Imagine me, bug-eyed, backstage at concert hall X, setting a tattered Xerox of the “Aeolian Harp” Etude upon a reluctant music rack. Coffee and Snacks nearby—my satellites, my enablers. Then, weeks later, imagine me again, in the confines of the tattered, storied dowager known as “The Greystone Hotel,” its halls echoing with clang and clank and whirr of drill, a chorus which whittles away my excess peace of mind and decrusts my sleepy eyes, setting a tattered oh so tattered copy of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata upon a slightly too-willing music rack (MY music rack)—if you will, a music rack of dubious and oft-purchased virtue.

What I would like to explore here is the difference between these two states of mind. Myself practicing Chopin on the one hand, and myself practicing Beethoven on the other. My twofold tattered brains. With your indulgence, I feel the only medium for this exploration is the drama. I feel certain you poor readers cannot tolerate another painstaking exegesis of my problems, and I take pity upon you. But what if the two personae—Jeremy practicing Chopin, and Jeremy practicing Beethoven—stood forth from Jeremy proper, came upon the stage, and revealed themselves, in fact, as the Comedic Types that they are? And what if, in the space of Pure Thought, and Inspiration, and all those Cloudy Beautiful Visions that artists are supposed to witness while bedunked in the Bathwater of Brilliance, what if, in that aforementioned space, these two comedic personae were able to visit with the composers themselves and various of their associates, desirable and otherwise? Well. Wait no longer. The answer to this spectacular question, naturally, follows…

a mini-drama

JPB: Jeremy practicing Beethoven
JPC: Jeremy practicing Chopin
B: Beethoven
C: Chopin
GS: George Sand
IB: Immortal Beloved

(A small living room, dominated by a piano. JPB is at the piano, practicing the fugue from Op. 106. B is wandering around the edge of the room, perusing JPB’s cookbooks. Finally he gets bored.)

B: It must be.
(JPB is still practicing the fugue, obsessively, looking rather annoyed; pretends not to hear)
B: (shouting) IT MUST BE.
JPB: (stops playing, peevish) I heard you the first time.
B: Silly me, I thought you’d enjoy having my input. I am Beethoven, after all.
JPB: (sigh) Dare I ask WHAT must be?
B: It.
JPB: A fairly general term.
B: If you have to ask, you shouldn’t bother.
JPB: At least you could tell me if this metronome marking is crap or not.
B: That wouldn’t be fair to all the others. Inside information.
(JPC enters from adjoining kitchen with a cup of tea)
JPC: Darlings, I don’t much care to know what “it” is; but this repeated use of “must” gives me the willies.
[JPC uses fingers to indicate quotations which irritates B and JPB extremely much.]
JPC: Why “must” it be, whatever it is? The imperative seems so … uncivilized. I so prefer “may” or “might” …
B: Your dancing fingers are a pretentious effeminate affectation.
JPC: You know, Ludwig, chill. Even geniuses could use some manners.
JPB: Guys … all this chit chat is “super fun” but I’m really trying to get this fugue under control, so if you could give me a little peace and quiet …
JPC: But Jeremy you promised we were going to the Apple Store today, and then we were going to have a nice massage, and maybe practice a little later in the afternoon, and then an evening walk on the beach … remember that nice time in San Diego and those delicious enchiladas and beers at 3 in the afternoon?
B: [perplexed] Apple store?
JPB: Jeremy, there’s no time. This needs to get done.
JPC: You look awfully tense, Jeremy. Just relax!
JPB: YOU relax.
JPC: [to B] can YOU reason with him?
B: I can hardly speak to him, he’s in such a state.
JPB: Well, look at this. (indicates page of music)
JPC: Jeez, Ludwig, what WERE you thinking?
JPB: Don’t ask him.
B: It must be!
JPB: Which I take to mean that I should get everything possible done as soon as possible.
JPC: Let’s see if we can’t sort all this out with some proper alignment. Let’s just start by cultivating a nice chill atmosphere in the room, OK?
[JPC goes around to the cupboard, finds some candles, lights them, finds and lights some incense, sets a lava lamp onto the music rack, a Zen rock garden, a statue of the Buddha, etc. etc. Meanwhile, JPB resumes practicing.]
JPC: Your shoulders, your neck! I thought we had that all under control!
JPB [Sheepishly]: Me too.
[JPC rubs JPB’s back and neck while he continues to play]
JPC: Breathe, breathe, lift, feel the weight of your arm. Playing the piano is a pleasure, first and foremost, a delight, a kind of extension of the fluidity of the self!
JPB: [Peevish] You try it then.
JPC: OK, Jeremy, if I must. Only if you insist.
[JPC sits, breathes, lifts arm gracefully, begins to play the fugue, soon stops.]
JPB: Umm.
JPC: That didn’t sound very good.
JPB: Nope.
JPC: Agreed.
JPB: What works for the goose cooks the gander.
[B meanwhile begins laughing from his corner of the room, softly at first, but louder and louder]
B: Boys, boys. My problems cannot be breathed away.
JPC: Son of a …
JPB: He’s no help, he only speaks in riddles.
JPC: It’s all going to work out, Jeremy, just pursue the endless circle.
JPB: I prefer to go in a straight line. It’s the shortest distance between two points.
JPC: What will be, will be.
JPB: I can’t accept that. Allergic to fateful tautologies.
JPC: Just listen to the sound you are playing right now, taste the moment, smell the roses.
JPB: But where is it going? Where are we going?
JPC: What does it matter?
JPB: The question is worth asking, it conditions the sound of the now.
JPC: The now is the now; eternal; unanswerable.
JPB: The tension of the future is contained in the now.
JPC: Or this tension is an unproductive resistance to the future.
JPB: And who’s on first?
JPC: Exactly.
JPB: But I cannot help searching for answers. Things must be solved. For instance, why was I up at 3:15 AM the other day watching that Mandy Moore vehicle A Walk To Remember? And why oh why was I tearing up?
B: I bet you didn’t know that I composed the song for that movie, right after Wellington’s Victory.
JPC: This is among the most puzzling questions ever posed. I think it’s a symptom of your difficult relationship to something or other.
[Chopin, George Sand, and the Immortal Beloved all burst in the door, apparently in the aftermath of a long night of partying.]
GS: OH that crazy Balzac.
IB: (giggling) I can’t decide if he’s ugly or, like, uglyhot.
C: Ludwig, baby, this Immortal Beloved of yours is the flirtiest chick since Marie d’Agoult before she found God.
B: Tell me about it, Fred.
(Everyone laughs, except JPB, who obsessively resumes practicing.)
B: Yeah, keep working, Jeremy. (Rolls eyes.) Margaritas, everybody?


