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.”


While waiting to know what will happen to the forlorn Cheeto I couldn't resist the pull of Matthew Guerrieri's quiz.

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.

General Hospital. (The Young and the Restless has much better music.)

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

The Goldberg Variations [zing!].

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?

If I'm listening to the music, Ives I think; ditto if contemplating insurance; but if I'm looking for a composer with a rugged, manly, but still somewhat snuggly name, DEFINITELY Carl Ruggles.

4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.

Most of my choices are listed at pianopedia.com. [zing?]

5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

Well I'd say I have a 12% record of playing the ending of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Fantasy with all the right notes, so ... that seems pretty unlikely.

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

Dawson's Creek (or perhaps Battlestar Galactica) set in 17th century France, with show dogs onstage (to symbolize the essential inhumanity of man, etc. etc.) and a chorus of ventriloquists (fill in your own annoying symbolic explanation HERE). Of course, any opera involving Joyce Hatto would be attended by me ... No, no I have it! I want Mel Gibson to direct a production of Falstaff set (and sung) in Aztec or Olmec or Mayan or whatever, entitled Apocalypto II: The Fat Man Gets the Last Laugh.

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.

I prefer to see rather than smell non-standard concert dress.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

I do not comprehend this "rock-and-roll" word; is this some sort of genre or style designation? Me dinosaur of dead music. No, really.

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?

Aw jeez. Do I have to answer seriously? I mean, if I'm a clarinetist, probably Nielsen, but I'm so not.

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

What, this hasn't been proven already?

Saturday, March 24, 2007


A lone Cheeto sits on my floor, forlorn.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Easy Button

Spring everywhere. Even the smell of paper in Staples was fresher, like it was about to bloom back into trees. Riotous piles of multicolored paperclips like tulips. A boy stood in front of me, blocking my path.

“Mom? Where are you? Where are you?” He was apostrophizing a pile of index cards.

I had a heart-wrenching mindflash: me in a department store screaming, age 5 or 6, my mother just two or three sale racks away, but invisible, and there was no map of the world any more, no house or place, and I was lost like in my dreams, dreams in the jungle where I was supposed to hold on to my father and he got smaller and smaller and finally I dropped him because he was so tiny and there was nothing but green overgrowth and night. Spring takes me all over the place.

The boy tried again, nervously: “Mom? Where are you?”

A New Yorker’s curt twangy voice from the next aisle: “I’m here, Matt, I’m here.”

There was a pause. “I don’t know where here is,” he replied.

I was now next to him; I could see, as it were, the whites of his eyes. I shouldn’t have said anything, I really shouldn’t have, but his response seemed very beautiful. “Join the club,” I said. Just then, the mother came into view from around a bin of binders. She heard my comment, saw me address her child: she was not pleased.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I am prone like many concertgoers to terrible, quasi-spiritual restlessness. I wiggle about my cushion. I creak and sigh. My legs take turns becoming unhappily aware of themselves. My mind gives up, surrenders helplessly to the pointless rustle of my program booklet. Agh. What do I possibly think I will find there?

The other week I read the program notes (!) for my own performance of the “Spring Sonata,” and I read that the slow movement was a kind of touchstone. The word leapt out at me. Ah, yes, I thought, in the flush of affirmation, so true, so very true! and at the very next moment I wondered, hey, what is a touchstone? Heh. I am going through a little phase of loving my Dictionary app on my computer (me: easily pleased), and surrender myself between emails to little ecstasies of word clarification. Aha! I think, and then, How do they do it?, because my concepts of words are so corrupted by usage and life and sake tastings that they drift like icebergs farther and farther from their supposedly incorruptible cubbyholes of meaning—so that when I see the “actual” meaning there on the page, expressed in a few well-chosen words, I am often baffled, like when you run across the pimply bespectacled school nerd at your 10-year reunion and he has become a dazzling supermodel.

Finally, I met someone who works at a Very Important Dictionary. I assumed that if you could really know What Words Mean, you would be analogously precise at all other areas of life—that you would never make a late payment on your credit card, or lose your keys, or miss a flight, etc.—however, what I really didn’t expect or predict was that this highly-placed dictionary person would have the sparkle of a certain insane joy for life, a certain devil-may-care, wicked-librarian-on-the-loose quality (no reference tome she!) … and I looked at dictionaries differently from then on, with a kind of “I know what you’re up to” glare, as if, despite their perspicacity, they might suddenly get up from their dusty pedestals and go clubbing until 4 in the morning and then drive hurtling nonstop to greet the dawn in Montauk.

