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Rubies & Resurrections

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s charming short story “This Blessed House,” one of the finest in her prizewinning debut collection Interpreter of Maladies, a mismatched Indian American couple wrangles over what to do with the Christian tchotchkes that begin turning up all over their new home. Husband Sanjeev is an engineer; wife Twinkle is “finishing” her Masters in English. Sanjeev puts Post-its in places where the paint on the baseboard needs to be touched up. Twinkle reads sonnets in the tub. Sanjeev prepares chutneys according to elaborate family recipes. Twinkle buys roast chickens at the supermarket. At one point, Twinkle, who has discovered a bottle of malt vinegar in a kitchen cabinet, uses it to whip up an impromptu stew. Sanjeev wants to know how she did it; he is flummoxed that she didn’t write it down. “What if you want to do it again?” he asks her, as if such a thing were possible.

And so with the tchotchkes, left behind like the vinegar: Twinkle wants to display them prominently, including on their lawn. Sanjeev demurs, calling them “idiotic.” “We’re not Christian,” he reminds her. “No,” she answers, “we’re good little Hindus.” At the climactic housewarming party, Twinkle tells the story of how the relics were discovered. The party turns into a scavenger hunt; a silver bust of Christ is discovered in the attic. Sanjeev refuses to participate. At one point, as Twinkle and their guests roam the attic, he fantasizes about folding up the staircase, trapping them there, and going back to his solitary, carefully ordered, predictable life.

Like many Lahiri stories, “This Blessed House” examines issues of immigration, cultural identity, and assimilation: Sanjeev’s scrupulous and deferential attention to tradition and his carefully-plotted Westernization versus Twinkle’s bricoleur approach to their Americanized identity (her Bollywood name; her doting on kitsch Christian iconography); Sanjeev’s feeling that the house should express something authentic about them versus Twinkle’s desire to deck it out it in the gaudy regalia of the land they have inherited. But at base it is still very much the story of a mismatched couple, one bubbly, frivolous, and spontaneous, the other STEM-serious, trying to accommodate—if not assimilate—to one another.

Among the many details Lahiri mobilizes to express this tension are musical ones. Sanjeev listens to Mahler. Not to say he is steeped in the European classical tradition—no, he subscribes to a mail-order CD service so that he can fully educate himself about the Western canon. He reads the liner notes, but is unable to correlate the words he reads with the music he hears. Twinkle cautions him not to put on Mahler at the housewarming because—in that most clichéd American comment about classical music—it will put everyone to sleep.

And Twinkle? She supervises the “hectic jazz records” played at the party. Of course she does. Spontaneous, gregarious, frivolous, disordered, “hectic” … American: Twinkle is, to quote the title of a popular jazz record, the spirit of the moment.*

A scattering of rubies

I read “This Blessed House” and a number of other Lahiri stories with my sophomore Studies in Fiction students a couple of years ago, together with stories by Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel, Katherine Anne Porter, and Italo Calvino. Jazz made another brief, suggestive appearance in Calvino’s story “Crystals” (from the second Cosmicomics collection t zero), which ends with the narrator listening to a record by Thelonious Monk. The serendipity prompted me to reflect with my class on the way authors use music in fiction, the cultural meaning of jazz, and, of course, Monk’s artistry.

Thelonious Monk, 1955. Photo by Roy DeCarava

Monk. The name is redolent in a way few other jazz musicians’ names are. Monk and jazz are virtually synonymous. It’s partly time and place: New York in the couple of decades post-WWII. It’s partly the style, bebop, with deep roots in stride and blues, still the bricks and mortar of mainstream jazz, the sort casual listeners seek out at one of the city’s upscale clubs as part of a night on the town. It’s partly image: shades, strut, sartorial eccentricity. But more than anything it’s feel: swinging, spontaneous, upbeat, unpredictable …. It’s hard not to imagine Twinkle spinning at least one Monk record at that housewarming party.†

At first glance Calvino’s Monk would seem to fit the same bill. “Crystals” tells, once again, the story of a mismatched couple, here the eternal Cosmicomics narrator Qfwfq and his hottie, Vug, wandering around an earth without a settled crust, witnessing the birth of the first crystals. This part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks; in modern times, Qfwfq lives in suburban New Jersey, is married to a woman named Dorothy, and commutes to work in Manhattan. Late in story, staring at a window display of diamonds outside Tiffany’s, Qfwfq sees the reflection of a woman he immediately recognizes as Vug, that mercurial beauty he lost amid the crystalizing earth long ago. The modern Vug is a photographer, and—after Qfwfq follows her to her SoHo apartment—his presumptive mistress.

So a rift again, between the narrator’s modern, ordered, domesticated world, and the disorder he craves, figured in his bohemian mistress. But “Crystals” is more complicated than the simple contrast between order and chaos, the planned and the spontaneous, Mars and Venus, that Lahiri mobilizes in her lovely story. Rather, it’s about the instability of the order-chaos binary itself (hey, this was 1967). It’s the story’s willingness to interrogate the nature of this instability that gives us, I think, a richer sense of Monk’s music, and of jazz.

Glass, Qfwfq remarks early in the story, looks like crystal but isn’t: modern society “mak[es] me run among smooth transparent walls and between symmetrical angles so I’ll believe I’m inside a crystal,” but the world is really “amorphous and crumbling and gummy” (29). “Base” glass is not a crystal but a “paste of haphazard molecules.” The city, with its gridded streets and skyscrapers, does not reflect true order, one inherent in substances themselves, but a simulacrum of order—disorder disguised as order. Qfwfq, “imprisoned” in glass like most everyone else (at least everyone square—hey, this was 1967!), “play[s] the game […] of pretending there’s an order in the dust” (30).

Qfwfq loves order, but he’s no Sanjeev. He rejects the cultural binary that assigns eros to disorder, erupting through a dull, repressive order. “In me,” Qfwfq says, “the idea of an absolutely regular world […] is associated with that first impulse and burgeoning of nature, that amorous tension—what you call eros—while all the rest of your images, those that according to you associate passion with disorder, love with intemperate overflow—river fire whirlpool volcano—for me are memories of nothingness and listlessness and boredom” (31). Or, as he puts it elsewhere: eros is a diamond. For Qfwfq, order is erotically charged by its friction against the formless chaos that preceded it. But in the listless order of the city (and even more, the suburbs), there is no real tension, because there is no true order: eros, like rebellion, is simulation.

This inversion of the erotic associations of order and chaos is only part of the story. In the old earth, traveling through a valley of beryllium crystals, Qfwfq experiences “a vague fear that this triumph of order in such various fashions might reproduce on another scale the disorder we had barely left behind us” (33). Anyone who has seen the jumble of crystals in a geode can relate to Qfwfq’s vision, if not his “vague fear.” Our response is probably more like Vug’s: she likes the criss-crossing of many different crystalline patterns; she likes variety, brilliance, “order in such various fashions [that it] might reproduce on another scale […] disorder.” She likes, in other words, precisely what makes Qfwfq anxious: variegated order on the micro-level that becomes disorder when considered at a higher order of magnitude, threatening the stability of the order/disorder binary.§

Vug herself is a site of conflict for Qfwfq, at once a figure of his nostalgia for the eros of a vanished world that never finished coming into being, and an intimation of that world’s impossibility. Qfwfq wants—or claims to want—a single, gigantic, stable world-crystal that incorporates him and Vug in its unity, and in which the flaws here and there will diminish to nothing amidst the perfection of the whole—the inverse of the perfect crystals in the valley of beryllium whose exuberant agglutination submerges order in a new, vaster disorder. But the singular crystalline ideal Qfwfq desires is impossible, for it contains the seeds of its own destruction; nature is not stability but flux, growth and collapse and regrowth (the story’s image of the sea “kneading” the fragments of the “shattered” world is perfect).

Here’s the rub: beauty (and hence art, and hence literature) arises from disorder; as Vug says, there would be no rubies without the “chance scatter[ing] some chrome atoms” in an aluminum crystal (35). Vug, Qfwfq says, “wants to make me admit that real order carries impurity within itself […] Vug’s world was in the fissures, the cracks” (36). For our narrator, beauty is order, but it exists only potentially, as an ideal; for Vug, beauty is the imperishable, undeniable, and very real disorder dispersed within order, fissuring it with abysses over which order teeters … and into which it plunges. There can be no eros without it, no consummation without desire, without some yearning for an order that never quite arrives.**

Like Lahiri’s couple, there is a “fissure” between Qfwfq and Vug that makes them incomprehensible to one another (or rather, that makes the woman so to the man; there is no sense of any such angst from either Twinkle or Vug). But in “Crystals” the fissure itself is the mark of the flaw—fissure within and without. Qfwfq rationalizes, as contemporary society demands of him—the flaws are just apparent—and clings to his nostalgia for a time when a crystal world still seemed possible. Even as he is reflective enough to know that he is rationalizing, he imagines a Borgesian higher order above the scale where crystals shade back into disorder, a “hypercrystal that included within itself crystals and non-crystals” (37). (Vug is not interested in such abstractions; she wants brilliance, incarnation, stimulation.) Qfwfq is as imprisoned in his desperate yearning and imagined nostalgia for order as he is in the glass simulacrum of the modern city. He is also caught in the fissure between that yearning and his desire for Vug.

As noted, Monk appears in the story’s last sentence, deus ex machina. But what kind of a deus? Here is the end: “The crystal which has succeeded in becoming the world, in making the world transparent to itself, in refracting it into infinite spectral images, is not mine: it is a corroded crystal, stained, mixed. The victory of the crystals (and of Vug) has been the same thing as their defeat (and mine). I’ll wait now till the Thelonious Monk record ends, then I’ll tell her” (38).

The story’s crowning irony is that this world, the crystal world, turns out to be not the world Qfwfq desired, because the crystals themselves are flawed: the “perturbations” in atoms that produce light, the transistors in the radio, even the ice in their drinks. Not to say that he abandons either dream or nostalgia: these crystals are not his, he says; there are by implication “other” crystals, his crystals, from which the ur-crystal world he imagines could be built. He will go back to his simulated life of simulated order, his listless marriage in the suburbs, his glass prison in the city; he will embark on a futile affair with Vug, continue his endless argument with her across the fissure of their difference, across the grooves in the vinyl. But only when the music stops.

Monk’s music keeps Qfwfq suspended in that fissure between thinking and saying, the ordering of inchoate thought as language. Perhaps it has helped him to work out his position, what he is about to announce, when the music ends, where the story leaves us. Monk’s world, Vug’s world, Qfwfq’s silence. Monk’s music is not disorder, but—thinking back to the many images in the story of the interplay between order and disorder—the presence of an abiding disorder within apparent order; or the collision of a number of different orders which achieves a sort of divine meta-disorder; or the continuous feint toward order crumbling back into disorder. The flux of the present in which the story leaves us, and in which Monk’s music moves, against an order we can only assemble in immediate hindsight. It’s not the beauty of disorder, which can be boring (was Calvino thinking about free jazz here, born less than a decade before this collection was published, the year Coltrane died?), but of the flaws within order that create the contrasts by which alone beauty can be apprehended. Monk’s clinkers and his splashing around on the keyboard and his perfectly-timed “late” entries are indeed “the rubies that flower beneath our footsteps.” The tension between an order constantly emerging from and seething back into disorder, like the imperfect crystals of the forming earth—an earth that is after all still forming, even if we cannot sense that change under the apparent stability that reigns during our very short lives (although we seem to be doing our darndest to feel it—perhaps that is what drives our suicidal behavior vis-à-vis climate change, the desire to feel the earth as an organic, living entity, irrupting through our once glass, now plastic, built environments?). That tension is a fair description of what makes jazz a living, breathing art form: between composition and improvisation, between individual and ensemble, and, as in all art, between tradition and innovation.

Lahiri’s story, too, ends with the protagonist suspended. Sanjeev will remain with Twinkle, dutifully following her with the bust of Christ he hates “because he knew that Twinkle loved it”; we never get the sense that he has grown, that he is mature enough to imagine crossing the fissure between them. He is trapped in the amber of his upbringing and personality; he fears to admit to himself what he craves. Qfwfq is at least more dynamic, more angst-ridden. When the record ends—and only when the record ends—he will present his concession—and then the argument will continue (e.g., “Your crystals, Qfwfq? And where exactly are your crystals, love?”). Argument, too, is amorous tension; agreement, concession, whatever, are momentary consummations.

By the way, who put on that record: Qfwfq or Vug? Calvino, the scamp, never tells us.

Lord, there’s Thelonious

As I prepared to teach jazz poetry (and then a broader unit on jazz) for my Writing About Music class in the early twenty-teens, I was surprised by the number of poetic elegies written for jazz musicians. Granted, I drew my selections entirely from the 1991 Jazz Poetry Anthology (eds. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, Indiana UP), so this observation might be a reflection of the biases of the editors, or of the handful of poems I selected about a few key figures (Coltrane, Monk, Holiday), or of the lives of the figures I chose to examine. Still, there do seem to be a disproportionate number of elegies in the genre, going at least as far back as Frank O’Hara’s classic one for Lady Day.

As I wrote in the last “Postmortem” installment: “Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called ‘goofin’.’ It intones rather than sings.” (For further reflections on the philosophy and pedagogy of this class, see the “Postmortem” trilogy: 03.13.11, 08.24.12, and 08.07.19). Why, that is, does jazz poetry spend so much time mourning the often short and tragic lives of the artists rather than celebrating the gift that is their music—their ability to transmute that pain, as Sonny notes in “Sonny’s Blues,” into joy? (“Listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Amen.) Why doesn’t it seek the tone of those jazz funerals at Riverside Church (and surely elsewhere), where musicians come to engage in a sort of spiritual pallbearing, to carry forward a legacy as much as mourn a passing? Wasn’t poetry, which foregrounds the musicality of language, the timbre of voice, meant to sing, too?

But then maybe all poetry written within the last fifty or sixty years is tinged with mourning: elegies for presence, laments for its lack. Writers, and particularly writers with a background in academia (almost a given today), are trained to be hyperconscious of the ostensible failure of language, to distrust the very medium in which we work. The literary text is an always-already- fallen world; words, in Qfwfq’s terms, are “base glass.” (Today, they might be plastic.)

What are the consequences of this constant reminder to mind the gap? Why are we so afraid to trip? Is there anything so surprising, so unexpected, so life-affirming, as falling flat on one’s face? Has poetry become so self-conscious it can’t swing?

Maybe. Or maybe elegy simply imagines a different kind of presence. For one near-constant of the elegaic strand of jazz poetry is manifestation: be it as ghostly sensation or embodied appearance, the musician returns from beyond.

Such resurrections are only as convincing as the language that performs them, and so the strength of our faith in that language: in the ecstatic pronouncement that closes the gap between presence and representation, or at least enables us to forget it, even momentarily; to suspend it, like eternal Qfwfq with that Monk record left spinning, or the coin at the end of the film Inception.

Amiri Baraka’s, for example, taking a page from Victor Frankenstein’s book at the end of the mighty explosion that is “AM/TRAK”: “Live! You crazy mother / fucker! / Live!” Even John Stillman’s serene “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which (despite its title) is about listening, is carried entirely by the music of its language and its cyclically-repeated imagery. It is a memorial that swings, an elegy that commands us to “listen,” that restores the music rather than the musician. (I suppose that’s why it’s my favorite poem about Coltrane.)

At least initially, Yusef Komunyakaa’s approach to the jazz elegy couldn’t be more different. Consider the first eleven lines of his “Elegy for Thelonious” (1984): “Damn the snow. / Its senseless beauty / pours a hard light / through the hemlock. / Thelonious is dead. Winter / drifts in the hourglass; / notes pour from the brain cup. / Damn the alley cat / wailing a muted dirge / off Lenox Ave. / Thelonious is dead …”

Yes, Thelonious is dead. And from the glimpse of the funeral we see in the documentary Straight No Chaser, it was a traditional affair: folks filing by the casket to pay their respects, rather like Komunyakaa’s austere, ceremonial lines do. It is a poem more about the speaker’s grief than about the man who has passed, let alone his music.

Monk (left) et al. outside Minton’s, 1947. Roy Eldridge is second from the right. Photo by William Gottlieb.

In the second half of the poem, however, the speaker rouses himself from his grief. It turns out they are a musician as well; we might have intuited it from the musical attention to the cat’s wail. And the only way out of mourning is music: “Let’s go to Minton’s / & play ‘modern malice’ / Till daybreak” (28-30). There is a noticeable shift in diction and tone here, signaled by the ampersand and contractions. And then: “Lord, / There’s Thelonious / Wearing that funky old hat / Pulled down over his eyes” (30-33). The expletive completes the shift. Monk’s appearance is prefigured in lines 24-6: “The ghost of bebop / from 52nd Street, / Footprints in the snow.” It’s notable that the hat, not the eyes (which are covered), becomes the identifying mark, almost a synechdoche, like Prez’s porkpie. A case of mistaken identity, in the blear of near-dawn? Perhaps. But the most important thing is not the truth of the (ghostly) presence—is “Thelonious” on the bandstand? at a table? standing in the back? did the speaker ever even leave their apartment (or wherever) in the full stop between lines 27 and 28?—but that the speaker’s grief has impelled them (actually or imaginatively) into a musical space, Monk’s space, where a collective (“let’s”) marathon session conjures Monk’s musical avatar.

It might be said that John Sinclair’s “humph” (1988) also features a Monkian resurrection … except that this poem never quite says that Monk died in the first place. The first two quatrains: “they say monk / couldn’t play the music. they say, / monk, he limited / by his own vision // & just can’t play right. monk, / he too weird. his music / don’t sound right, and he gets up / & dances …”

“humph”’s slightly later publication date may help explain the absence of the raw immediacy of grief that characterizes Komunyakaa’s “Elegy,” which that poem labors to transcend. But everything else about Sinclair’s poem is immediate, most notably Monk himself. By the second stanza the tense has shifted from past to present (from “monk couldn’t play” (2) to “he just can’t play right” (5)), the shift anticipated by the vernacular elision of “to be” in line 3 (“he limited”). And there the poem emphatically remains. If at first we’re unsure whether it is only the detractors’ comments that revive Monk by speaking ill of him—an act of conjuring within the poem—at the end, Monk, very much alive, “shoots a grin / from behind the piano.” What surprises Komunyakaa’s speaker (“Lord, there’s Thelonious”) Sinclair’s takes for granted.

The poem’s diction and tone reinforce the feeling of presence and immediacy. “humph” is vernacular, agrammatical, casual, and expletive-enriched; it is strung through with ampersands and, despite the full-stops, no capitals. The language is clearly intended to mirror the space in which the speaker locates Monk’s “genius” (29): jazz’s mythical origins in the brothel and speakeasy, those spaces furthest removed from concert hall and academia. Monk may have been a New York jazz artist, but for “humph”’s speaker (and the interpolated voices of his detractors) he was an import, “pre-harlem” (15), rooted in the “booglaloo” (32) of the North Carolina of his birth.

The identities of both the speaker and the “they” whose opinions dominate the poem are ambiguous. Clearly the speaker is a partisan and “they” are critics, but what else can we tell about them? Part of the difficulty is placing the poem in time. We know that Monk’s music was initially disparaged, and then slowly gained acceptance over the ‘50s and early ‘60s; by the ‘80s, of course, Monk’s “genius” had long since been recognized. The detail about Monk getting up and dancing would seem to place us in the sixties … but by then Monk was already mainstream (to the point, as Gary Giddins reminds us, that he was eventually criticized for “not being out enough”; see “Rhythm-a-ning,” Visions of Jazz, Oxford UP, 1998). Based on the idiom, the “they” who disparage Monk would seem not to be the (white) critical establishment that panned him early on, but rather other African Americans—perhaps musicians who were seeking high-culture recognition for jazz (e.g., “America’s classical music”). But if so, why the vernacular? Or perhaps it is simply how the speaker reports them, translating their criticisms, and figuring jazz as quintessentially Black American music. (White critics occasionally strained to sound “hip,” but that does not seem to be the case here.) Perhaps, rather than seek too much historical specificity, we should simply accept that the poem is figuring Monk as an eternal outsider, timeless as his music, and understand the speaker as a representative spirit of the tradition of Black American music: a listener who has not lost their roots.

Whoever “they” are, they demand of the music a respectability that both distances it from saloon, ghetto, and revival tent (and the charlantry, grandstanding, and sheer bullshit that are part of that tradition), and fits within the norms of the music as it has evolved—norms that Monk is bent on defying. The emphasis is on Monk’s adherence to a musical tradition with which “they” have either lost touch or remain ignorant. Monk’s serene ignoring of “them” in the penultimate stanzas (“& monk, / in his infinite knowledge // & wisdom, shoots a grin / from behind the piano, / wiggles his ass on the stool, / lays down another few bars // of utter genius …” (23-29)) gives us a strong sense of the artist living in his own world, “ke[eping] his own counsel,” as Giddins put it (“no voice in American music was more autonomous and secure than Monk’s”). The poem’s title says as much. And yet, ironically, the moment when the speaker attempts to plead Monk’s case is also the poem’s least convincing. Sinclair is at pains to remind us of the rural roots of jazz: the music Miles remembers hearing as a child walking back from his grandmother’s house in the country, the culture which fed the music and to which, Miles and others have argued, it must retain some connection if it is to live and breathe. Monk was clearly indebted as player and composer to the blues and to stride piano. But Giddins is correct when he calls Monk the “quintessential New York jazzman.” It’s notable that the poem actually moves in the opposite direction at the end from Komunyakaa’s: while the “Elegy” loosens once it arrives at Minton’s, in “humph” the diction shifts upward (“infinite knowledge & wisdom,” “utter genius”)—not just respectable (and respectful) language, but grand, empty pronouncements, in an effort to raise Monk godlike above his detractors.†† Ultimately, Sinclair’s Monk is more convincing when he blithely plays what his detractors say he plays. One suspects Monk would have responded the same way to one as to the other, as he does in that marvelous opening exchange of Straight, No Chaser: “You’re famous, Monk.” Monk: “Ain’t that a bitch?”

In all this I can’t help think of the resurrection that ends Carl Theodor Dryer’s film Ordet, to my mind the most perfect moment in the history of cinema, the moment the film becomes about the possibilities of its own medium. It is a possibility still open to poetry, as much as ever enmeshed in its origins in song. Hybrid forms like spoken word and rap/hip hop have gone a long way toward marrying them again; such forms might be the natural place to find an ecstatic re-presentation of (other) music, something closer to Baraka, whose poetry was always much the finest in performance (as I had the great privilege to see and hear him do at a couple of Vision Festivals, accompanied by horns). Like Baraka’s, like Stillman’s, “humph” deserves to be performed, preferably at a bar where musicians gather, with a half-redeemed whorehouse piano by the bathroom, and an unredeemed pianist banging out clinkers on the keys.

Feet & hands

I watched Straight, No Chaser again the other night; I hadn’t seen it in probably twenty years. Watching Monk brought to mind Ralph Kirkpatrick’s comments about playing the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 03.28.21): proper execution demands that keyboardists think of themselves as dancers, and that the sonata itself be “imaginatively coreographed.” So it must have been for Scarlatti himself when he composed them; so it was centuries later for Cecil Taylor, who once remarked that he “tr[ies] to imitate on the piano the leaps that a dancer’s body makes it space” (qtd. in Val Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life, p. 60; Taylor, Wilmer notes, studied dance and played for modern dancers; he was also criticized for making music that was too far from “humph”’s boogaloo).

Much is made of Monk’s dancing, particularly in his later years, but his music was already vividly translated through his body long before that. The right foot, occasionally on the pedal, but mostly pumping like he’s inflating something, or playing an invisible sock cymbal; or skidding across the floor, like a brush on a snare. As the famous title of Whitney Balliett’s piece about Pee Wee Russell tells us, you can learn a lot about a musician just from watching their feet: Lang Lang’s, skipping around crazily underneath the piano while he played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 at a concert in Houston; Ravi Coltrane’s, a foot away from me on the stage at Blue Note, tapping out some rhythm not quite on the beat. Monk’s feet may look homeless, but they’re anything but sad. Even his feet _________________: if you can finish that sentence, say the last word—I mean really get it right—you’ll have his music, right there.

