Reenact This

I was going to write a huge, fancy prologue to justify how I got all pissed off about a few things, but my own prologue also pissed me off. It’s like when people say fifty times during their academic paper “there is no time or space here, unfortunately, to go into these fascinating issues” but if they had cut every occurrence of that phrase there would have been oodles of time. A skeptical person might wonder if those issues would have proved as fascinating as promised.

So, straight to the stringy meat of the matter. No bush-beating. With all due respect, I hated this line from David Lang’s recent op-ed in the New York Times:

Imagine a baseball game in which all the players dress up in the uniforms of a hundred years ago, and then follow, pitch by pitch, a classic match-up from the past.

My first objection is admittedly a bit personal. Although my favorite concert apparel sometimes smells like it’s a hundred years old, it’s really only a few years old. If you must know, it’s Joseph Abboud, 2005 (endorsement?). I actually think, based on a few isolated recent remarks, which I hoped were not ironic, it’s coming into fashion again. It’s just a velvet jacket with pinstripes, OK?

Ahem. Now let me try to address the wider issues. I empathize with David Lang’s larger point. But I have to confess I am slightly (as in rabidly) prejudiced against sports-music metaphors, in the same way that I detest phrases like “Beethoven was the Jimi Hendrix of his time” … although I realize the importance of bringing classical music into semantic proximity with things that people actually like.

David is giving us a metaphor for the classical concert experience, hyperbolically, to emphasize its absurdity, i.e. as in, look how ridiculous it is, all of those people in their tuxedos playing old music! Now, I agree a classical concert can sometimes seem or even be absurd. But am I the only performer out there who finds this metaphor demeaning? Is that what composers think we do? The association I get is that classical performers are something like Civil War reenactors. We prance out there in our silly clothes and try to mimic some thrilling event of the past, but it’s a battle so predictable and harmless that people are serving drinks, memorabilia: we already know the score, who won, who marched where, who pitched a fast ball, who had better cannons, who committed an error, what handkerchief Napoleon sneezed into, no matter what detail you choose, the point is the result is foregone.

When I was a child, my parents took me to a Revolutionary War reenactment, and it was ridiculously hot and my mother got faint from the heat and had to be tended in an ambulance. I forgot who won. Come to think of it, ambulances are present at many classical music concerts too.

David’s metaphor, which attempts to capture the absurdity of the classical concert, is itself absurd. It collapses upon the slightest examination. Suppose you were to reenact a baseball game, “pitch by pitch,” the way he suggests. OK, you have somebody out there, and you say throw a curve ball, that’s what happened in the original game, and the guy throws a curve ball, would he be lucky enough to capture the exact curve of the pitch as thrown in 1959 or whenever? And if so, would the breeze floating across the field be precisely the same so that the parabola of the ball would confuse the batter in precisely the same way, and the flutter of the flags and the taste of the beer in the stands and the sweat and hope of the players would those be the same too? You get my point. Reality would continuously, infinitely frustrate the recreation of the ephemeral event, and you would never get the same score. A baseball game CANNOT be reenacted in this way, and that is why it is absurd to do it, and that is why the metaphor is silly, not because classical music is silly. The only way to “replay” a baseball game would be to DVR it and watch it, or devise some incredibly subtle robots to perfectly recreate every single muscular movement of all those players on the field, a technological feat that might pointlessly consume many programmers’ lifetimes.

Actually I often dream of being a robot in my dressing room. A hypothetical robot with feeling, that would always play the piece in concert as well as the best time I ever played it. The ideal of robotic, repeatable perfection is naturally very alluring to classical performers, especially since the diabolical invention of the recording, in the face of the desperate moment of the irrecoverable performance. The most amazing emotive spontaneity fused with uncanny preternatural perfection and repeatability: these are the incompatibles that we classical musicians are encouraged to seek out simultaneously, for fear that the critics will say either that our fingers are not what they might be or our souls are bereft. I think David Lang is on to something (but certainly not the only person to be on to it) that there is a sense of ennui in certain performances of classical music, a sense of the hamster in the wheel, and we classical musicians need to lay the blame at our own feet: perhaps one factor is that certain kinds of perfection are seductive, and easily confused with musicianship? Other factors may include fear and tradition, and possibly inadequate snacks.