This sense that the composer has abandoned you for the relatively serene realm of the grave and that you, who have chosen to program and perform piece X, are the only one left stressing about it: can anyone propose a name for this State of Mind, for this ongoing Lonely Predicament?

It’s like the Composer and You are accomplices in some crime, but the composer zoomed off in his getaway car of death and left you alive to take the rap. That (in sum) is what being a performer is all about. You’re the patsy.

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  1. Christina
    Posted March 26, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    if only Nietzsche had been invited along to this shindig…

  2. eire
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 3:21 am | Permalink



    This sense that the composer has abandoned you for the relatively serene realm of the grave and that you, who have chosen to program and perform piece X, are the only one left…

    (this is a brilliant articulation of the source of the indefinable and unique quality that a performer brings to his performance that makes his performance –not just the piece x–recognizable to his audience. It is like the performer is in a continual cycle of connection/abandonment with the composer, and every moment of abandonment exposes him to the audience, and they see him in that moment, and then he answers the abandonment with his independent interpretation of the composers idea thereby answering fully the abandonment, closing the space, preserving the relationship, bringing it back to the connection and then again onto abandonment. And in each abandonment it is the strength of heart of the performer (read JPBC) that is exposed to the audience and can make his performance simply unforgettable.

  3. Posted March 27, 2008 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    First of all, that’s definitely not a “show” that Mickey & Judy would have put up in their barn, let alone something that someone would turn into a stage musical – although, it could be staged as an environmental theatre piece much like Ladies and Gents which is currently being staged in the Bethesda Fountain bathrooms in Central Park. -Is there someone you could hire to sell and distribute tickets in the lobby of The Greystone Hotel?

    As for labeling that “State of Mind”, the phrase that seems to pop into my head at the moment is “An Obliged Benevolent Solitude”. Although, a phrase reminiscent of my college days also comes to mind: Practice Room Fever.

    In any case… Did you ever make it to the Apple Store? Or get that massage?

  4. Donna
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to the performance at Auer Hall tonight, whoever is playing.

  5. Taylor
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m with eire… this predicament is art. We all suffer for our respective art forms, and yet the process feeds the soul instead of destroying it.

  6. Alana
    Posted March 29, 2008 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you again for the wonderful recital at IU, and for taking some time to enlighten us further about the Concord sonata post-concert.

    Suggested Addenda to your Dramatis Personae:

    JPI: Jeremy practicing Ives
    JPB: J. Peter Burkholder, purveyor of all knowledge pertaining to Ives, Western music, and the universe

  7. David McMullin
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    This is a rather obvious point, I guess, but since no one seems to have said it yet, I’ll go ahead:

    The Lonely Predicament you describe can be avoided by working with living composers. We’re generally in no hurry to “zoom off in the getaway car…” In fact, we’ll keep the engine running for you, and even let you choose the radio station. Unless, of course, being a performer really is “all about” working only with dead guys. If that’s the case, then yeah, you’re a patsy.

  8. brent
    Posted April 2, 2008 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of what was written last year about Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith. Some theologians said this was a gift from God, that He would share Christ’s feeling of abandonment only with those most devoted to Him, that they could feel what Christ felt in His hours on the cross.
    In that sense, if anyone were to feel the indecision,urgency,frustration and ultimately the triumph that Beethoven, and maybe all composers, felt when composing, who better than those willing to devote their lives to performing music?
    Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, referred to the state of grace as his “four walls of freedom”, so maybe what a performer experiences is a Musical State of Grace.

  9. Posted April 4, 2008 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    No Denk, you’re not a Patsy. But you are a Medium. Anybody who’s really done what you’re talking about can tell you that it’s the hardest damned thing on Earth, outside of American Motherhood (now an oxymoron). You’re going down into the collective unconscious and you’re translating its very soul, using another human’s musical language. All of that for an audience that MIGHT understand a little… particularly if any of its number isn’t already a)21st Century deaf, b)preening phony, c)perverted, or d)all of the above.

    I do beg to differ with Eire, just a little. An ‘ARTIST’ is a creator, e.g. Beethoven or Chopin. A ‘CONCERT PIANIST’ as we know it, is a translator, e.g. Jeremy Denk when he isn’t hammered.

  10. Posted May 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    The composer is definitely shaking the “fickle finger of fate” at you, abandoning you and turning a silent ear as you wrench from your body and soul a fresh interpretation of their oeuvres.

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