NPR : Fresh Air

Filed Under:

Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

Play associated audio

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Bill Cosby Removed From Documentary On Black Stuntmen

Bill Cosby was instrumental in opening the door for black stuntmen in Hollywood early in his career. He was to be a central figure in a new documentary about black stuntmen, but that has now changed. He will be mentioned, but his interviews have been pulled, following the latest revelations about the comedian, who admitted in court documents that he drugged women for sex.
NPR

Me-Tea-Morphosis: Tea Bags Get Second Life As Works Of Art

Artists are reinventing the humble tea bag, letting its contents and simple shape and color shine in beautiful, fragile art. Some are even farming out the tea drinking to get to the used bags.
NPR

After Hope For Early Release, Prisoners' Applications Stuck In Limbo

The Obama administration offered help to non-violent offenders like Dana Bowerman, but more than half the applications sent to the Clemency Project 2014 have not been processed.
NPR

Tech Experts Warn Of Artifical Intelligence Arms Race In Open Letter

More than 1,000 tech experts, scientists and researchers have signed on to a letter warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons. NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Stuart Russell, an artificial intelligence researcher and the force behind the open letter.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.