So. The word touchstone—as I’m sure you all know—refers to “a piece of fine-grained dark schist or jasper formerly used for testing alloys of gold by observing the color of the mark that they made on it.” By which metaphorically (perhaps usage is not such a big, bad, sinful bogeyman after all!) it has come to mean, “a standard or criterion by which something is judged or recognized”: is this what the program notes really meant?

I was seduced not by judgment or criterion, but by the image: the one stone scraping against the other, as a way of knowing if a stone was “good.” Knowing by the mark that is made, by the grit, the dust left behind. I imagined a composer taking his material and scraping it up against certain things (processes, problems, surprises, limitations), and knowing thereby that he had something worthwhile to work with. And I am always desperately questing for new “sublime” images and metaphors to express the ridiculous exasperation of playing the piano … the sheer physical illusions and self-deceptions at the heart of the enterprise, the grit you must find within. 88 identical silly (plastic!) keys and what you are looking for is always in between them; a situation in which (at bottom) you are simply pressing a button down a very small distance, over and over again, behind which gadgets mysteriously, heartlessly operate; you must always press down though you want many of the notes to feel “up;” you are a deluded Frankenstein, pretending to animate an inanimate object; you want to feel the keys, though they cannot “feel” you; inevitably, absurdly, you may feel that how you cross the next 3 millimeters of space with your little finger may mean as much, say, as the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The monstrous tension you must feel inside of you between two notes: a total paradox against the polished mechanical ease of the big black monster. And by the way, in case you were wondering, you are always scraped against the piano to measure your own worth.

I was sitting restlessly, ruffling program pages, thinking these thoughts, listening to some very beautiful singing, and not in the mood for those beauties. I needed edge, and I needed to be scraped. There was no mental touchstone, there was some unmeasurable quantity slipping away from me every moment, some repetitive random loss, and my head was sinking into a soft flutey fuzz. Nina Simone’s version of “Just in Time” popped into my head and I craved it deeply; I needed to flee. The person next to me whispered to his friend that the music we we hearing was “luminous,” and I snarked, yes, luminous like the soft light in a GE commercial … not like the light of Nina’s singing, the brazen belted thrash of her notes, their harsh waver …

When I got home I played “Just in Time” over and over and—yes!— the edge was there, just where I left it, in the CD player. I lolled amongst my unopened scattered mail and sang along horribly, passionately.

But also in my head, suddenly, conning its way in, was the slow movement of Op. 96, saying, hey, I'm in E-flat too! I had a little cascade of epiphanies. Both begin with relatively simple, periodic, well-behaved delineations which then reach unprecedented, unexpected emotional heights; they sear similarly; they both yearn and want so much; they both are exhilarated in a dark place; they both sit at the edge of loss, contemplating destruction from a vantage of redemption. Both begin from an accepted basis, buy into it, as it were, but when they open up what they've bought, they get more than they bargained for.

Nina’s point of departure is the standard “Just in Time”: she’s not, I think, in love with the tune, but with latent possibilities: rising suspensions, cresting waves of intensity--what the tune allows her to see. So that when first she sings “just in time, you found me just in time,” there is a ho-hum, here-are-the-chords quality … just layin it down for you, baby. (Same as opening of Beethoven, without the "baby.") Yes, there is the world, do you see?, the song exists, like anyone's perception of the world, within boundaries … but the piano takes over, improvises, and in the process something about the harmonic scheme begins to crystallize, some of the latent “problems” emerge … and when Nina reenters, the boundaries vanish, she's almost incanting; the words are charged, electric, out of control, over the same harmonies, now an enormous scrape of intensity:

I was lost [wonderful suspension over the harmony change]

the losing dice were tossed [suspension, surge in piano]

my bridge is overcrossed [more surge in piano]

nowhere to go [desperate, up to F]

nowhere to go [rising to G, even more desperate]

[brief respite] so let’s live today anyway…

… and finally, with the words, CHANGE ME, CHANGE ME two tremendous vocal slides, scraping over the essential, central pitches of the song (A-flat to E-flat), but absolutely grating, dissonant, passing from song into cry, the cry of the desire to escape yourself (to escape the song) to destroy your own habits and become a new, redeemed person … totally overwhelming … and when it is done, you know, breathlessly, that the song is “good.” I find myself shaking, vibrating, thrilled. I press repeat on the CD player, like a child, and do it all again.

