Escape From Breakfast

Do you butter your bagel as though it were a clandestine act? From the moment I set foot in the breakfast room of my hotel, my ears leave the normal world and I hear only the strange, squirming hush of repression. Typically, I wind up next to a couple, about to embark on a touristy fun day in beautiful San Francisco (a city I have a perpetual crush on). This single traveling pianist could imagine a lovely evening away from the kids in a hotel room, sharing a bed cozily, etc. & etc., and I guess one would HOPE that the situation would be a joyous one: a satisfied afterglow mixing with the anticipatory joy of a day spent together, not a care in the world: wandering about the hipster-strewn streets, eating chowder out of bread bowls, ignoring the homeless … but perhaps my romantic notions are bound to crash against the wall of reality. One young couple sat in egg-cracking silence, broken only by:

This tea is nasty.

Crack, sip, slurp, swallow. And five minutes later:

Man: Hussein got sentenced today.
Woman: (Bored) Mmhmmm.

Then, simply more silence. Whatever thoughts may have followed upon this serious observation, were left hanging.

Yet another young couple was a study in contrasts; the boy seemed to be falling apart at the seams, clothes and limbs drooping on the floor, his hair a restless paragon of bedhead, the table before him a maze of plates and remnants, while his blond girlfriend sat bolt upright, as though in the court at Versailles, or at Alexander lessons, letting not a crumb fall from her muffin-eating mouth. She wiped her mouth gracefully ten times for every bite and I began to feel deeply unclean, like my body was a dust bunny that the Cosmic Swiffer had left behind. Then I have overheard several couples critiquing the hotel from within its very bowels (daring insurgency!), and on one occasion I leaned over and attempted to convey the poetry of the Huntington Hotel (the hotel on the hill!) to them; with my eyes I tried to express the blue of the bay as seen from my third floor window and with my hands the expanse of the luxurious bathrooms and the crisp sensual whiteness of the sheets on which … Ahhh, but it was too much.

Woman: If you ate some protein with your breakfast, you wouldn’t be hungry again in an hour.
Man: Mmhmmm.
Woman: Why don’t you have an egg?
Man: I HATE hardboiled eggs.

This couple was easily in their sixties. Was this the first time they had managed to cover the topic of his hard-boiled egg problem, or (as I suspected) was it the thousandth or millionth time? Reasons for my singleness suddenly became luminously clear, like the sky over the airport at dawn, when you realize–as always!–you are leaving a town just as the weather turns perfect.

In each corner of the breakfast room, insanity: a teen spreading cream cheese obsessively on a bagel for fifteen minutes, punishing it with dairy as if the bagel were a bully who had tormented him in the fourth grade; a man in the corner turning over each page of the paper, sniffing dismissively at each turn, as if some new layer of absurdity was discovered (the sound of the pages turning and folding like the flapping of vultures’ wings, scavengers of newsprint)… And finally the repression of all these little conversations, the accumulated deflection and squelch of behavior, gets to me… I begin to feel like a prisoner, all I want to do is run up to my room and throw open the window and scream out to humanity: Live! Live! Enjoy life, everyone! Buy some shoes or go for a walk! Don’t sit in dark rooms complaining about tea! Instead, like any good boy, I go and practice, in a windowless subterranean room. Provisional escape for me.

The second movement of Mozart 488. Mozart invokes “what has already been written,” the siciliano, a style? genre? dance?, a halting haunting rhythm …

And by rights a siciliano, like any dance, should not really begin by falling apart. But Mozart, after a simple opening measure, breaks the texture, syncopates-interpolates-anticipates, all the while subjecting the melody to a series of seventh leaps:

The melody and rhythm both are subject to sudden fragmentation and confrontation, before the movement or premise can really get started. A siciliano with “issues.” I am always struck playing it (as I did the last three nights in San Francisco) by the immediacy and the complexity of this breakdown. But later, at my second entrance, I am amazed–how do I put this?–in the opposite way: I get stuck on two harmonies and in a certain melodic compass, I circle around chromatically in that C#-A, unable to escape the sixth, the rising sixth (attempt) followed in each case by the inevitable fall back (failure) …

This “stuckness” is horrible, it makes me feel even more lost than the opening (which is more daring), or: lost in a different sense. If the opening is a kind of broken dance, this second entrance is like a broken record, symbolizing a more fundamental breakdown/crisis: a deliberate moment of being at a loss what to say, a kind of sudden poverty of invention, something really truly incredible: the composer who always has something to say, deliberately choosing to find only the barest words; the pianist/protagonist can only see the pathos before him, the confining circle of his thought, and nothing else (like we humans so often) … spiraling redundancy, with no way out.

When, the third cycle around, the strings enter and suddenly this hovering around F# minor ends … the string timbre (which releases the piano from its prison) at that moment is (I think we can all agree) one of the most beautiful things ever, like an aura around possibility, a pure promise. It promises A major, in annoying music theory terms; but, A major is a metaphor. In the subsequent transitional passage (annoying music theory term #2) the promise of major and the presence of minor interlace constantly and the too-simple promise of the string entrance is understood to be more complex, more than you “bargained for” … I realize this is all a very emotional reading of this movement, but can there be any other? Can the purists out there forgive me?

