Pitiable Performances

My excuse for not blogging is world domination. My plan: work from the core of the country, and ooze outwards.

The following map shows the fiendish ingenuity of my campaign; it reveals the Denk states:

Residents of Kansas City were assaulted by my unholy mixture of Mozart and Strauss some 6 weeks ago, in which I spiced innocence with decadence and smothered decadence in giant rivers of chocolate syrup. I promised them a severe increase in liberality of Mozart interpretation, which I would pay for by cutting indulgent ritards in the Strauss Burleske, and why not promise them the moon?, I suggested the possibility of endless timpani solos. A mere four days after that came a call from the Fort Wayne Symphony, a Call to Action, which I answered bravely in my pajamas. In between brave little blobs of oatmeal, blobs which unfortunately contained somewhat moldy blueberries, I agreed suddenly and groggily (if such a coincidence of adverbs is possible) to play Beethoven’s First Concerto. Why not, I thought. What is it, anyway, but a bunch of C major? That is my new angle: dominant and tonic are the Rocky and Bullwinkle of music, and not to be feared.

Now, of course, C major and moldy blueberries are inextricably linked in my mind. I want to call up Messiaen and tell him it’s not moss-green as he might have imagined.

Then, there was a Stravinsky interval. I supposed, karmically, I had to return to the concrete jungle, to pour some ascetic, Attic salt upon my festering Midwestern wounds. Jennifer Frautschi and I had many distended rehearsals in my headquarters. We cursed Stravinsky’s fecundity. The hours eked by in irregular meters. I munched irradiated takeout between phrases. Jennifer asked with distaste, “Jeremy, what are you eating?!”

Oh, Jennifer, Jennifer, what WON’T I eat?

And Igor, Igor, if you have three notes why must they all be five miles apart? Why are my poor exhausted hands mere jerky puppets of your disjointed imagination? I longed for smooth, adjacent notes without articulation, without acrid wit: I longed for a soothing milkshake of music, gliding down my mental esophagus, towards my awaiting, lactose-tolerant soul. My meal was wet, but my music was dry, and I longed for vice versa.

After the Stravinsky concert was a truly bizarre spectacle: a meal for the festival sponsors, in the spectacular nave of St. Bart’s, proving that if sponsors wish to drink three kinds of flavored vodka in a church, they most certainly will. All hail sponsors! The meal was pretty unbelievably great and I set to the twenty courses with a vengeance to recover all the calories Stravinsky’s leaping had cost me. I was asked if I was single (oh, yes, yes, yes) and was offered a glowing description of a recently divorced 30-something daughter who is looking for a good man. It occurred to me: if they were to consider a pianist a good prospect, then their standards must be fluctuating, or collapsing. But caraway vodka could account for their lack of judgment.

The Lord looked down on us all, feasting and boozing and matchmaking in His or Her house.

Now, now, now, back to the Midwest, to dominate the heart of the land: I headed for the Gilmore Festival in beautiful Kalamazoo. Rather than walk this town’s linden-strewn boulevards, I found myself—just as in college days—locked in a windowless, airless practice room, promising myself future rewards. Occasionally I would run to a deserted vending area and buy a tongueful of Cheetos, or program some strange machine to make me terrible terrible coffee. I would suffer through this coffee, telling myself it was a meaningful pain. Is it not beautiful and fitting that just at the most fecund, imaginative, passionate moments in our young people’s lives, we shut them up in these practice rooms to dim their latent lights? The college in its wisdom provides windows, but high up, thin, inaccessible: just hopeless hypothetical glimpses of sky.

