This last week in New York was supposed to be an organized and organizing diving board for the summer. Instead, it was a frenzied jumble of experiences, which I grabbed at uselessly like a tray full of dishes I have dropped. No way to hold on to any of them: they slip and fall and I accept their breakage as a receipt for time.

Some were good. A broken, ruined afternoon became a miracle. I had to wait in the dentist’s office for a couple hours and my only possessions were the clothes on my back, an insurance card, a credit card, and Faulkner’s Light in August. This poverty was enriching. Hilarious women stumbled in and out of the office, wagging their damaged mouths incessantly at their cellphones, arranging playdates and pickups for their children, while their cavities and abscesses were X-rayed, and the sarcastic Jewish dentist poked his head out from time to time, summoning them like naughty but amusing children, and arranging treatment which was always too late. Normally, a fertile Petri dish for Denk irritation, but no, all this fluorescent bustle ignored me; I was in a magic circle, traced by the power of the written word. You do not need a beautiful place to read a book, no forest nook or bay window, no idyllic lighting or comfortable chair; this office was poorly lit, crazed, uncomfortable; what you really need is a great book and some mild willingness to surrender.

This was one shard of the week. In another, I was gazing at the chilly dark blue of an evening sky somewhat up the Hudson and sipping a cold white wine, and admiring the perfect shape of a tree. Then we were hurtling down the road in a car, and I was looking over the trees at the perfect bluish glinting of the river, which the sun was just leaving behind, and I was nearly screaming at the driver about beauty and trying in some way to hold onto the moment: a moment defined entirely by its own waning. (Are there any moments defined by their clinging?) My dear driving friend, and the oncoming summer, in which I feared mere repetition, and the year past, now appearing as a sum total, as a lost, accomplished thing, all merged into a windy blue journey to catch a train, the last train of the year, as if I would not escape from the past if I didn’t make this fucking train. We were rushing for the train, which was rushing; and the sun was slipping away too; trees slipping from green into black; the river never rushes, but unlike the train alongside it, it never stops. This was my birthday.

In a third shard, I was listening to a wonderful concert in Zankel (David Robertson, et al) and this movement of the Ligeti piano concerto began with a transcendental, eerie lament, and concluded with the most ridiculous harmonica passage, something like a barbershop quartet cadence: totally absurd. Wawawawa. And I laughed out loud, and looked around and saw no one else laughing, and wondered why. Luckily friend S looked over and clearly acknowledged that something was afoot, so I knew I wasn’t just going mad, quietly there, in Zankel. Then post-concert I found myself at dinner and I looked up from my plate of pasta, and briefly and suddenly had no memory of walking to the restaurant whatsoever, or the concert; it suddenly seemed as though this post-concert dinner were not connected to the immediate past or future, but to all the other post-concert dinners of my lives, which were now freely floating in a timeless haze. What was I doing there? It seemed I could leap off one cloud and end up on another, for example, at some post-concert dinner in Louisville with a mint julep, or at the coffeeshop eating nachos in Marlboro, or any number of places, having just played or listened, and consuming in the wake of applause. Suppose we could organize the passage of time in our lives using items in the Hold Everything catalog. How would we sort the past? Chronologically, or by subject matter, by import, or by genre of experience? If we put all the post-concert dinners in one basket, would some hidden pattern appear, or would we just stuff that basket in the closet as far back as it could go, in the hopes that it will not have to be opened? Would it be a tasteful rattan basket or one of those plastic dealies from Staples? Luckily, somebody does the organizing for us.

When I was an undergrad student at Oberlin, I often felt rhythmically chastised, and unjustly corralled. I guess I was semi-famous for being rhythmically ridiculous, and it seemed to me my teachers were bores, kind of Ward Cleavers of pulse, leaping on rhythmic diversions as if they were mortal sins. I would plead “Daddy, can’t this beat be a little bit late?” and off to the confessional it would be. By my doctoral days, at Juilliard, I felt freer to express my disdain, and mocked mercilessly an endless talk by a very famous music theorist which spent an hour attempting to “prove” that it would be reasonable to take (a bit of) time in a particular measure of Mozart. (As if this phrase “taking time” could mean anything except in the very act itself; as if one needs permission; time is different in every single phrase you play, is conditional upon tactile sound. I’m sorry, but we performers, even more than composers, and so much more than theorists, own time. So there.) But now, these “wiser” days, I often find myself asking of any rhythmic event: “Why?” Cunningly, analytically, heartlessly, I ask myself: is note X late because of my mind, or my finger? I feel the creeping need to justify any departure from the beat–this tyrannical beat to which I have become addicted. Rhythmic organization seems more beautiful to me now, whereas chaos seemed better then. I believe I have to take this onrushing wisdom with a grain of salt, as a partial lie; to place it in quotation marks; to not accept the solution of conformity too easily, not let its power and fashion seduce me. It is possible I was right then and I am still right now, when my convictions are so different in nature.

