From the Archive: Jeremy Denk, Tourguide at BachWorld
A great old idea increases appreciation for the Goldberg Variations
Many people involved with music share a sense that the “old” modes of discussion about the art are flawed, if not decrepit. Not just the sales and delivery and twitterized-criticism models, but everything that’s aimed at increasing audience “understanding.” There’s growing recognition that it’s important to bring listeners into the music in different ways. To equip people with the tools that lead to greater appreciation. And in the process, to cultivate more engaged listeners — not simply because it’s good business, but because in a very real sense, the art needs capable and astute obsessive devotees if it is going to thrive going forward. Even if, especially if, the music itself is centuries old.
Starting such a discussion is exceedingly hard to do in the Internet age, where the notion of spending five uninterrupted minutes with a piece by Bach or Mozart or John Coltrane seems exotic. The savoring of music — the burrowing into it, the digging past one’s first reaction — mostly exists off the clock, beyond the reach of endless status updates. To go into that kind of investigation is to put the phone down. That’s a big ask.
Thankfully artists are undaunted types by temperament, accustomed to the big ask. Last week, the pianist and essayist Jeremy Denk, who was a MacArthur Genius Grant recepient in 2013, offered a wonderfully inspired pathway into his new release. Liner Notes! On video! In carefully edited bite-sized chunks! There’s Denk at the piano, speaking conversationally as he shines a flashlight on some of the totemic work’s beguiling complexities. He begins by isolating the organizing theme, then shows how Bach massages it until it takes different form and visits different tonal centers. Later, he talks about the unique structural elements of the piece, and discusses its effect on Beethoven, sharing profound insights he’s gleaned from his deep dive into Bachworld.
Watching him, either on the DVD included with the CD release or on Youtube, ir’s easy to become swept into Denk’s Bach-worshipping music-geek enthusiasm — but at the same time, it’s impossible to not learn something about the piece. He seems to be speaking extemporaneously, without a script; at times it’s like you’re hanging out with a natural-born teacher who’s bubbling over with information, and won’t stop until you feel as passionate as he does.
Of course Denk’s Liner Notes can be dismissed as simple marketing — they’re really just typical Electronic Press Kit fodder crossed with Theory 101 pedagogy and a bit of Leonard Bernstein in his Young Person’s Guide To the Orchestra period. But Denk seizes the chance to make the exercise meaningful beyond this. He’s comfortable in the role of explainer but not opposed to also being an evangelist — persuasive combination. After hearing him speak with such precision about the details of the work, it’s an absolute delight to hear him use so much of his personality — his poise and exacting sense of order, his restraint leavened by a childlike peering-around-corners curiosity — to bring Bach to life.
Here’s hoping others in the music industry (jazz people, are you listening?) will employ this liner notes approach to help build bridges between creative music and potential audiences. It’s overdue.