Bizarre Boston Blog

Emptyish streets, sheen of rain. The college students have all left for the summer, or they’ve graduated and their long lives are about to begin, or they’re sleeping. There is no difference between a college student sleeping and a college student in a distant town. In the morning, when they slumber, you feel a total absence, like a minus sign; but by Boston’s mid-afternoon, wafting pot smoke signals awakening hormonal hordes; at 4 PM or so, they become more tangible and jog by, as if exercise were necessary for them. They are added back to the world.

I’ve been living my life too much in a state of emergency. Instead of consulting a professional, I have come up with a three step solution. Recalibrating my life solution. The first step is to ignore all existing emergencies. Now, this—I can already hear you saying it—can’t last, this is not a workable solution. It sounds in fact like the opposite of a solution. Patience! Wait till you hear my next two steps.

Step two—the real genius hinge of the whole thing—is then, in the absence of all emergencies, in the vast plain of false calm left after the tyrannical banishment of all the old emergencies, to choose to treat the smallest things as emergencies. Take the tension that needs an outlet, and re-apply it, like a salve or leech, to trivia. For instance, that morning, the morning of the sheen on the streets and the city asleep, I put some water on to boil and I realized that there was no oatmeal left in the cupboard. Indeed, I’d simmered my last oats into mush just the day before. No oatmeal! Suddenly I was racing around the apartment, whipping up usable underwear, a shirt, the bike lock, nearly dropping my bike lock key into the toilet in my haste, knocking a coffee cup onto the floor (necessitating a time-wasting cleanup, sighs of impatience and desperation), searching for my wallet in all the previous day’s pants, choosing perversely the socks that will look most idiotic in combination with my sneakers, all of these things done poorly, in an urgent heat, just to get myself out the door. Then there I am, biking along the Fenway towards the Whole Foods (just any oatmeal will not do). Part of the timeline’s gone missing; I don’t quite recall how I got out of the museum and onto the path. I whiz by geese. Yes, geese. I do not feel I can do justice in words to these geese, honking at empty stretches of grass, honking at time intervals, not periodically but at intervals. It’s not a joyous noise but it’s got something, it’s scooped out of some really pungent vat of sound. The geese are all facing in angles, like in a Renaissance painting, ideally miscellaneous honking angles. This randomness is perhaps chosen, to make clear to the other geese that they’re really not honking at them–and to distribute their message to the maximum cross-section of the universe.

Someday, it is inevitable, there will be a collision between myself and a Fenway goose. There will be a terrible clatter, a squawk and cry, some lone bicycle part will roll off down into the muck, and there will just be me and a goose lying there, damaged. People will walk by. I don’t think the goose and I will resent each other.

Anyway, back to my three-step solution. The thing is, having applied unbearable tension to these trivial acts, step three is a kind of hilarious transcendental emptiness—my goal. I swerved rapidly across Westland Ave., curving violently to avoid nonexistent oncoming traffic, I incommoded a harmless pedestrian, skidding my way up to the bike rack, braking just in time to pull my bike into the slot, I rapidly rotated my backpack, zipped it open with a flourish, unlocked the lock, hands trembling, slipped it onto the wheel and rack, almost forcing it on, then turned to face the doors of the Whole Foods like a superhero arriving just in time, and in that moment of stoppage the world—I didn’t quite recognize it. There were a couple of people, aimlessly making their way in and out of the supermarket. There was a man, leaning down to chain his dog, giving it a soothing pat, a there-there. There was a shhh and whirr of wheels in the rain. A scattered chorus of small activities implying humanity’s inactivity. The rain and the cloudiness and the smell of rain in the air. Distant honks. It occurred to me I was going to the grocery store to get some oatmeal.

Like a mantra, or a symptom of incipient insanity, as I walked through the Whole Foods I kept repeating to myself “I am at the grocery store to buy some oatmeal,” partly to prevent myself from buying $40 bags of organic goji berries.

Go ahead, quibble with my math. Replacing what seemed like real emergencies with obviously fake ones (x=y); draining these fakes of import (x minus x); and transferring this back to the more serious zones of life (y=x); and from this fraudulent circular calculation finding yourself suddenly delirious, damp, giggling in the cereal aisle, out of breath from a near goose collision, in love with the experience of a calm Sunday morning… I can’t pretend to a theorem; in fact I’m sure something important has vanished. Luckily, happiness is not a sum.

