the wrong note which leads down the “wrong path,” which always seems to lead to redemption, to some outrageously beautiful crisis and slow, masterful circling back home. And lo and behold, just at this moment, when the violinist and cellist are asserting some fragment of the theme in E major (the “wrong” harmony) the pianist interrupts, morphs the dotted rhythm of the theme into triplets, and submits the entire remainder to the triplet flow … I am sure Beethoven is calling back the world of that first variation, bringing its revelation back for a second look. The triplets never stop, then; nor do you want them to; they are an absolutely desired compulsion. You, I, all of us listening, the theme itself … all are taken by the current. The theme is refracted, then, through it; the triplet stream, continuing, absorbs all sorts of melodic and harmonic intensitiies, and there is an ache, a tremendous pathos, in the push and drag between the unbelievable material and the triplets which won’t cease to flow.

It is lazy to make up words, perhaps, when a scan of your existing vocabulary comes up empty, but I would like to propose in my laziness “threeness.” Why should a number have an emotional, adjectival function? But the theme here is made so much of thirds (F#-E-D), upwards and downwards, it is in 3/4 time, and you can see I feel the triplets have some import in the movement, comprising something like its most fundamental, truest, flow … its deepest current … and I believe there is something neither made of triplets or the interval of a third which expresses some deeper, familial connection between them, a weird charge of connected meaning. This would appear to be an abstruse point, in which I dissolve the magic of the movement into a number … but it is not abstruse for me at all, rather very emotional, instinctive, and irrational. For me the onset of the triplets is like a surrender to the most natural pace, to the perfect corresponding thing, to that which is in itself enough, that which—unlike the rain—you never want to end.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Area Pianist Ignored at Local Starbucks

In the wake of revelations emanating from the Washington Post this weekend, secret sources have confirmed that Upper West Side classical pianist Jeremy Denk has been scrupulously or virtually ignored at any number of locations in the New York City area.

Our correspondent followed Mr. Denk around yesterday in a shocking and heartbreaking experiment.

He emerged from the New York Sports Club at 4:46 pm and positioned himself poetically in line at the 93rd Street Starbucks. By most measures, he was quite descript: a graying youngish (with a certain musical emphasis, or "accent," on ish) white man in workout pants, a sweaty T-shirt, and a jacket he got on sale at an outlet mall ten years ago, radiating a confident odor of the Elliptical Cross Trainer. Our reporters watched, amazed, as he hummed through several phrases of the Archduke Trio, and gestured expressively into the air around him; clearly this was an artist at work, digesting great music behind his soggy brow, and yet his artistry, if anything, seemed to dissuade the attention of passersby. Would anyone notice?

Mostly mid-level yuppies pass through this familiar location: mommies, daddies, assorted persons of fungible sexuality, the occasional painfully metrosexual European family on vacation. In this quasi-erotic crossfire, each had a quick choice to make: do you stop and notice the bedraggled artist or do you scurry past with a blend of disgust and desire, aware of your cupidity but afeared of odor or solicitation?

Showered and transformed, Mr. Denk ventured out to Chelsea. At Patsy's on 23rd Street, he sat and ate an entire Rigatoni Bolognese. It was beautiful to watch. The acoustics of the restaurant were surprisingly kind, underscoring each appreciative smack and munch. He brought passionate forkfuls of pasta to his mouth, leaving artsy swatches of tomato across his chewing cheeks, which, like a true rebel, he refused to wipe away immediately. To this reporter's mind, he oozes, even suppurates artistry. But there was no response: nothing, but the clattering, random helter-skelter of a slow night at Patsy's. Even the waitress, amazingly, seemed a bit indolent in refilling his water.

At 36, Denk's an enigma. Medium-height, big-nosed, with constantly changing but unsatisfying hairstyles, he formulates an interesting countertext within the inherent binaries of the glamorous-artist archetype. "I like to live," he said, "you know, according to the moment. I also like snacks in my dressing room. And snacks, in general."

He consented to this article on one condition. "No," he said, "don't use the word genius." He mused for a moment, crumbs of Aztec Brownie slipping out of the delicate corners of his thoughtful mouth, "what about poetic soul? or associative mind? No, no, wait, let's call my publicist."

We followed Denk into Blades of Glory at the Chelsea Clearview. We paid a friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) to go with him; we wanted to see if it was just the stigma of solitude that was causing this pianist to be ignored. But no! There, too, events seemed to proceed in total disregard of Denk's musicality. Denk hit a low ebb when the two guys in front of him started making out. "But then I realized," he debriefed us later, "they were ignoring both me and the artistry of Will Ferrell ... I was in pretty good company ... at least there was that..."

