Immortal Schubert

After the day of manic joy and sunshine and desire, the last thing I wanted was to go into Carnegie Hall with all the Schubert and the syphilis and death. But Mitsuko is a genius, what’s more a generous genius, and to hear her play the three last Sonatas in the storied hall—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s what I told myself. These once-in-a-lifetime experiences can really play havoc with your schedule.

I arrived at the perfect moment, almost too late, congratulating myself for my artsy tardiness, and found myself in the front row of a box. As I peered over the edge of the box and (as always) contemplated pre-concert suicide—would my plunge attract more publicity than Yuja Wang’s dress at the Hollywood Bowl?—I suddenly, desperately craved ten minutes to decompress, to come to an understanding with the dark lush carpet, the gilt proscenium, etc. The event felt impending, like a tornado. My neighbors to left and right were friends, people I could be an ass around, but behind me was a charming Japanese woman, an innocent bystander, and I knew in my fluttering spring heart that I dare not, must not ruin the concert for her. The lights dimmed; Mitsuko walked on; with all the theatre of the crammed stage seating and rapturous ovations and extremely low bows, I found myself frozen rather publicly in a scene I had no business being in, like Jennifer Aniston wandering into the Ring Cycle. The first chords came. I tried to sit calmly; but all day Nature had been telling my body to take counsel from the breeze.

42 hours earlier: Brooklyn 1 AM, on a quiet stretch of 5th avenue, South Slope. A bar, of course; some light, not much; my eyes were drawn to a row of retro figurines on an impossibly high shelf, before swerving towards the inevitable chalkboard, listing hipster pub pies. I’m reaching down in the dark beneath my feet for my bag. Everything is falling out. The bag, structureless, my life. As multiple notebooks go flying on the floor and a few receipts and maybe my Kindle I think, yes, this has all happened before and it signifies and it is inescapably comic slash tragic. The soft leather of my bag on the filth of the bar floor is eloquent. At some point after I ordered and consumed the Thai Chicken pie and then coated it with a red slathering of sriracha—the chronology is uncertain, collapsing—certainly after the third gimlet, I was pulling Roland Barthes out of my bag: Fragments of the Discourse of Love. A book X (my companion) knew and loved. I always have urges for Barthes fans. My idea is that they will follow certain pleasures to the end, to the last nook, comma and cranny.

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

… so says Roland. However, here in Brooklyn, X and I (and X’s dog, I forgot to mention) are having language difficulties; we’re at the end of conversations we’ve had before, in verbal quandaries which keep dead-ending on voids, heavy with “umms,” impasses where the voice is squeezed by the brain’s unwillingness to go on. This is a totally classic, typical X and I moment, this breakdown of communication. Unfortunately I am only able to read the meaning of this non-communication vaguely, and it is surely informed and mistranslated by my wishful thinking, itself conflicted, which is probably crap and all of this infuriatingly, Heisenbergishly impossible to know, because if I break the silence and say do you want to be together or not, our precious vague equilibrium will be destroyed, and the question mark of our relationship will fade away into the sky like a lost balloon. 

So, I respond to the breakdown by reading from a book about breakdowns. I am reading loudly; a disapproving glare radiates from the rest of the bar.  Even through my pie-vodka haze I realize I am flirting via literary theory in Brooklyn, how ridiculous, I disgust myself.

At 2 AM I gaze up at the night sky, steady myself against the distant stars, and think: do they not have clouds in Brooklyn? (I had a belligerent sense of borough inequity) … those bastards, all they have are adorable dogs and cheap bars. It was true. My bill had arrived, for a mere $26, which seemed like it might even be a crime in the city of New York. As I slouched around the back seat of a cab which I must have gotten into at some point, I wondered why Brooklyn seemed vast but I’m always in the same area of it. I thought of dog and X, framed in the street, odd affecting couple, as the cab pulled away. Cabs are always pulling away, it’s such a drag.

