NEW YORK — On a recent Thursday afternoon, the pianist Jeremy Denk sat at the small kitchen table of his Manhattan apartment, seemingly searching for the right words.
We had been discussing the sheer athleticism — the gymnastic precision — required to play the most demanding works of the piano repertoire. Having mastered his share of violently percussive, finger-twistingly avant-garde music in recent years, Denk, 42, understands this athleticism as well as any pianist. It’s just that he’d like to find a better way of describing it.
“I always get so upset about sports and classical music comparisons,” he says. “Not that I dislike sports but because for me the essential thing about [classical music] is that it’s everything that sports could never be: freed from the constraint of winning or losing. What’s valuable in music is exactly the sort of vulnerability that is not an asset to a sports icon.”
It’s just a passing thought, but it’s also classic Denk: sharply observed, deftly expressed. The pianist, who will play Beethoven, Liszt, Bach, and Bartok on a Celebrity Series recital on March 2 in Jordan Hall, has seen his career blossom in recent years, and deservedly so. Local concertgoers may recall his two hugely ambitious Gardner Museum recitals offering intimate, probing tours of vast pianistic monuments (Ives’s “Concord” Sonata paired with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier”; Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations with Gyorgy Ligeti’s Etudes). Yet what’s particularly unusual about Denk’s ascent has been the way his public artistic identity — what one might call his brand as a performer — has been shaped by a kind of secret weapon: his gifts as a writer.
In 2005, Denk launched his own blog called Think Denk (www.jeremydenk.net/blog). Now highly visible, it was at first, he says, just “written for me and my friends,” a place for “weird intersections between life and practicing.” It quickly became home to witty and sometimes disarmingly personal reflections on the itinerant life of a concert pianist. He wrote about the sensual pull of Charleston, S.C., and about disagreements over a Medtner Piano Quintet in Camborne, England; he conducted a hilarious fake interview with Sarah Palin about a late-Beethoven sonata (“Trill, baby, trill”); and he disclosed with powerful candor the rapture of performing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”
When I stopped by the other day, Denk seemed less than keen to speak head-on about the intersection of his writing and performance. “If I think about it too much, it’s a little dangerous,” he says. He appeared more at ease talking about his literary loves and influences. The French critic Roland Barthes was on his mind, and he declared himself “almost disgracefully a fan of David Foster Wallace and Geoff Dyer, these very informal essayists in which profound topics” are treated with a very light touch.
One learns most about Denk, in a way, by simply reading the blog itself. One of his favorite stylistic moves is to toss high and low references into a single post (Goethe’s poetry and Taylor Lautner’s abs, for instance), or even into a single sentence (Ligeti’s notion of infinity and, naturally, the Big Gulp from 7-Eleven). That classical musicians can and do live in both worlds, seems to be part of the point. “I can’t stand the myth-making kind of writing about musicians and what they do,” he told me.
On occasion, the blog has gleefully skewered the rituals of concert life itself. One of his favorite targets is what he sees as the staid and musty prose style of too many program notes, which he accuses of essentially numbing readers’ sensibilities before they encounter a living, breathing work of art. Of the dreaded Program Note Style, he writes, “you know it when you read it, by a slight heartburn of the soul.”
But he has also used Think Denk as a venue for plumbing the details of the music he loves, or riffing on the more complex and sometimes elusive ways that art intersects with life, how the experience of listening to a Schubert recital, for instance, can open onto a world of personal memories and spark reflections on the illusions and elisions of intimacy. “These weirdnesses in Schubert,” he writes, “are not failures of decorum, like the revolutions of Beethoven. These are deliberate failures of communication, slackenings of the narrative, digressions for the sake of digressions; the priorities of the world are not its priorities.”
More recently, the blog posts have slowed as Denk’s music writing has been turning up in prominent national publications, and as he prepares for a new recording of the “Goldberg” Variations. In both of his pursuits, he remains a strikingly fresh, salutary voice. “We talk about everything else,” he says, “why not talk about the music we make?”