I had agreed to play the Janacek Capriccio. My poor left hand suddenly has to step onto the Kalamazoo stage. Oh Janacek, Janacek! Perversely, most of the left hand part is in the very highest registers of the piano and one feels squeezed like toothpaste into the awkward corners of oneself. My practicing could be summarized thus:

LEFT HAND: But I don’t WANT to play a trill!
Jeremy (moderator): But you HAVE to play a trill. See, Janacek wrote it!
LEFT HAND: mffff.
RIGHT HAND: Look, it’s easy! (trills wildly)
Jeremy: See how easy it is for the right hand?
LEFT HAND (weeping): I HATE you when you compare me to him! You ALWAYS compare me to him!
Jeremy: You’re right, I’m sorry, it was wrong of me …
RIGHT HAND (gleeful): whee! See, I’m trilling, I’m trilling!
Jeremy: Right hand, stop it, stop gloating. Go to your room.
LEFT HAND: I’ll prove it to you, I’ll prove it, you jerk you jerk.

And so my left hand became a determined, competitive, embittered sibling to my right.

There was a logistical mishap. Someone didn’t tell me what the rehearsal order was, so I ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan with two and a half hours to kill. I won’t mention a name here (Tina), but it’s written in blood all over my hotel room walls. (Kidding?) Seeking succor, I walked down the street and pushed open the saloon-style doors of … Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar.

Let us say from the outset that the atmosphere was not as duelish as one might have hoped. Where the screaming, cheering audience might have been, a vast array of empty tables beckoned like receptacles for some alien race. As far from the stage as geometrically possible, a few people huddled at the bar, their hands wrapped around drinks. The empty seating area smelled of cleaning fluid and fear. My query “Where should I sit” was greeted with a rueful, sarcastic smile, and I chose a Switzerlandian table: neutral, but privy to the action, should it ever arrive. In fact, on stage was only one rather worn-looking man, with long hair that yearned to be a combover: he was not singing, or dueling, or slamming the pianos (they are called “slam pianos”!); this was the curious bit; he was repairing them, seemingly with a Q-tip.

Was this the entertainment?

Sadly, no. Eventually, the repairer was was joined by a youthful slim fellow in a backwards baseball cap. In his eager clean-cut eye I read a hieroglyphic of hope. He emanated the hooded, fraternal pleasure of innocent song, whereas the worn man, with hair astray and displayed, seemed to be song as knowledge, or song as experience. (Just TRY and stop me; I’ll slap a metaphor on anything I can.) Just as I finished eating my deep-fried cream cheese appetizers (the healthiest thing I could find to order), they began to “perform.” Youthful cap sang a polite song, as if to express the imprisonment of his hair. Worn man then turned up the volume and launched into a savagely passionate ballad in which his pitch described fantastic whorls and curves around the correct pitch, without ever touching it. The chilling coup de grace: they joined in together, and this marriage of young and old male voices was (I guess) the dueling, oh cruel sport of precision meeting disaster! It felt like sound waves had been flattened into painful, but alas not lethal, darts. My ears, inconsolable. My cholesterol count went up to 400, briefly. Climax of course inevitable: crashing chords, finito, emotive jism.

Ice tinkled, silverware clinked.

All the kind of trivial sounds of the world seemed to suddenly be heard, rebuking the preceding intensity. A random “toot” from the road completed the ironic cadence; the waitresses circled like unmotivated vultures, and the bartenders’ eyes attempted to avert themselves from the wandering tales of their drunken patrons. Despite the apocalypse of ugliness we had just witnessed, the world went on as before:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

–Auden, something or other

The white legs of music disappeared into the green water of nullity.

All six of us were survivors of a boring natural disaster. The men began their patter, to explain, to justify: “You can’t hate us, because you’re stuck with us all night.” But it was clear from reading the audience’s twelve eyes that they could hate them all night if need be. I hated them, a lot; I scribbled Goldberg Variations on a song request slip. But then, I felt evil and ashamed. From the depths of my own immaturity, I pitied them, their sad small audience, the world’s rebuke of their musical spasm.

