Exclusive Interview with Jeremy Denk: May 3, 2011
Rel. 4 Jan 2011
On Monday, April 18, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with acclaimed American pianist, and popular music blogger, Jeremy Denk - who has released two highly-praised solo CDs within the past six months: late-2010's release of piano sonatas by Charles Ives on his own Think Denk Media label, and early 2011's release of three partitas by J.S. Bach on the Azica label. The Ives CD in particular has received effusive praise for its commanding performance of the monumental Concord Sonata. In this broad and fascinating interview, Mr. Denk discusses the impetus and thinking behind his Ives and Bach recordings, and how they tap into his own musical aesthetic. The two also discuss Mr. Denk's view of the pianist's role in elucidating challenging repertory to audiences, his views on Bach interpretation, his thoughts on writing his popular blog, and much more. As a special treat, our feature includes a FREE STREAM to all visitors of Mr. Denk's complete new Ives album, along with a broader 1-Click Playlist featuring music by Mr. Denk - as a soloist and chamber musician, a set of videos, and a sampling of his writing, namely the extensive Program Notes to his Ives release. Don't miss this terrific interview with one of today's leading musical voices!
“If there's one thing I feel very strongly about, it's that there shouldn't be a distinction between pianists who play Ligeti and those who play Chopin. It might seem that they involve different skill sets, but I don't think that's true: whether playing Ives or Bach or Beethoven, you must bring the same imagination, the same sensitivity, and an ability to deal with same kinds of musical problems. The method behind my madness, anyway, is to keep plugging away at this idea.”
– Jeremy Denk
Nolan Gasser: Jeremy Denk, welcome to Classical Archives. You are quite the busy man these days - between your eclectic concert and recording schedule, and your episodic blogging career; it's a lot for an interviewer to take in. But let's start with some of your recent recording work, especially as a soloist. Normally in these interviews, I focus on a single recording, but in your case I'm moved to join together two distinct projects that seem, collectively, to say a lot about who you are as an artist: your January 2011 release of Bach partitas and your October 2010 release of the Ives piano sonatas. You hinted at this association when you told the New York Times last October, "Like Bach, Ives leaves a lot to the performer's imagination." Should we indeed read some kind of statement into this initial sequence of CDs?
Jeremy Denk: In many ways, I think it comes down to something fairly obvious: you don't want to record anything that you haven't spent a lot of time thinking about; and it so happens that Bach and Ives are probably the two composers I've worked on the most over the past few years. So, it's probably this practical aspect more than any deep philosophical point... at the same time, the reason that I've been playing these composers so much in recital is because I'm particularly drawn to both of them; they're such different composers, of course, but I love them both.
NG: And was there any particular rationale behind recording the CDs in the order that you did - with the Ives first and then the Bach?
JD: In fact, I already had the Bach partitas "in the can" [recorded] for a while previously - and it actually represents the way I was playing them four or five years ago. It's thus an interesting time capsule for me. I think if you ask every musician who plays Bach, they'll tell you that they're constantly changing the way they play and think about his music. Bach is one of those composers who is too great to commit to any one version. And so I spent a long time with the Bach CD - thinking about it, finishing the recording, editing it, and getting ready to release it.
In the meantime, I got very excited about the Ives project - and one day it became very clear to me: I'm playing these fantastic pieces, and I believe that I have something to say with these sonatas that's distinctive from what I've heard in existing recordings. And so the Ives began to seem like the natural first CD to release; the Ives sonatas don't have an extensive discography like the Bach partitas, and so it's easier to add a new voice to the discussion. As such, we all agreed that it would be best to release the Ives now, and then release the Bach a little bit later.
NG: Right, so you made a conscious decision to go out of the gate with something a bit more distinct, and not quite as well trodden as the Bach partitas?
JD: Yes, and you can add to that all the other terrible neuroses a musician has about recording Bach - which are considerable [laughs].
NG: Yes, we're going to get to that…
You noted how you've lived with the music of both composers for many years prior to making these recordings - enough, I'm sure, to discern various layers of aesthetic connection between them. Still, there is a deeper level of knowledge one can gain in the very intense process of preparing for and executing a professional recording. Can you share with us any palpable connections that you've found between Bach and Ives - in compositional process or technical predilections, for example, while you were making the recording?
JD: Well, there are several, certainly… I mean I don't want to suggest that they're soul brothers or something, since they are very different. But there are similarities. First of all, they both played organ as their primary instrument; and they both got in trouble with their respective institutions for making their chorales too complicated at services: it's true, a couple hundred years after Bach, Ives was getting in trouble with the New York parish, and ultimately quit [from his post at Central Presbyterian Church in 1902] because he wouldn't harmonize the hymns the way the parishioners were used to.
And, of course, Bach was a pretty audacious composer in his own right - as I think is clear from the partitas; he wasn't necessarily the stodgy master of fugues and counterpoint, but someone who had a genuine desire to shock on occasion, and to bend any genre within an inch of its life. Bach did this sort of thing over and over again, and it's only because we know his pieces so well now that this shocking element has become somewhat dulled; and this is something that I like to bring out in Bach's music in one way or another. This shocking quality doesn't really needs bringing out in Ives, but it certainly is a connection between them - since, of course, Ives liked to bend everything in the craziest possible way.
There's also the connection of the tunes they used in their music - there's surprisingly little difference between the hymns that Bach knew in a Lutheran context and the Connecticut Protestant hymns that Ives grew up singing and improvising on; and so much of Ives' compositional work was in devotion to these tunes - as acts of homage, or as wild or capricious pictures of revival or camp meetings. Both types of hymns were emblems of spiritual fervency, and this really connects the two composers as well.
When I was playing [Ives'] Concord Sonata and [Bach's] Goldberg Variations on the same program, it became very clear to me that both pieces were about transcendence, though they take two very approaches. With Ives, there something about how in the Concord Sonata he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the piece: ragtime tunes, marches, hymns, Beethoven's 5th quotes - I mean everything; it's like this wonderful Korean stew. But Ives convincingly makes the case that all these disparate materials, all these fragments rotted up - as at the end of "The Alcotts" [the 3rd movement] - coalesce into something tremendous and triumphant, a moment of unity amidst all these wildly disparate elements.
