The best part of this past weekend I spent alone on the stage of the 92nd Street Y. I had a propitious, quick, smooth cab ride across a sunny Central Park, with coffee in my left hand, and a score propped open on my right knee, and I was very happy to land on the east side just in time: an unlikely pianist in shorts, sneakers, T-shirt, and baseball cap (covering intense bedhead), trying to get his mind in order before an afternoon concert. First the mind, then the hair. Sometimes I wish I were one of those artists who could appear everywhere in glamour garb, who finds time for meticulous, persistent image control–alas.

Sometimes practicing feels like a chore (like milking cows, say) and sometimes like a solitary mystical rite. Yesterday it was neither: it was a particular sensual/mental pleasure going over the accompanimental arpeggios in Schubert’s Auf Dem Strom, hearing them come back to me from the empty hall … the kind of Schubert writing that when I was 16 (to refer again to this earlier Jeremy) would strike me as unthinkably boring. 16-year-old me was right, in a way; it is almost aggravatingly naive, willfully simple. So many bars of E major arpeggios! It is a real challenge to play these as though you were simply inspired to play them, as though nothing in the world could please you more than to play these rippling E major sounds, for as long as the composer demands.

But there in the hall yesterday, my dissatisfaction waned; I played them through until their long phrase rhythm settled in, (here is the dominant, here is the six-chord, here is the subdominant) until I understood the “hypermeasures”… which is as though Schubert finally intervened, walked into the empty hall, and said “there there, Jeremy, calm down, stop worrying about where it will go, it all fits into place like this and this…” Something like this happens with every piece at some point … the composer shows you a way, and it “clicks.” The problem is, I never know when this will happen, I have no particular system for arriving at this understanding. I have the feeling many composers don’t want you to click too easily. You work, and work, and these epiphanies arrive in their own time. It lends itself to superstition: you must perpetually keep working, in case you miss the epiphany of the day. I suspect I am not alone in this, which is why I think so many musicians go around on edge, and become irritable in the periods before their concerts, waiting for the composer to help them out. Sometimes it arrives before the concert; sometimes not.

The thing is, everyone arrives at these understandings. And they arrive at totally different results, which are all nonetheless contracts or “truces” between themselves and the composer (and the piano, and the hall, and etcetera). Hopefully, most of these negotations are carried on “in good faith.”

To contrast with this legalistic notion of a “contract” between composer and performer, I have had several ecstatic moments lately: yesterday, walking across the park after the Y concert, with the final bars of Auf Dem Strom in my head; Thursday, after a read-through of the Schumann Adagio and Allegro with Carter Brey; and Saturday night, during Mitsuko Uchida’s cadenza of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. These were each musical elations which passed over into a personal sense of well-being. Each of these are major-key, joyful pieces; I was not elated, however, by their “general mood” (nothing can be more depressing than an empty, happy piece) but rather by moments from each I would describe as “flowing over”: in the Schubert, the final quatrain’s descending melodic lines, which seem to address a void, to provide a sort of beauty “missing” from the rest of the song (bestow a blessing); in the Schumann, the lead-in to the recapitulation, which develops the chromatic gist of the piece in even more passionate directions; and in the Beethoven, the appearance of this monstrous “tarantella” in the cadenza, the insistent intervention of darker, minor-key harmonies, the whipping-up of unprecedented tension, all aimed at a luminous release.

Each of these moments emerges from the piece’s frame, is in a sense “illegal” (the composer breaks his own contract with the piece he has written), pours over boundaries. A tarantella cadenza? Impossible. But then, having been accustomed to winter’s rules of coats and gloves, we all find it possible to wear shorts and even flip flops, we pour ourselves outside and drink frozen drinks… It doesn’t seem possible that spring could exist, and further that it could be such a pleasure again (I have seen it before). But it does, and is.

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  1. nathan
    Posted April 12, 2005 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    of course! it was only a matter of time before Jeremy would have a blog. your quickness of mind was made for the medium.

    good thoughts. would that i remembered what such elations were like!

  2. Dr. F
    Posted February 7, 2006 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    You don’t know me, but I am singing the Auf dem…googled and here was your blog. What lovely and sensitive thoughts you have on the process of internalizing this art. I am saddened that I have so little time to get this work into my voice, and am not yet at the place of finding that beautiful flow Schubert’s simplicity brings but with just enough insight and subtle detail to show it to be the masterpiece it is. Wish me luck in my work this week. And thanks to you, for your words which will help me get closer.

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