A Subtle Analysis of Composer-Performer Resentment

There can be no more annoying, tedious animal than myself: the grump at the new music concert. Ask my friends in eighth blackbird (hip lower case, of course!). After one of their concerts, you can find me pacing a shadowy, sinister corner backstage, contriving not to meet any composer’s eyes. One of the ‘birds will split off, give me an undeservedly gentle glance, whisper tenderly in my ear, “Which piece did you hate the least?” And I will grin evilly at them, happy that they understand me, grateful that they tolerate me.

My behavior is even more abominable at listening sessions. A few times I have been asked to evaluate young composers’ scores, and in these afternoons, spent hunched in front of a CD player, I tend to be visited by my worst demons. “Be more interesting!” I will yell, spilling coffee all over a carefully laser-printed masterpiece. The program note will explain, at length, that such-and-such piece chooses to explore the interval of a third. “Like almost every piece ever written,” I will mutter caustically. My colleagues will look on, pretend amusement concealing their concern: they can tell I’m a biased listener. You can bet your butt I’m biased. A few minutes and some consoling snacks later, some minimalist procedure will send me over the edge again…and some nice, reasonable person at the table will say, well, that’s the style, you have to understand the context, and I am so beyond context at that point I’m ready to ram it up their…but instead I will moan and rub my eyes and stroke my eyebrows pretentiously until I have exhausted myself, until I am as weak as I will ever be, and the very next piece I hear I will declare magnificent, if only to get out of there as fast as possible.

The most predictable, preposterous, despicable absurdity of the “classical” performer, confronted with new work, is to say “Why can’t you just be more like this?” gesturing to Haydn Strinq Quartets, or Beethoven Symphonies, or Debussy Preludes. Our outstretched fingers quiver in outrage and desire for the golden oldie days. We gesture to those pieces as if we ourselves wrote them. We feel we own them now, these stale greats, for all we have had to practice them—especially since we had to labor miserably through puberty in the practice room doing scales while all you composers were out on your skateboards or smoking pot or watching movies, dreaming up all the great ideas you’re going to have for all your fabulous masterpieces.

Whew. I wonder if I have just codified some crucial subsection of Performer-Composer Resentment. Give me a minute while I locate my therapist’s number.


Okay, much better. My therapist suggested that I air a number of my serious grievances with New Music, just to get them off my chest:

  1. too much rhythm, not enough pitch;
  2. too much energy, not enough thought;
  3. too much strumming in the piano;
  4. too much pseudo-world-music for no reason other than hipness;
  5. too many program notes.

This is the short list of my irrational peeves, the creed of my blind, fusty faith. I feel sure I’m missing some good ones; it’s sad, I can’t even plumb the depths of my own prejudices. It is easy to pontificate; we dinosaurs have no problem with it; after all, we’re nearly extinct, what do we have to lose?

No, I don’t wish to be a mean-spirited dinosaur, an elephant laden with past, canonized values trampling the party. But let me take another angle on this. I read a lot of discussion on NewMusicBox about elitism vs. accessibility, tonality vs. serialism, high art vs. low art, the choices of style of the composer, the paths diverging in the world—and I see forests of false binaries. As I am reading, I am thinking: no, it’s not either this or that; it’s never this or that. (Supply your own thises and thatses.) Maybe at last we are freed from an iniquitous historical narrative (certainly, soon, to be swept into another); maybe at last it is finally time to “choose” the new. Did composers ever think that newness consisted in simply more of something: more dissonance, more dynamic contrasts, more chance, more determination, more whatever? More is a bottomless pit. This kind of newness is closer to fashion.

I have a great confidence in, a great lust for newness, not fed by fashion but by invention. To define this sort of newness, I’d like to steal from Italo Calvino, shamelessly:

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.—From Six Memos for the New Millennium

Free associating from Calvino’s “lightness,” I would like to propose “delight” as a value, as a frequent ingredient of the durably new—the delightful as opposed to the agreeable, as opposed even perhaps (but not often) to the enjoyable. Delight is more muted than joy, it is not quite ecstasy (thank God, I can only take so much ecstasy). I’ll take a stab at defining it: a combination of discovery with pleasure, a kind of mental activity brought to bear upon pleasure, running into it as if in a traffic accident where no one gets hurt. It’s the brain slamming into the obstacle of beauty, waking up, rubbing its eyes. It manifests itself in a wide range of reactions—a smirk, a beatific smile, a thrown-off laugh; it is tied up perhaps with the moment of invention, where you create something that even surprises yourself. Delight is the flight of meaning, the free bird of thought defecating on the dictionary, the wobble of the definition. The light travel of meaning from one place to another, by hidden connections, leaving you shivering.