Beethoven’s point of departure is the chorale … a beautiful chorale, to be sure, but “just” a chorale. How can a chorale be edgy? But it is; its sweetness is constantly laced, mixed, complicated, etched. I got obsessed with imagining the piano’s opening chorale ...

as a whole, arching, thing, kind of a singularity, a particle of music. Why? When I play it, to begin with, I want the spell of unity. I want to make love to coherence, the kind of emotional SuperGlue, which builds and breathes life into the sentence. In musical analysis we do due but strange deference to this coherence; we realize (perhaps?) it is so important, so emotionally basic, to hear and feel the one-thingness of it, that, with a pedagogical flourish, we label it with the most heartless possible term, perhaps just a capital A with a bracket, like so:

… code telling us A is the first thing we hear (therefore letter “A” and not "B") and it lasts just that long (8 measures, in case you are counting) and this is all—do you get it?—one thing. We analysts, in our modesty, and despite our labeling mania, don’t by any means want to “encumber” the music with any emotional subtext, so we use a letter and a bracket and leave the emotions up to you. Anyway they’re not that important, haha.

I would like to abolish the A bracket. It domesticates units. It reduces a whole to a thing. I hate it. I propose in place of the A-bracket combo, the idea of a musical “image.” This chorale is an image. Ezra Pound (the Imagist) wrote a rather famous, beautiful image:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

You see, it all goes together, the vision, in a flash? But in the first printing he wanted it separated thus…

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:
Petals       on a wet, black bough.

...which Kenner describes as “one image, five phases of perception.” I love this expression. The chorale, too, cut up into four similar phrases, each a variation on the other, each reflecting back on the other: and I think that is the perfect way to describe what happens, emotionally, musically: one image, four phases (phrases) of perception. It unfolds in time and each moment is of course different from, consecutive, "after" the last, but behind the consecutiveness and more important than any "after" is something that continuously spreads its tentacles everywhere, connecting, pattern-making, associating… a total image, a metaphoric associative dazzle …

There is, finally, something which interrupts the image, which expands or distorts it. (Which scrapes against it, makes clear its value, its meaning.) At the end of the chorale, the final three notes are repeated several times … G-F-Eb …

How can this soft, diminishing, peaceful ending paradoxically be edgy, be a touchstone? I don’t want to “encumber” the music, or make any of you purist analysts all uncomfortable-like, but for some reason this moment provokes me into all sorts of wild associations. The chorale has a rhythm, an inevitability (perhaps: a sing-songy predictability) and this repetitive conclusion is like a strange, alien, stretching at the end of its symmetry… an oddity pulling at the fabric of the piece (the chorale has a fabric, a weave)… When I think about this, I get an image, out of nowhere: a child tugging on the corner of her mother’s dress, saying “no, come this way,” or simply: “let’s go to sleep, let’s just rest here a while.” It is an unnerving, premature lullaby. The movement has barely begun, and yet (and yet!) there is a desire to surrender to the lulling, seeming ending; to give up (as if your bridge were “already overcrossed”), to dangerously allow an imagined repose.

By pulling the chorale out of its rhythm, this repetitive passage places it in a wider context of meaning … some way, some criterion (hmm) to measure and comprehend the chorale’s existence.

