Gazing Around, Denkingly

It is a stunningly beautiful, clear day in Manhattan and all the healthy people stand around on Broadway in their jogging outfits at 9:42 am, quite smug. I elbow past their toned calves and $300 headphones, humming the Berg Chamber Concerto. In Starbucks a man demonstrates that good jeans and a T-shirt can be the absolute apogee of fashion; nothing else is truly necessary. I am waltzing in my mind, with headphones of thought. Venti, please.

Sometimes I do emerge from my circling self-referential dancing to look around the world wide web, like a “real” blogger. I know I do not do this enough, forgive me!!! Several things pleased me immensely and I wanted to just throw them out there:

1. I want to give Kyle Gann a big, fat, sloppy, hymnic kiss for this:

I sprinted out and bought John Kirkpatrick’s recording of Ives’s Concord Sonata, which somehow looked to be his most celebrated work – perhaps Machlis had said as much. Once home, I had no idea what to think of it. It seemed a towering mess. I had already partly digested The Rite of Spring, which was bizarre enough, but at least its comparative repetitiveness made its oddities stick in my head. The Concord Sonata was just a mass of notes with, here and there, a tune, even a quotation I recognized. But I listened over and over and over, struggling to make sense of it. And gradually, inevitably, I fell absolutely in love. It became my favorite piece of music, and remains so to this day.

Yowza! His FAVORITE piece! Which leads me to…

2. I had lunch with charming Terry Teachout, as you can read over there. We agreed that Falstaff is the greatest opera ever written, and that anyone who doesn’t like Falstaff is an idiot. (Terry might not have literally said any of that.) Which leads me to…

3. I was as delighted as a quivering Jell-O mold to see that Alex Ross (without whom the classical blogosphere would have so much less center and soul) quoted a passage from one of my very superduper favorite novels, Pictures from an Institution. (I also dated someone from Sarah Lawrence, so it all resonates!) This same novel, in hardback, sat quite prominently on Terry’s bookshelf. Alex’s quote is about the emigre composer Gottfried Rosenbaum and his wife Irene. Later on, we learn this about Gottfried:

Falstaff was his favorite opera, and he played it so much that Constance knew even the little themes that come in, flicker their wings once, and are gone forever.

… which is, I think, one of the best one-sentence allusions imaginable. Here’s another great passage about Gottfried:

… he pointed, with a sober smile, to a painting which hung on the wall of the classroom (A Representation of Several Areas, Some of Them Grey, one might have called it; yet this would have been unjust to it—it was non-representational) and played for the class, on the piano, a composition which he said was an interpretation of the painting: he played very slowly and calmly, with his elbows, so that it sounded like blocks falling downstairs, but in slow motion. But half his class took this as seriously as they took everything else, and asked him for weeks afterwards about prepared pianos, tone-clusters, and the compositions of John Cage and Henry Cowell; one girl finally brought him a lovely silk-screen reproduction of a painting by Jackson Pollock, and was just opening her mouth to—He interrupted, bewilderingly, by asking the Lord what land He had brought him into. The girl stared at him open-mouthed, and he at once said apologetically that he was only quoting Mahler, who had also diedt from America; then he gave her such a winning smile that she said to her roommate that night, forgivingly: “He really is a nice old guy. You never would know he’s famous.”

“Is he really famous?” her roommate asked. “I never heard of him before I got here. But gee, before I got here I’d never heard of Dr. Crowley.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s famous—anyway, famous in Europe,” the girl replied. Then her eyes brightened and she exclaimed, in scorn at her own forgetfulness: “Of course he’s famous! He’s in the Britannica, in the article on Schönberg.”

Ah, students.

4. Via Gabriel Kahane, ever a source of the genius of Craigslist, the following two posts:


Date: 2007-09-19, 4:02PM EDT
I am looking for a composer who can take a small musical theme and produce a fully ochestrated arrangement. The composer should be able to emulate the styles of prominent composers from the past and present and insert his or her own creative spin and style. This will be a paid project although producers have not yet specified compensation levels …

Yes, that one is good but how about this one?

