An Artist in Residence Eats Breakfast

I set forth into the sunny morning with purpose. I am (after all) an Artist in Residence at the Gardner Museum. My hotel is slightly too posh, kind of annoying yuppie old-school. The room keys are brass, huge, pocket-consuming. A man in hat and uniform stands by the elevators; he says good morning to my back as I walk out the door. I don’t have time for him. I am thinking of a thousand forgotten tasks, failings, instances of non-adulthood, and I am thinking a horrible thought: being an artist can’t forgive everything.

To exit this loop of artistic self-recrimination, I remind myself: Richard Wagner had a fetish for silk underwear, for pink women’s panties. For God’s sake, he sent Nietzsche out to buy the underwear for him! I can’t believe this is true, that it’s not something I just dreamed. I could totally have dreamed Nietzsche in Victoria’s Secret buying silk panties for Wagner—before meeting Schopenhauer at Cinnabon. How come this didn’t come up in Music History 101? If I had a class of smiling innocent undergraduates, all beamingly in love with Classical Music, that’s the very first thing I would do in the very first class: I would lay out the whole sordid story, then play them some of those hyper-masculine funeral marches and rousing choruses while holding up a pair of pink panties.

I start walking down Mass Ave. My left hand falls to my left pocket—nothing there but leg. Two days ago, my phone entered an insoluble loop. It becomes aware that it has been plugged in, but it cannot make anything of this circumstance. It will not charge, or evolve; it has only useless knowledge that power is coursing through it, reflected in a icon for thinking, then a ghostly battery, then darkness, then screen scramble. Repeat cycle. Uncanny: I was an atheist until my phone began to understand me; now I have the disturbing sense that God may actually exist, that he has plans for me.

Phoneless, I cannot Google pretentious coffeeshops. So I rush immediately into Starbucks, as if it were the only coffee for miles. I sit with my Very Berry coffee cake and do the Ken Ken in the New York Times. But how can an artist in residence do Ken Ken and eat cake in a heartless coffee chain? I flee. I head down Newbury. Only twenty seconds further is a bookshop cafe—salvation! I’m burning to read Kafka’s Amerika. I run back to the shelves, but it is not there.

Meanwhile, in the cafe area, a woman alone in a booth is complaining. No one has taken her order. The black-shirted waiter is unperturbed. “Did you read the sign at the front?,” he asks. His question mark has no meaning, it is just protocol. He cares not whether she read it, or no. “Please wait to be seated, it says,” he says to her. All day people wander into this bookshop without reading the single sentence at the door. It is not her sins but humanity’s he is enumerating, and he isn’t going to go all fire-and-brimstone on her, no no, he isn’t even conceding he’s upset, except to express through his tone the utter lack of faith he has in her as a customer. She defends herself, claiming she’d told the guy at the front. “He probably thought you were waiting for someone,” the waiter says, with no hope that the customer could ever be in the right. “I’ll try to get over to you and take your order,” he says, turning away.

This puts me in an awkward position, my butt almost on the cushion, a criminal but for some small resistance to gravity. He approaches.

I decide to take an aggressive stance, difficult to do half-seated.

“I’m not entirely sure what the procedures are here,” I said, putting all the pent-up stress of the last week of my life into the sarcasm of the key word. But he’d seen sarcasm before. Against my implication that he was an anal Fascist he was unmoved, a perfect brick wall. “The sign at the front reads please wait to be seated.” Pause. “However, at the bar it is first come, first served.” Two other people were at the bar, leaving twenty empty seats. He wanted me to know a vast structure of irrelevant rules existed.

It came time to order. “Huevos rancheros,” I say, “But can I sub something in for the plaintains”? “No, that’s not possible,” he says, with no hint of apology. “They’re very picky back there.” Back where? I didn’t need Amerika; this cafe was becoming more Kafkesque by the moment, with a shadowy they behind the scenes. I try to throw in a curveball, something Kafka could not have foreseen: “well, how about the southwestern burrito?” A withering look contorted the waiter’s face. No, not the bemused grimace suggesting it was not their best dish. It was infinitely more than that. It was “how could you not KNOW that our southwestern burrito is terrible?” There was moral judgment of my quick abandonment of the rancheros; I was a fickle customer, jumping ship over an unwanted side. Life, he implied, sometimes came with sides you didn’t want. Like when you have suddenly the career you’ve always wanted but it comes with levels of stress you never quite expected, and that you don’t know how to tame.