And to my mind, the Goldberg Variations is a bit of a "kitchen sink" piece as well, where Bach seems to ask, "How can I invoke every possible genre out of this bass line [as found in the opening Aria]?" He writes a French overture, a gigue, a lament, everything, all dumped in wildly different variations following upon one: light and comic ones against tragic ones. Bach too loved to shock between different moods in search of a transcendent whole… I hope that makes for a cohesive thesis.
NG: Yes, you did pretty darn well for an off-the-cuff response. And I agree, the "kitchen sink" approach of both composers likens them to one another - as well as to the older genre of the quodlibet [literally "whatever pleases", a popular genre of the Renaissance combining different tunes in counterpoint].
JD: Sure, the quodlibet is a good comparison.
NG: And, of course, much of a composer's output has to do with where they lie in the historic arc: one can wonder what Bach's mind would have come up with had he been born in 1874 [the year of Ives' birth] instead of 1685 - certainly the ability to throw everything-but-the-kitchen-sink into a work, and be shocking to the listener, was far greater in the early 20th century than in the early 18th century.
JD: Absolutely, yes.
NG: Okay, so let's dive a bit more into the Ives recording, which deservedly has garnered a lot of attention and high praise. I've seen written several times how your love of Ives' music goes back many years - at least back to your days at Oberlin Conservatory [where Denk received his Bachelor's Degree]. Of course, many American musicians identify with Ives - that "crafty crank", as you aptly call him - especially his unique and often irreverent approach to musical discourse, as we've talked about. But you've also spoken, and written quite extensively in your CD notes, on the wider story behind this rugged individual: the tenderness, the nostalgia, the metaphysics, the literary puzzles, the joyful, sassy, raw experience of music-making in his work. I'm wondering - do you think that a performer needs to be a bit of a missionary if he's going to tackle these pieces?
JD: I'm sorry to say, yes - I think one does have to be a bit of a missionary, because there's a lot of reflexive anti-Ives, or at least a somewhat dismissive, sentiment out there; even colleagues and other musicians roll their eyes when they hear the name Ives. They say, "Oh, the insurance salesman…" [Ives famously maintained a successful career in insurance, while composing in his spare time]. It surprises me because I've always felt such a wonderful attachment to his music; it seems to me that Ives' music had much more integrity and sincerity than a lot of American music from the early 20th Century, coming from a more profoundly American wellspring. For example, [Samuel] Barber is a composer I've never felt a real attachment to; it's obvious to me why Barber is more conventionally popular, and why Ives is more of a renegade - but I guess the renegade element of Ives is part of what I love about him; certainly, this is part of what makes it complicated for people to react to his music, to absorb it, and enjoy it.
NG: It seems true that anyone who would have the audacity to record the Concord Sonata needs to not only have great "chops", but also this kind of emotional commitment - and the ability to explain his eccentric approach to an audience: the bombastic use of ragtime themes, the quotes of "Bringing in the Sheaves" or "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean", as well as the quiet, intimate moments between the outbursts. So, how does one get the audience to pull back the scrim a bit and get beyond what's obvious in Ives' music?
JD: Well, it's true what you just said - that one of the classic Ivesian shapes is to first create a chaotic explosion, to be then followed by a quiet epiphany - a total dissolution, and then somehow a moment of repose. This is true of Ives in general, in the sense that he tends to make the beginning of his pieces rather difficult to take, and he likes to gradually unravel the mystery of the main theme over the course of the movement - to make simplicity the epiphany of the conclusion, which is such a recurring notion in Ives; and that's fairly easy to explain to an audience.
If you want the audience to understand all this, you can play them the tunes, and say, "Listen carefully: everything in here is a chaotic improvisation upon this idea - but gradually you're going to hear it more and more clearly. If you follow the process, you'll hear the piece as a series of wild improvisations, gradually giving way to the theme itself." And people can react to this, even though it's different from their normal expectations of musical form, in which one gets a theme followed by its development. It just takes a little attitude adjustment.
Also, you have to give the audience an expectation of a certain level of dissonance, one that they can actually revel in, to enable them to hear the beauty of certain dissonances. You can talk about certain kinds of chords that Ives loved; as an organist, he loved big, complex chords, and you've got to be able to really chew on them - to appreciate them for their very Ivesian way of resolving - or not resolving.
NG: I think this is what makes Ives such a revolutionary: it's not just the types of materials he uses, but also the overall discourse he undertakes; it's a very different approach to form, a transcendental or philosophical kind of dialogue, as opposed to the more conventional [Sonata form] exposition-development-recapitulation.
JD: Yes, this is one of the most important things about Ives: unlike someone like Prokofiev, who wrote wonderful music by stretching sonata form, Ives took sonata form and just threw it in the wastebasket; he had no use for it in his materials. Not all composers in the early 20th century were courageous enough to recognize this possibility, or to invent their own forms. But Ives did invent forms for his own purposes, one for each movement, in fact; and that's hard work.
NG: Perhaps the fact that Ives didn't need to make his career as a professional composer gave him a greater sense of freedom to take on these kinds of risks.
JD: True enough.
NG: You mentioned how it's easy to play a simple theme and explain to an audience how it might be "buried in the canons" at the beginning, and then slowly break free. Do you actually carry out these pre-concert demonstrations when you play Ives?