The point is, this particular bit of the baseball game analogy is ridiculous and unproductive (not to mention demeaning): the more apt comparison is rereading a great book, or re-performing a play, etc. etc. Is it silly to dress up in costumes and reenact King Lear? Baseball games, replayed hundreds of times, would become unspeakably boring … the element of suspense, of not knowing how it will turn out, is fairly central to its effect. One might admire and replay certain great athletic moments, certain beautiful leaps and astonishing swings, but that is why sports events tend to coalesce into “highlight reels,” immortal catalogues of astounding seconds. Highlights of artistic works tend to change as you absorb them over time, as you feel your way into their fabric. Knowing how King Lear ends does not ruin any of its effect.

OK, here’s where I get a bit even more pissy.

I know, I know, we performers are just re-creators and not creators, like you composers. I get it, I’m fine with it. However, what we do is not a reenactment, our clothes are not uniforms, any more than yours are (don’t get me started on composers’ outfits). We get up in clothes that seem appropriate for the event, and what do we do? — We supply all the information that the score does not, could not, could never. The classical musical score is a beautiful, endangered, characteristically outmoded thing (one doesn’t really look at the “score” of a pop song, right?), capable of infinite realizations and suggesting, implying so much more than any performance. In that sense, the score is “bigger” than us, and quite obviously much more important than our performance. It communicates powerfully the thoughts of geniuses past, and present. On the other hand, the score is not alive, in the same sense that a printout of a genome is not a living thing. The life between the notes on the page is there, written, implied, encoded, but lacks some information that can never be captured on the page, millions of little decisions, understandings, interpretations: those are the performer’s job, the flesh of sound. In that sense of being at least alive, any one performance at that moment is “bigger” than the score. That’s such a beautiful symbiosis: two things both (impossibly) bigger than the other.

David, I’m totally down with you that I wish classical music felt more in the present, more on the edge of its seat. I’ll go a bit further. I wish certain pieces (Beethoven Op. 96 or 111 for instance) could be free, float free from any gripe or rave, free from the bitchy comment or political posturing, free from “what a WONDERFUL piece” and other kinds of cloying adoration, free from endless comparison and re-comparison, free from receptions, free from op-eds, free from the particular concert with the coughing person or the out of tune piano or smelly tuxedo or whatever it is, but of course this purifying freedom would kill these pieces I love.

David, you focus pretty harshly on the pastness of classical concert life. To hear you talking, it’s all old hat. Agreed, we need much more of the frisson of what the hell is going to happen and it would be great to have more people thrilled about new music concerts! It would also be great to have lollipops falling from the sky.

But I would suggest there’s another way to express this pastness. Clothes from 1840, for instance, aren’t really worn anymore (for the most part, just go with me on this). Political thinking has changed, society has altered itself … Isn’t it kind of a miracle that some music survives from 1730, that certain pieces of music survive for hundreds of years? Music that should by all rights be dead because of changing fashion, taste, lifestyle, the deterioration of parchment, whatever. But somehow it’s held on. It’s endangered, to be sure. It’s the dodo bird of music, perhaps, waiting to be made inevitably extinct by encroaching generations of Biebers, by deafening headphones, but still we can read the present in that past. So fabulous, so thrilling?

Let me throw you a metaphor, David: classical performers are like crusty sailors atop a rusty boat, saying “there’s life in the old girl yet.” It’s terrible but I think it’s funnier than yours. Actually, hold on, I have one more–just for kicks and giggles. Society in general is not enthralled with classical music. Who knows why, it’s a symbol for fustiness, for fancy parties with buffets, for rich jerks on yachts, etc. etc. “High classical music” (let’s say Mozart Haydn Beethoven) is a bit like Latin, like a language holding on against changes in style, in desire, in fashion, but somehow it’s still holding on. It is widely shunned, it should be dead, and yet we performers insist on resurrecting it, because we love it: we try to throw a bit of electricity into it, and suddenly, hopefully, the corpse revives … and what do you know, despite the townspeople’s dismay, the creature has a certain ineffable tenderness, it communicates … my metaphor must be obvious by now, classical performers aren’t Civil War re-enactors, we’re actually Doctor Frankensteins!, which is much cooler.

I’m finished with this ridiculous rebuttal. There are all sorts of fascinating side issues I would love to cover, but there’s no time, Dr. Denkenstein has many corpses to revive.

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Harping on the Past: A Christmas Tale

For many years, the greatest joy of Christmas was to wake up my parents with the worst Christmas music we could find. My brother and I would have a whispered powwow over the LP collection. We might choose Placido Domingo, for sheer tenor shamelessness, or maybe the organ-backed bombast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The most deliciously despised choice was Barbara Streisand’s multi-metric, coke-addled version of Jingle Bells. “Oh God not that again,” we’d hear my mother moan from the bedroom, “Joe put on some coffee goddammit!”