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Every Good Boy Does Fine

I feel incredibly honored to have been asked to write this piece on piano lessons for The New Yorker, and hopefully I used the honor honorably. It caused me some stress. Assembling a narrative out of your past is dangerous, especially when your life is still frantically ongoing. It was complicated (to say the least) to write about the vulnerability of performing while I was preparing for my Carnegie Hall recital.

In the essay, many sins of omission. I elide stupidly over the Oberlin years, Joseph Schwartz, and all the other great teachers I had there, in order to make space for the appearance of Sebok. There is no mention of my wonderful Juilliard teacher, either, Herbert Stessin, who was so different from Sebok and wise in a completely different, often more practical, way.

Anyway, I hope all those other teachers and coaches out there forgive me for organizing the piece around this moment when Old Europe landed on top of me, and neglecting all their crucial interventions. I am so delighted that the magazine put together a little web video, which includes a peek inside the piano lesson journal, and some beautiful footage of Sebok. I must admit, my absolute favorite recorded bit of Sebok is his performance of the Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes with Janos Starker. There is something about the way he plays the formidable technical passages of this piece, with a bit of amusement, as if it were complicated child’s play, always turning the corners eloquently and cleverly…and then after Mendelssohn’s stormy mini-climax, the way Sebok plays the return of the theme, with just the tiniest loving pauses on the meaningful notes—it calls back to me all the amazing time I spent with him. (The whole album, of course, is worth many many listens.)

There’s also a YouTube of his studio recording of the Brahms Handel Variations, which I think captures some of the purity and simplicity of his musical thinking (he was very dismissive of his own recordings), and a video of him playing the “Aeolian Harp” Etude, showing his hands, a miracle of ease, efficiency, fluidity.

Somewhere in the Oberlin archives, also, I believe there is a recording of Sebok’s recital in early 1990, with the life-changing Bach encore I mention in the essay. I am too afraid to go listen to it.

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An Excuse to Use the Word Flabbergasted

So many of my infrequent blogposts begin with the illusion of action, like “I was just settling down to … when …” or “I was innocently insulting my local barista when …” or perhaps:

I was just getting myself comfortable on an 8 AM Amtrak.  You know how it is.  You have your suitcase packed the night before, and you dream all night of things you haven’t packed or will never pack, subconscious toiletries.  Then, you wake up a little bit before your alarm, because your brain is so perversely prepared for unwanted events.  You stumble out of bed, realizing you’re wearing underwear and a sweater which really wasn’t meant for sleeping.  Coffee is made, at least there’s that.  By no means are you cursing yourself and God for ever agreeing to teach a masterclass in Boston at 1 PM.  You wander about the apartment combing it for things and you have everything, absolutely everything, and at last it is simply time, you really must leave, and at that moment of absolute deadline you realize you can’t find your keys.

Hilarity on the subway.  Running over people’s feet with your suitcase, and not really caring that much after the glares they give you.  Leaving the subway at Penn Station, I’m the last one off due to self-evident un-maneuverability, and luckily there’s some nice people mostly blocking the exit wearing their headphones so there’s only that little gate of space between them to squeeze through, while outside on the platform there’s a sea of humanity newly arrived from New Jersey or wherever the hell.  I have only that moment to flee before they all come (nay, barge) in and as I sprint out sensing the desperation of my situation a complete jerk is waiting there, saying contemptuously to his jerk friend “rush hour and THEY bring suitcases.”

We theys won’t be stopped.  I took the sneaky back way into the train past the depressing soup and wrap place and sat down before everyone else.  My mood could only be described as 7:52 AM.  A woman tried to take my seat while I was putting away my suitcase and I explained to her that that was not going to happen.  A cup of decaf and some instant oatmeal later, after some disagreement with the endlessly positive but not really that positive cafe guy, since his positivity is just a mask for deep distrust of the stream of customers and therefore all of humanity, I am opening up my laptop on the train and there it is, a new email:

To Whom It May Concern:

The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the Performing Arts Web Archive. We consider your website to be an important part of this collection and the historical record.

The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital materials, including websites.

