Classical Music Buzz > think denk
think denk
The glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist.
47 Entries

Emptyish streets, sheen of rain. The college students have all left for the summer, or they’ve graduated and their long lives are about to begin, or they’re sleeping. There is no difference between a college student sleeping and a college student in a distant town. In the morning, when they slumber, you feel a total absence, like a minus sign; but by Boston’s mid-afternoon, wafting pot smoke signals awakening hormonal hordes; at 4 PM or so, they become more tangible and jog by, as if exercise were necessary for them. They are added back to the world.

I’ve been living my life too much in a state of emergency. Instead of consulting a professional, I have come up with a three step solution. Recalibrating my life solution. The first step is to ignore all existing emergencies. Now, this—I can already hear you saying it—can’t last, this is not a workable solution. It sounds in fact like the opposite of a solution. Patience! Wait till you hear my next two steps.

Step two—the real genius hinge of the whole thing—is then, in the absence of all emergencies, in the vast plain of false calm left after the tyrannical banishment of all the old emergencies, to choose to treat the smallest things as emergencies. Take the tension that needs an outlet, and re-apply it, like a salve or leech, to trivia. For instance, that morning, the morning of the sheen on the streets and the city asleep, I put some water on to boil and I realized that there was no oatmeal left in the cupboard. Indeed, I’d simmered my last oats into mush just the day before. No oatmeal! Suddenly I was racing around the apartment, whipping up usable underwear, a shirt, the bike lock, nearly dropping my bike lock key into the toilet in my haste, knocking a coffee cup onto the floor (necessitating a time-wasting cleanup, sighs of impatience and desperation), searching for my wallet in all the previous day’s pants, choosing perversely the socks that will look most idiotic in combination with my sneakers, all of these things done poorly, in an urgent heat, just to get myself out the door. Then there I am, biking along the Fenway towards the Whole Foods (just any oatmeal will not do). Part of the timeline’s gone missing; I don’t quite recall how I got out of the museum and onto the path. I whiz by geese. Yes, geese. I do not feel I can do justice in words to these geese, honking at empty stretches of grass, honking at time intervals, not periodically but at intervals. It’s not a joyous noise but it’s got something, it’s scooped out of some really pungent vat of sound. The geese are all facing in angles, like in a Renaissance painting, ideally miscellaneous honking angles. This randomness is perhaps chosen, to make clear to the other geese that they’re really not honking at them–and to distribute their message to the maximum cross-section of the universe.

Someday, it is inevitable, there will be a collision between myself and a Fenway goose. There will be a terrible clatter, a squawk and cry, some lone bicycle part will roll off down into the muck, and there will just be me and a goose lying there, damaged. People will walk by. I don’t think the goose and I will resent each other.

Anyway, back to my three-step solution. The thing is, having applied unbearable tension to these trivial acts, step three is a kind of hilarious transcendental emptiness—my goal. I swerved rapidly across Westland Ave., curving violently to avoid nonexistent oncoming traffic, I incommoded a harmless pedestrian, skidding my way up to the bike rack, braking just in time to pull my bike into the slot, I rapidly rotated my backpack, zipped it open with a flourish, unlocked the lock, hands trembling, slipped it onto the wheel and rack, almost forcing it on, then turned to face the doors of the Whole Foods like a superhero arriving just in time, and in that moment of stoppage the world—I didn’t quite recognize it. There were a couple of people, aimlessly making their way in and out of the supermarket. There was a man, leaning down to chain his dog, giving it a soothing pat, a there-there. There was a shhh and whirr of wheels in the rain. A scattered chorus of small activities implying humanity’s inactivity. The rain and the cloudiness and the smell of rain in the air. Distant honks. It occurred to me I was going to the grocery store to get some oatmeal.

Like a mantra, or a symptom of incipient insanity, as I walked through the Whole Foods I kept repeating to myself “I am at the grocery store to buy some oatmeal,” partly to prevent myself from buying $40 bags of organic goji berries.

Go ahead, quibble with my math. Replacing what seemed like real emergencies with obviously fake ones (x=y); draining these fakes of import (x minus x); and transferring this back to the more serious zones of life (y=x); and from this fraudulent circular calculation finding yourself suddenly delirious, damp, giggling in the cereal aisle, out of breath from a near goose collision, in love with the experience of a calm Sunday morning… I can’t pretend to a theorem; in fact I’m sure something important has vanished. Luckily, happiness is not a sum.

