Arts Desk

“Some People Are Even Scared of Him”: Jeremy Denk Discusses Playing Charles Ives

Pianist Jeremy Denk is an increasingly hot commodity on the classical music circuit. He’s performed as a soloist with orchestras from London to San Francisco, played alongside violinist Joshua Bell and under the baton of composer John Adams. He also maintains a blog that's become one of the most widely read in the online classical world (such as it is), in which he muses on topics ranging from ear hair trimmers to fending off the advances of female fans. In his music selection, Denk has cultivated a uniquely broad range, from the baroque to the postmodern; his first solo recording was of the experimental American composer Charles Ives. So he was the obvious choice to headline Strathmore’s three-day festival, The Ives Project, which begins today. He spoke with Washington City Paper by phone from New York.

So…Charles Ives. That’s kind of a ballsy choice for a first recording. Why not someone safer like Chopin, Mozart, even Barber?

Well, there’s already a tremendous number of recordings floating around of those guys. I’ve played Ives a lot, he’s a composer I believe in a great deal and I hope the way I play him is distinctive. He is an unconventional composer. A lot of people dislike him.  Some people are even scared of him.

Why?

He’s dissonant, he can be wild. His music pushes the boundaries of classical music, which he fused with jazz. He tried to rewrite the whole paradigm of what music should be, rather than “ride the cliché” as someone once said. [Note: it was actually Stone Temple Pilots, but I don't think Denk was trying to quote them.]

He was the first American composer to escape from under the European curtain. Even Copland, Barber, and all them went to Paris, and there’s a certain slick Parisian sheen to what they wrote. Ives wasn’t perfect. He was messy. He basically said “screw everybody else” and did his own thing. No one else did that until maybe John Cage.

You’re on Twitter and have a popular blog. Were you surprised that classical listeners read blogs and know how to use Twitter?

The classical audience is moving in that direction—the Internet, the blogosphere. I like it because I can write what really interests me without adhering to any format. In other outlets, like pre-concert lectures, my time is restricted and I can’t say certain improper things. But I get scared sometimes. I was backstage at Carnegie Hall and the artistic director startled me when he said, “I liked your blog post yesterday.”

You’re not constrained at all? As a performer, don’t you get any pushback from agents or industry people saying, “Don’t write that, it’s not professional”?

So far I haven’t gotten any pushback. But I definitely feel constrained, by my own choice. I don’t write about certain things; for example, I don’t review other people’s performances. But I can criticize other aspects of classical music. For example program notes. I feel there are a number of recurring issues with them that only exacerbate the age problem with classical music. They can make the music seem deader than it already is.

You had a popular post where you “interviewed” Sarah Palin about Beethoven (“trill baby trill”). You’ve also commented on Newt Gingrich’s novels. Do you have an interest in politics that overlaps with music?

I admit that politics is a rich mine of idiocy. There’s a lot of ridiculousness in that world that makes for good comedy, which I guess is why that Sarah Palin post got linked everywhere. For that, there’s a real particular lingo with classical music just as there is for politics, and it was fun mashing that up with right-wing talking points.

Why did you quit Twitter?

I was just joking about that, I didn’t really. But I often turn on Twitter and find it exhausting. There’s this huge stream of people saying, “I liked your performance last night.”

Don’t you like the ego boost?

I’m just saying, there’s a lot of happy tweeting.

What’s wrong with that?

Listen…I was just trying to express feeling overwhelmed.

Does the process of going through a conservatory and becoming a professional classical musician give you a kind of tunnel vision about the music that you play?

There’s certainly a perfectionist element that goes into performing. You become fixated on details, and constantly trying to improve your playing. It can be a very narcissistic activity, which is a problem.

What’s your remedy?

I’m working on that. Massage is one of them. I like to change up the period of the music I play, from the 1780s to the 1990s. I’m looking for some place far away to travel to for vacation.

Massages and vacations huh? Sounds rough.

Yeah, well those are just remedies. The problem’s still there.

Tonight, Denk plays Ives’ chamber pieces with the Post-Classical Ensemble and baritone William Sharp. Tickets $15 – $25.  On Friday, November 4, he plays Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, accompanied by readings of Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau. Tickets $13.50 – $40.50.  Both are at 8 pm at the Strathmore Music Center, 5401 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda.

Photo by Samantha West

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