working on Cage’s Winter Music, rainy NYC night, 12:30am
My last relationship before coming out was with someone I met over Craigslist. It was summer of 2006, and I’d just finished my fifty-state tour. I was watching my sister’s apartment in Malibu for the summer, working at a veterinary clinic, and Craigslist seemed like the safest playground for cruising. He and I met for lunch after exchanging a couple pictures and chatting over Yahoo, another closet go-to for me in the early-to-mid 2000s. I actually really liked him, and we dated for a little over a month, my remaining time in California before I would move to Texas.
Still, throughout our sex on the beach (better in theory, by the way), our dinner dates, our phone calls and invitations into each other’s non-closet worlds—he met my sister, for instance—I never actually had his phone number. When he called, “Unavailable” flashed across the screen. I met him thinking his name was Jason. Later, he told me it was John.
When I left California, we sort of said we’d keep in touch. Everything with him was sort of. And I felt embarrassed admitting to myself that I would actually miss him, something I’m sure I never confessed out loud.
But we did keep in touch. In Texas, he kept me abreast of his ever-changing email addresses and Yahoo screen names. And when I visited L.A. again that year, we met up and I even almost spent the night. Almost. Sort of. When I told him about how I would make my Houston debut at the Rothko Chapel that spring playing John Cage, he said he would come. I thought he was joking until a week or so before the performance when he sent me his flight information. We still had known each other less than a year, and these days rarely communicated, but I would be hosting him before the week’s end. After some fancy footwork, I had my visiting sister and mother staying in a Houston hotel, and he, who I described to them as a “visiting friend,” staying with me.
He did come to Houston. He did come to the concert. But he didn’t stay with me. Instead, he booked himself into a bed and breakfast nearby. The night of my performance, he almost stayed over, but retreated in the wee hours of the morning to his rented room a few blocks away. The next day, he explored Houston as I went on a trip to Galveston with my sister and mother. I was miserable and they couldn’t understand why. I’d just had a successful concert. They were visiting. I had a friend in town. What did I have to mope about? I couldn’t tell them the truth, which I could barely bring myself to comprehend: I was finally, undeniably, living a double life, and this is precisely when, through the years, I told myself I would come out. I moved to Houston with the personal resolve to no longer lie about my sexuality. That is, to no longer tell people I was straight. Still, I wasn’t necessarily ready to call myself gay. I just wouldn’t answer the question if it came up. But I always told myself that once I started really, truly lying to my family, once I was no longer just hooking up but rather conducting deeper and longer-lasting side-affairs, that’s when I would do it.
And here it was.
Later that night, John and I went to a Greek pizza restaurant and I told him about the crossroads at which I’d arrived. It didn’t go well. “I don’t need to label myself to feel better about myself,” he said. “It’s not such a big deal to me.” And I would argue back, “But you would never tell your family about me, and you would if I was female. So it is a big deal to you.” And on it went. He’d tell me that I was pressuring him to categorize his sexuality, and I would ask him incredulously, “Is this working for you? This kind of secret life? Because it’s not for me. Not anymore.”
It was the first time I’d said such a thing out loud to another person. It also hurt me that this guy, this John, would rather conduct our relationship behind a closed door than even consider joining me in the open. It felt like a personal affront, like I didn’t mean that much to him. “I just flew across the country to see you,” he said. “And you want evidence?”
We didn’t even try to spend that night together. He went back to his room and I returned to my apartment. My sister and mother, banished to their hotel, had no idea a war was being waged in Montrose, Houston’s gay ghetto where I, of course, had opted to live earlier that year.
The next day, John and I awkwardly roamed the city’s parks and attractions. I barely said a word, still infuriated about how he could misunderstand the boiling point it had taken me years to hit and understand myself. He called it a need to label, I called it a need to stop a very tired and tiring masquerade. There was a difference. He couldn’t see it. Finally, I could. He left that afternoon, I think on an earlier flight than he’d originally booked.
That month, I came out to my family.
John and I exchanged a couple sporadic emails—I apologized in one of them for my behavior that weekend—and he even once sent a letter. He called around Christmastime. It had been at least half-a-year since we’d communicated, and we talked as I drove my car down Kirby Drive in Houston. When I told him that I had a boyfriend who would join me in Vermont for Christmas, he fell silent for a nearly-imperceptible moment. It’s a moment frozen in my memory, because after we hung up a few minutes later, he vanished from my life. Emails bounced back, and I’d lost the letter he sent, so I didn’t have an address. I couldn’t find him anywhere on the Internet, and wondered if I was searching for him using what had always been a fake name.
