Pitiable Performances

My excuse for not blogging is world domination. My plan: work from the core of the country, and ooze outwards.

The following map shows the fiendish ingenuity of my campaign; it reveals the Denk states:

Residents of Kansas City were assaulted by my unholy mixture of Mozart and Strauss some 6 weeks ago, in which I spiced innocence with decadence and smothered decadence in giant rivers of chocolate syrup. I promised them a severe increase in liberality of Mozart interpretation, which I would pay for by cutting indulgent ritards in the Strauss Burleske, and why not promise them the moon?, I suggested the possibility of endless timpani solos. A mere four days after that came a call from the Fort Wayne Symphony, a Call to Action, which I answered bravely in my pajamas. In between brave little blobs of oatmeal, blobs which unfortunately contained somewhat moldy blueberries, I agreed suddenly and groggily (if such a coincidence of adverbs is possible) to play Beethoven’s First Concerto. Why not, I thought. What is it, anyway, but a bunch of C major? That is my new angle: dominant and tonic are the Rocky and Bullwinkle of music, and not to be feared.

Now, of course, C major and moldy blueberries are inextricably linked in my mind. I want to call up Messiaen and tell him it’s not moss-green as he might have imagined.

Then, there was a Stravinsky interval. I supposed, karmically, I had to return to the concrete jungle, to pour some ascetic, Attic salt upon my festering Midwestern wounds. Jennifer Frautschi and I had many distended rehearsals in my headquarters. We cursed Stravinsky’s fecundity. The hours eked by in irregular meters. I munched irradiated takeout between phrases. Jennifer asked with distaste, “Jeremy, what are you eating?!”

Oh, Jennifer, Jennifer, what WON’T I eat?

And Igor, Igor, if you have three notes why must they all be five miles apart? Why are my poor exhausted hands mere jerky puppets of your disjointed imagination? I longed for smooth, adjacent notes without articulation, without acrid wit: I longed for a soothing milkshake of music, gliding down my mental esophagus, towards my awaiting, lactose-tolerant soul. My meal was wet, but my music was dry, and I longed for vice versa.

After the Stravinsky concert was a truly bizarre spectacle: a meal for the festival sponsors, in the spectacular nave of St. Bart’s, proving that if sponsors wish to drink three kinds of flavored vodka in a church, they most certainly will. All hail sponsors! The meal was pretty unbelievably great and I set to the twenty courses with a vengeance to recover all the calories Stravinsky’s leaping had cost me. I was asked if I was single (oh, yes, yes, yes) and was offered a glowing description of a recently divorced 30-something daughter who is looking for a good man. It occurred to me: if they were to consider a pianist a good prospect, then their standards must be fluctuating, or collapsing. But caraway vodka could account for their lack of judgment.

The Lord looked down on us all, feasting and boozing and matchmaking in His or Her house.

Now, now, now, back to the Midwest, to dominate the heart of the land: I headed for the Gilmore Festival in beautiful Kalamazoo. Rather than walk this town’s linden-strewn boulevards, I found myself—just as in college days—locked in a windowless, airless practice room, promising myself future rewards. Occasionally I would run to a deserted vending area and buy a tongueful of Cheetos, or program some strange machine to make me terrible terrible coffee. I would suffer through this coffee, telling myself it was a meaningful pain. Is it not beautiful and fitting that just at the most fecund, imaginative, passionate moments in our young people’s lives, we shut them up in these practice rooms to dim their latent lights? The college in its wisdom provides windows, but high up, thin, inaccessible: just hopeless hypothetical glimpses of sky.

I had agreed to play the Janacek Capriccio. My poor left hand suddenly has to step onto the Kalamazoo stage. Oh Janacek, Janacek! Perversely, most of the left hand part is in the very highest registers of the piano and one feels squeezed like toothpaste into the awkward corners of oneself. My practicing could be summarized thus:

LEFT HAND: But I don’t WANT to play a trill!
Jeremy (moderator): But you HAVE to play a trill. See, Janacek wrote it!
LEFT HAND: mffff.
RIGHT HAND: Look, it’s easy! (trills wildly)
Jeremy: See how easy it is for the right hand?
LEFT HAND (weeping): I HATE you when you compare me to him! You ALWAYS compare me to him!
Jeremy: You’re right, I’m sorry, it was wrong of me …
RIGHT HAND (gleeful): whee! See, I’m trilling, I’m trilling!
Jeremy: Right hand, stop it, stop gloating. Go to your room.
LEFT HAND: I’ll prove it to you, I’ll prove it, you jerk you jerk.

