Generic Stewed Prunes

I was at the grocery store and became aware of the tremendous availability of yogurt. The cavernous case of dairy glowed and grinned: slurp me! It is, for many New Yorkers, an exotic thrill to wheel a cart around the fat aisles of the heartland. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, for a couple days, revisiting a juicy slice of my past, and went to the store despite no desire for foodstuffs. Perhaps I had a desire for something! … but then as I wandered I lost it, in a Hoosier daze. The end result being, I took a tour of the whole place, the infamous, eternal Kroger’s, in the same way you might circumnavigate, say, the Louvre; one wheel of my cart stoically failed to operate and my vessel kept drifting ever leftwards, towards pyramids of baked beans, towards remaindered Easter candy, towards the saddest, most prosaic grocery items imaginable. Hard to starboard, captain; ahoy, gherkins!

Yogurt comes in flavors, and classical music should come in flavors too. I suppose it does: Russian virtuosos, for instance.

Composers are flavors and performers are flavors and so a performance of a specific composer is a flavor of a flavor. The superimposition of flavor. Sometimes the oppression of a flavor: as if limes suddenly decided to show bananas who’s boss. And so you read all sorts of reviews and blogs which say “harpsichordist Joeschmoe’s honey glaze overwhelmed the juniper berry of the music” or “the humble well-considered servility of Doofus’ hollandaise allowed the currant undertones of the music to emerge in all their complexity” and so forth.

“I’ll buy all your yogurt for today,” I said to the woman next to me, who was piling plastic containers into her cart headlong, “if you’ll come to my free concert tonight of Beethoven and Ives.” She moved on.

I tried a different tactic with the next yogurt acquirer. “I’ll dump this yogurt all over your head if you don’t come to my free concert tonight of Beethoven and Ives.”

While the manager spoke to me in (perhaps unnecessarily!) strident tones, I couldn’t help going over in my mind all the interesting, fruity flavor combinations of yogurt and what flavor am I? Youngish American Pianist (Also Blogger!) flavor? That is certainly a mouthful. Oh, my flavor! On whose tongue should I be melting right now? Oh, Gods, find me a flavor, find me my perfect flavor and pasteurize me and lab-test my Nutrition Facts and slap some protective tinfoil on me and sell me in grocery stores all around the land!!!

So my mind soared.

Back in the car, I trembled in fear of flavorlessness. It occurred to me that all of classical music, to many people, is one single undifferentiated flavor, and not a great flavor at that, something that you might obtain at Luby’s Cafeteria, like stewed prunes, but without the pragmatic associations of the benevolent laxative.

This parking lot has always interested me. It has a general downward veer, so that the Kroger appears to be a City shining upon a Hill. Because of this slope, it has a little metaphysical story to tell, and retell. If you sit and watch for a while, out of the corner of your eye something in the matrix will move, a surreptitious metal basket; the urge is cautious, then lograrithmically lets loose; it meets destiny in a car door or a curb or some poor person runs after it, trying to save it from itself. The eventual freedom of the cart, racing and rattling over the pavement towards the liquor store, is fantastic. You cheer it on. Whose paint job will you ruin this time on your path to self-realization, you crazy cart?

Headline: Deranged Classical Pianist Found In Indiana Parking Lot Watching Shopping Carts.

“He was supposed to be playing the Concord Sonata, officer, but we found him here, staring out the window, rocking back and forth …”

It would be ridiculous to have feelings about the Kroger. It’s a warehouse of food exchange, an empty case of trade designed to be as similar to others as possible, designed to conform and vanish. Much of the food inside is also empty of content, pure nutritional parenthesis. And yet I cannot deny the intense reality of my feelings about the Kroger; they are clinging to it like a barge in the ocean of experience. There was one night where a bunch of us got the terrible munchies (without chemical stimulants, thank you) and at the same time began to meditate on the joys of Captain Crunch cereal, and we ran out to the Kroger and got every imaginable flavor of Captain Crunch (with and w/o their eponymous berries) and a spectacular array of milk and I still can remember pulling the lids off the milk gallons and the sound of the milk hitting the cereal and the terrible ache of the roof of my mouth the next morning and the laughter of the group, all my friends of that time and all our complicated unexpressed whatever, sexual tensions and mutual admirations and the usual stews of love and resentment and the feeling of having your life invaded which was what you wished for, right … right? When I sit in the parking lot of the Kroger, watching carts drift downhill, I simply cannot help bringing this moment to my mind. Can these feelings really sit atop something as empty as the Kroger? As soluble as Captain Crunch?

Though our lives, through the machinations of real estate developers, etc. etc. are being lived out in ever more predictable grids, in the sway of generic chains whose profitability is pre-calculated, we insist on living our lives specifically. Never mind that all our of most tender conversations are happening in a Starbucks which looks exactly like every other goddamned Starbucks in the world! Nonetheless, you must face it: this is where your tender conversations take place, you must define your difference amongst this monotony.

Now, imagine you are Charles Ives, and you are listening to hymns and ballads since a young age, and at some point it must occur to you that a lot of these hymns and ballads sound the same. That they drift into each other. That they draw upon a certain well of ideas and if you are not careful you could slip from one to the other with little difficulty. Interchangeability is a characteristic of the hymn structure and the parts are supposed in some ways to conform to a generic ur-idea, so that the parishioners are not reinventing the wheel every time they sing a hymn.

Well, I was explaining to some doctoral students at Indiana University in my surely annoying way that 1) there is this crucial five-note descending idea in the “Concord” Sonata, and that 2) Ives’ formal procedures could be perhaps described as hints followed by explosions, or glimmers followed by apotheoses … That is, you don’t get something at all once, but you have faint intuitions, and then at some point (according to some mysterious, wayward law) the intuitions gather enough steam and suddenly you GET IT. This epiphanies are incredible, staggering, often also staggered, so as to arrive when you least expect them.