I was puzzled. I mean, had we been dating? Were we exclusive? Did this person, with whom I had such critical differences, still think of me in some way as his companion? How I could I have missed that? Perhaps just as I’d failed to see the depth of his gesture when he’d visited Texas, maybe I’d also assumed too little about our legacy after that rocky but revealing weekend.
Another little part of me actually felt as if, in coming out, I’d somehow failed him. He was strong enough to stay in the closet, so I told myself, and I’d gone and “labeled myself” and was now doing big gay things like having a boyfriend and bringing him home for Christmas. The closet always retains a kind of irrational, exotic appeal, and it never quite loses its contagious power.
He was gone. But I never stopped looking. In L.A., I’d peek into every car looking for his face, and once I joined Facebook, I would look for him every couple months. Always nothing.
Then two winters ago, riding home from a teaching gig near Newark on a PATH train, I saw him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was seated, talking to some professor-looking guy. On the opposite end of the train, I paced, I circled, and I contemplated how fucking weird it was to run into my California boyfriend who I’d been searching after for years on a PATH train in New Jersey.
Finally, I interrupted their conversation and said hello. He stared blankly into my greeting, as if he didn’t recognize me, then feigned some kind of familiarity. “Well, good to see you,” I said, resisting the urge to shake him, to remind him that he’d once, only a few years prior, bought a plane ticket to visit me in the Lone Star State, his first and, I can assume, only time there. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t even say his name, still wondering if I was using the real one. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him in front of his friend.
On the Journal Square platform, John and the professor said goodbye, and then he came over to talk to me. He still acted as if the memory of us was too distant to verily recall. He didn’t remember my name? He didn’t remember dating a concert pianist? He didn’t stalk me online like I did him?
"You visited me in Texas," I said bluntly. "You saw me play John Cage at Rotkho Chapel. You can’t tell me you don’t remember that."
"Yeah…" he said, as if still emerging from a fog. "Well, we should get together. Do you have, uh… you know, a boyf—, a boyfr…"
"Yeah, I do," I said. He nodded, again looking a little sad. And again, I felt a little embarrassed.
"Well, yeah let’s meet sometime for lunch," he repeated.
"Absolutely. What’s your number?"
There was silence. He squirmed. “How about you give me yours.”
"Really?" I said in disbelief. "Really?"
"Yeah… just give me your number."
And as I acquiesced and watched him enter my number into his flip phone, I thought a couple things: that either he hadn’t changed and was still in the closet, or that he was protecting himself from me because once upon a time, I had really hurt him. He closed his phone, and I knew I would never hear from him again.
It’s sad. I would have really liked to catch up.
this is my iMessage cover of Steve Reich’s Different Trains
A little less than twenty years ago, I got my first paying gig playing services at a little white Methodist church in the neighboring village of Williamstown, Vermont. Like most church gigs, I had to prepare some preambulum and postlude music, as well as a number of assigned hymns, usually no more than four or five. The pay was $40 for the hour. Not bad for a twelve-year-old.
I practiced for these services all week, terribly nervous for what felt like a high-stakes performance. My mom, overhearing flubbed chords and wrong notes, would remind me about the seriousness of my new role. “You can’t make any mistakes on Sunday,” she would say. “This isn’t like a lesson.” Knowing she was right, I practiced harder.
All in all, the gig lasted about a month. Though I don’t remember any real disasters, maybe the congregation still sensed my nerves as they manifested in shaky rhythms, unintended dissonances and false starts. I was, after all, learning the ropes. “So I play the last line of the hymn first, and then the congregation sings?”
I distinctly remember one time, maybe my last time, when the minister sprang a new hymn on me at the last minute. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. My piano teacher, who scored me the gig in the first place and who (astonishingly) came to each service I played, swooped in to the rescue. Maybe he came for exactly this reason, to help in the event of an emergency.
He sat at the upright and played the hymn without hesitation. Perfectly. I watched in awe. How did he do that? He played it better at first glance than I could have if I’d had all week.
On the drive home, in a dark-hued state of disbelief, I said to my mom from the passenger seat, “I can’t believe he could just look at the hymn and play it like it was nothing.”