Tags: Jeremy Denk (Piano) ; Piano ;
4 years ago |
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I feel incredibly honored to have been asked to write this piece on piano lessons for The New Yorker, and hopefully I used the honor honorably. It caused me some stress. Assembling a narrative out of your past is dangerous, especially when your life is still frantically ongoing. It was complicated (to say the least) to write about the vulnerability of performing while I was preparing for my Carnegie Hall recital.

In the essay, many sins of omission. I elide stupidly over the Oberlin years, Joseph Schwartz, and all the other great teachers I had there, in order to make space for the appearance of Sebok. There is no mention of my wonderful Juilliard teacher, either, Herbert Stessin, who was so different from Sebok and wise in a completely different, often more practical, way.

Anyway, I hope all those other teachers and coaches out there forgive me for organizing the piece around this moment when Old Europe landed on top of me, and neglecting all their crucial interventions. I am so delighted that the magazine put together a little web video, which includes a peek inside the piano lesson journal, and some beautiful footage of Sebok. I must admit, my absolute favorite recorded bit of Sebok is his performance of the Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes with Janos Starker. There is something about the way he plays the formidable technical passages of this piece, with a bit of amusement, as if it were complicated child’s play, always turning the corners eloquently and cleverly…and then after Mendelssohn’s stormy mini-climax, the way Sebok plays the return of the theme, with just the tiniest loving pauses on the meaningful notes—it calls back to me all the amazing time I spent with him. (The whole album, of course, is worth many many listens.)

There’s also a YouTube of his studio recording of the Brahms Handel Variations, which I think captures some of the purity and simplicity of his musical thinking (he was very dismissive of his own recordings), and a video of him playing the “Aeolian Harp” Etude, showing his hands, a miracle of ease, efficiency, fluidity.

Somewhere in the Oberlin archives, also, I believe there is a recording of Sebok’s recital in early 1990, with the life-changing Bach encore I mention in the essay. I am too afraid to go listen to it.

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4 years ago |
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So many of my infrequent blogposts begin with the illusion of action, like “I was just settling down to … when …” or “I was innocently insulting my local barista when …” or perhaps:

I was just getting myself comfortable on an 8 AM Amtrak.  You know how it is.  You have your suitcase packed the night before, and you dream all night of things you haven’t packed or will never pack, subconscious toiletries.  Then, you wake up a little bit before your alarm, because your brain is so perversely prepared for unwanted events.  You stumble out of bed, realizing you’re wearing underwear and a sweater which really wasn’t meant for sleeping.  Coffee is made, at least there’s that.  By no means are you cursing yourself and God for ever agreeing to teach a masterclass in Boston at 1 PM.  You wander about the apartment combing it for things and you have everything, absolutely everything, and at last it is simply time, you really must leave, and at that moment of absolute deadline you realize you can’t find your keys.

Hilarity on the subway.  Running over people’s feet with your suitcase, and not really caring that much after the glares they give you.  Leaving the subway at Penn Station, I’m the last one off due to self-evident un-maneuverability, and luckily there’s some nice people mostly blocking the exit wearing their headphones so there’s only that little gate of space between them to squeeze through, while outside on the platform there’s a sea of humanity newly arrived from New Jersey or wherever the hell.  I have only that moment to flee before they all come (nay, barge) in and as I sprint out sensing the desperation of my situation a complete jerk is waiting there, saying contemptuously to his jerk friend “rush hour and THEY bring suitcases.”

We theys won’t be stopped.  I took the sneaky back way into the train past the depressing soup and wrap place and sat down before everyone else.  My mood could only be described as 7:52 AM.  A woman tried to take my seat while I was putting away my suitcase and I explained to her that that was not going to happen.  A cup of decaf and some instant oatmeal later, after some disagreement with the endlessly positive but not really that positive cafe guy, since his positivity is just a mask for deep distrust of the stream of customers and therefore all of humanity, I am opening up my laptop on the train and there it is, a new email:

To Whom It May Concern:

The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the Performing Arts Web Archive. We consider your website to be an important part of this collection and the historical record.

The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital materials, including websites.

The following URL has been selected for archiving:
jeremydenk.net/blog

My seat partner was probably mystified by my bark of laughter.  Dear Readers of Think Denk, can you believe this?  I could not decide if this turn of events gave me hope, or the darkest despair.  “Of historical importance to the Congress and the American people”!!!  At that moment the very crust in the corner of my eyes felt crustier.  Think like an artifact, I thought.  A cultural artifact would drink some more decaf and think things over.  An artifact procrastinates.  
 
