Monday, February 26, 2007

Good Old Beethoven

There is probably a better way of putting this. But who cares? I enjoy Beethoven the most when he doesn't insist so much on being "manly." For example, the “Eroica” Symphony is just manly enough; the last movement of the Fifth Symphony is way too manly, etcetera etcetera …

Beethoven’s anomalies, his offbeat sforzandi, his moments of disruption, jagged dissonances, rhythmic refusals-to-conform: these events can pose either as comic or heroic, or points between. (Comic or heroic dissonances: the difference between the “accidental” and the “chosen” wrong note?) If you trace the line from Haydn’s humorous quirks to Beethoven’s, if you watch the incubation of the Haydnesque egg in early Beethoven, you see how gradually the comic, opera buffa incidents hatch (!), grow into more “serious” usages, until accidents become more and more structural, more and more life-threatening … until Beethoven, in a sense, really “means” them.

Sometimes I wonder: why, oh why, Ludwig, do you have to mean them SO MUCH? If occasionally I have trouble taking the Appassionata Sonata as seriously as it needs to be taken (though I can see, from a certain emotional distance, how great it is), I have no trouble at all taking Beethoven’s funnier, “lighter” pieces very seriously, totally to heart.

For instance, Op. 96. Beethoven doesn’t get gentler than Op. 96, or more profound. The piece begins with the inviting trill, the fourth, the unchallenging diatonic, the definition of a world: the pastoral and, by association, the country dance; rolling triple meters, easy blossoming dialogue …

There are no destructions, no crises; there are lots of circling, hovering, beautiful moments: and that's enough, thank goodness … enough to present a whole world of human experience. Yes, it is possible not to be epic, or overwrought, and yet to do something complete, arching, emotionally significant.

Put another way, Op. 96 does not feel at all “confined” in its lyricism. But, it does engage the question of bounds. The impetus for this post was the following moment (which I just played some 15 times with JB):

The pianist wanders off (“out of bounds”), lets the chromatic spirit take him, and JB must sit idly by, while I blur. Haha. You just wait over there, Mr. Violinist, while I have some fun. Too bad for you! The fact that the violin does not play here is (of course) no accident. It suggests that while one element of the piece sits by, passively (helplessly?) another is let loose, unmoored. The violinist, perhaps, is the saner melodic, assembling, force … while the pianist at that moment symbolizes some lone renegade element of the piece--a chromatic vigilante!--some dissociated, dissociating urge. The image that keeps coming to my mind is a beach ball, (happily) neglected, accidentally dropped into the water, sailing off in some unexpected current.

A million similar tender transgressions lurk under the surface tranquility of Op. 96. The gentle giant, Beethoven, having set up the general frame of the piece—the lyrical, the dancical (heh)—creates a play at its edges … a fuzziness at the edge of the piece’s mood.

One of the most beautiful fuzzinesses of the piece is here:

Let’s say the first idea of the piece is pastoral, and the second “theme” is more purely and classically comic; in comparison this third (or closing theme) seems to suggest an awakening Romantic. This Romanticism is partly a harmonic proposition: the entire theme is played out over a dominant prolongation (if your eyes are glazing over, non-music-theory people, I’m sorry!); in other words, it lives penultimately, on the continuous verge of delayed resolution (you don’t need any racier metaphors from me, as much as I’d love to supply them). And partly this Romanticism is a question of motive: the two portato notes (portato, notes against resistance, caressing notes) headed always for the dissonance/resolution … musical heaves and sighs. Get the picture?

This “Romantic” theme cannot, by its nature, end. This would ruin it. A cadence would be nonsense, would feel tacked-on; its ending is therefore, by necessity, a non-ending. (The cadence is anathema to the true Romantic.) How not to end? The ongoing crescendo, as so often in Beethoven, meets the “accident” of a subito piano, and in place of D-major diatonic tones, we get the “accidental” B-flat:

Whoops! Except that the “mistake” is so *&(*ing beautiful. It’s no kind of ending, per se, in the Classical sense, but this little dark intrusion sticks out enough to make itself into at least a semicolon, just, in a sense, by being there … they say half the job is just showing up! I think of it as a kind of “marker”: within a predominantly sunny, G major, pastoral piece, an unexpected minor-key inflection, a call or signifier from another work (momentary, fleeting). It’s the sort of thing that one imagines Schubert must have really paid attention to, that he must have digested over breakfast some morning, saying to himself “Ach! That is fantastic! I must use that!” before knocking off fifty or so songs and calling it a day.

Most magically of all, when the violin’s turn comes, these final two notes, constituting the false ending, are repeated four times in a row, as if a broken record …

Since records were apparently not invented yet (according to my scholarly research on Wikipedia), perhaps it is more appropriate to describe this moment as an echoing or reverberation, a sinking-in of the last two notes … a propagation through time (which is musical space). Again strangely I am reminded of the beach ball, of waves, of something being allowed to drift.