"He’s been playing piano for a long time, Adam," she said with the tender yet unbudging tone she’d no doubt learned to adopt whenever I sank into one of my self-deprecating funks.
"I wish I could sight read a hymn that."
"Well," she said, "someday you will."
"I loved watching you play!" she said, and I should have just thanked her. Instead, I rattled off a series of excuses, a glimpse of my punishing inner-monologue. I should have just shook her hand without telling her about how this season I’m playing only music I’ve never before performed in public. I should have just pretended to be as happy with my performance as she and everyone else
was claimed to be…
…claimed to be, claimed to be, claimed to be…
"Well, it’s like sex," she said, matter-of-factly.
"After the first time you sleep with somebody, you always want to do it again. You’re still learning about each other, and neither of you knows how the other one really works yet." She shook her head. "But it just has to happen, that awkward first time."
I laughed, but this off-the-cuff analogy between searching first performances and virginal self-consciousness helped to depersonalize, at least for a minute, the guilt over not living up to the illusion of my practice room potential.
The audience, whether they like it or not, always assumes the role of that unpredictable, expectant, essential “other,” the other you want to please and who, innocently enough, only wants to be pleased, or challenged, or nibbled lightly. It might result in fireworks or fumbling—we’ve all experienced both the first time—but either way, in the performance realm, one emerges from a first time wondering where all that time spent practicing actually went. Did it help? Did it hinder? Did it do anything?
The practice room, a chamber to which we retreat alone, repeating the same motions, perfecting passages that under stage lights seem suddenly foreign to the touch. I’d like to say that the more I practice, the more I’ll learn the art of recreating a sense of practice room security onstage, the art of control, especially with a new piece. But in the wake of a performance, especially a shaky one, practicing seems about as essential to mastery as masturbation is to great sex.
Ask anyone who’s ever prepared a fugue how it felt to finally play the opening subject in front of a room full of people, and they’ll tell you how new it felt, how the mystery awakened, the thrill returned, and how every subtle turn of the phrase swooped like a subtle crevasse of a body.
I’ve spent many post-performance evenings in agony, replaying each precise millisecond of fuzziness, each hesitation, thinking: What did my audience hear right then? Who’s onto me? Like a child, I still function under the impression that no one has trip-ups onstage but me, and that maybe I don’t belong here.
This season in particular I’ve had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to confront how to approach new pieces in concert, since virtually every two weeks between mid-October and mid-December, I’ll present a different program of music I’ve never played before. Along the way, I’ve had to move out of my comfort zone and explore how to best get around that staple first “bad performance.”
Pianists practice—the notes don’t learn themselves—but for the first time in years, I’ve started to play more and more for friends. Where I used to fiercely (and insecurely) protect my process, preparing in secret, these days I treat/submit willing allies to profanity-laden trial runs, and while playing for one person doesn’t recreate the full-on adrenaline rush of a stage and an audience, it actually comes pretty close. The fingers still tangle up, the pulse races, and foggy pockets of reveal themselves where one least expects them.
I focus on the toughest passages and practice them at inopportune times. For example, when I just wake up or just before bed, or little slivers of time between lessons. And at the other end of the spectrum, I do as much away-from-the-piano study as I can, usually on the subway. I’m still apt to stumble over a tricky rhythm just as I would at the keyboard, but if I familiarize myself with it by going over the passage a few times, it eventually loses the ability to surprise or confuse. Thus, I diffuse its power to mess me up later.
In mental practice, I even notice my mind stopping sometimes to, believe it or not, try a passage again, as if I could read it better a second time. This reveals that I’m actually used tomessing up certain spots, to practicing certain phrases several times, and that this expectation of error creates the mistake far in advance. I read through that passage again and again, ironing it out until the hiccup disappears, which directly and for-the-better affects the fluidity of that passage when I finally return to the piano.
All of this helps with a new piece, but at the same time, these techniques will help strengthen any piece, not just something new to my repertoire. Again, practice is built into a pianist’s life, and everything else is, by default, positioned in relation to it. I’m eating a sandwich…and not practicing.
