Music and words

Some notes from some time ago about professional musicians who attend to language, notably the pianist Jeremy Denk and the composer Nico Muhly. Since I’ve posted recently on Taylor Lautner — the relevance of this will become clear — I’ll start with Denk, then go on to Muhly and further to comments on other musicians connected to one or another of these two.

Jeremy Denk. Basics on Denk from Wikipedia:

Jeremy Denk (born May 16, 1970 in Durham, North Carolina) is an American classical pianist.

In 1997, Denk made his New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall as the winner of the William Petschek Piano Debut Recital Award from Juilliard.

… Denk taught at the Indiana University School of Music from 1996-2002 and currently is on the faculty of the Bard College Conservatory of Music. He maintains a blog titled “Think Denk” and has written numerous liner notes and program notes.

He’s also published pieces in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, The New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. And has performed and recorded a very wide range of repertoire, of solo, duo, and chamber music. More detail:

Denk maintains working relationships with a number of living composers and has participated in many premieres, including Jake Heggie’s concert Cut Time, Libby Larsen’s Collage: Boogie, Kevin Puts’ Alternating Current and Ned Rorem’s The Unquestioned Answer. In 2002, he recorded Tobias Picker’s Second Piano Concerto with the Moscow Philharmonic. He also worked closely with composer Leon Kirchner on many of his recent compositions, recording his Sonata No. 2 in 2001.

… In 2004, Denk met and first performed with violinist Joshua Bell at the Spoleto Festival and was invited on a recital tour, sparking off a musical partnership that continues today. They toured last season throughout the U.S.; a Philadelphia reviewer noted their “equal partnership, with no upstaging.” They recorded Corigliano’s Violin Sonata for Sony Classical and tour together regularly.

… The artist’s widely-read blog, “Think Denk,” is highly praised and frequently referenced by many in the music press and industry.  There Denk writes about some of his touring, practicing and otherwise unrelated experiences, as well as delving into fairly detailed musical analyses and essays. (link)

Denk appeared in a Language Log posting (“A few dollops of taboo avoidance” of 8/17/08) in connection with Robert Craft’s use of “the male member” to avoid a crude reference to the penis by Igor Stravinsky. Then on Denk’s blog, on 5/25/10, “Jetlagged manifesto”, about program notes:

It seems regrettable that a writing style called Program Note Style ever came into existence. It’s hard to define, I suppose; you know it when you read it, by a slight heartburn of the soul. When I start to compose program notes, I feel the Siren of this Style, calling me. The words clump into clichéd paragraphs, habits learned from hundreds of programs, perused in waiting moments … You begin with a few dates, then you slip in the curious historical tidbit: “while he composed X in 18xx, curiously he didn’t publish it until 18xx …” The tidbit that makes it seem authoritative, knowledgeable, yawn yawn … Agh! Select All. Delete. Contemplate blank screen with relief.

(Denk identified four Deadly Sins of program notes, which he labeled:  historicization, making generic, insider’s club, and domestication.)

But it was the Think Denk posting, “Schubert’s killer abs” of 12/10/09, that moved me to write about Denk’s own writing style. In this posting, Denk, in Naples FL for a series of Beethoven concerto performances — professional musicians do an astonishing amount of traveling on the job; their lives are difficult and disjointed — escapes his hotel for a second view of Twilight: New Moon, with his beloved nachos. He skewers the movie, then is arrested by something familiar in the awful score:

This was no nacho hallucination! There really WAS a Schubert song lurking in this teen vampire romance … and not just Joe Schubert Song, but a setting of one of the greatest Goethe poems [“Über allen Gipfeln / Ist Ruh”]. But why this song? And why Schubert? My mind immediately and shamelessly ran after musicological ramifications: “Schubert is sucking at the neck of the subdominant, to demonstrate vis-a-vis the fangs of his modal mixture the inadequacy of conventional polarities of dominance” … (Susan McClary, eat your heart out!) Though I dismissed the notion of a hidden musicological agenda I suddenly wondered how many vampires take refuge in the musicology faculties of our nation’s universities.