Thelonious Monk performs in London in 1970 (courtesy Getty Images).

And his hands. I imagine my father watching his hands, or any pianist schooled in the classical tradition watching his hands, emitting little gasps of despair. Like caltrops. Rictus fingers. And those rings! He wouldn’t play the same without them; they are the equivalents of the blocks and other random objects musicians place across the cables of a prepared piano. Monk, a pianist of prepared hands. A musical bricoleur, he grabbed whatever was handy—dabbing his brow with a handkerchief, for example, and then playing with it for a bar or two. Or with an elbow. All these contingencies of movement, all things within his grasp, become part of the music.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say a deaf person could come closer to hearing Monk’s music by watching him play than perhaps any other jazz musician.

Alex Ross once wrote about Debussy’s “The Girl With Flaxen Hair” that one is surprised to hear it was “written” at all; it seems as though it had always been there, waiting to be discovered. Some of Monk’s melodies have this feel about them; they’re so redolent of the traditions that shaped them that they seem handed down rather than composed. But their rooted feel, their apparent ease and affability, always carries a jagged edge. It might be a contrast between the symmetrical character of the melody and the asymmetry of the phrasing, as though a worksong had been laid the wrong way across the bar lines, or a blues had been embellished at its rests and cadences in such a way as to turn it into something entirely new. They remind me a little of paintings by Pierre Bonnard: the way he cropped his images, framed his familiar domestic spaces in such a way as to make them unfamiliar, and led the viewer to desire to know what is directly outside the edge. Monk suggests that same irresolution: melodies trail off or end in unexpected places, pleasingly failed attempts at something else. We wait in vain for fuller resolution; instead, he starts over again. (He was finished; he is not sure what you wanted.)

As for his approach to rhythm, so much has been said it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe here, English teacher that I am: “sprung rhythm,” a term associated with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems do not follow typical metrical patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables we associate with other formal English poetry, even as he observes the other rules of the forms in which he writes (such as syllable counts and rhyme schemes). Hopkins heaped stresses on stresses, and the result was rhythmic fireworks. In some ways it’s the furthest thing from Monk, for whom, as Gene Santoro wrote, the concept of space is absolutely crucial, as it was for Miles (see “Master of Space,” Stir It Up, Oxford UP, 1997). (For me, the best example of this is his gorgeously minimalist solo on “Bags’s Groove,” on the Miles album of the same name; the slurred, accenting notes he comps with on many versions of “Epistrophy” are also a great example.) And yet the name has a charm to it: think early industrial machines going to seed, coming apart cartoon-like, a traffic pile-up of snarled belts and gears, endearingly spastic, noise stacatto and irregular. County fair meets Times Square.

Maybe what I hear is second-order syncopation, i.e., syncopating with syncopatation, which does not mean Monk returns to the original downbeat, but rather creates a new pattern of stresses that matches neither. The old cliché about hearing the notes a musician’s not playing, a ghostly cultural soundtrack against which a soloist’s more outré choices can be understood, finds in Monk its rhythmic correlate. Or we might say that he plays second-order polyrhythms (e.g., in “Nutty,” where he works against the three-against-four rhythm), second-order swing. And then he’ll come back and play squarely on the beat, letting an unswung phrase plod down the piano while the rest of the band is swinging. It’s not self-consciousness we hear, but advanced play; he is not removed from music, but embedded in it in his own way. Monk swings like crazy because he refuses to get entirely caught up in the wave carrying the rest of the band. He paddles against it, across it. Dives under.

I love his solos, but they’re not strictly necessary. I could listen to him comp all day.

 

*  One of the beauties of the use of the third-person focalizer—“This Blessed House” is told through Sanjeev’s eyes—is that it helps create ironic distance. Twinkle is a mystery to Sanjeev, and to us as well: we can’t get inside her head. But she’s not a mystery in the same way, since most readers will not share Sanjeev’s near-caricatured rigidity. Lahiri’s choice of perspective allows us to see around Sanjeev, and understand there is more to Twinkle than Sanjeev can understand. Might the same be said for jazz in the story?

†  Here is a thought experiment: A character in a story puts on a jazz record, and the narrator tells us the name of the artist. For how many jazz musicians would the average reader (understood as having a casual familiarity with the genre) be able to translate a meaning more specific than that of the genre as a whole? In other words: How many jazz musicians have percolated out into the popular consciousness to the point that their names conjure, not just what the average reader associates with jazz as a genre, but a distinct persona—something where the reader would exclaim, “Ah, now I understand something about character X,” or, “This detail matches / doesn’t match others details about character X”? I can think of only three: Miles, Trane, and Monk. Mingus? He may bestride the genre like the colossus he was, but would his colossal temper, or some other aspect of his musical persona, signify, translate into some sort of meaning, for a character in a story? Chet Baker? Maybe fifty years ago, but not today. Ellington? Perhaps. Satchmo, possibly. And possibly Wynton Marsalis, after Ken Burns’s documentary, as a recognizable cultural figure associated with jazz. But to my mind, only the aforementioned three would be dead reckonings, on a level with Beethoven (“irrascible nonconformist,” “triumph over disability,” etc.). Coltrane: saint and restless seeker; Miles: cool, urbane, protean, ostentatious, tortured; and Monk. Then again, even these names are conflicted enough as signifiers that they could mean radically different things in different contexts. One character for whom Coltrane signifies “restless seeker” could for another signify “borderline obsessive woodshedder” (Rollins would work there, too) and, for a third, “pretentious asshole.” And of course there’s nothing to stop us from Googling a musician’s name, like any other cultural allusion, to try to figure out more exactly the reason for the author’s name-dropping.

§  This is a running theme in the Cosmicomics, as in the brilliant fable of the origins of the universe “All at One Point.” Calvino is clearly making a broader argument about mediation and communication here as well—the modern crystal as “making the world transparent to itself”; some of the best Cosmicomics are as steeped in semiotics as an Eco essay, often with very humorous results (“The Chase” and “The Night Driver” are great examples).

**  Vug is also flighty and possessive and fickle—that is, stereotypically female. (My favorite line in the story, when Qfwfq and his wife have dinner at his boss’s house: “The men talked of production, the women of consumption.”) The “fissure” that is Vug’s world and that threatens order is clearly feminine. Representations of femininity here opens up another area for analysis, though I think Calvino, like Lahiri, is consciously interrogating these associations as he employs them. Regardless, it does suggest that jazz, associated as it is with spontaneity, intuition, collectivity, and frivolousness, is feminized; DWM Mahler keeps the phallus.

One other note: writer and reader are also embedded in the production-consumption dynamic: Qfwfq inventing his ideal imaginary worlds, Vug “consuming” them … and by doing so threatening their order, whether by the threat of failed communication (the writer’s intention is not understood) or consumption as digestion. The crystal “ma[kes] the world transparent to itself” only in Qfwfq’s mind; the economy of images is always partly opaque (see previous endnote).

††  By transcending (or eliding) jazz history, Sinclair turns Monk into a romantic rebel, though that is perhaps a little unfair, given the insistence on tradition here; the speaker does not disagree with what “they” hear, only about its value. Even during Monk’s life the currents of acceptance and detraction were complicated. Giddins does a nice breakdown of this in “Rhythm-a-ning,” noting that Monk was first revered as a teacher by younger musicians when he was unable to perform due to having his cabaret card revoked over a drug conviction; acceptance of him as a composer followed, and, finally, as a player. (Giddins ends up wondering whether unquestioning acceptance is any better than incomprehension.) It’s also worth putting this poem in the jazz historical context of its publication year, though I think it was a tad early to figure as an expression of neoconservatism. The question of Monk’s relation to tradition also interestingly echoes how Geoff Dyer described Mingus in his magisterial fictional jazz portraits in But Beautiful: that of moving the music forward by digging deep into its history and tradition.

Domenico in the Heart

I probably started working on this post 7or 8 years ago, as a response to Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, and abandoned it after becoming lost in a sea of notes on more recent scholarship. Much of the labor to “finish” it involved shaping, collating, and editing the post-Kirkpatrick material. After a lot of upstream swimming trying to get the newer material to work with the older, I realized (would that I had sooner!) that the form of the original—the response to a single text—too strongly resisted any attempt to morph it into a synthesis, and as such it made more sense to present the work in discrete sections. What follows, then, is a single post composed of two strata: the first is an edited version of the original draft (with a new section on dance, and a new conclusion, mostly cobbled together from the old materials); the second, almost twice the length of the original, and keyed to it via alphabetized endnotes, comments on and updates the Kirkpatrick. When I described this structure to my partner, she suggested the two sections might be imagined as working in counterpoint. Alas, that is a bit too charitable. Given the total length, you are more than welcome, reader, to consider it the Pit Stop’s greatest folly yet: Helldriver’s Heaven’s Gate, if you will. (And you will. Fastway said so.) And yet, even if I have lost my way along the road to the palace of wisdom—even if Xanadu proves to be a tomb—it was a folly that had to be seen to its ultimate conclusion, in order for the remainder of the work of this blog to get done, and its endlessly-receding end to be reached.

*

 In search of the Spanish Scarlatti, the true Scarlatti, or, for that matter, ANY Scarlatti at all.

 Quasi una fantasia, por favore

In 1991, after being accepted to the University of Utah for graduate work in English, I deferred for a year, took half of it to work and save money, and in February of ’92 lit out for Spain. I spent most of my remaining six months in Madrid, teaching English, and taking day and weekend trips around Castile y Leon and La Mancha. One rainy weekend in March, I toured El Escorial, the great gloomy old monastery about an hour east of the city, and then hiked up into the hills, until I found an overlook and a comfortable rock to sit on. There, I popped a cassette into my Walkman and listened to three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

The Scarlatti was filler at the end of one of maybe a dozen cassettes, to which I had devoted one side pocket of the travel backpack I had bought at Bill’s, the local Army-Navy surplus a week or so before going abroad. (The other side pocket was for underwear and socks.) Prog, metal, grunge, Hendrix, classical. I know that one had Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste on one side, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote on the other. I know this because I had been dividing my days into Bartók days—the dark, cold, wet, lonely days of the Madrid winter—and Scarlatti days: those gem-cut days flooded with the light of a rapidly-approaching spring. This is the Spanish light Ralph Kirkpatrick decribes so admirably in his classic study of the composer: “the hard, brilliant, blinding light of Velazquez and of Goya’s tapestry cartoons, a light that emphasizes less form, as in Italy, than space, the surrounding spaces of the Castilian plain” (92).

Spain became less Bartók and more Scarlatti the longer I stayed, as the seasons changed and I settled in and made friends and started spending my afternoons at pools and playing pickup soccer and the long Madrid evenings in its perpetually-bustling cafes. Looking down on El Escorial and the surrounding hills some time in early March, though, I was still caught between homesickness and a budding romance with all things Spanish. I’m pretty sure I knew that Scarlatti had lived in Spain, and had served a Spanish Queen, Maria Barbara—Kirkpatrick calls Scarlatti her “musical dowry”—as Scarlatti had previously served her father, the Portuguese King Joao V, in the idyllic (at least from a few centuries’ distance, and to a young writer) post of music instructor to the royal family. What I’m sure I did not know was that Scarlatti went on a seasonal calvary in tow of said family. Every autumn they stayed—first Felipe and Isabel, and then Maria Barbara and Fernando—much to their displeasure, but in deference to custom, where the bones of the Spanish kings lay: the very El Escorial I looked down upon. And so, for all I knew, Domenico himself might have sat upon my rock, dreaming up the endlessly inventive music I listened to three and a half centuries later.

I couldn’t hear the Spanish in Scarlatti then. I didn’t know Spanish music at all, outside Paco de Lucia’s forays into fusion, which I also could not yet hear in the context of Spanish music. But perhaps it was the Spanishness of Scarlatti that captured me, and that has held me ever since, Spain being the country in which I have spent the most time abroad, and Scarlatti the eighteenth-century composer with whom I have always felt the deepest connection.

 “La que sigue se debe tañer primero”

Twenty years and two extended Spanish sojourns later, on an Amtrak to Louisville, I finally got around to reading Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, first published in 1953. Kirkpatrick’s was a name was familiar to me from the “K.” next to the Scarlatti sonatas: he catalogued 555 of them, correcting and revising the Longo edition of 1906-8, and selecting and editing 60 sonatas for publication. The book itself is part biography, part analysis, and part discussion of Scarlatti in performance (Kirkpatrick himself was an eminent harpsichordist).

My immediate reaction to the biographical section of Kirkpatrick’s study was how much it spoke to the challenge of writing about music per se. So little is known about Scarlatti’s life that Kirkpatrick had little choice but to write aroundhis subject. Unlike Domenico’s father Alessandro, who lived a rich public life, Domenico never gave a single public performance. Scarlatti’s time in Portugal and Spain, where he lived with the royal families from 1722 until his death in 1757, is particularly bereft of documentation: there is no correspondence, and little mention of Domenico by his contemporaries. Nor is there a single surviving autograph of the keyboard works, rather only those of the Queen’s copyists, and subsequent copies. As Kirkpatrick seethes, Scarlatti’s descendants “allow[ed] all of his musical manuscripts to disappear,” while “jealously preserv[ing] the records of [the family’s] honorary nobility” (100). Even the painting after which the two known lithographs of Scarlatti were made had disappeared, making it impossible to authenticate them. (The portrait was rediscovered in 1956.) No one even knows where the body is buried.

Writes Kirkpatrick: “Domenico Scarlatti’s private sentiments, other than those expressed in his music, remain completely unknown to us throughout his entire life. No letters or anecdotes survived to give us more than a pale indication of his personality, and the years of his youth and early manhood pass with a particularly mysterious anonymity. Of Domenico’s adventures, attractions, and involvements in the forty-two years preceding his marriage we know absolutely nothing” (19). Scarlatti the man is thus a historical cipher who can only be assembled via his music. Reading the biography section of Kirkpatrick’s study is a bit like looking at a landscape painting with a Magritte-ish silhouette of a human figure in the foreground, speckled with notes.A

Given all of this, it is almost too perfect that the queen’s best harpsichords and the manuscripts of Scarlatti’s sonatas should have fallen into the possession of Domenico’s friend and fellow beneficiary, the great castrato Farinelli: from the keeper of the phallus to the mad king’s favorite eunuch, it is the sort of metonymic jump that makes of history a fantasy based on a theme by Derrida. (It gets even better: Late in his life, the king, madder by the year, would grotesquely imitate Farinelli’s singing: royal authority is “restored” … in the form of a poor imitation of a eunuch!) And so Kirkpatrick’s biography spins around that missing member, the absent center. Mimicking the sonatas’ love of ornament, here the man, the life, become an ornament of the music. And not just the man: the royal family itself, the king and queen Scarlatti faithfully served, become ornaments of Scarlatti’s musical legacy, the displaced center—the copies of the copies of the 555 sonatas. Spain, it was remarked at the time, “was being ruled by musicians and the Portuguese” (Kirkpatrick 109). Is it not fitting that the artists should be remembered, their royal patrons forgotten?B

Kirkpatrick is well aware of the twin problems here—that is, both the problem of writing a biography of a man about whom there is almost no historical record, and of writing about a medium for which words always seem inadequate. He has an easier time reconciling himself to the former problem than to the latter. “I realized that what I have written about a piece distorts or limits what as a performer I feel its content to be” (vii), Kirkpatrick frets in his preface—this despite some really marvelous tilting at the windmills of Scarlatti’s sound throughout the book. Whatever the performer or teacher suggests “to heighten a sense of the character of a piece … must be forgotten in favor of the real music. When perpetuated on paper they become sad and dangerously misleading caricatures”; the sonatas “ridicule translation into words.” Kirkpatrick the musician wishes he could use words the way he uses his fingers on the keys. Kirkpatrick the writer, however, understands that distortion and limitation are the essence of his medium.

And yet, words are only really distortion and limitation when considered against that something which cannot be grasped. So let us give to language, as to music, the autonomy it so richly deserves, rather than make it the subject of some ostensible “outside” object whose patronage it requires. The words will be remembered, the patrons forgotten. The manuscripts, and the harpsichords, will never find their way back to the king. Or Farinelli. Or anybody.

As the ParmaC manuscript notes about the copying of the K. 516 and 517 sonatas in the wrong order, “La que sigue se debe tañer primero” (the one that follows should be played first). Indeed, the score is never the music. The words on the page are never the notes. Or, for that matter, the life.D

The Ceilings of the Alcázar

In order to fill in, or at least supplement, how little is known about Scarlatti’s life—in order, that is, to generate 150 pages of biography—Kirkpatrick turns to history—the landscape in the painting—and speculates about the relationship between the composer and his place and time. Spain, Kirkpatrick asserts, “has always had a pronounced effect on foreigners; it both fascinates and unsettles them … For some it is a stimulant; for others it is utter destruction” (81). It was in Spain, where he lived most of his adult life, that Scarlatti “rediscover[ed] certain eastern strains of his Sicilian ancestry and the Saracen traces that had remained in the surroundings of his early childhood” (67), and where he encountered the “violent rhythms” of Iberian music.

“It is by no means difficult to imagine”—beware the giant hedge!—“D.S. strolling under the Moorish arcades of the Alcázar or listening at night in the streets of Seville to the intoxicating rhythms of the castanets and the half oriental melodies of Andalusian chant … As he listened to Spanish popular music and ‘imitated the melody of tunes sungs by carriers, muleteers, and common people,’ his real destiny was unfolding. Thenceforth Scarlatti was to become a Spanish musician” (82; the interpolated quote is from Charles A. Burney, from The Present State of Music in Germany, 1773; Kirkpatrick draws on Burney’s works both liberally and skeptically). Elsewhere, Kirkpatrick compares the ornament of the sonatas to “the Moorish ceilings of the Alcázar” and the “elaborate surface decorations” of Sevillian architecture (87).E

“There is hardly an aspect of Spanish life,” he continues—you get the point by now, but you can also see how beautifully Kirkpatrick writes—“of Spanish popular music and dance, that has not found itself a place in the microcosm that Scarlatti created with his sonatas. No Spanish composer, not even Manuel de Falla, has expressed the essence of his native land as completely as did the foreigner Scarlatti. He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all the wiry tension of the Spanish dance” (114-5).

These passages call to mind a line of Gibbon’s, which I actually know through an early essay of Jorge Luis Borges’s called “The Argentinian Writer and Tradition” (from 1932’s Discusión, it is actually a transcribed lecture): “I believe that if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, the absence of camels would be enough to prove that it is Arabic” (qtd. in Borges 103; my translation [!]). It would be like a New Yorker pointing at yellow cabs and tall buildings. Only foreigners see cabs, or camels; and possibly only foreigners see “Spain” as it is commonly, and now globally, understood: flamenco-fiesta-guitarra-cerveza. Or, if you prefer, here is the mierda on the label of a bottle of wine that once sat on my kitchen table, “Tempra Tantrum”: “Go ahead and throw a Tempra Tantrum tonight by drinking in the passion, flavor, style and emotion that embodies [sic] modern Spain.”

I confess I don’t hear “the bitter wail of gypsy lament” or “the click of castanets.” That is what I hear in other, inferior composers (at least in terms of their “Spanish” compositions; e.g., I adore Ravel, but dislike his “Spanish Rhapsody”). Classical music that simply tries to reproduce the folk idiom, to display it like an artifact in a glass-doored cabinet, sounds artificial and impoverished. Like Ravel, Scarlatti was a foreigner; but what is remarkable about his music is the level at which he incorporates the Spanish idiom. Like Bartók’s, Scarlatti’s music does not have to be openly imitative of surface features in order to be (in his case) “Spanish.” Perhaps Scarlatti struck a perfect balance: he heard Spanish music neither as a native nor as a tourist; like the relationship of any artist to their art, Spain was at once him and not-him. At one point at least, Kirkpatrick seems to realize he has gone too far, and recuperates himself admirably: “All of this does not find expression merely in loosely-knit impressionistic program music, but is assimilated and distilled with all the rigor that Scarlatti had learned from his sixteenth-century ecclesiastical masters, and is given forth again in a pure musical language that extends far beyond the domain of mere harpsichord virtuosity” (115; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub, and a good indication that Kirkpatrick understands the limits of his own impressionistic musings on Scarlatti-in-the-landscape.F

All of this to say that, while it may be interesting and even instructive to listen for what is “Spanish” in Scarlatti, it may also distort how we hear the music, which transformed the idiom of the country into something entirely other. Of course, in the mashed-up, ahistorical, anachronistic world of listening today, the vector can just as easily be reversed. Listening to Paco Peña’s ensemble play a solea the other day, the trills embedded in the strummed chords reminded me, not of other flamenco, but of Scarlatti’s sonata K. 516. It seems as natural that a contemporary flamenco artist could find inspiration from listening to Scarlatti as they could from Miles Davis, or Eddie Palmieri.G

Appoggiatura

In the places where Kirkpatrick turns to describe Scarlatti’s music, the similes come hot and heavy: “like a fencer jockeying for position,” “like a quivering cat about to spring,” “like a dancer maintaining movement in limited space.” All three figures emphasize the physicality of the music. But it’s the image of the dancer to which Kirkpatrick returns most often, both to help the reader hear the sonatas, and to coach the keyboardist as to their proper performance.H

Given the “rhythmic polyphony of the Spanish dance” (303) that defines so many of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the keyboardist must respond in kind, first by feeling the dance in the music, and then by activating it in their performance. “The imaginary coreographing of Scarlatti sonatas cannot be overdone,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Many of them, especially the Spanish dance pieces, are ruled far more by the sense of bodily movement than by vocal feeling […] All counting should be done in dancer’s terms, in terms of the duration of a breath or a gesture.” A good example of this “counting done in dancer’s terms” is the felt difference between the third and fourth notes of a four-beat phrase: a “thing known to every dancer, but [… which] frequently escape[s] the keyboard player who is rooted to his chair in imagination as well as in physical fact” (311-2). Handcrossings are said to “aspire to the dancer’s bodily freedom” (192); elsewhere, the right hand becomes “the gestures of a dancer,” the left “the steady beat of a percussion band” (304). Performers, then, must supplement the score with a sort of embodied musicality, lengthening and shortening pauses, phrases, and passages, and subtly accenting offbeat notes, in order for the “rhythmic balance” of the piece to be maintained. And rhythm is just one example: realizing the sonatas’ sense of proportion depends, not on mathematical accuracy, but perspective. The good performer is one who can feel these proportions and make them explicit in their playing.

We might legitimately question Kirkpatrick’s mapping of Bach/Scarlatti onto the mind/body dualism, smacking as it does of an antiquated orientalizing of Italy and Spain. It’s worth noting, however, that “body” here does not connote “mere” virtuosity and showiness, of which Scarlatti has historically been accused, but rather spontaneity and movement. “The Scarlatti sonata is an organism that developed at the keyboard,” Kirkpatrick writes, “not on paper … The prodigality of material often gives the impression that a Scarlatti sonata is being made in the presence of the beholder” (260). (One has to admire Kirkpatrick’s choice of words in prodigal, given what we know of the composer’s life.) Not surprisingly, Kirkpatrick suggests that Scarlatti was probably a fabulous improviser.I

An original & happy freak

One of the most fascinating elements of Kirkpatrick’s study is his attempt to trace the evolution of Scarlatti the composer, from the Essercizi, the first (and among the only) 30 sonatas published during his lifetime, which Domenico himself famously called “an ingenious jesting with art” (104), and Burney “original and happy freaks,” to the slower, more lyrical late sonatas. Notes Kirkpatrick, “The virtuosity of the keyboard player tends to become more and more absorbed in the virtuosity of the composer” (165)—all the more regrettable, then, that most 18th– and 19th-century composers only knew the Essercizi.

