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Denk: a musician with a brain

A few years ago my friend Marnie introduced me to Jeremy Denk’s piano performances, and his writings.  I’ve fallen in love with both.  But especially the two together: there are other great performers to listen to, and other great writers on music and life to read: there are few who are both.

Another friend sent me a copy of Denk’s review of Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, from the New Republic (PDF copy below in case link breaks).  To Denk the book review is an opportunity for a wonderful essay F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, BWV 1018, and reading scores.  He opens with “The only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex”, and then he offers what the thinking musician can offer, sitting at the keyboard to explore and then share the experience with us (warning: long excerpt):

I found myself in a zone too far away, reading someone’s ideas about someone else’s ideas about Bach’s ideas, and so I sat at the piano to play, with the dubious motive of purifying myself. I started in on the opening movement of the F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, BWV 1018, because it has an extraordinary snuck-in entrance, like the one Elie describes, and it is a perfect example of Bach’s way with truth, logic, and musical metaphor.

The piece begins with a keyboard solo. The violin is nowhere to be found, silent for a good while: this silence is a mystery to be solved. We are in a slow triple time, and the main idea of the piece is exactly three beats long. Each time that we hear the melody, another bar has gone by, another unit of time, another moment of our lives. The keyboard plays the main idea once in the top voice, then travels lower into the middle voice—it is measuring out two units of time, pacing them out. At the same time, however, the harmony is static; we are treading water. (Music is especially hospitable to nuances and paradoxes of motion and stillness.) Then comes the crucial change-up: three bars where the harmony is allowed to move. This happens because—everything in Bach happens because!—the melodic idea continues its journey downward, and ends up in the lowest voice. It’s as if something from the sky moves underground, and shifts the foundation under your feet. Bach is all about the beauties of consequences.

Now that the melody has moved down to the bass, there is room for something new in the upper voices. But Bach doesn’t have to invent something: why would he? He fills it with the most obvious thing at hand: he extracts the first two notes of the existing melody, elongates them, enchains them. He fashions a gorgeous long melody line out of them so that they interact dissonantly—even a bit painfully, you might say—with the faster melody in the bass. Bach demonstrates a thing interacting painfully with itself.

It’s as simple as A and B: two bars of consonant stasis, then three bars of dissonant flux, in which the possibilities of the idea presented in stasis are now seen in motion. This is the kind of basic contrast, a glimpse of two kinds of musical possibility, two temporal states, that Bach is able to wring our hearts with. In fact, at the end of the three moving bars the keyboard reaches the most pained and disturbing of the dissonances. And here comes the magical elided solution to the mystery of the silence of the violin: Bach leaves this last dissonance unresolved, and just at that ambiguous moment—at the end of an unsettling motion that has not quite found a resting place—the violin at last enters, playing an unmoving held note, C. Though not a resolution, this note appears in the guise of one. It doesn’t resolve the unresolved thing; it substitutes a different solution out of nowhere.

Surreptitious, lacking in fanfare, deliberately hidden, the violin holds onto this single note for two measures, like an unblinking gaze. The sustained note has no relation to time, while the keyboard, on which every note decays, keeps marking time, seemingly unaffected. After two bars of this haunting dialectic, the violin leaves the held note to play one unremarkable measure of melody, then immediately, just as unexpectedly as it entered, returns to its earlier silence. This is Bach’s perverse, reverse masterstroke. The stage was beautifully set for nearly nothing. We are left listening to the keyboard again; time resumes. It was an ephemeral moment of eternity.

A month later, Denk showed up in The New Yorker, this time with a remembrance of Charles Rosen (PDF copy linked below).  It’s perfect (if maybe not a bit self-indulgent): Denk on Rosen’s intellect and writing:

Charles’s  obituaries  call  him  a  “polymath,”  a  “scholar-­musician;”  they  laud  his  “ferocious  intelligence,”  his  “all-­around brilliance.”  Behind  all  these  epithets  lurks  the  unavoidable  and  vexing  question:  Should  a  musician  have  a  brain?  I mean,  a  brain  over  and  above  what’s  necessary  to  move  the  fingers,  eat,  sleep,  make  charming  chitchat  at  gala  dinners with  sponsors,  etc.  We  say  “thinking  musician”  as  if  it  were  a  freakish  breed,  like  a  peacock  that  talks,  distracting  you from  its  glorious  feathers.  There  was  something  freakish  about  Charles  Rosen,  like  any  miracle.

I wouldn’t describe Denk as freakish, but I’m grateful for both his lucid writing and his thinking-yet-passionate pianism.

Bach’s Music, Back Then and Right Now

Remembering Charles Rosen, Author of The Classical Style: The New Yorker


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