Even Beethoven doesn’t aim this far into the subconscious; he likes to present his ideas fairly whole at the outset, so their later manifestations can seem logical outpourings. Ives is interested in what we might call now a more “realistic” portrait of understanding, as opposed to an idealized one.

So the first hint of this five note idea comes at the beginning of the “Concord” in the left hand:


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And another hint comes here:


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And you might say: hold on a moment, Denk! These don’t resemble each other really, since the intervals are somewhat different, and the first one has five notes whereas this second version is just four notes, etc. etc! But this is precisely the point. Ives is not that interested in absolute, exact, mathematical equality (12 tone, set theory, etc. etc.) but in the the space where the specific identity of something blurs into the general, generic place where it might eventually have no identity at all. The place of perceived, but doubted, resemblance.

As it turns out, this idea (vaguely perceived or not) reaches a kind of apotheosis, midway or so into Emerson:


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But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Because in “Thoreau,” Ives revisits this idea


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… ah, a beautiful woodland version … one for Walden Pond … and yet there is one more, even more powerful …


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And you realize: it’s “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground” by Stephen Foster (particularly its refrain, with the words “down in the cornfield …”) It’s a turning point, a defining moment in the piece. If you didn’t get the Foster reference, Ives brings it up in his note; he wants you to know. Now, “down in the cornfield” is not something I care about right now, in my life. How about you? But I must say I played it through for the doctoral students, as an academic responsible person, showing them the source materials, etc. etc. …

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… and had a flash of feeling about it, some sort of leftover Americana sentimentality. I felt a real feeling for a song which was utterly unreal to me, which was merely or mainly an image.

For much of the “Concord” Sonata, the five-note idea floats around in a sphere of generality, in a sphere where it could be anything. But Ives then affixes it. He compromises its free float, by attaching it to the Foster tune (and onto the tune’s whole complex of associations …)

On the one hand, you have five notes that could belong to any number of tunes, that seem in some way a kind of armature of the Hymn with a capital H: a kind of ur-Hymn-fragment, a shifting bit of hymnic DNA. And on the other hand we have a very specific referent … a composer, a flavor, a text, a sentiment. The general idea has suddenly been flavored, or identified, shot through with specific self. But have we lost something by abandoning the general for the specific, have we limited ourselves? … there is, therefore, an uncertainty, and a melancholy, in this embrace. It’s as though the Idea reaches out and grabs the Foster tune for a moment, and then having gathered it in, having added it to its world, turns around and looks back to the wider universe of notes from which it came; it looks with longing back at the universal from the specific.

Can’t you imagine Beethoven, too, nearing the end of his life, looking back on all those classical style pieces, all the Mozart and Haydn that he knows, not to mention his own works … can’t you imagine, that those voluminous works must have (to some extent) blurred together for him? Indeed, interchangeability is just as key to the classical style as it is to the hymn: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all depended on parts that could be lifted from other pieces wholesale, they depended on patches of convention, on the expected recurrence of formulae. It is terribly easy to slip from one Mozart piano concerto to another if you are not careful. Oh, so you are writing a stormy piece in C minor? You might bring to mind your own early Trio, Op. 1, #3, or the 5th Symphony, or the 3rd Piano Concerto, or the Haydn Sonata in C minor, or some parts of The Creation, or Mozart K 491 or 415 or … goodness, there are so many C minor stormy pieces in the Classical Style, calling to each other, a clamoring din of C minor. This blurring must have been evident to him; it would in some ways have been terrifying to him (the death, the futility, of originality), but might also have suggested a new solution, a new possibility, an important aesthetic question. Why bother writing another long original theme in C minor, why add more to the pile, why bother trying to find something “original” at all? Is originality a dead end? Why not build your sturm-und-drang entirely on the tried-and-true; why not construct a theme so simple that it might almost be called generic? …


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This idea (the Hauptmotive of Op. 111’s first movement) seems to me a kind of “symbol” or “stand-in” for stormy music … it is what happens if you just give up writing complex accumulations of details, if you say: why don’t we take all that as read, as assumed, and allow the cliché to stand for the whole? Why not expose the cliché at its root and see where that nakedness takes you? Because it is exhausting to keep having to write these great, sprawling masterpieces.

Now, you might say the essence of many C minor stormy works is distilled into this one motive. You might claim it has concision and that it has rediscovered classical purity, hallmarks of the late style. This would be the official version, the tour guide version. But does anyone else feel that this slightly misses the mark? Through this motive, Beethoven steps almost beyond concision to emptiness. For all its bluster, it is continually blowing its wad (forgive the expression). It gazes at the whole welter of C-minor-ness, and in summing it all up, casts at least a glance at the possibility that it’s all much ado about nothing: that all those C minor melodies, with their emphasis on chromatic slippage and diminished seventh chords, can add up to a sameness, a null set, a blur of generic angst. And Beethoven with one stroke makes this nothingness manifest, shows you the empty end of the road, and lays down a wall against it too: in the space where the specific is in danger of becoming a generic nothing, in the space where all the names and events and testaments of our lives begin to blur into the haze of the forgotten and the anonymous, because there is simply too much, too much to say, too much to remember.

At the concert that evening (I managed to escape the parking lot), when I got to the end of “Thoreau,” the last time that “Down in the cornfield” comes back, a very childish thing happened: my lip began to quiver, as though I were about to cry. Even while playing I had to confront this, this possibility of life cracking open, and raining on the illusion of the stage. I attempted quickly to diagnose myself. Was I tired? Had I taken my vitamins? There had, in fact, been something weirdly clouded and dreary about those two days in Bloomington, and perhaps I had ignored, repressed, stuffed the cause back in some closet somewhere … Can I fix this before the piece is over?, I wondered, idiotically.