But finally, an album arrived in the house that outdid all the others. My father worked for the Community Concerts series in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and one year the series featured a harpist named DeWayne Fulton. An album entitled “Season’s Greetings from DeWayne Fulton” mysteriously appeared in the record pile the next Christmas, the bio on the jacket was irresistible:

DeWayne is currently being featured at THE WAREHOUSE RESTAURANT in Marina Del Rey, California (near the Los Angeles International Airport).

… and that was all. My brother and I ripped off the cellophane, put the album on at full volume, and got exactly the reaction we wanted. When my father emerged he wryly resurrected one of his most beloved expressions, one we hadn’t heard for many years: “Fountains of toilet water.”

Yes, Christmas Day was an occasion for gift-giving, for family togetherness, and mocking schlock. DeWayne became the perennial choice, the only choice, the absolute gold standard of cheese. Oh how we laughed, year after year, over DeWayne’s bio, and all his plucked passion, while we unwrapped our fleeces from Lands End!

Fast forward to the present. This year I decided the holiday would be a nice, peaceful time not to travel anywhere and just to practice Ligeti Etudes and Bach. There is nothing more peaceful than playing Ligeti six hours a day, let me tell you; as a form of mental self-flagellation it is unequalled. Although I bought a small Christmas tree, plopped it atop the piano, decorated it with lights–well, somehow I had trouble summoning the Christmas spirit. Over Ligeti’s enormous dissonant chords and clusters, quadruple forte, I started screaming holiday messages, like “Happy New Year!,” “Best Wishes of the Season To You!,” partly to scare the neighbors.

In this dire state, searching for holiday cheer, I found myself (what else) googling DeWayne Fulton. And wouldn’t you know it, someone had uploaded the entire Seasons Greetings album! … I pressed download, and …

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.. I got a lot more Christmas spirit than I bargained for. From the very first strum, I was transported to a Christmas in the mid to late 80’s, between semesters at college. Sitting in my pajamas, sheltered by the tree and surrounded by presents, everything around me suggested I was still a child; meanwhile at college I’d been eagerly after adulthood, freeing myself (so I thought) from childlike vulnerabilities … The gap between child me and college me had been widening, imperceptibly, a crack in myself, and I felt suddenly dropped into it, this identity abyss. Who was I kidding, pretending to be a well-adjusted adult? Perhaps the suicidal melancholy of Christmas is partly this: a sudden strange perspective thrown around all your “normal,” day-to-day life, a sudden lack of shelter. Just like when your relatives ask “You’re kidding me, do you honestly make a living tickling those damn ivories?” and after telling them to screw off you realize how precarious the whole house of cards is. You tell them about your recording of Ives and they say “oh, I love Burl Ives.”

In other words, these cheesy carols–much as I might laugh at them–were taking me down, down, down into a morass of unwanted emotion. I was turning into an Oprah segment. To distract myself, I clicked the back button on my browser, back to the original search results. There I found:

Los Angeles Times
July 12, 1996

Harpist DeWayne Fulton once graced the rosters of the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics but had his longest tenure in the lounge of the Warehouse Restaurant in Marina del Rey.

… Ouch. I couldn’t help but laugh at the zing of this opening salvo, but felt something flinch in my heart. The writer continued:

In a recital Thursday night at Cal State Long Beach, he combined the technique of a symphonic virtuoso with the artistic inclinations of a Lawrence Welk.

Agh. Before I knew it, I was suddenly totally overcome with sadness, at DeWayne’s life story, at the concise cruelty of the opening of this review, at the cruelty of all humanity to humanity, the cruelty even of concision itself (meanwhile the carols were still rippling on, heartlessly), and I was so deeply ashamed of all the years I had laughed at DeWayne, all the terrible times I had used him for my own amusement, a harpist of considerable gifts who had played under Karajan in the Berlin Phil and somehow found himself for twenty years doing lounge harp in the environs of LAX. Further googling revealed that DeWayne died in 1997, mere months after this most terrible of all possible reviews. I imagined him reading this review with sadness, in his final moments. A great faucet of maudlin melancholy had been left open, and I guzzled from it.

This should be the point in the parable where, having reached a great crisis of doubt, I delve a bit further to find the True Meaning of Christmas.

