Nothing for Granted

So I just got back. There is nothing like smelling the storm that has just passed, with the weird whiff of camaraderie that comes from people ducking out a sudden downpour. The city was washed clean, streets slick and shiny with flowerpetals and leaves clinging to the pavement…

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the courtyard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshhold.
–Ezra Pound

Anyway, the point is I was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, at 111th and Amsterdam, where I had a delicious poppy strudel, and there was this girl, reading Ulysses. Don’t get all excited, this is not a boy meets girl story. She was clearly kinda nuts (though this could, to be fair, be blamed on her reading material) and she would cough loudly and talk to herself and to anyone who dared to go to the bathroom and I felt her eyes on my shoulder quite a lot. I finally turned around briefly, making my big New York mistake.

Though I quickly turned back to my work, she had found her niche, and began to talk to my back, very loudly; I had no escape. “Is that an iBook?” Any Mac person would know that my black G3 Powerbook is the very aesthetic opposite of an iBook… grrr… anyway… “No” I replied patiently, “It’s a Powerbook, it’s old.” A few more silly Mac remarks passed between us. Then she asked: “are you writing a paper?” (I was working on my superduper SECRET PROJECT which is somehow related to the location of the pastry shop.) I lied to her, I don’t know why. “Yes, sort of,” I said. “Are you a grad student ?” she asked. I had got myself in deeper, had to keep lying: “Yes” (why would a concert pianist be working on a paper?) “What are you studying?” I told her I was studying musicology. Lies, and more lies.

“Cool,” she said. “I took a course once in music theory, and it was hard but I liked it a lot.” I nodded, barely, turned away. “You know what I really liked?” she continued, relentlessly… “I liked the melodic minor.”

Now, some people think I’m easy to please. Even I think sometimes I’m too easy to please. Anner Bylsma once referred to me at Marlboro, with a weird look in his eye, as “the boy who likes things.” But if you can get off on the melodic minor scale, then you are really something. It is like loving subtraction. She elaborated: “I really liked how the sixth and the seventh ….. the way down …” She faltered. I finished it for her, “yes, the seventh is different on the way down.” This did not satisfy her. I imagined her, late at night, picking out the notes of the melodic minor on an electric piano, with occasional tears dripping down her cheeks.

Though I had dismissed her as a nut, something about this melodic minor business bothered me. I worked on my superduper secret project and tried to put it out of my mind. But standing on the 110th Street subway platform, it came to me, I couldn’t believe it, it was too much. A million times I have tried to express to my piano students (maybe I’ll be able to get it off my chest now, and be able to shut up about it from now onward) how often we forget to find beauty, expression in even the simplest intervals of scales: how we overlook the obvious, how we take certain intervallic motions for granted, particularly (!) passing downward from the tonic: the tonic to the 7th passing to the 6th. As a prime example, I would cite the piano playing of Ignaz Friedman, whose recordings managed to show me the beauty of so many intervals I had passed by. And the first piece I would choose to use as demonstration: the Mendelssohn Song without Words in C minor, and particularly the first few phrases, where the melody first touches the “normal” seventh (B-natural), then curls back around to the “flatted” seventh (care of the melodic minor)–the way that man plays that B-flat after the B-natural, and the way he makes you feel the movement from the B-flat down to the following A-flat, it’s enough to make you want to throw so much modern piano playing in the wastebasket. And that was the crux of it: the melodic minor, and how much Ignaz liked it. The deeply touching quality of a shifted tone.

To celebrate the odd coincidence: a delicious dish of bucatini with mussels, tomato, fava beans and pancetta, in which the intervallic/flavoric relations between the ocean, smoky ham, hearty bean and fresh, acidic tomato were explored exhaustively and not at all taken for granted by me.

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  1. Jeffrey Biegel
    Posted June 13, 2005 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Ya never know who you’re gonna meet–where and when–and what will come from the casual conversation!

  2. Sigeweald
    Posted September 14, 2005 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Your comparison at the end here, the bucatini flavors as notes on a scale – that’s brilliant. This pretty much sums up my “food theory”. Friends often ask how I create the dishes I prepare, my recipes for experimental dishes. What really offends me are those who state the matter as “throwing some of everything in…” NO! That is not what I do! One must imagine which flavors will complement others, which provide contrast and which may provide “harmony”, just as a composer will know practically intuitively which notes to score according to the movement he has in mind. He doesn’t “throw in some of everything” – although I’ve heard plenty of experimental pieces (as in a piece of what?) where this may have been the case.

  3. andrea
    Posted September 14, 2005 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    This is beautiful writing Jeremy…
    and a wonderful way to start my day.

    thank you!

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