I had the sense that I needed to figure out what the sadness was before the piece ended, otherwise I would never know. And I was right. There turned out not to be time, and applause killed it.

I think it was a specific Bloomington sadness. I am almost sure it was a memory of some humid lazy Bloomington night, maybe something was barbequed? like my psyche?, but it fled from the tip of my cortex back into the dark rustling cornfields of my subconscious. So I had a taste of it, it lingered at the edge of specificity, and then slipped back into the universal and general, into the whirlpool of the totality of my emotions about everything: but I must say those lingering moments, the seconds as the specific memory appeared and dissolved, were excruciating and amazing.

Behind the tune, there is the wider world of Tunes, and behind that simply the urge to sing; why should you add your specific tune to the ever-larger pile? Why indeed. But this process of extracting and sketching your specific tune from the world’s tunebook, and then—which is just the same act in reverse—losing it again, relinquishing it: well, this unending slippage from one state to the other is joyous, even though it sometimes feels melancholy, or Sisyphean.

At the far end of the concert, you’ll be relieved to know I had a totally different, wackier, feeling. Beethoven’s fugue had me again—this fugue is the diametric opposite, I think, maybe even the spiritual nemesis of the emptiness of the first movement of Op. 111—and it was sprawling around, tossing me about. I held on for the ride. I thought at some point “the Kroger parking lot probably used to be a cornfield.” And then, the scales: I grabbed innumerable carts and tried to stop them from damaging various cars and yet they kept racing away into the distances. While trying to stop them, I cheered for them. Go, contrapuntal voices, go, fly. Sing, and be free: if those two are not mutually contradictory …

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Imagine me, bug-eyed, backstage at concert hall X, setting a tattered Xerox of the “Aeolian Harp” Etude upon a reluctant music rack. Coffee and Snacks nearby—my satellites, my enablers. Then, weeks later, imagine me again, in the confines of the tattered, storied dowager known as “The Greystone Hotel,” its halls echoing with clang and clank and whirr of drill, a chorus which whittles away my excess peace of mind and decrusts my sleepy eyes, setting a tattered oh so tattered copy of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata upon a slightly too-willing music rack (MY music rack)—if you will, a music rack of dubious and oft-purchased virtue.

What I would like to explore here is the difference between these two states of mind. Myself practicing Chopin on the one hand, and myself practicing Beethoven on the other. My twofold tattered brains. With your indulgence, I feel the only medium for this exploration is the drama. I feel certain you poor readers cannot tolerate another painstaking exegesis of my problems, and I take pity upon you. But what if the two personae—Jeremy practicing Chopin, and Jeremy practicing Beethoven—stood forth from Jeremy proper, came upon the stage, and revealed themselves, in fact, as the Comedic Types that they are? And what if, in the space of Pure Thought, and Inspiration, and all those Cloudy Beautiful Visions that artists are supposed to witness while bedunked in the Bathwater of Brilliance, what if, in that aforementioned space, these two comedic personae were able to visit with the composers themselves and various of their associates, desirable and otherwise? Well. Wait no longer. The answer to this spectacular question, naturally, follows…

a mini-drama

JPB: Jeremy practicing Beethoven
JPC: Jeremy practicing Chopin
B: Beethoven
C: Chopin
GS: George Sand
IB: Immortal Beloved

(A small living room, dominated by a piano. JPB is at the piano, practicing the fugue from Op. 106. B is wandering around the edge of the room, perusing JPB’s cookbooks. Finally he gets bored.)