Instead I found myself thinking about Corniness … a more fatal diagnosis, perhaps, than death itself. DeWayne had found himself on the wrong side of the corny/not corny divide; all his technique could not save him from his propensity for medleys and ripples, which led him unerringly from Berlin to Marina Del Rey, and earned him the cruelest review ever.

Now Christmas, too, seems to me a moment when corniness (partly a kind of naivete? a kind of artistic innocence? a complete disregard for restraint, taste?) raises its head and wages war for the soul of humanity. Christmas is a time of cheer, when we are all supposed to be cheerful: and cheer lends itself to corniness far more than gloom. Corniness is often a joy that has sat out too long, like a congealed skin on top of a soup. Congealed is the word: whatever elements keep the emotion fresh and moving are missing. Joy goes stale so quickly.

What’s so terrifying about the corniness of Christmas is its all-pervasive nature, its inescapability. It oozes into all the most inappropriate, humdrum, places. I went to the bank to get a new ATM card, and there it was, deafening, the cheeriest corniest music imaginable. I said to the man in the cubicle, “this music must drive you crazy,” and he said “we’ve been listening to it all month,” and I said, “that would make me want to kill myself,” and he said “that would be bad because I’m a young man with my whole life ahead of me” (which seemed to me a strange response). I must’ve struck a nerve; the guy in the next cubicle popped his head over the divider, and he said — get this — yeah basically we sort of want to kill ourselves, but can I interest you in some investments?

On the way back from the bank I picked up a chicken to roast. That should cure any melancholy those corny carols had roused! Yes, I thought, a good solid meal, potatoes and onions, and meanwhile I can get back to work, work, work, practicing Ligeti … Luckily, Ligeti is the least corny music imaginable. Severe, often savage, violent, excessive, sometimes beautiful–but never sentimental, mawkish. Ligeti was anti-Christmas, the perfect antidote to DeWayne.

I put the chicken in, 450 F, got to work. In moments the apartment was filling up with smoke. I couldn’t open the window, outside was a howling blizzard. I was trapped, blazing oven inside and icy wind without. The music on the piano was “The Devil’s Staircase.” I added a couple fingerings, but the air was getting ever heavier, it was hot as hell in there, the smoke alarm beeped peevishly, fog was clouding the room, my brain, stifling …

At this moment, coughing through the fumes, I had a kind of weird, sudden Christmas vision. Snowflakes gave way to blurry blue lights, clouds upon clouds, and then I saw it, I saw it, DeWayne was in Heaven–which oddly resembled the Warehouse Restaurant–playing his harp. DeWayne was smiling down at me. I thought: DeWayne is happy, he forgives me for laughing at him all those years, for being such a cruel snobbish classical music bastard. I breathed a great sigh of relief. My heart swelled. But, in a moment, the vision expanded … I noticed God was sitting there next to DeWayne, and they weren’t just smiling, they were both actually laughing, laughing hysterically. DeWayne was saying “Look at that poor sap, working like a dog down there, all alone, on that hideous music” and yes even God was laughing at me, he was wiping the tears out of his eyes, saying “what an idiot. Play me O Holy Night again, DeWayne. And–waiter–I’d like the Surf’n’Turf, medium rare.”

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Ligeti’s Infinities

My friend Cory said he heard a tiny scrap of laughter out his window the other night, and it made him want to cry, thinking of all the pleasures happening elsewhere. The last days of Summer should be the last sweet drops of a long mirth. Your soul should be like a Gatsby lawn party. Yes, hold on to your laughs; they’re all sweaty and slippery; they’ve been on ice all summer, trying to keep cool, trying not to become sighs.

Things that will never be the same, and summer, and death, and mirth, and flings long past: all one big complex of crap. Go ahead and try to sum it all up. If I was working at the Whitney staging a retrospective of my summer past, the Summer of No Blogging (thanks for pointing that out, everyone that I know!), it would mainly consist of a performance art piece entitled Practicing Maniac. Various rooms: always the same maniac. Occasionally an adorable dog sat on this maniac’s lap, expressing appreciation through furtive licks.


Many hours died, one after another, sacrificed at the altar of a few minutes of music; now all that time, all that existence and memory has been transmuted into increased capacity for playing those few minutes: it better damned well sound good. But, no pressure!

Suppose you’re just practicing innocently along, telling yourself “hey I’m practicing” and also “I’m such a good person for not surfing the internet,” etc. etc., when the composer hits you with this:

In case you don’t know, three f’s is the loudest dynamic you would “normally” come across. Ligeti writes eight, which translates to a wonderfully silly Italian sussuration: Fortissississississississimo. My initial reaction to this is: the composer is a jerk. But I often have this reaction. Resenting the composer (usually dead, but not always!) is a fun practice tactic, something productive I’ve been able to pass on to my students.

