The woman down the hall is angry. She believes I have allowed someone else into my apartment: someone incompetent at best, perhaps a child or a murderer. “No,” I say, “it’s Anton Webern, the composer of the Second Viennese School,” but she does not relish the information.

I was in the N train, on my way to Astoria. A man with a guitar got on at the last Manhattan stop. Doors closed; the train hit the tunnel, accelerated. The noise grew, the train clattered and shook; I and a few scattered hipsters flew under the East River. For some reason, my brain chooses these moments to ask itself: where am I? I scanned the lit train and glared at my pale reflection in the window and at the dark movement of tremendous speed behind that.

Just at that moment—when, in the claustrophobic roar, it was impossible to hear anything—the guitarist began to play. He strummed gently, making no effort to project; and he apparently sang. Since he was standing quite close to me, I thought I could make out occasional glimpses of his voice—an operatic wail, some lonely Spanish vowel, or downward sprechstimme slide of pitch—fragments which I mainly had to construct out of my imagination.  And then after that strange, mostly mute, implied minute we emerged, climbing onto the elevated tracks. I no longer saw my own reflection, but in its place the sky, which was a wonderful dark dark blue, the last stop before black. Yes, there was a world consisting of buildings and people.

As if recognizing that, the train calmed, its tunnel noise subsided. And that, of course, was his cue: as soon as he could be heard, he stopped playing. He was suddenly aimless, like an actor without a motivation.  But as we pulled up to the first Queens stop (to my amazement) he began to offer CDs for sale. I was sorely tempted.

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  1. Posted June 2, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    You go, Webern-player! I love the Variations; there are so many interpretive puzzles in phrasing vs. the liberally sprinkled rests. Everytime I play that piece, I’m surprised at how many people are highly disturbed by it (and sometimes I wonder why that is: It seems to me that it’s just a very personal and honest piece. It’s certainly not sensational, like the Rite of Spring, and it’s even more understated and personal than something like Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, which have these expressionistic moments that I could understand people being disturbed by, but I never hear as many disturbed reactions as with the W V. I’ve been meaning to play Lachenmann’s “Guero”, and I imagine that might be an equally disturbing piece to these folk, but I have no anecdotes on that as of yet); I played W’s Variations about a year and a half ago for a church service that had to do with freedom vs. bondage, Oppression, Moses, etc, and even though services at the church had the occasional Messiaen organ piece, or Peter Maxwell Davies choir piece, the Webern Variations were one of the most highly disturbing musical moments to the regular Jane or Joe. One person said she could hardly tolerate listening to it, that she desperately wanted to flee the sanctuary, but was singing in the choir immediately afterward, and felt that she could not.


  2. Sheri M
    Posted June 2, 2007 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I like these characters, Doppler Man and Muggle Neighbor.

  3. Posted June 3, 2007 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    My neighbors hate me, and I don’t even play the Webern. For the past few months, my repertoire has been strictly “normal sounding” – Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner. And yet, they hate me.

    Any advice? I’m not allowed to practice before 9am or after 8pm. To quiet the piano down for the daytime, I’ve tried everything: mattresses on the wall, thick carpets, foam inside and shoved underneath the piano, blankets on top. It’s now so quiet that I can’t play louder than mF.

    And yet, they hate me.

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