Using the range of the harpsichord required to play the sonatas as well as stylistic analysis, Kirkpatrick makes a daring assertion: the vast majority of the sonatas were not only copied out during the last half-decade of Scarlatti’s life (1752-7), but actually composed then. Even the Essercizi are fairly late, having appeared when Scarlatti was in his early fifties. Why this late blossoming? As with everything about Scarlatti’s life, much speculation, no answers. Illness, perhaps, absented him from court duties, allowing him time to write. Maria Barbara, his “talented pupil” (78), and her developed taste, might have pushed Scarlatti to develop as a composer; all the later sonatas were apparently composed for her. Or the fact that Scarlatti was an inveterate gambler, and the Queen “extorted” the sonatas in return for paying his debts. (I’m still trying to figure out why no one has made a movie out of that.) Then there is Burney’s speculation that Scarlatti had grown too corpulent in his later years to execute the sort of difficult handcrossings one finds in the flashy earlier sonatas. But Kirkpatrick puts the fat finger firmly on the queen’s bottom: apparently, even the attempts at flattering portraiture cannot conceal that Maria B. was rather rotund in her later years.J

Another conundrum of Scarlatti scholarship is whether the sonatas were deliberately composed in pairs, and intended to be performed this way. In revising the earlier Longo edition, Kirkpatrick corrected the order of the sonatas, “restoring” them to pairs, as at least 400 of the sonatas appear to be in the manuscripts, generally sharing a tonic, the first often lyrical and slow, the second sprightly. Some are so closely bonded that “the last measure of the first overlap[s] the first of the second.” (Interestingly, some of the sonatas are arranged in threes—a wonderful parallel with the poetry of eighteenth-century England, the country in which the “cult of Scarlatti” flourished. The vast majority is written in heroic couplets, but with the occasional rhymed tercet (often indicated by a bracket, at least in my editions) for variety. To borrow Kirkpatrick’s liberal imagination: one imagines ladies fanning themselves and the men barking their dismay at a thirdsuccessively rhymed line!) Kirkpatrick argues that Longo did violence to the sonatas by trying to arrange them into longer “suites” a la Bach, in order to give these “flash sonatas”—if I may be permitted yet another liberty—greater tonal coherence, and persuade listeners of their gravitas.L

Whether they were meant to be performed together or not, there is something seductive about the argument for pairing, since it can be understood as yet another facet of the symmetry that Scarlatti clearly delighted in: just as the sonatas are bifurcated, and each of the two parts intended to be repeated—although this, too, is very much up to the performer; I have seen performances where the repeat is observed and ones where it is ignored—so the sonatas as a whole are paired: doubles of doubles, wheels within wheels. Perhaps, if we look at them more closely, we will find that the pairs themselves have pairs, and so on, and so on, until every sonata has been engulfed in a pyramid of doubles, each layer reflecting the ones above and below. We are back with Borges, though not his camels, but his mirrors.

That said, I think that much of the energy of the sonatas comes from the way the asymmetries Scarlatti indulges in, most often in his second movements, grate against that otherwise crystalline perfection of structure. Was Scarlatti playing with our desire for symmetry—the very things that editors like Longo “cleaned up”—to create that palpable tension that makes his music so appealing? And while it is impossible for me to judge the composer’s contribution to the evolution of keyboard music, there is much to be said about the appeal of his music to a modern sensibility: the dissonances and note clusters which Longo scrubbed and Kirkpatrick restored; those “violent rhythms,” which retain their personable violence in our violently rhythmic cultural moment; and above all, the way the melody and rhythm are wedded into short, attractive lines that are utterly unlike any other composer of his time, and perhaps unlike any other composer in the “classical” canon.M

There is one particularly beautiful anecdote mentioned in the Kirkpatrick which I think illuminates the way an innovative composer works dialectically with the “rules” of their time. The story once again comes by way of Burney’s General History of Music. “Scarlatti frequently told M. L’Augier that he was sensible he had broken through all the rules of composition in his lessons;N but asked if his deviations from these rules offended the ear? and, upon being answered in the negative, he said, that he thought there was scarce any other rule, worth the attention of a man of genius, than that of not displeasing the sense of which music is the object” (qtd. in Kirkpatrick 104). A century later, Beethoven would say something remarkably similar. And again, a hundred years after that, the pianist Marguerite Long would recount a similar exchange between Claude Debussy and one of his teachers, Ernest Guirard. Discussing the resolution of chords: “But how do you get out of that?” Guirard asks. “I don’t deny that what you do there is pleasing. But it is theoretically absurd.” Debussy: “There is no such thing as theory. If something pleases the ear then that’s all that matters” (qtd. in Long 18.)  And then again, half a century later, Down Beat asked Eric Dolphy, “Are bird imitations valid in jazz?” (Did anyone ever dare ask Olivier Messiaen a similar question? And doesn’t the word “imitation” already suggest how the interviewer feels about it?) Dolphy’s response: “I don’t know if it’s valid in jazz, but I enjoy it” (qtd. in Lewis 48).O

Here endeth the lesson!

Krell music?

 As noted, Kirkpatrick was an eminent harpsichordist, and nowhere is he more compelling—and contentious—than on the subject of Scarlatti in performance. In an age when most people listen to keyboard music, including Scarlatti’s, on piano, the harpsichordist’s bias is at once refreshing and problematic.

Kirkpatrick argues that the color of Scarlatti’s music is in the melody, harmony and ornamentation, and that too much imposition of color from without, whether from changing registers at the harpsichord or excessive use of the pedal at the piano, distorts rather than reinforces the composer’s intention. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord writing is so idiomatic, so intimately connected with the essential fabric of his music, that the relation of his music to harpsichord sound very much needs to be borne in mind by those who play the sonatas on a modern piano” (288). For Kirkpatrick, the piano has a tendency to hamper Scarlatti’s music from “speak[ing] for itself”: if the sonatas conceal, by their “brilliant and imaginative writing,” a “flatness” that is part of the limitations of the instrument for which they were composed, then the piano, by its far-greater dynamism, threatens “Scarlatti’s entire proportion of sound effects.” Phrasing is thus more important than a legato style which, after all, was alien to Scarlatti’s instrument. Kirkpatrick also warns against “thick washes of color” and the “danger” of the pedal being used “to sustain notes that cannot be sustained with the fingers” (319).P

I am not sure what to make of these caveats. Part of what troubles me is the phrase “letting the music speak for itself.” Perhaps every performer has experienced the delusion of deciphering the composer’s intention (just as every literary critic once did) and becoming an empty vessel in performance. But I would point to the opposite danger: of turning Scarlatti’s sonatas into curiosities, bits of pottery in a museum, unable to speak in any direct way to a contemporary audience. I think the sonatas live today in the piano in a way they cannot anymore in the harpsichord, an instrument that sounds to most listeners like it belongs to some long-dead alien civilization. I cannot make the imaginative leap to inhabit the sound of the harpsichord emotionally the way I can the piano; it’s even difficult to accommodate my ear to hearing music performed on a period piano. (I imagine I feel about the harpsichord a little like the way my parents feel about the Moog.) The point remains that most listeners—middling classical listeners like me, whose exposure has been primarily to the music of the long nineteenth century—will more likely be able to relate to Scarlatti on the piano, or even on the guitar, than on the harpsichord. If the upshot of this is that a certain nineteenth-century idiom is overlaid or even imposed on Scarlatti’s, then so be it, if this is how performers can best animate the sonatas, and listeners hear them breathe. Is this surrender? Perhaps. But to believe that such anachronisms do not contaminate every performance of “classical” music—to believe that period instruments somehow resurrect a period unwashed in the renovated Alice Tully Hall—seems to me a delusion on a par with “letting the music speak for itself.”Q

That said, Kirkpatrick’s comments on performance do raise a fascinating question: What happens to music composed for an instrument that, over time, falls out of use? Must the music therefore die? I am actually of Kirkpatrick’s mind that there is music so deeply rooted in the instrument on which it was composed that something essential is lost in transcription. But to say that great music is deeply rooted in and shaped by the instrument on or for which it was composed is not to say that it can’t gain something, and touch new, modern audiences, through sensitive transcription and adaptation. Granados and Albéniz are my big guns here: two composers I fell in love with as a guitarist, though they wrote for piano; and to this day, even knowing this, I much prefer to hear their music in transcription. It might be argued that part of the appeal of the Assad duo’s wonderful retro-fitting of Scarlatti for two guitars stems from the guitar’s ability to mirror a harpsichord’s sonority, its pluck and contrast and thinner timbre, better than a piano. But then one considers that the Assads were themselves inspired by Vladimir Horowitz’s recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas—Horowitz a pianist more associated with nineteenth-century Romanticism—and the whole knotty issue of where the music “speaks for itself” comes full circle.R

Or has it? Kirkpatrick notes that, as with the Spanish dance, Scarlatti was always using the harpsichord to invoke and approximate extra-harpsichord sounds—most prominently the guitar, under whose “spell” he believed Scarlatti fell. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord, while supremely itself, is continually menacing a transformation into something else” (292). Indeed, perhaps Scarlatti sounds right on guitar because, as with Albéniz and Granados, he was thinking and imagining the guitar anyway. The guitarist who plays Scarlatti today was perhaps first attracted to Scarlatti after hearing the sonatas played on a modern piano, in “imitation” of the harpsichord, in “imitation” of the guitar. And now we have indeed come full-circle, with the sonatas finding their home on the guitar, but only after passing through the circuit of Scarlatti’s genius, like a current gaining power by passing through a magnetic field. Krell music, indeed!

Hors d’oeuvres with your Alban Burger

Perhaps my favorite comments about performance address Scarlatti and other 18th-century composers in the context of the twentieth-century concert stage. “The age is fortunately nearly past,” Kirkpatrick writes, “when eighteenth-century composers were subject in concert programs to a kind of ‘type casting’ in which a few Scarlatti pieces, or a little Couperin on the part of the more adventurous, a Mozart sonata or a Bach organ fugue were served up as well-styled appetizers to be unregretted by late-comers and to act as finger warmers and curtain raisers to the ‘really expressive’ music of the nineteenth century” (280). Kirkpatrick goes on to note that despite modernism’s fickle love affair with the baroque, such “type casting” had only gotten worse, with baroque and classical music placed “in a kind of strait jacket created by the newer notion of a profound and impassable gulf between eighteenth-century and ‘romantic’ music.” The result was that performers tended to exaggerate the contrast between the two eras: if Romantic music was deeply expressive, “eighteenth-century music was forced to be pure and abstract; humanity was permitted it only in the most limited form.” In a memorable analogy, Kirkpatrick imagines eighteenth-century composers “defil[ing] [!] before the public like the traditional character types personified in the Italian comedy,” with Scarlatti “play[ing] the role of the buffoon” (281). Kirkpatrick even wonders whether the role descends from the composer’s function at the court—music teacher one step removed from jester, perhaps?—and his having to hide or disguise his more personal and expressive sonatas—those that suggest he was more than a “happy freak.”S

This is an enormously rich passage. First, it makes me wonder why Kirkpatrick thought the age was ending when eighteenth-century music was served up as an appetizer; in my concertgoing experience, which ended about five years ago, the rule seemed to be very much in effect, the only exception being when a pianist decided to focus on the work of a single baroque or classical composer. So far as I can tell, that only happens with Bach and, less often, Mozart; I have neither heard nor seen an entire concert of Rameau, or Couperin, or Scarlatti, or Handel (except the Messiah); the first time I ever noticed an all-Haydn program was at most a decade ago. And as Kirkpatrick suggests, when any of these composers is played in a mixed program, it is almost invariably the first selection. Concerts of all-Schumann, Chopin, or Beethoven, on the other hand, are pretty common. And as I noted in a previous post, modern and contemporary music are an even harder-luck case, always sandwiched between the double prophylactic of the romantic and the classical … or quarantined in series all their own. One gets the sense that the latter has also happened with much eighteenth-century music, as it has become a specialty focus with its own series and niche audiences. All told, we do still seem to be very much denizens of Kirkpatrick’s age.

I am also fascinated by the idea of the nineteenth century as an artistic climax from which the previous century can only be understood teleologically, and the next as apostasy. An interesting contradiction: on the one hand, the Baroque and Classical periods must be understood to pave the way for the Romantic, via the begats of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The very idea of a “classical” tradition or canon of Great Music imposes unity and likeness on the whole, and a vector that stretches from Bach to Stravinsky (or thereabouts). On the other hand, the Romantic era is understood as a rupture with the previous, just as Modernism is perceived as a rupture, with the Eroica and The Rite of Spring (as well as Schoenberg’s first dodecaphonic pieces) as representative works. As deconstructionists are fond of saying, binaries always decay into hierarchies. But where music is concerned, performance gives this an interesting twist: once the hierarchy has been promulgated, it must be reified through repeated public performance. Or perhaps the opposite is true, and the repeated performance retroactively creates the binary?

Domenico in the heart

Kirkpatrick’s complaint about performers draining the emotion from eighteenth-century music in order to distinguish it from music of the Romantic era resonated deeply with me. My introduction to Scarlatti was via a 1989 recording by András Schiff; the sonatas on the cassette I carried with me to Spain, and listened to above El Escorial, were from the Schiff recording. Given Kirkpatrick’s caveats about the dangers of performing Scarlatti on the piano, I wonder: Would he have judged Schiff’s interpretations to be anachronistically romantic, relying too heavily on what the piano can accomplish (if not to the point of the “undisciplined expressivity” he warns against, which I do not believe Schiff could ever be accused of)? Or would he have championed the poetry of Schiff’s playing against the overly mechanical, abstract approach that has been imposed on baroque music? I find many of the sonatas on Schiff’s disc as lyrical and moving as many a late Beethoven sonata or Chopin ballade, balancing nicely the crystalline perfection of form (the light of those Scarlatti days) and a meditative emotionality that threatens to tear through its surface—what Kirkpatrick calls the “closed” and “open” forms of Scarlatti sonatas, and which I am trying to express through contrasting metaphors organic and inorganic. I should add that my sensitivity to the expressivity of eighteenth-century music was probably aided by my father, an accomplished pianist. One of the cornerstones of his repertoire was Bach’s C minor fantasy, a piece I listened to every night for many years alongside the first movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest,” the first movement of his First Piano Concerto, and Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and Prelude No. 22—all played with my father’s particularly sensitive use of the pedal. Both the choice of Bach piece and the context in which I heard it likely predisposed me to hear Bach—and later, the addition of the K. 9 (“Pastorale”) sonata by Scarlatti, and even the presto K. 517, to my father’s repertoire—as no less expressive than the so-called “really expressive music” of the music of the century that followed.

Of all my recordings of Scarlatti sonatas—which, taken together, encompass about 100 out of the 555 sonatas, some on piano, some on harpsichord, some transcribed for one or two guitars, and several in more than one format—the Schiff disc contains by far the highest proportion of “late” sonatas. It’s probably a combination of the particular sonatas Schiff chose to record and his performance of them that make them sound so “romantic” to me. Quibbles over proper interpretation aside, Schiff’s is the recording that opened up the world of the composer’s music to me, and against which I have tended to measure other interpretations of Scarlatti’s music. For my Scarlatti must be trying to rise above the gloom and fog of a Spanish monastery at the end of a Spanish winter, seeking those endless ray-filled arcades of summer.

As for Kirkpatrick’s Scarlatti: it probably helps that he speaks as a convert, one who went from hearing Scarlatti as ingenious jester to a deeper appreciation of his music. And while I was in no need of conversion, his book did have something of that effect on me: enriching my own appreciation, prompting me to hear the music in new ways, and reminding me of the transformative power of encounters with great music.T

Here ends my grotesque imitation of Farinelli.

 

A  Nor have the few book-length studies published since Kirkpatrick’s added much … except more questions! What were the rules for copying? Who was the scribe? So asks W. Dean Sutcliffe in his 2003 study The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style. Sutcliffe also reports that the autographs were destroyed in a fire at El Escorial—those of Seixas and Soler suffered the same fate—i.e., they are irretrievably lost, and with them any other knowledge we might have hoped to gain by their possible discovery. As to the question of public performance: a single letter has emerged suggesting that Scarlatti “performed publicly at the court in Madrid” (73). As Sutcliffe memorably puts it, “What might be crumbs with other composers make meals for the Scarlatti scholar” (69).

For Sutcliffe, the paucity of biographical material is not just a challenge, but an opportunity. “Music,” he writes, “has long invested more capital in biographical portraiture than have the other arts” (2); the assumption being that, since “music is primarily an expression of personality, of emotion, in order to understand the music we must understand the man and his private circumstances” (3). Without the life, we are forced to confront the music, if not on its own terms, then on terms different than the traditional bio-centric approach. The answer is not simply to invert the life/work binary—as Malcolm Boyd does in his Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music (1986) when he asks, “Can it be doubted that the coruscant textures of Scarlatti’s harpsichord music, its unpredictable turns of phrase and its inexhaustible invention came from a composer with an unusual zest for life and with a genial disposition?” (207) (um … yes, actually, it can be doubted … and that’s the problem!)—but to position the composer more fully in the context of eighteenth-century history and style. Indeed, as Sutcliffe notes, “while the type of contexts sought may have changed [i.e., shifted from biography to culture], there is now a stronger sense that music may not be approached in the raw” (7; my emphasis).

B  Sutcliffe adds that there was a hierarchy of appreciation, with vocal music (Farinelli) on top, and instrumental music (Scarlatti) at bottom. So Scarlatti would have lived in Farinelli’s shadow, just as he would have lived in the shadow of the royal family. Living in so many shadows, how can we possibly hope to see the man?

C  Parma is the name given to one of two most important manuscript copies of Scarlatti’s sonatas. The other is the Venice manuscript. (They are named, as you might have guessed, after the cities where they reside.) While Kirkpatrick surmised that Venice preceded Parma, Malcolm Boyd comes to a different conclusion: with the exception of the Venice volumes copied out in the 1740s, Parma is antecedent, and hence the closest thing to an autograph we have. Sutcliffe contends that between Parma and Venice no one really knows which to privilege.

D  Despite this clear self-consciousness about the difficulties of both his subject and his craft, Kirkpatrick has been taken to task both for being too speculative as a biographer—particularly for overinterpreting the father-son relationship (Sutcliffe 35)—and for “tak[ing] refuge in evocation” (Sutcliffe 8), though this is a broader charge Sutcliffe makes against the entire corpus of Scarlatti criticism, as a response to the dearth of available material. Of course, when there is nothing but space—that Castilian plain!—there are only liberties for the taking. See notes E and T for further discussion.

E  Massimo Bogianckino also shows a predilection for architectural metaphors. What he calls the “arabesque line” of invention recalls “Moorish influence” (The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, 1967 [1956], p. 81). Contrast between the sonatas’ straightfoward beginnings and their more whimsical, inventive later sections Bogianckino compares to the austere steps of some Baroque churches that draw us to explore their animated facades and their flourishes within (82). He connects this to “Arabic taste” and the Spanish Baroque more broadly: a love of ornament and flamboyance that contrasts with the “bare landscape, squalid architecture, social backwardness and poverty” (84).

With this in mind, it’s probably worth taking a moment to ponder Massimo Bogianckino warning against “overindulgence in metaphorical criticism” (131). At one point, Sutcliffe actually blames Kirkpatrick for the “pictorialism” that has sullied writing about Scarlatti (34)—or, more accurately, he blames an “understandable biographical desperation” that therefore seeks a “like” in the composer’s immediate environs. It’s actually not entirely clear whether Sutcliffe blames Kirkpatrick or Scarlatti, whose sonatas’ “supercharged syntax,” Sutcliffe asserts elsewhere, “attract … [a] superlative, straining prose” (38). Whichever the case, it seems rather a lot of lay at the feet of either the writer (no matter how influential—and influence seems to be Sutcliffe’s chief concern) or the composer. Even a glancing familiarity with the history of writing about music would suggest image and metaphor are tried, if perhaps not always true, practices. That said, it is true—and this is the force of Bogianckino’s comment—that they are not always used judiciously.

F  Gino Roncaglia’s observation that “nothing [in Scarlatti] is programmatic, but everything is intensely evocative” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 82) nicely encapsulates the distinction between “Spanish” elements (however we perceive them) laid on cosmetically, and those informing the composing process at the level of conception. (May I lard in one more lovely quotation? “Because his sonatas absorb and transfigure so many of the sounds and sights of the world, and because he treats texture and harmony freely with a view to sonorous effect, Scarlatti’s music may be termed ‘impressionistic’; but it has none of the vagueness of outline that we are apt to associate with that word” (Donald Jay Grout, qtd. in Sutcliffe 81).) Scarlatti, as Sutcliffe puts it, had “a power of imitation unknown to the most refined of programme-music composers.” Bogianckino makes a similar point when he hears in the conclusion one of Scarlatti’s “pastorali” a combination of joy and nostalgia, a “subjective participation” that transmutes program into “genuinely musical terms” (110). (See also note H.)

These statements are worth bearing in mind when reading the extended discussion in the next note (G) about the Spanish elements of Scarlatti’s music. Spanish-music clichés—what Sutcliffe calls “stereotyped local color”—are easy enough for a composer to apply cosmetically, and hence easy enough for an analyst to lift away from the whole. Deep influence—the feeling that the whole of music is so inflected, its “spirit”—is perhaps partly responsible for what Sutcliffe calls “a mode of superlative evocation” (8) in the writing about Scarlatti: the critic is attempting to grasp something that cannot simply be picked off the music’s surface.

G  Malcolm Boyd mentions in passing how little work has been done to explore the assertions, beginning with Burney and his pregones, that Scarlatti’s sonatas are filled with borrowings from Spanish folk music. Even Kirkpatrick, Boyd notes, “makes few attempts to relate the sonatas more precisely to specific types of Spanish folk-songs and dance music.” He was doubtful that new sonatas would be discovered, with the exception of a recently (in 1986) unearthed fandango, which “represents one of the earliest attempts (perhaps the very first) to transfer this particular folk-dance to the aristocratic salon; possibly the composer considered it too ‘raw’ to be included in the queen’s library of harpsichord music” (192).

Boyd does mention a brief article by Jane Clark, “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” published in Early Musicin 1976. Approaching Scarlatti from the perspective of a performer in a Spanish folk group, Clark remarks that she does not find the sonatas original or “freakish,” but rather amazingly like the folk music she plays. The sonatas, she asserts, can be better studied and understood in the context of Spanish folk music, and themselves might be of interest to folklorists. Manuel De Falla, she notes, considered Scarlatti “the classic Spanish composer”: while Bizet and Rimsky-Korsakov’s made “Spanish gestures” in rhythm and cadence, De Falla claimed that only Scarlatti had recognized Spanish (and specifically Andalusian) harmony. In fact, what is specific to Scarlatti is Andalucia: not just seguidillas, fandangos, and canarios, which are present in other composers’ oeuvres, but saetas, peteneras, and bulerías. Scarlatti “wrote Andalusian music in the raw,” as Clark beautifully puts it, and was alone among his contemporaries to do so. “I think it is fairly easy,” Clark writes, “for anyone with some knowledge of Spanish folk music to feel the spirit of this music in Scarlatti, but to try and define the letter is more difficult” (19).

A quarter-century later, Peter Manuel would go a long way to “defin[ing] the letter” of the Spanishness of Scarlatti in a brilliant analysis published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. His article focuses largely on “Phrygian-type cadences on the dominant” in sonatas such as K. 221 and K. 235-6, also apparent in the music of Soler and Santiago de Murcia. Boyd believed the “apparent lack of final cadence” meant the score was incomplete; Kirkpatrick believed the tonic chord was simply left unstated. But Manuel argues these were clearly intentional endings; one Soler manuscript ends with conventional L.D., Laus Deo or Glory to God—to assert anything was missing would be blasphemous! Instead, Manuel, like Clark, suggests studying Scarlatti from the perspective of Andalusian folk music, which exhibits “a distinct type of dual tonicity wherein simple Western polarities of tonic and dominant do not apply” (318). “The pieces cannot be regarded as ending on the dominant, since such an analysis assumes that they are tonal, which they are not […] The D minor and A major chords are best understood as having their own kind of strength and stability, with the A major by convention being slightly more conclusive and stable … ostinatos are better seen as swinging, pendulum-like, between two competing tonal centers” (319). Like the Andalusians, Soler and his contemporaries had a sense of “bimusicality” shared by many Americans who listen to Spanish folkloric music today, based on “the geographical and chronological margins of common-practice tonality” (331). “Gringo” is thus (also) a way of hearing; analysts need to account for the “perceptual habits of listeners experienced in a style system.” Manuel traces this dual tonicity back to the use of IV as “secondary tonal center” in Hijaz and Bayati. He notes that, in Andalusian harmony, even the flat II can be considered a dominant, since it seeks resolution to the tonic. This is not, he emphasizes, akin to the dissolution of harmony by chromatically-inclined composers toward the end of the 19th century, but rather something from the formative period of tonality, “vernacular and guitar-derived,” which followed its own independent trajectory.