Back to the recital. I made it to intermission. This involved following Schubert down all sorts of winding harrowing paths. The harrowing wouldn’t have been so bad, but the winding was really too much. Schubert/Mitsuko would do some ridiculously beautiful assembly of devastating chords, and I would forget everything that the world had ever dumped on or around me, and vice versa, but then S/M would start up some development of said thing and you know how Schubert’s developments are: branching, exhaustive. I wanted things, not iterations of things.

At the break, I let myself be led to the Donor’s Lounge, where you get free treats for having survived thus far. A dubious refuge, this room of clumps and whispers. My friend was sensibly trying to drag me into the normal world with a conversation about grocery stores, after all this was a room set up for conversations, but I was thinking about the room itself. How in this place commentary and critique are concentrated, and yet also forbidden. How you cannot say what you think there, really, for fear of being overheard, but all the thoughts are there, lurking over the tureens of coffee and the cups all arrayed and the catered desserts. Spring was a devil in me, a phrase was born in my mind, and I wanted to scream it to all the whispering crowd: “Think of Schubert in his little room! In his little room!” Did he compose in his apartment? Was it little? Anyway, never mind the facts, I didn’t want to end up like Schubert, in the little room, in an ever-narrowing set of circumstances, writing these ever-larger, rambling works, testing out every set of possibilities as if everything were still possible for him. I wanted to destroy the manicured sweets everywhere. How could you listen to the A major Sonata, and all it entailed, even miserably like I did, and then eat a cookie? But I ate a cookie.

The cheery bells rang for us to return.

50 hours earlier: Sitting at dinner in TriBeCa with an artist I have always wanted to meet. Let’s call her Y. I’m asking roundabout questions, awkwardly dancing around the central, unanswerable one: how did Y become Y? Beautiful coincidence of integrity and fame (not unlike Mitsuko’s). Infuriating how each artist must create a blend/brand of artistry/celebrity/existence their own way, how there is no guided path, except falsely and smugly in retrospect. Y is asking politely, how did I become me; my answers are partial, ridiculous, full of what you might call the idiocy of self-ness. An exchange of stories, but no rapturous communication. But some time later we are back in her apartment. She puts on a record. She begins to dance along with the music; one sort of self vanishes; as I watch her body come into motion, it’s clear: there is where it is, whatever we have to discuss. Instead of talking, we listen to music she admires; we are both, in a sense, struck dumb; we become puppets, on the string of sound coming from speakers on the wall.

As Mitsuko sunk from the gorgeous tonic to the even more spectacular submediant via that unearthly death-trill, I connected X and Y. I should have been thinking about Schubert, perhaps, but who knows what inner deadlines govern the brain? I found a shared meaning between the pulling-out of the Roland Barthes at 2 AM and the turning-on of the stereo: at the point when conversation fails, art comes out. Art’s a tool for emergencies, a replacement, a pacifier. We look at something together and hope the same electricity flows through us both, revives our flagging connection. The combination of these events suggested an unusual definition: art was the failure of human communication.

Perhaps it is impossible for you readers sitting there in your comfortable internet-surfing pajamas to really appreciate the weird difficulties this thought caused me, sitting in the front row of the box thinking I must not move, must not disturb the Japanese woman. But it was terrible/amazing, the way this thought interacted with the present moment. It made me want to lie down on the floor of the box and begin gurgling or whimpering. With the same feeling that you have in a horror movie when you realize the killer is actually the friend you’ve been confiding in the whole time, I realized that this last Schubert Sonata, the very one I was listening to, in the plush prison of the box, was also a form of communication breakdown, a piece about, a piece containing, a piece riddled with these same impasses. Down to the very fact that it was failing to communicate with me, this Spring day, and therefore causing me all kinds of discomfort, so that its beauty made me feel haunted and miserable … (thereby communicating perfectly in its failure) …