The gentleman to my left asks for his check. The waiter stops what he’s doing, and instead of responding, stares into space for ten seconds. The man grows uncomfortable. Finally the waiter says, in a tone of absolute weariness and impossibility:

“I have absolutely no idea how I would go about doing that right now.”

The customer laughs nervously, waiting for an explanation. Eventually the customer blurts “well I only ask because I have to get to work” … as if he had to justify himself, apologize. The waiter glowers. My mind reels in this world of reverse responsibility. No progress towards a check. At last a manager emerges from the back, and through his intervention we learn the missing fact: the computer system is down. He is a heterosexual, slightly shorter version of our waiter. They are astoundingly similar. But one radiates pure artistic snippiness, the other boring efficiency.

“I’ll pay cash,” the customer says desperately. The manager claims it should be only five minutes till the computer restarts, but the man wants to make his escape. I don’t blame him; the woman in the booth has vanished long since.

All my worries about life are beginning to fade away. I am entranced. The waiter must now create a receipt by hand. He searches out a notepad, rustles around for a pen. He makes a wonderful show of consulting the menu to see what everything costs, flipping the pages, holding his face close to the pages as if made nearsighted by inconvenience. With what delicious sense of injury, with what spectacle of martyrdom he implies that numerical concerns are below him! My head gets hot, flushed with coffee and appreciation. I remove my Cookie Monster hat. The waiter gazes for a good three seconds at my ungodly bed-and-hat-head, to be filed among so many other disappointments.

The rancheros arrive. They are delicious, the tortillas crispy, the sauce tart and hot, the plantains decadently burning the roof of my mouth as I wolf them down. I begin to realize it may be a long time before I decide to replace my phone. The emptiness in my left pocket is pleasant, a liberating death. I recollect all the stupid text messages I have sent over the last six months, all their emptiness and all their striving to be what they are not. I have a real doozy of an Artist in Residence notion, to make a poem or a piece or some absurd pretentious installation out of my least favorite text messages. I will write one of the world’s most annoying blurbs about my installation. Analyzing them, in all their half-assed failure to communicate. All the ways in which I have allowed technology to scatter my forces, to email myself to a million recipients and get nothing back.

These thoughts go on and on as I eat, maybe twenty or thirty minutes. The waiter comes by and refills my coffee. At last I too require the check. The computer is of course still dead.

“The computer’s down, but it’ll be back on in five minutes,” the waiter says in his best heterosexual accent, his eyes rolling leftwards towards the manager’s office. An iceberg of sarcasm over an unfathomable ocean of employee resentment. If I’m not entirely mistaken, he’s warming towards me. He makes my receipt by hand. I leave him a twenty, ask him to just give me two dollars back. I gather Cookie Monster, my bag, my thoughts, my jittery soul, I make to leave this place.

“Do you need your receipt?” he asks as I’m leaving. I shake my head. He grabs it, stuffs it in his apron. I look at him quizzically—why does he want my old receipt?

“…I want to use the paper for the next one.”

I try a wild gambit. “Oh, too bad. I thought you wanted a memento of our time together.”

He is manipulating limes, glasses, forks behind the counter, doing a million waiter things all of which seem to be unnecessary. He does not look up. He says “you can tell yourself that if it will help you get through the day.” I am silently giving him the Bitchiest Gay Man Of All Time Award, smiling; I walk outside with a spring in my step; this Artist in Residence is in love.

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Not Again

It’s not my intention to let this blog deteriorate into a series of self-regarding announcements. I would prefer to spin off a sort of house organ, let’s call it Denk News, or something, which would have the responsibility of reviewing my own concerts, telling everyone all the wonderful things I am doing, the recipes I am considering making, etc. etc.