The following URL has been selected for archiving:

My seat partner was probably mystified by my bark of laughter.  Dear Readers of Think Denk, can you believe this?  I could not decide if this turn of events gave me hope, or the darkest despair.  “Of historical importance to the Congress and the American people”!!!  At that moment the very crust in the corner of my eyes felt crustier.  Think like an artifact, I thought.  A cultural artifact would drink some more decaf and think things over.  An artifact procrastinates.  
In the meantime, I forwarded this email to a few select persons, fishing for snark.  Friend L’s reply was quite excellent:

Next up, your box of Captain Crunch and your Isserlis-annoying coffee apparatus to be acquired for the Smithsonian.

An hour later, friend A:

If any offspring of mine wants to write the thesis “Trill, baby, trill: Jeremy Denk and the American Way” in 20 years, I will leave this world by my own hand.

And last but not least, my mother:

Sounds impressive.

Which is a miraculously concise piece of parental ambiguous screw-with-your-accomplishments genius!  Just two words!  “Impressive” or even “Wow” would have supportively sufficed, but the addition of the unassuming word “sounds” carries the deliciously unavoidable implication of it being much much less impressive than the word impressive would suggest.
As I gathered all these responses, I laughed to myself in the train, a great therapeutic laugh, as though the universe and all its numberless stars and empty spaces were laughing along with me.  I had to think of my legacy now, like a second-term president.  What will I leave the children?  

And yes, yet another blogpost has gone by without me discussing music in any substantive fashion whatsoever.

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Two mornings ago I woke up in an absurdly cozy room, all quilt and nook and alcove. Snow was sort of aimlessly wandering around the air outside. I faced a daunting to-do list:

1. Futile nine hundredth attempt to master, once and for all, the impossible passages in Ades’ Lieux Retrouves. (Somewhat urgent, as the concert is that day.)

2. Make progress on my libretto, possibly the first and last opera ever written about musical analysis. (Hilariously urgent).

3. Practice the Bartok Sonata, the Liszt Dante Sonata, etc. etc. Revisit the fundamental laws of piano playing.

4. Continue to develop script for video liner notes about the Goldberg Variations, avoiding the terrible pitfalls of pretension and boredom and gosh-golly oversimplification.

5. Annoy Steven Isserlis.

There are high-priority items on this list. But as anyone who has come into contact with Steven will I’m sure attest, the last item is the easiest, and the most fun. I made it my first order of business; annoying one’s colleagues is an important part of any profound musical relationship. (Longtime readers may remember this.)

As it happens, the place where Steven and I were staying is hosted by a lovely generous woman named Doris who, as I learned from a previous stay, makes incredibly weak coffee. You can sort of infer the weakness of the coffee from the calmness and coziness of the cottage she runs. It’s part of the whole gestalt of the place. Knowing this crucial piece of information, I brought my own kettle and cone and filters and a small Ziploc bag of ground beans. How else is one to withstand Oberlin in early February, at the epicenter of winter?

I brought just enough beans for one person (myself) to make it through two mornings. Let me make this absolutely clear: I could have brought more, but I did not. Now cut, after ablutions, and me padding down two flights of creaky stairs in stocking feet, to a scene where Steven and I are sitting across from each other at a big wooden table. My kettle is humming away behind me. I am slowly then pouring hot water over my beans while Doris brews Steven some of her trademark brew.

Probably you don’t even need me to tell you how this turns out. I couldn’t have really planned it better. I lift my cup to my lips, it’s quite delicious, I smack my lips in appreciation. Meanwhile Steven is taking his first sip of Doris’ coffee. The look on his face: a sculpted masterpiece of resentment. My ongoing cries of pleasure. Steven’s whispered hisses. My giggles. Doris coming in to offer Steven more coffee. Mmm, I say, marvelous coffee, downing the last of my mug. It was musical, predestined, collaborative, part of an endless series of irritations I have visited upon Steven over time, like Bach’s explorations of all the iterations of harmony and counterpoint.

What’s so satisfying about Steven is that once he grabs hold of some injustice, he gnaws on it for days, months, years. He mentioned my coffee behavior to everyone we met later that day, professors who don’t care, random staff, outreach coordinators, page-turners, whatever and whoever, he wanted everyone to know. But the wonderful thing is, I think all of them, having met Steven, understood exactly why I did it, and why I’d do it (with love in my heart) again and again and again.

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