It is not always so easy to “be oneself.” Looking back at various comments on this blog, I see scattered suggestions for me to be true to myself, which causes me undue anxiety; I wrack my brain, soul, stomach to find what I was when I was I. Am I, was I, not really myself for that short period? And why? I am now touring with Joshua Bell; we get up every night on a stage to project maybe three different selves: the identity of the music (hopefully first), and each of our respective identities, our thoughts in relation to the music, and maybe one could talk about a fourth–the identity of our intertwining dialogue. Josh’s persona is quite strong; I find myself by turns dissolving into his playing and thinking, and then crystallizing back into my own self, trying to find the razor’s edge, the bridge, between these states: in chemistry terms, a solute on the edge of solution. Supersaturated.

It is disquieting to imagine our identity in flux, that we are not as stable a thing as we imagine (Barthes calls each of us a patchwork of interlacing codes)… Perhaps one of the consoling things about the icons of classical music: a composer’s style gives the sense of a recurring, identifiable personality between all his different pieces: the preservation of the elusive human soul-fingerprint, despite variety, in sound. Brahms is Brahms, X is X, and when Josh and I sit down to play the Five Melodies of Prokofiev, from the very first sonorities I can “feel” Prokofiev’s strange beautiful breath on my ear. I love how the first, lyrical phrase is followed by a ghostly echo (identity/loss of identity?) where the piano descends into the bass (melody/non-melody)… a kind of disquieting undertone belying the almost too-easy lyricism of the first idea–a love is expressed; beneath it some ulterior motive, some dark relationship. I am partial to this side of Prokofiev, the Prokofiev of complicated (not too obvious) irony and stream-of-consciousness fragments, of digression and fantasy; I have to say it is my favorite side of his “self”; he is a friend whom I like best in a particular mood. The more bitterly ironic Prokofiev I find too bitter, too in-my-face, too simply rejecting; the pounding piano ostinatos and marches are fun but do not speak to my soul; and when his tremendous lyricism is unlaced with irony I often find it saccharine. So here I have another razor’s edge: my own relationship to Prokofiev, which is personal, part of my identity … my own agenda! I also adore his piano playing, which seems to me mainly lyrical, fanciful, evanescent–courting arrhythmia, in opposition to the oppressively rhythmic manner in which his music is often executed. Sometimes I wish only Prokofiev were permitted to play Prokofiev.

The third of the Five Melodies begins with a kind of ecstatic climax (from where? why? how?)–already a bizarre notion, an unjustified, preemptive lightning bolt–and gradually dies down to a long, still, ethereal arc; then the climax returns but softer — an echo, an aftershock. Perhaps the form could be expressed thus:

ClIMAX… dying… dying… dead (a beautiful, sensual death) … climax? (awake from dead? life remembered from death?)… disturbing, grinding coda…

Usually the “bigger” version of an idea would be towards the end–logically, progressively–but Prokofiev reverses this typical pattern, subtly using echo and disintegration (rather than development and ascension) as his formal motivations. Ahh, like a sinking feeling, some loss of meaning, some weird, falling, changing perspective. These asymmetries and peculiarities, these reversals of rhetoric, with the questions of tone and meaning they pose, cause me to connect these little five pieces to modernist verse, with the ambiguous alchemy of their bare-minimum words. It is not hard to move from the opening bars of the Five Melodies, for instance, to the following lines…

Let us go then, you and I
while the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherized upon a table.

As Hugh Kenner points out in his wonderful book The Pound Era, the first two lines falsely promise a kind of Romantic outlook, a “conventional” love poem, while the third line deliciously delivers nonsense, antithesis, irony, the infusion of the modern, medicinal, procedural… the most un-Romantic simile imaginable. What kind of poem is it? Who is speaking? How can those lines possibly belong together? In other words, the questioning and challenging of identity, of the consistency of the self of the poem … to what is the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock true? … the beauty of the shifting self, of the moment of uncertainty, of the impossibility of fixing anything in place … and yet, behind that flux, there is a new once-removed identity, the observer self looking at, following, his own complicated changing states, savoring, knowing, dissolving.