But the launching of Denk’s organ may take some time. In the interim, without any meta- or irony or postmodern-whatever-other-trappings of the 21st Century Musician, I have to admit I am very very excited to appear on Fresh Air today. From the moment that Terry Gross’ voice came over the headphones in the ironically airless and stale studio, I was transported, I felt changed into a kind of latte-sipping Volvo-driving Avatar of myself.

Seriously, I am thrilled that she found the album compelling enough to listen to, and talk about. She asked me very simple and profound questions, by which I often found myself stumped. Feel free to tune in and mock me for my stammering flights of fancy.

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Something for Nothing

I don’t know for sure, but I think it might be nearing the last day to stream Ligeti/Beethoven for free on NPR. So break out the champagne, set out the canapés, dim the lights, pull your honey closer to you on the couch, let your arm drift around his/her shoulders, and put this album on; you are sure to get a reaction.

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Immortal Schubert

After the day of manic joy and sunshine and desire, the last thing I wanted was to go into Carnegie Hall with all the Schubert and the syphilis and death. But Mitsuko is a genius, what’s more a generous genius, and to hear her play the three last Sonatas in the storied hall—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s what I told myself. These once-in-a-lifetime experiences can really play havoc with your schedule.

I arrived at the perfect moment, almost too late, congratulating myself for my artsy tardiness, and found myself in the front row of a box. As I peered over the edge of the box and (as always) contemplated pre-concert suicide—would my plunge attract more publicity than Yuja Wang’s dress at the Hollywood Bowl?—I suddenly, desperately craved ten minutes to decompress, to come to an understanding with the dark lush carpet, the gilt proscenium, etc. The event felt impending, like a tornado. My neighbors to left and right were friends, people I could be an ass around, but behind me was a charming Japanese woman, an innocent bystander, and I knew in my fluttering spring heart that I dare not, must not ruin the concert for her. The lights dimmed; Mitsuko walked on; with all the theatre of the crammed stage seating and rapturous ovations and extremely low bows, I found myself frozen rather publicly in a scene I had no business being in, like Jennifer Aniston wandering into the Ring Cycle. The first chords came. I tried to sit calmly; but all day Nature had been telling my body to take counsel from the breeze.

42 hours earlier: Brooklyn 1 AM, on a quiet stretch of 5th avenue, South Slope. A bar, of course; some light, not much; my eyes were drawn to a row of retro figurines on an impossibly high shelf, before swerving towards the inevitable chalkboard, listing hipster pub pies. I’m reaching down in the dark beneath my feet for my bag. Everything is falling out. The bag, structureless, my life. As multiple notebooks go flying on the floor and a few receipts and maybe my Kindle I think, yes, this has all happened before and it signifies and it is inescapably comic slash tragic. The soft leather of my bag on the filth of the bar floor is eloquent. At some point after I ordered and consumed the Thai Chicken pie and then coated it with a red slathering of sriracha—the chronology is uncertain, collapsing—certainly after the third gimlet, I was pulling Roland Barthes out of my bag: Fragments of the Discourse of Love. A book X (my companion) knew and loved. I always have urges for Barthes fans. My idea is that they will follow certain pleasures to the end, to the last nook, comma and cranny.

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

… so says Roland. However, here in Brooklyn, X and I (and X’s dog, I forgot to mention) are having language difficulties; we’re at the end of conversations we’ve had before, in verbal quandaries which keep dead-ending on voids, heavy with “umms,” impasses where the voice is squeezed by the brain’s unwillingness to go on. This is a totally classic, typical X and I moment, this breakdown of communication. Unfortunately I am only able to read the meaning of this non-communication vaguely, and it is surely informed and mistranslated by my wishful thinking, itself conflicted, which is probably crap and all of this infuriatingly, Heisenbergishly impossible to know, because if I break the silence and say do you want to be together or not, our precious vague equilibrium will be destroyed, and the question mark of our relationship will fade away into the sky like a lost balloon. 

So, I respond to the breakdown by reading from a book about breakdowns. I am reading loudly; a disapproving glare radiates from the rest of the bar.  Even through my pie-vodka haze I realize I am flirting via literary theory in Brooklyn, how ridiculous, I disgust myself.