With alarming clarity, I was sent back some ten years, to when I was working with 85-year-old Leon Kirchner on his second Violin Duo at Marlboro. The violinist and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to communicate this rambling Mahlerian jazz riff to the public: basic things, like the big tempo relationships, the balance between piano and violin, where to play less and where to build to a climax, how to give a vivid shape that the world at large will perceive. As I recall, Leon was impatient with our questions about these issues. He was obsessed with the articulation of a few fast notes in a few measures in the piano, for instance; he was sure the whole piece would collapse if those few notes did not get “spoken.” Some days he was freakishly sensitive about the timing of one transitional Adagio measure. This would have been fine, perhaps, if his priorities didn’t seem to shift day to day, whereas ours seemed to us (of course) steady and unwavering. Maybe this is just a cliché of cross-generational angst, but sometimes working with the elderly you get these severe communication breakdowns: obsessions with a few key points that have already been said, but which are important to them; and the seeming conflation of detail with essence. As performers, we were torn between thinking of the listener, how to communicate this composer to the world, and thinking of the composer who doesn’t care about the world that much any more.

Mitsuko was rounding the end of the exposition. Instead of the somewhat celebratory increase of energy that often accompanies the arrival on the dominant in the Classical Style (the quintessential example being the virtuosic cadential trill in a Mozart Concerto), you get a pleasant dancing idea which behaves itself up to a point. Then in its second iteration (there are always second iterations ack!), it modulates itself into a quandary. It gets lost, and as the harmonies get lost, the dancing idea stumbles into silence. It keeps stumbling into silences; it creates a new idea that also keeps breaking off into silences, places where the pulse becomes threatened, impossible to perceive; Schubert is not interested in communicating pulse. At the far end of this breakdown come two lonely cadenzas:

Usually the end of a section is a place of fullness, roundness, replete with arrival. Obviously these unharmonized, yearning, falling melodies don’t care about their structural function, which is to show the place where they are. Though they are in the dominant key, i.e. “the right place,” they do everything they can to seem lost.

These weirdnesses in Schubert are not failures of decorum, like the revolutions of Beethoven. These are deliberate failures of communication, slackenings of the narrative, digressions for the sake of digressions; the priorities of the world are not its priorities.

Permit me one more annoying flashback; then I will be done. 78 hours pre-recital, I’m sitting at the farmer’s market (!) with companion Z. Need I mention, a beautiful perfect day, a ridiculous undeserved Spring day. Just the breeze itself would have required odes upon odes. I’m wearing my excellent favorite sunglasses, savoring the unusual experience of just sitting on a park bench, when companion Z turns to me and says “It’s too bad they can’t cure my cancer.” Too bad. It takes me a few moments to do something in my brain, like set the furniture back where it was supposed to be with shaking hands. I’m seized up, cramped by this understated phrase, in the fucking farmer’s market … the same thing as certain thrown-away moments in music, the unassuming phrase trying to hold back something bigger. By us walks one beautiful couple after another, a series of 20-somethings, looking lovely in their sunglasses and brunch outfits and looking a bit bored with all the leisure time stretched in front of them.

Z and I got together again two days later. We had dinner, talked for a long time, and then—I bet you saw this one coming—when the conversation seemed at an end, we ended up in his apartment, listening to recordings. Both silent, both listening. Hofmann playing C minor Nocturne, at Carnegie Hall. What is Chopin saying to the two of us? Too bad, I can’t know exactly. We may both say, that was beautiful; it may be for different reasons. Who knows what is beauty to him, now, incurable?  And for me, still hoping for cures, hoping to be stricken again with stupid incurable love. I rifle through Z’s papers, I feel in my pocket for my phone, I watch the cabs going down Columbus outside, any impatient thing I can get a hold of, I can’t just let this beauty run over me … I need to be it, own it, or something. But looking in Z’s eyes I read a dark communication: beauty is not something that ends, but your ability to experience it ends. And a question: is the immortality of the works you love a comfort?

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  1. Matthew
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    The other side of the ‘art is the failure of human communication’ coin is: ‘art is the pinnacle of human communication,’ communication in its purest form…

  2. Kendra
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    IOU a real response at some point when I have time to write one. But wanted you to know that you have an audience (for your writing) that appreciates you sharing your own pretzeled thinking and your personal… nuttiness. Meant in a good way.

  3. mary
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    “Is the immortality of the works you love a comfort?”

    At first, NO.

    Then after some (or a lot of time), yes.

    I’m sure the composers of the works we love felt this way at some point or other in their lives.

