Missing me one place search another

Regular readers might recall, I won’t ever forget, that I went not so long ago to visit the composer Leon Kirchner, and he jokingly compared me to Walt Whitman. I hadn’t read Whitman’s verse since high school, and even at my hormonal heights, penning maudlin teen poetry by the rhyming bushel, I found him over the top.

But so it happened that, a week ago, coming back from a long day of editing the “Concord” Sonata, I stopped in Grand Central Station—where Ives must have come and gone many times—and bought myself a pretty copy of Leaves of Grass. I started reading it in the subway with blurry eyes and a brain filled with dissonance, and it didn’t seem over the top at all. It seemed like a clear voice I had been missing, which Leon’s quip had brought back into my life. I started reading bits to my friends over the phone. And so it happened also that I started carrying it around with me, wherever I went … and it was in my bag this morning, slung over my shoulder, as I was walking down 9th Avenue, and clicked on my iPhone, and learned that Leon was dead.

Opening the book to a random page on 57th street, I found:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself;
I am large …. I contain multitudes.
I concentrate towards them that are nigh … I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work and will soonest be through with his
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me … he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed … I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the
     shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air …. I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you

Some difficulty. Am back at home, looking at a giant writing project on the Goldberg Variations which I am supposed to finish, f&*(). How I wish I could ask Leon about them right now.

The answer would take longer than the piece, it would ramble, and you would hardly know what it was or what it meant, it would be good health to you nevertheless …. its important meanings would stop some where waiting for you to find them. You planted so many seeds in my brain, Leon, you lion, the last of which I guess was Whitman; another was the endlessly recombining quest and beautiful urge of your music; another crucial one was your faith in me; I’ll wait for the others (I’m sure there are others) to grow; I miss you.

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Legislating From My Bench

Something leapt out at me in the President’s speech last night:

My American ingenuity was stirred and perhaps even plucked; well heck, goshdarnit!, why not craft my own healthcare bill? Everybody’s doing it. How hard can it really be? …

111th Congress
1st Session

HR _________,

To provide affordable mental health care for American pianists; to reduce the runaway costs of therapy; to mitigate post-concert food and cocktail consumption; and for other purposes.



Mr. DENK introduced the following bill, without the sponsorship of Mr. AX, Mr. BRONFMAN, Mr. GOODE, nor any other pianist of note; which was referred to the Committee on __________.



Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


(a) SHORT TITLE–This Act may be cited as the “America’s Pianists Affordable Sanity Choice Act of 2009,” or alternatively as “Freedom of Banging Act.”

(b) TABLE OF DIVISIONS, TITLES, and SUBTITLES.—This Act is divided into divisions, titles, and subtitles as follows:


1) The word ”pianist“ shall be construed broadly, i.e. to be any person playing the piano in public, or submitting their stylings to YouTube;

2) Despite all temptation and valid justification, there shall be no discrimination against pianists who have attended or are attending The Juilliard School, or pianists specializing in Medtner, or any other disadvantaged group;

3) A pianist may not be sued for playing too loudly; nor for arguing with cellists about tempos; nor for shaking their heads poetically, or looking up at the ceiling pretentiously; nor for any other common foible;

4) No pianist shall be required to read Lang Lang’s autobiography, now or at any other time. Should a pianist accidentally do so, in whole or in part, he shall be covered under Medicare Section 1103e for all injuries he will commit to his own person, for a period not to exceed 20 days or as mutually agreed upon by the restraining physician.

If a pianist is playing the ”Goldberg“ Variations, a whole series of provisions pertain, viz:

a) for each mention of Glenn Gould at the post-concert reception, or at any question-and-answer session, the pianist is permitted three (3) massage sessions, and such aroma- and gastro- therapy as he may require, in addition, to be covered under the Groupies for the Assistance of Pianists Agency;

b) for each time that the pianist is asked to compare the earlier and later Gould recordings of the ”Goldberg“ Variations, he is permitted one (1) rude outburst, as dictated in HR 131, the so-called ”Really? Can’t We Talk About Anything Else? Act“;

c) the pianist is entitled to take all or any repeats, with the stipulation that no matter how many or how few repeats he/she takes, someone will question his/her decision thereby; mental agitation from this is NOT covered under any government pianist sanity policy, and can only be resolved in civil court, or on the reality television show ”Real Pianists of New York City;“

d) for each occasion that the pianist is asked why he or she is playing said work on the piano rather than the harpsichord, the pianist may beat his or her head against the wall for up to ten (10) minutes;

e) performing this work may be considered a pre-existing condition under various state and federal laws; and only pianists demonstrating reasonable forbearance in situations a), b), c), and d) will be permitted to enroll for the Goldberg Subsidies Program, which provides low-cost ethanol to Goldberg-producing pianists.