JD: Yes, I often give a talk, especially before the first sonata, but sometimes before for the second sonata as well - partly because some of the tunes are a bit lost to history. A little bit of context is useful, but it also allows me to lay the groundwork for the piece. I know how audacious and outrageous some of this music may sound to people who have no experience with it: they don't know that when Ives writes a rag, he's basically trying to destroy the piano; or that every measure is going to be in a different meter; or that there's an overall sense of chaos; or that you get the feeling of a party going well past its proper ending; or that the music can be experienced as a kind of assault… Clearly, Ives didn't wanted people to be able to relax too much while listening to his music; but I also don't think that he wanted just to attack you with dissonance. I think he really believed that all this was part of a more joyful and profound experience; that the sounds you were hearing were not just interesting, but had something deeper and more important to say.
NG: In many ways, Ives seems to be both an author and a painter when he composes; his works are almost like snapshots, or a photo album, of these different moments. It seems so important for him as a composer to reflect on his own surroundings - almost like a time capsule. If we want to understand late-19th century New England, we could certainly do worse than listening to Ives.
JD: Yes, a time capsule is a beautiful way of putting it - a kind of reminiscence in a Proustian way of time past, a whole reconstruction of a childhood, and a way of music making that's forever lost.
NG: Indeed, and I've read of the personal connections you hold between Ives and Proust. Speaking of Ives' intentions with regard to the audience - we know that he was concerned about his own legacy, even doctoring up his autobiography to make himself appear more of an innovator, historically speaking, than he actually was. But in the process of writing these sonatas, do you think he knew that a century later, his music would receive this kind of exegesis?
JD: I wonder about that too. It's obvious that Ives was thinking of posterity, though I think that this may have begun after he started to become better known. At the same time, he did send scores of his symphonies to Mahler and contacted other famous musicians during his early years. I guess I have to believe that during those twenty years of composing nights and weekends he had an idea that he was doing something extraordinary. He clearly knew he was doing something more substantial than most other composers of his day; plus his idol was Beethoven. So, yes, I think he had some idea. He was tremendously frustrated that no one seemed to be able to make heads or tails of his music, and hurt by the incredibly reflexive dismissal by his contemporaries.
It's also true that he doesn't help his own case, because his music requires so much time to "solve: when you first look at a score by Ives, it can seem like a complete chaotic swirl; he forces the performer to grapple with all the notes on the page - to figure them out, to find the sense of them; that's a crucial part of the whole interpretive process. Similar to Schoenberg, you have to really "believe" in the notes of an Ives piece, even if they're completely confusing to you at first; gradually they begin to make themselves clear. This element of his music clearly prevented him from being beloved by his friends and colleagues in the first two decades of the 20th century.
NG: But perhaps more than with Schoenberg's music, even a non-musician can easily get to the heart of what's going on in Ives' music. As you've noted, it's almost like a puzzle: the themes are hidden at first, but with some simple explanations, one can eventually get clarity about them - whereas these moments can remain more cryptic and harder to unwind in the denser, purely musical creations of Schoenberg. At any rate, it does seem that Ives, unlike Emily Dickenson, for example, wasn't content to hide his music in a drawer.
JD: Yes, I think he cared about fame, but at some point he gave up. He kept going to concerts, but between 1920 and the mid-1930s there was very little going on, either in terms of composition or in terms of his own self-promotion.
NG: Until people like Aaron Copland and Carl Ruggles began to advocate for him.
JD: Yes, a few key people figured it out.
NG: One last question about the Ives recording: given all of its monumental and technically demanding qualities - especially the Concord, these sonatas, not surprisingly, haven't been recorded very often. We at Classical Archives only have a few versions, including one of Ives himself playing "The Alcotts" which I assume you know.
JD: Oh yes, of course - it's beautiful.
NG: Your approach is so distinct from the others I've heard - so much more visceral and present; but were there any previous recordings, or live performances, of the sonatas that helped inform your own performance - or did you simply go back to the well and figure it out by yourself?
JD: Yes, I pretty much went back to the well; I must confess that I have very strong ideas about the sonatas. For over a decade, I played more and more Ives - including convincing friends to join me on his Piano Trio, and playing all the violin sonatas with friends. I played the Concord for a long time, and kept thinking about what my ideal performance might be. At a certain point, I also stopped listening to other recordings - for example, I haven't heard the recording by [Gilbert] Kalish for a long time, and I avoided some later recordings - such as that by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Recently, I heard the recording by Ralph Kirkpatrick [who premiered the work in 1939], and found it very beautiful and inspiring; it has a different sound world than some of the other recordings. One thing that does bother me in so many of these recordings, however, is that Ives's music gets played as if it were "new music", with a kind of steely quality, when in fact, variety of color and attention to rubato are such important parts of Ives' music - that kind of rhapsodic freedom.
NG: Indeed, there are moments of Schumann in the Concord…
JD: Yes, and lots of Debussy. And there's always these beautiful layers of color, with voices on top of one another: they're often faint, distant voices, or middle voices coming in and out of focus. That's one of his big techniques, the layering; it was one of the things Ives was most interested in - how to keep these different layers going; how to achieve that sense of multiple happenings at multiple times in multiple spaces - or perhaps something in the present at the same time as something in the past. And I hope that all those things inform the way that I play Ives.
NG: They certainly do; and I congratulate you for creating this new dialogue about Ives - something I'm sure we'll all be doing for quite a long time, and your CD is a good step forward. We, of course, could continue talking about Ives, but I want to move on to your Bach CD.
Earlier, you made several comparisons between the Ives sonatas and Bach's Goldberg Variations, and how you had played the Goldberg along with the Concord Sonata at Carnegie Hall, for example. And yet you released not the Goldberg but three of Bach's partitas [nos. 3, 4, and 6] instead. Any explanation for why these pieces - are you saving up your mojo for the Goldberg Variations at a later date?
JD: Well, the first time I played the Goldberg was probably about three or four years ago. It just didn't seem like a good idea to record the piece before I had been playing it for a while; that's a slightly bad strategy marketing-wise, because then you don't get to sell the CD at your concerts. But I haven't wanted to record the Goldberg yet; it's still too green, though I'm getting there. To feel courageous enough to play it at Carnegie is a good step. But there are enough recordings of the Goldberg out there. I don't want to put one out without having my own shape of it. I've listened to a lot of recordings of the Goldberg; for various reasons, it's a very controversial piece, and I have very complicated and strong feelings about the various recordings out there.