In the meantime, I forwarded this email to a few select persons, fishing for snark.  Friend L’s reply was quite excellent:

Next up, your box of Captain Crunch and your Isserlis-annoying coffee apparatus to be acquired for the Smithsonian.

An hour later, friend A:

If any offspring of mine wants to write the thesis “Trill, baby, trill: Jeremy Denk and the American Way” in 20 years, I will leave this world by my own hand.

And last but not least, my mother:

Sounds impressive.

Which is a miraculously concise piece of parental ambiguous screw-with-your-accomplishments genius!  Just two words!  “Impressive” or even “Wow” would have supportively sufficed, but the addition of the unassuming word “sounds” carries the deliciously unavoidable implication of it being much much less impressive than the word impressive would suggest.
 
As I gathered all these responses, I laughed to myself in the train, a great therapeutic laugh, as though the universe and all its numberless stars and empty spaces were laughing along with me.  I had to think of my legacy now, like a second-term president.  What will I leave the children?  

And yes, yet another blogpost has gone by without me discussing music in any substantive fashion whatsoever.

Tags: Jeremy Denk (Piano) ; Piano ;
4 years ago |
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Two mornings ago I woke up in an absurdly cozy room, all quilt and nook and alcove. Snow was sort of aimlessly wandering around the air outside. I faced a daunting to-do list:

1. Futile nine hundredth attempt to master, once and for all, the impossible passages in Ades’ Lieux Retrouves. (Somewhat urgent, as the concert is that day.)

2. Make progress on my libretto, possibly the first and last opera ever written about musical analysis. (Hilariously urgent).

3. Practice the Bartok Sonata, the Liszt Dante Sonata, etc. etc. Revisit the fundamental laws of piano playing.

4. Continue to develop script for video liner notes about the Goldberg Variations, avoiding the terrible pitfalls of pretension and boredom and gosh-golly oversimplification.

5. Annoy Steven Isserlis.

There are high-priority items on this list. But as anyone who has come into contact with Steven will I’m sure attest, the last item is the easiest, and the most fun. I made it my first order of business; annoying one’s colleagues is an important part of any profound musical relationship. (Longtime readers may remember this.)

As it happens, the place where Steven and I were staying is hosted by a lovely generous woman named Doris who, as I learned from a previous stay, makes incredibly weak coffee. You can sort of infer the weakness of the coffee from the calmness and coziness of the cottage she runs. It’s part of the whole gestalt of the place. Knowing this crucial piece of information, I brought my own kettle and cone and filters and a small Ziploc bag of ground beans. How else is one to withstand Oberlin in early February, at the epicenter of winter?

I brought just enough beans for one person (myself) to make it through two mornings. Let me make this absolutely clear: I could have brought more, but I did not. Now cut, after ablutions, and me padding down two flights of creaky stairs in stocking feet, to a scene where Steven and I are sitting across from each other at a big wooden table. My kettle is humming away behind me. I am slowly then pouring hot water over my beans while Doris brews Steven some of her trademark brew.

Probably you don’t even need me to tell you how this turns out. I couldn’t have really planned it better. I lift my cup to my lips, it’s quite delicious, I smack my lips in appreciation. Meanwhile Steven is taking his first sip of Doris’ coffee. The look on his face: a sculpted masterpiece of resentment. My ongoing cries of pleasure. Steven’s whispered hisses. My giggles. Doris coming in to offer Steven more coffee. Mmm, I say, marvelous coffee, downing the last of my mug. It was musical, predestined, collaborative, part of an endless series of irritations I have visited upon Steven over time, like Bach’s explorations of all the iterations of harmony and counterpoint.

What’s so satisfying about Steven is that once he grabs hold of some injustice, he gnaws on it for days, months, years. He mentioned my coffee behavior to everyone we met later that day, professors who don’t care, random staff, outreach coordinators, page-turners, whatever and whoever, he wanted everyone to know. But the wonderful thing is, I think all of them, having met Steven, understood exactly why I did it, and why I’d do it (with love in my heart) again and again and again.

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4 years ago |
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I set forth into the sunny morning with purpose. I am (after all) an Artist in Residence at the Gardner Museum. My hotel is slightly too posh, kind of annoying yuppie old-school. The room keys are brass, huge, pocket-consuming. A man in hat and uniform stands by the elevators; he says good morning to my back as I walk out the door. I don’t have time for him. I am thinking of a thousand forgotten tasks, failings, instances of non-adulthood, and I am thinking a horrible thought: being an artist can’t forgive everything.