The first time this happens, I think it is unarguably weird, as if, again, the violinist were “stuck.” (So many times in a row!) But, it turns out, Beethoven repeats these two affecting notes exactly four times, making a kind of peculiar, but standard, four-bar phrase out of nearly nothing, out of pure iteration. And then this four-bar idea (nothing) becomes kind of the foundation of the development. (Castles in the air.) So: what was excessive, bizarre, transgression, becomes normative, becomes the rule. Beethoven founds a temporary grammar on exception and paradox. The composer’s magic of getting the listener to accept the bizarre or asymmetrical. And once the strange becomes “normal,” then departures from the strange themselves become strange, the Alice in Wonderland, upside-down, beautiful world is created.

Watching this winding in and out of normality through the development, as we play it each night, I do feel like what I imagine the children, say, in Chronicles of Narnia feel stepping through the wardrobe, and the faun in the forest says hello. A hush comes over me in each development, each performance. Tightrope act: you don’t want to make a false move, or the dream will vanish, but on the other hand, you must relax and let the dream take you where it wishes. And dramas in Narnia reverberate back and forth significantly to reality (the development, as meditation, back to the exposition, music into life, etc.) … my touring life against “real life,” the symbol against the event, the idea versus the thing … how much does my immersion in the development of Op. 96 affect the way I live my so-called normal life? The children of Narnia must leave the fantasyland behind in order to grow up.

Just at that moment, when I am absorbed pristinely in the Beethovenian loveliness, and associated questions, happy as a clam, the man’s cell phone rings across from me (in the Quiet Car, no less!): it is Für Elise. How ever did that become the National Anthem of Beethoven? Für Elise, played heartlessly by a computer chip (have a heart, chip!). I stare for a scornful moment at him and his device, baleful angels of reality; he smiles at me, a polite businessman’s smile, and when I look back down at the open page of my score, the wardrobe is just a place to hang your clothes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In Search of Yesterday's Cheese

My powers of empathy are so extraordinary at times, I even surprise myself. For example, today I was sitting in the sunshine looking down at Lake Leman, and across it at the Alps, in the middle of vineyards perched on rolling hills, with a pleasingly rotund bowl of warm coffee cradled in my sleepy hands, and the remnants of some pear and apricot tarts next to me on a little charming plate, and I was so looking forward to the roast veal and salad the housekeeper was making for me for lunch, and... just at that moment... I had the most vivid, electric connection to what my friends HY, M, and J must be feeling cramped in their airplane seats or gate lounges. Never imagine I am a narcissist! On the contrary, I conjured in great detail the gungy orange or mauve of the chairs my friends were belted into and the sour tepid "coffee" they were reluctantly sipping from plastic cups, and the arguments they were having with clerks about cello seats, and the way they must have felt when the alarm went off at 7 am etc. etc. And thus ruminating, wiping the sated surplus sleep out of my eyes, I padded in my bare feet to the kitchen, and opened the walk-in fridge to find some Vacherin and Gruyere to snack on before luncheon, and possibly a nice glass of white wine to tide me over through this perfectly sunny early afternoon ... yet more intensely I had another overwhelming wave of empathy, the most exquisitely precise photographic image of an airline attendant leaning over HY with a cold tray of skeletal salad and forlorn fruit. A baby squirmed and whined in the adjoining seat. It was almost enough, this perceived misery, to stop me in my aimless tracks, and in order to sufficiently comfort myself I spooned a giant dollop of soft, oozing Vacherin onto a crusty round of bread, and lay myself in the sunshine until my selfless empathy was no longer a curse.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Looking for Work?

WANTED: S. Richter lookalike to work as an extra
Reply to:
Date: 2007-02-13, 1:56PM EST

Seeking someone who resembles late, world renowned pianist Sviatolsav [sic] Richter in ‘late’ phase of his life to work for two hours as an extra in a visual art project. There is no special talent needed, just the looks.

IN ORDER TO SEE PHOTOS PLEASE GOOGLE: Sviatoslav Richter using Google/Images option.

Also, please note that Sviatoslav Richter was very tall - which may not be so obvious from the available photos. Job description: this person will just sit in a pleasant, not at all boring environment for about two hours, wearing tuxedo or other formal, elegant outfit, playing a passive yet very important role. It should be a lot of fun. More details later. Compensation+ credit.

(Courtesy Gabriel Kahane)

Friday, February 09, 2007


Perhaps many of you out there will not agree with me, or will think I am making light of a tragedy (I am not, this is a terribly sad story which we will never really know), but I think this New York Times obituary is a masterpiece. There are so many ambiguous subtexted paragraphs in it, for instance:

On Sept. 7, 2006, Ms. Smith gave birth to a daughter, Dannielynn. On Sept. 10, Daniel, Ms. Smith’s son from her first marriage, died suddenly while visiting mother and child in the hospital in the Bahamas. A medical examiner hired by the family found that the death was the accidental result of the interaction of methadone with antidepressants.

