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Jeremy Denk has recently written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. (Courtesy of the artist)

Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

Sep 27, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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This interview was originally broadcast on May 23, 2012.

Not many classical pianists maintain blogs where they ruminate on everything from eating a terrible bowl of meatballs while on tour with Joshua Bell to seeing Twilight: New Moon (twice) and hearing strains of a Schubert song.

But then, not many classical pianists are Jeremy Denk. Denk is a 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." His playful side is apparent on his blog Think Denk, as well as in his music, which until recently consisted mainly of solo recordings for smaller labels. (His album Jeremy Denk Plays Ives, released on his own label, made many critics' Best of the Year lists in 2010.)

His latest album, Ligeti/Beethoven, was released on the more mainstream Nonesuch Records label. The masterful performance features selections from Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, along with Gyorgy Ligeti's etudes, for solo piano.

Ligeti's pieces, including Desordre and Automne a Varsovie, are notoriously difficult, Denk tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"The main thing Ligeti is doing is throwing in different chromatic lines all the time in different voices and then, towards the end, amassing a tremendous amount of sound and making you pound out one more devastating chord after another," Denk says. "Especially after the four minutes of the etude as a whole, you're pretty wiped out mentally, and then you have to create this visceral, destructive force."

Ligeti, a Hungarian composer, is perhaps best known today for his music from Stanley Kubrick's films 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Ligeti's etudes, Denk says, are like explorations of entirely new frontiers on the keyboard.

"Ligeti took the piano to places it had never been before, and makes demands of the pianist and the mind that had never been made before," he says. "But all of it is derived from ideas from earlier piano etudes and his love of the great piano repertoire."

On Automne a Varsovie, for example, Ligeti instructs the pianist to play a note with eight fortes. (Normal piano pieces have at most, maybe three.) Denk recently wrote on his blog:

How to interpret eight fortes? I think maybe I should hurl my whole body at the piano as violently as possible and hope for the best. They would find my bloody corpse weeks later amid the moldy coffee cups, odiferous testament to my devotion to the composer's intent. How would eight be different from seven? Both must be so searingly loud as to be painful, a distinction between degrees of agony: if seven fortes is like being disemboweled by a wolf, then eight is like being disemboweled by a bear.

In addition to dynamics, Ligeti also played with math. His music, Denk says, is filled with infinite mathematical complexities translated into music.

"There are things that begin simply and then with one small branching or one instability, suddenly becomes incredibly complex and wild," he says.

Learning to play the etudes isn't the easiest endeavor. Denk spent four weeks sitting at his piano for seven hours a day, drinking pots of coffee and playing the etudes.

"I did nothing else," he says. "The amount of fingering, the amount of mental focus — Ligeti's deliberately written things that are going to screw with your mind in one way or another. And you have to develop new mental muscles, because he's really fascinated with simultaneous different rhythmic groupings going on, so in a way, you have to divide your body and mind into two parts."

Denk's album is also split in two. He moves swiftly between the descending chromatic madness of Ligeti and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, the last piano sonata Beethoven wrote.

"The last Beethoven sonata seems to me [to be] one of the most profound musical journeys to infinity ever made," he says. "The whole piece seems to want to bring us from a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless."


Interview Highlights

On Automne a Varsovie

"The idea of the piece is something [Gyorgy] Ligeti was obsessed with late in his life was this lamenting, descending chromatic idea. Descending chromatic lines like that have been used in music for centuries to designate sadness. And there's this way in which this idea becomes so obsessive and destructive and takes over and transforms from something beautiful into something sort of horrible and all-consuming."

On the scores

"The scores, at least some of them, tend to look like undifferentiated streams of data. Like you'd imagine a programming code might look. And it takes a little bit of practice to pick out the important ones. It's like reading a matrix or something. You have to know what he's after. Once you discover the principle behind the etude, the score will look a little more common-sensical, but it takes a little while."

On Ligeti

"He's written music at the edge of the human possibility for performing it. That is, so fast and complex as to be almost impossible to keep track of; dynamics that are incredibly extremely, incredible nuances of voicing — bringing out six different voices at one time, all in descending chromatic tones."

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