The next day a similar sad performance occurred. Imagine a coffeeshop, with just three people in it, clutching warm cups of joe as shields against the rubbing of the world’s weird waves. From stage left, enter large large loud man. He was claiming just to get some coffee, but then, he attacked me thus: “Look at you, you look exhausted and it’s just 9 in the morning.” Ack, it was true; I slept horribly in my Radisson suite which smelled of last night’s room service. I hated the truth of his statement. Lord, I hate to be evaluated, except rapturously! “Have you ever had an energy drink without caffeine?” No. “You haven’t tried Excess Energy Drinks, have you? You’ll feel better… ” Promise me love, promise me riches, promise me fame, if you will, I thought, but don’t promise me, you bastard, to feel better; it is the seduction I cannot resist! It seemed cruel for him to victimize us, the coffee junkies! How dare he! Preying on our vulnerability, in our holy safe place!

He bellowed to the entire coffeeshop, as if he were singing Wotan at the Metropolitan, and as if Wotan were also Willy Loman. (Biff, I built Valhalla for you!) He got inspired, the more we ignored him, the more that mockery was hidden beneath our complaisant smiles. And, the more impassioned he became, the more he failed, the more he only achieved the pity of the pitiable.

Both of these performances came back to haunt me while I played the Janacek Capriccio, in the same way that a steak after 10 pm will give birth to the most incredible, exhausting dreams. The Janacek Capriccio is an amazing, impossible piece, and despite my bitter left hand boot camp I am totally wowed by it. I am in love with its infelicitous instrumentation. The poor left-handed pianist, playing in the “wrong” register; the flute and piccolo straining to be lyrical; the cloudy oompah band of low brass doing things they normally would never be asked to do.

The Janacek is written for a deeply pitiable ensemble: flute, two trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, piano left hand. After I played it, someone asked “is your right hand alright?” and I looked at her for a moment; I said yes yes and waggled it at her threateningly, fingers trembling and shaking. She went away.

The deliberate choice to write awkwardly for the players has a tremendous expressive effect. Everybody is submitting to humiliating requests, performing despite embarrassment. It is Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar, but the sadness of the audience is “factored in.” Witness polkas, marches, waltzes, sentimental songs: familiar folkish genres hug sonic happenings that are more abstruse, more drawn from outer space, from haunting Janacek-land. Life laughs at the sentimentality of the musicians, then cries. The bits of street-band music are antiques fraught with emotion; when you touch them (hear them) they give you a shiver, they tell you of generations past, of ghosts … the piece often feels like an empty, haunted room … Janacek leaves space open; he wants some vacancy, to people with ghosts, memories, or possibilities.

One of these memories is clearly a beer garden band, oompahing. With the accordion wheezing. Maybe a waltz? Oh, it’s so hard to settle yourself; Janacek won’t let you sit down; he won’t let you perform with comfort; an idea, a memory, never has time to get comfortable, to stretch its legs. He perpetually crossfades from fragment to fragment; every performer appears awkwardly, stumbles on stage, duels with absurdity …

I guess the sadness of the performance in the coffeeshop was (among other things): doesn’t this guy have more of a life than to try to sell energy drinks to random tired people in coffeeshops? But he is brave to do so, and reveal his sorry pass. And then the balding man who sang so out of tune in Mojo’s, he too was delusional and brave, throwing his voice and his feeling out to an empty, undeserving room.

There is a brave turn at the end of the Janacek. After a tremendous chromatic collapse, the ensemble braces itself, dares the impossible, gets its act together. The one-handed, crippled pianist, having spent himself in the chromatic cadenza, waits while the “orchestra” collects this brave thought. Though the last movement is fraught with angst, with difficult harmonies, with anxiety and yearning, somehow Janacek wrenches the end around, in a kind of rotation of inspiration, creates a last shining turn to D-flat major, to resolution and pride. This D-flat cadence is pretty unbelievable; it is very complex for a cadence; a kind of gritted, ground-up, generated joy. The pianist is playing at the top of the piano, with his one hand goose-stepping triumphantly in the pathetically wrong place. Yes, I’m with you, the piano says. Let’s perform (no matter what). We are all joyous, yes, at last; but it is not easy, it is never easy.

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  1. jim
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Merci.

  2. Posted May 27, 2008 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Wonderful- you just made it worth getting out of bed already…

  3. Posted May 27, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Ummm. that was supposed to be a compliment but it looks different in print…. perhaps I was a little premature in getting out of bed after all!