And so my left hand became a determined, competitive, embittered sibling to my right.

There was a logistical mishap. Someone didn’t tell me what the rehearsal order was, so I ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan with two and a half hours to kill. I won’t mention a name here (Tina), but it’s written in blood all over my hotel room walls. (Kidding?) Seeking succor, I walked down the street and pushed open the saloon-style doors of … Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar.

Let us say from the outset that the atmosphere was not as duelish as one might have hoped. Where the screaming, cheering audience might have been, a vast array of empty tables beckoned like receptacles for some alien race. As far from the stage as geometrically possible, a few people huddled at the bar, their hands wrapped around drinks. The empty seating area smelled of cleaning fluid and fear. My query “Where should I sit” was greeted with a rueful, sarcastic smile, and I chose a Switzerlandian table: neutral, but privy to the action, should it ever arrive. In fact, on stage was only one rather worn-looking man, with long hair that yearned to be a combover: he was not singing, or dueling, or slamming the pianos (they are called “slam pianos”!); this was the curious bit; he was repairing them, seemingly with a Q-tip.

Was this the entertainment?

Sadly, no. Eventually, the repairer was was joined by a youthful slim fellow in a backwards baseball cap. In his eager clean-cut eye I read a hieroglyphic of hope. He emanated the hooded, fraternal pleasure of innocent song, whereas the worn man, with hair astray and displayed, seemed to be song as knowledge, or song as experience. (Just TRY and stop me; I’ll slap a metaphor on anything I can.) Just as I finished eating my deep-fried cream cheese appetizers (the healthiest thing I could find to order), they began to “perform.” Youthful cap sang a polite song, as if to express the imprisonment of his hair. Worn man then turned up the volume and launched into a savagely passionate ballad in which his pitch described fantastic whorls and curves around the correct pitch, without ever touching it. The chilling coup de grace: they joined in together, and this marriage of young and old male voices was (I guess) the dueling, oh cruel sport of precision meeting disaster! It felt like sound waves had been flattened into painful, but alas not lethal, darts. My ears, inconsolable. My cholesterol count went up to 400, briefly. Climax of course inevitable: crashing chords, finito, emotive jism.

Ice tinkled, silverware clinked.

All the kind of trivial sounds of the world seemed to suddenly be heard, rebuking the preceding intensity. A random “toot” from the road completed the ironic cadence; the waitresses circled like unmotivated vultures, and the bartenders’ eyes attempted to avert themselves from the wandering tales of their drunken patrons. Despite the apocalypse of ugliness we had just witnessed, the world went on as before:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

–Auden, something or other

The white legs of music disappeared into the green water of nullity.

All six of us were survivors of a boring natural disaster. The men began their patter, to explain, to justify: “You can’t hate us, because you’re stuck with us all night.” But it was clear from reading the audience’s twelve eyes that they could hate them all night if need be. I hated them, a lot; I scribbled Goldberg Variations on a song request slip. But then, I felt evil and ashamed. From the depths of my own immaturity, I pitied them, their sad small audience, the world’s rebuke of their musical spasm.

The next day a similar sad performance occurred. Imagine a coffeeshop, with just three people in it, clutching warm cups of joe as shields against the rubbing of the world’s weird waves. From stage left, enter large large loud man. He was claiming just to get some coffee, but then, he attacked me thus: “Look at you, you look exhausted and it’s just 9 in the morning.” Ack, it was true; I slept horribly in my Radisson suite which smelled of last night’s room service. I hated the truth of his statement. Lord, I hate to be evaluated, except rapturously! “Have you ever had an energy drink without caffeine?” No. “You haven’t tried Excess Energy Drinks, have you? You’ll feel better… ” Promise me love, promise me riches, promise me fame, if you will, I thought, but don’t promise me, you bastard, to feel better; it is the seduction I cannot resist! It seemed cruel for him to victimize us, the coffee junkies! How dare he! Preying on our vulnerability, in our holy safe place!

