Pianist spells out his notes

07.23.13
Jeremy Denk
The Australian

By Matthew Westwood

JEREMY Denk is not the first musician to turn his hand to writing: one thinks of Alfred Brendel, the pianist who has just penned a deeply thoughtful piece on music and performance, published in The New York Review of Books, and of Stephen Hough, whose blog appears in Britain's The Telegraph. Closer to home, there are writers such as composer Andrew Ford and pianist Anna Goldsworthy, both of whom have opened the world of music and musicians to the reading public.

Denk, a concert pianist, started writing a blog eight years ago and a writing career has since flourished alongside his musical one. For magazines such as The New Yorker he has written long-form essays about the difficulties of the recording studio and about his student piano lessons with Gyorgy Sebok, a cultivated European with a taste for theatrics.

He has recently been invited to write a book of reminiscences and ruminations for Random House. And he is writing an opera libretto based on, of all things, Charles Rosen's musicological study The Classical Style.

Denk discovered the power of the keyboard -- the Qwerty kind, as distinct from the chromatic one -- when he was asked to write a diary about the life of a concert pianist for National Public Radio in the US. A friend urged him to continue writing and suggested he start a blog.

"That day, I actually did," Denk says on the phone from NewYork. "It was like an itch that I had. It was something I had been dying to do, to write more properly, for many years."

The pianist-blogger is about to tour with musicians from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He'll be playing solo and as part of a quintet with ACO's Richard Tognetti and Satu Vanska (violins), Christopher Moore (viola) and Timo-Veikko Valve (cello).

Denk's writing shows a flair for mixing high-cultural subjects with nothing-off-limits observational humour. In one post, he opined on Schubert and Taylor Lautner's abs; in another, he took musicologist Richard Taruskin to task over Don Giovanni.

It's not surprising to learn that he counts essayist-authors Geoff Dyer and David Foster Wallace among writers he admires. There's a similar delight in intellectual jest, with the effect not of dumbing down the subject under discussion, but of speaking the same language as their readers. "Semi-casual, digressive whatever . . . That late-night, slightly stoned, watching-TV mode" is how Denk describes it.

Writing about music, as someone once said, is like dancing about architecture: it's either useless or impossible. And yet there may be parallels in the creative efforts of writers, musicians and, indeed, other performers. Writing prose, like musical composition, involves extempore technique within a set of formal constraints. Performance also involves the testing-out of an idea -- dramatic, choreographic or musical -- that may be likened to the writer chasing an intellectual argument.

Denk agrees with the proposition that performance can be a kind of essay in the broad sense of the word. He refers to the Brahms Piano Quintet that he will perform with the ACO players, and the beginning of the Andante second movement with its "transcendentalised" Viennese waltz.

"It's a very long-breathed sentence, it doesn't stop for quite a long time," he says. "Brahms is sort of testing out the limits, the elastic of a phrase: how long can you prolong the intensity before it breaks. It's like winding out a great paragraph, and trying to find the punctuation places that will will make the climaxes better, and the rhythm of it, so it will feel inevitable. Great prose can be a little bit inevitable too."

The prose-music connection is more explicit in the case of Charles Ives, the composer and insurance agent who is among the pioneering figures in American music. His Piano Sonata No 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60, published in 1919, is simultaneously nostalgic and avant-garde, involving heady dissonances and cluster-chords played with a piece of wood. Its four movements are named after literary figures from the New England region: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts (including Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame) and Henry David Thoreau.

This remarkable piece has been essayed, not least by Ives, who wrote a 30,000-word description of it while debating substance and manner, or style, in music.

"He tries to outline a way in which his music is more difficult and requires more effort to approach, and yet the substance of what is expressed is therefore more profound," Denk explains when asked to summarise Ives. "That is the quality he loves in Emerson and Thoreau, and that he finds in Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, composers he admires."

Denk wrote about his trials when recording the sonata -- with its "polytonal, polyrhythmic mayhem and mash-up" -- for The New Yorker. He describes the sensation of listening to different takes in the producer's booth and the paradox of hearing one thing while being sure he played another.

"You hear two tracks at once: what you desire and what you have produced," he writes.

"Notes dangle before you without their motivations, minus the physical struggle of playing them; my muscles twitch strangely while I listen."

Denk is appearing with the ACO after an introduction by his friend Steven Isserlis, the British cellist (and children's author) who has been a frequent guest with Tognetti's band, and who returns to tour with them in October.

The program for Denk's tour includes Tognetti's arrangement of Canons on the Goldberg ground, which Bach based on the Goldberg Variations. Denk will be the soloist in a selection of Ligeti etudes and the "Alcott" movement from the Concord sonata. He will join the ACO players for a keyboard concerto by Bach (BWV 1056) and the Brahms quintet, both in the key of F minor. It is rounded out with a string quartet movement by Ives called Holding Your Own.

Denk's writing commitments may have got the better of him. His blogging and other writing, he says, has helped promote his work as a musician. But the blog, which started as a torrent of posts in 2005, has been reduced to a trickle as the pianist has become busier as a performer and professional writer. He has recently signed with recording label Nonesuch, has concert engagements, and has the book and libretto to write. His opera The Classical Style, with music by Steven Stucky, will have its premiere at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival in southern California, where Denk is music director next year.

He admits that blogging threatened to take over his life. "I don't mean to complain," he says. "In a way, it's another venue for me to speak about music. You could never write a program note like some of these blogs, you could never do those blogs in a pre-concert lecture. The sort of things I'm doing there, only belong there."

Denk is about to make his first visit to Australia and is anticipating great coffee and restaurants, as well as his debut performances with the ACO. Will he be tempted to blog about his antipodean adventures? "I'm almost sure that I will," he says.