So we have lulled ourselves to sleep. Only by the most extraordinary leap of the imagination (and a literal leap of notes), does the piece wake itself up … an unexpected leap now infused with enormous meaning in the context of the lullabying sameness…

If we were really boring, we would say, describing this passage: “the violin now enters with a new melody, accompanied by the piano,” and we would write out the violin melody so everybody knows what it is:

But those two first leaping, symbolic notes, leading into the melody …

are taken up by the piano’s accompaniment, becoming a kind of constant, haunting reminder underneath:

What is the accompaniment’s role, anyway? In the opening chorale, a “typical” accompanimental situation is present: the sixteenth notes run beneath the melody, like a river—filling, fluidity, connection—expressing the slurs over the notes with smaller notes which do not presume too much, which do not take too much space, which know their place, which leave room for melody, for something “greater.” There is an acceptable hierarchy of meaning and value. But here, there is some confusion; the piano’s “accompaniment” keeps referring to the beginning of the violin’s “melody” (as if it wants to start over, to rehear the amazing opening), and keeps stopping short of the beat, a broken river. Which is melody and which is accompaniment? There is confusion, a sort of scrape of meaning between the two parts, as if instead of one stream, the discourse branches into two:

The violin’s melody moves slowly, is not particularly “catchy,” appears to be plain, empty. It plays unguarded notes, diatonic notes without “edge”--if you look at them by themselves--which need to be filled with meaning. And the piano is trying to fill in these notes, to make sense of them—or at least that is its “role.” The violin and piano, in a sense, keep measuring themselves against each other …

The piano is trying to give the violin a harmonic point of reference; at the same time each gesture is insufficient, and the violin keeps shifting, and the chain never stops. What the piano is trying to fill cannot be filled; there is more meaning there than it is capable of expressing. Instead of the river: a continuous breaking-apart, an accompaniment which expresses its own futility, where the image and its meaning refuse to merge. This “accompaniment,” which began its life as the introduction to a melody, this dissociated bit, becomes an obsessive idea, a constant burn behind the coda, a tremendously touching instability: a touchstone for the whole movement, scraping and leaving its mark irrevocably on the initial evenness of the chorale. The rhythmic tension of this idea “redeems” the chorale, saves it from its lull or its predictability, proves its worth. The lack of merging, this branching of thought, this grind of melody against accompaniment is so beautiful that each time as I play it I begin to feel myself changing (CHANGE ME!); at each rest, where the violin plays its new note and I am mute, I love, I desperately hold on to what I am not able to say.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Blue Bottle

When the concert ended, a Chinese man drove me back to my hotel in a large black Towncar. All the way down Geary. There were Russian bakeries, Dim Sum joints, gas stations, spas, the whole beat hybrid of San Francisco deciding, block by block, whether it is a city or not. I called up a friend in Chicago, and she was getting stoned.

I dumped my bag, my music, my concert clothes in my hotel room and, with everything piled prosaically on the bed, took quick stock. There were empty hours ahead and I could make no comprehensive plan.

I went to Blue Bottle. This is a little coffee kiosk on Gough and Linden that I discovered, walking one morning, saw people waiting outside of it, fell in with the herd, and when I tasted my first sip of their filter coffee and bit into a chocolate macaroon, the sunshine itself seemed to be jealous. How is it that anyone can drink other, crap coffee? Every cup of Starbucks, for instance, I had ever drunk seemed a terrible, terrible mistake, even an amoral act. When something beautiful happens to you you sit still and work to appreciate it, you don’t mess around. I sat on a bench basking and sipping and when the coffee was finished I was not sad. I did not suck at the empty cup like the addict I am, but moved on to other enjoyable things.

So, I went to Blue Bottle, to get an afternoon cup. Their motto:

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I was standing in line and the time and the little alley seemed drifting, out of the way, a corner. My day had blown itself into this strange, bluish, dusky bend. As I ordered my filter coffee, a girl and her friend who seemed intriguing came up behind me, and the girl sort of caught my eye and I did the awkward thing of seeing her and not seeing her at the same time. But then she made a move, and asked “Do you live in the neighborhood?” and I said, no, I was visiting, and it turns out she’s a student though I didn’t ask what she was studying, but now she knows I’m a pianist. Then I fled without wanting to. I strode off with my coffee wishing entirely I had kept talking to her and to her intriguing friend.

But I had left my wallet in my hotel room and I needed to retrieve it.

So I began to walk back with this cup of coffee and there was a certain late-afternoon breeze. It blew just a little. 4:45 pm, color of bluish sky, temperature of breeze, semi-quiet though the street was busy. The coffee didn’t throw me, didn’t jostle the string which was inside me and was allowed to vibrate. I kept walking, feeling, listening. A certain temperature of breeze was which maybe exactly precisely the same temperature of some other afternoon, an afternoon I am sure, though I do not remember the exact date or person at all (to say the least), an afternoon in which I was in love with someone.