The tantalizing, lingering qualification: "hired by the family..." Again and again Ms. Goodnough gives us facts, simply arranged or juxtaposed on the page, with less explanation than you would expect, and says more with less elucidation than reporters on CNN could ever manage in 3 hours of Idiot Coverage. Her journalistic "objectivity" is a linguistic pose behind which she hides the daggers of her insight. For instance, this supposedly harmless listing of her professional accomplishments:

She appeared in several movies, among them “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994). Her other cinematic credits include “Playboy Video Playmate Calendar” (1993); and “Playboy’s 50th Anniversary Celebration” (2003).

And finally, I will hold up as paragon of simple, unflinching narrative, this timeline of her teens and twenties:

When she was a teenager, she married Billy Smith, a 16-year-old fry cook. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1986; the couple divorced in 1987.

Ms. Smith worked as a waitress, later becoming a topless dancer in Houston. After submitting photos to Playboy, she appeared on the cover of the March 1992 issue. In 1993, she was named Playmate of the Year.

In 1994, Ms. Smith married J. Howard Marshall II, a Texas oil billionaire and former professor of trusts and estates at Yale Law School whom she had met in the course of her dancing career. She was 26; he was 89. Married life for Ms. Smith was a bounteous stream of clothes and jewelry.

"In the course of her dancing career"! Bravo, Abby. No one could have written it better. And this new Anna seems to me just as tragic as Tolstoy's, just as symptomatic of the age.

P.S. the Washington Post obituary is--I am not kidding!--an extended comparison of Anna Nicole Smith to Odette from In Search of Lost Time, Violetta from La Traviata, and Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata." Yeesh! What a cultural fount this is turning out to be!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Let us plumb boredom's depths and further discuss the weather. I mean, really. Yesterday, in my ongoing quest for what I don't want to know, I hit up the Accuweather site, and was confronted by a giant, ominous curving blue arrow directed precisely at my geographical location. Labelling letters read: "BRUTAL COLD." I particularly enjoyed, in this weathermap, how even the letters themselves seemed to quiver and shiver, as if fonts too could freeze. (How I wish, some days, I were a font!) The man in front of me in the endless taxi line at LaGuardia turned during a gust and simply said "Wow," like a great composer, summoning much heartfelt feeling out of little material.

The other night in Ann Arbor, it was cold enough that crossing the two-lane street from the concert hall to the hotel seemed polar-arduous, and I ended up not going out on the town, but sheltering in the hotel bar, gathering my thoughts for a talk on the music of Leon Kirchner the next day. The bartender graciously made me an unusual Cosmopolitan, and I had my nerdy but cute (Apple, of course) laptop out on the bar, and a copy of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, and a score of Kirchner's Sonata No. 2, and a notebook, and all in all I thought I did a pretty good job of showing that I was working. No, no, I'm not lonely, I'm just working here at the bar with a drink. This was the message I hoped I was projecting.

However, fate. A woman a mere stumble away down the bar seemed to feel I needed company, and when her companion would head to the bathroom (which happened strangely often) she would come over and chat me up. She was at the concert; she said how much she enjoyed it; she was a friendly Japanese woman who evidently knew a great many people who knew a great many musicians, and Lord! how I tried through subtle and gracious body language to indicate that I was not feeling terribly chatty! but her radar was not receiving on my frequencies. Her accent was a bit heavy (perhaps ever so slightly drink-induced, as I also was inducing drink) and though I would be reading studiously, triple-dipping into my books and notebooks, she would come up and start in like this:

... well my nephew who is 14 he has piano lessons and I was at a festival in Europe in Switzerland, you know, and my friend who took me knows the conductor who used to be there and so we went backstage and were talking and I met someone there and he was saying hello and he played Beethoven and...

Wow. My eyes, which had been previously delving into a complex score of Kirchner, and my brain, which had just survived a two hour concert including a very rhythmically challenging work of Meyer ($@#&#$*#$!, don't tell Edgar I said that): both of these glazed and lost focus, like a donut wilting in the sun. I would smile and grammar itself (if not its logical underpinnings) seemed to flee and leave me flailing for utterable phonemes. I had my hand still on my score, as if to declare I belonged there, in the land of my studies and my notes, but she drew me ever further into her land which was like no land I had ever visited, an Eastern and yet still Dickensian world of strange coincidences, and people who know people from other lives, and conductors who love cookies.

