I waited about ten minutes while one of my older students, a woman in her sixties, finished up a phone call with her rabbi. From the sounds of it, she was planning a bar mitzvah, arranging everything from the start time to the cake design to the seating. “I want it to be a nice,” she urged. “People should feel like it’s special.” Between breaths, she whispered apologies in my direction. I shrugged. It didn’t matter. This sounded important.
At last she hung up and came to the piano. “It’s a lot of work!” she gasped, regarding the yapping shih tzu on the floor, ”getting Muffin blessed.”
I feel so proud to have premiered this work by Seth Rozanoff for piano and live electronics. It’s as if he could hear all the sounds bouncing around inside my head and then conceived a piece around it. Truly forward-thinking, beautiful, and uncompromising music by a great artist and friend.
LINT / BOO, FOREVER
I composed this piece very slowly in the basement of Dixon Place 4 years ago when I first arrived in New York. Rachel Brook and Will Larche performed it with me there a year later. Then I presented a solo version of it last month at Roulette. I like how this live recording came out. The piece is supposed to feel like a void. We’ve all been there.
I often wonder if some pianists come away from their practice with a sense of having beaten a piece into submission, because when I finish my practice I tend to feel the opposite.
One of my older students uses a piano instruction book from 1956. It has markings in it from every period of his life, and the book itself serves as a kind of time capsule from another era (the first printing was actually in the twenties), with almost every page offering some dizzying finger exercise or cluttered attempt at teaching a key signature. Of the eighty-five little pieces, several serve as politically incorrect postcards from early twentieth century America, with songs like “In Old Japan” and “The Jolly Tar.” I’m partial to “The Laughing Fairy,” but I know I’m reading into things.
The final song is called “Italian Dance,” and my student started working on it about a month ago. His book, which has accompanied him through nearly half-a-century of his life, is, needless to say, falling apart, and the last page went missing probably decades ago. “Italian Dance,” to our dismay, has no ending. In fact, we only get a measure of the Coda before we’re forced to quit.
I have a thing for scooping up old, out-of-print piano teaching materials, and so I pounced on the opportunity to find this book. For one, I think it has some good music in it. And secondly, we would get to find out how “Italian Dance” ends. I found it online, bought it for $20 (the printed price on the actual book is $3.25) and… have forgotten to bring it to our lessons ever since. I’ve peaked inside and there are only two lines of music after our forced stopping point, but for three lessons now the poor guy has asked if I remembered to bring the book, desperate to finish the piece, and I’ve had to tell him no. Today, I even went back into my apartment to bring some other new books to his lesson for us to explore. But not the one with “Italian Dance.” I know…
So, as per usual, we played through it today and stopped at the first measure of the Coda. He likes to stay focused in our lessons, but I had to say something. I told him that our relationship with “Italian Dance” reminded me of my childhood.
See, my father and mother divorced when I was two, but he still visited every so often on weekends. With him, he would sometimes bring stacks of VHS tapes filled to capacity with dubbed movies. I don’t know if anyone besides me remembers how to do this, but one would basically wire two VCRs together and then record one tape to another. One could also select the quality of the recording: extended play or standard play. My dad chose extended play, and would pack three movies to a tape. Or, I should say… almost three.
So I’d get this succession of films on one tape—Goonies followed by Scanners followed by Return to Oz—and I’d watch them nonstop, letting them no doubt inform my subconscious to this very day. But of course movies have different lengths, and three movies will rarely fit evenly onto one VHS tape. Sometimes the endings, especially for the third movie in line, would suffer the consequences.
Such was the case with Pinocchio. I fucking loved Pinocchio. Easily, I watched it more than any other Disney film, and had it on heavy rotation along with Indiana Jones, Jaws 3, and The Worst Witch. But the ending, because of its position on the dubbed videotape, was cut off. Like, I mean, right at the pivotal moment where the whale sails toward Pinocchio for his final attack. Just then, the tape would stop and begin rewinding.
I never really saw the end. I never saw Pinocchio turn into a real boy.
Not for years, at least. I think I once begged my mom to rent it for me so I could finally see Pinocchio’s face, smooth and human. I still remember the thrill of going past that expected cut-off point, seeing the whale suddenly coming straight toward me.
I still remember the exotic despair of seeing Pinocchio face-down in the tide pool.
I still remember the initial awe of seeing him transformed.