At 2 AM I gaze up at the night sky, steady myself against the distant stars, and think: do they not have clouds in Brooklyn? (I had a belligerent sense of borough inequity) … those bastards, all they have are adorable dogs and cheap bars. It was true. My bill had arrived, for a mere $26, which seemed like it might even be a crime in the city of New York. As I slouched around the back seat of a cab which I must have gotten into at some point, I wondered why Brooklyn seemed vast but I’m always in the same area of it. I thought of dog and X, framed in the street, odd affecting couple, as the cab pulled away. Cabs are always pulling away, it’s such a drag.

Back to the recital. I made it to intermission. This involved following Schubert down all sorts of winding harrowing paths. The harrowing wouldn’t have been so bad, but the winding was really too much. Schubert/Mitsuko would do some ridiculously beautiful assembly of devastating chords, and I would forget everything that the world had ever dumped on or around me, and vice versa, but then S/M would start up some development of said thing and you know how Schubert’s developments are: branching, exhaustive. I wanted things, not iterations of things.

At the break, I let myself be led to the Donor’s Lounge, where you get free treats for having survived thus far. A dubious refuge, this room of clumps and whispers. My friend was sensibly trying to drag me into the normal world with a conversation about grocery stores, after all this was a room set up for conversations, but I was thinking about the room itself. How in this place commentary and critique are concentrated, and yet also forbidden. How you cannot say what you think there, really, for fear of being overheard, but all the thoughts are there, lurking over the tureens of coffee and the cups all arrayed and the catered desserts. Spring was a devil in me, a phrase was born in my mind, and I wanted to scream it to all the whispering crowd: “Think of Schubert in his little room! In his little room!” Did he compose in his apartment? Was it little? Anyway, never mind the facts, I didn’t want to end up like Schubert, in the little room, in an ever-narrowing set of circumstances, writing these ever-larger, rambling works, testing out every set of possibilities as if everything were still possible for him. I wanted to destroy the manicured sweets everywhere. How could you listen to the A major Sonata, and all it entailed, even miserably like I did, and then eat a cookie? But I ate a cookie.

The cheery bells rang for us to return.

50 hours earlier: Sitting at dinner in TriBeCa with an artist I have always wanted to meet. Let’s call her Y. I’m asking roundabout questions, awkwardly dancing around the central, unanswerable one: how did Y become Y? Beautiful coincidence of integrity and fame (not unlike Mitsuko’s). Infuriating how each artist must create a blend/brand of artistry/celebrity/existence their own way, how there is no guided path, except falsely and smugly in retrospect. Y is asking politely, how did I become me; my answers are partial, ridiculous, full of what you might call the idiocy of self-ness. An exchange of stories, but no rapturous communication. But some time later we are back in her apartment. She puts on a record. She begins to dance along with the music; one sort of self vanishes; as I watch her body come into motion, it’s clear: there is where it is, whatever we have to discuss. Instead of talking, we listen to music she admires; we are both, in a sense, struck dumb; we become puppets, on the string of sound coming from speakers on the wall.

As Mitsuko sunk from the gorgeous tonic to the even more spectacular submediant via that unearthly death-trill, I connected X and Y. I should have been thinking about Schubert, perhaps, but who knows what inner deadlines govern the brain? I found a shared meaning between the pulling-out of the Roland Barthes at 2 AM and the turning-on of the stereo: at the point when conversation fails, art comes out. Art’s a tool for emergencies, a replacement, a pacifier. We look at something together and hope the same electricity flows through us both, revives our flagging connection. The combination of these events suggested an unusual definition: art was the failure of human communication.

Perhaps it is impossible for you readers sitting there in your comfortable internet-surfing pajamas to really appreciate the weird difficulties this thought caused me, sitting in the front row of the box thinking I must not move, must not disturb the Japanese woman. But it was terrible/amazing, the way this thought interacted with the present moment. It made me want to lie down on the floor of the box and begin gurgling or whimpering. With the same feeling that you have in a horror movie when you realize the killer is actually the friend you’ve been confiding in the whole time, I realized that this last Schubert Sonata, the very one I was listening to, in the plush prison of the box, was also a form of communication breakdown, a piece about, a piece containing, a piece riddled with these same impasses. Down to the very fact that it was failing to communicate with me, this Spring day, and therefore causing me all kinds of discomfort, so that its beauty made me feel haunted and miserable … (thereby communicating perfectly in its failure) …