Sutcliffe lists a number of features adapted from folk music, and particularly from flamenco, in his analysis of sonatas K. 548 and K. 107: melismatic style, heavy ornamentation, decorated repetition, limited melodic range, portamento vocal effects, privileging of minor keys and Phrygian harmony, “teeth-grinding dissonances” (114), the ninth above the dominant bass, and “narrow clashes in tonal texture” suggesting quarter steps and microtones. He is surprised by Scarlatti’s capacity to incorporate these elements into courtly music. But he also emphasizes that these elements appear in contrasting contexts, to the point that they sound parodic of the “exotic” style, a style which Scarlatti also stylizes in his adaptation. Maybe, Sutcliffe speculates, the interest in folk music operated beyond individual appropriation and “encouraged a sense of the contingency of musical style altogether” (120)? (For more on this last point, see note K.)

The question of the influence of folk music on Scarlatti’s style becomes more complex when we consider that he was not simply a court composer with an ear attuned to the music of the streets, but an Italian immigrant who made Iberia his adopted home. Boyd believed that it is “possible to exaggerate the relevance of the Spanish experience” (180), noting that some progressions critics have labeled “Spanish” might actually have their origins in Italian music Scarlatti would have been familiar with from earlier in his life. As such, he suggested expanding the range of study to include Neapolitan, rather than solely Spanish, popular music. Bogianckino, too, argued for expanding the range of Scarlatti’s folk influences to include Italy, noting that some elements scholars have associated with Spanish guitar, particularly tremolo and an effect like the lowering of a closed hand upon the strings, he believes find a closer analog in the “persistent, querulous and transparent sound quality typical of the mandoline”: “Neapolitan transparency, rather than agitated Spanish restlessness” (103-4), characterizes these effects. Bogianckino also hears nostalgia for Italy in Scarlatti’s pastorales, and approvingly cites Longo’s observation connecting one such sonata to a Neapolitan or Abruzzi pastoral of the Christmas novena (109). Finally, he compares some of the sonatas to commedia dell’Arte—both the music and the acrobatics required of the keyboardist—performed in public squares (85). (All these Italian echoes make one wonder why there wasn’t an Argentinian Scarlatti cult instead of an English one!)

Questions of influence are yet further complicated by interference between courtly and popular styles and instruments. Sutcliffe, for example, notes that Scarlatti may have responded to courtly guitar (e.g., Santiago de Murcia) as much as to popular … and—just in case we need to muddle the geographical vectors yet more—courtly guitar was particularly popular in France (81). There is also some question as to whether the Andalusian cadences mentioned in Manuel’s article might descend from modal, a capella church music and the slow movements of Italian concertos. Add to all this that Naples was under Spanish rule (Sutcliffe), and the whole very fraught question of how Scarlatti’s Italian heritage, Spanish environs, and the broader European courtly context interact becomes a tangled morass.

But wait! There’s more! For even within Spanish music there are myriad complexities, as Clark suggests when she points to the specifically Andalusian elements of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Nor—despite a global tendency to conflate the two—is Andalusian folk music flamenco, which Sutcliffe notes is more “more introverted, tense and highly ornamented than traditional popular forms” (110). (Never mind that, as Sutcliffe also reminds us, the music wouldn’t be referred to as “flamenco” until after Scarlatti’s death.). And of course, even were we able to untangle all the skeins of influence—Andalusian, Iberian, Italian, courtly, and popular—we would still not know why Scarlatti’s folk borrowings are so much more “intense” than the “idealized folk styles that were acceptable enough for court consumption” (Sutcliffe 112). Was it, Sutcliffe asks, because the queen loved to dance? Could the royals even tell? (For an illuminating discussion of this question with regard to social class, see Sutcliffe, p. 112.)

(N.B.: This “why,” to which Sutcliffe returns several times in his text, ended up grating on me. It seemed more intended to unsettle any and all received wisdom than to be taken at face value. Isolation, for example, seems like a perfectly good reason for Scarlatti’s originality. But for Sutcliffe this does not “explain” Scarlatti any more than it does Haydn. “Other composers placed in similar circumstances would not have been able to react in the alleged manner” (33). Well, of course. How high does Sutcliffe really want to set the biographer’s bar? With these sorts of questions, any biographer might as well give up in “desperation.”)

With all this Spanishness in mind, it seems important to conclude this extended note with a caveat (pace Sutcliffe) about essentializing nationhood. Leonard Meyer: “A composer’s representation of [folk or national] sounds is always partly dependent upon prevalent cultural traditions for ‘hearing’ and conceptualizing the phenomenon in question […] We are in no position to assess the form taken by folk idioms well over two hundred years ago and should not extrapolate back on the basis of knowledge of later examples” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 107). Sutcliffe adds that “folk elements cannot really be heard at all until they are brought into a high-cultural context and thus given a basis for comparison.” In this way, the objection that we don’t “know enough” about the actual folk music of Scarlatti’s time is rendered moot; you can’t remove “later accretions” to uncover some original folk style; such a style is always a product of the way these elements are heard, translated, and integrated into a “high-cultural context”; and as such, “authenticity is not essential to the experience of such music in the sphere of high art” (108). Elements that we come to hear as expressions of folk nationalism are constructs, whatever their relationship to some imagined, unrecoverable folk/national essence. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the rest of Europe’s Orientalist attitude toward Spain—and likely my own as well!—has played into the desire to find a Spanish “essence.” The Spanish, not surprisingly, have been defensive about the issue of “Spanishness” in Scarlatti’s music, and about his influence in Iberia. Sutcliffe even accuses Spanish musicologists of retreating into an essentialism that is not easily distinguishable from the Black Legend, an example of the way “the members of a marginalized culture collude in its essentialization” (67).

Sutcliffe includes a provocative quote from Linton Powell about the music of Joaquin Rodriguez, who, for Powell, “tends to carry on figurations and sequences much too long and to wander harmonically with no clear sense of a tonal goal. Anyone who has examined Spanish keyboard music of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries will find these ‘faults’ […] They appear to be native Spanish traits, endemic to the music”—traits that, Powell speculates, are a holdover from “centuries of intimate exposure to an alien Near Eastern culture” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 120). Sutcliffe’s gloss is revealing: “If this seems to collude too easily with the essentializing of the land of mañana, one simply has to have played through some of the figures of Albero and Soler […] To this Westerner at least, the gigantic sequences one finds may be exotically enticing, but they can equally be infuritating and upsetting, so implacably do they continue on their way” (121). For a discussion of this putative Spanish “passive attitude to time,” see note M.

H  The distinction between a cosmetic and a germinal interaction with Spanish folk music is nowhere better expressed than with regard to dance. Sutcliffe’s observation that very few of the sonatas are identified with a particular dance, despite eighteenth-century custom—think of any Bach suite—is illuminating. Dance, he asserts, is “an impulse” rather than a form; not a template or rhythm for the composer to imitate, but rather something that permeates every aspect of the music. Kirkpatrick’s note that the sonatas are “ruled … by the sense of bodily movement” is echoed by what Sutcliffe calls the music’s “transcendent physicality.” At the same time, Sutcliffe is careful not to “sentimentalize wildness”; instead, sonatas like K. 305 and K. 262 “are idealistically irregular, expressing the blur of activity, the frenzy, the exhiliration of bodily movement.” As with Kirkpatrick, this sense informs Sutcliffe’s comments on proper performance. “The performer should not hold back,” he writes. There is an “anxiety” that “‘the music’ may be swallowed up by physical gesture and, in being so, somehow lose its integrity; yet in Scarlatti’s particular case, the novelty lies particularly in the way in which dance gesture can be foregrounded and become ‘the music’” (286; my emphasis).

Bogianckino, too, consistently connects the sonatas to the “frenzied dance rhythms of folk-music colour”; even the pauses are “choreographic,” like a dancer holding a pose. He writes, “It almost seems possible to add the attribute ‘rhythmic’ to every single element going into the making of a Scarlatti sonata, so great is the rhythmic fancy running through the whole texture of it, with its light palpitation or its frenzied pulse” (79). Boyd adds that the “transcendent physicality” of the sonatas may help explain why keyboardists are overrepresented as fans of Scarlatti’s music. (See notes P and S for further discussion of Scarlatti in performance.)

N.B.: It is somewhat unclear to me to what extent high and late Romantics were familiar with Scarlatti’s music, except for Brahms, into whose hands the Vienna manuscript (containing 308 sonatas) came. This historical aside has made me wonder to what extent Brahms’s incredible rhythmic sense is attributable to his contact with the “violent [Iberian] rhythms” of Scarlatti’s oeuvre. I found myself crying out in agreement with Malcolm Boyd, who praises Scarlatti’s “rhythmic wit […] as well as passages of cross-rhythm almost worthy of Brahms” (188).

I  There is a certain discomfort, Sutcliffe suggests, with Scarlatti’s prolificness, and one way it has been justified is by claiming the sonatas were improvised. (That they were merely to be used for instruction is another; see note N). Sutcliffe, however, notes that keyboard music of the time was “looser,” and the “sonatas may have been dictated improvisations” (41). As Charles Rosen noted, improvisation was everywhere in the 18th century, not just the keyboard (Sutcliffe).

J  It is the quixotic assertion of late composition that has been most attacked and discredited. Malcolm Boyd, for example, agrees with what he calls Kirkpatrick’s “general theory,” i.e., that the order of sonatas in the two main manuscripts (Parma and Venice) is largely chronological. But he is not convinced by the “special theory” of late flowering, finding it incredible that Scarlatti would not have been composing in the fifteen years between the publication of the Essercizi and the beginning of copying out of the sonatas. Stylistic analysis, Boyd suggests, is a double-edged sword. (It can be illuminating, though, if carefully applied; he notes that certain ranges of the sonatas employ a particular stylistic feature, which then disappears; stylistic features can also be compared with other music for which dates of composition are secure.) Bogianckino similarly finds the special theory “incredible,” citing, among other things, a letter that suggests Scarlatti’s fame had already begun to spread across Europe as early as 1703, and Burney’s claim that Scarlatti was already known for his “freakish” sonatas half a century his 1773 publication of The Present State of Music in Germany (135). He too finds the stylistic evidence contradictory. Unlike Boyd, however, he refuses to endorse even the special theory, or to weigh in on the “thorny” matter of the sonatas’ chronology.

Interestingly, Jane Clark swings the pendulum of the special theory all the way to the other side. She suggests that the chronology of composition was disordered in the copying out of the sonatas, because Scarlatti left Seville in 1733, and many of the “Spanish” sonatas she mentions appear later in the chronology. “What seems more probable,” she writes, “is that he wrote a great many of them, and I would almost dare say most of them [but then you just did], during his first four years in Spain, the years he spent under the spell of the music of Andalucia” (21). I am flummoxed by Clark’s logic here. What is there to suggest that the impressions of Andalucia did not remain in Scarlatti’s memory after he left that region? Had Scarlatti gone to Andalucia only later in his life, then we might have a good benchmark for periodizing. But given that the composer began his Spanish sojourn in the south, there is little we can extrapolate. Either Seville made him belt out sonatas flamencas like mad, or the sound stayed with him after he left. More likely it was both. Clark’s comment that more “timid” and more “confident” attempts at Spanish music stand next to each other is so subjective as to be meaningless. (Assuming her feeling is correct—however one would assert this—it could simply be that the composer was able to more fully realize an idea on a second attempt  … or a first one. Hence one problem with stylistic analysis. We might ask for the same consistency from the stories of Maupassant, or the songs of Schubert (see note I). (Cf. Sanford Friedman’s beautiful realization of that composer’s visit to the dying Beethoven, criticizing his own earlier songs for being “longwinded,” and asking the maestro, “You didn’t find the ringing of the convent bells [in ‘The Young Nun’] overdone?” (Conversations with Beethoven, p. 245)—a wonderful irony, as Beethoven would have no more been able to actually hear Schubert’s works than his own later ones. I love to imagine Scarlatti asking the same question of … who? “Don’t you think that guitar-strumming effect at the beginning of K. whatever is a little … heavy?”)

Sutcliffe puts Kirkpatrick’s theories in the context of the history of music criticism. For Sutcliffe, Kirkpatrick falls prey to a master narrative—one that subscribes to what Warren Dwight Allen called “the ideology of progress,” where “individual works are made to tell a story [about the composer’s development] in which they function merely as pieces of evidence” (Sutcliffe 4): the arc of a composer’s (and really any artist’s) life beginning with flashy, youthful works, moving on to a rich middle period, and concluding with a “digested maturity,” where “everything is at once thinner and richer” (the phrases are Kirkpatrick’s). (See also p. 279 for a fascinating discussion of “liberation” from virtuosity, which involves a movement away “not just from the physical body, but from sonority itself” (280). Indeed, the shadow of Beethoven’s genius is a long one, and cast both backward and forward in time!) (N.B.: I confess that this model has always appealed to me; see, for example, “Arcless; or, Pure Dirt” (12.29.13).) It almost goes without saying that Sutcliffe finds Kirkpatrick’s “special theory” ludicrous. But like Clark, he also questions the chronology of the manuscripts, finding little or no stylistic evidence for pairing: the pairs are a product of compilation, not composition. Perhaps the compilers consciously created the “periods” which would-be biographers then retroactively project onto the composer’s life? While there is a “middle period” that seems different (V 5-7), Sutcliffe suggests these works might have been written for a new pupil. In other words, Scarlatti was not undergoing an organic process of maturation, but rather adapting to the external circumstances of his profession. (To be fair, we should recall that some of Kirkpatrick’s theories about Scarlatti’s “evolution” as a composer are also keyed to (speculated) external circumstances.) Sutcliffe is also unconvinced that Kirkpatrick’s other yardstick, keyboard size, can help date Scarlatti’s compositions.

K  I’m taking yet another page from Borges’s book here—one of the countless I’ve torn from the author’s Babelian library—by creating an apocryphal section, an endnote without a parent. Here, the source is one of my favorite stories: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And it has to be K! The first letter of Kirkpatrick’s name; the letter that accompanies the best-known and most-used of the four (count ‘em) different catalogs of sonatas; the letter that symbolizes the scholarly legacy Sutcliffe and so many others have grappled with. If I must give it a name, I will call the ghost parent-section “Scarlatti,” the quotes signifying not title, but euphemism.

For Sutcliffe, Scarlatti lends himself particularly well to contemporary musicological study because of his self-reflexive style, a style birthed in part by his ever-changing life circumstances and environs, which made him “conscious of styles, of various options for musical conduct.” Scarlatti, he writes, “ma[d]e a virtue out of not belonging, or not wanting to belong” (8). While Sutcliffe notes that self-consciousness is not unique to Scarlatti, in Scarlatti “none of the styles or modes of utterance of which he avails himself seems to be called home” (8).

Malcolm Boyd believed that Scarlatti’s more “intimate, refined and even soul-searching” sonatas have been overlooked because the fast, dynamic ones tend to be more popular. Sutcliffe argues that this has led performers to over-emphasize the slower sonatas, and to slow down their tempos, “invest[ing] their performances with what seems to me a false gravitas” to “make the composer sound more serious” (10). To be fair, Sutcliffe blames this on a cultural propensity to equate slow with serious, and vice-versa; and he goes on to distance Scarlatti from such discursive models, proposing bodily expression—dance—in its place, and suggesting as well that there is no reason for bodily expression to occupy the subordinate position in the binary.

Be that as it may, the comment about “false gravitas” rankles. Sutcliffe, it seems, cannot allow the possibility “true” gravitas if he wants to paint Scarlatti as a self-reflexive proto-postmodernist. But why shouldn’t the realities of exile and homelessness, of the seasonal calvary in tow of the royal family, allow for actual pathos? Why remove from Scarlatti the possibility of tragedy—or, for that matter, what Bogianckino called “genuine, not baroque, laughter”? In attempting to rescue Scarlatti from the clown-image that has pursued him through history, even by calling into question cultural biases about tempo and bodily expression, Sutcliffe seems to want to substitute the jester who is making fun of us. Given the madness of the king, this is admittedly appealing … but also sadly limiting.

In Scarlatti’s “mixed style” (109) Sutcliffe, like others before him, hears wit, distance, and self-reflexive practice; it explains why Sutcliffe, rather than wanting to smooth out differences, militates for emphasizing the clash and clang between court and street, galant and baroque, mannered Italian and “violent Iberian rhythms,” and a kitchen sink’s worth of other binaries, all of which “encourag[ed] … [a] sort of fruitful creative schizophrenia” (15; my emphasis). In K. 277, for example, Sutcliffe hears “the brutal interruption of the galant melodic style” (15). In another, K. 398, rather than subordinating the drones, parallel melodic intervals, repetition, and simple keys typical of the pastorale, Scarlatti calls the listener’s attention to them (87). In all cases, Sutcliffe focuses on how Scarlatti contextualizes elements “to exaggerate [their] difference,” or inserts them into “contexts that suggest the impossibility of [their] artistic presence” (109). Scarlatti is thus the consummate self-reflexive composer, consciously playing with and undermining generic form; Longo, by editing out all the musical smut (“harmonic asperities, as Boyd terms them), “attempt[ed] to provide the sort of generic security that most of the sonatas conspicuously deny” (85).

Sutcliffe makes a similar argument about Scarlatti and counterpoint: not that the composer did not know how to follow the rules, but that he deliberately flouted them. Sutcliffe’s broadside on K. 254 is memorable: a kind of “skit on counterpoint,” he calls it “an invention gone wrong,” “lame,” “much messier than it sounds,”  “unsuccessful,” “pompous,” “uncertain,” “inconsequential,” “going around in circles,” with a tendency (this well beyond K. 254) to “embarrass … the contemporary performer”; “nonsense,” “annoy[ing],” “exhausting,” and exhibiting “intermittent ugliness and sprawl”—all this in the space of about a page. All in all, it asks the question “what we [?] are prepared to accept in the name of art music” (18). But all this is recuperated as “satire” and “mock ineptitude”—in other words, conscious rebellion: again, a Scarlatti who did not want to belong. (To be fair, we should bear in mind the context for this discussion: a letter to the Duke of Huescar in which Scarlatti argues for a decline in “compositional standards” and paints himself as the standard-bearer of the “rules of counterpoint.” Sutcliffe reads this letter as ironic; it is against this letter that he analyzes sonata K. 254.) It’s also probably also worth noting here that Bogianckino called the composer a “contrapuntal master,” and suggests that his style is wrongly viewed “through the distorting lens of the Fugues of Bach” (124); Scarlatti’s teacher, as he tongue-in-cheekly puts it, was “unable to fill him with the reverential fear” of parallel fifths (123). Where Sutcliffe hears irony, Bogianckino hears contrarian innovation. See note O.)

It’s no wonder Mark Kroll, in his review of Sutcliffe’s book for Notes, got the impression Sutcliffe doesn’t like Scarlatti much (e.g., “He considers Scarlatti’s music to be crude, ugly, compulsive, and perhaps even mentally unbalanced” (146)), even as he points to the irony that such characterizations are offset by “numblingly thorough note-by-note” analyses that rather suggest deep appreciation. But I think Kroll misses the point here. Sutcliffe may not like Scarlatti, but he clearly loves the “Scarlatti” he fabricates from his analyses and sets to a sort of mechanical laughter at his harpsichord, at his own oeuvre and the history of its reception. Is this not very much the Scarlatti for our (sneering) historical moment? It suggests that those of us who have been moved by Scarlatti’s music are, in essence, deaf to its real meaning: while we weep in the front row, Scarlatti is winking over our heads at Sutcliffe, sitting behind and (of course) a little above us.

That Sutcliffe also claims to hear in the sonatas a “democratic openness” to “any and all sounds” (37), “a carnivalesque inclusion of the whole (musical) world” (123)—indeed, one section of the book is titled “Heteroglossia”—seems to contradict his other assertion, that “none of these styles … seemed to be called home” (my emphasis). Why not say instead that he considered all of these styles home? Why not, that is, emphasize the open, expansive, world-embracing Scarlatti instead of, or at least as much as, the witty, sneering, world-destroying Scarlatti? Perhaps the problem is a false dichotomy between self-reflexivity and “stereotyped local color,” as though a third option—recognition of the expressive potential of his musical surroundings, and a predisposition to allow them to infuse his composing process at a germinal level—did not exist.

Sutcliffe treads gingerly around the question of Scarlatti’s personality, noting the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the few shards of the life and the quicksand foundation of his music; the composer’s putative shyness, for example, is a “way of making positive sense of the absence of information we are faced with” (35). And yet, even cautiously, he is not averse to making negative sense of Scarlatti from his music, such as when he imagines the man to have been “unstable or even schizophrenic.” (See note M.) Is Sutcliffe mocking the “biographical desperation” (34) of those who seek to psychologize the man from a few notes, and hence emulating the postmodern mockery of the Scarlatti he creates for us? In the same way he notes that the music promotes a “superlative, straining prose” in many critics, perhaps only the ur-self-reflexive critic can come to grips with the ur-self-reflexive composer …

One last thought: one also finds in Sutcliffe a certain ambivalence about binaries; he gleefully dismantles them, and just as quickly re-erects them, or erects new ones in their place. As a scholar, one is helpless but to keep invoking binaries as one writes; they are the hydra of all intellectual activity, always staying one step ahead of the critic’s Heraclean blade—the (admittedly fascinating, and occasionally even fruitful) cul-de-sac of deconstruction. One gets the sense—and this is much broader than Sutcliffe—that, after the ritual obsequities to postmodern limitations and handle-with-care labels on all invoked binaries and master narratives, it’s business as usual; we’re just neurotic about it.

L  Until Sutcliffe, the idea that Scarlatti composed the sonatas in pairs seems to have been accepted wisdom—and may be still, since, beyond Kroll’s laudatory but also somewhat jaundiced review, I have not explored how his monograph was received by the community of eighteenth-century music scholars. Now, for those keyboardists today who are still persuaded that the pairs are a product of the composer’s intention, another question arises: were they intended to be performed as pairs as well? Like so much about Scarlatti, it remains an open question. Maybe best to follow Boyd here, who believed the composer took a hands-off approach; we might be happy enough to do the same today. But Boyd is also right to interrogate the nature and context of the sonatas’ performance in Scarlatti’s time, particularly since the vast majority of the sonatas were not published (according to him, a total of 73 sonatas were published during the composer’s lifetime, and only in France and England; they were unpublished in Italy or Spain). Who, besides the composer, might have performed them? In front of what sort of audience, in what setting, and with what expectations?

In both recitals and recordings, keyboardists have tended to follow Boyd’s advice. Pairings are rare, and almost unheard in performance. On my own recordings, only Schiff’s 1992 disc privileges them: 12 of the 15 sonatas on this recording are paired. Of my dozen or so other recordings of Scarlatti’s music, there are only two examples of paired sonatas—and one is on another Schiff recording (I could not find a date on it). The fact that Schiff’s disc was my initiation into Scarlatti’s music may explain why I tend to think of the pairs as natural.

In all, maybe we would do best to make lemonade from the lemons of the historical vacuum, as Kathleen Dale does: “Playing all the Scarlatti sonatas is ‘like journeying in a land where it is always spring’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 45). It is liberating to imagine we don’t need to know the grand arc of the composer’s life, or the context in which the sonatas were meant to be performed—including the context of Scarlatti’s own oeuvre—to appreciate them. Each is luminous, self-sufficient, always fresh. Why subject them to the vicissitudes of monastical fires, careless or inventive scribes, etc.?

