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Pianist Jeremy Denk looks at the 'weirdnesses of great music'

Jeremy Denk
PBS NewsHour

By Victoria Fleischer

To explain the relationship between aria and variation in J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations," classical pianist Jeremy Denk likens the work to jazz. He describes the "Variations" as "the largest, most complex jazz riff in the history of music, maybe ... where you take the harmonies underneath a tune and then you improvise over them."

Denk released his recording of the "Goldberg Variations" in September, the same month he received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. The "genius grant" awards an unrestricted $625,000 for creative individuals to "follow their own creative vision."

Denk doesn't know what he is going to do with the money just yet, but he may invest it in a particular passion of his: creating conversations to illuminate the classical music he plays. His blog, Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist, is one place where he does just that.

"You meet someone you haven't met before and you tell them you're a concert pianist and they immediately have some glamorous ideas," Denk told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown. "A lot of it is hotel rooms and airport terminals and also lurking backstage, biting your fingernails before a concert."

"I guess I do get a kick out of explaining -- I mean, 'explaining' is kind of the wrong word but it's the one that seems to really fit ... using words to look at the 'weirdnesses' of great music."

That explanation doesn't stop at his blog. He produced a DVD version of liner notes to accompany his recording of the "Goldberg Variations," where he discusses different facets of Bach's work. It's those same facets that he described to Jeffrey Brown before his recital for the Washington Performing Arts Society.

"There are these streams and simple games about going up and going down and chasing from one side of the keyboard to the other and hands crossing -- all the possibilities, many of them quite -- if you look at them -- child's play."

Denk paused for a moment before correcting himself, "extremely gifted children, let's put it that way."