Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor The pianist's latest album features some of the most difficult etudes ever written for solo piano by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti.
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Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

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Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.



Classical pianist Jeremy Denk makes a practice of tackling devilishly difficult material. He's one of the 24 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation so-called genius award. And in a sweet stroke of timing, Jeremy Denk has a brand-new recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," which we're listening to now. It's one of the most challenging works in the classical piano repertoire.

In his essay, "Why I Hate the Goldbergs," Denk writes: The piece is 80 minutes long and mostly in G major. Just think about that for a minute. Then, without a bathroom break, think very similar thoughts for 79 more minutes, winding around the same basic themes; and then you'll have some idea of what it's like to experience - you might even say survive - "The Goldbergs."

Terry interviewed Denk last year about his album "Ligeti/Beethoven," which features a Beethoven sonata and a series of etudes composed by Gyorgy Ligeti. An etude is a composition that's meant to build technical skills. In the liner notes, Denk says quote, "These etudes celebrate the genre's perversity and repurposes it into wild, unheard of art. Drawing inspiration from the etudes' most unpromising attributes - obsession, monotony, ad infinitum repetition, mathematical dryness - Ligeti fiercely redeems them," unquote.

Denk describes some of Ligeti's writings as fiendish. You'll hear why in the crashing descending lines that conclude the sixth etude.



Jeremy Denk, welcome to FRESH AIR. So that incredible descending climax that we just heard, it sounds so physical to me. It sounds like the force of gravity expressed through music.

JEREMY DENK: That's good.


DENK: Mm-hmm. That's...

GROSS: I just feel this pull, you know, and then this thud at the end. It almost reminds me, I don't usually use analogies like this, but when I throw trash down the trash chute, and you hear it kind of falling down, and then it, you know, hits the ground, it's kind of what it - it's like so physical. Can you talk about just the experience of playing that?

DENK: I mean, it's sort of like trickling down the drain of tonality or something like that.


DENK: And the idea of the piece, I guess, is something Ligeti was obsessed with late in this life, was this lamenting, descending chromatic idea, you know, and descending chromatic lines like are - have been used in music for centuries to, you know, designate sadness. And there's this way in which that idea just becomes so obsessive and destructive and takes over and becomes - transforms from something beautiful into something sort of horrible and all-consuming. That's the idea, anyway.


DENK: It's also very physically difficult, unfortunately, because it's so - he wants ever louder and ever more complicated sounds towards the end, and you're just trying to get this devilish feeling.

GROSS: What are these Ligeti etudes that you've just recorded intended to do? Are they intended to be exercises, performance pieces, both?

DENK: Well, they're kind of like explorations of new frontiers, I guess. It's interesting because Ligeti took the piano to places it had never been before and makes demands of the pianist and the mind that had never in a way been made before. But all of it is derived from ideas from earlier piano etudes and his love of the great piano repertoire.

So it's an interesting mix of things. Ligeti was obsessed with chaos theory and fractals, and so part of the etudes is extrapolating these sort of mathematical ideas into music; infinite complexities and things that begin simply and then with one small branching or one little instability suddenly become incredibly complex and wild.

GROSS: So I want to play another excerpt from one of these etudes, and this is from "Vertige," which means vertiginous, dizzy.

DENK: Uh-huh, yeah, this is another chromatic nightmare, just like - yeah.

GROSS: You call this one the most fiendish of them all.

DENK: Yes.


DENK: Well, what he's done is pretty despicable at the beginning.


DENK: He writes a set of - any pianist will tell you. He writes a set of chromatic scales, you know, very fast, and he writes over them legato. And he also writes - so you have to play them super-connected, right, so there's no spaces between the notes. And then he keeps adding different chromatic scales at different time intervals.

So you end up playing like - it's like a million exercises in one thing, you know, like every kind of thirds, fourths, all kind of intervals. Like every little finger-twister you can think of happens in the first page. And then it's all supposed to be incredibly soft, connected, and then he writes - the real mean thing is he writes no pedal...


DENK: ...which is like kind of this - you know, you can't even rely on the usual pianist's crutch for doing these sorts of things. It may be that I relied every so often on a little, hidden pedal in this opening passage to help, even though Ligeti told me not to.

