When Jeremy Denk began blogging at Think Denk, it quickly became apparent that he is the liveliest writer-pianist since Glenn Gould. In this week's New Yorker, Denk makes his formal debut as an essayist, recounting his experiences with the piano sonatas of Charles Ives. Here is a sample:
My Ives addiction started one summer at music camp, at Mount Holyoke College. I was twenty and learning his Piano Trio. There's an astounding moment in the Trio where the pianist goes off into a blur of sweet and sour notes around a B-flat-major chord. I knew the moment was important, but I wondered, was my sound too vague or too clear? (A recurring interpretative problem in Ives is discovering the ideal amount of muddle.) I was also puzzled about where this phrase was going. I'd been taught that phrases were supposed to go somewhere, yet this musical moment seemed serenely determined to wander nowhere.
One afternoon, the violinist of the group and I were driving off campus and happened to cross the Connecticut River. Looking out of the window, he said, "You should play it like that." From the bridge the river seemed impossibly wide, and instead of a single current there seemed to be a million intersecting currents — urgent and lazy rivers within the river, magical pockets of no motion at all. The late-afternoon light colored the water pink and orange and gold. It was the most beautiful, patient, meandering multiplicity.
Instantly, I knew how to play the passage. Even better, Ives's music made me see rivers differently; centuries of classical music had prettified them, ignoring their reality in order to turn them into musical objects. Schubert uses tuneful flowing brooks to murmur comfort to suicidal lovers; Wagner has maidens and fateful rings at the bottom of a heroically surging Rhine. Ives is different. He gives you crosscurrents, dirt, haze — the disorder of a zillion particles crawling downstream. His rivers aren't constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.
Denk says more about Ives in a conversation on the New Yorker podcast. On Feb. 13, he will appear at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, in a new series pairing musicians with writers; the writer in question will be the New Yorker literary critic James Wood, who is himself a brilliant musical commentator, as readers of Best Music Writing 2011 know. I may have to find another line of work.