    April is indeed the cruellest month. This is why spring is my least favorite season.

  4. anna martina sodari
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    art is you talking to yourself and really listening and who knows you better? it’s the greatest feedback loop in the world, the cosmos, probably. it’s the ability to deal with your issues and finally file away disturbing pieces of karma so that you can move on. everybody has the potential to be an artist. some of us are just ANCIENT souls and have ALOT on our plate! i am working hard to stay in zen even when some invisible jerk creeps into my brain and tries to push it into rat race panic mode. i am self-training, it’s alot easier after about 3 years of realizing that’s what i have to do, it takes about 45 seconds now if i recognize the nasty racing heart symptoms and make the superhuman effort to consciously switch my brain into alpha brain wave. wonderful. at last! if you ask deepok chopra, that would probably work for cancer, too, since you are slowing the heart rate and there is something called angiogenesis that can accelerate the creation of the blood vessels that feed the nasty tumors. just a thought. Z is on my altar. best, anna martina

  5. Q A-A
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I am sitting in the Paris airport waiting for my plane to JFK and having difficulty with the french keyboard and what better way to pass the time than to listen to our great thinker ruminate on the immortal Schubert. I was one of those people sitting on the stage with Mitsuko that great night trying to listen without being distracted by all the noise flitting from one cerebral hemisphere to another. What a wonderful insight you had JD. Art is the thing to play or listen to or see when all communication fail. During the last section of the B flat major, all I could think of was the last night I spent with my wife in the hospital before taking her home to die. All I could say was, do you want to hear some music ans she said of course, anything in particular?, I asked and there was no answer; so I played the Goldberg Variation and I could see her eyes slowly close and a small smile appear on her face.

  6. jean
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Mr. Denk. I like your philosophy….

    Something is incurable; but from it, something can be healed. Even one hundred years is short; eternity is long, and it is astonishing.

    Maybe a clear water with some lemon juice for Z to drink regularly. I heard it’s good for cleansing out the toxin. I hope it works for him. He can drink it thru a straw if desired. I just recently have acquired this taste; I thought it makes sense.

  7. Drew
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Given the opportunity, I’d like to respond to this post before too much time has elapsed, but am struggling for something to say that wouldn’t be a bludgeon to the delicate sentiments so beautifully expressed here. Like very good music, it’s ineffable yet specific.
    See what I mean?
    Now I feel silly.

  8. anna martina sodari
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    i bought a 4-pack of big boy tomatoes for $2.99, a $3.49 husky cherry tomato plant and a $3.49 basil plant with 3 small plants in it, that basil grows really BIG and so do the tomato plants if you fertilize them in the 8-gallon or so garden pots with chunks of fruit tree fertilizer stakes. i planted the green bean seeds in two big window boxes and i’m looking for a small corner to plant the zuchinni seeds. mine is a prayer garden, i will plant the veggies in the name of cancer cures this year. those pots the tomatoes are going in are very large, i’m going to plant green bean seeds in there as well. they can climb up the tomato cages. 2 years ago’s tomato cages were made in joplin, mo., i don’t know where the 2 i bought this year were made. i didn’t have good energy last year to plant the veggie garden. i missed the fresh tomato slices with slices of gourmet mozarella and fresh basil leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar! there’s nothing like a homegrown tomato! so, here’s to planting tomorrow, i mixed potting soil with mulch/compost and topsoil for the pots, the plants will be happy. best, anna martina

  9. Perry
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    “These weirdnesses in Schubert are not failures of decorum, like the revolutions of Beethoven. These are deliberate failures of communication, slackenings of the narrative, digressions for the sake of digressions; the priorities of the world are not its priorities.” I love this paragraph. I think it sums up the history of art from Bach/Baroque to Beethoven/Classical to Chopin, Schubert/Romantic and then to the Stravinsky or Ives/20th century. We’ve gone from clear contrapuntal exposition to revolution to self-involvement to interruptions (Hey, It’s Ive’s band marching by!), and now we put our ear buds in and revel in perfect isolation. You can follow the same parallels in architecture, fiction, painting, etc.
    I’ve also had that weird confluence of trying to sort through emotional events in my life, and that getting in the way of truly hearing a great performance…and then realizing that I was experiencing the performance as a mirror image of what I needed to sort through.