To exit this loop of artistic self-recrimination, I remind myself: Richard Wagner had a fetish for silk underwear, for pink women’s panties. For God’s sake, he sent Nietzsche out to buy the underwear for him! I can’t believe this is true, that it’s not something I just dreamed. I could totally have dreamed Nietzsche in Victoria’s Secret buying silk panties for Wagner—before meeting Schopenhauer at Cinnabon. How come this didn’t come up in Music History 101? If I had a class of smiling innocent undergraduates, all beamingly in love with Classical Music, that’s the very first thing I would do in the very first class: I would lay out the whole sordid story, then play them some of those hyper-masculine funeral marches and rousing choruses while holding up a pair of pink panties.

I start walking down Mass Ave. My left hand falls to my left pocket—nothing there but leg. Two days ago, my phone entered an insoluble loop. It becomes aware that it has been plugged in, but it cannot make anything of this circumstance. It will not charge, or evolve; it has only useless knowledge that power is coursing through it, reflected in a icon for thinking, then a ghostly battery, then darkness, then screen scramble. Repeat cycle. Uncanny: I was an atheist until my phone began to understand me; now I have the disturbing sense that God may actually exist, that he has plans for me.

Phoneless, I cannot Google pretentious coffeeshops. So I rush immediately into Starbucks, as if it were the only coffee for miles. I sit with my Very Berry coffee cake and do the Ken Ken in the New York Times. But how can an artist in residence do Ken Ken and eat cake in a heartless coffee chain? I flee. I head down Newbury. Only twenty seconds further is a bookshop cafe—salvation! I’m burning to read Kafka’s Amerika. I run back to the shelves, but it is not there.

Meanwhile, in the cafe area, a woman alone in a booth is complaining. No one has taken her order. The black-shirted waiter is unperturbed. “Did you read the sign at the front?,” he asks. His question mark has no meaning, it is just protocol. He cares not whether she read it, or no. “Please wait to be seated, it says,” he says to her. All day people wander into this bookshop without reading the single sentence at the door. It is not her sins but humanity’s he is enumerating, and he isn’t going to go all fire-and-brimstone on her, no no, he isn’t even conceding he’s upset, except to express through his tone the utter lack of faith he has in her as a customer. She defends herself, claiming she’d told the guy at the front. “He probably thought you were waiting for someone,” the waiter says, with no hope that the customer could ever be in the right. “I’ll try to get over to you and take your order,” he says, turning away.

This puts me in an awkward position, my butt almost on the cushion, a criminal but for some small resistance to gravity. He approaches.

I decide to take an aggressive stance, difficult to do half-seated.

“I’m not entirely sure what the procedures are here,” I said, putting all the pent-up stress of the last week of my life into the sarcasm of the key word. But he’d seen sarcasm before. Against my implication that he was an anal Fascist he was unmoved, a perfect brick wall. “The sign at the front reads please wait to be seated.” Pause. “However, at the bar it is first come, first served.” Two other people were at the bar, leaving twenty empty seats. He wanted me to know a vast structure of irrelevant rules existed.

It came time to order. “Huevos rancheros,” I say, “But can I sub something in for the plaintains”? “No, that’s not possible,” he says, with no hint of apology. “They’re very picky back there.” Back where? I didn’t need Amerika; this cafe was becoming more Kafkesque by the moment, with a shadowy they behind the scenes. I try to throw in a curveball, something Kafka could not have foreseen: “well, how about the southwestern burrito?” A withering look contorted the waiter’s face. No, not the bemused grimace suggesting it was not their best dish. It was infinitely more than that. It was “how could you not KNOW that our southwestern burrito is terrible?” There was moral judgment of my quick abandonment of the rancheros; I was a fickle customer, jumping ship over an unwanted side. Life, he implied, sometimes came with sides you didn’t want. Like when you have suddenly the career you’ve always wanted but it comes with levels of stress you never quite expected, and that you don’t know how to tame.

The gentleman to my left asks for his check. The waiter stops what he’s doing, and instead of responding, stares into space for ten seconds. The man grows uncomfortable. Finally the waiter says, in a tone of absolute weariness and impossibility:

“I have absolutely no idea how I would go about doing that right now.”