In my most recent performance, a fellow pianist turned pages for me. Before the concert, I’d asked where he went to school, and inquired about his repertoire. Turns out he’d just earned his Doctorate and had previously earned a Masters at Juilliard. One of his specialties was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I’m a Bach guy,” he professed. A million alarms went off in my head; the insecurity of having only earned a Bachelor degree, the idea that he specialized in Bach when one of the pieces he would turn my pages for contained a “lively” fugue (on three staves) and lots of counterpoint. Silently, secretly, I started to freak out, and when we both sat on stage, as cool and confident as I may have acted as the performer, inside I regressed. Suddenly he wasn’t my page turner, he was my teacher. Suddenly I wasn’t 31, I was 13. When I almost went in the weeds, I wanted to apologize not to my audience—I’d nearly forgotten about them—but to him. When we walked offstage he shook my hand. “Awesome playing,” he said, but it was impossible for me to believe him. I still don’t.
Conversely, I recently turned pages for a pianist who I idolize. She played brilliantly, and when she finished, the audience whistled and shouted. The moment we left the stage, she said to me, “It just never goes how I know it can go,” shaking her head and trying to laugh off this typical, almost expected but still profound sense of disappointment, one that borders on betrayal. I generated all the assurance and encouragement I could, but of course was helpless to change her mind. An hour later, after I performed, our roles reversed and I was the one shaking my head offstage, trying to laugh. I wished, as usual, for another chance to play the new pieces again. If I could have done it that minute, I would. If it meant waiting months or a year, fine.
So maybe we musicians must come to accept that the act of performance is the truest and more effective form of practice. Just like the stage, not really the practice room, teaches a performer how to play, so I can only hope that a season of presenting new pieces, program after program, will train me to perform these works better the first time, not just the second or third. This, in itself, can perhaps become a skill. Sometimes it will work out and things will go “how we know they can go,” and other times not. But then, I suppose this danger, this drive, is in part what keeps us musicians playing on the ledge. And quite simply, without this energy, no one comes.
I’m in the San Francisco Conservatory cafe right now, waiting for a composer who I’m supposed to meet. All these students bustling around. One just proudly said “Bonjour” to the French cafe attendant and then switched immediately to English. “I’ll have an… uh….” I remember those days.
Earlier in the year, when I felt miserable about my life as a performer, I began learning Virgil Thomson’s Second Piano Sonata. I first heard about it from composer Gerald Busby in one of our monthly tea times in his Chelsea Hotel studio. “It’s a weird little piece,” he said, with his never-ending smile and Texas twang. “When it’s over, people are like, ‘What was that?’” He looked to and fro, as if some prankster ghost had just tapped him on the shoulder. Such was the piece, he implied. Naturally, I was intrigued.
I’d never learned anything by Thomson before, but I felt like I knew the composer on some level. Busby, who was a friend, neighbor, cook, and perhaps at best an informal student of Thomson’s, often sprinkles our conversations with Virgilisms. If he attends a concert but wishes not to endorse nor condemn it, he quotes Virgil: “Well, it wasn’t boring!” And it was Virgil, via Busby, who first told me to look at the space, literally in inches or centimeters, a reviewer gives their subject, as opposed to the actual content.
When the Sonata arrived and I sat to play it, I understood exactly what Busby meant. Melodies marched confidently in circles. Scales popped up in fortissimo only to disappear in the next measure. It was like the Winchester House of piano sonatas, an impeccable feat of architecture but with staircases leading to nowhere, trap doors, and windows looking into other rooms. At times the music seemed like the accompaniment to a solo part that didn’t exist. I wanted to figure it out, and yet feared the whole thing was over my head.
But the real challenge was the fingering. This was musical micromanaging the likes of which I’d never seen.
The thing is, as a pianist, I got it—the logic, phrasing-wise, behind every single fingered note. Sometimes, as in the above example, Virgil’s even trying to help, but it was almost too much to take in. I was trying, at the time, to learn the piece using my memorization method, but remembering all that damn fingering made the task nearly impossible. Soon, other pieces began crowding the Sonata—I also didn’t have anywhere to play it—and it dropped out of my practice schedule.
Fast forward to last weekend, when I was invited by University of Michigan to perform in an event featuring works by and for Virgil Thomson, led by one of my idols, musicologist Nadine Hubbs, who I’ve openly stalked for about ten years after seeing her speak at Indiana University (in the lecture, she quoted Edgard Varèse who, in condemning the popularity of American gay composers—all closeted, by the way—accused each of using their “arse as a prick garage…and mouth as a night lodging,” a little-known quote of such insanely homophobic imagery that I think about it nearly every single day). UM proposed that I play a couple Portraits by Thomson, and then I floated the idea of the Second Piano Sonata. It finally had a platform.