A feeling took hold. A quiet and focus, despite busy streets, and despite the caffeine ringing inside of me, and I could pay a great deal of attention that I don’t normally pay. I would live continually like this if I could. I had no desire to stop or alter the flow of the moment. (Totally irrelevant phrases to me right now: waiter bring the check; why don’t we grab a drink; what should we do next?) Proust, man, I thought, I know exactly where you’re coming from, I am so happy right now and I could feel two moments, now and some distant time, rubbing shoulders in their breezes, because the earlier afternoon, which had been totally forgotten, was not “remembered” so much as made totally alive within me: but only the essentials, and none of the facts. I felt still capable of whatever it was.

The Inn at the Opera has a very silly (quaint?) old elevator which plays all sorts of canards from the classical repertoire, including a very vexing, limp, waddling version of the Mozart Flute Concerto, which makes the endless process of waiting for the elevator to get to my floor, at times, a complete misery. That morning at 7 am, bag of laundry in hand, jetlaggy and confused, I stood and descended through a merciless and mediocre tutti, which made the morning seem unnecessarily cruel. In my mind I scolded the strings, no, I thought, don’t you get harmony AT ALL? I glowered at the concierge, as if he were responsible.

But just then, coffee in hand, the last movement of Tchaik 6 was on, while I was headed up to my room to grab my wallet and head back out, those few moments of music were thrilling. Tchaikovsky! I sympathized with him. It was that moment over a timpani pedal point. That was his world; yes, I thought, that’s yours. The strings played yearning phrases (I thought, grooving: this is really really yearning, he got that) and my soul or my stomach tidally went back and forth with them, I moved without moving. Obviously I was feeling receptive, in a mockable way, but I couldn’t laugh at myself, loving Tchaikovsky, because it was too good for laughter. The melancholy all-in-the-throatness of it, the heart well past the sleeve, pure cry and wish.

A momentary digression. This post really has no plot or point whatsoever, so digressions should be fine. We (me and Josh) had many wonderful audiences on our most recent tour, but my favorite was in Madison, Wisconsin. This is because when Josh announced our (perpetual) encore, “None But The Lonely Heart,” as usual some portion of the audience sighed and swooned and gasped with delight. Another portion, however, after a telltale moment—and I imagine this was the younger, more studentish portion of the crowd—found this gasping ridiculous and overwrought (and probably don’t really know “None But The Lonely Heart” anyway): they laughed. This second tide of laughter was the antidote to the gasping clichĂ©. Oh, Tchaikovsky! How Romantic! Get over it, you’re a sucker. I enjoyed this, a lot. Perhaps too much. I laughed an evil laugh inside. Perhaps somewhere deep down I had some resentment towards “None But The Lonely Heart” stored up and I was letting the audience work it out. I enjoyed imagining the two elements of the audience at war, something like the war between the lyrical and the cynical within myself. What a ridiculous title, “None but the Lonely Heart;” doubtless some mangled original Russian, some stilted bit of fey easily-sold Romantical drivel. Yick. Clearly I have issues.

And then I was back out on the street in the same breeze and still in love with someone irrelevantly in the past. Which caused me no regret, to feel the love again, disembodied. I walked a few blocks with absolutely no plan except not to imprison myself in any situation. I looked down the alley for the same girl and her intriguing friend who had talked to me, and now they were gone. No matter, they might have been a distraction. I was in a humming, happy solitude and every sight was fresh. But all I could do was walk.

I drifted into a used bookstore and bought a couple wonderful books entirely on a whim, I didn’t want to think about them. I considered getting depressed by all the old musty books and all the lives they represented but I didn’t. But there in the history section, the Brahms Horn Trio came back to me, which I had just performed (for some reason I almost just typed “deformed”): particularly the Trio of the Scherzo, the truly most melancholy moment. (Other pole to jolly E-flat.) It reverberated from the Tchaikovsky? The phrases were similar, gluey, wanting.