What Mozart manages to do, I think, is keep the A major feeling “provisional,” almost throughout the whole middle section … Yes, everything is somewhat lifted, the halting tread of the siciliano has disappeared, the mood is less oppressive, even happy?, but as I am playing and listening, I don’t yet feel totally confident … I feel I am exploring it (A major and whatever A major might “mean”) rather than living in it. Only towards the end of the section, the piano seems to begin to exult in the key, in its majorness; we have a long, spun-out, establishing cadence (Mozart’s amazing gift for the coincidence of emotional/harmonic function), leaping up to a high E (not at all coincidentally the highest note in the piano of the movement):

This cadence is simultaneously the harmonic certainty we have waiting for, and a kind of emotional release, an escape, a real difference! And it is, of course, PRECISELY at that moment, when the pianist’s happiness is at its height, when the spell of mournful F# minor seems to have truly been broken, precisely at the hinge in the structure when A major is established for sure, that Mozart closes the door, the door he himself opened: the winds in two simple, terrible bars take A major and destroy it, twist it exactly back to the beginning. That is what is devastating: how little work it really is. Then, what else? I have no choice but to play the opening again; whatever I have glimpsed of the other is ephemeral, impossible, gone.

Escape is a theme of this movement, perhaps its most important theme … On the Neapolitan 6th chord, one of those fated, fatal chords which MUST lead to the cadence, the pianist, before allowing the cadence, tries to leap “out of the register,” tries a kind of virtual escape, thinking perhaps by postponing the cadence to postpone the inevitable:

… and so too again at the end, though the writing is on the wall and the movement is drawing to an end and nothing can really happen to alter the fate of things, the piano keeps reaching up the octave, C-sharp to C-sharp, as if it hopes to find something up there …

Does the soloist want to escape from its own instrument, from its own compass, to get out of the world it has created? But the desire for escape is written into that world, intrinsically; it is part of the bars of the cage.

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  1. hari
    Posted November 14, 2006 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    you ought to compose a piece about people’s irritating dining habits; there would be lots of dissonance and humor there; like “an american in paris,” only it would be “a manhattanite losing his appetite in san francisco.”

    escape your music if you must, but come back; you’d be missed.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted November 14, 2006 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    i wonder what you would have said about me if i had been in the same hotel restaurant, enjoying my breakfast? how often are we the target of unsuspecting strangers’ observations?

  3. Jeremy Denk
    Posted November 15, 2006 at 10:56 am | Permalink


    Point taken. I realize it’s not really fair… I wasn’t bringing up those people to disparage them but to make a point about the weird atmosphere of the room… and to encourage wilder breakfast eating everywhere! I’m sure it wasn’t them, it was me.


  4. Charlie
    Posted November 15, 2006 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Great entry. I observe people as severely as yourself. It’s sad…but very entertaining nonetheless. Some people do get it though; I sometimes feel I’m a little harsh because I do know interesting people, and some of them aren’t that bad. Regardless, you made me laugh :).


  5. Emily
    Posted November 15, 2006 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Whew….heavy. I wonder if Mozart was consciously trying to evoke a sense of unattainable escape or even transient fulfillment ultimately dashed to smithereens while writing his piano concerto in A major? He was only thirty at the time he composed it. I suppose he could’ve been jaded enough. Or perhaps it’s just a 21st century pianist projecting his pathos onto his art (?) Either way, I really wish I could’ve had that metaphor in mind upon hearing the piece last weekend.

    On an unrelated note, the Huntington is such a lovely place…….freaky flatware habits and grouchy utterances from your fellow breakfast diners, notwithstanding. Next time, stumble down the hill to Dottie’s True Blue Café. I think you’d find the clientele and the general vibe a little more to your liking. And….it was nice to (briefly) meet you backstage.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted November 16, 2006 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    The new TV promotion, as voiced by the gentleman who does movie trailers:

    “Earth is in shambles and only one man can save us now…Jerjer Denk. Restoring the world one note at a time. Coming summer 2007.”

    Oh, and a great post, too. 😉

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 16, 2006 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m a professional clarinetist and I always feel so rude interrupting that hope in the second movement. Questions : Does one prepare the F# minor during the trill? Can you think of other examples of this from late Mozart (Clar.concerto?The other late A-major piano concerto) I think its kind of unique…

  8. Kelsey
    Posted November 17, 2006 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Ah peoplewatching. The varying relationship dynamics between couples is particularly fascinating. I tend to examine my in-laws. Once I threw water in my father-in-law’s face because he said something his wife I didn’t think was very nice, but she was going to let pass. I happened to have an open bottle of water in my hand, most of which flew across his hat and shirt front. I believe he actually respected me for the response. Oh, family.
    Your description of the music was fantastic. I don’t know the piece, but now I want to go purchase a recording so I can listen and follow along with your notes. I look forward to finding the “stuckness”.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted November 17, 2006 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Someone once said, “Hell is other people.”

  10. ubu
    Posted November 18, 2006 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    My god, that moment in 488’s second movement when the piano finally ‘sings’ the strings theme, and then, more piano, the strings themselves echo it again, that is the single musical bar I whish I could hear the moment I die. It makes me shiver with an emotion I can’t describe, probably something between the F# minor and the A major emotion…
    Thank you for this beautiful post.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted November 20, 2006 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    hi jerjer! i wasn’t offended or i didn’t mind – i just thought it was interesting point and wonder how often we are unaware of being keenly observed in beautiful and poetic prose. ^^

  12. Anonymous
    Posted November 22, 2006 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Very good article…infomational for sure…looking forward to reading some more posts placed on this topic…will be checking this page again..have saved in favorites and bookmarked…thanks

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  13. Freudian Slip
    Posted November 28, 2006 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Once you start analyzing music to this depth, you just can’t turn it off. I love it 🙂

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