So this is a story I told my student today.
postcard from 1945
someone told me today that the end of my performance sunday was contrived. only the word bothers me. isn’t any recital, by its very nature, contrived? and don’t we all contrive our performances for the sake of our audience?
from an email to frank
The other night, a friend of mine laughed when I said, “I get a lot of thinking done at concerts.” I admit, I meant it to sound bitchy at the time—I’d just demanded we leave a less-than-inspiring performance at intermission—but in most circumstances I mean it in the most complementary way. I do get a lot of thinking done at concerts. In fact, the amount of thinking I get done helps me to gauge afterwards how much I truly enjoyed the experience. Sitting in a concert hall is the closest thing I have to meditation.
I also regret to say that I’m a terribly impatient audience member, much more understanding onstage than off. Whereas onstage, I don’t quite care about what’s going on out there in the hall, once I’m entrenched in the democracy of folding chairs and orchestra seating, any crinkling of a plastic bag, any whisper, any glance at a phone, will provoke from me a deadly stare or a tap on the shoulder. I’m proud to say that I “shh”d people at Einstein on the Beach last year at BAM, and I think fondly of the time when, at a recital by the incomparable Anthony de Mare, I asked a girl sitting next to me to stop scrolling through photos on her digital camera, an activity that, while rude, made no noise whatsoever. She was mortified.
Tonight, the spellbinding pianist (and friend), Pejda Muzijevic, had the floating concert hall of Bargemusic entranced. I was a puppy heeling before him, an eternal student in prostration. The composers’ music flowed from his head to his fingers like a waterfall, and he firmly channelled each piece’s aural image without getting in its or his own way. He was pure. He was divine.
There was also a fly. Yes, it flew around his head in a continual, frenzied orbit. Even after a sizable intermission during which it vanished, it still appeared just in time for the second half. This fly, which looked downright prehistoric in size, was a daredevil fly, an erratic fly, a provocative fly, zooming dangerously close to Pejda’s face during some of the program’s most demanding passages. In fact, Pedja seemed half-a-gasp away from swallowing this fly during Kreisleriana. Far from horrified by the idea of this, I thought it seemed like one of the only ways we could ever ensure to get rid of the thing.
There’s no negotiating with a fly. We were, all of us, in essence defenseless against this anarchic animal in its insistence on sharing the stage. Amidst my deep thinking about Pedja and his talent, his agile fingers, his elastic mind, and the weight of his program (which had me wondering if I’d played a proper recital in the last seven years) I wondered if this fly was necessary—a necessary reminder that we are all indeed tied to the here and now, as much as the contrapuntal perfume of Schumann begs to sweep us away.
Yes, there is a fly. There is always a fly.
And not only a fly. Someone kicked over a soda can right at the final chord of Kreisleriana’s Sehr langsam sixth movement. And when the waves at Bargemusic get too heavy, the pipes and metal under the barge clink and clank, which happened during one of the Morton Feldman Intermissions. And people still think that slow movements are a time to relax their manners, cough, whisper, and snack; I think the opposite.
But these injustices serve as our essential tethers to reality, and they bring a crucial quality of urgency to experiencing a live performance of classical music. It’s the dissonance between our imperfect reality and the perfection onstage—which is to say, the tangible pursuit of perfection, not unlike the Olympics—that fuels the excitement of the classical concert dynamic. It’s so strong, this dynamic, that John Cage spent a lifetime trying to dismantle it. People are still mad at Cage for violating the expected code of the concert hall.
Anyway, amidst my inevitable reverie, every time I go to a concert I’m transported to another time and place, tantalized by the idea that my experience in that moment can’t be too far off from a similar moment a hundred-and-fifty years before, or last week, or the year my mom was born. Such is the timelessness of a classical concert. But it’s not just a time machine. The instrumentalist on the stage is at work now, bearing their soul to us now, and anything can happen. They know it and we know it. So tonight, I came face to face with Schumann, Scarlatti, Cowell, Feldman, and Liszt, and yet I also had the fortune of dipping briefly into Pedja’s inner-world, a world that he could only be so bold and brave enough to share onstage. I got to see him fight without bloodshed, weep without tears, live and die with each cadence. To me, this is classical music. Irrational, alive, and buzzing.
-written on the C Train between High Street, Brooklyn, and 72nd Street in Manhattan, on an iPad