The maid left some smooth jazz on in my hotel room here in Arizona–a pure strange accident–and while I check emails my head is bopping, it seems to make me happy. Again a crisis of self. Am I really the kind of person who can enjoy smooth jazz? And then, is it possible for me, tonight, to play the “Kreutzer” Sonata? Arizonans will know soon enough.

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  1. Qais Al-Awqati
    Posted February 14, 2006 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I am sure the Arizonas will enjoy whichever of your selves you decide to present. You, like all of us, as you point out have multiple identities you are a musician, a man, american, young, … In each of these you are different from other people of that tribe. We are all mutants of some sort or another (we wouldnt be as different). Even identical twins can be distinguished by their close friends and their diseases are concordant only 50% of the time. But the amazing thing about all this diversity is that each of us is actually recognizable, even predictable as all those who live with us or know us well will be the first to tell you. Does this sound like a riff on Chuck Close’s portraits? Does one have to have a little distance before recognizing the sum of the parts? Despite all of this feeling of chameleonship, it is easy after all for an outsider to recognize that a chameleon is a lizard and a special kind of lizard; but it is the personality of the human chameleon that is enthralling and a subject of inquiry, anxiety, wonder suspicion, even desire. Be yourself indeed, a very recognizable chameleon.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted February 14, 2006 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Lovely, Jeremy. Be all that you can be, as they say.

    But, to be pedantic, that should be “WHEN the evening….”


  3. Anonymous
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Pardon me if I sound crude,I get the sense someone needs ot get laid, son, very soon.Superb music making Denk, as always though….

  4. Claire
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    i don’t want to sound pessimistic, and honestly i’m not a very pessimistic person, but in my philosophy studies i’ve found that you can come closer to finding your true self, but it’s impossible to really know your true self – it’s a mystery. instead all you can do is go with what’s natural (gosh i’m going to break out into a mix of daoism, hinduism, buddhism, plato, islam, and christianity all in one) don’t force anything don’t try to live for others live out of yourself channel the dao or however you want to phrase it gosh i’m making absolutely no sense, but then, philosophy never makes sense honestly i think as a musician you don’t have to worry about projecting your self because music comes from your essence, from your true being, and so in your performance i think you will come out in your playing, when you play the piano, the audience hears jeremy denk and witnesses jeremy denk

    okay enough babbling for me go visit my blog leave me a comment say hi whatever i posted about the mondavi concert pretty trivial stuff nothing in depth about the music i have a habit of writing super long concert critques for my choir class when i have to critique a choral group – i saw a play recently for my drama workshop class and most girls wrote about 3 page critiques – mine was 10. so yeah if i had taken notes on the concert i could go on forever about that but i’ll refrain – no one wants to hear my musical analysis 🙂 but i had a few comments about it so feel free to read my blog isn’t nearly as interesting as yours lol i’ve been reading all your old posts skimmed a lt of them cuz i have school and it would take me forever to read them all, but i enjoy your blog and am always excited for more entries!

    anyway most important thing in life is to stay true to yourself – anything else would be a lie, and there’s no point in living a lie. my sense though, jeremy, is that you have an understanding of yourself, even if you aren’t immediately conscious of it. if you could read your blog from an outsider’s perspective, i think you would agree with me 🙂 huggles!

    oh just curious – have you composed anything?

  5. Claire
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    woo hoo i’ve finally read all your posts! well okay i skimmed a lot of them, but i actually fully read some of them, and i’m hooked.