NG: Yes, I wanted to move onto that topic: in today's general environment of Glenn Gould worship among pianists - and even by those who play quite differently from him, you've actually gone on the record to criticize his playing, as often being too full of ego, and perhaps too gloomy, or capable of creating an impression that Bach's music "was meant to be played by hermetic, weird geniuses in coffee houses", as you've said. So, can you talk about your own aesthetics on Bach interpretation in general, and how this has evolved for you over the years?
JD: There are wonderful things one learns about Bach when playing his music over time, and yet it always seems a shame to try to codify them into absolute principles; it's such a thorny area to wander into. I just try to play Bach as beautifully as possible in each circumstance. In the case of the Goldberg Variations, it's kind of unfortunate, because Glenn Gould saved the piece and ruined it at the same time. He has occupied such a large part of everyone's conception of the piece, that it's very hard to hear it without his imprint; I'm sure that's been said many times. People come expecting to hear the piece with certain tempos - sometimes insanely fast, sometimes insanely slow; or they come with a preset idea of a super staccato articulation; or some humming or muttering…
It strikes me that the Goldberg Variations have a lot of "weird" moments in them, but their basic gist is very genial, very subtle, and natural. The bass line is perfectly symmetrical and charming, as it wends its way from one variation to another. But I try not to make it seem like some super-human feat. To me, the piece seems like an incredible embrace: when Bach comes back to the theme at the end, it's like he's created a giant and incredibly disparate world, and then he wraps the whole thing in his arms, and brings it all back into one big circle; and there's something so profoundly warm, generous, and all-loving about it. And so when I hear certain kinds of cold and steely performances, it brings out the rebel in me. I think of the harpsichord as a more singing instrument than certain piano "translations" would suggest - what's the famous inscription on the cover of the Clavier-Übung [Bach's four-part keyboard publications]: "Study for young pianists to learn, above all, a cantabile [singing] method of playing." So I guess part of my aesthetic of Bach playing is "cantabile".
NG: Sure, and this is also apparent given the dominant role that vocal music has in Bach's overall output.
Now, you've been talking again about the Goldberg Variations, and yet you've recorded the three partitas. I've read how a pivotal moment for you as a young pianist was when you heard a recording of Murray Perahia - who has recorded a few works by Bach over the years, including his 2009 recording of the partitas [the 1st, 5th, and 6th]. So, who in particular has been a great inspiration to you in your Bach preparations - for example, do you go back and listen to performances by harpsichordists like Kirkpatrick or Trevor Pinnock?
JD: Yes, I love listening to harpsichord versions of these pieces. And Murray Perahia is one of my favorite modern Bach practitioners, occupying as he does a kind of a sweet, middle ground.
Actually, the reason I ended up studying with a particular professor at Bloomington [Indiana University, where Denk earned his Master's Degree], György Sebök, was because I heard him play a recital at Oberlin, where as an encore he played the minuet and gigue of the Bb Partita [BWV825]. The way he played it, and how he dealt with the harmonies, had a profound influence on the course of my life. I could have to Los Angeles to study, but that performance sent me to Bloomington, which I'm convinced, was the best solution for me - because it showed me a certain way of playing that I hadn't previously suspected. And it's funny - because my teacher at Oberlin was also there at that same concert; I hadn't seen him in a while until last year in Florida, when he said, "Do you remember that gigue from the B-flat Partita?" And I said, "Wow, that was 23 years ago!" There are certain performances that live in your memory.
Otherwise, I'm a nut for Edwin Fischer, who Wanda Landowski called an old-fashioned pianist. But if you get rid of a little pedaling, and are able to ignore a few octave doublings here and there, his approach is pretty simple. He follows the notes, and I don't find his style too mannered. When I hear Gould, it sounds to me so much more mannered, and that he's added so much. But maybe that's my perspective.
NG: Well, certainly it's sometimes said that Gould's Bach performances are too much about Gould and not enough about Bach.
JD: Yes, but let me do a quick disclaimer here: the problem is that every time I hear Gould play something of Bach that I've not heard him play before, I'm instantly inspired, and want to rethink everything that I've done with the piece up to that point. So, it's true that it is often all about Gould, but he has this brilliant way of being brilliant; you just can't discourage that kind of genius.
NG: Of course, there's no way we can dismiss Gould, but we can challenge some of his stylings, so that they don't become shackles on how we think about the piece, let alone perform it.
One last question on these two releases: I'm struck by their identity in the marketplace; first, neither is on a major label - notwithstanding your several recordings on Sony, as the pianist with [violinist] Joshua Bell; and second, despite the short interval between their releases, they're on two different labels - the Ives on your own Think Denk Media label, the Bach on the small Naxos-distributed Azica label. So, can you explain how this happened - is there a rationale, or did you think, "If I want to do the Ives recording my way, and write a 20-page booklet, I have do it on my own label"?
JD: For some reason, I really wanted to put out the Ives on my own label; I wanted control of it. With the Bach, several people said there were options to go with one label or another, but years ago I had recorded an album on Azica with my friend, violinist Soovin Kim, and they offered me a solo recording - which I accepted. Since then, as I'm playing more and more, and gaining a higher profile, things may change going forward.
But the long and short of it is that I haven't had a very rational or linear approach to my career. I'm just playing music that I love, and trying to do programs that are interesting to me. I wish I were some mastermind of CD marketing, but I'm embarrassed to say that there really wasn't a very calculated approach with these two CDs.
NG: Well, this is not so uncommon, I think - especially for performers whose careers begin to take off not when they're 16 after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition, but as more mature artists. And so, going forward are you trying to be more methodical - or hoping to find people that can be that for you?
JD: Yes, the next CD is going to be more methodically considered; we've been talking about it for a while.
NG: Any hint you can give us?
