News Column

Dueling keyboards: Words and music by pianist Jeremy Denk

July 19, 2013


July 19--What's left to tell about concert pianist Jeremy Denk? Pretty much everything you need to know -- about his musical upbringing, his feelings toward certain composers and compositions, his dislike of program notes, his own ?thoughts and anxieties when it comes to performing and recording -- has been revealed in a series of pieces written for The New Yorker, other published essays, in his liner notes, and, especially, on his blog. We know why he's drawn to Charles Ives and why he's sour on Bach's Goldberg Variations. We know how the comments his early piano teachers scribbled in his piano-lesson journal still haunt him. The history of his day-to-day life is also on record: he'll order huevos rancheros for breakfast but not with plantains on the side; while growing up in Las Cruces, his house's septic system was a constant concern; the worst possible news he could receive is the closing of his local Vietnamese restaurant. We also know his mother's reaction to the announcement earlier this year that his blog, Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist, was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in its archive of internet materials related to the performing arts. Said mom: "Sounds impressive." Wrote Denk: ?"The addition of the unassuming word sounds carries the deliciously unavoidable implication of it being much much less impressive than the word impressive would suggest."

Apparently, there is more telling to do. Random House recently signed Denk to expand his New Yorker piece, "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons," into a full-length autobiography. From reading his blog, you'd expect that Denk was a good way there, especially considering his response in 2008 to the release of fellow concert pianist Lang Lang's autobiography (Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story).

The title of Denk's spoof blog entry? "Journey of a Thousand Pop-Tarts: The Toasting of a Concert Pianist." It tells how our young hero told his parents, in so many ill-chosen words, he didn't want to get out of bed to see Halley's comet. It also reveals how he wore a diaper onstage for performances of a Las Cruces production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I think there's quite a lot of work to be done on the book," Denk said, ?speaking by phone from Colorado, where he was appearing at the Aspen ?Music Festival. "There's not much to be dragged from my satire of Lang Lang's autobiography, though my title's not bad." (Denk's book will carry the same title as the New Yorker piece.)

Denk, celebrated for his recordings of, among other repertoire, Ives' piano sonatas and Gy rgy Ligeti's piano etudes, is seemingly as visible today for his words as for his music. Did he have any desire to be a writer even as he was suffering through piano lessons? "As a kid, I was kind of repressed, kind of obsessive about reading. It was almost dangerous. I went on a Proust jag for three years of my life, didn't see anyone during that time. I guess I should have read the proverbial writing on the wall. That side of myself emerged almost by accident." Encouraged in 2004 by a friend to start a blog, Denk began that very day. "I did ?find it enjoyable to write about what I was doing and kept at it with no remuneration or hope for remuneration or any hope of getting attention. I was doing it just for my own satisfaction. Then it got out of control. I'd written a lot and then realized that people of importance in the music world were reading it. That was terrifying. The blog had taken on a life beyond what I'd intended."

Denk's writing, especially his liner notes, enlightens and entertains without talking down to readers. He often relates music directly to his (or any piano student's) learning experience. "There's nothing more perverse than piano etudes," he writes in the notes to the 2012 recording of the Ligeti recording. "This perversity is on full display in the third etude." He finds Ligeti's genius in writing something that "directs you toward the opposite of what your piano teacher always wanted," a sort of "satire on technique." Often, as he dissects his favorite music, he finds things to like in what seem negative qualities -- ?the opening theme of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major "would be 'fine,' except for an odd move to F#-Major in its fourth bar, sounding a little forced, ill-prepared, artificial ... the A# jangles like a 'mistake' against the A, the main note of the piece." Slow realizations result in guilty admissions: "[I] remember thinking, when I first looked at [that] score, what a stupid theme it was ... what an idiot."

Denk's visibility as a writer lept when he was published by The New Yorker. "[Music writer] Alex Ross had been reading my blog and passed things along to his colleagues," the pianist explained. "They just sent me an email. That was three years ago, and I freaked out and went completely insane. It took me a long time to get up the nerve to submit. The language that I use in the blog wouldn't work for the magazine, of course, so there's a lot of refining and crafting required. It's very similar to sitting at the piano and refining to get the exact perfect phrasing, the mixture of obsession and neurosis in the process, and the pleasure that you get once you've found it."

Does he have encompassing intentions for his writing? "The master plan is to play as beautifully as possible and write things that seem interesting. Obviously, people have talked about the hidden agenda in my writing of getting rid of classical stuffiness, demystifying it, and opening up that world to the weirdness of the modern pop-culture world. I have a very mystical view of music. It's the most important thing in the world. I feel like you have to poke at it and talk about it to re-access its amazing freshness."

In his "Every Good Boy Does Fine" piece, Denk questions the music-lesson cliches found in popular culture: "the mind games and power plays," "the psychological torment" linked to music studies. He goes on to wonder if his experience was different. Indeed, in his training, fear, shame, and humiliation play roles almost equal to practice. An earlier piece for The New Yorker on recording Ives' "Concord" Piano Sonata No. 2 is full of anxiety and a certain neuroticism. The experiences suggest he's been left a psychological mess.

"I hope not. Musicians have a special set of problems and concerns. As a performer, you're out in front of people who are evaluating what you're doing. That kind of scrutiny is not for everybody. Being a musician is an ?interesting mix of confidence and insecurity, those two feelings are in tension and play against each other. Too much confidence leads to complacency. There needs to be a balance, like everything in life. On the whole, my teachers didn't torture me. But it's inevitable that in making someone play piano better is to subject them to criticism. It's part of the process."

Denk said that his years in New Mexico -- the family moved to Las Cruces from New Jersey when he was 10 -- left him with an incredible love of green and red chile. He also said the experience was a spiritual force in his life. "The desert was such a wonderful and strange place. It has a magical quality and opened up a different realm in my thinking after New Jersey. Las Cruces was a generous, easygoing college town with lots of smart people. It was an interesting and kind of ideal place for me at the time. I was lucky and got a lot of attention there."

Sometimes Denk's words come back to haunt him. Last year, he wrote an essay for NPR's music blog titled "Why I Hate the 'Goldberg Variations,'" calling them "the Martha Stewart of variations." His reasons include the fact that everybody loves them, they're in the key of G Major, they're "annoyingly unimpeachable," and, "Everyone asks you all the time which of the two Glenn Gould recordings you prefer." This kind of snark is characteristic of Denk's writing.

When Denk's program for his appearance at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was recently announced, it was surprising to see the Goldberg Variations. "I recorded the variations last Christmas for Nonesuch," he laughed, "and will be touring a lot in support of the recording when its released. Yes, it's a piece that I love but famously wrote a mean-spirited article about. But I thought it would sound beautiful there in the St. Francis Auditorium." And, as Denk also wrote in that article, "I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg."


--Jeremy Denk in recital

--Noon Tuesday, July 23

--St. Francis Auditorium, 107 W. Palace Ave.

--$20 & $25; at the door or from Tickets Santa Fe at the Lensic (988-1234, or the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (982-1890,


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