I have noticed a slight uptick in the irritability of the universe lately. My evidence? The other day, I was in Starbucks minding my own business (so all these stories begin), typing nonsense at my too-cool-for-school laptop, when I noticed a man set something down at the empty adjoining table. Perhaps a minute later, another man put something at another spot by the same table. Both left to get in line, and both, sadly, came to the table with their drinks simultaneously, intending to sit and occupy (veni, vidi, vici): a childish spat ensued. I couldn’t believe how stubborn each was to the cause, which was, after all, just a table (or perhaps more: a moment of repose?). The dispute ended by “sharing”; they each refused to relinquish, and sat the same table, glowering, sucking up each other’s negative energy. One was in his early 20s, impeccably dressed, indubitably gay, and somewhat on the sniffy side of the spectrum; the other probably early 60s, peccably dressed, squarely straight, far on the grumpy side of the spectrum (almost invisible to the genial eye), and reading–of course–the NY Post. A mini culture war for my benefit. The younger one talked loudly on his cellphone to irritate his table mate, while the older read his Post, crinkling and uncrinkling, folding and refolding: a motion like the flapping wings of a giant, tired, grimy bat. Needless to say, I was quite irritated and distracted by this tempest in a teapot, perhaps even enraged, and eventually got up, pulled my handy chainsaw out of its case, and made a clean slice…

Just kidding.

I also witnessed this morning a similar dispute between a burly construction worker from Long Island and a small elderly Jewish lady, in Tal Bagels, revolving around the eternal issue of “where the line begins.” (If only we could always know!) Luckily this dispute did not come to blows; I feel sure she would have embarrassed him rather badly.

These, along with several other instances of New Yorker irritability, have made me sense the vague winds of a trend… And this trend has even carried over into this very blog (heavens!) since my snarky post “BS of the day,” in which I took a Mr. Wilson to task for some vague comments about Mozart, inspired quite a few reactions, and even the unimaginable: criticisms. I suppose this is to be seen not as a sad outcome, or even as a loss of innocence (a de-virginization of the blog) but as a positive thing, an act of birth, even: something has engendered a “discussion.”

Let me just say a few more things toward this discussion, to try and mend some fences.

1) “BS of the day” was a self-conscious attempt to imitate other, snarky blogs such as Wonkette. I do not intend to adopt this style permanently, and I apologize to those readers who felt offended. Occasionally is it OK, though, if I just rant about something? Thanks.

2) I think opera is fantastic.

3) I was disheartened by the disintegration of the discourse into (sigh, as usual) a maligning of analysis. This happens so easily! I saw it in one of the comments: it began with the coupling of the words “erudite” and “analysis,” which makes it seem a bit elitist already; and then, sure enough, the word “dissection” made its way in there; and then “there’s no pleasure left.” People say “you are analyzing this to death!” as if discussion and contemplation of music were some sort of murderous activity, some sort of science-lab experiment in which a frog must die, pinned to the table.

I have my own gripes with analysis, believe me. But I don’t think the answer is this kind of dismissal, this kind of easy getaway, as in: what’s the point of analysis anyway? followed by “meet you at the Redeye Grill for martinis.” Specifically to keep my vision fresh, I feel the need to keep asking the same unanswerable questions about the music I am playing over and over again, to reach into verbal language for what it has to offer and cross back into the language of tones like a returning tourist. I feel this is similar to when I sing a phrase to myself in my head, when I imagine the music without sound (or at least anything that anyone else could hear); things are almost always better back at the piano–wider, freer–after this kind of removal, the removal of music from sound, its temporary passage into gesture, thought, imagination. If you are still thinking about martinis, I don’t blame you.

I spent a great deal of time on Op. 111 this week, verbally and mentally, thinking how to communicate something about it to 25 freshmen. Of course I think the happiest, most enlightened person after the hour-and-a-half lecture was me. For the umpteenth time I felt I “finally” knew what I wanted to say (notice how we use that phrase as a compliment: “his playing really SAYS something to me, really SPEAKS to me”–even for non-verbal music!) with this piece, and the next day on the train back down the Hudson, this happiness became more pronounced. Scarfing my stir-fry in Penn Station, amidst a hassled underground crowd, I was singing inaudibly over and over again thirds, fourths, fifths from the Arietta. Well, perhaps not inaudibly; in my blissful imagined solitude, I might have moaned a little, enough so that the man who had cooked up my stirfry looked up and asked “It tastes good?” He looked either amused or concerned; food in that place wasn’t really meant to be “enjoyed;” I smiled like a good little deranged maniac and said yes, it was delicious; he really didn’t need to know the truth.