B: It must be.
(JPB is still practicing the fugue, obsessively, looking rather annoyed; pretends not to hear)
B: (shouting) IT MUST BE.
JPB: (stops playing, peevish) I heard you the first time.
B: Silly me, I thought you’d enjoy having my input. I am Beethoven, after all.
JPB: (sigh) Dare I ask WHAT must be?
B: It.
JPB: A fairly general term.
B: If you have to ask, you shouldn’t bother.
JPB: At least you could tell me if this metronome marking is crap or not.
B: That wouldn’t be fair to all the others. Inside information.
(JPC enters from adjoining kitchen with a cup of tea)
JPC: Darlings, I don’t much care to know what “it” is; but this repeated use of “must” gives me the willies.
[JPC uses fingers to indicate quotations which irritates B and JPB extremely much.]
JPC: Why “must” it be, whatever it is? The imperative seems so … uncivilized. I so prefer “may” or “might” …
B: Your dancing fingers are a pretentious effeminate affectation.
JPC: You know, Ludwig, chill. Even geniuses could use some manners.
JPB: Guys … all this chit chat is “super fun” but I’m really trying to get this fugue under control, so if you could give me a little peace and quiet …
JPC: But Jeremy you promised we were going to the Apple Store today, and then we were going to have a nice massage, and maybe practice a little later in the afternoon, and then an evening walk on the beach … remember that nice time in San Diego and those delicious enchiladas and beers at 3 in the afternoon?
B: [perplexed] Apple store?
JPB: Jeremy, there’s no time. This needs to get done.
JPC: You look awfully tense, Jeremy. Just relax!
JPB: YOU relax.
JPC: [to B] can YOU reason with him?
B: I can hardly speak to him, he’s in such a state.
JPB: Well, look at this. (indicates page of music)
JPC: Jeez, Ludwig, what WERE you thinking?
JPB: Don’t ask him.
B: It must be!
JPB: Which I take to mean that I should get everything possible done as soon as possible.
JPC: Let’s see if we can’t sort all this out with some proper alignment. Let’s just start by cultivating a nice chill atmosphere in the room, OK?
[JPC goes around to the cupboard, finds some candles, lights them, finds and lights some incense, sets a lava lamp onto the music rack, a Zen rock garden, a statue of the Buddha, etc. etc. Meanwhile, JPB resumes practicing.]
JPC: Your shoulders, your neck! I thought we had that all under control!
JPB [Sheepishly]: Me too.
[JPC rubs JPB’s back and neck while he continues to play]
JPC: Breathe, breathe, lift, feel the weight of your arm. Playing the piano is a pleasure, first and foremost, a delight, a kind of extension of the fluidity of the self!
JPB: [Peevish] You try it then.
JPC: OK, Jeremy, if I must. Only if you insist.
[JPC sits, breathes, lifts arm gracefully, begins to play the fugue, soon stops.]
JPB: Umm.
JPC: That didn’t sound very good.
JPB: Nope.
JPC: Agreed.
JPB: What works for the goose cooks the gander.
[B meanwhile begins laughing from his corner of the room, softly at first, but louder and louder]
B: Boys, boys. My problems cannot be breathed away.
JPC: Son of a …
JPB: He’s no help, he only speaks in riddles.
JPC: It’s all going to work out, Jeremy, just pursue the endless circle.
JPB: I prefer to go in a straight line. It’s the shortest distance between two points.
JPC: What will be, will be.
JPB: I can’t accept that. Allergic to fateful tautologies.
JPC: Just listen to the sound you are playing right now, taste the moment, smell the roses.
JPB: But where is it going? Where are we going?
JPC: What does it matter?
JPB: The question is worth asking, it conditions the sound of the now.
JPC: The now is the now; eternal; unanswerable.
JPB: The tension of the future is contained in the now.
JPC: Or this tension is an unproductive resistance to the future.
JPB: And who’s on first?
JPC: Exactly.
JPB: But I cannot help searching for answers. Things must be solved. For instance, why was I up at 3:15 AM the other day watching that Mandy Moore vehicle A Walk To Remember? And why oh why was I tearing up?
B: I bet you didn’t know that I composed the song for that movie, right after Wellington’s Victory.
JPC: This is among the most puzzling questions ever posed. I think it’s a symptom of your difficult relationship to something or other.
[Chopin, George Sand, and the Immortal Beloved all burst in the door, apparently in the aftermath of a long night of partying.]
GS: OH that crazy Balzac.
IB: (giggling) I can’t decide if he’s ugly or, like, uglyhot.
C: Ludwig, baby, this Immortal Beloved of yours is the flirtiest chick since Marie d’Agoult before she found God.
B: Tell me about it, Fred.
(Everyone laughs, except JPB, who obsessively resumes practicing.)
B: Yeah, keep working, Jeremy. (Rolls eyes.) Margaritas, everybody?


This sense that the composer has abandoned you for the relatively serene realm of the grave and that you, who have chosen to program and perform piece X, are the only one left stressing about it: can anyone propose a name for this State of Mind, for this ongoing Lonely Predicament?

It’s like the Composer and You are accomplices in some crime, but the composer zoomed off in his getaway car of death and left you alive to take the rap. That (in sum) is what being a performer is all about. You’re the patsy.

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Betraying Bacon and Boating

The waiter sets a menu in front of you, and you realize, while he spills coffee into your saucer, that all the dilemmas of your life can be expressed in terms of oatmeal. You’ve learned that oatmeal makes for a wonderful day, draws out a sustained arc of energy and goodwill. But the craven eye wanders.

“Yes, that way lies happiness,” I say to myself, “and yet this way lies bacon.” Happiness seems, at that moment, such an unwelcomely long-term proposition. The seared, salty idea of bacon flashes in my mouth, fatty slab of the moment; whereas oatmeal squishes over into a digestive chain of planning and forethought, as if I were a stove and not a man. Am I to be fed to burn, or to burst forth in spurts of inspiration?

Consider the following. Josh and I watched a woman at the Newark baggage claim. The carousel was not crowded. And yet, when her bag dropped from the chute, the woman became a raving, rabid animal. She burst between us, bumping, nearly shoving, and then in her desperation to get that bag, at that moment … well, I felt that even her bag sensed she was in a hurry and revolted, sidled, twisted and turned in strange ways, so that she had a hell of a time getting it off the carousel, and nearly injured several of us “innocent” onlookers. (Don’t worry, Josh fans: He was unharmed!) We couldn’t believe it; the bag would have been there for her, three seconds later; it was not going to vanish; but she was unapologetic for her desperate urgency. Her bag, at that moment, was the great quest of her life, it was her Bacon, and if it was a misspent quest, so be it, she was proud of her idiotic bacon worship.

I watched the carousel spin on. I lifted my bag off it with smug nonchalance which no one noticed; I was proud of my idiocy, too. The humble, grinding, uncaring carousel whispered to me of hubris.

The ease of lifting the bag off the carousel—if the speed is constant, and there is no edge of desperation—reminded me quite strongly of certain moments of perfect preparation and anticipation playing the piano. Just the note, thock! into place. The woman struggling with her bag reminded me equally of certain moments of playing the piano, when you seize the moment, roughly, and the moment fights back.

Moments have all sorts of defense mechanisms against unreasonable seizure.

Confession. I chose to program the Chopin Barcarolle (last week in lovely San Diego!) on the strength of a moment I wanted to seize, on a juicy crispy piece of bacon I once smelled in its interior. Ah, I remember the moment well: a student came in to play the Barcarolle for me—a terrible, terrible student—but when she got to this moment I remember severing my lips from my grimy coffee-pacifier, and looking around the dismal basement room as if it were an alpine vista. “That’s so f&*() beautiful,” I said, regretting the word as it came out, but the student smiled at the silly professor. Here’s the moment …


At the birth of the moment, we have F# major and twelve-eight time, the delicious compound meter of the rocking boat. At the death of the moment: A major, and a faster tempo … the boat has entered a different, spellbinding current, the boat has been released into possibility. “Yes, the boat is floating along just fine, I say, it has been a delightful sail” but, then, after Chopin’s bacon-moment, you realize through the veil of your delight that there is delight and there is delight …

Chopin writes a passage of drift which allows one motion to become another, a flight between ratios, a mysterious differential equation.

