Bucket of Truth

The other night I woke up from a vivid dream in which Anne Midgette was trying to prove that Charles Ives was gay using musical examples from his First Piano Sonata.

The main thrust of this dream (so to speak) was clearly a reproach: I need to finish memorizing that monster of a piece before I go off to the delightful Ojai Festival. And the second thrust was another reproach cum regret: that I have not yet mentioned Anne Midgette’s ambitious and wonderfully interactive blog on Think Denk! And welcome, while I’m at it, to Stephen Hough, an idol of mine since a long time. The musicological implications of this dream we shall abandon for the time being.

kirchner-d2.jpgOn one of the many beautiful days we have been given these last two weeks, I went to visit the 90-year-old composer Leon Kirchner, who recently broke his leg. I opened the door of the apartment; perplexed commotion and hubbub ranged through distant hallways. Wandering in the direction of perplexity–my general tendency, anyway–I came to the back room where he was lying. Just before I arrived, he had hit the good leg on something and it had set him bleeding pretty seriously; his legs were propped up on the bed, heavily bandaged.

“Leon,” I said, “you’re a soldier wounded upon the fields of music.”

He fixed me for a moment with his lucid blue eyes. I had no idea what would come out of my idiotic metaphor.

“And you’re Walt Whitman,” he said.

During the stunned pause while I absorbed this, a faint impatient horn from Central Park West was carried up to us on spring breezes. He had taken my stupid conceit and hung meaning upon it. And here I thought I was coming to offer HIM assistance in time of need. From Whitman’s hospital notebooks:

… that night at the church in the woods … previously, the silent stealth march through the woods, at times stumbling over the bodies of dead men in the road … between midnight and 2 o’clock we halted to rest a couple of hours at an opening in the woods — in this opening was a pretty good sized old church used impromptu for a hospital for the wounded of the battles of the day thereabout — with these it was filled, all varieties horrible beyond description — the darkness dimly lit with candles, lamps, torches, moving about, but plenty of darkness & half darkness — the crowds of wounded, bloody and pale, the surgeons operating — the yards outside also filled — they lay some on blankets, on the ground & some on stray planks — the despairing screams & curses of some out their senses, the murky darkness, the gleaming of the torches, the smoke from them too, the doctors operating, the scent of chloroform, the glisten of the steel instruments as the flash of lamps fell upon them … 

Around us the room once bedroom, now impromptu workshop, the corners of the TV tray crammed with CD covers, medical implements, the midday light peering dimly through the drawn curtain, scrawled scores, an electric keyboard with a well-padded chair in disuse, books upon books, typed comments for future editing huddled between those, awaiting their moment, a walker, a Bose CD player stacked with hand-burned copies of past concerts — so many notes and thoughts about notes trying to resolve themselves — the glint off backs of CDs, the question marks on the dates of past performances, the faint snore of the disinterested dog, a life’s wounds bandaged with music and then the music itself becomes the wound.

Yes, I’ve long wanted to be Walt Whitman. A poet of the piano, American, disheveled, ambiguous, over the top, God, Leon knows me so well!, and he nailed me straight onto my deepest (possibly humiliating) desires. Just when you think you’re coming to offer someone else something, they throw a giant bucket of truth onto you.

Before I can really process all this, Leon leaps into one of his amazing branching stories. It’s like a tree of life experience that you huddle under, while the rain of the present moment leaks through.

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  1. Posted May 27, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I am ashamed to say I have never heard you play. But if you play nearly as beautifully as you write, then the fields of music are in safe hands.

  2. Posted May 28, 2009 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    To rise thither with my inebriate soul!
    To be lost if it must be so!
    To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
    With one brief hour of madness and joy.
    Is this not a fabulous description of a career in piano performance?

    Is this not an equally fab description of a visit with a wonderfully insightful friend?


  3. Posted May 28, 2009 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Not to mention the performer’s practice creed:

    “O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all untied and illumin’d!
    O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
    To be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions, I from mine and you from yours!
    To find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of Nature!
    To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
    To have the feeling to-day or any day I am sufficient as I am.”

