"The piano is expected to be as full and self-sufficient as an orchestra," writes renowned pianist Jeremy Denk in his memoir "Every Good Boy Does Fine." Two hands and 88 keys are the pianist's only tools. Balancing the question of which hand should play which key is sometimes just "a logistical question," akin to deciding "which parent is able to pick up the kids from soccer practice."
Sometimes, though, "the logistics become poetry," creating flashes of transcendence.
This charming book explores how Denk became a master poet of music. At its heart, the memoir is about not the growth of the pianist but growth of the person, growth due in part to lessons his teachers shared with him from the time he started playing the piano through his graduate training at Juilliard. When the author recounts powerful moments (such as a time his music coach hugged him following rehearsal, giving him the acceptance and pride his own father had never provided), he writes with both great emotion and restraint.
One of Denk's teachers introduced him to an idea that powers not only his music but also his writing: an understanding that metaphors make art understandable and immediate. Sometimes the author tells personal stories from his youth in order to explain musical ideas. At other times, he uses musical conceits to animate larger human experiences.
In his book's first section, Denk states that harmony is all about desire, about the "complicated sensations of motion, eloquent tensions and releases" that happen when one chord seeks to resolve into the next. When he reaches the final moment in a piece, Denk holds the chords "in order to hear and really feel the resolution." The piece ends; both the musician and audience are spent. He cheekily concludes, "I hope I don't need to explain the intended entendres."
This memoir is structured as carefully as a sonata. Following the harmony section comes a melody section. Melody is both "a noun and a verb," Denk explains, "a being and a becoming."
The noun-like quality of stability is developed through repetition, creating a sense of coming home. Sometimes, though, the melody lurches forward with the goal of reshaping and redefining itself. This relationship between stasis and change, between comfort and adventure, determines where the melody winds up. Denk shows how that same tension applies to his personal life, twisting between desires for steadiness and new experiences.
The book's final section about rhythm explores the paradoxical nature of strict form in music. First, the author skewers one of his teachers by saying his advice "resembled directions that came with your IKEA furniture."
Denk insists that mathematical precision should never be the goal: "If you play metronomically 'right,' it is musically wrong." Eventually, he realizes that rules can also paradoxically expose an opportunity for freedom. When musicians play attentively, rules define their path, even as unavoidable and almost invisible transgressions introduce a larger kind of musicality. Human imperfection, he concludes, is at the core of artistic perfection.
Hannah Joyner is an independent historian and freelance book critic in Washington, D.C. She talks about books and reading on her YouTube channel Hannah's Books.
Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons
By: Jeremy Denk.
Publisher: Random House, 384 pages, $28.