However, I frankly don’t have the time to memorize it in my ideal (and slow) phrase-by-phrase approach. The performance is in a month. Thus, I’ve found myself brazenly crossing out Thomson’s obsessive fingering and putting in my own. This puts me at a kind of guilty emotional crossroads, one that pianists face all the time. Am I no longer authentically playing the composer’s piece if I ignore his or her fingerings?
It’s an age-old dilemma. While an editor’s fingerings are hardly sacrosanct, pianists have long labored over the question of following a composer's fingerings. We often think of them, quite appropriately, as an extension of the composer’s interpretive wishes—for instance, Beethoven’s fingerings in the rare moments he prescribes them…
(Op. 2, No. 2, first movement, a fingering that apparently only works on a fortepiano)
…or Chopin’s fingerings for his Etudes which, after all, are directed at “weak fingers” and inconvenient technical challenges (see below; the 4 and 5 are your ring finger and pinky).
(Op. 10, No. 2)
Sometimes the matter has less to do with a composer’s fingering choices but rather the stemming. In Bartok’s Etudes, not only do fingerings abound, but there are some moments (not pictured below) where if my left hand simply takes over some of the right hand stemmed notes, the music flows so much more easily. When I played them, I re-stemmed the whole thing and told no one.
I’ve done the same in Scriabin, a kind of hand-to-hand assistance that may or may not violate the piece’s virtuosic demands, even though no notes are cut. I’ve always felt a little guilty, but never terribly so.
It’s a dilemma that begs the question of whether we’re ultimately playing a piece of music for the listener—in which case it doesn’t matter how we finger the notes, just as long as they express what the composer’s going for—or whether we’re playing the music to challenge our techniques and follow the fingerings or stemmings exactly as the composer prescribed, thus connecting with his or her physical imprint of a piece. It might be both, and I’ve heard arguments break out over this subject regarding composers ranging from Debussy to Bach.
It’s also a question with no clear-cut answer, and perhaps only addressable in a case-by-case, passage-by-passage basis. Sometimes a less-than-ideal, but recommended-by-the-composer fingering makes a phrase work, say, in a leaping melody. Maybe the listener needs to hear the effort, and we need to make that effort real for our physical apparatus. At other times, maybe it’s just as well to cheat a little, though I know that some may say that, no matter what the case, if you must cheat, you should probably choose another piece to play.
Anyway, I’m really torn with the Thomson. He clearly wants these fingerings—they nearly outnumber the notes—and they’re an undeniably integral part of the piece, so it feels wrong to cross them out and scribble in my own. If I was a teacher looking at my actions, I’d shake my head, scrunch my nose a little and say: “Honestly, Adam, you should really just do his fingerings.”
But I have one month and twenty-something pieces to prepare. Wrestling with a bunch of esoteric fingerings in one of them feels like a luxury I can’t afford. Rationalizing, I tell myself that I can play the piece as Thomson wants it to sound using his fingerings as a kind of map to the phrasing, even if I’m using my own physical intuition to lead me. The rationalizations don’t stop there. I think of Thomson in 1929, writing this super-lean, very tonal, texturally simple piece of music in two days, and perhaps feeling the subconscious, egoic need to toughen it up by prescribing fingerings to every note, thus making it virtually impossible to sight-read or, as I found, to memorize without a great deal of effort. We’ll never know, and my psychoanalysis probably isn’t helping matters. (Though I will add that his later piano works seem to have far less, and much less unusual fingerings.)
Ultimately, it’s my secret alone which fingerings I change and which ones I keep. It’s all part of the pianist’s magic act. We deal in milliseconds, we bend time, and we can move entire limbs several feet in the blink of an eye. Your ears, my slight of hand, and the composer’s directions all converge at the keyboard, and as the pianist, the vessel, the interpreter, the judge, I—like any pianist—make the tough calls and accept the consequences. When it comes to fingering, the question isn’t really one of Thomson’s ego—or Chopin’s, or Bartok’s, or Beethoven’s, or Scriabin’s—it’s of my own.
There’s a lot floating around out there, but here are some personal highlights of my brief but life-altering journey with Cage’s music, in honor of his 101st birthday today. Geek out and enjoy!
David Lang wrote the following piece to honor John Cage’s passing in 1992. It appears now in his Memory Pieces.
And finally, one of my favorite John Cage miracle moments, from a live recording of his Europera 5. Composer was present. (I was not.)
"Did you like the way you played?"