Asked to sum up the day: "I mean the guy at the gym said, 'have a good workout,' and the guy at the Starbucks asked me if the brownie was 'the one with the weird peppers in it.' That's about it for meaningful interaction."

According to Mr. Denk, the only truly artistic reception he received yesterday, April 9, 2006, from 9:28 am to 1:31 am the next day, was on the phone with friend Lisa Kaplan. "I said, 'Lisa, let me sing you something,' and she said 'let me put you on speakerphone,' and I knew she wanted her friend Barbara to hear me sing, and I said 'No, no!' and as I started to sing she put me on speakerphone anyway."

We hesitate to report the rest of the story. "Barbara said my singing was like 'I saw into her soul,' but I realized she meant it ironically," Mr. Denk told us, choking back tears. Is there nothing left untouched by irony in these uncultured days?

Thursday, April 05, 2007


I was midway through my coffee’s journey, when I required the public men’s room near the Delacorte. A man was drying his underwear under the handblowers. Where was my explaining, comforting Virgil? The fact that it was underwear and not some other more benign garment or cloth took a while to register, but once it did, I had an immediate compulsion, a tic of the mind. “Aren’t all our lives, in a sense, just a matter of drying our underwear under hand blowers?” … the situation was dire. When I got home I dialed Metaphors Anonymous.

But before that, I hit the Great Lawn. I was forcing myself to Take A Walk in The Park, to stretch my fluttering, caffeinated wings outside the majestically decayed confines of the Greystone Hotel. I believe Sunday afternoons possess some unusual time-properties; they feel spread, like plains of hours. Endless Kansas time, the road heading off in every direction through taskless sprawl and corn’s quiet rustle. In this sprawl and under the blue Central Park sky in the breeze my eyes seemed very sharp, like every leaf was there, every hexagon of the sidewalk. I thought: they’re hexagons! Oy, Sundays: something sad about the flatness of everything, the waiting for something to happen which will not, the family dinner, the slow onset of evening and the cleanup of the dishes with the sound of the TV from the other room spouting idiocy, and no one saying what they really mean. For some reason, because of one Sunday afternoon in 1989, I also always associate Sundays with egg rolls. I’m just saying.

That was two Sundays ago. Last Sunday, I was playing the Bach d minor Concerto again with the Houston Symphony and I was having a great time. Each performance, however, the slow movement was infused with a bit more sense of struggle, some wish…

I came to realize that every so often my mind darts again to the left hand, which is doing some part of the ritornello, the ground … its unrelenting presence and movement under my melody is a powerful thing. I’m playing and suddenly the percentage of my brain paying attention to my left hand spikes … Oh yes, you are still there, mover (Creator?) … still doing your thing (Fate?) and everything I am doing is governed by you (Narrator?) in some way or another. Whatever fragment of the ground I happen to notice is preternaturally eloquent, always brings some rush of meaning, some sharp edge, affects my ongoing vision of the melody (yes that’s how I mean to say it), like some editor or kindly English teacher who scoops up your confused thoughts and rephrases them into insight. Otherwise I would be a idiotic singer going on and on in my lyrical way, effusing, boring everyone to tears, lamenting like Woody Allen, ridiculous, overwrought; but instead, the ground keeps me in check, its pace keeps me honest (so I must say what I mean, and only this), stops my voice from crowding out my brain. But! If I thought ONLY of the ground the whole time, there would be tedium … I would notice the scaffolding, recurrences, the grid, my logic, or the rhythm, in a sense, “too much;” it would be like living in a parking lot, only for usage, for passing, marked off but empty …

The wavering of my attention, my inability to truly multitask, to hear everything at once, becomes part of the beauty-tragedy. I am just Jeremy; thanks, Bach, for reminding me; not perfectly able to hear the “whole piece” (what is the whole piece anyway? certainly not discoverable on the page or in my mind); but I am able to appreciate my little flashes of reminder, to enjoy my vision that wanders and is drawn back into place, a vision in parts of a brilliantly conceived totality. And each blur back and forth comes with a little heartbreak, a little scrape of the irreconcilable.