This transition is amazing partly because of its disengagement, because of the sensation that the foundations of the narrative have been removed. This transition is not essentially “musical.” It does not conform to the niceties of musical discourse, it does not attempt to be the smooth unnoticeable gearshift. Chopin deliberately removes us from the world of capital-M Music, in which he had allowed us to bathe. The rich, melody-bass texture of the opening idea is gone. No more perfectly situated overtones; no more melodies in Italianate thirds and sixths: no, no, for you, listener, just a deliberately ascetic, spare single line: a cord, a lifeline, a narrow path of notes.

All the harmonic meaning has to be compressed, suddenly, into these few sinuous notes. Our brains must adjust.

Because Chopin has removed the foundations, because he is secretly rearranging the sails while we listen, we are reading the tablet of these barren notes without a lexicon. The rules that applied previously do not now; what we think we know lies to us. We know for instance that “we were in major, but now we’re in minor”—but this seemingly clear fact is a snare. The A-natural enters as a minor coloring of the major, but this guise is a pun, a deception, a mask … it is POSING as an emblem of minor, as a moment of sadness, darkness. But then the passage explodes—quietly, with the power of soft-spokenness—into the opposite, into A major (hopeful, radiant, expectant) …

The tone A is a platform for a deft pivot of meaning; it is this shift of meaning that adds the extra layer, the beauty past beauty. The A-natural, appearing first as a refutation of the warmth and joy of the opening material—a shiver down its spine—is really the proof of it; it is really a secret agent … to put it rather super-poetically… of luminous joy. This is something more profound than a “twist” or a “gotcha,” though it shares something in common with both of these … it’s like a meaning that passes through shades of light and dark, a word or a thought that hides in your subconscious, that comes out of the tunnel of the past, familiar and unexpected at once.

And there is more, more. The Barcarolle could be, if you like, a kind of essay in motion, in different kinds of motion (gliding, lilting motion … ) Now, the speed of motion is expressed as the ratio of two different entities

distance / time

… so, one way to mix things up, to vary the speed (the normal way) is to increase the distance you travel per unit of time; but the other way (the freaky way) to get at speed of motion is to call into question the very existence of time itself, to try to alter or erode the parcelling of units, seconds, beats. When Chopin steps into this transition, into the ascetic single line, one feels the sudden shiver of a lack … This shiver contains, I think, some sort of hidden imperative … it is as though he shushes you, tells you to wait … And then, by sticking to just the one voice (after all those luxurious voices) Chopin compels your continued attention; he continues to ask you to wait; he compels you to continue subtracting each moment, each note added to this chain, from the passage of Time, proper; he wants you to keep regarding each note as special, as suspended, as not-time, a process which extends not-time like a rubber band. Chopin says: each note that I add onto this chain I want you to subtract from time, and I want you, I expect you, to return to time only when I am done. It is a paradox, an immobile motion, wound between two different types of normal motion, a strange slice of removed time …

These two elements have a magical mixed effect. The “lie” of the minor key merges with the sense of not-time. Ambiguity plus falsehood: this is precisely the cocktail that made me curse happily at my student, and want to play this piece. Our honest attempts to seize time are not often rewarded. Time sneaks away, becomes difficult, clings to desires and other times, like baggage. But this passage suggests: fleeting moments might occasionally be seized through deceptions, which lead us—retrospectively—to the most beautiful truths.

I have been breathed in and out of so many airports in the last six weeks, I begin to feel like I should be stamped with a barcode, zipped up, and run through an X-ray machine: I have become acutely conscious of the inelegance of my passages. By moving so much, I become a thing, a crated item. When the baggage carousel grinds into life, buzzing and heaving, when the desk clerk at the hotel treats you with false, permanent cheer, when the hotel fitness room blinks back at you with its bank of TVs turned to news programs filled with prefabricated crap, political “discussion” that consists of idiots refuting idiots … all of these moments, in their monotony and convenience, are inelegant.

But Chopin’s motions: they are so meta-; they are simultaneously so precise and curvaceous; they are the elegant understanding of motion through music. They call attention to the touch of the hand, the very touching act itself, the “laying on of the hands”: they explore the interaction between the idea of touch, between the sensual element of touch, and the complex chromatic interstices of the harmonic world. To play these pieces is to be in touch (literally and figuratively) with elegance, the elegance of the motion of the hand corresponding to the elegance of the motion of the notes, each trying to find their perfect match, their perfect correspondence in each other. Motion that has nowhere to go, and everywhere to be: as if there were both a healthy Bacon and a dangerous, romantic, alluring Oatmeal sitting on your perfectly set table … as if you knew precisely how your day was going to go but had no idea what you were going to do …

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Yet Another Ill-Advised, Egregious Post

Sweet sleep held me in her tender, lubricious arms. I lay in my bed, on my side, facing away from the window, away from light, away from the call of day. Suddenly, as always seems to happen, the alarm went off. It cruelly punctured the most vulnerable spot in my balloon of rest. It uttered not quite a beep and not quite a screech; perhaps, a screep. Screep, screep, screep!, it went, in that mockery of rhythm known as exactitude. And I reached over, groaning, to press the broad snooze button. But the screep screeped on. I pressed the button again, twice, thrice… all along its length and breadth … and yet the clock would not stop, it was scraping my somnolent soul clear of serenity. I wrenched an eye open—why is life so difficult sometimes?—and checked that the time was correct, that the button was correct, that I was Jeremy Denk, etc. etc., double and triple checking my calculations in this sordid game of life. But everything was in order, I saw no flaw. I reached around back to press the “CLOCK RESET” and nothing happened. I got out of bed, got down on my hands and knees, became desperate in submission, and simply unplugged the clock. That should stop it, I thought, and I crawled back into bed. But after a moment’s silence, it kept going! The battery must have taken over … And now my phone was beeping at me too, from across the room, and I saw no way of ending this torment ever ever ever …

Suddenly, there was a break in the action. I was lying on my side in the opposite direction. The room was perfectly peaceful except for the chirping of the two alarms. With the mere brush of a fingertip both were silenced. How horrible to awaken twice, but only once in reality … small consolation! Or, put another way: there is no worse dream than the dream of actuality.