The customer laughs nervously, waiting for an explanation. Eventually the customer blurts “well I only ask because I have to get to work” … as if he had to justify himself, apologize. The waiter glowers. My mind reels in this world of reverse responsibility. No progress towards a check. At last a manager emerges from the back, and through his intervention we learn the missing fact: the computer system is down. He is a heterosexual, slightly shorter version of our waiter. They are astoundingly similar. But one radiates pure artistic snippiness, the other boring efficiency.

“I’ll pay cash,” the customer says desperately. The manager claims it should be only five minutes till the computer restarts, but the man wants to make his escape. I don’t blame him; the woman in the booth has vanished long since.

All my worries about life are beginning to fade away. I am entranced. The waiter must now create a receipt by hand. He searches out a notepad, rustles around for a pen. He makes a wonderful show of consulting the menu to see what everything costs, flipping the pages, holding his face close to the pages as if made nearsighted by inconvenience. With what delicious sense of injury, with what spectacle of martyrdom he implies that numerical concerns are below him! My head gets hot, flushed with coffee and appreciation. I remove my Cookie Monster hat. The waiter gazes for a good three seconds at my ungodly bed-and-hat-head, to be filed among so many other disappointments.

The rancheros arrive. They are delicious, the tortillas crispy, the sauce tart and hot, the plantains decadently burning the roof of my mouth as I wolf them down. I begin to realize it may be a long time before I decide to replace my phone. The emptiness in my left pocket is pleasant, a liberating death. I recollect all the stupid text messages I have sent over the last six months, all their emptiness and all their striving to be what they are not. I have a real doozy of an Artist in Residence notion, to make a poem or a piece or some absurd pretentious installation out of my least favorite text messages. I will write one of the world’s most annoying blurbs about my installation. Analyzing them, in all their half-assed failure to communicate. All the ways in which I have allowed technology to scatter my forces, to email myself to a million recipients and get nothing back.

These thoughts go on and on as I eat, maybe twenty or thirty minutes. The waiter comes by and refills my coffee. At last I too require the check. The computer is of course still dead.

“The computer’s down, but it’ll be back on in five minutes,” the waiter says in his best heterosexual accent, his eyes rolling leftwards towards the manager’s office. An iceberg of sarcasm over an unfathomable ocean of employee resentment. If I’m not entirely mistaken, he’s warming towards me. He makes my receipt by hand. I leave him a twenty, ask him to just give me two dollars back. I gather Cookie Monster, my bag, my thoughts, my jittery soul, I make to leave this place.

“Do you need your receipt?” he asks as I’m leaving. I shake my head. He grabs it, stuffs it in his apron. I look at him quizzically—why does he want my old receipt?

“…I want to use the paper for the next one.”

I try a wild gambit. “Oh, too bad. I thought you wanted a memento of our time together.”

He is manipulating limes, glasses, forks behind the counter, doing a million waiter things all of which seem to be unnecessary. He does not look up. He says “you can tell yourself that if it will help you get through the day.” I am silently giving him the Bitchiest Gay Man Of All Time Award, smiling; I walk outside with a spring in my step; this Artist in Residence is in love.

Tags: Jeremy Denk (Piano) ; Piano ;
5 years ago |
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It’s not my intention to let this blog deteriorate into a series of self-regarding announcements. I would prefer to spin off a sort of house organ, let’s call it Denk News, or something, which would have the responsibility of reviewing my own concerts, telling everyone all the wonderful things I am doing, the recipes I am considering making, etc. etc.

But the launching of Denk’s organ may take some time. In the interim, without any meta- or irony or postmodern-whatever-other-trappings of the 21st Century Musician, I have to admit I am very very excited to appear on Fresh Air today. From the moment that Terry Gross’ voice came over the headphones in the ironically airless and stale studio, I was transported, I felt changed into a kind of latte-sipping Volvo-driving Avatar of myself.

Seriously, I am thrilled that she found the album compelling enough to listen to, and talk about. She asked me very simple and profound questions, by which I often found myself stumped. Feel free to tune in and mock me for my stammering flights of fancy.

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5 years ago |
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I don’t know for sure, but I think it might be nearing the last day to stream Ligeti/Beethoven for free on NPR. So break out the champagne, set out the canapés, dim the lights, pull your honey closer to you on the couch, let your arm drift around his/her shoulders, and put this album on; you are sure to get a reaction.

5 years ago |
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After the day of manic joy and sunshine and desire, the last thing I wanted was to go into Carnegie Hall with all the Schubert and the syphilis and death. But Mitsuko is a genius, what’s more a generous genius, and to hear her play the three last Sonatas in the storied hall—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s what I told myself. These once-in-a-lifetime experiences can really play havoc with your schedule.