  6. Jeemin Kim
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Mr. Denk, my name is Jeemin Kim and I was one of the blessed Arizonans(I’m obviously not from here, but nevertheless Arizonan at the moment) who got to hear the Kreutzer Sonata tonight, and I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I am, for it was (dare I say) one of the most powerfully moving Kreutzer Sonata I have ever heard..!!
    I just LOVED and LOVED how you played Beethoven, with such passion and strength, along with equally great amount of control and fluidity.. as I often found people lacking in one or the other for my taste.
    I only wish I can hear you play other works by him..! (moonlight and pathetique sonatas and 5th concerto in particular)

    I am very disappointed at myself for being too dizzy from allergies (and claustrophobia) I left before I could find you and give any thanks to you.. Your energy really touched my soul.
    I am a violin player and I originally went to the recital to see Mr. Bell, and I should thank him for introducing me to you!
    I really look forward to see you play again someday.

    As for diversely molding oneself in playing different music with different people, I am personally in agreement with what Claire has said in essence. I believe that what’s already inside the soul that just naturaly seeps through the personality of music, so one shouldn’t have to try to become anything.. rather, we have to “disappear” from what we believe is ourselves, in order to truly let it through.

  7. Claire
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    “I am a violin player and I originally went to the recital to see Mr. Bell, and I should thank him for introducing me to you!
    I really look forward to see you play again someday.”

    i have to say ditto on that 🙂

    and thank god someone thinks i made some sense! after i posted here i started looking at a couple philo books in my room to see if i could find some words of wisdom – my philo text from last year and a theory of everything by ken wilbur i wonder what i’ll find …

  8. Claire
    Posted February 15, 2006 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    ” rather, we have to “disappear” from what we believe is ourselves, in order to truly let it through.”

    jemeem – wonderfully said!

    okay now off to school! first class of the day … government. ugh but then i have drama workshop and choir! and i’m doing my monologue in drama today! wanda june from happy birthdya wanda june by kurty vonnegut

  9. bubs
    Posted February 16, 2006 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Just three things to add, my dearest bubs:

    1. Speaking as someone who willingly threw his own identity into flux two and a half years ago and is only rediscovering it now, I can speak not so much to how disturbing it is to imagine such a situation as how disturbing it is to look back on that loss of identity and realize how unaware of that loss I was. True, I took on other fulfilling identities (father and family man, things I wouldn’t have considered mine to have just a few short years ago), but much of what I considered my own was buried due to surroundings, due to the fact that I didn’t think my identity would be acceptable in career or community. Unfortunate and possibly untrue, but there it is.

    2. Because I’m a nitpicky rat-bastard, I will point out how uncompelling your opening line from this posting was – to me, in any case. Ah yes, I can snark, too.

    3. Any good scrapple in Arizona?

  10. Denisse
    Posted February 20, 2006 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Mr. Denk,

    I was honored to be able to attend theh concert held in Scottsdale. I am a violinist and went to hear Joshua Bell perform. I feel extrememly distraught to realize that I didn’t say anything to you as I visited with Mr. Bell. I apologize. Everything was going so fast at the time and I was excited that I was able to see Mr. Bell in the first place and you know he performs at so many different places. So, I would like to congratulate you on your performace. You are an amazing musician. I know how hard it is to put a piece together and all the rehearsals as well. I’ve have accomanists for many of my performances as well. Albeit, I’m still in college and all of thoes are required, I still have the opportunity you work with pianists who are amazing. So, thank you again for your beautiful performance and musicality that was really the special touch to the performace in the end!

    Best regards,

  11. grudge girl
    Posted March 6, 2006 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    It was lovely to read this after having seen you and Josh at Clowes Hall yesterday, and having been particularly moved by the Prokofiev. You’re quite an amusing writer, as well as a fantastic pianist.

    Honestly, I felt like I was listening in on a private conversation between you and Josh for most of the concert. Like, I felt sort of Peeping-Tom-ish. Having grown up playing both piano and violin, I was in a unique position to understand what was involved in the conversation, and I loved every minute of it, even the slightly guilty eaves-dropping feeling.

    During the Mozart I got fixated on how much it reminded me of my 1 1/2 year old daughter, who shifts gears in exactly the same fashion.

    I look forward to reading and hearing more from you. Good show.

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