I had one companion in my bed. Don’t get your hopes up; it was Christoph Wolff’s book, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. (It snored all night… or was that me?) I was in extreme proximity to it, my cheek atop its cover, rubbing its bristles on a famous portrait of the beneficent master. Fearful of drool, I raised my head from the book and Bach, thereby revealed, spoke to me from the dust jacket: “You shouldn’t have eaten that spicy squid last night, Jeremy. What the hell were you thinking?” I swear this is true.

While we’re on the subject of people who imagine that Bach consults with them directly, the other day I was over at A.C. Douglas’ famously irascible blog, Sounds & Fury. A.C. was recommending an article:

The following is excerpted from a superb article on Bach written for The Hudson Review by Harold Fromm, Visiting Scholar in English at the University of Arizona …

Hmm, OK, err, yes, delightful, I thought to myself, I shall go over and read said article, in ever greater pursuit of knowledge and insight. And so I did. What I would like to type now, to summarize my feelings on this whole matter of the Fromm article, would be one deeply profound letter not yet invented in any alphabet, just one black deadly character after Z (or, possibly, just before Q) which would refer to things so annoying as to be unspeakable, irritating beyond pronunciation, beyond sigh or grr, beyond hotel room service surcharges, beyond even the sound of unwrapping cough drops in the middle of slow movements …

For me, one of the most telling sentences was:

And, of course, playing Bach on today’s grand pianos is much more egregious.

I slurped sulkily upon an Odwalla juice while I considered my egregiousness. Perhaps Harold Fromm has not gotten the memo that “egregious” cannot be used right now as a term of disparagement, except ironically, or under the influence of cannabis (as in: “that chick was so egregious, dude.”) I don’t know why this is so, but it is so. Perhaps in 2050, in some future halcyon era, in some utopian clime, it will be possible again to say something is “egregious,” and have it taken seriously, but it is not possible now. I might be able to overlook this hapless, earnest use of “egregious” if it weren’t for the accompanying “of course.” This “of course,” presuming agreement on the part of all reasonable parties (for instance, Harold Fromm), is a linguistic patch taped to a sordid Ziploc bag of sophistry. It attempts to enforce agreement with its leaky, pungent premise.

Now, normally I have no objection to English Professors from Tucson telling professional pianists what they can and cannot play. But, if I were elected to office, one of the first bills I would put forth would prohibit Pontification About Bach, it would be an anti—PAB measure. (Pontification is to be distinguished, I hope, from insight, reflection, and probing analysis; it may be difficult to draw the line sometimes, but I have faith in humanity.) What makes Fromm’s article “pontification”? A sentence like this one:

Landowska’s Well-Tempered Clavier revealed more of the music more powerfully than anybody else, squeezing out every drop of its seemingly inexhaustible juices.

In vain I searched for the phrases “I feel” or “in my opinion” or any such which would distinguish such a huge judgement from a declared, journalistic fact. Harold Fromm does not like to admit the possibility of multiplicity of opinion. Here’s another delightful instance:

The later practice of introducing “expression” into Bach’s keyboard music can only be described as a bad joke that reduces power to preciosity.

(I will return to this question of quote-unquote expression later: one rant at a time!) Notice the use of the phrase “can only” … “Can only” is a traditional linguistic weapon of the recidivist Bach Pontificator, the tyrant of taste. Here’s yet another astounding instance of presumptuous opinion:

As for the clavichord, forget about it.

Oh, really, Mr. Fromm? I should simply erase all thought of the clavichord from my mind? But, wait, what about this…

As for the instrument itself, Forkel related that Bach “considered the clavichord as the best instrument for study” and “the most convenient for the expression of his most refined thoughts,” as he preferred the “variety in the gradations of tone … on this instrument, which is, indeed, poor in tone, but on a small scale extremely flexible.”

—Christoph Wolff, Bach: The Learned Musician, p. 174

Fascinating; it would seem that J.S. Bach—who is a fairly relevant person in this discussion—did not exactly take Fromm’s advice and forget about the clavichord! Fromm doesn’t want you to know this, of course. He tells us:

… [the clavichord] never really comes up in any of the three biographies, and its usefulness in music like Bach’s is marginal.

The “really” is the infuriating bit, where he hedges; “really” is where Fromm tries to pretend that he’s not lying to us. The clavichord does come up (as we have seen!), but it’s not convenient for him to mention it, or he has forgotten where it comes up: a particularly interesting memory lapse, since this mention of the clavichord seems to (ahem) UNDERMINE HIS WHOLE THESIS.

Harold (I feel now we are on a first name basis!) continues:

Bach’s posthumous estate lists several harpsichords of various types but no other keyboard instrument. For Bach, it was then and remains now (except for the organ) the keyboard instrument of choice.

Look carefully at this last sentence, which seems so eminently “reasonable.” Notice how the “then” becomes the “now,” by simple clausular addition. It slips down so easily that you may not even notice that it might be difficult for Bach to have a keyboard of instrument of choice “now” because, in fact, he’s dead.

Oh, Harold Fromm. There are already two types of egregiousness to your article which I have detailed:

1) presumptuousness of tone;
2) inaccuracy of content.