A week like this last one suggests the allure of the beat, of routine, of pattern. Slipping, sliding from Monday to Friday I found each day a bit terrifying, in my own lack of preparation, and the intensity of each experience. No, wait, I’m not ready to feel that way! And indeed, as I was playing through my beloved Davidsbündlertänze, warming up for a Friday night recital, I was surprised how surprised I was; where are those feelings coming from? They seemed the cadence of the week’s phrase, and no ridiculous harmonica anti-conclusion, but as logical a conclusion as emotions can summon to tie together the unprepared jumble of a week’s worth of dropped dishes: events cleared of their connecting, supporting strands, coming like accidents, but crashing into a floor which is no accident whatsoever. And then the new Denk reorganizing the old Davidsbündler, finding all the ways in which 21-year-old Denk was lazy about the beat, and stripping time away like varnish, and looking purely at beats without pull. This takes time, and I was still stripping things clean minutes before the recital, and it seemed there was a lot more to do, and each act of temporal cleaning made the piece look unfamiliar, an alien beautiful thing. The piece was once again outside me, rather than the old, absorbed friend. I felt the pastness of the old way, the age of my experience. I was not able to prepare myself for this shock. Playing something with a conscious change and having it sound different from ever before is a mild out-of-body experience, the proof of unpredictability. And particularly in the last three dances, moving from humor to uncertainty to lullaby to memory to tragedy to some thing well beyond any of those, in which Schumann attempts to “summarize” the unsummable, there I felt I couldn’t hold on to the piece which was changing and bucking below me like this last week. And I felt suddenly some reason and unity to the preceding days, leading to that moment; sometime, yes, there will be time to gather and organize, and really you should get on that, but in the meantime: break what needs to be broken.

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  1. Jim Scofield
    Posted May 23, 2006 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved Faulkner for taking me away.

    And I love your blog. The language, words, images, and rhythm are very satisfying. There’s rhythm again. Sometimes it reminds me of Knut Hamsun.

  2. R J Keefe
    Posted May 24, 2006 at 9:47 am | Permalink


  3. hari
    Posted May 24, 2006 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    you’re so right about reading. a good book can really transport you, it’s like taking a vacation without the hassle. you have such a beautiful way with words, write your own book.

    p.s. if you decide never to break another dish, you must buy them at “fishes eddy” currently located at “gracious homes.” i don’t know what they’re made of, but i haven’t chipped or broken one in years.


  4. Carol
    Posted May 24, 2006 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    Happy Birthday! I just had mine – and I’m working on the principle of subtracting years until I stay at 27 – seems like a good age to hold on to!
    Yes, reading is a joy that can be experienced anywhere – BUT – A DENTISTS’ OFFICE?! ACKKK! The sound of the drillsssszzzz (whatever happened to the revolutionary, painless lasers?) , and screaming children having their braces tightened – NO! My favourite places, – on my large garden swing with an iced coffee, on my bedroom windowseat, or on the North Shore beaches of Long Island. My favourite sight on the island is driving west on the 25A, coming over a hillcrest at the Sunken Meadow Beach entrance – seeing Conneticut from across the Sound on a clear day – the sunsets in the summer are incredible.
    How to define time passed? – Forever in photographs of children as they grow up, and videos of years gone by that have forgotten moments. Precious and humorous memories of pets that have passed through my life, or that still make me laugh, or give comfort when things may be difficult. Friends and family at different stages in my life, trips taken, or different cities that I have lived in ( and FROZEN in – Winnipeg – minus 40!). Now, I have to invent and define a whole new era which has brought me back to playing music again – which is a source of happiness.(I can’t be a tortured musician trying to interpret composers works – I’m not good enough to worry – I’m just happy if I can learn my part well enough not to mess up in orchestra!)YAY! IT’S ALMOST SUMMER!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Christina
    Posted May 26, 2006 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    your thoughts about how a piece changes every time we play it reminds me very much so of derrida and his writings on how we have been conditioned to think of the book as some kind of “totality.” same goes with music, i’d think. if you ever get a chance to read “of grammatology” (though it may require a little more silence than a noisy office), i highly recommend it.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 27, 2006 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy Denk? No such article on Wikipedia. You’ve got a job to do

  7. Jo
    Posted May 30, 2006 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    You forgot Christopher’s chicken!!!!

  8. TCho
    Posted May 30, 2006 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    I should recommend you my dentist.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted May 31, 2006 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Good luck on your tours this week and next.

    And I too should recommend my dentist to you. He doesn’t inflict pain and no children coming out from him crying nor screaming.The hygenist hands are soft and they make possible that your minutes w/ them is pleasant.
    Yes, you can read your book in his office because the music is classical and you won’t hear any drilling sounds across the waiting area.

  10. Anonymous
    Posted May 31, 2006 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I believe you’ve already got this one.

    Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music’s Demise Are Dead Wrong By ALLAN KOZINN
    NY TIMES May 28, 2006

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