Music Composer

Date: 2007-09-19, 8:49PM EDT
Need a composer (Soft Rock & Rock Ballad)I am looking for someone who writes music. I have 30-40 songs that need music and most of them melody …

5. Finally, I have to say there are Serious Blogs, Comprehensive Blogs, YouTubeish Blogs, Deliberately Boring Blogs, and all blogs under the sun, but I think The Standing Room has an infectious, joyous quality that makes me desperately want to park illegally in every neighborhood of San Francisco. Via the Standing Room, I discovered that Joyce DiDonato has been blogging her recording project. I had one rehearsal with Joyce last May in the basement of the Met, and it was truly, seriously, an amazing musical experience and I was extremely sorry that unforeseen events prevented us from performing together. I am a huge fan.

Her blog did call to mind certain transitions that are necessary from Working With Strings to Working With Voice, certain divides of style.

Suppose you’re a garden variety Serious Pianist, you know the sort of pianist who cares about dots versus wedges in Mozart, who would never dream of programming Gottschalk, etc. etc. and suppose somebody asked you, in rehearsal, you know, how do you think such-and-such phrase ought to go? And this hypothetical pianist, in a chamber rehearsal with strings, might say something like this:

I think it goes to the middle of the third measure, and then releases to the half cadence. But I really love that harmony in the second measure and I think we should somehow “notice” it a little more.

At which point the other players might hum, hem, and possibly haw and suggest maybe the peak is in the second measure or some other interesting place … or … they might just agree and everyone can go have dinner sooner.

Now, should you ask your garden variety Serious Singer the same question, you’re more likely to get an answer like this:

I mean I really identify with this woman and my last coach told me this great story about how this song came to be composed, which was that Chausson was in Mallorca and fell in love with this Albanian waitress, and almost left his wife for her but then over a plate of couscous he really realized how much he loved his wife, and I came to realize that motivation here is complicated, like the wife wants to hold onto her love, be the fierce mother-protector, the fabulous earth-mother, but something in her heart is trapped in the past and it’s kind of YOU GO GIRL and then after she’s done it and gone, she’s full of conflicted guilt and her ex-boyfriend maltreated her, and that’s why there’s a diminuendo.

It’s a mildly different communication style. Something like the difference between the conversation you have at Staples when you’re asking for your printer cartridge and the conversations you have with your unhinged Jungian analyst. I’m not passing judgement here.

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  1. Posted September 25, 2007 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Love those Craigslist postings.

  2. Robert E. Harris
    Posted September 25, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    How does this non-musician’s brain decide what to hum in his head? Mine wanders around, sometimes parts of Don Giovanni (Leperello, “Note giorno..,” sometimes the statue’s entrance at the end, “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco…,” bits of Beethoven, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.) In my head, the basso parts are in the right octave, not like me squeaking along aloud.

    Falstaff, number one? It’s fifth: Don Giovanni, Figaro, Rake’s Progress, Maria de Buenas Aires, then Falstaff. Best of Verdi, though. (No accounting for tastes.)

    Joyce DiDonato is an amazing singer and a good blogger, too, but she has not yet bested you at bloggong. If she starts writing in heroic couplets, Look Out!

    A serious question: Sometimes abilities are divided between verbal and visual. Mathematics and chemistry are visual for me. Is music largely visual or verbal? Or is there another full realm of abilities outside this binary view?


  3. Posted September 25, 2007 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jeremy–it’s been a while–I am away and enjoying reading your blogs again–you amaze me–when do you practice??????

  4. Janey
    Posted September 26, 2007 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    your blog warms the heart and entices even the most jaded of failed poets within us.

  5. Posted September 26, 2007 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh, my goodness. I, an instrumentalist, married into a family of singers and have been trying to overcome my prejudices about these “different” types of musicians for over a decade. Different. Not worse. Different. Thanks for the laugh.

  6. Posted September 29, 2007 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Oh yes! I have long held Falstaff to be my favorite opera. I saw Leonard Warren and the Met do it in Atlanta in the sixties, and I shall never forget it. I had learned the opera beforehand by listening to the great Karajan recording.


  7. Posted October 1, 2007 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I think living in a bustling metropolis like NYC makes one think Falstaff the greatest opera of them all. We hicks down here in Texas like a bit more laid-back-wallowing-in-emotions-type-opera, not something that jumps skittishly from idea to idea. I’d take Otello any day over Falstaff! Now I will go hide.

  8. s
    Posted October 10, 2007 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    dated? humph.

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  • By Kahane on the Brain : The Chazzyverse on May 28, 2008 at 11:46 am

    […] sources and discovered that he had already gotten attention from Alex Ross (two years ago!) and Jeremy Denk, along with this fairly recent review of a Joe’s Pub concert on Sequenza21, a contemporary […]

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