This was one of these moments where Popular Culture decides for a capricious instant that Hundreds Of Years Of The Western Canon are temporarily useful for appropriation; it does classical music a huge favor by Noticing It.

The only things in the movie that seemed as well-constructed as this poem were Taylor Lautner’s abs [I promised you some Lautner, and here he is, in all his abdominal splendor]:

… and these elicited an appreciative “Damn!” from more than one corner of the theatre. (Schubert got no damns. Nor Goethe.) Each pair of muscles like a rhyme. The next day, after hanging up with my new personal trainer, I wondered: why are poems better than abs? Between lateral crunches, I mused: aren’t abs just poems of the stomach? But it seemed to me great poems last longer than abs. And they generally don’t require trips to the gym. As I puréed my second protein shake, it struck me, I should phone some poets, do they have phones? Did Goethe go to the gym? Maybe during his Italian Journeys? So many imponderables! But maybe there’s only one truly unanswerable question: why did I go back for a second viewing?

It was for the Schubert, I swear.

More recently, there’s “An artist in residence eats breakfast” of 11/15/12, which begins:

I set forth into the sunny morning with purpose. I am (after all) an Artist in Residence at the [Isabella Stewart] Gardner Museum [in Boston]. My hotel is slightly too posh, kind of annoying yuppie old-school. The room keys are brass, huge, pocket-consuming. A man in hat and uniform stands by the elevators; he says good morning to my back as I walk out the door. I don’t have time for him. I am thinking of a thousand forgotten tasks, failings, instances of non-adulthood, and I am thinking a horrible thought: being an artist can’t forgive everything.

To exit this loop of artistic self-recrimination, I remind myself: Richard Wagner had a fetish for silk underwear, for pink women’s panties. For God’s sake, he sent Nietzsche out to buy the underwear for him! I can’t believe this is true, that it’s not something I just dreamed. I could totally have dreamed Nietzsche in Victoria’s Secret buying silk panties for Wagner — before meeting Schopenhauer at Cinnabon. How come this didn’t come up in Music History 101? If I had a class of smiling innocent undergraduates, all beamingly in love with Classical Music, that’s the very first thing I would do in the very first class: I would lay out the whole sordid story, then play them some of those hyper-masculine funeral marches and rousing choruses while holding up a pair of pink panties.

Denk seeks out breakfast at a bookshop cafe, where he’s confronted by a singularly unhelpful waiter. In the end, Denk writes, “I am silently giving [the waiter] the Bitchiest Gay Man Of All Time Award, smiling”.

Ok, there’s the gay content — Taylor Lautner’s abs, Wagner and the pink panties, the Bitchiest Gay Man — but there’s also the writing style, of the sort I wrote about on this blog in a posting of 8/24/10, “Writing like a fag”, where I noted some characteristics that have been seen in writing by gay men:

subjective stance; irony, sarcasm (distancing, saying and not saying, “not taking seriously”); resistance, subversiveness; double/triple/etc. vision, metacommentary; embeddedness, discursiveness; open aggression; seductiveness; reversal, inversion

Many of these are discernible in Denk’s writing about his personal life, and in Nico Muhly’s. In fact, both men are openly gay (and both are partnered).

Nico Muhly. The brief story from Wikipedia:

Nico Muhly … (born August 26, 1981) is a contemporary classical music composer and arranger, who has worked and recorded with classical and pop/rock musicians. He currently lives in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan in New York City. He is a member of the Icelandic music collective/recording label Bedroom Community.

There’s a fine profile of him (by Rebecca Mead) in the 2/11/08 New Yorker: “Eerily Composed: Nico Muhly’s sonic magic”. From that piece: ”I feel like there’s a lot of ways in which being a [classical music] composer now is almost more weird than being gay”.