GROSS: So I think what I'd like to do is play that opening passage and then kind of skip ahead a little bit to some of the more bass clef madness that sets in afterwards.

DENK: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: So let's hear the very opening.

DENK: Great.


GROSS: So that's the opening that you were describing. I'm going to skip ahead a little bit. We're continuing to hear those trebly notes, but they're starting to get louder, and then the left hand starts in and starts rumbling away in opposition. Can you tell us what's going on in that passage?

DENK: Well, that's a wonderful moment, and I guess, you know, Ligeti's written this series of kind of overlapping chromatic scales coming down. And while the scales are coming down, the pianist is creeping ever farther up into the stratosphere of the instrument, right, and you have this great sense of sort of falling and rising at the same time.

And, right? And then as it gets softer and softer, hopefully, and then you get to the very top of the keyboard, and at that moment the bass comes in. And that's such a classic Ligeti thing to go from the very highest register to the very lowest, to kind of span the mind gap between the top and the bottom of the keyboard.

It's a very Beethoven thing, too, actually, to explore these registral extremes, but it's very wicked sounding and very disturbing when the bass comes in.

GROSS: It is disturbing. It's very invasive.


DENK: Yes, it is, and very difficult, also. He writes some very nasty things there for the pianist to do.

GROSS: OK, so this is Jeremy Denk from his new album "Ligeti/Beethoven," and here's more from the Ligeti etude "Vertige."


GROSS: That's Jeremy Denk from his new recording of Ligeti etudes and a Beethoven sonata. So how obsessive do you need to be in order to learn a piece like we just heard?


DENK: Well, I'll tell you, there was a period, I don't know if it was a fun period or a miserable period, and last - maybe a year and a half ago where I was sitting in my apartment for four weeks. I was brewing two pots of coffee a day, and I was practicing maybe seven hours, you know, with a little break in the middle for a walk or some sort of entertainment.

But I did nothing else and put in - I mean, the amount of fingering, the amount of sort of mental focus, you know, and there's - Ligeti's deliberately written things that are going to screw with your mind in one way or another. And you have to develop new muscles, new kind of mental muscles, 'cause he's really fascinated with, you know, simultaneous different rhythmic groupings going on. So in a way, you have to divide your body and mind in two parts.

GROSS: I'm just trying to think about what the sheet music must look like for this. You know, I'm one of the many people that played piano or got piano lessons in elementary school and junior high and then gave it up and so on. So I have like a child's understanding of, like, sheet music. And you show me something really complicated, like this would look, and I would just have no idea what any of it meant, even though I can read simple music, because it gets so complicated.

I mean, how do you even figure out how much of a beat each note gets when things are so fast, and there's so many notes crowded into each measure? Does that sound like an incredibly stupid thing to ask? I'm sorry, But I really do have like a child's understanding of all of this.

DENK: It's not a stupid thing to ask and actually because it happened that I was following along with the score when we were editing together the record. And I often had trouble finding myself on the musical score, where I was. So somehow I was able to play it, but I wasn't able to follow the music at the same time, if that makes any sense.

The scores do tend to look, some of them especially, look a little like undifferentiated, like, streams of data, you know, like you'd imagine a programming code would look. And it takes a little bit of practice to, you know, pick out the important one. It's sort of like reading the matrix or something from - you know, you have to know what he's after.

And then once you kind of discover the principle behind the etude, the musical score will look a little more commonsensical, but it takes a little while, especially, for example, the first one, "Desordre," where he splits the sort of bar line between the left and right hand, it begins to split like there was a seismic shift, and it was like a crack splitting between the two bar lines.

And then you have to make all sorts of decisions of how you're going to think of the rhythm because Ligeti was obsessed with, like, not really writing in bars or meters but the constantly shifting sense of what the meter is, you know, the pulse. Not the pulse, the pulse is fixed, but the meter is shifting.

DAVIES: Pianist Jeremy Denk speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Denk was recently a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry interview recorded last year with classical pianist Jeremy Denk. He was just granted a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called genius award.

GROSS: So, we've heard some of the Ligeti that you play. Let's hear some of the Beethoven. Let me start by asking you why you've grouped these two composers together. What commonality do you find in them?