And then the last orchestral statement after I am done: on Friday I literally shivered onstage (Saturday and Sunday, perhaps, I was too jaded, did not find myself as movable?) … My melody has worked itself up into a last frenzy, a last arpeggiated struggle; and in its wake comes again the same: which means, perhaps, nothing at all. Perhaps this is just a formality; in musicological speak it is just the framing return of the ritornello which is I suppose Italian for that which returns: tautological, superfluous. Instead of my space which I filled with melody, with ornament, there is just the empty space, the blueprint: whatever was behind the scenes. The set is stripped away, the worklights are visible, bare bulbs, the actors, tired, are shouldering their gym bags and heading home to their apartments to watch TV with their lovers and fall asleep and resume “real life.” A statement slash non-statement, the seemingly impossible display of a vacant space, of that which is gone, of empty Sunday hours where your clarity of sight is a strange, disturbing consolation.

North Wind, come down,
Unloosen the hands that clutch the sandstone walls;
Scatter the books of hours on the attic floors.
Clear all away, cold wind, and then, let all
Be clearness of sight that has dominion over
The mind that does not know how to despair.

—Montale, tr. David Ferry

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Waldstein

Our horses were tired and as we urged them up the last scrabbly bit of the mesa we could feel them quivering and straining … we could hear the gravel they kicked up skittering down the inhospitable hillsides, the desert’s bitter laughter. I don’t know about you, a man like me really needs a good bedding-down after a day’s ride. But I figured on no featherbed, no downy sweet lady in a distant saloon; I had chosen the hard path. Purple sun-remnants rode out from the horizon, seeming to stop just short of our weary lookout, and dwindled gradually like the hopes of the villagers we had left behind.

My companion drank deeply from his dusty canteen. His hair was wild: not from wind, I knew, but from desire.

“Ride on,” he said. “C major’s somewhere out there, I just know it.”

“Lud, you been sayin’ that for days …”

Below us and around us an alien landscape, with motivic fragments blowing meaningfully in the dry breeze. I pulled some well-worn, coded papers out of my knapsack—ancient maps—and wished, for a whispering sad moment, that I could eat them. A silver band in the distance caught my eye, not for the first time; the shine of the road left behind; antlike figures crawled on it; I thought: those lucky devils are going home.

“Look,” I said, “C major’s right over there, on that road. We were just on it, Lud, and you made us leave, it just don’t make no sense…”

He simply shone on me his hard manly gaze, “The way I figure, a man who knows where he’s goin can afford to get lost.”

“Don’t give me that Zen crap, Ludwig baby, you are one Western teleological bastard and you know it.”

He smiled barely. “What I know is, you don’t know C major from your horse’s behind.”

Ah, the banter of composer and performer, two lonely partners on the road to nowhere. My horse neighed, in agreement or dissent? Its hindquarters twitched. Chastened, I looked once again at my ridiculous papers, which curiously didn’t show much but our present location: they faded out in the direction we were headed. What kind of map was that? I at least thought I knew where C major was, I thought I remembered ...

We heard light, dancing footsteps.

“Oh no, not him again.” We’d just ditched him in the last town, when we modulated to the mediant … he just couldn’t get over it (“E major! E major! I love it!” he was screaming over his schnapps) but here we were like a whole movement plus an Introduzione later (we skipped right past the ranch belonging to Ann “Dante” Favori) and he was there again, like a stray mongrel waiting for scraps. B muttered to me under his breath “I told him to come back when he could think less melody and more motive… I mean, how’s a man supposed to keep a narrative moving with that kind of discursive &*()?… When’s he gonna leave us alone?”

I kept my mouth shut. “How are you guys?” our visitor said, shyly scraping the gravel with his spurs. He didn’t seem to wear his riding gear normal, if you know what I’m sayin. “I love this place, too … it’s so, so beautiful…”

Lud rolled his eyes, looked up at the sky disdainfully (yes, I thought, only HE could give attitude to the very heavens themselves.) I could guess what he was thinking: of COURSE it’s beautiful, you idiot, now tell me something I don’t know. Our visitor (his name began with F I seemed to remember) just kept staring at him, adoringly, with tears like waltzes leaking out of the edges of his eyes; uncomfortable moments passed, what was there to say?

Gunfire… ominous rumblings … the call of distant voices, growing closer, shouting, screaming. I took cowardly cover with Frank (?) under an outcrop; Lud stood his ground, staring off, eyes narrowed… A man came running across the top of the mesa, breathless, straight into Lud; he was dressed more casually than I might have expected for this sort of thing, but no matter, it was refreshing! He had a nice, friendly look.

“Oh man, I’m so happy I ran into you!” he said…

“I don’t know you,” Lud said quietly. Being friendly didn’t necessarily ingratiate you with B.

