Jeremy Denk might be committing suicide this weekend. Pianistically speaking.
monster master of the modern piano touches down Saturday for what sounds to be an impossibly demanding program, and one that just might leave him bleeding all over the keyboard: he'll be hammering out the J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations on one half, and 20th century American master composer Charles Ives' rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 1 on the other. Holy f*%$!!
Denk's recital - part of Portland Piano International's week-long summer fest - goes does 7:30 pm this Saturday, July 18 at the World Forestry Center out in SW Portland. Tix ($13-$32) available by calling 503-224-4400.
I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Herr Denk - who also, FYI, happens to be one of the handsomest and most charming and erudite musicians I know, and I know lots - while he was bustling about Seattle earlier in the week for their chamber music orgy. The results of this interview seem just too good to edit, so here goes nothing...
Stephen Marc Beaudoin: What is all this banging around?
Jeremy Denk: I’m getting myself a Coke to help inspire me for this interview. Not cocaine, just Coke, to drink.
SMB: Are you looking forward to coming back to Portland?
JD: I am excited about that. I barely got to be there last time, it was very quick, some sort of emergency departure afterwards. Really I wanted to go to Powell’s books and pass out naked in the middle of a sidewalk in downtown and be arrested for indecency. Those were my goals and dreams — but none of that happened.
SMB: And this time around?
JD: I’m gonna try to misbehave a little more, but I’ll probably just end up playing the concert and leaving. I’m hoping my sources will help me find cool places to hang out.
SMB: So I was all excited about this program you had cooking for Portland: Byrd and Nancarrow, plus alternating Scarlatti and Ligeti. Now you’ve ditched all that.
JD: I haven’t thrown it all away, I’m just trying to get myself together. There’s been a lot of repertoire floating through my fingers, and I’m trying not to go insane. Basically. But that program will happen, eventually.
SMB: So instead you’re doing this Ives piano sonata. Why is this a work we should be excited about?
JD: Why is it exciting? For many reasons. It’s a giant monster of a piece, and it is a blast and a half. It’s a kind of, how do I put this… it’s two giant ragtime scherzos, which are kind of revivalist ragtime, and Ives lets himself go as bananas as he can possibly go. And flanking these are two kind of serious movements which are masterpieces in their own rights. It’s extremely satisfying in every possible way: pianistically and musically and intellectually; a piece that has a little bit of everything in it. And you never hear it, and I think it’s a complete tragedy. I’ve been playing it, I played it at the Ojai Festival, and I think people got into it. Whether or not you love Ives, this piece will rock you.
SMB: How so?
JD: Ives can be an amazingly beautiful composer, and his surges of dissonances are always being kind of swept aside to reveal the beauties beneath, and that’s what’s amazing about this piece. I don’t think it’s possible not to be taken by this piece. It’s a little bit more of a good old fashioned piano sonata, with a little bit almost Liszt in it. I think Walt Whitman is a great parallel here: dangerously and wonderfully eclectic in tone, and wholly unembarrassed.
SMB: Portland, as you might know, is long considered to have been the birthplace of the 21st century “hipster.” In fact, some readers of this very newspaper with which you are interviewing might consider themselves described accurately of so. What can the hipster find to delight in your program?
JD: That’s a very difficult question, SMB, because I long to be a hipster, but I’m not sure I understand the hipster mindset. I would say, well, I mean: Ives is the great counterculture icon, in many ways, he wasn’t really a hipster, seeing as he was an insurance executive. But something about the way he pursued his vision against all — the original kind of “screw you, everyone!” composer. That seems to me like a hipster would appreciate that.
Well the Mozart sonata is kind of a counter culture sonata, also less often heard than the others; it has some of the most bizarre, abstrusely beautiful stuff in the slow movement. I would love to bring this program and play it in Williamsburg at some pretentious café. It’s interesting, you never what music is gonna speak to that crowd. For me it’s crucial that every one of the pieces is kind of a bad boy piece in some way.
SMB: Are you a bad boy?
JD: Sure, yeah. But I’m also trying to balance it with something else, so that I don’t go off the rails.
SMB: People use words like “brilliant,” “bracing,” and “true genius” to describe you and your musicianship. How far off base are these descriptions?
JD: Really? Is that your question, really? I don’t know what to say to that. I like to be bracing, that’s good, that’s a quality that I enjoy about a good performance. I don’t know what a true genius is as opposed to a false genius. One thing that I like talking about music and playing music is that I can be very specific about what it is that I feel to be true and interesting, as opposed to politics. That I like. It gives me a certain certainty, the kind of little aesthetic thrill I get from capturing that, it’s probably my drug of choice. Aside from coffee, of course.
SMB: You keep talking about a solo recording project, and yet I don’t believe I’ve seen anything yet on iTunes or on disc. What gives?
JD: I know, and I’m still editing them. It’s all about me and my laziness and disorganization. The Bach CD is sitting in my car right now, waiting for an edit. So I hope, I hope. I know, it’s been forever. It’s a little bit indicative of how I run my life, which is a little bit chaotic in the extreme.
SMB: One of the long-standing dream recording projects you’ve shared with me involves something with ten cute twinky gay boy composers.
JD: Yes, that’s a dream. Gay twinky boys. It probably won’t be called that.
SMB: What will it be called?
JD: I don’t know. I don’t know what it will be called. I have basically, you know, I have a lot of pleasure playing new pieces, but sometimes you play new pieces, you get a piece of crap, so it takes time to find new pieces you believe in, and practice them.
SMB: Are there cute gay twinky boy composers you do believe in?
JD: There are, and there are also cute straight boy composers I believe in, and also cute women composers, and non-cute men and women composers I believe in.
SMB: You keep a brutal schedule between touring and teaching. Do you get lonely on the road?
JD: I do. I’m brutal to myself. Are you just giving me shit? I don’t know, it’s good, I’m not complaining. The problem is too many pieces. I’ve been lucky in that I always can seem to learn pieces quickly. This Ives sonata cost me a lot of blood, sweat and tears and late nights. I had to spend my nights chained to a piano, learning that mother-fucker.
SMB: Did you get that Coke?
JD: I did but it didn’t help, my brain is still addled. I was out late with Bob Spano last night.
SMB: Do you tire of interviews?
JD: Uh, sometimes… it’s hard to be inspired on demand. It’s hard to find how to answer certain questions without resorting to generalizations and clichés. That’s why I like the blog, because then I can speak to whatever seems interesting to me at the moment.
SMB: Speaking of, what’s the status of the blog?
JD: It needs to be updated. It’s also very horny, it’s terribly horny, it needs to get laid badly. I have a very complicated emotional relationship to the blog. (long pause) I can’t tell what you’re thinking.
SMB: That’s the genius of the interview. It’s like watching someone masturbate on the couch.
JD: Umm. That would be nice.