Robert Beattie in conversation with pianist and author Jack Kohl
Jack Kohl is a pianist and writer from the north shore of Long Island, New York. In 2019 he published a series of essays, Bone over Ivory: Essays from a Standing Pianist. In 2021 he follows this up with a new series of essays, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist. He has also published three novels (‘The Pauktaug Trilogy’), the first of which, That Iron String, explores a special kind of madness in the world of a concert pianist. I spoke to him about his training as a pianist, how he made the transition from being a pianist to becoming an author and about his books.
Robert Beattie: Can you tell us about your background and training as a concert pianist and how you made the transition to become an author?
Jack Kohl: I studied at the Pre-College Division of the Julliard School and completed a Bachelors in piano performance at Queens College/City University of New York, and a Master’s and Doctorate in piano performance from the University of South Carolina. I always identified myself as much as a writer as a pianist, and I wrote my first novel long before completing my doctorate in piano, but that first book still remains in manuscript. After taking my doctorate, I hoped to secure an academic position at a university or conservatory, but I gave up on that quickly after finding it very hard to secure interviews. I have therefore spent a large part of my professional life working in theatre and cabaret productions where my sight-reading skills always served me well. I am an inveterate journal keeper, and like my great hero Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have spent time indexing these journals. Many of the journal entries are about music and playing the piano; many others are about life outside of music. But they can all be seen to overlap when one flips back and forth between the scribbled pages – there one hopes the ‘golden brothers’ sometimes join hands, as Mr. Emerson observes. All of the playing jobs I was doing evaporated as a result of public venues being closed down because of the current public health crisis. When this happened I went back into the journals this year especially, as these provided a quarry of material from which I could draw on to address the present.
RB: In your first collection of essays, Bone over Ivory, you wrote two fascinating essays on Liszt and Ives. What attracts you to these composers and can you tell us about some of the other essays in the collection?
JK: I see Liszt’s Piano Sonata and Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata as very closely related, given the way they treat the evolution of motivic material – but also because Liszt has always seemed to me a sort of Transcendentalist, a religio-literary-philosopher in only mild disguise. I first became aware of the Liszt Sonata in my early teens through a recording of the work by Agustin Anievas, and ever since that time I have been fascinated by this great work and have performed it on a number of occasions. Ives’s ‘Concord’ draws on extra-musical material in many respects, in particular the great American writers associated with Transcendentalism, such as Emerson and Thoreau. I also closely relate to these writers. Bone over Ivory is at last a sort of autobiography of my inner life, exploring how practicing music has augmented my faith: a credo extremely close to the strains of early nineteenth-century philosophical Idealism.
Many of the essays in the collection use, as starting points, my reflections on my life as a freelancing pianist. When one plays in theatre pits and for auditions, one walks away from the job with all sorts of suggestions of metaphorical grist that last long after the sounds of the day are gone – as in the essay ‘Coleridgean Reason and the Hack Pianist’ in Bone over Ivory. I steal, plagiarise, from my own journal entries about these experiences when writing my essays. Some of the essays look at how very abstract ideas, such as how musical forms (sonata-form, for example) can import expectations into one’s extra-musical life, even in romantic relationships (as in ‘A Transcendentalist’s Love Story’); or on how to respond to ostensible errors in daily life by considering one’s pianistic experience of grappling with wrong notes, as in the essay ‘Wrong Notes: Principles over Sequence’ – which was my first effort to preach a sermon of philosophical Idealism, a faith in intuitive ideas that takes shape in great part from countless solitary hours in the gristmill of the practice room. I have long felt that the extra-musical and philosophical implications one gathers from the habit of practicing the piano are infinitely more significant than recreating – even at its highest level – its literature. The pianist who carries these implications into his silent (his non-playing) hours is left with a set of symbols that can rival, I think, the foundations that underpin even the soundest arguments of any early nineteenth-century philosophical Idealist. If a pianist’s trade does not serve him best in his silent hours, his hours when he stands apart from the piano, when he is a standing pianist, then his hours when he sits before the instrument count for very little at last. I wonder if consequences of the pandemic have not suggested this to others. We are besieged at this time with the mantra: ‘We are all in this together’. But the iron grist of philosophical Idealism hinted at by bouts of unremitting solitary practice at the piano – of applying oneself diligently to any resistant material in any honourable trade – will be that things are best when one is ‘in’ something completely alone. The pandemic has given thoughtful musicians a hidden gift: for a time, the threat has been removed of having to maintain the outer result of one’s trade for the pleasure of a mildly attentive mob, and one is free for a time to consider the silent and grander grist rendered to the solitary self, the soul and reach of which is always wider than that of any census. With concessions to his necessary search for bread and a roof, I submit that the pianist who thinks most highly of the piano’s grandest metaphorical implications will concede that this pandemic period is rich in proportion to the number of his cancelled gigs. I have always contended that it is when the piano’s keys push back after having been pushed down that the greatest effects are realised; then it is that the player’s skeleton becomes as a better iron frame than the piano’s. All external matter, all objects – whether in the forest or on a city street – then become as strings wired to the iron ribs surrounding the soundboard of his heart, and the more unlike the adjacent crossed strings that come his way, then the more vibratory the resonance of metaphor: yielding a poetry of insight richer than even music itself. My newest book of essays, completed under the virus siege, From the Windows of Diligence, expresses unremittingly this conviction.
RB: Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata is fascinating in the way in which it quotes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and recycles this motivic material in unusual and interesting ways. I note that in one of the essays you describe yourself as a hack pianist. Why do you describe yourself in these terms?