How to interpret eight fortes? I think maybe I should hurl my whole body at the piano as violently as possible and hope for the best. They would find my bloody corpse weeks later amid the moldy coffee cups, odiferous testament to my devotion to the composer’s intent. How would 8 be different from 7? Both must be so searingly loud as to be painful, a distinction between degrees of agony: if 7 fortes is like being disemboweled by a wolf, then 8 is like being disemboweled by a bear.

Ridiculously, staggeringly loud is one brute brand of infinity, but the best infinities in Ligeti are infinities of thought. He starts with a principle, a procedure. The procedure proceeds. But at some point, preferably just at the birth of complacency, Ligeti accelerates or compresses, he turns the mental dial to eleven. The code destabilizes itself.

A good example: the sixth Etude, Automne a Varsovie. The principle is descending chromatic lines. At first there is only the one line, falling, falling:

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But gradually other chromatic lines come in, at various other speeds. In this middlegame, the effect is just like that of many familiar Western musical masterpieces: a meditation on the beauty of various chromatic lines, intersecting, falling at different rates. These beauties are always elusive, because the lines are always passing on, but then (such is the cycle of things) new temporary beauties also always keep coming.

However, the urge of the piece is not beauty, but an ever-denser thicket of lines, crowding beauty out. Accumulation keeps threatening pleasure. The lines become insanely intertwined, and the Etude follows this logic or urge to its desperate, natural conclusion: the pianist rushes off the bottom edge of the keyboard, chromatically, as loud as possible, breaks off, as short as possible. The idea of the piece (the descending line) has fused into a white-hot singularity, something that can no longer be discretely played or thought, something infinitely forceful … after which nothing can be said, violent caesura, silence.


Now, this sort of thing happens in Ligeti so often that it becomes commonplace. He’s intimate with infinity, comfortable with destruction; infinity’s like the 7-11 he stops at on his way home from work, to pick up a Big Gulp.

One thing Ligeti’s doing is challenging the pianist to ape a machine; he evokes the (seemingly) infinite calculations we are used to our PCs doing for us every day. Perversely, he wants to see us try to do them. But this machine desire is not heartless, or bloodless. Rather, it’s a thrilling, terrifying, uncompromising ride towards where you won’t be able to do it any more. (Aren’t we all on one of those?) It’s the life-affirming death-wish of the work.

The death of your typical tonal work (say, by Mozart) is a cadence. You have a movement, and if it starts in a key X, it will end with a cadence in key X. There’s no bones about it; that’s just how you close things off, say farewell; it’s “the law.” The cadence is a cage which defines and restrains so much of classical music. Ligeti’s runs for infinity are so common that they assume the role of cadences. His way of achieving closure is to explode the premise of the piece (or allow the premise to destroy itself). Going berserk on idea X is the inevitable, natural conclusion of it; the parameters of a piece lie at the far end of an apocalypse, of the unthinkable.

What with Ligeti’s freedom to go beserk, you might find yourself pitying poor finite Mozart.

For instance, one of the greatest Mozart slow movements (second movement of K 533) begins with a very finite, very simple measure:

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… nothing extraordinary, nothing more than lovely passing through B-flat major. It’s almost an emblem of the limitations of Classical Slow Movements, you’re already thinking, oh no, not another one of those pretty, precious things. But the second measure comes out of left field:


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… a disjunction, two notes that do not belong, a couple of strange ugly leaps, cross-relations, a middle voice suddenly expressive and prominent where it had been filler. There is a lot to contemplate here, but not much time; immediately, the third section of the phrase resolves this “problem” away, as if nothing had happened:


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But something HAS happened. And when the next phrase begins, we have a strange sudden distance between two notes in the right hand and an octave in the left:

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… I don’t think you can separate this Weird Event from the previous Weird Event. Those weirdnesses are not coincidences, they’re collaborators, pushing us away from the “normal” which was so clearly promised in the opening measure, sabotaging the cadences which surround them. Mozart’s giving us two kinds of Weird. One is the infection of the major key with the minor: a kind of confusion, or ambivalence. The other is more technical perhaps, harder to explain: a kind of austere voicing in which the lines feel a bit too distant from each other, in which a sudden gap is felt. If you think of a nice lyrical texture as a number of voices filling each other out, like a ripe juicy fruit, depending on continuity, completeness, flesh passing to flesh … these gaps are like moments where some of the flesh of the fruit vanishes and some sort of diagram or skeleton appears behind it.