DENK: There's a lot of different commonalities. One thing is that late Beethoven was so insane in many ways that those - some elements of the last pieces, the whole 19th century couldn't really deal with. And I think only in the mid-20th century do people begin to sort of take up the weird mania of late Beethoven and use it for further explorations.

And I think in some ways the Ligeti etudes can sound like sequels to some of the weirdest moments in late Beethoven, and Ligeti is really obsessed, as I said, with like chaos theory and fractals and these things that are infinitely complex. And almost every one of the etudes is kind of like a little visit to infinity of one kind or another.

And the last Beethoven sonata seems to me one of the most profound sort of musical journeys to infinity ever made. The whole piece seems to want to bring us from sort of a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless. So that's kind of the connection between Beethoven's sort of vast infinity and Ligeti's bite-sized bits of infinity.

GROSS: And on a more prosaic level, I think a comparison is that both the Ligeti that we've heard and the Beethoven we're about to hear seem very obsessive about, you know, repeating a certain theme or a pattern in a very tumultuous and demanding way.

DENK: Yeah. Beethoven obsesses about this three-note idea in the first movement, and it becomes kind of a - kind of what they call kind of a fixed obsession, like fixed way

GROSS: An idee fixe?

DENK: Idee fixe, yeah, yeah. And he's so interested in his last works in sort of concision and how much can be said and how little. So this whole first movement is just on those three notes.

GROSS: So let's hear an excerpt of that first movement.


GROSS: So that's my guest Jeremy Denk playing an excerpt of Beethoven's Sonata No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 111 from his new album of music by Ligeti and Beethoven. I have to say listening to that reminds me really of mind on a very bad day, where, you know, like you're just totally obsessed with something, and it won't stop, and just as you think it stops, it's, like, back again.

DENK: That's true.


GROSS: GROSS: But it's really just so commanding. You have such an incredible commanding presence at the piano. And no matter how fast and tumultuous the playing is, I feel like every note is so crisp, so delineated, so, like, clearly delineated.

DENK: Oh, that's nice. That's - I hope so. Yeah, that's - in this movement especially, there's a sense that, you know, you really want to pound out the idea with kind of steely fingers. You know, you really want to hear each note as it kind of obsessively climbs in these kind of fugal passages.

GROSS: You recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the difference - about recording.

DENK: Yeah.

GROSS: And how if you're a classical musician now, and you're making a record, you're not doing it to make money because the odds are against you.

DENK: Yes.

GROSS: You are probably not going to make any money, but you'll be able to sell it at concerts. And you talk about how difficult it is to record a piano and record it well. What are some of the problems of recording a piano compared to other instruments?

DENK: I was kind of under-educated about, you know, the real, like, nuances of mic placement, but the piano is always decaying, right, so that you always have the beginning of the note, and you have the attack, and then you have this sort of ephemeral singing remainder that comes off of it. And the balance between those two elements is really delicate.

And depending on where you put the mics, the piano can sound completely different, all right? And you can capture more bass or more treble. So it's like this really chameleonic situation. And that's a whole other, like, layer of relativism in making a record that's amazing. You're like this is the way I play this piece, but then depending on where he puts the mics, you know, your piece sounds completely different.

GROSS: How willing are you to use digital technology to fix things, to change the length of a pause, to change the beat of something, to edit in different parts of different performances to make a complete performance?

DENK: I'm disturbingly willing to do these things.


DENK: But up to a point. And Adam, my producer, is - you know, always the best thing is to have it just as it is, you know, some great take. And occasionally you feel you really must monkey with a little bit of timing or something that wasn't quite exactly right or something. But the best thing is to have the take there and to just put it out.

You know, and a lot of the 111's second movement, for example, is in one continuous take because of the nature of the music. You want it to speak naturally, as you would when you were playing. But sometimes it can be fun when you want to bring out - you know, there are certain times that I forgot to bring out one voice or another, and you're able to voice up one note or another in some of these Ligeti etudes, for example, to reveal some dirty laundry.


DENK: So, you know, it can be fun in a little way.

GROSS: Well, Jeremy Denk, thank you so much for talking with us.

DENK: Thanks, my pleasure.

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