When music manages to feel achingly physical. When the simplest interval is back, baby, when you know it is just that wide. When all the voices of the chords seem to be resolving like intertwining hands. Some fourth resolves to the major third and there, your lover puts a hand on yours and skin touches skin; and the touch is so not about just the place you are touched, but radiates in internal channels and carries secret messages all around your body. And that is how those phrases seemed to me, of Brahms, and of Tchaikovsky, and I think some sort of pubescent naive bodily-ness came to me all of a piece with the Tchaikovsky which I had not ardently listened to since I was 15. Message carriers, profound touches. Same with every sight, every grimy street corner, every glimpsed couple in a restaurant across the street, every small whispered word, the aggregate world of every person’s ridiculous gesture all the way down Market Street to Noe and back.

And so, in conclusion, I suggest you go to the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, as soon as possible, and order a filter coffee, nothing more complicated than that, and keep ordering one a day, at least, for the rest of your life.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I Don't Know What To Call This

I was really feeling this tremendous desire to—how shall I put this?—let my brain fry in the skillet of our times. So I hitched my pants up a shade and surrounded my sofa with Snackwell Cookies and pork rinds and Mountain Dew and put an old DVD-R in the trusty laptop: the episode of the Anna Nicole Show where she feeds Prozac to her dog. I felt if I went back to the old beloved chestnuts, I might just recover some of the early eclat of reality TV, some bracing frisson distilling the creative juices which brought us to the tremendous cultural summit we inhabit, here in late February 2007. We are all, in a sense, survivors of Survivor.

I expected the computer to come quickly to life with flickering images of limousines, manicures and breast enlargements. But: it was not to be. The DVD drive whirred a second overlong, and instead of iDVD, my favorite eponymous app, ubiquitous, rascally iTunes started bouncing up and down in its Dock, a crazed attention-seeking icon… not unlike, I mused mid-rind, the woman whose show I was hoping nostalgically to view. And there in the left column of my iTunes window, I saw something confusing, even flabbergasting, something which contradicted everything I absolutely knew to be true:

Laszlo Simon: Liszt Transcendental Etudes, Book I

I trembled on my sofa’s oft-stained cushion. How was this possible!? The DVD was clearly labeled ANNA NICOLE 2002; I recalled, in those heady days, recording the program with finicky flicks of my own fingers … but, cunningly, the machine did not lie. When I pressed play, lo and behold! a sober tuxedoed pianist strode onscreen, to invisible applause; stormy octaves and other Lisztian mannerisms ensued.

I grabbed the phone in an access of panic. Cory, luckily, was at home.

“Cory, I am trying to watch some Anna-Nicole …”

“Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy … isn’t it about time for you to move on?”

“No.” I huffed in frustration. “It’s not about that.”

“Yeah, right,” he said… “You know, chimps are learning to write, and all you can think about is Anna Nicole!” I had never heard him hyperlink over the phone like that before; it was a breathtaking display of communicative virtuosity, causing me to drop my Snackwell thunk! upon my keyboard. But while I cursed the sticky mess, I noticed that the Anna Nicole show was playing in place of Laszlo Simon.

“Holy silicone!" I exclaimed, “she’s back!”

Cory was silent.

Never had a low-fat chocolate product proved so fateful. My Snackwell had pressed the fast forward button. And at precisely 2x faster than the original, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes seemed magically, even effortlessly, to transform themselves into the Anna Nicole show. There she was, flouncing into shops on Rodeo Drive. Though I wanted to surrender to the program and lie back on my sofa, reclining, as it were, in the nether regions of my mind, I knew something was at stake here, something bigger than my brain-frying pleasures, if that were possible. I related all this to Cory and we decided that expert guidance was needed…

Who else to call but Professor Barrington-Coupe, distinguished guru of the Reality TV Institute of Greater La Jolla and Surrounding Frivolous Areas? Luckily, he was on my speed dial. While Cory collected some pan-Asian takeout and jaunted over to my place, I was able to convince the Professor’s many layers of secretaries to let me speak with him, that there was, in fact, an urgent, unusual cultural emergency, revealed by the confluence of iTunes and a Snackwell! Finally I got his well-worn voice on the phone, Cory walked in with some miso-glazed brie, and together we laid out the seemingly impossible facts.