I (probably) wouldn’t go into these first four measures so verbosely, if it weren’t just the beginning of a long, harrowing process, the process of Mozart drawing connections between weirdnesses, allowing the weird to flourish. The minor keeps forcing its way into the major key (and vice versa), a process which reaches a spectacular climax here:

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Mozart couldn’t have crammed more major-minor ambiguity into this passage if he tried: in the context of the style, it’s infinitely ambivalent. He only escapes from this thorny confusion of happy and sad through an extraordinary sudden gap, the melody leaping up a tenth to the major key: that is, one weird rescuing us from another.

In the middle of the movement, Mozart creates a climax of austerity (weirdness #2). He embarks on an endless, strange passage of sequences and dissonances, in which the ideal of the human voice disappears, we wander into a contrapuntal maze:


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Mozart’s slow movement is not that different from Ligeti’s Automne a Varsovie! Its beauties contain destabilizing elements which spread, increase, threaten to take over. As you listen to this Andante, even for the nth time, those odd things are odd enough not to become familiar … like an unsettling face. Some angle of the face is never quite right, no matter how you try to organize it in your mind, and if you manage to get used to one crooked eye then everything else will seem askew.

All summer, in my maniacal practice sessions, I switched back and forth from Ligeti Etudes to Mozart 533: I kept putting Pandora back in the box, then letting Her out again. Ligeti does “scientific” infinity: he gestures at “actual” infinity by rushing off the top or bottom of the keyboard, or allowing voices to replicate themselves, or mimicking mathematical ideas, permutations, chaos theory, etc. etc. I found myself trying to identify infinity in Mozart, feeling strongly it was there. For many people, I imagine, the infinity of Mozart lies in his perfection, balance, symmetry, the whole shtick of the classical ideal. Not me.

Infinity is something you’re in awe of, which seems impossible, but (like a horizon) is there all the time, defining your every step. I find infinity not in Mozart’s continuity, but in his gaps, ambivalences, in glimpses, in the leap from one image or idea to another. If the cadence and the style is a box, a scaffolding, the four-bar phrases, the whole rigmarole of compositional framework … then music’s a box for holding infinities, momentary infinities. How do they fit in there? They’re hiding in the corners of phrases, behind barely touched-upon moments, which imply vast other things. Ligeti’s infinity is overt; it hits you over the head and leaves you spinning. Infinity in Mozart is a golden fish swimming in the stream of the finite, impossible to catch, but you must try.

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Jetlagged Manifesto

I woke at 3:32 and stumbled over my open suitcase towards the kitchen, neither awake nor asleep, floating in time-purgatory. ss_8CabotMontereyJackCheeseA slice of slightly crusty Monterey Jack from the back of the refrigerator did not bring comfort. All sorts of anxieties bubbled out of my last hour of sleep: even they were groggy, dazed … maybe a bit crabby.

In other words, a classic jetlag situation where you confront the weird empty hour thinking what the hell am I going to do with you? I stared out the window at nothing, and my mind helped itself to a ridiculous and comically dark train of thought, which (for some reason) I can’t help sharing:

Sometimes performances bring pieces to life, but sometimes they (I, we) kill them instead. Performers (and this seems obvious, inevitable, we’re human, we’re all culpable) are sometimes complicit in the Death of Classical Music.

Ouch! But fasten your seatbelts, it gets darker yet:

If the concert is sometimes a “murder” of what should be a living work, program notes are the chloroform rag we use to numb the victim, before dragging it to the scene of the crime.

Ha! Yes, I realize it’s unfair to carp about program notes at 4 am just because you’re grumpy about being awake and stressed about practicing Ligeti Etudes! But this program note thing had been on my mind for a while.

It seems regrettable that a writing style called Program Note Style ever came into existence. It’s hard to define, I suppose; you know it when you read it, by a slight heartburn of the soul. When I start to compose program notes, I feel the Siren of this Style, calling me. The words clump into clichéd paragraphs, habits learned from hundreds of programs, perused in waiting moments … You begin with a few dates, then you slip in the curious historical tidbit: “while he composed X in 18xx, curiously he didn’t publish it until 18xx …” The tidbit that makes it seem authoritative, knowledgeable, yawn yawn … Agh! Select All. Delete. Contemplate blank screen with relief.