  10. jean
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    This afternoon I went to the nursery to look at some lemon trees. Two years ago I had a small lime tree. One night, the temperature dipped to 17 degrees and it was also very windy. I wasn’t sure if I should cover it up like a lot of (old) folks whose patios’ plants and shrubs would normally be under the blankets, bed sheets, or bath towels; which made the whole scenario looked a little strange….I felt bad about not covering the small tree, so in the middle of the night I got up to take care of that. Still, in the morning it was a frozen tree with icicles hanging everywhere. The second night was not that cold; it was around 19 degrees and I had it covered, but it was too late in doing that. It took me a while to “heal” since I really loved that little tree.

    Tomorrow I’m going to pick up the lemon tree for real. I just read that it has amazing health benefits, and maybe cures some form of cancer. I think I will plant it in a big pot. I will be thinking of Z….

  11. Joan
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I was wondering if you were in the hall that night — April 11th– on my calendar for something like 6 months– to hear/see Uchida. I suppose I should have known.

    She is magical even before she plays a single note…

  12. Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    This is very poignant; the confluence of intimate emotion and music, as ever, cuts straight to the heart. I suppose it’s somehow fitting that I can’t think of anyone to share this with who would appreciate all the layers.

  13. anna martina sodari
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    jeremy, i was rereading the last paragraph and your reciting of all of the ‘inpatient’ things that you found yourself doing. a human body is capable of sending empathic healing to another. when my mom was in the hospital while my father was still alive, i crawled out of my hole of no energy to finally go visit her just before visiting hours were over. my dad was there. mom was lying down, her eyes were roving every which way, like petit mals seizure symptoms. i was on her right side. i took her hand in both of my mine and held it and just concentrated on sending healing to her. neither dad or i spoke during this time. after about 10 minutes or so, the roving eye business stopped, my mother looked at me and said, ‘martina’. my dad looked at me and said, ‘thank you.’ i didn’t know she had had a stroke until i took her to her doctor for a follow-up visit after her rehab in the nursing home, my family didn’t tell me, i did know that they sent her to a specialist afterwards because her kidneys failed and i was disgusted that her primary physician didn’t know THAT. you have to focus hard. i have been living by myself for so long with so very little social interference that it comes much easier to me than to most people and i don’t have the energy for even impatience, which is probably a blessing as i read your angst. it sounds like you go into that zone when you work with the kids on an individual basis so you are no stranger to nurturing in that way. i will have to google schubert and read about his life. interesting, about the little room. best, anna martina

  14. jean
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Right. When I stay focus on the new chapter of my life my angst is so irrelevant. When I’m done looking at the new lemon tree and its flowers in the backyard today (which without reading Immortal Schubert I would surely put off in hauling it to my place), I will listen to your CDs and simply enjoy the music. But it’s very hard to listen to your music and to read your writing without analyzing them at some level.

    Good luck to Z!

  15. Ryan
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you.

  16. Posted May 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. I love all your writing and this one is especially exquisite. The basic idea of art taking over when communication fails is familiar to me, but you’ve reframed it in a such a fresh way that it led me to a fresh-but-familiar perspective on my own choices.

    When people hear phrases like “when words fail” or “words can’t adequately express…”, etc, it usually rings true, and we nod vigorously. Yet most of us furiously continue trying to express all the vital things in words anyway. And although that works once in a while, it fails a lot of the time.

    A big reason I became a composer is that I really took that idea to heart at some point, early on, without even knowing it: a part of me truly, irrevocably gave up on the ability of words to communicate what matters. I decided that the real stuff could only be said — or fail to be said — through art. And I would guess that in some way most artists, by becoming artists, have done the same thing, acknowledged that same reality (I would say this applies just the same to poets and novelists).

    Anyway, thanks for a beautiful post. I can barely ever listen to those Schubert sonatas, they’re too much for me, too lonely and branching.

  17. Jean Callahan
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful. Thank you.

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