“Oh I’m Greg.” Ah yes!, I thought in my hiding-place, I know this guy, Greg Sandow … he’s everywhere, you hear tell of him in every little town. Some call him villain, some call him hero, a renegade, a Lone Ranger …

“Greg, what can I do for you?”

“No, it’s what I can do for you! I want to save you!”

“Save me?” Lud paused, amused. “Thanks, but I really don’t need to be saved.”

“But they’re all coming after you!” Bullets whizzed around the bend.

“Who?” Lud asked.

“I don’t know … “ Greg foundered for a moment … “All sorts of people! Market forces! Shifts of sensibility! The inevitable drift of civilization! Television! Media!” He glanced about warily.

“Oh, them.” Lud took a breath. Just then, two other strangely dressed people wandered onto the scene, implausibly; they weren’t quite city or country folk, but somewhere in between … (it was like Grand Central Station up here on this lonely mesa--was this convergence the subtle machination of some strange authorial force?) They were talking in academic, tired tones. “Why did he write that ugly pedaling?” one wondered, her voice acidic, laser-clear, and the other, as if reciting some informed rosary for the nth plus one time, “Oh it didn’t really blur that much on the old piano, you have to take the pedaling of the Rondo with a grain of salt…”

I faintly recognized these two from a former life. Lud’s eyes flamed. Flinty, difficult things gathered in his face, and his cheeks swelled like he wanted to spit them out. “Ugly pedaling? UGLY PEDALING? If you want to know, Greg, can I call you Greg?, what I need to be saved from … Could it really be clearer? I wrote the pedaling exactly PRECISELY as I wanted it and … “ I’m a decent tonic-fearing man and I refuse to transcribe the rest of Lud’s diatribe. F was blushing. Greg understandably looked fearful… but I knew that despite a ferocious temper Lud knew exactly how to control it, where to draw the line. HIs anger was not peevish, not short or abrupt; it edged masterfully along tightropes, a beautiful, dangerous fire.

“Come on,” I said to Lud, “We need to find C major.”

Lud looked at me.

“Greg,” I said, feigning regret, “we’ve got stuff to do.” And with that our party began to disintegrate; ugly-pedaling woman went off with her friend, chatting; Greg, happy to escape from Lud’s temper, ran off to the audible, nearing battle; and F had some “new projects” he was working on, some sort of quintet about a fish which didn’t make much sense to me … Lud and I began to climb down the mesa we had just ascended, into terra incognita. He looked pensive, now; his storm had passed. We walked in silence, for a while.

"What amazes me," I said, "is the variety of perception. How could anyone possibly call that an ugly pedaling ... it seems so obviously to me one of the most beautiful inspirations, a miracle even... the most important possible thing..."

“You know,” said Lud, cutting me off, “maybe that Sandow fellow is right, what do I know about kids these days? Will anyone listen to my music in 2100, will I become obsolete?”

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe he is right, but it makes my head hurt to think about it."

He was silent, he didn’t like my copout. I was a master of avoidance, but Lud was not one to give up on a difficult issue. “Tell the truth, it makes my head hurt too,” he said after a while (there was empathy, after all, in that formidable brain) and the mesa then was shrouded in an ominous cloud of dust and we walked uneasily through blurring winds. “What I chose to write at that moment, would I write it again in the present moment? That’s the question that keeps bugging me. What’s possible to write now? After me, is it possible to write further into the future?”

Dust and questions. And then, somehow, when the question began to seem inescapable, murkily impossible, the air cleared ... We were back in the light and I was seized by much more than a smile. It was C major, alright, but again I didn’t recognize it. Lud had tricked me, we had snuck up on it, it washed upon us all of a sudden, a wave of white-key now. How many times had I been there, over the same tired keys? But the blackboard was clear, and we were writing in tones, as if there were no other way to write. It was like the play or awakening of pleasure. Its appearance, simply: I am. I was surprised by the ease of the dream, my ability to float in it. And from the loud wash of this joy then there emerged a softer echo which was, if possible, even more wonderful, even more beautiful.

Lud was snickering at me. “I told you,” he said, “you didn’t have a clue about C major. Not a damn clue.”

Remembrances of scales, fingerings, Hanon: all strange skeletons compared to this living, surging C major. (Yet somehow the skeleton lay beneath.) I didn’t mind he was poking fun at me; I was happier than I remembered was possible.

“Lud,” I said, “I wish I could quit you.”

“Me too,” he gruffly replied, “you have no idea.”