But I have so so many more!!! Another crucial rhetorical device of Fromm’s, and one which A.C. Douglas seems to have particularly enjoyed, is the setting up of Straw Men. It is apropos during this political season, I suppose, and yet still irritating. Fromm is talking about certain interpretative qualities of the harpsichord, and certain options for the performer (though he seems to get a bit confused whether he is talking about the performer’s or the composer’s options):

Bach’s Italian Concerto provides a perfect demonstration of all these qualities, with furious propulsion punctuated by dense chords in the outer movements and arioso lyricism in the middle (exploiting two keyboards), written into the music, no “expression” needed, just the player’s skill on the harpsichord. An “expressive” piano performance that turns it into one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words subverts its most distinctive and powerful properties.

Ah yes, I forgot about those roving armies of pianists who wish to turn the Italian Concerto into a Mendelssohn “Song without Words.” I was going to donate to their organization just last week, but I gave to the Communist Party instead. Hello? Harold? I think we all agree the Italian Concerto is very different from “Spinning Song;” even us idiot pianists get the difference, thank you very much. Could there be ways to play the Italian Concerto expressively and yet not aim for “Songs without Words”? Could there be a way to write an article on Bach and yet not pontificate?

But more central to the problem of this passage, I am sure the reader will realize, is Harold’s use of the word “expression.” I am sure Mr. Fromm is somewhat uneasy about his use of this word, too, since he always puts it in quotation marks, as if that will fix what is wrong with what he is saying. ANYONE who tells you there is “no expression needed” to play the Italian Concerto is an idiot. Just play the notes, they say! Here’s an experiment: plug the piece into Sibelius and have the computer play it back to you. Lovely. I’m sure it sounds absolutely delightful. The very musical translation of despair. This kind of statement, that everything is “written into the music,” reveals a desperate ignorance of the millions of small interpretative and expressive decisions that go into even the most basic realization of a musical score; it goes against the underlying contract of notated Western music.

Let’s be generous, and assume Mr. Fromm puts “expression” in quotes to designate a certain type of expressivity. So that there is no mistake, in defining this type of expressivity, he invokes the Songs without Words… “music for ladies” is the hidden implication here, and if you don’t think so I have a bridge to sell you … Later he refers to the “genteel Gallic” Casadesus family and the “melting, exquisite, precious, Chopinesque” pianist marring Mozart. Do ya get it yet? Not only are you egregiously playing on the wrong instrument, but the way you are doing it makes you a Frenchified girlyman.

Mr. Fromm speaks a few times of “linear expression” or “linear performance”:

Bach wrote his keyboard and organ music for instruments capable of linear performance only, uninflected by touch.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this phrase “linear performance” might mean. Does it mean you play looking forward in a straight line? I suppose lines are to be distinguished from curves, whorls, ovoids, and other shapes? He says “uninflected by touch,” but he CERTAINLY can’t mean that, since variations in articulation, in attack, in the nature of the connection from one note to the next—in other words, things inflected by touch—are among the absolute essential expressive devices on the harpsichord, without which the harpsichordist might as well give up, have several martinis, and go home. I guess he means dynamic contrast? The only way in which can agree with Mr. Fromm is to say that, whatever the keyboardist does, while playing Bach, to get the maximum result and pleasure, he or she should pay close attention to the lines that the notes seem to draw amongst themselves, the beautiful patterns they create, their diversions, their turnarounds, and their intersections… all Bach’s magnificent, humane geometry … full of whorls, lines, fractals, parabolas … geometry with no whiff of blackboard and always proving eternity.

Here I come (at last) to the meat of my matter. Mr. Fromm proposes that Bach wrote his keyboard music specifically “not to be inflected by touch.” Now, let’s even leave aside all the keyboard music that is a transcription of music for other instruments—which is quite a bit of music. Let’s give Fromm an undeserved break, and brush that off the table. Do we imagine that Bach sat down to write keyboard music and composed, specifically, music that should be absent of dynamic inflection? This would mean that the keyboard music is somehow weirdly separate, cordoned off from all the rest of the music of Bach. But it seems pretty clear to me, listening to the keyboard Partitas on the one hand, and Cantatas on the other (for instance), that a lot of the same genetic material is there. Countless specific motives are shared, a whole compositional personality is shared … So, are we to believe that a motive in a Cantata would be shaped dynamically by a violin, oboe, or voice, but when Bach wrote a very similar idea for the keyboard, he never even wished for the idiomatic shaping of another instrument?

This separation of the keyboard music doesn’t make any sense to me—intuitively or intellectually—and I’m not even counting the innumerable instances where Bach’s keyboard writing is deliberately and clearly meant to imitate and invoke a violin, orchestra, or chorus, or any number of other groupings which are capable of dynamic shaping up the yinyang! (Cases where Bach himself blurs the line between instruments … where he invokes a musical space beyond the single instrument …) Does Fromm mean to say that Bach, while playing a passage on the harpsichord, never even imagined a crescendo, or what we would now call a hairpin? Anyone who plays a keyboard instrument seriously knows how large a role is played by imagining the timbres and possibilities of other instruments, and yearning for them, even against physical impossibility … somehow imagining your way into the audible illusion. The vastness of Bach’s conception of keyboard music shows that his imagination in this respect was pretty much better than anyone’s in history.

The syllogism … 1) Bach wrote for the harpsichord, 2) the harpsichord is incapable of dynamic inflection, ergo 3) the music he wrote for the harpsichord should be free from dynamic inflection … is faulty, despite its appearance of rationality. (It may be that premise #1 is the most faulty…) It attempts to shortcircuit music’s multivalence; it attempts to replace the beautiful, complex, ambiguous relationship of instrument, composition, score, conception, and audible result—which are all woven together with imagination—with a simplistic logic. This is not to discount the pleasure and importance of knowing the harpsichord’s expressive possibilities, the relevance of its timbral language … But when we say that Bach wrote “for” an instrument, I think we mean more centrally that he wrote towards the possibilities of his instruments, and not to make dogmas out of their parameters.