He bellowed to the entire coffeeshop, as if he were singing Wotan at the Metropolitan, and as if Wotan were also Willy Loman. (Biff, I built Valhalla for you!) He got inspired, the more we ignored him, the more that mockery was hidden beneath our complaisant smiles. And, the more impassioned he became, the more he failed, the more he only achieved the pity of the pitiable.

Both of these performances came back to haunt me while I played the Janacek Capriccio, in the same way that a steak after 10 pm will give birth to the most incredible, exhausting dreams. The Janacek Capriccio is an amazing, impossible piece, and despite my bitter left hand boot camp I am totally wowed by it. I am in love with its infelicitous instrumentation. The poor left-handed pianist, playing in the “wrong” register; the flute and piccolo straining to be lyrical; the cloudy oompah band of low brass doing things they normally would never be asked to do.

The Janacek is written for a deeply pitiable ensemble: flute, two trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, piano left hand. After I played it, someone asked “is your right hand alright?” and I looked at her for a moment; I said yes yes and waggled it at her threateningly, fingers trembling and shaking. She went away.

The deliberate choice to write awkwardly for the players has a tremendous expressive effect. Everybody is submitting to humiliating requests, performing despite embarrassment. It is Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar, but the sadness of the audience is “factored in.” Witness polkas, marches, waltzes, sentimental songs: familiar folkish genres hug sonic happenings that are more abstruse, more drawn from outer space, from haunting Janacek-land. Life laughs at the sentimentality of the musicians, then cries. The bits of street-band music are antiques fraught with emotion; when you touch them (hear them) they give you a shiver, they tell you of generations past, of ghosts … the piece often feels like an empty, haunted room … Janacek leaves space open; he wants some vacancy, to people with ghosts, memories, or possibilities.

One of these memories is clearly a beer garden band, oompahing. With the accordion wheezing. Maybe a waltz? Oh, it’s so hard to settle yourself; Janacek won’t let you sit down; he won’t let you perform with comfort; an idea, a memory, never has time to get comfortable, to stretch its legs. He perpetually crossfades from fragment to fragment; every performer appears awkwardly, stumbles on stage, duels with absurdity …

I guess the sadness of the performance in the coffeeshop was (among other things): doesn’t this guy have more of a life than to try to sell energy drinks to random tired people in coffeeshops? But he is brave to do so, and reveal his sorry pass. And then the balding man who sang so out of tune in Mojo’s, he too was delusional and brave, throwing his voice and his feeling out to an empty, undeserving room.

There is a brave turn at the end of the Janacek. After a tremendous chromatic collapse, the ensemble braces itself, dares the impossible, gets its act together. The one-handed, crippled pianist, having spent himself in the chromatic cadenza, waits while the “orchestra” collects this brave thought. Though the last movement is fraught with angst, with difficult harmonies, with anxiety and yearning, somehow Janacek wrenches the end around, in a kind of rotation of inspiration, creates a last shining turn to D-flat major, to resolution and pride. This D-flat cadence is pretty unbelievable; it is very complex for a cadence; a kind of gritted, ground-up, generated joy. The pianist is playing at the top of the piano, with his one hand goose-stepping triumphantly in the pathetically wrong place. Yes, I’m with you, the piano says. Let’s perform (no matter what). We are all joyous, yes, at last; but it is not easy, it is never easy.

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The Weirdest Concert Announcement Ever; or, my Birthday

2 1/2 hours till birthday. I bound out of my apartment and head for the subway. To the tunnels, Batdenk! I have scheduled a massage to oil me into midnight. Swipe this card again, the gate says, but at no other turnstile. Which I interpret: you’ve chosen your turnstile, fool, now live with it. The subway car is rattling, a young man bursts in the illegal door at the back of the train. He has a smile in his eye, he is equal parts dashing and insane. He shows a piece of paper to someone, the person says a word, the young man says “cheers” and moves on, on, on down the train. Hmm, these events are not as dismal and predictable as usual; they promise even more dismal possibilities? He comes up to me, little old me! My heart shakes, quivers. I am in love with this probably humiliating event to come. Everything on your birthday is an omen, it is tiresome. He shows me the same piece of paper, on which is written:


He says, “Can you read me what’s on the piece of paper?”