I arrived at the perfect moment, almost too late, congratulating myself for my artsy tardiness, and found myself in the front row of a box. As I peered over the edge of the box and (as always) contemplated pre-concert suicide—would my plunge attract more publicity than Yuja Wang’s dress at the Hollywood Bowl?—I suddenly, desperately craved ten minutes to decompress, to come to an understanding with the dark lush carpet, the gilt proscenium, etc. The event felt impending, like a tornado. My neighbors to left and right were friends, people I could be an ass around, but behind me was a charming Japanese woman, an innocent bystander, and I knew in my fluttering spring heart that I dare not, must not ruin the concert for her. The lights dimmed; Mitsuko walked on; with all the theatre of the crammed stage seating and rapturous ovations and extremely low bows, I found myself frozen rather publicly in a scene I had no business being in, like Jennifer Aniston wandering into the Ring Cycle. The first chords came. I tried to sit calmly; but all day Nature had been telling my body to take counsel from the breeze.

42 hours earlier: Brooklyn 1 AM, on a quiet stretch of 5th avenue, South Slope. A bar, of course; some light, not much; my eyes were drawn to a row of retro figurines on an impossibly high shelf, before swerving towards the inevitable chalkboard, listing hipster pub pies. I’m reaching down in the dark beneath my feet for my bag. Everything is falling out. The bag, structureless, my life. As multiple notebooks go flying on the floor and a few receipts and maybe my Kindle I think, yes, this has all happened before and it signifies and it is inescapably comic slash tragic. The soft leather of my bag on the filth of the bar floor is eloquent. At some point after I ordered and consumed the Thai Chicken pie and then coated it with a red slathering of sriracha—the chronology is uncertain, collapsing—certainly after the third gimlet, I was pulling Roland Barthes out of my bag: Fragments of the Discourse of Love. A book X (my companion) knew and loved. I always have urges for Barthes fans. My idea is that they will follow certain pleasures to the end, to the last nook, comma and cranny.

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

… so says Roland. However, here in Brooklyn, X and I (and X’s dog, I forgot to mention) are having language difficulties; we’re at the end of conversations we’ve had before, in verbal quandaries which keep dead-ending on voids, heavy with “umms,” impasses where the voice is squeezed by the brain’s unwillingness to go on. This is a totally classic, typical X and I moment, this breakdown of communication. Unfortunately I am only able to read the meaning of this non-communication vaguely, and it is surely informed and mistranslated by my wishful thinking, itself conflicted, which is probably crap and all of this infuriatingly, Heisenbergishly impossible to know, because if I break the silence and say do you want to be together or not, our precious vague equilibrium will be destroyed, and the question mark of our relationship will fade away into the sky like a lost balloon. 

So, I respond to the breakdown by reading from a book about breakdowns. I am reading loudly; a disapproving glare radiates from the rest of the bar.  Even through my pie-vodka haze I realize I am flirting via literary theory in Brooklyn, how ridiculous, I disgust myself.

At 2 AM I gaze up at the night sky, steady myself against the distant stars, and think: do they not have clouds in Brooklyn? (I had a belligerent sense of borough inequity) … those bastards, all they have are adorable dogs and cheap bars. It was true. My bill had arrived, for a mere $26, which seemed like it might even be a crime in the city of New York. As I slouched around the back seat of a cab which I must have gotten into at some point, I wondered why Brooklyn seemed vast but I’m always in the same area of it. I thought of dog and X, framed in the street, odd affecting couple, as the cab pulled away. Cabs are always pulling away, it’s such a drag.

Back to the recital. I made it to intermission. This involved following Schubert down all sorts of winding harrowing paths. The harrowing wouldn’t have been so bad, but the winding was really too much. Schubert/Mitsuko would do some ridiculously beautiful assembly of devastating chords, and I would forget everything that the world had ever dumped on or around me, and vice versa, but then S/M would start up some development of said thing and you know how Schubert’s developments are: branching, exhaustive. I wanted things, not iterations of things.