My definition is useless. Do we need examples? To pluck one author from all of history, I feel like Baudelaire is one of the great delighted writers, despite his miseries. Like these lines:

Vast woods, you terrify me like cathedrals.
You roar like an organ…


…it is Boredom, with an involuntary tear in his eye,
he dreams of gallows while he smokes his hookah.

or this unbelievable passage, where the poet addresses his beloved, imagining her death:

…when you will go down
beneath the grass and perfumed flowers
to grow green among the bones.
Then, O my beauty!, tell the vermin
which will devour you with their kisses,
how I have immortalized the image and divine essence
of my putrefied loves.

At which point I imagine you saying, This is delight? True, it is horrible—awful, disgusting, sickening—and yet wonderful, at the same time: a terrific virtuosity of reversal, a terrible truth-telling through image. The images and metaphors clash, crash, zing; they wake up my addled or bored brain, time after time.

What Baudelaire does from line to line, from metaphor to metaphor, is more or less something I tend to desire from music (his is a music of meaning). If composers become too obsessed with shapes and processes and forms and methods and styles—I may well be wrong about this—it seems to me they may become distracted from another essential: What fleet, deft, delightful detail will redeem this moment of music, will make it interesting until such time as the next moment? (The next moment may never come, anyway.) By a leap of association, I think another related question is: How playful and disrespectful can you be with your own conception, with your own style, with the very concept of “concept”?

Suppose you have a functional bit of a piece. Suppose it is a transition, and you want to get from one key (c minor) to another (E-flat). Suppose, in addition, you’re Haydn, okay? Hypothetically. Most of your work is already done; you’re on the right root; you’re on B-flat already. So, what do you do?

…you write a strange passage which leaps up a couple registers and then inches down in the most tedious, predictable manner possible, a scale, until you seemingly “run out of space”…

…and as if the keyboard stopped there, you leap all the way back up to where you were before. This is the first inflicted discontinuity, the first inkling of trouble. Why do you want to stop your own scale? Why do you want us to be conscious of this gap, of this space? Brush these questions aside, make us wait for possible later clarifications. You start inching down again, only to be stopped again by a chromatic wiggle…

…which stutters like a broken record. This weird inability to stop is the second inkling of trouble, i.e. delight. Further, the chromatic uncertainty, by some strange process of invented logic, “infects” the bass (the flight of meaning); it begins to wobble between C-flat and B-flat:

And then this uncertainty “infects” the tempo (flying meaning again, a virus of meaning): We hit an adagio, an impasse, we waver out of time, it’s cadenza time, C-flat seems to prevail (the appearance of melancholy) and then the unbelievable stroke…

…the C-natural, the ninth chord. This is one of my favorite moments of delight alighting in all of music. As in the Baudelaire examples, there is the crash of the paradox: a “lostness” and “foundness” simultaneously. The ninth chord: a sound that is so perfectly beautiful, so luscious, and at the same time perfectly unacceptable; a frog prince. And this moment is clearly the climax of the exposition, but it is an anti-climax, a weird look within. Perhaps my favorite detail is the hidden voiceleading, thus:

Ouch! Play it for yourself on the piano, just these notes, oozing outwards. You get a refund if you don’t smile in delight. The C-flat is a renegade; he or she is supposed to resolve to B-flat, but (take that!) perhaps he or she feels like resolving up to C-natural, too, and thinks: Why not both simultaneously? (A very Ivesian C-flat.) Imagine that the classical style is a skin, and at that moment Haydn simply turns the skin inside out, revealing a glimpse of the impossible other dimension, the playful unthinkable.

Well, as I am sure you have noticed, I have simply fulfilled what I described, earlier, as the most “despicable, preposterous, predictable absurdity of the classical performer.” I make only mild apologies: That’s what I am—what do you expect? In search of the delight of new music, I simply write a paean to a great moment in Haydn. I can think of a few examples of delight in very recent piano music. For instance, the way the fifth Ligeti Etude slow waltzes off the top of the keyboard in ever-changing hemiolas; the flittering energy of the fourth Ligeti Etude, with impossibly fast, leaping melodies marked “espressivo;” the emergence of a Schubertian theme amidst the rhythmic chaos of the Thomas Ades Piano Quintet—to name a few. I therefore know it is possible. Composers, I have faith in you. I know you’re out there, I have confidence in your newness, I hope you are out hunting for delight. It must be difficult to peel your own skins and turn yourselves inside out. I am sad to be a grump and to yell at your demo recordings, and I promise to try to reform myself if you promise…I don’t know, to be delightful?

My therapist asked me to tell you that you should send me your scores, too. I can’t wait to see them. Seriously.


Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk

American pianist Jeremy Denk‘s repertoire ranges from the standard works of the 18th and 19th centuries to 20th-century masters such as Ives, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Messiaen, and further to world premieres by Leon Kirchner, Ned Rorem, Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor. A member of the faculty of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, he received a double degree in chemistry and piano performance from the Oberlin College and Conservatory.

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