How was it that magic dust had been sprinkled again all over that theme, in that ugly place? Maybe it was partly the article that my colleague had xeroxed for me, in which I read that Schenker (a hardcore theorist if there ever was one) broke off from the world of technical terms and called the cadenza of the Arietta a “strange dream;” maybe it was the little technical/emotional phrase in the article “vertiginous fall of fifths” which showed me a pattern I had been too lazy to notice, while feeling all the while something frightening about that place–that it was too much to absorb, that everything was slipping away, that it was gravity-free, like the sense of (infinitely, impossibly) falling in a dream; maybe it was the part in which Schenker talks about the one high F which means so much to him, at a moment when the movement leaves off, loses track of itself, in which its ecstasy is so extreme that it cannot possibly continue along the path it is taking; and maybe it was partly a phone conversation with my friend C who said he was struck again, freshly, how in the wild, syncopated variation Beethoven seemed to see, ahead of time, the joyfulness of jazz, to anticipate so amazingly things which are now part of our lives, and C’s use of the word “joyful” which is probably the perfect word to define on what side of an invisible fence the movement’s austerity and transcendence lies.

How is that these little “academic thoughts” managed to whip me up into a frenzy of enjoying the movement all over again? It was not analyzed to death; it was analyzed to life. Only the three notes, long-short-long: just that, and the path leads off into a labyrinth in which the means of escape is never twice the same, in which the focal moments can change according to the observer or the day… Each time to play it: like entering/creating a universe. There is always the moment of being “too full,” the sense that the adventure has reached a crisis point, that the emotion or invention has gone so far that you or the piano will explode; and always the balancing moment where things are slipping away, and dangerously “empty;” and always the starry conclusion, resolving or disappearing, twinkling with the high frequencies of the piano, promising, always promising…

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  1. nobleviola
    Posted January 29, 2006 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I’m all for the casual analysis – my quartet is working on the Beethoven 59/2, and I am so struck by the opening, and wanted to know “why” it was affecting me so, and was enthused to find that every chord until the “real” resolution to the tonic was in first or second (or in the case of the diminished 7th, third) inversion – it just made me amazed at the underpinnings that we as professional musicians are often unaware of, or unable to take the time to notice with our “learn this for the first rehearsal, I have three programs to learn this week” schedules.

  2. Lynn
    Posted January 29, 2006 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I have no problem at all with analysis. Just please try to remeber that one person’s “BS” is another person’s attempt to express his deep feelings.

  3. Lane Savant
    Posted January 29, 2006 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The times do seem contentious, but at least you don’t have to try to make a living as a resident musician in a mediocre orchestra facing budget problems, there is much blood on the walls of mine. I’m looking forward to hearing you when you come to Seattle this summer.

  4. sheri
    Posted January 31, 2006 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I appreciate your sincerity, but I must say, one person’s BS *could be* another person’s attempt to express his (or her) deep feelings.

    Not necessarily – by any stretch.

  5. Muse EG
    Posted January 31, 2006 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Regards from another Jeremy – Gershfeld – from Ravinia. Was it 1995? I’m listening to your Schubert impromptu and Faure Sonata w/ Tim Fein on Performance today on my computer. I’m recovering from ACL surgery (1.27) on my left knee after a skiing accident in Vail in December. Your performance, and blog here have been quite enjoyable to me this morning. You can see what I’ve been up to at:

  6. Jessy
    Posted January 31, 2006 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy,
    Just found your blog after the Gardner show – I stayed for all 3 sets, and wanted to tell you how awesome you were. Corey was great, but I gotta confess that you stole the show on the Sonatas, at least for me *blush* (esp. #23) Bit peeved that you and Mr. Bell are giving Beantown a miss. Whattsamatter, too cold for ya? Just kidding, I know the weather here sucks. Maybe I’ll take a road trip out to Williams College to catch you before you hit the west coast. Have a great tour.

  7. kristopher tong
    Posted January 31, 2006 at 9:12 pm | Permalink


    didn’t realize that was a public post form for comments. Don’t suppose you could stick that somewhere on a note or something and un-post it, could ya? Still looking forward,


  8. Richard
    Posted February 1, 2006 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    BS about BS
    As someone who makes a living talking to musicians about music it is remarkable how often I find myself asking a professional to talk about the moment in a piece where some awesome moment of genius is achieved – a modulation that is unprecedented, a structual shift that turns the world of music at the time on its head – and get a deer-in-the-headlights blank stare for a response. Or “this piece was written as a reflection on a piece of poetry, what does the poem describe,” or “who is it by,” or “how is it reflected in the music??” Again, no response. They have no idea. The professional world is full of musicians who play the notes more or less well and don’t bother to think about what they’re doing at all.

    Gimme someone who can invite us into a different, deeper, OTHER, perspective, whether I agree or not (take a bow, Jeremy) and I don’t care if it’s a little dry one time or flowery another.

    I’m sorry you had a cranky day and wanted to beat up on someone who is not a musician trying to express a thing genuinely felt in the language he had available. That is a damn site better than musicians who don’t have a thought in their heads.

    But it’s your blog and you should snark if you want to.

    Thanks for the Mozart on Friday, J.

  9. Claire
    Posted February 12, 2006 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    i think opera is fantastic too 🙂

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