Some More Excuses for Not Blogging

It would be silly of me, I suppose, not to link to today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review

On top of the terror of becoming a “reviewer,” it was scary and depressing to see the little bio saying “Jeremy Denk is the author of Think Denk.” The word “author” threw me, I guess, like the the word “adult”—when does a blogger become an author? (A pointless question for our time!) Second of all, if an author, I’ve been such a neglectful, slothful one.

But for a sloth, I’ve been slightly busy behind the scenes.

In case you haven’t seen them, I wrote three pieces for NPR Music on the Goldberg Variations:

Why I Hate the Goldbergs
Hannibal Lecter’s Lessons on Bach
This is Your Brain on the Goldbergs

… they were very naughty, especially the first one. Some people in the comments didn’t seem to notice that I really do like the Goldbergs, very much. There is a projected fourth essay which NPR is still waiting for (heh), in which I sum up Bach’s relationship to time, the way variations as a genre are a machine or medium for the understanding of time, the way Beethoven understood this and how he co-opted the Goldberg paradigm in his final triumvirate of Sonatas, how the infinite is always weirdly a theme in pieces about time, with commentary interspersed on why I feel like such a poser shopping at Whole Foods.

This essay has not been completed, may never be completed, due to the dastardly arrival of spring. Spring! Working on Brahms, Ligeti, Liszt, whatever, I just don’t know what to do with my happiness, and I’m composing passionate to do lists that will crumble into dust, and I began a bizarre, rambling piece in my pre-blog Moleskine (a desperate hideout for yearning clauses), a piece about three instances where I met wonderful people and talked with them for hours and then ended up somehow without anything to say but somehow it seemed something burningly had to be said and as a last recourse we ended up listening to recordings, or yelling books at each other at 3 am. This is another Ridiculous Piece I would love to write, now that I’m an “author,” about these three fateful meetings, and in true spring fashion it would mostly be about death, and hopeless incurable things, and things that really cannot be published, not on a family blog.

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A Reasonably Good Excuse For Not Blogging?

Flight of the Concord, in this week’s New Yorker.

Now, if you think I’m the sort of person who would run down first thing in the morning and buy nine hundred copies of the New Yorker (and some potato chips) from my local newsstand, you are absolutely correct.

Since the piece is an obsessive and neurotic account of making a recording, it’s interesting to note that I spent some part of Christmas obsessively and neurotically archiving old recordings of myself. I unearthed some provocative memories, ghosts of Denks past. I have updated the “listen” section of my website with a few of these live performances, with plenty of embarrassing warts. For instance, Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives was a very new piece for me when I played it in 2009 …

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And I was interested to hear an uneven performance of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze from 2010,

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I will avoid saying what parts I like and hate.

Musicians are torn between the dream of the definitive recording and the dream of the affecting performance, between the paradigms of two different media; I indulge another dream, that I can head off into a space where I’m “just” making music, in context-less paradise. A vacation from occasion and circumstance: not too likely…

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The Exciting New Kindle

When the new Kindle was announced a couple months ago, I had a revelation that I am sure everyone else already had, like most of my revelations. The sheer quantity of analysis/verbiage/content circumambulating this “event” amazed me, a mass delusion that the creation of a new gadget (comically similar to past gadgets) is something to get excited about. Or an enforced delusion, a ritual. My reward for reading all these numbing specification-speculations was a depressing awareness; I felt sure that prose about the Kindle would dwarf prose created about any single book on the Kindle.

The moral is this: we love our content delivery systems more than content.

