Scholars Unite!

Saturday 7:50 am. I woke to the wreckage of nail salons: crumbling glass, scattered particle-board, chairs, and three dusty men dismantling endless hours of beauty. Helpful sign explains: “WE HAVE MOVE.” It seemed early to be pillaging, at least on the Upper West Side. Why, most people haven’t even finished their Pilates yet, not to mention walking their pugs and baking their organic brioches. I was irritated to find that the new staffperson at the 93rd Street Starbucks seemed to think we were living in the ‘burbs. She smiled a TV smile (in HD) and threw me a perky plastic how-are-you, and when I (grudging, mumbling, quiet) returned the formality she went into a story about how tired she is [insert braying laugh a la Rachael Ray here]… but she’ll make it, thanks. My subsequent smile was like the crisper in my refrigerator: full of wilted, dried-up, and congealed things. If I had been carrying a volume of Sartre I might have climbed over the counter and attacked her with it. Morning is not my time.

Ah, safely back in the apartment. Whew. I try to really make an art of my grumpiness while it lasts, to live it to the last drop; I am not sure it is not a strange, amphibian form of happiness.

Speaking of grumpiness, I was over again seeing how a real blog works at The Rest Is Noise, and I read the following:

… the one [concert] that cannot be missed is the mainstage Carnegie bill of Electric Counterpoint (with Pat Metheny), Different Trains (with the Kronos), and Music for 18 Musicians (with Reich and his ensemble). I don’t see anything as exciting on the entire New York season schedule…

Ummm, excuse me? What about Jeremy Denk’s super-wuper fantastically exciting all-Bach recital on Oct. 20th in the new exciting totally unusual late-night format at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center (tickets available)? Or Jeremy Denk’s thrilling debut wild-possibly-involving-naked-supermodels appearance at Carnegie Hall with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Dec. 2nd? Just to pick a couple items at random from the concert schedule, items I have no stake in whatsoever, you know, just, by the way. I thought I worked that in pretty well, don’t you? Not too pluggy, kind of seamless?

And then to speak again of grumpiness, a while back I went a bit to town on the first episode of Greg Sandow’s book on the future of classical music. I have to admit I’m not in love with the formulation “performing” a book, but I let myself be carried full tilt into high dudgeon, overhastily. I went back there and it appears he took in a lot of criticism and decided to start again, writing more tightly and with less anecdote; he seems to be reangling it as a kind of historical account of how classical music got “boxed in.” The following passage made me pause uneasily:

This scholarly, detached, analytical view of classical music then gets translated into the formality of performances, the immobility and silence of the musicians and the audience, and the lack of communication, the lack of any explanation of what’s really going on (which I’ve criticized so relentlessly in earlier episodes). All this turns many people off, especially since it runs directly against almost every trend in contemporary culture. How can people who (for example) listen to pop music that offers strong views about contemporary life, and about which listeners have really strong opinions–loving this band, hating that one–accept a classical music world in which they’re told, repeatedly, in measured, unexcited tones, how great the great composers are?

But there is something courageous about it. Here on Think Denk, we try to get as excited as we can about Bach etc., and try to pass it on through verbiage and (soon to come, exciting exciting!) sound bites, but we (royal) have to admit Mr. Sandow has a generally true-feeling point. To argue with what he is saying seems like arguing with commonsense, with the same pros and cons. Go ahead and argue; you may be right, but ignore it at your peril. In fact he has a lot of points that feel queasily correct in the main though I get nervous about the wide net he is casting … To cite my main qualm, I guess I feel he’s a little too comfortable with generalizations, and with the deadly Grouping Of Stereotypes Fallacy (“scholarly, detached, analytical”)… Scholarly does not have to be detached, or analytical, for instance. Analysis is not necessarily detached either. These are all free-floating “connotations.” And then he equates the scholarly attitude with the detached immobile performances, claiming a causality. But often it seems to me just the opposite: the scholars are the ones getting excited about the music while the performers, who are too busy to hear from them or don’t want to hear from them or think they don’t have anything to offer, ignore them and offer up the same old same old conservatory crap. How’s that for blunt? Strike one for scholars!

So I have my Denkish qualms, but am impressed by the rewrite and new approach. Go read Sandow’s stuff, and I apologize for jumping on the first post: so very Jeremy and so impatient. The ocean is still teaching me (vis a vis last post).