I don't want to offend any readers of Think Denk or put anyone off from saying hello after concerts and whatnot, but I hope it will not shock you if I say that occasionally someone launches into a story backstage and I find my mind wandering, for whatever reason. Call it artist fatigue, if you will; a casualty of circumstance. Often you are so preoccupied with what you &*()@#$ed up during the concert that you have trouble concentrating on the people before you. But I cannot say, in this case, that I was bored or lost interest; what she said was so Joycean in its manifold twists and turns and streams of association that I was actually flabbergasted and simply intellectually at a loss. And when her friend came back she would go back to her segment of the bar, and I would be left with my brilliant computer file, a miracle of productivity, consisting of:

Leon Kirchner's Music

And these generic, hopeful but pathetic words now seemed stripped of even the possibility of meaning, rotating as they were in the vortex of the narrative the woman had left behind. And may I remind you, reader, that the woman came back several times, in installments if you will, resuming the story which seemed unresumable, like the Scheherezade of Michigan, telling and retelling, always leaving a dangling thread...

Finally, I had finished my drink and my cheese plate. Crumbs were delicately and casually spread over my scores and books. It was nearly time to go. My file had slightly grown. At that moment, a third party, who apparently worked at the hotel, came to speak to the woman and her friend, and the following dialogue ensued:

Hotel Woman: Hey.
Japanese Woman and Friend: Hey.
Hotel Woman: Were you at the show tonight?
Japanese Woman: Yes.
Hotel Woman: How was it?
Japanese Woman: It was really good.
Hotel Woman: Well, how did it compare to Spamalot?
Japanese Woman: Well...
Friend: I mean that's not fair...
Hotel Woman: Nothing can really compare to Spamalot.
Japanese Woman and Friend: Right.

I stared at my now empty cocktail glass and at the relics of literature and "high art" scattered about me. They too seemed insulted, demeaned; the beautiful moment where Leon quotes Pierrot Lunaire in the Sonata No. 2, allowing it to emerge from the Viennese waltz, was open on the bar, and it sulked, knowing itself unrecognized ... And I shudder to imagine what Saul's novel was thinking! People have the power to compare anything, even the incomparable. I know Greg Sandow is going to come down hard on me for being an elitist fool, deaf to the decline of our way-of-thinking, but I had felt somehow (with no offense to the many good, presumably well-intentioned, people who have worked on the show) in my heart that Beethoven Op. 96, at least, if nothing else, could be seen by most people as objectively "better" than Spamalot. I saw Spamalot in St. Louis and should never have sat in the balcony because I considered throwing myself off several times. But, Spamalot lovers, I understand that there must be differences of taste, and in these matters there can be no dispute blah blah blah etcetera etcetera, and as I packed up my things and headed up to my room I tried to draw a whole moral from the evening but perhaps I would just lie down .... zzzz ...

Friday, February 02, 2007


I awake in an exit row with the syrupy scent of deicing fluid coating the warm waffle of my mind. I awoke--earlier--to the rushing Iowa winter breezes singing plaintively over the hotel parking lot. The hotel clerk advised me to bake my own waffle (literally, not metaphorically) in the lobby before heading out for the day. And so I did; something about the blear-eyed pouring of batter was really amazing, a kind of lumpy, viscous torture for the soul. This is you, I thought, as I poured; you are being poured out of a styrofoam cup right now, at this very moment; this is your brain entering the day. The sizzling waffle iron of life awaits, receives you, browns you to a crisp.

We drove. We drove swiftly eastward across the Hawkeye Steppes, through the 2-degree air with brisk 40 mph winds that whisked snow across the highway in shiny, winking loops and squiggles. The sun bravely, sadly, shining from behind us, lengthening purple stick-shadows. We exited the car at the loading dock of the hall and suffered knowing how we suffered. Our hanging concert clothes froze into their wrinkles, my bag of snackish Sour Patch Kids screamed and stiffened in sour alarm, and with music and coats flapping, shivering, lugging our carryons, we hobbled up the stairs ...

Oh Iowa.

It is amazing how on these tours you always seem to end up, after the rest stop, after the nearly missed connection, after the cab, at the same basic place, in the dressing room, in the loading dock, backstage in the dark, waiting to go on, waiting for the announcement and the thanking of donors to stop and for the music to begin. The page-turner hovers, nervously. You always end up looking at yourself, in the same flexible room of the mind, playing chess against yourself, psyching yourself up and down, wondering what the phrase would sound like if you had never played it before. Emerging from the fog of travel.

Transition: out of the chill, out of the car, into womblike warmth of the backstage and the warmth of the smiles, the incredibly warm Iowans, the warmth of human hospitality arrayed against the strip malls and off-ramps of the world. My dressing room smelled mysteriously of fennel. My suitcase yawned open, a sock or two dangling, saying "I dare you to pack me again." I showered and sang Schumann and Ives and ate delicious steamy spicy Thai food which burned me happily and made a little home of my little cubicle; I gnawed an apple, consumed brownies, shifted garments ... a million rituals, a million redemptive details ... my life. Let's play.