If you do not believe me, walk into your neighborhood Apple Store. This is an act that used to thrill me a great deal—the heady smell of newly manufactured electronics, the eager acolytes in blue tight-fitting T-shirts. Everything is sterile, clean lines, rows, there is the tiny rectangle of the iPhone, the larger rectangle of the iPad, more rectangles, some standing up some sitting down, all on long rectangle tables which desire not to be seen, to be plain, glistening, polished. Anything resembling content—applications, games, iPhone cases with wacky designs—has been banished to the corner, to the basement. And you can see why, it looks bad. Content is too personal for selling here, it musses the message. A sofa placed there would be stared down by everything else, until it disintegrated out of shame. Its cushioniness is, like content, obsolete. You sense content is obsolete. The Apple Store is the opposite, the nemesis of (say) the English library, filled with dark wood and must and dust and books stacked to the ceiling and leather chairs and a desk with grandfather’s will locked in the bottom drawer. It does slightly amaze me, the consistency of the message here, and particularly the lack of desire to have anything at all ameliorating the severity of the thing, any sign of heritage or aging, and how much we love it as such.

So many happy excited faces walking in, out.

As content delivery devices become more and more important to us, it becomes more and more important that they be sleek, impersonal, industrial slabs. For God’s sake, just consider the original iPod. Now it’s a Chiclet of metal. We’ve been on a long journey from the LP with its huge cover art and from the act of laying the needle gently down on the vinyl, the scratch of contact … to this hard drive encased in polyethylene, clicking through menus, calling up files in a flash. Our wide, fat, tubed TVs have become flat ginormous screens, trying to vanish into the wall, satisfying our urge for bigness while still nodding to a national obsession with youth, slimness. There is a general desire not to have anything particularly distinguishing about the object; the device should be semi-invisible, neutral, like every other object, but somehow also status-laden (size, speed).

Think how desperately the corporate persons must be searching for new ways to sell us content delivery systems, one in every possible size, to fit in every possible nook and cranny of daily life, which at a certain point feels like humanity is eating itself, walling itself in, from the App to the much more boring Application to the operating system, walls of menus, hierarchies of ways of delivering things, ways of encountering things. Paranoiac, I found myself surrounded by menacing content delivery in my own home, phone, Kindle, laptop, desktop, TV … and lastly my eyes rested on the piano.

By now it’s probably sunk in with me that a book’s just a file. Many bleak mornings I have meditated on this. It has nothing to do with the pile of paper I used to call a book. My pile of paper was a sentimental attachment, wasteful, destructive, forest-raping. But don’t you see, in this little war of content versus content delivery … once a book is just a file, once the complete Beethoven Sonatas are just so many megabytes, etc. etc. content is suddenly looking awfully contentless? It vanishes into digital 1 and 0 existence, a great equalizer, river of electrons. With the weird consequence being, that delivery devices are more tangible “things” than the books they hold. No wonder we obsess about them, since the things we used to call things are suddenly files, endlessly electronically vanishing. Our right to them is held in a server somewhere, whereas our computers/Kindles/iPads are ours, we hold them obsessively in our hands, like lovers.

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My Debut

The El Paso airport was pretty quiet at midnight. I dragged my wheelaboard past the baggage claim, out the door where the cool desert night lives side-by-side with the heat radiating up from the sidewalks. It’s an amazingly weird airport, on a busy street filled with every fast food joint you’ve heard of and many you never want to, but as you fly in you see only wasteland, endless sand and creosotes. There is nothing, nothing, nothing, and suddenly there you are on the ground in the middle of town, as though town were a façade, barely separated from drought, a place with a soul of dust.

It was an hour’s drive to New Mexico, to my parents’ place, and so I slept the night in the Radisson, oasis astride the parking lot. It had an Italian motif, a Venetian Room (!), a sleep center. I always forget how the dryness envelops everything, changes the feeling of even your eyeballs. The water from the sink gave the hotel coffee packet a wonderfully toxic flavor.

My parents had decided at long last to leave the house I grew up in, and move somewhere with a bit less responsibility, fewer things to take care of. I was faintly jealous. They have a lovely new apartment, but additionally there is a communal dining room, with super comfy wheelie chairs, and rows of high windows–squares of blue sky. I stared at these cloudless squares. Meanwhile, I was getting déjà vu, something about this room and the sense of time unfolding and the little buffet of beverages, the coffee dispensers, the dessert cart with its pie and Jello possibilities.