Then, to survey other areas of the Classical-Web, I noticed there’s a big discussion of the “pretentiousness” of classical music going on at Sequenza21. This seems to me largely a discussion between composers, and am I generalizing too much (a la Sandow) if I see this discussion and the word “pretentious” as a euphemism for what is quickly becoming the Composers’ Eternal Question:

Should I write tonal, boppy stuff, or not?

I imagine the devil posing that question, slyly, in the postmodern wilderness … Please enjoy, among other things, the myriad spellings of “pretentiousness” that sprinkle this forum, which made me doubt my own memory, and which evokes, charmingly, composers at play, perhaps multitasking, transposing on Finale or Sibelius in the background while burning CDs in another window and pondering music’s moral state in between, too busy to avail themselves of a spellchecker. This is all coming out overly snarky … am a big fan of Sequenza 21 …

Without being presumptuous, I guess it will have to be up to me to answer the Eternal Question for all composers for All Time. I would refer them once again to Roland Barthes’ wonderful dictum “there is only what I would choose to write, to put forth in this world of mine, and what I choose not to.” I apply this dictum daily, thousands of times, when playing the same old boring totally unexciting (just kidding, for those with no ear for irony) Bach phrase again, or some stupid out-of-touch-with-modernity (still kidding!) Beethoven thingy, and I am teetering between “Ways To Play This” and some are Interesting, some are Unexpected, some are Classic–oh oh oh, the burden of choice!–and then finally there is a period of honestly asking myself, “what would I choose to hear? how is this meaningful to me? what makes me sit back and say that is beautiful?” and there is the test, does this wow me, is what I’m hearing interesting to me, 2006 Jeremy?, and I look for the answers through that set of questions (and similar)… through the self-wow test … It’s all really spectacularly beautiful heady totally tremendous stuff, so that when I have to go out of the apartment and away from my Linus-esque security blanket combo of piano and Great Masters to get some coffee from some perky young thing I get a little, you know, on edge.

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  1. SLB
    Posted October 8, 2006 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    All-Bach recital? Can’t wait.

    As for those zombie-like how-are-you’s, those “polite meaningless words,” I loathe them too, especially since they hit me aggressively, as though I’d be damned if I were to answer with any human depth.

    “The Composers’ Eternal Question” is not so different from the ones poets–I want to say all artists, and even the scholars, including the ones you speak of–ask themselves: Should we be slaves to our ideas, delivering them as we, the thinkers and creators, see fit; or slaves to those who receive our ideas, who help sustain our capacity to think and create in the first place? And maybe the question isn’t whether we should be, but rather are we? A reconciliation is possible, I tend to say, but how to accomplish it is sometimes out of our hands.

  2. hari
    Posted October 8, 2006 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    i thought i was the only one who got annoyed by rachel ray.

    as an audience, i really don’t care about what went behind the music or the composer’s motives or psyche; it just has to sound good to me or evoke some feelings.

    hope to catch your concerts.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 9, 2006 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Face it, Jeremy, the upper westside IS “the ‘burbs”. Maybe if you moved downtown to a hipper neighborhood you could develop a more edgy (yet still grumpy) persona. “The Rest Is Noise” might then see fit to include your all-Bach recital on it’s most-happenin’ events list along with Kronos and Reich. (I, for one, would rather hear your ‘boring’ Bach – even if it means sitting with a bunch of upper westside suburban nerds.)

  4. Anonymous
    Posted October 9, 2006 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Uncle Jeremy,

    Sounds like you have your hands full. I think we might go down as a family to see you in St Louis, seeing that my borther lives there and then you could possible meet the newest edition to the family! Anyways, I hope all is wel with you and life is treating ya well. And Joshua Bell too!!! Can’t wait to see you and hear you play your oncore…always makes me cry!

    Love your niece,

  5. jgeerfefmeyn
    Posted October 10, 2006 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I am in awe of your ability to engage, entertain, provoke, and draw attention to that which we take for granted – all at once. I am proud to know you.

  6. Ricardo
    Posted October 12, 2006 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    But, really, Different Trains IS an awesome piece of work. I hope we don’t have to choose between it and your Bach.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted October 16, 2006 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, see you w/ your Bach in Carnegie and w/ Joshua Bell on the 13th and 14th. Schumann baby!!!

  8. Anonymous
    Posted October 16, 2006 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Yes.. Schumann w/cellist Sports Illustrated and friends.Think Denk and Joshua Bell. What an illustrious friends.

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