  4. Posted May 27, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    i was admittedly hoping for a reference to your sacrificial offering of your right pinky’s epidermis to the waldstein sonata. then again, if it’s world domination you seek, i suppose a pinky is not so much to sacrifice.

  5. William
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure 12 other people will post this, but the Auden poem is “Musée des Beaux Arts,” one of my favorites.
    Thanks for your beautiful words.

  6. Donna
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I cherish Grand Rapids only because I gave a bad conference paper there once and found my favorite (and only) pair of red and black striped thigh-high stockings at a vintage store.

    Who tries to sell caffeine drinks in a coffee shop? Coals to Newcastle. He should have tried a bus or train station.

    I support your quest for world domination– a world run by musicians would be quite an improvement.

  7. Posted May 28, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    lol thats just hilarious and reminds me of my favorite quote from family guy.

    “i like you. when i rule the world your death shall be quick and painless”

  8. brent
    Posted May 30, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice to be reading your blog again.
    Good luck with the world domination thing.I recommend concentrating your efforts on the Web,i.e. this blog. With the Internet’s worldwide range,translations into almost any language, speed of light capability and your own quick wit that’s not much slower, it’s only a question of when, not if.
    Glad you’re back, regardless

  9. Taylor
    Posted May 31, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Fabulous reading, as always. Thanks!

  10. dkz
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    >bowing deeply

  11. dan
    Posted June 2, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Since you mentioned coffee I feel I can make a comment, although unrelated to this post…..

    Thanks for recommending Blue Bottle in SF. I was there recently and on your recommendation I make the trek, as it seems we are similarly, unapologetically, unconditionally addicted.

    I haven’t heard you play in a little over a year, but I feel closer to you now. Wow was that stuff great….. Thanks

  12. claire karoly
    Posted June 4, 2008 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    you need a personal assistant on this path to world domination. i am but a poor starving voice student, ready to bring you starbucks every day!

  13. Sydney
    Posted June 10, 2008 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Assaulted by Mozart and Strauß?! How can you say that? It was delightful. And with that, I am off. BUM BUM (lower pitch) BUM (back to original pitch) BUM!

    PS – Had you played some Rachmaninov, you could have made reference to Rachy and Bullwinkle instead. Shame, shame.

  14. Janet
    Posted June 11, 2008 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Here’s another plan for world domination: Conspire with Alex Ross to lure unsuspecting innocents to your blog. Write frequent, winsome entries until they are utterly addicted. Then stop posting. This will turn your host of readers into zombies who will obey your every command if you feed their addiction.

    But you wouldn’t do that, would you?

  15. Posted June 25, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I heard you play recently in St. Paul and thought you’d want to see this story on MinnPost.com. Here is a summary and link:

    SPCO’s managing director retires as illness returns

    After recent triumphs, including an acclaimed return to Carnegie Hall and a headline-grabbing hire of renowned conductor Edo de Waart, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was dealt a stunning blow Tuesday when president and managing director Bruce Coppock announced his retirement, effective immediately, because of a return of the rare form of cancer he was initially diagnosed with in 2006.

    SPCO Concertmaster Steven Copes said in a statement that “it will be a great, almost impossible challenge to find a leader with Bruce’s exceptional intelligence, drive, creativity, and especially his love and knowledge of music.”
    You can see the full story from MinnPost:


    Susan Albright
    Managing Editor

  16. abcde
    Posted September 4, 2008 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Musee des Beaux Arts. Title of the Auden poem. It’s where Peter Breughel the Elder’s painting of Icarus is which inspired the poem…

  17. Jean-Pierre
    Posted September 13, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    This made me smile. Hope you are well.

  18. William
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    “dominant and tonic are the Rocky and Bullwinkle of music, and not to be feared.”

    Ahahahaha. That’s great.

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  • By Why I oughta… « Pieces of Moments on May 28, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    […] I oughta… In thinking about Stravinsky (noted here and here) I have remembered how ardently I wish for a hard core reenactment of the ????? […]

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