JD: The plan so far is that there will be a record on Nonesuch, with [György] Ligeti's etudes and Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, Op.111 - something to represent the programs that I've been doing recently; to represent me, and to tie my various threads together. If there's one thing I feel very strongly about, it's that there shouldn't be a distinction between pianists who play Ligeti and those who play Chopin. It might seem that they involve different skill sets, but I don't think that's true: whether playing Ives or Bach or Beethoven, you must bring the same imagination, the same sensitivity, and an ability to deal with same kinds of musical problems. The method behind my madness, anyway, is to keep plugging away at this idea.
NG: There's no shortage of great music, to be sure; and if it speaks to you, you should perform it. I recently did an interview with Hélène Grimaud - although she's done a bit of contemporary music, she really is content operating largely within the confines of the 19th century, and has to have a pretty good reason to go outside of that orbit. I think it really comes down to where do you draw your own boundaries; and if you don't draw any boundaries between Ligeti and Chopin, then why should anybody else?
JD: Well, Ligeti wouldn't have: he drew from Chopin, from Schumann, and from Scarlatti; Ives loved Beethoven, and he also loved Bach. I don't particularly want to sound like an evangelist for modern music; I just love really good music.
NG: And one hopes that today is producing really good music. There are those who doubt this, and I feel that the onus is a bit on performers to explore the contemporary repertoire and find music that speaks to them. It's a bit off the subject, but one of my favorite quotes is from the early Renaissance theorist, Johannes Tinctoris [d.1511], a contemporary of Dufay, who wrote that nothing written more than 40 years ago is worth listening to. This sentiment was largely true up through the 20th century; now we live in an era where many think that nothing written in the last 40 years is worth listening to.
JD: This may be true in the classical music world, perhaps - since, if we're honest with ourselves, the real musical center of gravity has moved elsewhere.
NG: Yes, no doubt about that. And speaking of the health of classical music - to wrap up our conversation, I must at least touch upon your activities as a "glamorous" blogger [Denk's blog is called "Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist"]. The blog has been widely praised, including by the New York Times, for making witty and astute observations on the "alien and moribund world of classical music", as some have called it. Is this what it's come to, do you think - that if one wants to make a living as a classical musician, being a good performer is no longer enough; they also need to find a way to communicate directly to an audience, to entertain with humor, and to shake up some of those stereotypes that get stuck in the public's mind?
JD: In my heart of hearts, I have this notion that if the performance is good, that should be enough. But I also realize that as things stand today, it's helpful to have something else as well - as an ace in the hole, so to speak. I'm not an expert on trends and marketing, and I simply began the blog for my own pleasure; but it soon turned out to be a great marketing tool, much to my surprise.
In my experience, if you speak a bit before a concert, and communicate to an audience why they should, or must, listen to a piece of music, they enjoy it much more. A lot of the programs I play are pretty arduous for your "average" listener. So, as much as I would like to have the music speak for itself, sometimes a little evangelism helps grease the wheels. I've studied for years, and have had great teachers explain those beautiful moments of harmony and imagery that come into the music; I've had this incredibly rich lifetime spent with great musicians talking about the subtleties of great music, but not everyone who comes to a concert has had that kind of opportunity. And the blog allows me to share these experiences with anyone who wants to read it.
NG: You also happen to have some serious writing chops; your blog postings are quite literary, and rather un-Twitter like in their approach - they're really more like Emersonian essays. You've said how the success of the blog was rather unintentional, but you must have quickly seen what a good fit it was for you personally - that you suddenly had a forum not only share your thoughts, but to exercise your literary skills.
JD: Yes, it's a great forum, and a great outlet. It's a unique solution for me, as I'm an obsessive literary person, and wanted to be an English major at Oberlin. I'm an voracious reader and I just love playing with words. My piano teacher had this gift of explaining certain physical things about the instrument, but he also had this tremendous talent for metaphor, to illuminate the piece we were working on. I don't think this tool should be underestimated, since there are a lot of bad metaphors out there. If you can write well, a beautiful discussion about music can be very satisfying - at least to my mind.
NG: Right, in spite of what Elvis Costello says?
JD: Was he the one who talked dancing about art or something like that?
NG: Close, he said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
JD: Yes, and my response is that it's not at all like that - because writing and speaking is a very privileged form of communication, very unlike dancing, since we all write and speak; and if you think about it, dancing about architecture is actually a great idea; it sounds like fabulous fun.
NG: Yes, we should all go waltz about a Gothic cathedral.
JD: Yeah! I mean come on - a dance to represent what a Gothic cathedral looks like would be fascinating, and it might be beautiful.
NG: I'm sure it would. Well, we certainly will look forward to seeing more of your dancing, architectural blogs - though I'm sure they're getting harder to fit in as your career takes off.
JD: Yes, it's been a rough three or four months now, but hopefully I'll get back to it soon.
NG: Don't worry; I won't give you a hard time for being tardy.
JD: No problem, I'm already giving myself a hard time!
NG: I'm sure that when it comes out, it will be a great boon for all of us. Well, Jeremy, thanks so much for your time, it's been great talking with you.
JD: Likewise, it was fun talking to you.
A fair number of people ask me after concerts why I perform Ives-why I'm drawn to him-and the answer proves difficult to communicate at your average cocktail party. It's because the music is brilliant, inventive, tender, edgy, wild, original, witty, haunting... so many adjectives. I can see the eyes of my questioner glaze over; he or she just thinks Ives is dissonant, difficult.
Yes, Ives loved dissonance. He was born in Danbury in 1874, to a bandmaster father with an experimentalist streak. This streak was contagious; Ives went through the "traditional" composition course at Yale, and came out convinced of the need to go his own way, to abandon the academic, ditch the proper. He realized he couldn't make money composing the improper music he wanted to compose, and went full-throttle into business, with great success. Meanwhile, nights and weekends, in the first two decades of the 20th century, he was having an even greater success, secretly writing a large body of avant-garde music the likes of which no one else had dared to attempt: experiments in layering, polytonality, rhythmic complexity... The classical music world around him was very conservative, very European-lite; he had to hole up in his own musical mind.