I would like to enumerate the Deadly Sins of program notes.

The first one is HISTORICIZATION:

I’ve never been a big fan of the “imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written” school of inspiration. For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.) Whatever else the composer might have intended, he or she didn’t want you to think “boy that must have been cool back then.” The most basic compositional intent, the absolute ur-intent, is that you play it NOW, you make it happen NOW.

If you’ve ever been pestered by a composer to play their music, you know what I mean.

Now, history and understanding are delicious, essential! At the same time, I don’t think program notes should rub your face too much in the NOT NOW. It certainly doesn’t help classical music’s “age problem.” I’ll confess: historical context is good for me (context me good, baby!) mainly to the extent that it creates a kind of suspended now in which the work can exist again–present, perpetually different. There’s generally not room for that sort of context in a program note; instead, a thicket of dates and boring circumstances tends to evoke an officious wall between us and the living work, reminding us for no good reason that the composer is dead, conjuring his coffin, a notched timeline. Consider this opening to a program note:

The world was changing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The authority of monarchies, no matter how enlightened they might be, was challenged: the American colonies against England, Hungarian peasants against Austria under Joseph II, the people of France and Louis XVI. Economic power was shifting away from the landed aristocracy to an urban middle class that included bankers, lawyers, merchants, and factory owners.

This note is for the “Trout” Quintet. You, listener: get serious, be studious and pensive for the urban middle class specimen you’re about to hear! If the performer’s aim is to recreate the piece in the present, immediate, alive, why do so many program notes make that so much more difficult?

The second sin is MAKING GENERIC: the sausage-like conversion of extraordinary musical moments into blobs of generic prose. Think of the program note as a field of battle on which the great defining characteristics of a work of art lie strewn, wounded by flying bullets of blandness.

Generic-ization is a very understandable sin; there’s nothing worse than a program note writer who goes hogwild with subjective and silly adjectives, like me. (I hate my own notes, for the most part, but I can’t help writing them!) To avoid this, the “typical program note writer” holds back, purging description of individuality. For instance:

The last movement takes up the motives of the first in varied form.

Now, it’s not that this sentence isn’t true, or isn’t a valid, cogent structural observation about the Stravinsky Piano Concerto. But this phrase “varied form” sticks in my throat–generic, indigestible. It seems a wasted opportunity. Varied how? To what purpose? I mean variation is nearly everywhere, it’s like the amino acid or DNA of music: a replication process which allows life to happen.

In fact, in this particular piece (the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds) the last movement visits some particularly grotesque, comic transformations on the ideas of the first. And as it turns out, the first movement is a set of inventive rethinkings of Bach and the Baroque: so, the last movement is a transformation of a transformation! While the first movement has ragtime mashed in with its toccata-Bach, the last allows Bach to head towards vaudeville, towards the Charleston, or the Foxtrot. The main thematic material is good crusty Baroque fare: full of pointed, jagged intervals, evoking an academic abstruse fugue, food for angular counterpoint … to allow this to become roaring 20s jazz is a punning leap from the cloister to the cabaret. The composer is grinning, he’s courting sacrilege; it’s a wicked, almost brutal mashup.
Perhaps you feel my description goes too far. But would you say …

“Picasso in his Cubist period takes up the motive of the guitar in varied form.”

No, I didn’t think so.


Included in many program notes are tidbits of historical information.

It’s amazing how canonical these tidbits can become. I played Beethoven’s First Concerto a number of times last season and every single program note noted that while the First Concerto is called number 1, it was actually composed second, after the Second Concerto, which was actually first. Now, as a performer and person, I am theoretically glad I know this, in the larger context of the Beethoven story, but, finally: YAWN. In fact, double yawn! Yawn times infinity plus one! Suppose you as a listener and program note reader do not know the Second Concerto, and you’re just looking for help to appreciate the work before you: this seems like a pretty “meta” piece of information to help you out; it seems like what a kind of tedious museum guide would say. Ironic, because of all Beethoven works the First Concerto is not “meta”: from the moment the piano enters, its simplicity requires no insider information. Beethoven takes care to speak to you with obvious grammar, with clear rhetoric, almost Phrasing for Dummies. And he takes you dummies through an epic tale nonetheless, using the harmonic equivalent of “see Jane run” as a doorway to shaded, subtle corners of tonality.