I’d brought a trusty bottle of habañero hot sauce, and was therefore able to transform the presented cheeseburger pie into something nearly inedible. By the laws of my own idiocy, then, I was forced to guzzle a bladder-busting amount of water. A guy in a scooter tried to beat me to the handicapped restroom, but I showed him.

As I came back from the restroom, the déjà vu vanished into a certainty of recurrence. It was quieter, less frenetic, but I knew where I was-and-wasn’t; the last time I had been here, the here was the dining hall in Dascomb, at Oberlin. A group of regulars at tables, a bit of a buffet, some cliquishness, people coming and going to their rooms. It was like Dorm 2: The Sequel, and if the first one was a manic preparation for an onslaught of life events the sequel is about digesting them.

A piano lurked in the corner of this large dining room, far enough away that I could ignore it mostly. My mother, however, may have let slip at some meal or other that I was a pianist, and after three or so free meals at the dining room, the head honcho of the place came over. “I hear you’re a pianist,” the honcho said. “I guess,” I replied. She looked me over, said the obvious-for-her: “What do you do?” I was mystified. “Well, you’re not a professional pianist any more are you?” and I realized in a flash that at my age she considered music not something to be done any more; music was an indulgence of youth.

As a side note, let me just say that I arrived in town somewhat unexpectedly, and had not packed for a long journey, and so my only pair of shorts on arrival were a pair of gym shorts, which my mom immediately referred to as “Fancy Shorts” which they decidedly were not and which could only mean “really terrible shorts” and so I quickly headed out to Old Navy to pick up some cheap shorts to wear in the New Mexico sunshine, which I wore all week, with the result that I looked like the sort of person who waited until mid-October to buy the cheapest possible on sale shorts at Old Navy and never laundered them.

“Yes, actually,” I said, slightly gritting my teeth, “I am a professional pianist, believe it or not.” She went away.

Later she sent another representative, and really only a person with a coal-black heart could refuse to play. They wanted me to check the piano to see if it was good enough; it was an electric Baldwin masquerading as a baby grand.

For the rest of that week I did not think very much, I’ll confess, of my debut at the Golden Mesa. In fact, I was a bit blasé about the whole thing, I even was practicing and lost track of time, and therefore arrived a bit late for the starting time, which itself had been miscommunicated, so I was nearly a half hour late to begin; there was a silent and large group of waiting people there, arranged in a rough semicircle, possibly disgruntled, and I was still wearing the same shorts believe it or not because in that glorious New Mexico sunshine I could not bear to put on pants.

The first problem is that the piano was not set to be a piano. It emitted trumpet-ish bleats. I tried to explain to the crowd, sweating a bit, that the pianos I usually play on are actually pianos. They did not seem impressed. A blind man named Everett in the front row was the only one who seemed to understand, “You’re a brave man,” he said. The first button I pressed set off a deafening bossa nova. The staff of the facility rushed in to try to help, but I think at last after five minutes of struggling, I was the one who “fixed” it, randomly hitting at buttons that seemed important. Out of the instrument came something sampled from an actual piano somewhere.

As I sat at the bench, a cold terror crept over me. I realized I really had nothing to play for this situation. My mother had strictly forbidden me to play anything too 20th century in exactly the same voice as she would forbid me to stay out past 9 pm when I was fifteen. So, with a song in my heart, I just launched into the Goldberg Variations, planning to stop when someone screamed or … The action of the instrument had an interesting unpredictability, that is, it made a nice soft sound up to a certain degree of pressure, and then suddenly became incredibly loud, with a bit of distortion for good measure. It whispered or grunted. I stayed in the loud dimension, kept adjusting the volume tab on the left, realized I should certainly have done a sound check … I distinctly heard someone say “that piano sounds terrible.” Yes, there was something collegiate about their frankness as well.