At the break, I let myself be led to the Donor’s Lounge, where you get free treats for having survived thus far. A dubious refuge, this room of clumps and whispers. My friend was sensibly trying to drag me into the normal world with a conversation about grocery stores, after all this was a room set up for conversations, but I was thinking about the room itself. How in this place commentary and critique are concentrated, and yet also forbidden. How you cannot say what you think there, really, for fear of being overheard, but all the thoughts are there, lurking over the tureens of coffee and the cups all arrayed and the catered desserts. Spring was a devil in me, a phrase was born in my mind, and I wanted to scream it to all the whispering crowd: “Think of Schubert in his little room! In his little room!” Did he compose in his apartment? Was it little? Anyway, never mind the facts, I didn’t want to end up like Schubert, in the little room, in an ever-narrowing set of circumstances, writing these ever-larger, rambling works, testing out every set of possibilities as if everything were still possible for him. I wanted to destroy the manicured sweets everywhere. How could you listen to the A major Sonata, and all it entailed, even miserably like I did, and then eat a cookie? But I ate a cookie.

The cheery bells rang for us to return.

50 hours earlier: Sitting at dinner in TriBeCa with an artist I have always wanted to meet. Let’s call her Y. I’m asking roundabout questions, awkwardly dancing around the central, unanswerable one: how did Y become Y? Beautiful coincidence of integrity and fame (not unlike Mitsuko’s). Infuriating how each artist must create a blend/brand of artistry/celebrity/existence their own way, how there is no guided path, except falsely and smugly in retrospect. Y is asking politely, how did I become me; my answers are partial, ridiculous, full of what you might call the idiocy of self-ness. An exchange of stories, but no rapturous communication. But some time later we are back in her apartment. She puts on a record. She begins to dance along with the music; one sort of self vanishes; as I watch her body come into motion, it’s clear: there is where it is, whatever we have to discuss. Instead of talking, we listen to music she admires; we are both, in a sense, struck dumb; we become puppets, on the string of sound coming from speakers on the wall.

As Mitsuko sunk from the gorgeous tonic to the even more spectacular submediant via that unearthly death-trill, I connected X and Y. I should have been thinking about Schubert, perhaps, but who knows what inner deadlines govern the brain? I found a shared meaning between the pulling-out of the Roland Barthes at 2 AM and the turning-on of the stereo: at the point when conversation fails, art comes out. Art’s a tool for emergencies, a replacement, a pacifier. We look at something together and hope the same electricity flows through us both, revives our flagging connection. The combination of these events suggested an unusual definition: art was the failure of human communication.

Perhaps it is impossible for you readers sitting there in your comfortable internet-surfing pajamas to really appreciate the weird difficulties this thought caused me, sitting in the front row of the box thinking I must not move, must not disturb the Japanese woman. But it was terrible/amazing, the way this thought interacted with the present moment. It made me want to lie down on the floor of the box and begin gurgling or whimpering. With the same feeling that you have in a horror movie when you realize the killer is actually the friend you’ve been confiding in the whole time, I realized that this last Schubert Sonata, the very one I was listening to, in the plush prison of the box, was also a form of communication breakdown, a piece about, a piece containing, a piece riddled with these same impasses. Down to the very fact that it was failing to communicate with me, this Spring day, and therefore causing me all kinds of discomfort, so that its beauty made me feel haunted and miserable … (thereby communicating perfectly in its failure) …

With alarming clarity, I was sent back some ten years, to when I was working with 85-year-old Leon Kirchner on his second Violin Duo at Marlboro. The violinist and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to communicate this rambling Mahlerian jazz riff to the public: basic things, like the big tempo relationships, the balance between piano and violin, where to play less and where to build to a climax, how to give a vivid shape that the world at large will perceive. As I recall, Leon was impatient with our questions about these issues. He was obsessed with the articulation of a few fast notes in a few measures in the piano, for instance; he was sure the whole piece would collapse if those few notes did not get “spoken.” Some days he was freakishly sensitive about the timing of one transitional Adagio measure. This would have been fine, perhaps, if his priorities didn’t seem to shift day to day, whereas ours seemed to us (of course) steady and unwavering. Maybe this is just a cliché of cross-generational angst, but sometimes working with the elderly you get these severe communication breakdowns: obsessions with a few key points that have already been said, but which are important to them; and the seeming conflation of detail with essence. As performers, we were torn between thinking of the listener, how to communicate this composer to the world, and thinking of the composer who doesn’t care about the world that much any more.