M  Much of the critical debate around Scarlatti’s compositions centers on his predilection for short, repetitive, highly rhythmic passages. In an unpublished dissertation from which Sutcliffe draws, Joel Sheveloff coined the term “vamp” to describe them. Sutcliffe defines them this way: “those apparently non-thematic, obsessively repetitive passages that occur frequently in the sonatas” (23). Kroll calls the term “unfortunate.”

Haters contend that these phrases are overrepetitive and disconnected from the sonata. Sutcliffe, in fact, unites these two criticisms, speculating that the “vamps” “may […] be conceived of as an effort to overcome the sectionalized syntax of the work” (23), echoing a point of Bogianckino’s (“a tiny rhythmic or melodic idea recurs to knit together the scattered fragments” (126; see also p. 60)). He similarly argues that the sonatas’ openings are “offhand” and have little to do with “the creative ‘idea’ of the work” (19). When Glenn Gould describes the sonatas as “scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next” and full of “predictable discontinuit[ies]”(14), he is voicing a similar criticism about dis-integration; and one hears a faint echo of the same point in Sheveloff’s comment that “Scarlatti’s style is composed of ‘an abundance of tiny, special details’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 39). As noted, editors have shortened or otherwise “finessed” these passages; Sutcliffe, not surprisingly, “argue[s] for naked insistence” (24; see note K). This is a point with which Kroll’s review takes issue, finding these passages “active” and “vital,” and certainly not “non-thematic” (147).

(There is an interesting converse to this: critics tend to look at the sonatas according to what Sutcliffe dubs “the panorama tradition”: Scarlatti’s work “suggest[s] a more or less deliberately coordinated whole,” “a controlling world view behind the entire production of the sonatas” (36); Giorgio Pestelli called them “a single continuous poem with more than five hundred verses” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 27). Individual dis-integration is thus subsumed under a more general totality; the author-function, not “rhythmic pedals” or “vamps,” seals the cracks. Sutcliffe’s contention here is that this “tradition” tends to avoid close attention to and analysis of individual sonatas, a lacuna his book studiously attempts to fill.)

On the question of dis/integration we would do well to remember the examples of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 (Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”) and String Quartet in B-flat (Op. 133), about which Maynard Solomon writes in “The Sense of an Ending,” one of the best essays in his Late Beethoven (California UP, 2003). In both cases, Beethoven either volunteered or acquiesced to the dismantling of his own compositions: the “Hammerklavier” was published in London as a 3-movement sonata, the last movement published as a separate work; the quartet originally featured the Grosse Fugue as its finale, but on the request of a publisher Beethoven wrote a new closing movement, eventually publishing the Grosse Fugue separately (Op. 133). Writes Solomon, “To take Beethoven seriously”—that is, to not rationalize these as evidence of the composer’s eccentricity, hypersensitivity, need for cash, etc.—“would suggest that he may have held a different view from our own concerning the formal integrity of his music. […] Can an aesthetic object like the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata or the Missa solemnis be subdivided or rearranged and still survive as a work of art? […] Certainly these revisions—if that is what they ought to be called—undermine notions of the organic perfection of Beethoven’s greater works. After all, the replacement of the Gross Fugue may be circumstantial evidence of the noninevitability of Beethoven’s structures” (214-5). Overall, “The question of what constitutes a finished work is thrown open” (215). I am taking liberties with Solomon’s argument, since his intention here is to closely analyze these issues in Beethoven’s later works, by examining the composer’s process, among other things. Yet, it’s difficult to read this essay without wanting to apply the analysis much more broadly. Fiction writers are fond of saying the task of a story is to make the possible seem inevitable. Is music any different? To what extent are “formal integrity,” “organic perfection,” and “inevitability” constructions of critical reception? Does anyone really believe that Beethoven’s works could have been thus, and no other, as a dashing young Leonard Bernstein once claimed for his TV audience? To what extent does canonization function as one giant appeal to ethos (for Aristotle the most important argumentative appeal), welding together not just all the works with each other, but within themselves as well?

As for the second criticism, repetition: the whole discourse around vamps (or whatever), and even around calling them vamps, suggests there remains an enormous discomfort with repetition in classical music, as well as with classical’s relationship to jazz and pop music. This dis-ease about repetition has very deep philosophical and cultural roots. The language of the debate here is suggestive: Sutcliffe’s comment about the flamenco-inspired “intoxicating monotony” (120) of K. 404 suggests the activation of unruly pleasure centers in the brain that subvert the reasoning faculty. When Sutcliffe asserts that the vamp in this sonata “cannot sustain the listener’s attention,” so that “we may find ourselves listening to the passing of time and becoming lost in the mechanics of the pattern” (120), he is giving voice to this same art-music assumption about repetition. A key word here is attention: Sutcliffe means the structural attention one is supposed to bring to classical music, did not the “idiot repetitions” (283) threaten to overthrow our reason. Similarly, the idea that the listener becomes “lost in the mechanics of the pattern” suggests at once a bewildered listener and a superficial listening practice. Indeed, the terror here seems to be that we might actually take pleasure in things our enlightened minds tell us are grotesque or idiotic; and that pleasure, simple pleasure, may prompt up to ask for it again … more often than is seemly. Indeed, the minimalists and the tape-loop experimenters of postwar America were radical in a way those of us who grew up listening even partly to riff-based rock and samples-based pop can’t even begin to imagine.

It is also suggestive that this terror (I don’t think the term is too strong) of repetition folds back onto a terror of representation—that is, art music’s inability to represent, to contain, folk music, and to what extent said representation might destabilize or even dismantle the closely-guarded generic boundaries of art music. In K. 502, for example, Sutcliffe hears “a straining toward something that cannot be expressed in the notation, that is quite beyond the comprehension of the world of high art” (119); among other things, Scarlatti is trying to capture “the metrical complexity of flamenco rhythms.” Is the terror here the ultimate failure of art music to represent the living idiom—the fear that classical music is, like El Escorial, a giant tomb? Is it the terror of allowing folk “irrationality” into art music’s ornamented symmetry, of bathing in the waters of the unconscious without drowning? (Sutcliffe notes that folk music is actually more regular and ordered than art music.) Or is it rather that, as Sutcliffe contends about national essences, there is no essence there to represent? Just like we look to the composer’s life for a stable reference point—a reference point denied us with Scarlatti—so we look to folk “essence” as another yardstick against which to measure Scarlatti’s music, an essence that exist only as posterior constructions that can point to nothing beyond themselves. (See note G.)

When Sutcliffe asks whether “the compulsive, repetitive, unstable behavior of the vamp sections [might] owe something to such royal example?” (33)—that is, the example of a king who believed he had been turned into a frog, and would shit his bed and then wallow in it (Sutcliffe 33)—it leaves me little to wonder what he makes of much contemporary music and musical culture. We of course live in a time of not just repetitive music, but repetitive listening, promoted by the abundance of recorded music and technology that allows us to easily skip backward and forward. What “royal example” do we follow?

N  Boyd prefers the term “Lessons” (“Essercizi”) to “sonatas,” as he believes the latter term gives the mistaken impression that Scarlatti’s works are somehow classical sonatas in embryo, rather than something of Scarlatti’s own invention, and much closer to the dance pieces that form the suites of his baroque contemporaries. In fact, both Kirkpatrick and Boyd are careful to back away from teleology: in discussing the similarities between Scarlatti’s binary form and, say, a Beethoven sonata, Kirkpatrick notes that the comparison is not intended to suggest that the former paved the way for the latter. Boyd is even more adamant about the discontinuity.

Bogianckino adds an important caveat here: “Essercizi” was used to describe many pieces not intended for instruction (116). (Such a misunderstanding of their purpose has hampered their appreciation: if one believes they are primarily for “training,” the implication is that they lack “inner content” (Sutcliffe 43).) Their publication suggests he composed not just for Maria Barbara, but also for a wider public. “Either the term is a standard one expressing humbleness,” Bogianckino writes, “or is intended to mean the pleasing exercise of an art that can only bring delight through skill and the understanding of it” (116). Nor are the sonatas intentional about addressing technical problems, in the way that, say, Chopin’s etudes are. In other words: they are neither “lessons” nor “sonatas,” as we tend to conceive of these terms today. They are Scarlatti!

O  According to Bogianckino, Scarlatti’s attitude was by no means aberrant: a “hedonistic esthetics,” the idea that the best art was “the one that most delighted the ear” (13), was common in Italy during the first half of the eighteenth century, as evidenced by many composers’ prefaces and dedications. “Art,” Bogianckino writes, “fulfilled its moral mission by pursuing pleasure” (18), and the composer “claim[ed] his right to express himself according to a new freedom in composition and not keeping to abstract rules that had become oppressive and irksome” (106). While Scarlatti’s innovations could only be justified if they gave pleasure, this clearly did not rule out the bold dissonances in which the composer delighted (41). (Cf. another lovely tidbit from the Burney: “As nature had given him ten fingers, and as his instrument had employment for them all, he saw no reason why he should not use them” (qtd. in Bogianckino 41).

Sutcliffe, too, puts Scarlatti’s “militant creative disdain” in historical context, arguing that the sixty-year interregnum between the “unraveling” of the Baroque and the establishment of a Classical style would have presented something of an opportunity for Scarlatti to “dare to … give way to his fancy,” as Burney put it. He also cautions scholars against taking the famous preface to the Essercizi—or any such document by a composer—too much at its word: “It is fatally easy to allow composers’ pronouncements to dictate the terms for the reception of their music” (74); such documents should be understood as attempts at “public ‘staging’,” not “artistic creed” (75). To read the Scarlatti’s preface as a “unique declaration of his art” is thus to ignore its context. And while it was common, Sutcliffe notes, for composers to engage in such epistolary groveling, it was also common for them to emphasize the referenced work’s gravity. The preface even seems to contradict the occasion of its publication: the conferring of knighthood. Recent interpretations of the preface are divided between those who have been “culturally conditioned” by the composer’s historical reception to take his display of modesty at face value on the one hand (i.e., Scarlatti is admitting that, unlike Bach, his compositions lack depth … and so he has been received), and those who see it as a “modernist refutation of traditional techniques and aesthetic attitudes” a la Burney on the other (76). Instead, Sutcliffe contends that the preface is a decoy; like the title Essercizi, it is “mock-ingenuous,” paralleling the “ironic gap between the claimed modesty and the arrogant fluency […] of the technical-musical contents” (77).

Whether Romantic paean to artistic freedom or one more example of Scarlatti’s nimble fencing with public perception, for me the most tantalizingly ambiguous word in the Burney anecdote that spawned this endnote is pleasing. What Bogianckino calls “overtones of heart-rending melancholy” (97) Sutcliffe calls “teeth-grinding dissonances.” Hence the problem: one listener’s rent heart is another’s ground teeth. For his part, Boyd claims that Scarlatti “clearly relish[es] the discords [in this case, 5-4 suspensions] for their percussive effect” (183; my emphasis). And don’t we? Perhaps we need to be reminded that tension, musical or otherwise, is not necessarily unpleasant. Anyway, the metaphorically polarized reactions to Scarlatti’s dissonances remind us the extent to which the aesthetics of listening is at once culturally constructed and deeply personal. Bogianckino’s historical gloss on the term “mordent” forms a nice coda to this discussion: it’s called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt …” (Gasparini, qtd. in Bogianckino 124; my emphasis). Why not say, “… and is actually quite pleasing”?

P Harpsichord, clavichord, and piano all coexisted throughout the eighteenth century, and they sounded more alike than they do today (Sutcliffe). As such, the question of whether and to what extent harpsichord actually was Scarlatti’s instrument of choice has become—like pretty much everything else—unsettled. Was Scarlatti’s oeuvre really the “final flowering of harpsichord,” Sutcliffe asks? Or were the sonatas regularly played on one of Maria Barbara’s fortepianos? (Bogianckino notes that pianos were sent to the Spanish court from Florence; some of these were converted into harpsichords.) Sutcliffe tells us that “there is strong circumstantial evidence linking Scarlatti with the history and promulgation of the early fortepiano” (4); some have even called Scarlatti “the piano’s first greatest advocate.” Others think piano was used only for accompaniment. Again, the fact that Scarlatti was composing in a transitional moment—here not between ascendant schools but ascendant keyboard instruments—helps explain why he has fallen between the cracks of both performance and scholarship. Sadly, both pianists and harpsichordists have shied away from Scarlatti, each for their own reasons. As Hermann Keller laments: “If only both sides would play him at all!” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 49). (Sutcliffe adds another “crack”: Scarlatti’s bi-nationality. National consciousness about a composer goes hand-in-hand with institutional support; Scarlatti, as he puts it, “lacks the weight of an entire culture industry behind him” (5).)

As to why so many harpsichordists have ignored Scarlatti: Sutcliffe believes it is because they tend to be too proper to grasp Scarlatti’s witty style—a “spiritual antiquarianism” (29) he associates with the early music movement, and that drains the sonatas of performative presence. It is a point that echoes nicely the rigidity Kirkpatrick decries in the performance of eighteenth-century music, but here under the new guise of militant authenticity. (N.B.: Sutcliffe does note that Wanda Landowska was an admirer. It’s hard for me not to hear Landowska as the obvious choice for Scarlatti; I only know her via my parents’ record of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a piece whose openness and playfulness perfectly mirrors the “ever-changing free musical fantasy” (66) Bogianckino and others hear in the “free” sections of Scarlatti’s sonatas. With the exception of the Brandenburg Concertos, Landowska’s was the only harpsichord I ever heard until I tried to find harpsichord recordings of Scarlatti.)

About those harpsichordists who do play Scarlatti, Sutcliffe can be quite withering, particularly about their rhythmic liberties; in his review, Mark Kroll strikes back that “rubato and individual interpretation” contribute much to the pleasure of listening to the sonatas. I would tend to agree with Kroll. Why shouldn’t the performance of Scarlatti’s sonatas mirror what Sutcliffe called the “democratic openness” of his compositions?  Or at least, given the unsettledness of the debate about Scarlatti’s primary instrument, the equanimity that Horowitz displayed in his liner notes to the record that led the Assad brothers to their sublime two-guitar transcriptions? The pianist, Horowitz writes, “should not attempt to imitate a harpsichord too much, neither should he use all the resources of the piano which would destroy the style of the music.” Come to think of it, that’s not so different from what Kirkpatrick said, though spoken from the shore of the other keyboard.

For someone who was introduced to Scarlatti on the piano, and has listened to his music almost exclusively on the piano, the unsettledness is heartening. But why should it be? Why should the contemporary listener breathe a sigh of relief just because scholars now say, “Don’t worry. They were probably composed for the piano”? Again, it partakes of that strange fantasy that the harpsichord allows us more direct, “authentic” contact with Scarlatti’s music, rather than coming to us “encrusted” (the word is Justin Davidson’s; see note Q below) with the same centuries’ worth of associations and veiled by the same centuries’ worth of cultural scrims. Any “original” sound is unrecoverable. And yet, we cling to this idea of contact with the site of composition, just as we do to some essence of the composer discoverable to the biographer, and to a folk essence distillable from the music (see note G, particularly the quotation from Leonard Meyer).

Q  Justin Davidson, writing on the eve of a 2010 festival that was to pair the same Beethoven symphonies performed by both period and modern orchestras, noted the impossibility of hearing musical works—particularly revolutionary works like Beethoven’s Eroica—with the freshness and rawness of their debuts, no matter how we try to recreate their unruly births into our sonic universe. Interestingly, he held out hope for contemporary listeners, whose ignorance of the classical tradition might allow them to hear some semblance of the shock of discovery. It strikes me as overly optimistic—and my Writing About Music students, with whom I have shared this article, have generally agreed with my skepticism. Then again, Davidson doesn’t seem entirely convinced, either. “We can’t unravel a history of listening,” he writes, “and the work can’t easily slough off its encrustations of meaning.” Many of the “encrustations” he mentions, filtered as they are through popular culture, are as familiar to the seasoned classical-music listener as to the novice. For the first group, such associations cannot simply be scrubbed away by the restoration of period instruments or the theme-parkish resurrection of so-called period ambience; that’s concert as Civil War battle re-enactment. For the second—and returning to Scarlatti—we might ask what “encrusted meanings” and new sets of expectations the harpsichord brings. In what contexts has it been used, or sampled, in this era of “democratic openness” to any and all sounds—many more than Scarlatti could have imagined? The harpsichord’s timbre, after all, positions it closer to the luxuriant decadence of Lady Gaga’s goth-pop. Second cousin to the organ, it might partake of the Gothic intrigue of Phantom of the Opera. Maybe there is a second life for the superannuated instruments of the West … although “life” might be stretching it; it’s more like a flickering image, a ghost in the machine.

R  Kirkpatrick won’t let that go without giving a parting shot for the harpsichord: “Many composers most noted for an idiomatic command over their instrument […] make the most frequent borrowings from other mediums [….] Instead of diminishing the effect of the instrument, Scarlatti’s borrowings heighten its character and augment its range of expression to such an extent that his music must be regarded as much in extra-harpsichord terms as in terms of the harpsichord itself” (199). If this is so, then does it follow that the works of composers with the most “idiomatic command” are also the ones that most flourish in transcription … and hence perhaps the ones who survive the vicissitudes of history, the constant evolution of technologies of musical production and consumption? Or is it true that the re-positioning of all other sonorities on their chosen instrument means the most is lost in transcription? (Can the answer to both these questions be yes?)

S  Not surpisingly, this kvetch of Kirkpatrick’s is echoed by a number of other writers, from Bogianckino (“Scarlatti’s harpsichord art has … alternately been classed as contaminated or infantile, according to whether it was seen in that light [i.e., degraded by the vogue for Italian opera and thus made ‘impure’] or through classical-romantic eyes” (102)) to Jane Clark (the sonatas are only good for warm-ups or encores; they are “superficial miniatures”). The source of Kirkpatrick’s “appetizers” comment may be Kathleen Dale; see Sutcliffe, p. 58, n. 156.

Glenn Gould, whose position as the scion of Bach interpreters “necessarily” put him in the anti-Scarlatti camp, gives a nice nutshell description of Scarlatti-as-buffoon. In a radio broadcast almost two decades after the publication of Kirkpatricks’ biography, Gould remarked that the composer “is at his happiest, and best, glibly scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next … and as a result his music possesses a higher quirk quotient than that of any comparable figure” (14). The sonatas are full of “offbeat gimmicks” and “predictable discontinuit[ies]”; “vivacity and goodwill” are their most felicitous attributes. Backhanded compliments at best, coming as they do after a list—glib, scampering, predictable, quirky, gimmicky—that oscillates between patronizing and insulting. Gould’s Scarlatti is childish and phony, his music’s ideal venue a children’s birthday party. (The fact that Sutcliffe sometimes emulates Gould’s rhetoric, peppering his analyses with expressions like “three-card trick” and “unarty” (284), helps further explain why he raised Kroll’s hackles … and occasionally mine as well.)

Horowitz once again serves as an interesting foil, in part because he is much more associated with Romantic than eighteenth-century music, suggesting that “classical-romantic eyes” may be more forgiving than Bogianckino believed. “More are slow than fast,” he writes in the liner notes to his recording of Scarlatti sonatas, “and many are quite poetic, nostalgic, and even dreamy, very much in the bel canto style.” Horowitz also praises the composer’s originality and his folksy, accessible style. Of course, all of these are tropes that would appeal to the Romantic imagination, and suggest why Scarlatti might have been taken up by some Romantics, not just Brahms (whose praise was somewhat reserved), but also that greatest of keyboard Romantics, Chopin. (Not all, of course; Schumann wasn’t impressed. But then Chopin wasn’t impressed by Schumann. There are limits to what we can glean from these merry-go-rounds of composers’ tastes.) All of which underscores Kirkpatrick’s point that the “impassable gulf” between eighteenth- and nineteeth-century music is indeed a product of twentieth-century canonization and periodization; while other “gulfs, ” geographical and cultural rather then temporal, such as that dividing Germany, Bach, and the high Baroque from orientalized Spain and Italy, are perhaps even more pertinent to the performance (or lack thereof) and reception of Scarlatti today.

T  Most post-Kirkpatrick scholars have been evenhanded in their criticisms of Domenico Scarlatti. Bogianckino, for example, praised the book’s “brilliant and effective formal and stylistic analysis of the sonatas,” but noted that the text lacks a “thorough, convincing historical background.” He also notes the book does not “strike the [proper] balance […] between the enlightened performer’s conversation and the profound analytical approach” (134). Thirty years later, Boyd was still calling the book “pre-eminent,” citing in particular the revised edition of 1984, and noting that later scholars have “reviewed and built on Kirkpatrick’s work” (223). If, of all the studies discussed in this post, Sutcliffe’s is the least charitable, it may be because of a backhistory Kroll alludes to in his review: apparently Kirkpatrick attacked Joel Sheveloff’s as-yet-unpublished (1970) dissertation; and Sutcliffe, who draws heavily on Sheveloff, seems to see his monograph partly as payback time. (The misspelling of Sheveloff’s name in Kroll’s review speaks volumes.) Kroll also comments on the irony that, for all Sutcliffe’s disparaging of Kirkpatrick, he echoes many of his ideas. (Even I, lay reader that I am, noticed Kirkpatrick’s observation about rhythmic figures carried across bar lines in Sutcliffe (see p. 84). I believe it was Kirkpatrick who suggested that Scarlatti’s early a cappella music, which did without bar lines, might explain why the composer felt so comfortable ignoring them.)

All this reminds me of something Sacvan Bercovitch once said about Perry Miller, the putative father of American Studies, whose death was followed by a “partricidal totem feast […] when a swarm of social and literary historians rushed to pick apart the corpus of his work” (xv). Such seems to be the case with many a founding study. I am obviously in no way qualified to mount a defense of Kirkpatrick’s book, and it’s certainly not the goal of this post to attempt it. Nor is it really necessary. I only hope I have sufficiently communicated my appreciation for his work, as well as the many virtues of the subsequent studies discussed. It makes sense that those parts of the book Bogianckino called the “enlightened performer’s conversation” would bear the most fruit for the lay reader, as well as providing some breathing room between the excursions into analysis, which many of us with a smattering of theory in our backgrounds actually enjoy slogging through, in limited doses.

I’m also reminded of the classic arguments about literary translation, some of which I mentioned in “Eight Years in the Pit” (12.7.18), as a way to make some analogous points about writing about music as a form. Several years ago I taught Chekhov in one unit of my Studies in Fiction sophomore-level English class, and among the texts I scouted was the newest Norton Critical anthology, which takes translation as its theme. It is an impressive, imposing volume, comprising many more stories than the previous edition (or any one-volume anthology I am aware of), and the voices of many translators, as opposed to the standard Constance Garnett translations of the early twentieth century, which introduced Chekhov to an English-speaking audience. It was partly the sheer size of the volume that made me avoid it—Chekhov was one of five authors we were reading that semester. (N.B.: I ended up settling on The Essential Chekhov, a very good, accessible anthology of twenty stories selected by Richard Ford.) But the varying quality of the translations was also a factor in my decision. Do I want the translator who can perfectly encapsulate every nuance of Chekhov’s Russian, with the “mountains of footnotes” Nabokov vitriolically argued for when the English itself is inadequate? Or do I want a readable literary work in its own right? As a scholar I might prefer the former; certainly I would welcome its addition to the Chekhov canon. But as a teacher, and, frankly, as a reader, I much prefer the latter: the work of literature Nabokov decried. Anything else is a dead letter—one of Nabokov’s poisoned and pinned butterflies. I don’t want a specimen; I want something that breathes.