JK: I, too, am fascinated by Ives’s uses of the Beethoven motif. That droplet seems to characterise the ocean, doesn’t it? And let me say, too, that many of my friends have challenged me on the use of the word hack for myself! But I do not think the word a diatribe. I mean it in the sense that all ostensibly lowbrow work and extra-musical work can be the highest work of the pianist whose study of the piano has turned him principally into a Metaphor Hunter. I have taken on an enormous range of playing jobs since leaving college. I imagine many pianists and musicians find themselves in this position when they leave school. It is how I have made my living at times, but it has also created a body of material which I use – upon which I depend – in my writing. In regional theatre and cabaret settings, for example, there is a Dickensian panoply of characters who one can draw upon (without end!) when writing fiction – and also in expository writing, as in my essay ‘Backphrasing: Musical Theater and the Newtonian Clock’ in 2021’s new essay book.
RB: I can well imagine that. Your most recent series of essays is entitled, From the Windows of Diligence. Where does this phrase come from?
JK: The phrase is from the ‘Beauty’ chapter of Emerson’s 1836 book Nature. At that point, Emerson is exploring the notion that beauty in nature is best viewed obliquely, or through or across a sort of hurdle formed by the focus of our best labours. ‘Go forth to find it, and it is gone: ’t is only a mirage, as you look from the windows of diligence.’ Again, I invoke the word hack for myself as a pianist because I have found that even the most isolated and mundane physical drudgery of a practice day’s repetitions have shown me some of the greatest and most refractory windows of diligence, windows that have been my own personal skeleton key to the fighting faith of an early nineteenth-century code of philosophical Idealism. I remember looking over my shoulder through the small, square, ostensibly handicapping windows of countless practice rooms in my life and thinking that perhaps the better parade was passing me by outside. But if a thoughtful and driven young fellow enters the solitary practice room for years (a place where the sound of his own practicing isolates the singularity of his consciousness even further than the sealed window of the practice room), something much better than a virtuoso may emerge: rather a man with a faith in the illusory nature of matter and circumstances – a sort of Jedi rather than yet another inspired organ grinder’s monkey. I explore such grand implications of a pianist’s solitary hours in the essay ‘Practice Room’ in the book From the Windows of Diligence.
RB: The essays describe you going for runs around the Makamah Forest in Long Island. Can you describe how your feelings and observations during these runs link to music and the different keys which you describe in the essays?
JK: I decided to follow the at-first superficial analogy between running a circuit on a forest trail and practicing scales around the Circle of Fifths. I know from my years in the practice room that a pianist’s physical traversal of the Circle of Fifths creates a ritual of tactile and sonic wall-building between the consciousness and the vagaries of the illusory physical world outside the room. I thought that if I could transfer the Circle of Fifths ritual, if I could apply some of the metaphorical perceptions I have gathered each day from its physical implications of moving around the keyboard, to moving at a run around a circuit trail in a small forest in my home village – and to see if a similar sort of wall-building around the consciousness might appear there in the woods, too, and dissolve even Nature herself to a degree: to cross the window yet maintain my diligence on Nature’s side of the glass, if you will – to become as if a standing pianist, one practicing while running in the midst of living oaks rather than sitting before a single, dead, spruce soundboard; well, I thought that if I could do that, then I might have done something, at last.
I started by trying to forge a link between the tactile sense of playing in different keys on the piano keyboard with running over different areas of the Makamah Forest’s main loop trail. So, for example, the flattest area of the forest reminded me of the key of C-major – for it is in C-major that a pianist confronts all the metaphorical implications of an unremittingly smooth and level sense of plane. I thought I would import a different sense of Circle to the woods than one finds in The Magic Circle of Walden. But I sought to escape the circuit chain of my own metaphor in the end, as well.
RB: Thoreau’s reflections on nature and his environmentalism have become increasingly important given what is happening on climate change. You have also written three novels. Can you tell us about them?
JK: I cannot speak with any authority on Thoreau’s writing as applied to the collectivist’s cause of climate change. I only reference Thoreau and Emerson when I think of the supremacy of the individual, of the infinitude of the private man. As Mr. Emerson observes, a man reforms nothing unless he first reforms himself. Who knows this better than a pianist? For Mr. Liszt reminds us that we rediscover the foundations of our own technique every day. I had great fun, however, in exploring the mad possibilities of a boundless individualism in the first of the three Pauktaug novels: The Iron String. In that novel I drew from my own experience of competing in piano competitions. I imagined a protagonist with the degree of recreative infallibility to which Glenn Gould hints at the end of his interview with David Dubal in Dubal’s Reflections from the Keyboard and in the Tel Aviv story he relates to Jonathan Cott in Cott’s Conversations with Glenn Gould. I thought then to imagine that if a pianist of such infallible recreative powers had the public at his feet at first and yet then loses that public, though his powers of playing have not diminished, where would such a pianist, if unable to balance his philosophical sense of freedom and fate, place blame? Would he not form the conclusion, at last, that Music itself is the untrustworthy factor, the prevaricating and almost personifiably treacherous force, in his life? Would he not form a resolution to take a supernatural revenge on Music itself? May I risk saying that I took as much joy in writing that novel (That Iron String) as Melville may have taken in having Ahab spit his last breath at Leviathan.
RB: Jack, thank you very much for talking to us.
JK: Robert, the pleasure was mine. Thank you.
For more about Jack Kohl click here.