His compositions are often language-related: Speaks Volumes, Mothertongue, the score for the film The Reader, a song cycle based on The Elements of Style. And on his blog, there’s lots of attention to language. On Language Log in 2008, two postings about his use of language:

“Liking the crotch on an idea” (in a quotation from Nico’s blog) of 8/21/08, with a follow-up “Crotch mistake?” of 8/25/08, and 8/29/08 e-mail from Nico:

My usage is taken directly from the R. Kelly. It’s also, of course, coming from crux of the matter, but in my spoken usage, I use it almost explicitly for objects that have no specific physical center, so, you’d say, I like the crotch on that Tallis recording. So: it’s coming from both places. Crotch fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis etc. [an allusion to the Latin text from Pange lingua by Saint  Venantius Honorius Clemetianus Fortunatus: “Crux fidelis, inter omnes / arbor una nobilis…” ‘Faithful cross, above all other, / One and only noble tree…’ (link), which has been set by many composers]

“To gay marry” (again in a quotation from Nico’s blog) of 8/22/08

Three postings on this blog about him:

“Parsimony” 1/11/09: Muhly on girl used for many conversational purposes (like dude)

“Talking cats” 3/25/09:

Nico Muhly’s latest posting on his blog is mostly about language, but it also supplies a weird YouTube clip, “She’s a Talker”. Students of English dialect phonetics might also enjoy the variety of realizations of the accented vowel in talker. [Alas, the YouTube clip is no longer available.]

“Muhly on diacritics and blog comments” 5/26/09

Connections. From these two musicians, there are a great many connections to others, via collaborations, study, or musical influence. Here are a few:

From Denk to his collaborator, violinist Joshua Bell:

Joshua David Bell (born December 9, 1967) is an American Grammy Award-winning violinist. (link)

Then from Bell to his collaborator, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet:

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (born 7 September 1961) is a French pianist [specializing in the Romantics]. (link)

(I saw Bell and Thibaudet together in concert, quite some years ago. Personal note on Thibaudet: he’s openly gay, and partnered — and won’t accept invitations unless his partner is invited as well.)

From Muhly to his teacher John Corigliano:

John Corigliano (born 16 February 1938, New York City, New York) is an American composer of classical music and a teacher of music. He is a distinguished professor of music at Lehman College in the City University of New York. (link)

(Corigliano is married to composer Mark Adamo.)

From Muhly to composer Philip Glass, with whom Muhly worked as an editor, conductor, and keyboardist:

Philip Morris Glass (born January 31, 1937) is an American composer. He is one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century. His music is also often controversially described as minimal music, along with the work of the other “major minimalists” La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. (link)

From Muhly to his gender-bending collaborator Antony Hegarty:

Antony Hegarty (born 1971), often referred to simply as Antony, is an English singer, composer, and visual artist, best known as the lead singer of the band Antony and the Johnsons and for his work with the musical collective Hercules and Love Affair.

… Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album I Am a Bird Now featured guest performances by Lou Reed, Boy George, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart… It received considerable praise  (link)

And from Muhly to his collaborator Björk:

Björk Guðmundsdóttir (… born 21 November 1965), known as Björk, is an Icelandic singer-songwriter. Her musical style is eclectic and she has achieved recognition in rock, jazz, electronic dance music, classical, and folk. (link)

Nico Muhly seems to know just about everybody, and has worked with a huge number of musicians. And Denk is also very collaborative. I don’t know if they’ve ever worked together, but they’re united in many people’s minds because of their animated and perceptive blogs (as well as their queerness). Here’s composer Mark Buller on blogging:

It seems as if most of the composers who maintain blogs seem to post an awful lot about things hardly related to music, but I’ve noticed a few recurring trends: food, politics, and culture…

Food. Well, John Mackey has said everything there is to say about Asian food, Jeremy Denk is an expert on pizza and other late-night junk foods, and Nico Muhly has covered all of the weird Icelandic cuisine (shark meat, whale blubber, etc.). So, I’ll leave it to them.

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