  4. Stephen Llewellyn
    Posted May 29, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Wholly agree about Anne Midgette! I spoke with her a number of times recently about the Opera Plot Twitter thingee. What a delightful lady!

  5. ahjooma
    Posted May 31, 2009 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Not a good idea to be cute infront of a
    proud old guy heavily bandaged.
    You’ll get a cold bucket of “cut down to size”.
    I enjoyed the post.

    Yes, he plays as well as he writes, Susan.
    It’s insightful and entertaining like his writing
    but also tremendously exciting and focused.

  6. Posted June 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for illuminating Ives for me today in Ojai, pointing out the existential undercurrent of his schizophrenic ragtime. Quite poetic.

  7. MJ
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink


    Your Bach Saturday night at the GLCMF was marvelous – thank you for coming to Michigan and please keep coming back! I always enjoy your playing, and especially enjoy hearing you in talks and master classes (yes, folks in the reading public, he is funny and witty live too).

    I will look forward to hearing you again in the future and to your recordings – there is more Bach in the pipeline, correct?

    Keep up the great work and blogging – you have Brendel’s Cursing Bagels beat, hands down.

  8. Posted June 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Ah! Now I see why you played the Ives #1 instead of the Ligeti Etudes. Although I kind of had my heart set on some Ligeti, that was a spectacularly bombastic performance of the Ives. I admit that I was moved to both laughter and tears. Thanks a bunch, and I hope to hear more from you in future. Now I’ve got to go get some of your CDs. Thanks again.

  9. Nimble
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Off topic, but I thought Jeremy might enjoy this excerpt:

    “One New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, I watched a steady orange flame consume an upright piano in the middle of the narrow road. My extreme pleasure was tainted only by the regret that it was not a concert grand.”

    From a cranky Slate piece trashing fireworks.

  10. Stephanie
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful schmalzy performances at the My Beethoven and My Mozart concerts at San Francisco Symphony this week. Please come back to S.F. again and soon. I think you are the greatest, most precise and emotive pianist I’ve ever seen. More, more, more. Those summer crowds did not deserve you. Come back in the regular season sometime. Wow, were you born with a little piano extending from your fingers?

  11. Patrick
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s been months now, and not a peep. Why did you not warn us you were going on sabbatical, or did I miss that?

    Please, please, begin blogging again.

  12. Stephanie Gibson
    Posted August 2, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy, do you remember me from freshman year at Dascomb? I just saw that you are coming to Oberlin in February to perform, which is really exciting. I’ve gotten artist recital series tickets there for the past few years now. I’ll plan to stop and say hello before or after the concert. It’ll be good to see you again.


  13. Janet
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy Denk doesn’t love us anymore. 🙁

  14. MM
    Posted August 31, 2009 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of Ives’ First Piano Sonata, great recital at the Highline Saturday night! LPR next time? Pretty please?

    Hope you got that well-deserved Cosmo!

  15. R. and J. Marble
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy

    We were privileged to hear you at the rehearsal for the symphony at NMSU on Friday Evening, October 30. We wanted you to know that we Las Crucens are very proud of all your accomplishments and are pleased to know that you are doing so well. Thank you for holding to the fine traditions of classical music and for sharing your gifts with the general public. It was an inspiration to watch you play the piano so flawlessly and with such enthusiasm. We wish you well and look forward to other opportunities to hear you play. Take care and may God bless you.

    Robert and Judy Marble

  16. Posted November 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    As Susan says, you write beautifully. Dreams are funny things. I have to say the ‘great buckets of truth’ you speak of are what makes life so interesting. It’s what makes you stop and think about who you are, where you are in life and what you want to be doing. It’s one of the best processes one can go through, and sometimes we do need a bit of a wake-up call or a ‘bucket of truth’ to change.

  17. Posted December 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Not an opera fan, but I found this a nice read.

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