I suppose I should apologize for my vehemence, for basically being a jerk towards Mr. Fromm, who is probably a very nice person, and an avid lover of Bach. But I won’t. I would use the following quote as my excuse:

Bach is said to have conducted himself in a generally “peaceful, quiet, and even-tempered way” in the face of all kinds of unpleasantness “as long as it concerned only his own person,” but the same source acknowledges that he “became a very different man if he felt threatened in his art, which he held sacred, and that he then became mightily enraged and in his zeal sought to find vent by the strongest expressions.”

-Wolff, p. 401-402

Since Fromm is making pronouncements on what I consider to be my bailiwick, I feel (though I am but a lowly blogger, and he an English professor) it is my duty to impinge upon his, and to aver to you that his article is not only annoying but badly written as well. This is unfortunate, since I read an earlier article of his on Camille Paglia which seems quite good (see, I put some effort into this hitjob!) … what is it about music, sometimes, that draws out the bad qualities in good writers? We musicians should not put up with this. We should be emancipated from pompous writing about our craft.

Quickly, I would like to detail the egregiousness of the writing in this piece. Its first six lengthy paragraphs could be summed up in about two sentences, i.e.:

1) Bach could be regarded as the father of Western music.

2) There is very little information about his life.

Much of what is in the article is culled, in one form or another, from various other volumes: it is a kind of sampling of little interesting tidbits from the biographies he has read, but these tidbits do not cohere, or relate to his underlying purpose of “Bach in the Twenty-first Century.” Egregiousness #503: lack of coherent point. Bach wrote parody cantatas, we learn; we learn some details of organ production and maintenance in Bach’s lifetime; we pause again to castigate “expressivity” in modern Bach performance; we learn there are problems with Bach chronology (oh really?); later, we learn the instrumentation of some cantatas and that they range in length from 10 to 50 minutes. We learn that Bach wrote a cantata a week for quite a while (something I learned in Music History 101). In all, an assortment of things, not all of them interesting, none of them earthshaking, all of them borrowed … Egregiousness #504: boring/obvious observations.

We learn that

Bach did not spring full grown from the head of Zeus

which is a relief, whew!, because I thought he did … later, a complete Bach edition on CD …

fractured any picture I might have had of the emergence of this transcendent music as solidified, discrete units, like packs of candy bars dropping from a vending machine.

… a simile which, for some reason, made me long to be stifled under an avalanche of Mars bars.

But, at last, amidst the chaos, Fromm says …

Now, as I arrive at a retrospective overview of Bach from the twenty-first century,

At which point I said to myself “Wha?” and stared at my refrigerator plaintively. What overview? I frantically scanned all the previous paragraphs for some sense of a broad arc, some sort of connection between the now and the then, some Bachian summation, but no, I couldn’t find it. Egregiousness #505: Summational Sentence Without Preexisting Summation. It reminded me of certain papers in High School English, where you say, “in conclusion,” just to lift the paper onto the home stretch, even though you know perfectly well you got nothin’.

And then, Fromm’s final paragraph baffled me into a desperate need for chemical stimulants. Somehow his point is tied up with Virginia Woolf’s quote “the chapel became a larder.” Now, I don’t want to be picky, but I think Woolf wrote more beautiful phrases … I understand the meaning is relevant, but somehow the phrase sits heavily upon my tongue, like an unwelcome chimichanga. Fromm’s revelation comes at a concert at the Oregon Bach Festival, where

One of the women, toned, lean, and (as we say nowadays) “in shape,” wore a tight long red sheath gown revealing while concealing her athletic frame.

Hubba, hubba! Fromm’s conclusions from this are startling:

The woman in the red sheath conveyed as never before that Bach the musician had finally come into his own. The revolution was over. Providing a nourishment more primal and profound than transient pieties, the chapel had become a larder.

It appears the point is that because a woman was dressed rather provocatively at a concert in Oregon, we seem to have finally separated Bach from his stuffy Lutheran crap, which is mere transient context, and we are now therefore well larded. I think I have it! Bach now makes sense to me, absolutely!

My, my, I get mean-spirited when I’m annoyed. What is saddest about this article is its fear of dealing with the musical notes directly. Its flurry of bygone conclusions and completed revolutions and assured pontifications may distract you from this fact. Fromm gets close to the music only on one occasion:

Most recently, Daniel J. Levitin in This Is Your Brain on Music has tried to shed light on the mystery, but the road is long, the night is dark, and all the cats are still pretty gray.

… and flees abjectly in the direction of vagueness.

I have my own image to counter Fromm’s “chapel/larder” business. My student came to my apartment last week and I was exhausted from one flight or another, and had been working all day, and was hepped up on a million coffees and really hardly in any state to listen to or enjoy anything. This student has had some trouble—by her own admission—associating with Beethoven, Mozart … some of the German so-called “serious” repertory … even though she seems to swim in Chopin pretty well. She sat and played through the C# minor prelude and fugue from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier—on the terrible, villainous modern piano. She was transformed; I was amazed; her outlook seemed to take her through the whole prelude at once; the complicated sentence made sense, and she noticed beauties along the way … Then the fugue, too, was quite assured, at times touching … she was speaking the piece’s language, she seemed structurally aware in ways I had not seen before. She finished. I told her it sounded like she had really come to know the piece … and she paused and said “I LOVE this piece.” I could tell she really meant it, that the piece meant something terribly important to her … Indeed, a 20 year old, loving and absorbing into her soul an abstruse 5-voice fugue from the early 18th century … I thought to myself, how egregious!, while my heart leapt for joy.

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