And so with writing about music. Obviously the meticulous, exhaustive, and exhaustingly self-reflexive work of a Sutcliffe is a welcome addition to the world of Scarlatti scholarship. But as a lay listener, seeking to hear and understand the beauty and power of Scarlatti’s music in a deeper way, the erudite, evocative, poetic, and deeply insightful words of a Kirkpatrick are preferable. Come to think of it, this is not very different from literary criticism today, widely lamented for its inaccessibility to the lay reader. (Actually, there is no reason it should be. But nor is there any reason older, more accessible criticism cannot still be enormously illuminating for the curious layperson … and for the scholar as well. I’ve often wondered—to embed digression within digression—if our field hasn’t lost something in its disparaging of older methodologies. We emulate the sciences to our peril—and I mean this existentially, given the state of the Humanities today. Our field does not progress by revolutions; newer methodologies and interpretations often extend and “subtilize,” rather than supplant, older ones.) Now, if I knew Russian, would I hate Garnett? Perhaps. I do not and will never know Russian. Must the pleasure of Chekhov forever be withheld from me? Yes and no. My Chekhov is part Garnett; my Jean Genet is part Bernard Frechtman; it is their voices, as much as the authors’, I fall in love with. I am comfortable with this—at least, I am resigned to it. Not to be would suggest (to me) an unhealthy obsession with “authenticity”; the sort of thing that drove my partner’s friend’s ex-husband to hire a chemist to analyze the water he brought back from his hometown in Italy, and then reproduce the balance of minerals in Phoenix, so that his espresso would taste right. (Maybe this explains the divorce?)

I will never know Scarlatti the way Kirkpatrick or Sutcliffe do; but then they will never know Scarlatti, not really. They will certainly never know Scarlatti quite the way I do, thirty years after sitting on that rock above El Escorial, in the always-unsettled landscape of musical memory, where Scarlatti, ever the world’s composer, and now history’s as well, rubs shoulders with foreigners and non-contemporaries of all stripes.

 

Acknowledgments

In an on-line world, particularly since the lockdown, I wanted to take a moment to tip my hat to that alternative universe, the brick-and-mortar one that existed up until about a year ago, and that I am convinced will soon exist again, and in very much the same way it did before, despite the ongoing obnoxious black-swan rhetoric from the Wired crowd. I discovered Bogianckino’s and Sutcliffe’s texts in the stacks of the City College music library, one of favorite places in the world (see “Goodbye, Music Library!” (12.31.12)). I’m pretty sure I found Kirkpatrick’s book at Alabaster books, that beautiful and venerable used bookstore on 4th Avenue just south of 14th Street. Boyd’s was also a used-bookstore find, though I can’t remember which; maybe East Village. The Horowitz record is in my father’s collection. I know this is not the way of the scholar—that, had I done my due diligence, I would have discovered Kirkpatrick’s study had been revised and re-published in 1984, and I might have preferred it.

I was also unable to go through all my extensive marginal annotations in Sutcliffe’s monumental study—one has to stop at some point, post the damn post, and move on—hence my terror of straw-manning him. (I am already having nightmares about my twelfth-grade English teacher, who justifiably C’d my own monumental research paper on H.P. Lovecraft for not having a thesis, rising from her grave over my dumping this enormous blob of thesisless commentary onto an already well-larded blogosphere. I’m sorry, Miss Boyle! I’m sorry!) Once upon a time I imagined this blog’s address on the CUNY Academic Commons might invite the occasional wandering scholar to stop, lean on my gargoyle-and-nail-studded fence, and scourge me for my overindulgence in metaphorical criticism, for taking refuge in evocation, for my foul mouth, my sloth, and my vanity. But apparently Helldriver lives beneath a stone labeled “contempt,” and so is likely safe from those who would defend Sutcliffe’s virtue. (I do not imagine his reputation will suffer one way or another.) It is the way of this blog, which makes no claim to serious scholarship, but rather only to pleasure. After all, it is called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt.”

 

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad, Wisconsin UP, 1978.

Bogianckino, Massimo. The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, Trans. John Tickner, Edizioni de Santis, 1967 [1956].

Borges, Jorge Luis. “El escritor argentino y la tradicíon,” Prosa, Circulo de Lectores, 1975.

Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music, Schirmer, 1986.

Clark, Jane. “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” Early Music 4:1 (Jan. 1976), 19-21.

Davidson, Justin. “Beethoven’s Kapow,” Best Music Writing 2011, Ed. Alex Ross, Da Capo, 2012. [The article originally appeared in New York Magazine on March 21, 2010.]

Friedman, Sanford. Conversations With Beethoven, NYRB, 2014.

Gould, Glenn. “Domenico Scarlatti,” The Glenn Gould Reader, Ed. Tim Page, Vintage, 1984.

Kroll, Mark. Review of The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Notes 61:1 (Sept. 2004), 145-7.

Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico Scarlatti, Thomas Y. Crowell/Apollo Editions, 1968. [Originally published by Princeton UP in 1953.]

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago UP, 2008.

Long, Marguerite. At the Piano with Claude Debussy, Dent, 1972 [1960].

Manuel, Peter. “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336.

Solomon, Maynard. Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, California UP, 2003.

Sutcliffe, W. Dean. The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Cambridge UP, 2003.

Also cited in this essay are the liner notes to the recording of Scarlatti sonatas by Vladimir Horowitz (likely the recording from the early ‘60s, but I don’t currently have access to it), as well as recordings by András Schiff (1989) and Sergio and Odair Assad (1993).

Reflections of Orrin

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Among the many small things I have to be thankful for (amid the many large things that I curse) is having had the opportunity to listen to Orrin Evans’s Flip the Script (2012) before the hearing loss in my left ear migrated to my right and absconded with my beloved piano. The album was a best-of-the-year pick in the New York City Jazz Record that a few-minute YouTube clip was enough to sell me on; I picked it up at Chicago’s envy-inspiring Jazz Record Mart, on a perfect too-cold June afternoon, on stopover between overnight legs on Amtrak. (Lake Michigan was restless as the ocean; the Blackhawks scored when I stopped for a beer: perfect.) I wouldn’t get around to hearing it until a couple of weeks later, driving around upstate New York, each successive track convincing me that there isn’t a better jazz pianist working today, certainly no one who can do as much with taking classic forms and turning them, as the title suggests, on their heads. I’m thankful, too, that I got to hear Evans once live when I could still more or less hear the actual notes he was playing, rather than the neighboring tones my brain decides to substitute, in its desperation to make sense of the data; and that I got to see Evans again, at least, even though pretty much everything he played sounded out of tune to me.

1

At the Vanguard, early August. The Steve Wilson quartet—Wilson on alto and soprano, Bill Stewart on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass. I’d caught the train down from the gardens of the Union Settlement Association, East Harlem, where the ever-impressive Sam Newsome had done a spot-on impression of Coltrane—split tones, circular breathing, “sheets of sound,” the whole nine yards—and things with Monk and to Monk that would have made Monk stop spinning. Between milking the short, edifying set in Harlem and grabbing a coffee on my way to the Vanguard, I barely made the first set. The lights went down just as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The club was packed. The hostess asked me softly if I’d prefer to sit right up next to the piano or in the back. My hesitation must have expressed that neither option was particularly desirable. I was actually contemplating bumming around the Village for a while and coming back for the 10:30.

Then she said, “Follow me. I have a nice seat for you upstairs.”

How could I not? The lights had just gone down, and the hostess’s voice had all the seduction of servile authority. I followed her up the stairs on the right side of the bandstand, to the corridor of tables that leads smack into the drum kit. Maybe she was in touch with some higher being who knew what was in store for me, who had said to her, “Give him a good seat. After tonight, he’s fucked.” Or maybe she’d mistaken me for some critic or other; I have a friend who always gets free food at the Standard, and he thinks that’s why. (I did pull out my notebook after the set and write down some observations, just to reinforce the potential misimpression—not that I wouldn’t have done so anyway, just under a streetlamp in Abingdon Square instead of at the club.) Whatever the reason, she sent some poor tourist back to the masses huddled on the couches across the aisle, and sat me alone at the first table on the left.

It was indeed a good seat. It wasn’t just the clear visibility of all the band members, piano, sax and bass to the left of the pillar rising up from the bannister at the end of the landing, drums to the right. For you see, on the wall to Evans’s left was a black-and-white photo of Tommy Flanagan. In the photo, Flanagan sits in profile, facing the same direction as Evans. It’s a very dark photo, and Flanagan wears black, so that the only things you can really see are his face, head tilted back, glasses lit, and the long necklace he is wearing, and his hands on the keys of the keyboard. It’s dark like those Roy DeCarava pictures, where black musicians half-dissolve into the shadows of the music’s mythological urbanness: the deep chiaroscuro of the city, the underworlds of speakeasies, that whole hazy Brassai aesthetic. They are pictures that seem to rewrite the very idea of blackness. Flanagan, after all, is the whitest thing in this photograph.

The remarkable thing was not that Evans played next to a photo of Flanagan, a kind of mise-en-abyme of the pianist, as though we might expect to see a picture of a pianist (Mary Lou Williams? Fats Waller? Flanagan himself?) in the picture, behind Flanagan. It was that, from this very good seat the hostess had secured for me, Evans was reflected in the Flanagan photo, so that I could see the ghostly image of his face, his newsboy’s cap, in the abyss of Flanagan’s turtleneck. Even more suggestive, the image was clearer when Wilson, who stood just to the right of the keyboard, stepped up to solo. Wilson wore a white shirt, and the white was clearly visible in the blackness of the turtleneck, framing Evans with a sort of halo, each musician nested inside the other, generation by receding generation, like Russian dolls. It wasn’t Evans, then, playing under the watchful eye of the spirit of Flanagan, gone from us so recently, present only as an image on the wall (or a disc), but rather the image of the living Evans that haunted Flanagan, head ducking and bobbing to the funkiness inside Flanagan, like an infant kicking in Flanagan’s belly. Like Evans was a space in Flanagan he filled. I suppose this means that Flanagan, like all great musicians, created a framework of ideas, and that all such frameworks create new spaces for other musicians to fill—make those spaces audible, because such spaces don’t exist until they have been given shape by someone’s music. And Evans is just that sort of player, not radically extending the vocabulary of the music, but rather finding those spaces inside blues and funk and bop to re-create idiomatically.

2

Smalls, around the corner, less than a month later. On any other night I’d have come here to see Donny McCaslin, the leader, but this night I came to see Evans. I can hear McCaslin; the tone gets dirty, doubled over part of the tenor’s range, but the actual notes still pierce through. Not so with piano, except at the extremes of its range. So I am here to listen to Donny, and to Billy Drummond, a Shandyesque name if ever there was one, but to watch Evans.

Smalls, as you may remember if you have ever been there, has a mirror hanging above and to the left of the keyboard, angled down, so that you can see the pianist’s hands from most of the ten rows of chairs, and a second mirror behind the drum kit, for an analogous reason. I have never asked for pink champagne on ice. Should I? A couple of times someone knocked the mirror inadvertently, once as they were bringing out an extra music stand out from the back, and the keyboard bobbed and rocked like a canoe slightly disturbed by another’s wake. In the mirror, the hands go the opposite way, high keys to the left of the phantom hands. It’s a bit like watching other dancers in the mirror of a studio, when you’re trying not to watch yourself.

When Evans found his groove, his neck would start to move, his hands to obey an interior rhythm, he would start to flash smiles across at Drummond. By watching those Sidney Poitier-beautiful hands in the mirror, and the pigeon-jut of the neck, the hop and roll of his shoulders as he began to fully inhabit the music, I guess I hoped that something of what I couldn’t hear would be translated to me directly, bodily. And maybe it was, and always is, when one is enveloped by such a presence. When McCaslin gets going, the ideas, those big rhythmic structures like the outlines of skyscrapers, flood and fill his horn; you feel the inspiration pouring out rather than just hearing it. The music is as much a personality as a series of pitches. And I think that as a player, Evans is enough like McCaslin—a similar love of pattern and repetition—that I could just imagine hearing Evans in the shadow of McCaslin’s tenor.

Drummond ended his last solo without his drums, waving his sticks across the edges of his cymbals, forehand and backhand, like a wizard with two wands. Thirty-two perfect chimes, and then the ending chorus.

Little things. Try to remember to be thankful for little things.

*

It used to be that the words were never quite enough to reach the music, and so I reveled in them, used them to cut out a sort of silhouette or stencil that would give shape to the music in the reader’s mind, but which was only ever the contours of a hole, an absence I could not fill. It was one way to adapt to the condition of being damned. But I did not truly understand the meaning of damned until, for some instruments, at certain pitches, even the notes were withheld from me. Now the words can no longer pretend to be anything other than what they are, to speak any reality or have any deep and actual connection to the notes they aspire to, like fish to the air, like the circle to the sphere. I cannot tap a wand on them and, presto, make them leap off the page. I can only dig deeper with them, which means into them, like a prisoner left to excavate his own pen.

I’ve written before, or at least suggested, that there is a moment in all music writing when the words have to leave the music behind, to acknowledge their separateness, the void in which they exist. This is the moment that some musicians seem to despise or resent: when the words no longer become “really about” the music, but only about themselves. (You know the criticisms: self-indulgent, pseudo-poetic, etc.) It is the point that every piece of writing about music must reach, if it is to be successful. I think it is despised and resented, too, because it is the moment when the writer sneaks around behind the music and, words like a flashlight, lifts up the music’s skirts. How could I not be punished for such a transgressive thought, and for such hubris? You say you can do without the music. Well, there you are. Words for you. Nothing but words.

When music becomes no more than words, then damned you are, damned, and damned utterly.

The Last Waltzes

Three spring piano recitals and a note on the Cliburn.

What a treat to find Yevgeny Sudbin on the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts schedule for a late-March recital at Town Hall. I discovered him a few years ago via a disc of Scarlatti sonatas, his debut recording, and was doubly pleased that his program opened with a suite of four sonatas before moving on to the more traditional fare of Chopin, Debussy, Liszt and Scriabin.

While Sudbin’s Scarlatti takes full advantage of the piano’s dynamic capabilities, he keeps one foot firmly planted in the harpsichord tradition—that is, off-pedal. Like András Schiff, whose recording turned me on to Scarlatti more than two decades ago, Sudbin’s Scarlatti is lyrical without making of the composer an anachronistic Romantic—perhaps a greater danger with Sudbin, given the other composers in his repertoire. For me, it raised the question—again—of how the poetic side of Scarlatti could have been overlooked for so long. Of the four sonatas on the program, only the K. 455 featured the hustle, rhythmic bumpiness, and hair-raising tremolos of that better-known Scarlatti “ingenious[ly] jesting with art.” The K. 27 is rather a monument to gentle virtuosity—at a proper, cantering tempo, the hand-crossings are hardly ostentatious, and add great color to the sonata’s central, descending passage—while the K. 466, with which Sudbin started, and the opus-less G minor sonata display the composer at his most meditative.

If Sudbin emphasized the poetry in Scarlatti too often ignored, his Chopin felt a little dry. It’s as though he were seeking a meeting-place where Scarlatti and his great admirer, Chopin, might break bread. In the thoughtful liner notes to his recording of the Ballades et al., Sudbin writes about his quest for a “perfect Chopin interpretation,” one that balances naïve exuberance and mature reflection. To my ear, his Chopin was a bit too tempered … but then I’m a Judas Priest fan, and so probably not the best yardstick for appropriate levels of exuberance.

The second half featured two of Liszt’s more tolerable endeavors, the Funerailles and one of the Transcendental Etudes, played with the requisite mix of sentiment and pomp. But it was Sudbin’s approach to the two “colorists,” Debussy and Scriabin, that most drew my attention. Here, the Scarlatti was a portent: Sudbin clearly relishes those clanging, resolution-scuttling “unessential” notes that so troubled the sonatas’ early editors and appreciators. His L’Isle joyeuse verged on pure effect, as he compressed the already-attenuated melodic landscape yet further, until almost nothing remained but splashes of color and seething dynamics: those ever-shifting surfaces where the prancing, elvin little melody goes into solution. He worked similarly with the fifth Scriabin sonata, though this had an energy of a different sort, building to a full-tilt blitz that almost sent him hurtling off the piano bench at the end.

Reading Sudbin’s opinion about encores clarified much about how the concert ended. From an interview at pianistique.com: “Some people tell me I have to play more big encores … The audience usually likes it, but ideally, I wouldn’t play an encore. They often trivialize concerts as they are often flashy.” Perhaps. But Sudbin’s first choice of encores at Town Hall was inspired: he re-played the G minor Scarlatti sonata. It made the encore feel integral, and gave the program a cyclical quality, as if we had participated in a voyage to the further reaches of tonality and returned to the “safe” (if very quirky) harbor of Scarlatti, meditating at his keyboard in the gloomy vaults of El Escorial. As though Scriabin were the music Scarlatti heard in his dreams. It also told the audience a Scarlatti sonata is worth hearing more than once—that they are not jests, but solitaires whose workmanship bears loving scrutiny. (“One only needs to hear the same piece twice,” Sudbin has said, “and something might just happen.” Indeed.)

If only he had ended there. That damned sense of responsibility to his audience! He returned, and then again, thin frame dressed all in black, with a shock of black hair combed sideways, like the personification of a semiquaver. The third encore was a souped-up waltz. I thought I recognized it as Chopin. Or was it Johann Strauss? It hardly matters. In such an arrangement, one can’t tell the difference, and one is not supposed to. How daring those chromatic runs must have sounded in Chopin’s day; here, they were stereotypical embellishments to keep the fingers busy, the noise level up, and the audience’s attention fixed. Of course, waltzes are built for such liberties, and Sudbin is hardly the only pianist to add extra chrome, to make it flash and shine until the audience is hypnotized. I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin do a similar thing during an encore to a Chopin waltz just the month before; I think it was the minute, though it must have lasted five, and felt more like ten. How much I would have liked to leave hearing the Scarlatti in my head. For a moment, Sudbin found the perfect antidote to a trivializing encore. Then the demon of responsibility possessed him. Would it be too much to ask a bit more irresponsibility from such a young pianist?

*

On May 5th, Rafal Blechacz played the last PSC Town Hall concert and the only other piano recital there besides Sudbin’s. In 2005, when Sudbin was recording the Scarlatti disc, Blechacz became the first Pole to win the Warsaw Chopin International Piano Competition in 30 years, and was soon feted as a national hero. According to my program notes, his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chopin’s preludes and piano concertos have both gone multiplatinum in Poland. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed such a phenomenon, even in my relatively short history of concertgoing. When Lang Lang became the sensation of the classical piano world some years ago, I remember remarking mentally on the number of young, hip-looking Asians at Carnegie Hall the evening of his recital. The same thing happened when “Nobu,” the blind co-gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011. Was Town Hall filled with Poles this Sunday afternoon? I doubt it. The audiences for that series are almost all subscribers, and only the few returned tickets are auctioned off just prior to a concert.

Not a bad reminder, this, of the deeply national roots of classical music, of how shallow is the soil of invented traditions, and of the tenaciousness of the idea of nation in a globalizing world. For such audiences, the virtuoso pianist seems to be imagined as an athlete who “medals” for his or her country. With Lang and Nobu—two recent fish in a large pool of phenomenal young Asian pianists—a few possible readings suggest themselves: the Eastern champions of Western music “prove” classical music’s universal appeal; or, the Eastern champions of Western music signify Asia’s arrival as a full citizen of the European high-art tradition (whether or not the parents send their kids to Julliard); or, the Eastern performers who dominate the most technically-sophisticated music of the Western canon, and win prestigious competitions in the U.S. and Europe, signal a shift in the balance of world power, towing along all the Western anxieties about a rising China/Chinese middle class (and back through the Asian Tigers, all the way, perhaps, to the roaring Japanese economy of the ‘80s). Blechacz’s golds and platinums can be understood as returning the grail to its “rightful” heir: a Pole brings Chopin back to Poland, and, perhaps, Poland back to Chopin. Here, it is the greatness of the national composer celebrated through the national interpreter, and the trope is one of restoration.

I know these formulations reduce classical music to a big game of Risk. But I wonder if the speculated anxieties and episodes of (to my mind) bizarre musical patriotism are recording the seismic shifts as traditionally European music becomes the music of a global elite, riding on the coattails of liberalized capital flows.

All this does me lead me to question why Blechacz cut the Karol Szymanowksi sonata from the second half of his program. Perhaps it was a bone for the expat Poles he expected would show up to the Town Hall show, and, upon being informed that the audience was made up almost entirely of subscribers over the age of sixty, he decided a few Chopin mazurkas were a safer bet. Chopin notwithstanding, I’m going to be a rogue and speak instead about Blechacz’s Beethoven: his beautiful rendition of the Sonata Opus 10 No. 3. (Hilariously, of a disc with sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the program notes say only that it was a “huge success”—nothing about Polish platinums.) Clearly a technical wizard, there was no desire to race up-tempo passages in the outer movements or shirk rests in the second. This steadiness, almost implacability, served Blechacz well to make the Largo e mesto deeply expressive without being self-indulgent, and the closing Rondo delicately playful. (And he plays the Largo appassionato of the Sonata Opus 2 No. 2, featured on that “hugely successful” CD, equally patiently. As Blechacz writes there, he “feel[s] that the middle movement is often the ‘heart’ of a work … the place where the composer, as well as the performer, takes the opportunity to reveal in sound everything lurking in the deepest reaches of his soul.” It certainly comes through both in concert and on CD.)

After the thunderous ending of Chopin’s third scherzo, perhaps his choice of encore speaks more about how he approached the Beethoven than words can: Chopin’s waltz Opus 34 No. 2 in A minor. Like Sudbin’s repetition of the G minor sonata, this melancholy song for a lone dancer dignified the program rather than trivializing it. May Blechacz’s sense of irresponsibility never waver.

*

Pop!

May also presented me with my second opportunity to hear the brilliant Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall. It would be hard to think of a more vital young pianist. For Wang, simply playing the piano isn’t enough; she subdues it, with the roaring enthusiasm of a laughing cowboy breaking a colt. She crackles from the moment she strides into the stadium: her enormous, unselfconscious bow; the way she flops down at the keyboard and just starts in—no hesitation, no dithering, and nothing dainty about any of it, thank God. All the energy of the walk and the bow and the sit is suddenly channeled into the hands, which start going like sewing-machine needles—one can see the energy in her fingers, which curl as if she were scaling the keyboard—and when they are finished she has to stand up and bow again—has to keep moving—march out on those sharp heels—she is nowhere near exhausted, she has places to go, things to see, other concerts to play! It was a well-chosen program to showcase that energy, from the second Rachmaninoff sonata to the dark, noodling vibrancy of the contemporary “Gargoyles,” and two sonatas by Scriabin.

In performance, Wang makes of herself a work to be consumed alongside the music. Her whole exuberant persona is on display, and expressed, too, in her penchant for dressing out of code. (For this recital, she even changed outfits during the intermission, from red to black, just in case we weren’t paying attention. I confess that, in the first half, as she played Scriabin in that red dress with one shoulder bare, it was difficult not to imagine her as an Amazon warrior, one breast sacrificed to better wield the bow.) True, celebrity culture is nothing new to classical music. But it does seem to have changed in character and emphasis with the music’s desperation to revitalize itself by capturing a younger audience. How can classical grasp its own moribundity, when its very self-conception, the only thing that really unites it as tradition, is the idea of permanence? And how to sell classical to an age group for whom it is already moribund, and for whom mortality is just a bad dream?

Well, do what all the corporations and foundations that underwrite the music do: re-brand. Classical music has long been part of a cluster of signifiers of taste and luxury to which consumers aspire, and concert programs have long been larded with ads for Gucci, Chanel and Lexus. But something has changed here, too. The ads used to be there to sell products to people who had the money to consume highbrow music, or who wanted to spend an evening imagining they did. Now, classical music is itself sold as one more product advertised in the program: the perfumes and wrist watches become suffused with its aura of high culture, just as these products suffuse the music with their auras of decadent luxury. Now, if hip hop can sell decadent luxury to youth of all races, creeds, and income levels, why not classical?

In those rotating risque dresses and ten-penny heels, Wang seems to understand the mechanics of celebrity culture as well as Warhol ever did, and she gets the whole branding thing on the level of the body. She makes of herself a sumptuous feast; hers is a consumable prestige. Not just luxury, but youth, beauty, energy—the only really desirable immortality—for the aged members of the audience to feast vampirically upon, and for the young to be able to see themselves in the (hip, daring, mystical, erotic, timeless) mirror of classical music.

