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?