Mitsuko was rounding the end of the exposition. Instead of the somewhat celebratory increase of energy that often accompanies the arrival on the dominant in the Classical Style (the quintessential example being the virtuosic cadential trill in a Mozart Concerto), you get a pleasant dancing idea which behaves itself up to a point. Then in its second iteration (there are always second iterations ack!), it modulates itself into a quandary. It gets lost, and as the harmonies get lost, the dancing idea stumbles into silence. It keeps stumbling into silences; it creates a new idea that also keeps breaking off into silences, places where the pulse becomes threatened, impossible to perceive; Schubert is not interested in communicating pulse. At the far end of this breakdown come two lonely cadenzas:

Usually the end of a section is a place of fullness, roundness, replete with arrival. Obviously these unharmonized, yearning, falling melodies don’t care about their structural function, which is to show the place where they are. Though they are in the dominant key, i.e. “the right place,” they do everything they can to seem lost.

These weirdnesses in Schubert are not failures of decorum, like the revolutions of Beethoven. These are deliberate failures of communication, slackenings of the narrative, digressions for the sake of digressions; the priorities of the world are not its priorities.

Permit me one more annoying flashback; then I will be done. 78 hours pre-recital, I’m sitting at the farmer’s market (!) with companion Z. Need I mention, a beautiful perfect day, a ridiculous undeserved Spring day. Just the breeze itself would have required odes upon odes. I’m wearing my excellent favorite sunglasses, savoring the unusual experience of just sitting on a park bench, when companion Z turns to me and says “It’s too bad they can’t cure my cancer.” Too bad. It takes me a few moments to do something in my brain, like set the furniture back where it was supposed to be with shaking hands. I’m seized up, cramped by this understated phrase, in the fucking farmer’s market … the same thing as certain thrown-away moments in music, the unassuming phrase trying to hold back something bigger. By us walks one beautiful couple after another, a series of 20-somethings, looking lovely in their sunglasses and brunch outfits and looking a bit bored with all the leisure time stretched in front of them.

Z and I got together again two days later. We had dinner, talked for a long time, and then—I bet you saw this one coming—when the conversation seemed at an end, we ended up in his apartment, listening to recordings. Both silent, both listening. Hofmann playing C minor Nocturne, at Carnegie Hall. What is Chopin saying to the two of us? Too bad, I can’t know exactly. We may both say, that was beautiful; it may be for different reasons. Who knows what is beauty to him, now, incurable?  And for me, still hoping for cures, hoping to be stricken again with stupid incurable love. I rifle through Z’s papers, I feel in my pocket for my phone, I watch the cabs going down Columbus outside, any impatient thing I can get a hold of, I can’t just let this beauty run over me … I need to be it, own it, or something. But looking in Z’s eyes I read a dark communication: beauty is not something that ends, but your ability to experience it ends. And a question: is the immortality of the works you love a comfort?

5 years ago |
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It would be silly of me, I suppose, not to link to today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review

On top of the terror of becoming a “reviewer,” it was scary and depressing to see the little bio saying “Jeremy Denk is the author of Think Denk.” The word “author” threw me, I guess, like the the word “adult”—when does a blogger become an author? (A pointless question for our time!) Second of all, if an author, I’ve been such a neglectful, slothful one.

But for a sloth, I’ve been slightly busy behind the scenes.

In case you haven’t seen them, I wrote three pieces for NPR Music on the Goldberg Variations:

Why I Hate the Goldbergs
Hannibal Lecter’s Lessons on Bach
This is Your Brain on the Goldbergs

… they were very naughty, especially the first one. Some people in the comments didn’t seem to notice that I really do like the Goldbergs, very much. There is a projected fourth essay which NPR is still waiting for (heh), in which I sum up Bach’s relationship to time, the way variations as a genre are a machine or medium for the understanding of time, the way Beethoven understood this and how he co-opted the Goldberg paradigm in his final triumvirate of Sonatas, how the infinite is always weirdly a theme in pieces about time, with commentary interspersed on why I feel like such a poser shopping at Whole Foods.

This essay has not been completed, may never be completed, due to the dastardly arrival of spring. Spring! Working on Brahms, Ligeti, Liszt, whatever, I just don’t know what to do with my happiness, and I’m composing passionate to do lists that will crumble into dust, and I began a bizarre, rambling piece in my pre-blog Moleskine (a desperate hideout for yearning clauses), a piece about three instances where I met wonderful people and talked with them for hours and then ended up somehow without anything to say but somehow it seemed something burningly had to be said and as a last recourse we ended up listening to recordings, or yelling books at each other at 3 am. This is another Ridiculous Piece I would love to write, now that I’m an “author,” about these three fateful meetings, and in true spring fashion it would mostly be about death, and hopeless incurable things, and things that really cannot be published, not on a family blog.

5 years ago |
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Tags: Jeremy Denk (Piano) ; Joshua Bell ; Piano ;
5 years ago |
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