When I find these tidbits in program notes, I get an unshakable mental image: a group of gentlemen in smoking jackets, smoking cigars in a private club, exchanging “I say, old chap, did you know that the first concerto was actually composed second”? They’re chortling to each other, but their back is to you; through the knowledge they share, they exclude the larger group. The tidbits of knowledge are a badge of belonging, even though they do not particularly or centrally illuminate the work in question. For some reason these tidbits have become a habit, even a required element of program notes: I have no idea why.

And the last sin: DOMESTICATION.

These works are not our pets. They are not tchotchkes to be set upon the shelf for occasional amusement and decoration. But certain turns of phrase in program notes seem to reduce tremendous originalities down to size, seem to want to put composers’ innovations in their place. I found the following in a program note for the Stravinsky Piano Concerto (again):

Although Stravinsky moved very far from his earlier “Russian-period” works in the Piano Concerto, we may recognize him, among other things, by his fondness for asymmetrical rhythms, which is evident in all three movements of the work.

A “fondness” for asymmetrical rhythms? FONDNESS? You may as well say “Proust has a fondness for discussing the passing of time,” or “Beethoven has a fondness for exploring the relationship between tonic and dominant,” or “Shakespeare has a fondness for observing character traits.” It’s the fatal understatement, the polite absurd word that stops meaning in its tracks.

Stravinsky’s attack upon, and reinvention of, rhythm is obviously core to his life’s work, core to his whole revolution of musical time, which has haunted and inspired much of the twentieth century. It is not a fondness, but an artistic essence, the grammar of a thrilling, unsettling new language. Program notes should avoid this mistake; and yet, it is the very human, natural mistake of someone wandering too long through an art museum, fatigued by one great canvas after another, trying to know what to say. Sometimes, sadly, you don’t have the option to say nothing!

Through the grimy kitchen window (I really should get that cleaned!) there was a gradual increase in the green and now yellow and blue stripe of dawn. I’m a sucker for quickening colors. My anxieties began to blow away, leaving reality sitting on the table: a hunk of sweaty cheese. Having written down my rant, I realized I wasn’t upset at any one program note writer; I was upset at the construct, the genre, and its expectations.

I perversely Googled one last program note, for the Archduke Trio. It began:

Despite the considerable contributions of Haydn and Mozart, it remained for Beethoven to give the piano trio an importance it had not enjoyed before.

I mean, I can’t argue with it, it’s depressingly true–but somehow the word “importance” gets on my nerves. The piece is very important to me. But the sense of the word “importance,” in this context, seems violently different from that personal importance. I scrolled down to see what the author said about my favorite movement:

The serene slow movement … is a series of variations on a hymnlike melody. [“hymnlike”: true, but GENERIC] (After Beethoven’s death it was gratuitously adapted to a choral setting of verses by Goethe.) [HISTORICIZATION, INSIDER’S CLUB] There are four variations, of great melodic and rhythmic interest [GENERIC: what interest? how?], and of growing tension and complexity, but after the fourth the theme is restated in its original purity [GENERIC: not exactly, crucial changes are made], to be followed by a dreamy coda which extends as a bridge to the finale (yet again as in Op. 59, No. 1–and numerous other works of its period). [INSIDER’S CLUB, DOMESTICATION]

I found all my enumerated sins. Of course I was evilly looking for them. “Dreamy coda which extends as a bridge to the finale”–it’s accurate, but upsets me. It absorbs one of my favorite moments in music, absorbs it into terminology which seems too comfy, too prosaic … like putting caviar on mashed potatoes.

I wasn’t being objective, I admit that. This Archduke note is just fine, it’s even quite good; it is well-written, and what’s more, it doesn’t force any particular vision. But…

What is it about these variations, why do they make me so happy? Maybe they have what I feel I lack? Patience, reliance on the beauty of a few tried and true harmonies, on color itself, and time: all of these givens, given space to breathe. The cumulative effect of all this space and breathing and inevitability is a kind of love expressed in tones, not the potiony feverish love of Tristan but–I’m embarrassed to say it, I suppose–love for the universe, love for things as they are, or if not that either, love for just being. Felix Galimir, the famous violinist and teacher, at my first lesson on the piece, said that it was “the only truly beautiful thing ever written for the piano.” (Haha.) Yes, in its profound color-thinking at the piano, the exploitation of the overtones, registers: it was (is, continues to be) a new kind of prayer to sound, sensual sound as a sign of love. Of course, you cannot say “prayer to sound” in a program note; that would be ridiculous. It’s so much safer to say “series of variations on a hymnlike melody,” don’t you think?

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