Ives was raised in a world of hymns, marches, and ballads-mostly quite conventional music-and yet attracted to the wildest kinds of musical experimentation. He brought them together. He decided not to build on models that were not his own; he felt the need to create style and form freshly, from the necessity of the materials.
Ives had a profound influence on the twentieth century. There are countless examples. The great Hungarian composer György Ligeti, for instance, called Nancarrow "the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives." But it's not this so-called historical importance which makes me love the music. There is a terrific tenderness emanating from this dissonant, difficult music: a tenderness for experiences of childhood, for the "uneducated," fervid hymn-singing of camp meetings, for the silliness of ragtime, for the quaint wistful corners of ballads, and on and on. There is a correspondingly enormous wit: the love of crazy musical mishap, a love of syncopation, disjunction, mashup; the merger of opposites. He recreates, almost like Proust, a whole world for us: the musical world of America in the last part of the 19th century. He evokes a tremendous nostalgia for that world, while making it alive again.
The two piano sonatas are wonderful representations of the two productive decades of his composing life. The First, with its hymn-improvisations and its ragtime dances, represents an earlier, more variegated Ives: an unpredictable mix of opposed elements. The famous "Concord" Sonata represents the summit of Ives' maturity, an attempt to consolidate his musical (and extra-musical) thinking, to bring it all together in a huge statement.
Maybe finally I play Ives because I feel he's authentic (a dangerous word). There was a lot of jazz-inspired classical music in the 20th century, but so often the jazz seems weirdly off, dolled up, uncomfortable in classical confines. But when Ives gets going on Bringing in the Sheaves, in the fourth movement of the First Sonata, it is true to life: you can almost smell the beer, and the sawdust on the floor. All Ives' rhythmic and compositional skill is brought to bear in passages like this.
Ives wants to recreate the raw experience of music-making, something unfiltered, and beyond all your piano lessons; though writing fiendishly difficult piano music, he wants you to remember there is something more important than just "playing well"; while driving me crazy, he reminds me why I play the piano at all.
The First Sonata
Charles Ives' First Piano Sonata is a giant arch of five movements. The first, third, and fifth are serious business: they are long, dense, even arduous. But in the second and fourth, Ives goes in the opposite direction, to comedy and slapstick. These two movements are each a pair of short ragtime sketches: like snapshots of a bar with a deranged pianist. (It bears mentioning that Ives worked a bit as a pianist in Greenwich Village taverns.) They're brief, but they pack in a lot of accidents and incidents; by the end of the last scherzo, one has to admit ruefully, things have gone completely bonkers.
In other words, the piece keeps cross- cutting from serious matters to the comic relief, from epic to vignette. The first movement relies on a musical and verbal pun; it's an inspired improvisation on twinned tunes. One is "Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight":
Where is my wandering boy tonight
The boy of my tenderest care
The boy that was once my joy and light
The child of my love and prayer
...a sentimental popular song, longing for barbershop harmonization. The other is the hymn "Lebanon":
I was a wandering sheep,
I did not love the fold;
I did not love my Shepherd's voice,
I would not be controlled.
The tunes share the word "wandering," of course, but also share a bit of musical DNA: particularly a dotted rhythm (long short long). This rhythm gives a lovely lilt to the word "wandering," in both tunes, and Ives uses it as a rollicking source for improvisation.
Ives' approach to structure tells sonata form (not very politely) to go jump off a cliff; he departs utterly from European models. It is based on improvisation, but also has elements of the mystery novel-that is, cunning and concealment followed by revelation. For instance, the first movement begins with shadowy rumblings of a melody, deep in the bass:
This melody is a mystery; it seems to have nothing to do with "Wandering Boy" or "Lebanon". It is a dark beginning, which suggests a difficult birth, a complicated understanding. But at the end of the movement, lo and behold: it turns out to be a countermelody, a perfectly crafted accompaniment to "Lebanon"! Only at the end, Ives reveals the tunes that have fed his imagination; only there and then we learn, as the hymn emerges clearly, what we've been improvising on this whole time. The dark weird tones of the beginning were destined to sing a luminous duet with this "source tune." We have not wandered nearly as far as we thought; the movement ends with the solution of the mystery, the simple appearance of the tune after all sorts of complexity.
There's a program to this Sonata, or at least Ives gives his usual vague hints:
"...Mostly about the outdoor life in Conn. villages in the '80s & '90s-impressions, remembrances ...Fred's Daddy got so excited that he shouted when Fred hit a home run & the school won the baseball game. But Aunt Sarah was always humming 'Where is My Wandering Boy', after 'Fred an' John left for a job in Bridgeport'. There was usually a sadness-but not at the Barn Dances ...In the summer times, the hymns were sung outdoors ...& the people liked to say things as they wanted to say, and to do things as they wanted to, in their own way-and many old times-there were feelings, and of spiritual fervency!" (Charles Ives, Memos, Ed. John Kirkpatrick)
Indeed, a couple minutes into the first movement (1:38), you can hear Aunt Sarah humming "Where is my Wandering Boy?" over dark arpeggios in the bass. In this scenario the middle movements represent the son (Fred?) "sowing his wild oats." In both oat-sowing scherzi, Ives writes constantly changing ragtime ideas, turning on a dime between charm and destruction. The fourth movement begins with a perverse experiment, a ragtime in complex, odd rhythms (5s, 7s, 9s), which sounds a bit like a player piano gone amok. From there Ives unfolds an incredible, revivalist version of "Bringing in the Sheaves," followed by ...well, Ives was always good at depicting the moment when the party goes over the cliff, the moment when you should probably send everyone home. This has never endeared him to a certain kind of classical music enthusiast.