After the tenth variation I just stopped. Middling acclaim. I decided the next thing in my repertoire I could try was “The Alcotts” from the “Concord” Sonata. I saw my parents slap their foreheads in the back of the room. It was a disastrous choice, but brief. The imitation piano had no discernible color palette, and the piece therefore made absolutely no sense. It was 5:10ish, dinner wasn’t until 5:30. Twenty empty minutes to fill. What would I do next? The piece I had recorded most recently was Op. 111 of Beethoven, but to play that piece on this piano would be a sin against humanity. I realized whatever I finished with had to be propulsive, impressive, I didn’t want my parents to have to hang their heads in shame in the corridors of their new home.

I launched into the first movement of the “Waldstein.” This was better. The rhythm was a crutch against the piano’s failings. I ripped a page out of my score in the excitement, it drifted off towards the door, hoping to escape I suppose. I heard someone say “he’s so angry.” If I could have drifted out of my own body! Me madly being expressive at this inexpressive electric thing was something of a spectacle, something unusual, a kind of tragicomic masterpiece. But the best humiliation was yet to come. I had deftly timed the work to end promptly in deference to dinner, but the staff did not know this. I was just rounding the corner of the coda, I’d gotten to the moment where Beethoven is tiptoeing on the dominant:

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And in perfect balletic correspondence, as if having analyzed the score and understood its most exposed moments, one of the staff tiptoed up to me, whispered in my ear, “Dinner’s in five minutes.” I say whisper, but it was audible in the next county, perhaps even in Albuquerque. There was a murmur of approval in the crowd, “that’s right,” someone said. They didn’t know the piece was just about to end; when I thundered out the final cadence

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… it must have seemed as though I tacked it on. I stood up, received a relieved ovation. Another honcho came up, submitted me to the crowd. “We would love to have him again?” he asked with a mixture of hearty enthusiasm and hesitance. The crowd applauded somewhat, there were no audible dissents. But I must have looked at him strangely. He said to me, confidentially, ”We’ll pay you.” I wasn’t offended that they gave me the dinner hook, but the idea that I was holding out for a paycheck … well it hit me the wrong way. Samuel Beckett says “against the charitable gesture there is no defense,” but there is, there is. I had to put extra consolatory hot sauce on my quesadilla. My father’s assessment was on the mark: “I don’t think they’ll lower our rent,” he said, “let’s hope they don’t raise it.” We all laughed.

In this account of an ignominious debut I have failed to express the sun-swept week that surrounded it. Friend E was there, she will tell you, there was never one cloud, only light light light, and every morning we stopped at this place BurgerTime where they serve the most perfect breakfast burritos although they unerringly screw up your order, and every morning there were no customers, just us in the car blinking at the sun and the sound of sizzling chorizo behind a screen. Then we would drive around town doing simple errands, raiding grocery stores, evaluating shower curtains, refilling coffee pods, then returning to my parents to play cards or eat or discuss the man in the dining room who loves to rearrange the chairs. For lunch there’s a different burrito place with the magic green chile melting together with shredded beef, and the girl at the counter with that soothing New Mexico accent, both somehow linkable to the way each evening the sunset makes everything purple. We walked around the house I grew up in, surveyed the Christmas trees from my youth, now grown into mammoths; who knows what the new owners will make of these improbable pine trees towering over the cacti? And one day a real treat, driving over the pass to White Sands, lying in the vast whiteness in the vast valley, a story of a lake that used to be but evaporates continuously feeding a vast lake of gypsum; a story made real, of sand that moves and swallows; of the mice with white eyes who live there; we lay on the dunes, light light light, I thought of all our helplessness in the face of the sun and the sand. In the thick of time’s erosion, in the center of its sandblasting workshop, the incredible beauty of things wrapped change in gentleness. The next day, one last visit to BurgerTime. Amazingly, suddenly, there were customers coming out of the woodwork, five cars in the drive-thru alone; E and I looked at each other meaningfully, hopefully, and then laughed; if you take omens from your burritos you have been in New Mexico too long.

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