The evening’s program was a long sprint, and she was back in the locker room by nine-thirty while we whooped and hollered for her to come out again. How could she not? Five encores—count ‘em—like the specials at one of those restaurants where the menu represents only a fraction of the available dishes. The first four didn’t differ much from the regular entrees. But the fifth: Chopin, and another waltz, like Blechacz’s, in a minor key: the Opus 64 No. 2. It’s the one where each chorus begins slowly, accelerates to whirling speed, and then repeats more quietly, easing to a halt on a hushed high note. In Wang’s hands, the choruses started tentatively, the music coming to an inaudible stop, like a ball thrown into the air, and then built into whispering runs before petering out in reverie. The dancer gains secret confidence, momentarily forgetting herself in the joy of movement, in the freedom of what she wishes to do rather than what she was always told she must; easing, the memories come back, childhood; the body whirls to a halt, stiffens, the smile fades … I had never heard the story of this waltz before hearing Wang play it—or rather, I had never heard this story of the waltz before hearing Wang play it. It was enough to make me wonder what sort of a pianist she would be if she couldn’t do absolutely anything she wanted.

*

I shouldn’t single out Yuja Wang to bewail larger trends in the global entertainment marketplace. Classical seems to be between a rock (ha ha) and a hard place: embrace trends and try to grow a new audience, or perish in the history it pretends to bestride. Luckily or unluckily, classical, that numinous qualifier, may be yet more receptive to synergistic barnacling than other, more formally coherent musics.

Attending the Fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth this June created a whole new opportunity to pursue these reflections. “The Cliburn” must be the world’s most fully-branded and fully-mediated piano competition. At the Cliburn shop, which spanned the width of the auditorium on the first floor of Bass Performance Hall, you can buy pretty much anything you can stamp the image of a piano onto—dog collars, shot glasses, coffee mugs, etc. And not just any piano: this is the elegant, austere logo of the Cliburn competition, cipher for the elegance and austerity of the event. (Yes, on a shot glass.) Upon entering the auditorium, if you happen to be sitting in the upper tiers, you will notice a large screen hanging above the stage, in which you can observe the projected movements of the performer appearing directly below. And not only up close, as through those binoculars you might have forgotten, but (much more important) from a variety of angles and distances, with a little bit of slow panning, a la Ken Burns or your PowerPoint slideshow. Much better to inhabit a series of fantastic, constructed perspectives than remain trapped in your own, subjectivity being the first, most exhausting, and most depressing fact of existence. And never mind the distraction caused by the lag between the sound and the image, or between the movements of the two pianists, the pocket one on stage and the behemoth on the screen. Perhaps the screen could be extended to cover the stage? Just a thought.

Sitting through an intermission rather than going out to the lobby, you will come to understand the true purpose of the screen: to flash the names of the foundations and corporations that sponsor the competition. The Cliburn has an official airline, an exclusive soft drink, an official this, an exclusive that.

Of course, the screen has long been the norm of arena rock/sports culture, and it’s about time classical music adopted it. One can’t get around the screen, not anymore; the very idea is preposterous. (First: There is an “around” the screen? Then: What screen?) The screen also helps ensure that stimulus is constant, for just as there is nothing more depressing than subjectivity, so there is nothing more terrifying than an informationless void. Across the street from Bass Performance Hall, you can watch the concerts livestreamed on a(nother) large screen—the same thing the upper-tier patrons in Bass Hall are seeing, though without the synching issues—for free. A wonderful addition to the competition, truly. The problem is that, during the intermissions, should you once again be unfortunate enough to stay in your chair, while those inside Bass are watching the names of sponsors discreetly flash by, you, freeloader, like the rest of your freeloading buddies watching the competition on line, will be strafed with human interest stories and (exclusive, official) interviews with anyone and everyone associated with the competition, including, now and then, the competitors themselves. These are the generic equivalents of the sort of thing you see during the Olympics—you know, behind-the-scenes with these young competitors, so you can find someone to “root for,” because it’s not enough just to listen to the music, that’s for the judges, you want to know whose father left them, and what they like to cook, and when was the first time they touched a piano, and blah blah blah. The format for commentary and interviews, too, seems pulled right off Sportscenter; I found myself waiting for the question, “How did you feel in that last movement, realizing the chips were down, that missed note in measure 34 still haunting you, and with those broken octaves at quarter-note-equals-two hundred coming at you?” (“Well, I just try to do my best, you know, give it a hundred percent, a hundred and ten percent, you know, we’ve trained really hard for this day,” etc.)

C’mon. Young pianists want to be on American Idol, too, follow the Cliburn on Twitter and friend the performers on Facebook. Everybody loves a good horse race, and everybody wants to be entertained 24-7. Most important: fill time, fill time, time must be filled. Time is money, and life is only so long, so do the math.

God, one begins pining for rests, toad-fat whole-note rests with big, angry fermatas hovering over them like bloated UFOs; for just a moment to clean the aural palette, to create that cushion of silence we can drop the music into, where it can fall without shattering, and without making a sound.

Last summer I lamented that the Cincinnati World Piano competition fails to attract a sustaining audience the way the Cliburn does, and recommended they get someone who can market. Now, I bitch about the Cliburn for its hyper-branding. Hypocrite me, as well as curmudgeon. And yet, this is my third time attending the Cliburn—it only happens once every four years—and I could swear the auditorium was fuller eight years ago, and the livestream room in 2009. I guess more people are choosing to stay home and watch the thing on line, and the money is coming from advertisers rather than ticket sales? The Huff Post reports twice as many Cliburn page hits as in 2009, and what with social media sites all abuzz and asqueal about the competition, there is much talk about the resurrection, at last, of classical music for Generation Z via the magic of the web. And so here we wait outside Lazarus’s tomb, cell phones poised.

Together with the Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Soler, Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin, there was one piece that had been commissioned by the Cliburn foundation: “Birichino,” by the American composer (and Dallas native) Christopher Theofanidis. Every semifinalist had to play it, so I heard it nine times in three days. By turns foreboding and funny, dissonant, exotically modal and naïvely melodic, childish runs giving way to whacked note clusters, barrages of noise plunging into craters of silence, it was a perfect piece for each pianist to test him or herself against, a piece without a history of expectations, and with a wide canvas on which to dabble. “One only needs to hear the same piece twice, and something just might happen.” Yes, Yevgeny, and something did. Those silences! Some pianists took them more seriously than others. Some seemed a little put off by them. Some invited them to dinner. But the important thing is that you couldn’t get the cameras around them. You couldn’t edit them. You sure as hell couldn’t yabber through them. You had to wait for them to end, and see what came next: a lightly pecked note, perhaps, and then more waiting.

All That Is Solid

      It’s a Sunday afternoon in August, and I’m at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, to hear the Kazzrie Jaxen quartet. I’m here because Kazzrie is here, and because my neighbor, a pianist and friend of Kazzrie’s, invited me. In a broader sense, I’m here because I am new to the peaceable kingdoms of the Hudson Valley, and I am still trying to find my moorings amid the upstate exiles. In the City you get used to the weight of people, smog, and noise. It settles on you, over time. Here, I’m like a man walking on the moon: every step threatens to catapult me into space, and I look around in vain for someone or something to hold me down.

The Howland Center is a tall, airy space with a churchy feel. It used to be the town library, until 1976, when the collection outgrew its confines, the books were (re)moved, and the building joined the National Historical Registry. The shelves have been taken down, but the cabinets remain, the numbers still stenciled on them, and black and white pictures of the town-as-it-was hang above the spaces where the books used to be. Instead of rectangular reading tables and card catalogs, there are round folding four-tops covered with plastic. There is fruit, cheese, wine, brownies, kids. A metal balcony encircles the room ten feet above, with more empty numbered cabinets along the walls and four lights suspended from the grillwork. A big grandfather clock, its brass, lute-shaped pendulum stilled, fails to measure the time.

The musicians put their things on top of the cabinets: instrument cases, a red fabric cooler, a few bottles of water. Jaxen, who plays piano, stops by our table to say a brief, warm hello. She is blond, nimble, radiant. Sinewy, though there is something wispy about her, too. Charlie Krachy, standing a few feet behind her with his tenor already hanging from his neck, is grey, plodding, down to earth—her complement in every way. Together with the rest of the band—Don Messina on bass, Bill Chattin on drums—Charlie will spend the next hour holding on to the sleeves of Kazzrie’s blouse and the hem of Kazzrie’s skirt, as she refuses to let that great ballast of the instrument world hold her down, and threatens to float up and away, like one of those newlyweds in a Chagall painting.

*

I had the chance to hear Kazzrie only once before, in an apartment in Morningside, on a Sunday afternoon not so different from this one. The musicians who played that day, and the vast majority of those in the audience, were part of a musical collective that seems to have grown up around the pianist and educator Connie Crothers. It was a trio of violin, piano and clarinet, playing freely improvised music. In such a setting, there is no agreement about structure or melody beforehand, and there are no standards, at least in the jazz sense of that term. Somebody starts to blow, or strum, or pluck, or whatever, and the musicians go wherever the spirit of the moment takes them, and the jam lasts as long as that spirit inhabits them. Then they pause, and start again. It is remarkably beautiful to watch as well as to listen to.

When the “set” was over, there was a break to eat and drink and chat. Then the real jam began, real because it was yet more free. Different people got up to play as the mood struck them, like Quakers moved to speak. Maybe what was most beautiful was the humility with which playing was approached. There was not that sense you sometimes gets at late-night jams, where one player after another wants to muscle in, take the limelight for a few bars, be heard. Here, everybody knew everybody else, or almost, and pretty much everybody had played together at one time or another. There was much hesitation and politeness; a smile and nod across the room, like you might ask a stranger to dance; the sudden leaping out of a chair, because nobody else had; the desire to share something. Of course, almost everybody there was a musician, they had all brought their instruments with them, or just themselves. It was even a little eerie to find that everyone else in the room was touched with the capacity to create ex nihilo, as much as it would be to find that they could bend spoons without touching them, or read each other’s minds. And there was the feeling that they all know each other on a level more intimate than I could ever know them, or perhaps anyone; and this produced a combination of admiration, envy, and unease. If this were a Polanski movie, I thought, they would be a coven. I even began to suspect that the reason each of them could improvise in this way must have something to do with the rest of them being present; that they create a sort of magic circle in which such things can happen. That they were all holding the edge of an invisible net, which they cast collectively into the air, to catch the bits of melodies floating around like pollen. As for the music, it is as ephemeral as the dappled bit of sunlight I noticed falling on the carpet when I glanced toward the window late that afternoon; it is music of that Sunday, and no other. One is not leaving a legacy, but living a moment. And so it is all the more necessary just to play. Maybe the feeling of humility comes partly from this.

Kazzrie was not part of the original trio that day. She flitted up to the piano during the jam two or three times, once dragging my neighbor along with her for a duet at the same keyboard. I remember the immense sound she got out of that piano, for such a wisp of person. But then there was a special radiance about her, an energy far greater than her size. Walking home with my neighbor after the gig, I was reluctant to single out any one performance, the whole afternoon had been so enjoyable, the collective musicianship so impressive. We have a running joke between us, my neighbor and I. Both of us have had the experience of sharing music we love with friends, only to be disappointed by a lukewarm or patronizing response. So now, when we talk about music, no matter how much we like something, all we will ever commit to saying is that it is interesting. “Was it interesting?” “Oh, yes. Definitely interesting. I have something you might find interesting as well.” “Great, I’d love to hear it. I like interesting music.” In this sort of exchange, you depend on the off smile or wrinkle of an eye to say more than words.

But when we talked about Kazzrie that afternoon, it was in tones of reverent, gushing appreciation. We were suddenly comfortable dropping our masks; something about the music demanded it. It only lasted a few moments. Then we returned to our more generally laconic, dispassionate discussion of music, and then we moved on to other subjects.

*

In a way, the Beacon set was the antithesis of that intimate gathering in Morningside. Before the quartet began, Kazzrie told the audience they were going to evoke the days of Young and Holiday, as well as play some more free improvisation. The set that afternoon was definitely tilted toward the former. The nine or ten songs were all standards, with the free excursions relegated to digressions at the ends of tunes. With the exception of two ballads, and to a lesser extent the songs Kazzrie sang in her pleasant, Holiday-inflected voice (“All of Me” and “I Ain’t Foolin’”), the selections were identically imagined and approached: the same forward momentum, hippity-hop bounce, arrangement, and order of solos. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which appeared early in the set, is such a delicate, haunting tune; I’ve always thought it carried faint suggestions of conspiracy, of betrayal. But the band played it with the same foot-tapping energy as they did everything else. This wasn’t so much sunup as high noon; the melody lost all shadow.

Was it the audience? I wondered. From the Q&A after the set, it was clear that at least a few people there were new to jazz. Maybe the quartet was afraid of alienating them.

I don’t think so.* While Charlie and the rest of the band did indeed evoke the days of Holiday and Young—and Young is not a bad touchstone for Charlie’s warm, sumptuous tone and wonderful sense of melody, both of which really shone on the ballads, and which the Howland space served to amplify—Kazzrie, singing excepted, did not. Something I learned from one of my jazz guitar teachers many years ago: you can swing your way through just about anything. (He demonstrated this by playing an uptempo solo with as many “wrong” notes as he could squeeze in.) In the middle of a heavy swing, an excursion into dissonance or even sheer noise is passed over almost unnoticed by many listeners—even by educated listeners who have not had much exposure to jazz. A steady rhythm allows us to box in and measure such transgressions; it reinforces the sense that they are temporary, regulated. A good beat can square even the most crooked line. The early free jazz players knew this—compare early Dolphy records to Out to Lunch, or Cecil Taylor’s Love for Sale and Conquistador!, or Coleman’s Free Jazz to AACM records from the mid ‘60s. For the average listener, there is something much more transgressive about the bassist and drummer dismounting and tramping off into the meadows to screw around than in even the most outlandish melodies or harmonies. It is the difference between walking into a room and frowning at the décor, and having the rug pulled out from under you.

It wasn’t just Holiday and Young, then, but early Cecil Taylor, that was evoked in me: that time in Taylor’s career when the piano worked like so many IEDs, blasting the rest of the band, and the whole musical experience, off kilter—“Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” indeed. Like my jazz guitar teacher, Kazzrie could swing when she wanted to, but delighted in getting the notes all wrong; and, like Taylor, comping or soloing, she delighted in throwing rhythmic and harmonic curve balls while the rest of the band swung away, balls that (I have the feeling) whizzed right by many of the foot-tappers in the audience.

If Charlie’s big, huggable sound was all about pleasure, Kazzrie’s was bliss. There was something almost haughty about her, sitting sidesaddle at the piano, her shoulders hunching and relaxing, her mouth occasionally moving. She is almost too big a presence; she is swept away from the moment she sits down. And the way she smiled at that keyboard! Yet, I never got the sense, as is sometimes the case when such different musicians sit in together, that she was off in her own world. Her desire to float did not mean she was leaving the band, but rather that she was finding her own ways to approach them, and the music (cf. her bizarre substitutions on “All the Things You Are”). Comping, she was always listening, prompting, teasing the other players—particularly Charlie, whom she spent the hour scampering after while he soloed, chasing up and down scales and throwing pie-in-the-face chords at. And didn’t Charlie take it all not only in good humor, but with more than a little love and respect? For he never knew, when she went to the top of the keyboard, whether she was going to splash around in the shallow pool of those high keys, or turn them into harp-strings, purling around his tenor. And if she went to the bottom, he didn’t know if those octave runs up from the rumbling depths of the keyboard were going to sound like a Chopin etude or a boogie-woogie … with a dash of Richard Strauss’s bass strings thrown in. She might start a chorus with a single note, and slowly build outwards into a thicket of chord, modifying the rhythm as she went, until Charlie’s tenor, caught up in that beautiful dream, had to hack its way out of the morass of harmony. And then she might climb the keyboard with that same idea, maybe using it to thread her way into a solo, holding onto the tatters of the original idea to create seams. For there was always continuity, the remarkable sense that the concepts on this wide, weird palette come to her fully-formed. There is little, I imagine, she can’t do with a piano, little to which she can’t make it bend, like those spoons, back in that apartment in Morningside.

Did Kazzrie lie to us? Maybe a little. Maybe unintentionally. Maybe just not the whole truth. There was that bit of Holiday in her voice, and Young in Charlie’s horn. And she did say they were going to go a bit … out. Only she was never in. And so there was a subversive air to the whole performance, as if she wanted to plant bad seeds in this green audience by smuggling all that fabulous chaos and dissonance into a straight, sincere, swinging jazz set, smiling the whole way through, as if to say, “Who, me? I didn’t do it!” My guitar teacher warned me about people like you, lady. She was, finally, impossible to resist: she is so sunny and untroubled, so goddamn sure of herself, so certain that whatever she plays is going to win you over, so poised, and so clearly transported by the joy of making music, that if you were to tell her that her playing was, well, a little unorthodox, she would look at you like you were crazy.

*

It’s the same story as everywhere else. They used to make things here. Things you could touch. Hats, apparently. Lots of hats. The factories closed down in the ‘70s, right when they were moving all those books. Now they’re lofts, and the library is a façade. It’s all widgets and MacGuffins. When this sort of thing happened in SoHo, and Williamsburg, at least there was the rest of the City to ground them, like stones around a hot-air balloon. I mean, some neighborhoods still have metal trash cans, and people live in the buildings where they were born and raised. Or they come from faraway lands to squat, old new people without a pot to piss in, as they say. But here? They’re building a hotel and conference center on the river. Same as everywhere. Beacon just did it better, stronger, faster. Dia. Noche.

In the bathroom of this library without books, there is a picture of a chicken. Music, echoing in the spaces where books used to be. Presence, filling the space left behind by representation, twice removed. This is what I am thinking, staring at that picture of the chicken hanging over the toilet.

Maybe it was the rest of the band who were living a dream: the quaint beauty of the old country, the last century, jazz as it used to be, when the men worked on the waterfront or in the factories, and many of the women, too, and they met on dancefloors or smoky pubs, when the boom was taking off and the bomb was so real it made every moment precious. Maybe it was Kazzrie, with her big piano and her big sound, and her sound, and her sound that was nothing like theirs, nothing like anything but itself, no matter how much I try to find musical stones to pin it, who was holding the rest of them down; Kazzrie they depended on to stop them from floating away into some dream of a former time that wasn’t coming back. Kazzrie who kept the whole thing anchored in the present, who said, simply, You are here, like those maps in malls and museums. I didn’t have to worry about pictures of chickens or libraries without books, or even the fact that I’d moved so far out that the City was a faint glimmer and tug in space, a picture from Voyager, because I was a satellite of other, nearer bodies, and Kazzrie was here with her big piano to ground me in the living present.

 

* Another reason I don’t think so: I’ve attended other concerts by musicians in the same collective (perhaps not the right word; “New Artists” will do, I guess, because many of them have recorded for the small, independent label of this name) just as standards-driven as this one, and others made up entirely of originals, and yet others tending toward the free improv of that afternoon in Morningside. They are an impressively ecumenical bunch; I never got the impression anyone would get called a fascist for playing the tonic triad. For these musicians, “free improv” does not necessarily mean painting on an exploding canvas. From what I have witnessed, they often seem more interested in finding consonances and erecting structures, however temporary or strange, with dissonance reserved for shade and ornament, like vines over a trestle, than in creating the esctatic maelstroms associated (a little too facilely) with free jazz.

Closer Than They Appear

     If the most recent World Piano Competition is any indication, there is nothing graceful about adjusting the height of a piano bench. Like the steering wheel of a Cadillac, the knob hardly moves the bench at all; the poor pianist might spend half a minute ratcheting, crouched in tux or evening dress, while the audience coughs and the judges fidget. Once he or she sits down, further adjustment will almost certainly be necessary; and this will mean squatting over the bench like over a scuzzy bar toilet, fiddling with the knob some more; and then sliding it forwards or backwards, bench and pianist tilting perilously as uncooperative legs catch on the stageboards. Tuning a piano may be an art, but this is more like changing a tire—an incongruity of the highest order, given the interpretative magic these pianists will be expected to perform just moments later. And yet, one has a tendency to forget that this magic is also, to a greater or lesser degree, mechanical. Anyway, watching all this squatting and fiddling, I started to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to arrange pianists in order of height, or relative length of leg to torso, rather than alphabetically.

Consider the other impressions these young competitors (aged 18 to 34 years) make before they have even played a note. For instance: to look or not to look at the judges? A few glanced up at them before bowing, maybe inadvertently. One young man went so far as to bow to judges and audience separately.

And then the handkerchiefs. About half the pianists wiped down the keyboard before beginning, as though it were an exercise machine at the gym. One did so zealously enough to produce a short glissando.

When it was all done—the bowing, the glancing, the piano-bench adjusting, the wiping—there was a long moment of silence, of focus, sometimes with the hands already poised over the keyboard, sometimes with the hands in the lap, before beginning to play.

*

So began, in one way or another, the trial of each of the 11 pianists I had a chance to hear at this year’s Artist Division of the 56th World Piano Competition, held every summer in Cincinnati. Pianists aside, my first impression of the competition left something to be desired. My parents and I drove up from Louisville, about a hundred miles, for the Monday afternoon preliminaries, only to find that some of the judges had been stranded at airports, and the one-thirty start time pushed back to three. At two-thirty we were admitted with four or five others to the small Jarson-Kaplan Theater of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. (Had we realized the size of the venue, we wouldn’t have bothered with binoculars. Trying to focus on the keyboard reminded me of that Gary Larson cartoon of a side view mirror with one enormous eyeball in it, the caption “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”)

At quarter to four there was still no word on the judges. The audience had not grown in size. Then a woman appeared on stage, unannounced, and played the funeral march from Chopin’s second sonata.

What next? I thought. Buzzards circling above the Aronoff Center?

When she had finished, an elderly woman, apparently a matriarch of the competition, announced what we had already learned from the staff, about stranded judges. The competition, she said, would begin at ten the next morning. The box office grudgingly refunded our tickets. We took a few pictures of the whimsical porcine effigies festooning downtown, and drove home.

Happily, if gruelingly, Tuesday more than made up for Monday’s fiasco, if not for its poor handling by the competition’s organizers. The morning block turned out to be two hours (10-12). Each pianist was still given about half an hour; to the six scheduled to play in the three-hour Tuesday afternoon block, a seventh was added. Thus, in a little over five hours, we got to hear just under half of the 24 competitors, playing music ranging from Bach to Ligeti.

One thing that struck me listening to Tuesday’s cross-section of pianists was that you could never tell which composer was going to expose a chink in the armor. There is a tendency to believe that, if one can play, say, the Mephisto Waltz, or a Rachmaninoff concerto, one can play pretty much anything. Hierarchies of difficulty notwithstanding, this is simply not true. One pianist’s flair for the Bartok sonata did not extend to the tricky trills-in-thirds that open the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 3. Another, who played Chopin’s study in octaves as thunderously as I’ve ever heard, and finished her premilinary recital by taking a sledgehammer to Liszt, made several obvious missteps in the first movement of the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 2. These early Beethoven sonatas are no walk in the park—they were written at a time when Beethoven would have been known as a keyboard virtuoso rather than as a composer—but they are hardly benchmarks of transcendental virtuosity. A third pianist, on the other hand, played a lovely Beethoven Opus 90, and brilliant renditions of Ligeti’s “Arc-en-ciel” and “Fanfares” studies … but played the last Chopin etude (the Opus 25 No. 12) by rote. This is the reason, of course, that competitors choose a range of pieces—sometimes, as with the Opus 2 Beethoven sonatas, a single movement from a longer piece: to demonstrate their proficiency at interpreting music of different periods. Chinese-born, Cincinnati College of Music-schooled Hai Jin’s  program was case in point: she played a Mozart sonata, a Chopin etude, a novelette by Schumann, and a prelude by Debussy. What was remarkable about her performance was her chameleonic ability to match her playing to each composer, be it the charm of Mozart or the stateliness of Schumann (something I noted, in an earlier post, about Anna Polonsky).