1) If a pianist complains about a certain problem with a piano and a piano technician pretends to repair it but actually does nothing at all and then the pianist says it’s much better, the technician shall be prohibited from pointing out that he didn’t do anything, but shall instead smile and tell the pianist how perceptive he is, and if found in violation of this rule, shall be condemned to no less than ten (10) years of harpsichord maintenance.


1) Pianists, like all other citizens, should be insured against the possibility of bad outfit outcomes;

2) This bill distinguishes between bad outfits ”by accident“ and bad outfits ”by choice.“ A government panel, reporting to the Farm Bureau, shall determine in ambiguous cases whether the pianist merely suffered a lapse in judgment, or really should have known better, girlfriend;

3) If a ”pianist“ is known to perspire in any way excessively, either through his or her own recognizance, or by being alerted to odiferousness vis-a-vis interested parties, he or she may not wear any of the following: a) thin or see-through linen tops; b) anything known as mesh or mesh-like; c) any light colored button-down shirts without reasonably protective undergarments, as set forth in Sections 33.3332 and following. Each violation carries the penalty described in the Armpit Awareness Avoidance Act, and penalties shall be multiplied in the case of chamber music performances, dependent upon the proximity of colleagues.

4) To prevent such mishaps, this bill sets forth a public outfit exchange. A pianist may choose from a set of publicly approved ensembles, and for this purpose pays into a pool. Pianists with a history of violations who still insist on selecting their outfits privately shall pay a fine for each subsequent violation, up to five (5) violations; at which point they shall be sentenced to a year of performing all-Krenek recitals in polyester suits in South Dakota.


1) Pianists who request backstage meals and enter their dressing room to find a plate of carrots and celery with ranch dressing shall be permitted to make a nuisance of themselves; henceforth, hurling Ranch dressing shall not be considered a crime within the confines of Performing Arts Centers.

2) Pianists shall be insured against the possibility of bad hotel room service meals, particularly against Midwestern Alfredo Sauce; but also not-entirely-unfrozen Mozzarella Sticks; and any boneless chicken breast which has been grilled more than fifteen (15) minutes. For each incidence of the foregoing, the pianist will be permitted one preposterous head-toss during the course of the concert; or one inappropriate flirtation with a member of the orchestra with which he or she is appearing, whichever comes first.

3) Pianists who post results of the following quizzes on Facebook:

a) What Chopin Etude are you?
b) What Beethoven Sonata are you?
c) What Great Composer are you?

… and any other similarly constituted or equivalent quizzes, as deemed by a representative panel of musicologists and social networking experts, relinquish all rights to all insurance heretofore enumerated.


1) Modern piano technology has enabled a profusion of piano-related activities that have only grown in intensity as the demand for them increases. Coupled with steady growth of the Standing Ovation Curve, and encouraged by the Piano Competition Incentive, this spiraling crisis threatens to deafen us all;

2) Herein we set forth a goal of a 10% reduction in octave emissions by 2015, to be achieved thus:

a) For each Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 or 3 which is performed, the pianist must offset his emissions by performing, or purchasing credits for, two (2) Bach Partitas, or three (3) Mozart Sonatas;

b) For each Prokofiev 7th Piano Sonata which is performed, the pianist must offset with no less than three (3) Fauré Nocturnes or Debussy Préludes.

In the case of recital programs with not one, but two or more Russian virtuoso classics, the pianist shall be required not only to offset but in addition to perform community service, such as stroking another pianist’s ego, or listening very carefully to the preconcert talk.

3) It is understood that this exchange might create an unnatural incentive, and spur an explosion of, say, all-Morton Feldman recitals. This problem will be addressed in future legislation, The Froo-Froo Programming Act of 2010.

4) In order to encourage the growth of green pianism, a $2500 tax credit will be given to all pianists who do not play any Russian Concertos during a given season. An additional $500 tax credit will be given for every work performed that ends quietly, except for the Strauss Burleske.

5) Pianists complaining about their life, or complaining about the number of concerts they have, or how busy they are, or in general taking for granted the incredible privilege of daily contact with the most extraordinary music of the last 3 centuries, should be punished in some way to be determined, such as being beaten over the head with an overcooked chicken breast.