“So you see, Professor … “

At first Barrington-Coupe pretended to be mystified. “My boys, too much Mountain Dew on the brain, perhaps … some cosmic joke…” but as I persisted, I heard his voice go tired. The fight was not in him; he was going to reveal to us the dangerous truth…

I was passionate. “But which one is REAL, Professor? Is the Anna Nicole show the real thing, and the Liszt merely a slowed-down fake? (… a speculation which would involve some fancy historical footwork?) … or, which seems more likely, is the Anna-Nicole show—a reality TV show, for heaven’s sake!—just a plagiarized, sped-up version of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes?”

Even as I uttered this last sentence, I gasped at its yawning implications. It would certainly put a dent in my conception of the sanctity of Reality TV.

Cory and I, side by side on the sofa, listened, tense with anticipation, to the silence on the speakerphone. It seemed we could hear his moral hesitations, his reluctance to divulge, but when the truth came it came in a flood:

“My friends, don’t you know?” (his voice quivering) “…that there is no novel, there is no ‘work,’ per se, the author and authorship is dead, and thank goodness too! Long live the reader, who becomes thereby no mere consumer but a producer of the text. And there is of course no ‘one text,’ but in its place a vast intertext, where everything is a gateway to everything else, the infinite creation of the readerly, an endless unencumbered plural… You don’t believe me? Just press fast forward again, I dare you!”

Not knowing if I would regret it, I pressed FF; at 4x suddenly the video became Vladimir Ashkenazy’s cancelled cooking show, How to Cook Russian on the Road. Cory and I gazed, wide-eyed. I pressed on, with my sense of reality collapsing around me, and at 8x the video became Tom Cruise in that horrible bartender movie which I can never remember the name of … ahhh! would it never stop, this endless cross-pollination? I took a bite of some teriyaki soufflĂ©.

Barrington-Coupe’s voice took on a hushed, conspiratorial tone, now he almost seemed to be laughing at us … “and you know boys heh just take it down to 6% of the original speed … hehhehheh" ... the tentative laughter dissolved into a kind of crazed coughing …

We followed his instructions, and suddenly we were watching He Said, She Said.

Barrington-Coupe explained: “The well-known game is a misnomer … well … perhaps a case of mere faulty orthography. It is not a matter of degree. At 6 percent, EVERYTHING is Kevin Bacon.”

“Everything?” I whimpered, not wanting to know the answer …

“Everything written or filmed since the dawn of human recorded thought.” The Professor’s voice was now flatly, oddly calm, as though with the deliverance of this awful, unifying truth, the sort of Law that Science only dreamed of delivering to the world, the small pitiful anxieties of human life could and would disperse into a giant field of undifferentiated Baconianism.

“You know, sometimes I see Kevin at Gennaro, just around the corner from my house…”

Cory rolled his eyes at my first-name-dropping.

But the Professor was distracted. Faintly, we heard another voice over the speakerphone, a strangely familiar voice calling, it seemed, from another room (or from another dimension?): “Come back to bed, Professor. It’s getting cold in here … “ A giggle and the unmistakable pop of a champagne bottle followed.

“Ummm, errr … “ The Professor stammered, now no longer the calm prophet of universal mutation but a human being whose deception has been uncovered. “I really need to be going …” he said, and the female other-voice was heard again… “I need to be taught a NAUGHTY lesson, Professor …”

Just then the phone went dead. Cory and I looked at each other. With dread in the pit of my stomach, I returned the DVD to its 2x setting, and after only a few seconds I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the voice I had just heard over the speakerphone, despite many nodes of intermediate translation, and despite manifest impossibility! Was she, then, alive? Oh it was too much to hope for! And perhaps, dare I say it, the issue of her daughter’s patrimony had yet another, astounding wrinkle? The world might never know, if not for the brave, unimpeachable reportage of Think Denk!

Cory sniffed. “Not everything exists to be material for your blog, Jeremy. Try to restrain yourself.”

But I already had my coat on and was headed for Gennaro. I had to ask Kevin something really really important …

(...credit for much of the above, whether he wants it or not, belongs to the extremely estimable pianist Cory Smythe.)


The following comparative chart may help people sort out the two great scandals of our age. I post it with great reluctance. If you are prone to be offended, please READ NO FURTHER, we will return to polite blogging in the next post, I promise.