This brings me to a second point, something I realized listening to the Romanian (and Mannes graduate) Bogdan Dulu play a Bach prelude and fugue during the morning session. His touch and articulation were superb: an absence of legato that was in no way choppy, and an evenness of delivery which, somehow, sounded anything but mechanical. There was clearly a person playing this music, tall figure bent over the keyboard, pants not quite long enough to cover the top of the sock on his damper-pedal foot. And yet, what I felt I was witnessing was an emptying of the self, a making of oneself a conduit—as Emerson famously put it, “a transparent eyeball.” There was no sense of the player thrusting his personality into the music—and very little, by extension, of the sort of affected gesturing and emoting which some of the other pianists indulged in—no more than an occasional raised eyebrow, as though Dulu were surprised at some of the composer’s choices. Mind you, he did not play his second selection, Martinu’s preludes “in form of blues, fox-trot” etc. in this way.* The same almost mechanical precision and perfection of articulation, yes; but with an entirely changed demeanor, and one, once again, perfectly suited to the tenor of these pieces. He was not afraid to swing when swing was due, to let his right arm hang loose by his side while his left hand strode up the keyboard. In terms of the Bach, though, no one else played the composer quite like this the rest of the day. Lovely as the others’ Bachs were, they were not the sort that made me sit up and take notice—the sort that achieves that combination of poetry and geometrical purity one associates with the raptures of the Newtonian universe.

The other particularly memorable recital that Tuesday was by Korea’s Woori Kim. She played three preludes by Debussy, including the spectacular (!) “Fireworks,” and the fourth scherzo by Chopin. This performance was more contentious among the three-judge panel made up of my parents and I, my mother feeling that she Debussy-ized the Chopin, my father arguing that her “Fireworks” was not technically up to scratch. I wouldn’t dream of contesting the latter point, though it may mark a difference between the way listeners and players hear the same music. Then again, there may have been something partly visual about my enthusiasm. Some pianists more dance than play, the instrument becoming another extremity through which they communicate. Not that Kim needed to move much; it wasn’t how much she moved, but the grace with which she executed these movements. The “Fireworks” prelude, for example, demands so many different attitudes and positions from the pianist, that there is a sort of acrobatics in its execution. Under Kim’s touch, I couldn’t help but imagine the piano as a giant cat, its fur stroked first one way, then the other, now with the flat of the hand, now with the tips of the fingers.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the visual appeal of this recital at the expense of the sound, which was similarly remarkable, refreshing, personable. I was surprised—and then surprised to be pleasantly surprised—that she didn’t rely too much on the pedal in her Chopin. Surprised, because I am a listener who likes to be transported by romantic wash. Her Chopin had an uncommon clarity; she didn’t seem to mind allowing the seams and joints to show, so that we were invited to admire Chopin’s workmanship rather than be transported by the Gestalt. As with Dulu, there was a sort of admission here that the music was not a beauty of her own making, but one that she was scaffolding for us, to allow us to hear it more clearly. And yet, “for us” is a bit extravagant. Sometimes I got the feeling—and I think, in some of the best interpretations, the audience should—of being a third party, eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue she was having with the composer. More than note clarity, there was an emotional clarity, a sure-footedness about how she wanted to handle the Chopin. Suffice to say it was not the Chopin I am accustomed to hearing, but one that I feel richer for having heard.

And my bête noire, Liszt? To think one could escape Liszt at a piano competition would be ridiculous. But we were ridiculous; we believed that, by adequately studying the program, and scouring the week’s horoscopes, and making all the proper offerings, we could at least encounter as little Liszt as possible. You know what happened next: judges got stranded, Monday night’s pianists ended up playing on Tuesday morning. And then the pianists themselves, the ungrateful so-and-so’s, pulled pieces from their quarter- and semi-final programs to play in the prelims. And so we ended up hearing a good deal more Liszt than we had bargained for. (Not that my father minded; it was my mother and I who suffered, patiently.) I suppose this is a deserved comeuppance for my anti-Liszt equinox post. Anyway, listening to Liszt after writing my harangue proved instructive. I came to understand that a little Liszt is not a terrible thing; there are always a few passages so brilliant that they transcend their own gaudiness. If only the man had known when to stop. By the end of a piece, whatever good there was has been sluiced from memory, and whatever goodwill I might have felt toward the composer twenty measures in has turned to annoyance, or outright anger. I never thought I would say this about classical music, but … clearly what we need are pianists who will play highlights from Liszt. A medley, like geriatric rock bands do with their older material. And maybe an announcer, to help keep track of where we are.

I didn’t write that. I would never write such a thing. You didn’t read it here.

*

I hope both the pianists I highlighted moved forward, but unfortunately I have not been able to ascertain whether or not they did. The WPC website has not been updated since the competition. For some reason, the easiest-to-find results are from back in 2009. The crowd for the prelims never broke twenty, although, judging from the applause in the videos posted from 2011, the finals seem to be somewhat better attended. And to think that, according to the program, in 2003 they broadcasted the competition to tens of millions. I know the audience for classical music is supposed to be dying, but does it have to be euthanized? Given the crowds I have seen at the Van Cliburn competitions in Fort Worth—and given that the WPC bills itself as the country’s premiere competition, sports a star-studded advisory board, and has a list of sponsors and contributors that goes on for pages—I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t better known, better attended. Perhaps this is the reason: searching for the names of finalists, I found an undated job posting for Artistic Manager for the WPC. Maybe the position hasn’t been filled? If you’re reading this, happen to live in northern Kentucky or southern Indiana or Ohio, and you have any experience in nonprofit marketing (or website design?), you might try giving them a call. It’s too much good music and talent to be squandered on ten or fifteen gatos locos in the audience, and a half-dozen judges flown into Ohio from the ends of the earth.

 

* The Martinu was unknown to me, and I haven’t been this wowed by an unfamiliar piece since hearing Jeremy Denk play the Ligeti etudes a little more than a year ago. But then I’m a sucker for modern classical that twists folk and pop forms into bizarre and surprising new harmonic shapes—Bartok, Schulhoff, Barber, etc.

Dreaming American

Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.

The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.

When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.

Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.

Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.

After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.

Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.

Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.

The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.

At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.

I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.

As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.

Of Liszt & Other Ghosts

In which the writer spends half the post damning Liszt, and the other half praising Beethoven; among other things.

     I spent a fair amount of energy over the last two concert seasons avoiding Liszt. 2011 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, so a lot of pianists took it upon themselves to load up their programs with Liszt. I wasn’t aware of the bicentennial until, walking by the Provincetown Playhouse one day last fall, my eye happened to catch on the all-Liszt program posted by the door. I remembered the Chopin and Schumann bicentennials of the year before, and a light bulb turned on over my head. Franz Liszt. Born 1811.

I was doomed.

Well, not really. Of the dozen or so piano recitals I caught over the last concert season, only a quarter featured Liszt … although this does not include concerts I avoided because they were predominantly or exclusively Liszt.

While it’s true that I’ve never cared for Liszt’s music, the bicentennial seems to have sedimented my feelings, making of Liszt an acquired distaste, and of me an inverted Lisztomaniac. Insipid melodies embellished to the hilt, as though through embellishment they would eventually come to say something. That old saw about Henry James—“he chews more than he can bite off”—actually applies better to Liszt. Hell, I can listen to James chew for hours. Nobody chews better than James. But there has to be something to chew—some inch, as James put it, from which to take that ell. And then the ell itself has to get us somewhere. In Liszt, the embellishment never seems to move the music in interesting directions. It is so much ornament around an empty center: a queen’s ruff on a playing card, a coiffed retinue genuflecting before an idiot king. A shimmering waste; music for magpies’ nests. The pianist Marguerite Long once compared the “fire of [Liszt’s] heart and genius illuminat[ing] the foam of his cascades” in Les Jeaux d’eau de la Villa d’Este to Debussy’s “prodigious love of nature” that “plunged him into that life-giving element, water,” in Reflets dans l’eau. Put differently, Liszt’s water is that of a decorative fountain: pretty, occasionally mesmerizing, but ultimately stagnant. Debussy’s are natural springs. I’d rather swim than watch.

I know it’s sort of un-hip today to bash Liszt. We seem to be in a fawning-and-gushing phase, aggravated by the bicentennial, and spearheaded by pianists who like to play Liszt’s music. (I can understand why, and maybe it’s for the very same reasons I don’t enjoy listening. Monty Python, revised: If you’ve enjoyed listening to this piece by Liszt just half as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it, then I’ve enjoyed it twice as much as you have.) It may be trite to call Liszt out for shallow virtuosity. But then every other approach seems just as stale. First, critics point to twilight and/or lesser-known works in which the “real” composer is supposed to reside (e.g., “Yes, I know that’s awful; but have you heard the ‘Funérailles’?”). Next, these become a justification for re-evaluating the virtuoso pieces for the “real” depth everyone else was too unsophisticated to see. Finally, the empty spectacle of the virtuoso works themselves is valorized through play or irony or some other postmodern fetish. We’re all supposed to stop taking ourselves/art/life so goddamn seriously, admit that all pleasure is guilty, and surrender ourselves to Liszt.

Once we’ve come out the other end, where is there to go but back to the beginning, and call Liszt’s music for what it is: a generally uninteresting spectacle of excess? Isn’t it possible to acknowledge his historical contribution to piano performance—that I wouldn’t have had my dozen recitals to go to last year had there been no Liszt to invent such a thing—without also having to like his music?

Anyway, such were my thoughts—at least some of them—on hearing the brilliant young Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall last October. She blazed her way through Prokofiev’s 6th sonata—Prokofiev’s piano music can never be played often enough, so say I—and then came back in the second half to play Liszt’s in B minor. It turned out to be a very long and painful second half. And the longer it went, the more painful it got. Don’t get me wrong, the rendition was technically perfect. But I still found myself squirming in my seat, wishing it were over. And when it was, even then I had not heard the last of Liszt: Wang played “Gretchen am Spinnrade” for one of her encores. (At least it’s a Schubert transcription.) Hearing the blind 2009 Van Cliburn competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsuji play “Un sospiro” and the concert paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the same venue a few weeks later did not change my feelings. Nor did Peter Orth’s renditions of a Mephisto waltz and the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude at Town Hall in late January. By this point I was starting to feel like a friend of mine who suffered through to the end of Ulysses just so he could say definitively that the book was crap, and no one could say to him, “Well, that’s because you never finished it.” And it was at the Yujo Pohjonen recital, somewhere in the midst of all that Liszt, listening to his beautifully balanced rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata—a sonata that, better than maybe any other, is characterized by a profound simplicity of thematic materials, developed so imaginatively, to reach such unexpected heights—that the difference between the two composers appeared most stark. Now, any time I hear Liszt, I can’t help thinking of the opening bars of the “Pastorale.”

*

     About a month ago, Fate once again threw a Liszt-shaped obstacle in my path. Maurizio Pollini had been scheduled to play two recitals this spring, one at the end of April, the other at the beginning of May. He canceled, and Carnegie Hall was forced to find substitutes. (It’s amazing how much text one can generate around the trials and tribulations of hearing/not hearing Maurizio Pollini; see “Encore,” 5.9.10.) I had tickets for the April show; unfortunately, they called in Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist about whom I have tepid feelings at best (see “Spring Peoples Symphony Roundup,” 6.15.11). And guess what he was he slated to play? That’s right: an all-Liszt program. Thankfully, I was able to change my ticket for May 6. I had never heard of the sub—a French Canadian pianist named Louis Lortie (that’s him in the picture)—but the program was worth the gamble: Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Lebewohl” sonatas, and a cocktail of ballades, nocturnes, and the barcarolle by Chopin. According to the gentleman in the seat beside mine, Pollini had been going to play one all-Chopin program and one all-Beethoven. Maybe Lortie chose the Beethoven and Chopin out of a sense of duty to what the audiences were expecting to hear, particularly after Ohlsson chose to play neither.* In any case, it was the specter of Pollini, rather than the ghost of Liszt, that hung over the afternoon’s performance.

If Lortie assembled his program out of a sense of duty, he did not play the Beethoven as though it were a duty, either to Pollini or to the audience. He played it … well, playfully, highlighting contrasts among ideas rather than continuity between them. This was particularly noticeable in the third movement of the “Waldstein”—the differences in tempo and dynamics between the climax of the principal theme (bars 55-61) and the digressions that follow—and in the “Wiedersehn” movement of “Das Lebewohl,” between the “variations” that erupt from the delightfully anxious see-saw main idea established in bar 11. Now, it’s rare that one will enjoy a sonata with which one is intimately familiar if it is performed too far outside the horizons of one’s expectations. That said, it’s always nice to hear the different accents an unknown pianist will put on the familiar. In Lortie’s performance, the ascending left-hand phrases played against the descending arpeggios at the end of the exposition of the “Waldstein” (bars 82 and 84) stood out in a way I don’t remember ever hearing before. It at once retarded the forward momentum of the passage and  imparted a sort of longing for the tonic just as the music was settling back into the bustling opening theme.

The last two times I heard the “Waldstein” live, there was either a memorable flub (Emmanuel Ax on those stamping chords at the climax of the exposition (bars 62-5)) or something that clearly contradicted the score (Leif Ove Andsnes, who ignored the tremolo in the restatement of the opening theme (bars 14-15 & 18-19)—a whole expressive dimension of the opening idea reduced to mere repetition).** There were no such clear gaffes or liberties in Lortie’s performance (at least that I noticed). Quibbles, certainly—a tendency to be little too staccato in the “Waldstein”’s tempestuous moments, when the sonata demands more romantic wash. But then it’s out of just such quibbles that one’s relationship with a piece of music grows. And then there was much in Lortie’s detail-work to be admired. The slurred octaves (thumb-pinky glissandos?) toward the end of the third movement (bars 462-70)—such an odd, brief flourish, just when we think there can be nothing left in the composer’s bag of tricks—were executed with Debussian wispiness. Compare this to those clanging, chord-scaling octaves in the last movement of the “Lebewohl” (bars 37-44, etc.): a train crossing, right in the middle of a movement otherwise characterized by playful, joyous motion. I had just heard a disappointing performance of this sonata a couple of weeks before, so it was nice to hear these octaves restored to their full, disruptive charm.

It was also nice to hear Lortie really drag out the mere 28 bars of the second movement of the “Waldstein.” The story goes that Beethoven had planned a much more capacious second movement, but scrapped it for the “Introduzione” we now have, turning the original Andante into its own piece. But Lortie’s emphatically, almost Gouldianly slow execution made of this “Introduction” its own piece as well, highlighting its spare, straining beauty, its struggle to reach a climax—a restatement and expansion of the opening, the bass embellished, descending stepwise (mostly) to G as the right-hand figure climbs to full-octave leaps, to a series of harsh high Fs suspended over G and A flat. The G reappears in a different register as a pivot between the two movements: a non-ending that initiates the principal theme of the Rondo, from which the melody settles easily back to the tonic C. Lortie very much played that note subito forte, emphasizing its double role as both irresolution and introduction. (Or did he do so on account of the misplaced applause after the first movement?)

Interestingly, Lortie’s Chopin, the concert’s second half, sounded more dutiful than his Beethoven—a bit stiff, a bit plodding. (And this in the opinion of an ever-recovering prog rocker, who tends to like his Chopin a little stiff.) After the Beethoven, I didn’t imagine his Chopin would lack the rubato so essential to bringing the composer’s music to life. But the Chopin seemed to grow on him; he was better on third nocturne than on the first, better on the ballades than on the nocturnes, and best on the barcarolle, which ended the program.

I’ll leave the Chopin at that—good, better, best—in violation of all canons of good writing. As for the encores, they were Chopin, too, all three of them—or rather two; he ran the second and third together; but then they are adjacent etudes from the Opus 10. The first was another nocturne; it was the best Chopin he played the whole afternoon. Do nocturnes played as encores always sound more satisfying than nocturnes played during the regular program? Because I recall having a similar experience with a nocturne-encore at a Pollini concert. And then that Opus 10 No. 4 etude … could Lortie have known that was a perennial favorite Pollini encore for as well? When he was finished, I couldn’t help turning around to scan the rear of the auditorium. I half-expected to see the man in the flesh, standing in the very last row, applauding.

 

* Two notes. First, as I would learn from the review in the Times, Lortie had replaced Pollini once before, in 2003. Second, Lortie is no stranger to Liszt. He played the entire Années de pèlerinage in March 2011 at Alice Tully Hall. So maybe he felt he had already done his duty to the composer during the actual bicentennial year.

** No offense intended. Both their “Waldstein”s were otherwise lovely, as has been pretty much everything else I’ve had a chance to hear them perform.

Animistic

Photo by Garrett Bradley

From notes discovered on the last page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Any errors are errors of imagination, and hence not errors at all.

Last Memorial Day weekend I headed down to Alphabet City to hear a solo performance by Jason Moran at A Gathering of Tribes, a gallery-salon on East 3rd Street. A friend of mine in Texas had learned about the show from Moran’s Facebook page—this sort of thing happens more frequently than you might suppose—and forwarded me the link.

Walking down Avenue D that Sunday, with my treasure map cribbed from the internet, I wondered whether Tribes would have AC. It was more like July than May: temperature near a hundred, humidity through the roof. I felt bad for my cats. I felt bad for everybody’s cats.

A few minutes before three I stumbled into the small living room of a second-floor walkup, almost into Moran himself, dapper as ever, in white with his trademark Panama hat. He was chatting with a few people sitting on a big black couch, one an elderly African-American man who appeared to be blind.

So this was Tribes. Fifteen dollars. And would I care to make a donation? People milled in and out of the kitchen (right) and the gallery space (left) set up for the performance. Not an empty seat in this little house. A few of the attendees sat on the sills of the thrown-open windows, and one had even gone so far as to perch on the fire escape. The walls were covered with paintings of what looked like apocalyptic orgies. A decrepit upright piano stood against the gallery’s far wall.

It was hotter upstairs than on the street. The people, of course. Hot doesn’t quite capture it, actually. I had abandoned all pretense of civility, was wiping my face with the belly of my T-shirt, which had taken on a Rorschach-like sweat-blot. But then everyone here shone or dripped; we were collectively melting, like dropped popsicles. Maybe this was the meaning of the phantasmagoria on the walls: we were all melting together, and in better weather would solidify as One.

The smell? A mix of noxious volatiles (paint, crotchsweat) and cigarette smoke. I confess a certain nostalgia for the last of these. I wanted to smoke myself, now that every 7-11 was supposed to carry posters of evil-looking tumors while they pushed Nachos, slushees, hot dogs and other such shit on obese teens. At least, until some clever young soul finds a way to smoke them.

When I was sufficiently dehydrated to have lost hope of survival, Moran squeezed past me, heading for the piano. I imagined his passage was eased by my desiccation; I imagined the sweat pouring out of him like water off a mop put through a roller. He took a seat at the bench, swiveled around to thank the gallery’s owner, and then started to play.

Oh, that piano. Brand Kurtzmann. “Upright” is pushing it. Corpses sit upright, I guess, if they’re shoved up against a wall like that. I expected it to go to pieces the moment he started, like a used car kicked by an overzealous vendor. The front panel was missing, so I could watch the hammers lift and drop with the music. Some of them would stick; I waited for them to bounce back. Some would create a split tone, or make the piano ring like a sitar, or dulcimer. Some were just dead. And so even though Moran played a “regular” piano, it sounded like a prepared one … but an inadvertently, randomly prepared one, the detritus of ages littering the cables, time and wear having done the work that a deliberate artist might do. As though passers-by had left trinkets inside, and taken pieces home as souvenirs. This is all the more wonderful when one considers that the piano is supposed to be the essence of a mathematical, regularized sonority.

There was something right about watching Moran from behind. You never, I realized, see pianists entirely from behind in a concert hall or jazz club. They are at most three-quarters turned. But then you never see pianists playing an “upright.” Here, you could watch his shoulders hunch up, his neck disappear, his hands sprout from his body as they crawled toward either end of the keyboard. He had to swivel on his butt every time he wanted to bow, or turn around entirely to introduce a number, which he did with his hands clasped in his lap.

At one point, Moran claimed to have a Kurtzmann just like this one at home, only in even worse shape, so he was comfortable with the instrument. I admit I found this hard to believe. But what he said directly after made me not particularly care. The piano, he said, was guiding him toward what it wanted him to play.

Anyone who has ever tried to play an instrument will understand this. Every instrument—I don’t mean this in the general but in the particular sense—has a character of its own. Every musician has to develop a relationship with his instrument—has to figure out, as Moran said, what it wants him to play, as much as what he wants from it. To conjure the spirit inhabiting those boards and knobs and strings. To steer it like a creaky ship toward some modicum of controlled expression. All musicianship partakes of this sort of animism; the piano at Tribes just dramatized it.

Moran’s comment changed the way I was listening. At the beginning I had been tempted to take the whole show for charity, or an exercise in postmodern pastiche, or a sort of death-match. It was, in fact, all of the above. A big-name jazz player slumming in the “old” East Village, helping raise funds for an ailing institution; a master pitting his technique against a recalcitrant instrument. Certainly there was no hiding in it. Forget about the warm pedaling that allows notes to melt into one another, the whole piano to seethe like an orchestra, that obscures missed notes or uneven trills in washes of sound. Every flaw was there on display. But what I came to hear, too, was a musician listening to the instrument he played, learning from it, until he started to recognize, for example, where those duds and split tones were—and then he might hit them hard, three, four times in a row, the way Monk will badger a minor second or tritone until we can’t help but admire its ugly beauty.

In this light, the performance started to sound like a belated response to Moran’s 2002 solo recording Modernistic; and the piano took on the decayed beauty of an abandoned factory, or ruined amusement park. Only a haunted one. For the mix of tunes, or rather the mixed-up tunes, came to seem selected by the piano, not the performer. Free jazz melted into stride—Butch Morris to Fats Waller—and then, via obsessive repetition, atomized into something closer to minimalism (cf. Irene Schweitzer). Another piece, reminiscent of one of Satie’s Gymnopédies, scrambled into a blues. Even “Body and Soul,” a Moran favorite, took on new dimensions as it was fractured here and there by notes that sounded alternately like glass, rubber balls, and wood blocks. By then I was thinking, That ballad, yeah, the piano definitely wanted that one. Or maybe my ears were just getting used to the endless clinkers and shimmerers, stickers and duds.

At the end of the first set I took a walk outside to cool off and decide if I had the endurance to go back for the second. The trees were all in blossom, misting me with petals as I walked by. The people had blossomed, too, here in the vegas of Alphabet City. A barbecue in every garden and a party on every streetcorner. Every once in a while a skinny white girl would pass me on a bike. Over on Avenue B, a college student was moving in, her parents helping. Everything she owned seemed to be wrapped in plastic. She looked too young for the neighborhood; she ought to be moving into a dorm somewhere, I thought. But then the entire Village is a dorm. Or a frat house.

Near the end of that first set, Moran had said that Tribes was one of the reasons he still lived in New York. I thought of the woman who had offered me a cup of water as I stood leaning on the doorjamb. Melting and listening. Listening and melting. Occasionally I would look over at the blind man on the couch, who did not move for the entire set. When it ended, he said, “Beautiful.” He said it three more times—beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. There was nothing else anybody could say.

I walked around the circle in Tompkins Square, past the street punks and skaters and the people walking their panting dogs—I felt bad for everybody’s dogs, too—and sat down for a minute on a bench. I scribbled some notes on the back page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Then I remembered the second set and started walking back to Tribes.

 

Addendum, 1.3.19: In the documentary film Richter: The Enigma, Sviatoslav Richter remarks that the worst thing a pianist can do is choose the piano he will play on—as he was invited to do when he played in the United States. “I don’t like pianos,” he says. “I like music.” Better, he says, to leave it up to Fate. Better, as for Jason Moran, to let the piano choose him.

 

 

The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.

*

I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.

*

The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.

 

* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.