The third movement is a beautiful meditation/improvisation on the tune "What a Friend We Have In Jesus". It begins in dreamland, improvising around the tune quietly ("In the summer times, the hymns were sung outdoors"). However, soon enough the more raucous, playful members of the congregation (the children, let loose?) begin to contribute, and the movement works up to a terrific chorus, using the full virtuosic possibilities of the piano ("people liked to say things as they wanted to say".) But, as often happens with Ives, everything is clarified in the coda. The tune is presented plainly in E major, lyrically and even beautifully, with those drifting blue notes that characterize Ives' moments of tenderly reaching into memory.
The last movement is an exploration of a falling three-note idea, F, E, D-flat, an idea that apparently represented for Ives the "question of the universe." One hears it right at the beginning, supported by massive chords. A bit of "Lebanon" is tagged on, connecting the wanderings of the first movement to the question of the last. Ives fashions this question into a massive, eclectic Whitman-esque mosaic. There are quiet bluesy meditations, severe contrapuntal treatments, dense choral statements, jazzy explosions, some silly moments and some arduously serious... all obsessive.
There are two feverish build-ups. The first crashes into a massive note (G) in the bass, which functions absolutely normally and tonally (!), dissolving gradually into C major. A classic Ivesian thing: to bring beauty out of chaos, and vice versa. The C major passage (5 minutes in) represents a reverie, or a long truce. For a long time, Ives muses on "Wandering Boy", "Lebanon", and his three-note question, but this beautiful repose is eventually interrupted, and we head into a second large crescendo. This even wilder build returns us to the opening idea, to a majestic restatement of the obsessive question.
The final measure of the piece is simultaneously one of the great Ives inspirations and a perfect example of why his music has often befuddled listeners. The main idea spins and repeats itself, wildly and ferociously; it is unclear how it will find an ending. Out of this impasse, deep in the bass, Ives thunders out two chords: A major and E major, which is a plagal cadence, the cadence typically used for the word "Amen." And while this "Amen" is resounding in the bass, over the top of it, much more quietly, Ives writes one last falling three-note gesture, in the "wrong key"...
So which is it? Is it the affirmation, yes, "Amen," in E major, as loud as possible, or is it again the eternal question, quietly contradicting "Amen"? Better to listen to the two fade off together. You hear the E major chord slowly fade into silence, and the bluesy doubtful overtones floating into the decay. Ives, that crafty crank, was so often after the shiver brought on by an answer and its question hovering over it: the pleasure of non-resolution.
The "Concord" Sonata's four movements are wildly different portraits, reflecting Ives' visions of four major figures of the Transcendentalist movement.
Ives begins with "Emerson," and aims to capture his digressive, heaven-storming spirit:
"As thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them along the ground first."
And so, Ives presents all his ideas piled on top of each other at the outset, in a sea of dissonant improvisation. It is a bold opening gambit, a cadenza on everything. Then, over the course of the next fifteen minutes, Ives untangles the mess, revealing each idea individually in an epiphanic series of episodes. One gets the sense of a vast gospel/essay, including materials from hymn, revival, Beethoven, Wagner, fugue, recitative: you name it, from the "highest" to the "lowest."
It is impossible to discuss the form of "Emerson" as a whole, it's irreducible to any formula. Some of these episodes represent the prose of Emerson, and others, with greater rhythmic regularity, evoke his verse. Towards the end, though, there is a sense of perspective: descending chromatic lines take over in the bass; there is a dissolve and deconstruction, with the various themes disintegrating into ever-shorter bits and haunting recurrences of Beethoven's Fifth. With these silences between the ideas, Ives approaches the opposite of the piled-up opening; gaps appear between the thoughts. And in those gaps, you get glimpses of Emersonian revelation: meanings that come from implication, metaphor, overtone.
The "Hawthorne" movement is fundamentally a joke. We enter a cosmos of wild, supernatural humor, in which Ives fuses several ghostly episodes from Hawthorne's short stories...an 'extended fragment' trying to suggest some of his wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms...
One tale that plays a central role is "The Celestial Railroad", where passengers book an express ticket to Heaven, do a great deal of celebrating and drinking en route, and laugh heartily at the slow-moving, hungry pilgrims singing their hymns outside the window. Of course, the express train does not exactly make it to Heaven. This ironic interplay of the profane and the sacred is arguably the "theme" of the movement, and the source of much of its wit and brilliance. Shifting back and forth from ragtime to marching band to hymn to unearthly filigree, the movement never sits still; it is insatiably associative. Experienced Ivesians will know that once "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" enters, all (musical) hell will break loose: the movement careens to its end, with a chaotic, virtuosic pile-up of everything but the kitchen sink.
"The Alcotts" is an evocation of the Orchard House in Concord, where the Glimpses of Emersonian revelation: meanings that come from implication, metaphor, overtone. Alcott family lived:
"...There is a commonplace beauty about "Orchard House"-a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness-a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity-the self-sacrificing part of the idea-a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth..."
Beth is playing at the spinet, a gift from Sophia Thoreau; she plays Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, of course, but does not discriminate; she plays hymns, too, a Scotch air, and a glimpse of Mendelssohn's wedding march. This movement very overtly and obviously fuses classical themes with popular ones. This fusion has a cathartic effect: there is a triumphant C-major arrival, towards the end, of the "transcendental theme of Concord".
The emergence of this theme in its entirety-"the human faith melody"-is a pivotal moment of clarity and understanding. To borrow a phrase from Emerson, it's a glorious shining forth of the piece's "Over-soul."
The last movement, "Thoreau," has a simple, specific narrative: a day on Walden Pond. Thoreau awakens at dawn, in haze and mist, and listens to Nature's sounds. But eventually he gets the desire to act. He gets (as Ives puts it) "going after somethin'." He makes several attempts to get after something- whatever it is-and reaches an ecstatic climax of action (C major). But just at that moment the rhythm of Nature intervenes: he knows now that he must let Nature flow through him, and slowly…
A repeated, haunting 3-note figure in the left hand (A-C-G) represents this rhythm of nature. Over it, and seemingly inseparable from it, is a new theme in the right hand: a mournful reworking of Stephen Foster's ballad "Down in the Cornfield," evoking a line from Walden: "I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands..."