I welcome any and all amendments. Serious proposals only.

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Hot Seattle, Flirty Brahms

A week of 90s in Seattle … my hostess and I are both heading down delirium’s loopy driveway. The notes on the piano that I don’t feel like practicing swim in the heat. I flee to an air conditioned coffeeshop.

Outside, nothing but blue sky and hipsters in shorts. The trembling tattooed hand of the barista shapes the milk into beautiful rosettes, which swirl down the drain of my throat. Gimme another, I say, like the weathered movie cowboy at the saloon, I’m thirsty, pounding my demitasse on the faux tile of the espresso bar, and instead of a gun/holster I slide my MacBook into my messenger bag and harrumph off into the blazing sunlight.

Overheated, over-caffeinated, I manufacture outrage. I scream inwardly — thoughtless accents are the enemy of music!! I want to spend my day making up similarly unnecessary manifestos, penning declarative sentences like fortifications that will piss people off. People will come to find me in my castle of This Is True, they’ll knock timorously on my leaden door of Certitude, but in the meanwhile I will have snuck off to a grass hut on the beach, lying half in and out of it, in swim trunks, my feet playing idly with the sand. So long, suckers!

Later that day, on the way to play a concert, I order myself a pizza but am disenchanted by my warm box of dough and cheese. I add a berry gelato to my order, and soon I am driving down I-5, spooning gelato frenetically into my mouth while cursing at traffic. This is not cooling enough; I start rubbing the pint of gelato all over my face and arms; the gelato melts, drips berry color all over me; my concert clothes luckily are in the back seat, looking on reproachfully, with furrowed, wrinkled cuffs. I arrive sticky and nauseous backstage. Excellent.

Hot, vexatious, residually sticky, I sit down at the piano to play:

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And already I am happier. I’m amiably asymmetric, ‘cause Brahms wrote my part that way! I play four inviting bars: classical, simple. But when I’m done the violin adds on one little bar, a romantic suffix:


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Together the four plus one make something, an interesting five. At the outset of the piece, Brahms keeps repeating this lesson, explaining this particular 4+1=5 over and over again. Almost like Sesame Street lessons in musical arithmetic? Let’s say I’m the Cookie Monster, and the violinist’s interjection is a cookie added to my hoard. I try to play each phrase with the understanding that I crave the next cookie, and–eventually, who knows?–all the cookies in the world.

Whoa, I believe I have just created Cookie Monster Musical Analysis. Schenker, eat your heart out.

There is something about this asymmetry that is flirtatious, too (most affections are asymmetrical). All the elements of the practiced flirt are there. The violinist offers but the one bar each time: a minimum of attention, but just enough to keep the piano interested. The violinist flatteringly repeats back what the piano offered, but with a more sensual, flowing rhythm: a good mixture of stroking the pianist’s ego and suggesting an alternative. This one “extra” bar is not an insertion but a compressed, distilled meaning: not just the tentative beginnings of a dialogue, but a symbol of encounter itself, a parenthetical musical rendezvous.

After the flirting is over, Brahms gives us some Serious Development:

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This is a mathematics lesson, without cookies. It’s Terribly Serious; two bars of 3 are presented, then subdivided into 3 bars of 2, as if to actually embody the equation 3×2=2×3! Our delicate flirtation has become loud and square, all too quantifiable. You might complain: oh Johannes, off you go again, with your subdivisions upon subdivisions. We get it, but what’s the point?

Brahms creates this structure in order to dissolve it. One of his most characteristic and moving gestures is to create complications, and then to release and transform these cogitations into sensual delight. The “musical mathematics” do not last long; soon enough, the hemiolas become:

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These two bar units are still divided into threes, but more subtly, with a softer hand. The principle of division remains; but the insistence fades. The boundaries waver. There’s a whiff of the waltz. The piano stops enunciating the quarters, and relinquishes them to a flow of eighths. Earlier, in HemiolaLand, Brahms connects his moments with stiff, bulky girders, but now, at the crucial emotional moment of juncture, we have this:


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A masterstroke: starting in the fourth bar above, the violin sneaks upward chromatically, all alone. This is a transition made of nearly nothing, the most delicate possible thing, a slender thread of suspended time. A tenuous slide from one note to the next. And the pianist, invited by this gossamer gesture, enters with one of the most beautiful themes ever written, an almost iconic waltz, in which each bar is now divided into 2, though the meter is in 3 …

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Within a short span, we watch Brahms convert himself from a Beethovenian Constructor to an Evanescent Waltzer.

