Musical alchemist

Jeremy Denk
Brisbane Times

By Linda Morris

A multitalented pianist brings eloquence and intelligence to every performance.

After retiring from insurance, American composer Charles Ives began working on a grand sonata for solo piano dedicated to five great intellectuals of the 19th century.

The four movements of his Piano Sonata No.2, Concord, are named for the literary giants Ralph Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. They are all heroes of the New York pianist Jeremy Denk, for whom the piece has become a calling card.

Denk has joined the Australian Chamber Orchestra as a guest artist to play the Alcotts movement and is rhapsodic in his description of the sonata as a grand epic in the tradition of the 19th-century romantic novels.

''It grapples with the classical canon, it grapples with Beethoven, it grapples with ragtime; it's like taking the whole world in your hands and, as such, it is more a happening than a piece,'' he says. ''It yields a million different interpretations. There is the connection to Thoreau, and I've always been nuts about Emerson. The last Concord is Thoreau and there is a beautiful passage where Thoreau is meant to be playing his flute over Walden Pond and you hear him surrender, after all sorts of activity and goal-oriented things, to the rhythm of nature at night. It's incredibly moving.''


There is a witty eloquence to the piano soloist that marks him as unique among classical music performers. In articulating what lies at the heart of music, Denk demystifies what it is to be a classical pianist. His satirical observations for The New Yorker, in which he likens piano lessons to the weekly ritual of laundry or church, to either the occasioning of wisdom or subtle psychological torture, have netted him a book deal.

He has a blog, Think Denk, which recounts his experiences of touring and performing, and its unexpected popularity has served to make classical music less of a fusty Renaissance painting to be admired on a gallery wall, and much more present. ''My blogs are about a particular moment in music or a set of moments that I find incredibly beautiful and meaningful and I try to sometimes find sideways or weird comic byways to get at what that is,'' Denk says.

Among the things we learn about Denk in the blog is how he just loves coffee. One filtered cup a day to lift his head from the pillow.

He also recalls his humiliating debut at his parent's retirement village in New Mexico where he played to dubious applause and was hurried by the dinner bell. ''My father's assessment was on the mark: 'I don't think they'll lower our rent,' he said. 'Let's hope they don't raise it.'''

Denk has a thing for Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, and carries a copy most places in his ''structureless'' life. As if to illustrate his itinerant existence, this telephone conversation has taken two weeks to organise. It took 18 months after meeting the Australian Chamber Orchestra's artistic director, Richard Tognetti, in New York for Denk to find dates for his first Australian recitals.

Denk is in Jacksonville, Wyoming, and asks me what day it is. Thursday or Friday? Losing track of days ''happens to me a fair amount'', he says, ''especially these days - my life is crazy.''

Denk, 43, could have done anything with his life, such were his intellectual gifts. He has a degree in chemistry but piano is his first love. He played from age five on the family's spinet piano inherited from a great aunt, shuffling from one teacher to another as his talents blossomed.

''From the moment I started playing the piano occasionally it would come up, the thought I might quit the piano, and that always seemed to me the worst possible eventuality in life,'' Denk says.

''I think I'm drawn to music more profoundly than anything else in life, although I thought about doing a lot of things. I'm fascinated by maths and chemistry and especially writing but obviously music has a deeper connection for me than almost anything.''

A great performance, Denk suggests, is the alchemy of acoustics and audience sensibilities. It looms in the spaces between notes, in the millions of little decisions a performer makes on any one day. In that sense, the performance is so much more than the score.

''If you have your computer play a score exactly as notated on the page, which now you can do, what comes out is exactly the opposite of what is music to my ear in every possible way,'' he says.