Thoreau has relapses of desire; the push and pull of action versus Nature continues. But for the conclusion and synthesis of this dialectical day, Ives reserves a beautiful, crowning Romantic gesture. The "human faith melody" of Concord appears once more, to evoke Thoreau's flute over Walden Pond (performed by Tara Helen O'Connor here, at some distance away from the piano). This Transcendental Theme is seen through the mists of other motives; it merges with the rhythm of Nature; and then it vanishes, leaving us listening to the rhythm of Nature, pulsing on. I will leave it to Ives to describe the ending:
"'Tis an evening when the "whole body is one sense," ...and before ending his day he looks out over the clear, crystalline water of the pond and catches a glimpse of the shadow-thought he saw in the morning's mist and haze-he knows that by his final submission, he possesses the 'Freedom of the Night.'"
A paradoxical way to end such an ambitious monument of the imagination: with the notion of night, nature, renunciation. For all his self-reliance, for all his desire to hew his own path, Ives always seemed to gesture towards an ideal of music much bigger than himself.
Beethoven and the "Concord" Sonata
One of the most curious, wonderful things about the "Concord" Sonata is the obsessive assault it mounts on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Da-da-da-dum has become such an emblem, an audible logo, of classical music; the four notes express our whole tuxedoed, staid obsolescence, our desire to perpetuate ourselves. The sternness, the immediate minor-key attitude, the inescapable upbeat leading to downbeat, the timbre of the sustaining strings, full throttle… all of this captures perfectly the terminally un-cool, that which in classical music takes itself too seriously, refuses to relax.
Was it possible for Ives to hear this work more freshly than we do now? Was it not yet such a victim of fame? Was it like hipster fashion before Urban Out?tters? I don't believe so; I think Ives picked it precisely for its cliché value (like he picked so many materials), and his reasons were complex. One could argue he chose it to rescue it: from its context, and from sti?ing respect. In one of the most thrilling passages from "Emerson," Ives re-harmonizes the Beethoven motive, he dirties him up, with a glorious bluesy intensity.
However wild, Ives' rewriting is partly gestural analysis. Beethoven's motive "wants" to fall by a third; that is what it does-fateful unstoppable descent-but the rest of the movement seems to try to fight this categorical imperative through counter-ascent, some sort of recoil or opposed force (sequence, agitation, struggle). Ives plays with this notion: for instance, in one rewriting, he allows the motive to go down yet another third which is like allowing the force to move past its target. And then, in another "variation," the motive reverses itself with a start, moving surprisingly UP a third:
I love that leaping moment. One feels Beethoven's idea-its third-ness-caged, growling, searching for a way out. In other words, the forces within it are adaptable, ?erce, looking for outlets in all directions; Ives paints a vector of raw musical force, freed from constraints, headed for the boundaries of the keyboard-world.
After you listen to Ives' clustered version, try going back to the original! In these clustered chords, all the decorum of Classicism is stripped away, all the picayune perfection of selected notes. Ives manages somehow to make Beethoven sound harmonically unadventurous (not easy to do, illusory); but the raw energy of Beethoven's notes is made more vivid. Though what Ives is doing is partly a distortion, a destruction, a mockery, at the same time it is something of an ampli?cation, a homage, an act of devotion. You say to yourself: yes, that expresses something that Beethoven was after; Ives has expressed some "truth" about Beethoven's Fifth, by taking him, so to speak, to the cleaners. Don't we lowly performers, when we try to play those elemental Beethoven motives, try to compress an immense amount of meaning into them, to express something besides, behind, over and above the plain girder-like notes? Try to sweep their connotations in under them? Ives knows our pain. And he explodes this wanted, connoted meaning into fantastic, variegated improvisation; having ripped the idea out of its context, he places it in all unlikeliest contexts, gives it all the most inappropriate meanings. Beethoven's motto becomes anything at all. Though it ?rst appears in rather typical, tautological (Beethovenian, heavy) bass interruptions, it eventually morphs into a million beings, a million Beethovens: light el?n interjections, blurry Debussyean echo- rami?cations, gospel-like exhortations, and most paradoxically of all, at the end of "Emerson," when it comes the last time, it becomes a murky, pianissimo, tonality-disturbing force in the bass, a ?nal whispered hmm. Though Beethoven's opening notes appear to say, "I'm here," appear to state and af?rm, Ives knows that for all their bluster they are also a question, that they hide some deeper unanswerable insecurity, the movement's lifeblood.
Did Ives foresee our vast information age, with memes, ledes, semes and YouTube? Once Beethoven's idea is allowed to ?oat free, it adapts itself, becoming viral. Earlier I overstated things, perhaps; Ives is not "assaulting" Beethoven. At the very least, Ives is against Beethoven's motive as a symbol of the past: no, he writes, these notes are not Fate knocking at the door; they represent humanity knocking at the door of the future… of that which might be, not that which is preordained, or circumscribed. (Classical music, he suggests, must never be circumscribed.) Ives' "attack" on Beethoven is a symbol of a great affection, in the same way that your signi?cant other is allowed to tease you about certain things that the wider world cannot. It seems a silly simpli?cation to say that Ives is advising Beethoven not to take himself so seriously (though that is part of it). Nor is he trying to redeem or deny the cliché. The motive stands-hackneyed, well-worn-and yet Ives tries to sail away to heaven on it. Lurking, hiding in this paradox somewhere is some of the essence of Ives' language, his greatness, his unique contribution. It is this contradiction, this problematic question of tone, the con?ation of the ridiculous and sublime, that makes it and will make it difficult for many musicians and listeners to "get" or love Ives, especially as the question of tone somehow calls into the question the whole nature of the "classical piece." Am I to take it seriously, in my plush red seat in Carnegie
Hall? (If not, why did I buy my ticket?)
For more of Jeremy Denk's musical musings, visit his blog.