With alarming clarity, I was sent back some ten years, to when I was working with 85-year-old Leon Kirchner on his second Violin Duo at Marlboro. The violinist and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to communicate this rambling Mahlerian jazz riff to the public: basic things, like the big tempo relationships, the balance between piano and violin, where to play less and where to build to a climax, how to give a vivid shape that the world at large will perceive. As I recall, Leon was impatient with our questions about these issues. He was obsessed with the articulation of a few fast notes in a few measures in the piano, for instance; he was sure the whole piece would collapse if those few notes did not get “spoken.” Some days he was freakishly sensitive about the timing of one transitional Adagio measure. This would have been fine, perhaps, if his priorities didn’t seem to shift day to day, whereas ours seemed to us (of course) steady and unwavering. Maybe this is just a cliché of cross-generational angst, but sometimes working with the elderly you get these severe communication breakdowns: obsessions with a few key points that have already been said, but which are important to them; and the seeming conflation of detail with essence. As performers, we were torn between thinking of the listener, how to communicate this composer to the world, and thinking of the composer who doesn’t care about the world that much any more.

Mitsuko was rounding the end of the exposition. Instead of the somewhat celebratory increase of energy that often accompanies the arrival on the dominant in the Classical Style (the quintessential example being the virtuosic cadential trill in a Mozart Concerto), you get a pleasant dancing idea which behaves itself up to a point. Then in its second iteration (there are always second iterations ack!), it modulates itself into a quandary. It gets lost, and as the harmonies get lost, the dancing idea stumbles into silence. It keeps stumbling into silences; it creates a new idea that also keeps breaking off into silences, places where the pulse becomes threatened, impossible to perceive; Schubert is not interested in communicating pulse. At the far end of this breakdown come two lonely cadenzas:

Usually the end of a section is a place of fullness, roundness, replete with arrival. Obviously these unharmonized, yearning, falling melodies don’t care about their structural function, which is to show the place where they are. Though they are in the dominant key, i.e. “the right place,” they do everything they can to seem lost.

These weirdnesses in Schubert are not failures of decorum, like the revolutions of Beethoven. These are deliberate failures of communication, slackenings of the narrative, digressions for the sake of digressions; the priorities of the world are not its priorities.

Permit me one more annoying flashback; then I will be done. 78 hours pre-recital, I’m sitting at the farmer’s market (!) with companion Z. Need I mention, a beautiful perfect day, a ridiculous undeserved Spring day. Just the breeze itself would have required odes upon odes. I’m wearing my excellent favorite sunglasses, savoring the unusual experience of just sitting on a park bench, when companion Z turns to me and says “It’s too bad they can’t cure my cancer.” Too bad. It takes me a few moments to do something in my brain, like set the furniture back where it was supposed to be with shaking hands. I’m seized up, cramped by this understated phrase, in the fucking farmer’s market … the same thing as certain thrown-away moments in music, the unassuming phrase trying to hold back something bigger. By us walks one beautiful couple after another, a series of 20-somethings, looking lovely in their sunglasses and brunch outfits and looking a bit bored with all the leisure time stretched in front of them.

Z and I got together again two days later. We had dinner, talked for a long time, and then—I bet you saw this one coming—when the conversation seemed at an end, we ended up in his apartment, listening to recordings. Both silent, both listening. Hofmann playing C minor Nocturne, at Carnegie Hall. What is Chopin saying to the two of us? Too bad, I can’t know exactly. We may both say, that was beautiful; it may be for different reasons. Who knows what is beauty to him, now, incurable?  And for me, still hoping for cures, hoping to be stricken again with stupid incurable love. I rifle through Z’s papers, I feel in my pocket for my phone, I watch the cabs going down Columbus outside, any impatient thing I can get a hold of, I can’t just let this beauty run over me … I need to be it, own it, or something. But looking in Z’s eyes I read a dark communication: beauty is not something that ends, but your ability to experience it ends. And a question: is the immortality of the works you love a comfort?

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