Over this second theme, Brahms writes teneramente, tenderly: which is all you need to know? Yes, there’s a sweetness, but each “main note” of this theme is a dissonance, a discord. And each dissonance is slightly different from the last; each a different shade of wistfulness, or of pain. I came offstage with S and we smiled at each other feeling we had shared something; a wonderful moment of musical affinity. But I kept wondering, why is this piece (of all the pieces in the world) so important to me right now? Why is the tenderness of this movement and particularly that theme so important to me amid all the crap, all the travels, and festival madness? A jaded devilish voice inside of me says it’s just Brahms A major sonata, everyone’s played it already, it’s already been done, etc. etc. but another says that that theme still has yet to be played better, that some pianist has not yet pursued all the repercussions and consequences of tenderness hiding in those notes. It’s an inscrutable sweetness, a tenderness that unwinds a knot of contradiction, shows you briefly how the knot is made — and closes it up again.

Back in the car, I find a half-full pint of pinkish liquid, a tepid pizza, and a cell phone with a tender message on it. I press–what else?–redial. A familiar voice answers, flirtatiously.

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Bucket of Truth

The other night I woke up from a vivid dream in which Anne Midgette was trying to prove that Charles Ives was gay using musical examples from his First Piano Sonata.

The main thrust of this dream (so to speak) was clearly a reproach: I need to finish memorizing that monster of a piece before I go off to the delightful Ojai Festival. And the second thrust was another reproach cum regret: that I have not yet mentioned Anne Midgette’s ambitious and wonderfully interactive blog on Think Denk! And welcome, while I’m at it, to Stephen Hough, an idol of mine since a long time. The musicological implications of this dream we shall abandon for the time being.

kirchner-d2.jpgOn one of the many beautiful days we have been given these last two weeks, I went to visit the 90-year-old composer Leon Kirchner, who recently broke his leg. I opened the door of the apartment; perplexed commotion and hubbub ranged through distant hallways. Wandering in the direction of perplexity–my general tendency, anyway–I came to the back room where he was lying. Just before I arrived, he had hit the good leg on something and it had set him bleeding pretty seriously; his legs were propped up on the bed, heavily bandaged.

“Leon,” I said, “you’re a soldier wounded upon the fields of music.”

He fixed me for a moment with his lucid blue eyes. I had no idea what would come out of my idiotic metaphor.

“And you’re Walt Whitman,” he said.

During the stunned pause while I absorbed this, a faint impatient horn from Central Park West was carried up to us on spring breezes. He had taken my stupid conceit and hung meaning upon it. And here I thought I was coming to offer HIM assistance in time of need. From Whitman’s hospital notebooks:

… that night at the church in the woods … previously, the silent stealth march through the woods, at times stumbling over the bodies of dead men in the road … between midnight and 2 o’clock we halted to rest a couple of hours at an opening in the woods — in this opening was a pretty good sized old church used impromptu for a hospital for the wounded of the battles of the day thereabout — with these it was filled, all varieties horrible beyond description — the darkness dimly lit with candles, lamps, torches, moving about, but plenty of darkness & half darkness — the crowds of wounded, bloody and pale, the surgeons operating — the yards outside also filled — they lay some on blankets, on the ground & some on stray planks — the despairing screams & curses of some out their senses, the murky darkness, the gleaming of the torches, the smoke from them too, the doctors operating, the scent of chloroform, the glisten of the steel instruments as the flash of lamps fell upon them … 

Around us the room once bedroom, now impromptu workshop, the corners of the TV tray crammed with CD covers, medical implements, the midday light peering dimly through the drawn curtain, scrawled scores, an electric keyboard with a well-padded chair in disuse, books upon books, typed comments for future editing huddled between those, awaiting their moment, a walker, a Bose CD player stacked with hand-burned copies of past concerts — so many notes and thoughts about notes trying to resolve themselves — the glint off backs of CDs, the question marks on the dates of past performances, the faint snore of the disinterested dog, a life’s wounds bandaged with music and then the music itself becomes the wound.

Yes, I’ve long wanted to be Walt Whitman. A poet of the piano, American, disheveled, ambiguous, over the top, God, Leon knows me so well!, and he nailed me straight onto my deepest (possibly humiliating) desires. Just when you think you’re coming to offer someone else something, they throw a giant bucket of truth onto you.

Before I can really process all this, Leon leaps into one of his amazing branching stories. It’s like a tree of life experience that you huddle under, while the rain of the present moment leaks through.

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