Sunday our piece on classical pianist Jeremy Denk ran on Sunday Morning. (He has a great new book out called Every Good Boy Does Fine)
This post contains material that didn’t make air.
On the Amazon page for Denk’s book it reads:
‘For me there is a connection between the task of piano playing, trying to find the elusive combination of nuances that bring the phrase alive, and the search for the ‘perfect’ combination of words to express something…I guess the common thread is communication and hopefully that “shiver of delight” when something is expressed in an imaginative, unexpected way.’ – Jeremy Denk has said this about the connection between writing and playing music.
The “shiver of delight,” is that the reader’s delight or the creator’s? Both, I think.
From the reader’s perspective, what Denk is saying reminds me of what Eudora Welty said in On Writing, which I was reminded of as a part of my jfdlibrary project. “Characters in the plot connect us with the vastness of our secret life.” That connection with our secret life excites a “shiver of delight” in the reader. Anne Lamott writes about similar ideas in Bird by Bird, which I wrote about here. As a reader you’ve connected with something deeply inside you but that arrives from outside you.
As a writer or musician you’re feeling that shiver when you know– or think you know– you’ve connected with something that can stand up and walk around the room on its own, delighting people outside of your skull.
“On a given sonata of Beethoven, it’s a book there, right, in front of you. You can read it. You can look at it. But it’s also a book that’s waiting to be written, right? It’s waiting to … it’s not the music yet, right?
And there’s so many things that can never be notated in any score, you know? And– and the ways of thinking, hearing the gravity of notes and feeling the sadness between them, and making it color the– the approach of the finger into the key. And there– there’s so much detail in the performer’s approach that that is about– yes, respecting the composer but also, like, how– how– again, how do I bring it alive? How do I make this music live for people right now?
JOHN DICKERSON: Do you think of writing in music in similar ways because you’ve done both? Do you– do you find yourself when you’re writing saying, “Oh, I’m accessing a feeling that I thought was reserved just for when I’m sitting down at the piano,” or vice versa?
JEREMY DENK: I often find– when I’m writing, I find secrets in the music that I hadn’t managed to find when I’m sitting at the piano. And then I bring those back to the piano. And vice versa, you know? There’s some things that can only be– you know, you have a beautiful bit of melody. And you play this little curve of notes, and how you inflect, and how you crescendo and diminuendo.
That’s music’s province, right, these– these things, right? But then there are musical words, you know? Chords and bits of music that act kind of grammatically, and they resonate against each other. And we don’t really know them. Most people don’t like to talk about those things ’cause we– we like music too much to want to explain it, you know what I mean?
ORIGINAL POST 3/21/22:
I know almost nothing about classical music. Nevertheless, I was intrigued with Denk because his new book is about some of my favorite topics: focus, teaching, learning and the search for expression that feels true to the author and audience. It’s also a lovely memoir about the intense experience of learning to be excellent at the piano. Making meaning from your past is also obviously something of a thing with me. (I now listen to quite a lot of Jeremy’s work).
(I’m reading Swann’s Way at the moment and while I’m obligated by the guild to make some some kind of madeleine joke here, instead I’m going to say that Denk experiences a moment of time-travel as Proust does when the two of us were sitting at the piano and he showed me the exercises his first serious teacher had him perform.)
I will return to this space to update my thoughts about so very much of the interview that didn’t make it (like the idea of the space in which art takes place) but for now I’ll talk about the start. It’s about cheese. You could imagine a more fussy show not allowing that kind of a lede because it’s a little nontraditional and might throw people, but I found it inviting. My colleague Laura Doan identified that exchange too as a particular kind of entry point in a conversation that had a lot of possible entry points.
Most important, starting that way underlined something we were trying to underline in the piece and that Denk tries to do in his book: explain with words and metaphor concepts in music that are hard to explain. Those ideas don’t sit there patiently waiting for you to capture them. The emotion, joy, inspiration, propulsive force of art and ideas has captivated me my adult life. This was a chance to look at those things up close and try to put it all down into words and questions.
Here’s what the question looked like that gave us the lede:
JOHN DICKERSON: 14:50:19 Synesthesia, the idea of seeing shapes from music, is that something that happens w– do– do you conceive of pieces of music in ways other than as a series of notes?
JEREMY DENK: 14:50:29 I often think of chords as being delicious, you know, like cheese, or– (LAUGH) or ice cream, or–
JOHN DICKERSON: 14:50:35 Play me cheese.
JEREMY DENK: 14:50:36 You want a cheese chord?