Hurriedly, I say,


I look up, for approval? Oh, Denk, ever the performer. He says thanks, he seems satisfied, he moves on. I twirl the Z around in my mouth for a while. It pleases me that a man is asking people to read off pieces of paper in the subway. A woman down the way simply refuses to read it. What does she hope to gain by her refusal? I assume the best; it is a sociological study; he is tallying results, trying to see how people react. It will be published in the New England Journal of Weird Subway People. What have I given away—I suddenly wonder—what have I betrayed by my utterance of the word MUNCHEEZ? Did some tender atom of myself leak out into the subway’s fetid tunnels through that final Z, the Z which is another year of my life, the omega of an alphabet of time? Oh Lord, how, how did I say MUNCHEEZ? Did it come out ironic, too cool for school, or did it come out sincere and beautiful? Because no one can say I don’t appreciate snack foods sincerely, if not particularly or specifically Muncheez. God, I wish I had that Muncheez back again! Come back, insane man, come back and I will say it like it’s never been said before.

Imagine: Bach bursts through the illegal door from the grave and comes up to you with a piece of paper. It’s a large piece of paper, to be sure. He is a horrific maggot-ridden sight and yet exudes the humane warmth of all of Western civilization. You’re just sitting there, prepping for your massage by reading Sebald’s Austerlitz, in which the horrors of Western civilization are enumerated. (Worse than Tyra Banks.) He says, can you read me what’s on here. And you look and it’s the Goldberg Variations. Well, he says? Say it now.  Erm, you say, everything on the page is so beautiful and how can I possibly say it but you start anyway …

Except that it’s tomorrow and it’s 4:30 pm and it’s Symphony Space.

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Take A Friend to Springtime

I was delighted to be asked to contribute to Take a Friend to the Orchestra. As usual, the prospect of writing on a specific topic, for a deadline, terrifies me, and leads me to all sorts of desperate measures.  You can read my piece here, if you are a brave soul.

Spring is here, and deserves this sonnet:

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

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Tormented Nozzles

A certain cellist wants a reply to a question of programming: which Haydn pieces to play next month for a children’s concert at the Y?

Fri, Apr 4, 2008 at 11:52 AM
subject Haydn programme??????

Thoughts, please – or else… Medtner for you, my boy.

I’ll wait while the chills run down your spine. To be threatened with Medtner! Don’t the Geneva Conventions apply to me? I’m a citizen! I have rights! Is there a Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Musicians?

I needed a legal opinion. I was Googling away and was sifting through pages and pages on Post-Medtner Traumatic Syndrome when I noticed a small link …

The Artistic Director, consistent with the doctrine of unitary executive, may suspend habeas corpus for children’s concerts and other wartime situations …

I realize this is dark humour (spelling for the cellist in question), and not really funny at all, when you think about it. I am choosing not to think about it?

Maybe we could lighten the mood with a musicological/geological (and inevitably somewhat scatological) tongue twister:

Liszt’s mistress sifts schists.

This courtesy the marvelous Fred Sherry. And if you’re not titillated by that, how about this fabulous interview with Robert Craft in the erudite magazine Arete, courtesy the also marvelous Carol Archer:

Craft In 1911 Stravinsky sent the composer Maurice Delage a nude photograph of himself in profile, with the upwardly mobile nozzle prominently exposed, and during a vacation in his country residence, they were joined by the notoriously homosexual Prince Argutinsky, whose correspondence, still in private hands in Paris, is a major source untapped by Stephen Walsh. Stravinsky’s pride in his [scandalous word indicating male member] is most evident in a note to Diaghilev, responding to a letter from him in a depressed mood: “If I cannot help you with my music, what can I help you with? Despite my admiration for my male member, I am not willing to offer you consolation with it.” (22 February 1922: Biarritz.)

Areté Is “upwardly mobile” a metaphor meaning that his [scandalous word indicating male member] was capable of erection? Or that it was semi-erect, or “fluffed” for the photograph?

Craft Fluffed, I suspect. Tautening at any rate.

New Musicologists, back to your word processors!!! Stravinsky’s entire oeuvre needs to be reinterpreted, pronto, in the light of this blatant nozzle hubris. I expect your dissertations on my desk by May 16, 2008, along with bottles of Hendrick’s Gin, which I will need to get through them; here are some titles to get your juices flowing:

The Mobile Nozzle: A Re-examination of Harmonic Tautening in Middle Period Stravinsky

Fluffing Pergolesi: A Pornographic Paradigm for Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne

etc. etc.

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