That Iron String: The tortured piano world viewed from within

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and a 17-year veteran of publisher McGraw-Hill. He now lives in Bordeaux and has written for the International New York Times,  American Spectator, Open Letters Monthly, International Piano, Classical Source and Clavier Companion. He is a frequent contributor to Facts and Arts. 24.07.2015

The unhappy life of the classical pianist is rarely featured in modern novels.  I’ve always found this odd. The inherent drama of a career soloist should be raw meat for the writer. Paranoia is mixed with high art, loneliness is punctuated by standing ovations, memory lapses strike terror in the heart of the player, young geniuses pop up in unexpected places, rivalries turn vicious. 

Piano competitions bring out the best – and the worst – of the breed. One prominent competition juror had to call the police recently when she received death threats from a disappointed competitor. “Now they stab in the front,” a pianist friend tells me.

Maybe one in a thousand well-trained pianists actually make a living at it. Thousands more are being trained in conservatories in Asia, Europe and the U.S. and will soon flood the market. No one is really prepared for this super-glut.

New York pianist/writer Jack Kohl has lived the life of piano competitions, PhD music studies, performance, music direction and ultimate disillusionment – driving him to become a novelist. He covers most of the above and more in his novel That Iron String (Pauktaug Press). It is not a memoir but a complex work of fiction that is a thriller cum psychological study but in the process lays out the music business with all its flaws. 

A seasoned professional, Kohl draws heavily on his personal experience in the practice room and the concert hall to enrich his story, set in the fictional town of Pauktaug on the north shore of Long Island, near New York. Two pianistically gifted cousins play their way through the story, offering detailed digressions into the pain and pleasure of practice, performance and competitions.

I know of no other recent novel that gets to grips so well with the contradictions and heartache of a professional piano career. Kohl’s complex plot weaves realities with abstract philosophical discussions explaining the coming death of traditional repertoire, which he calls Music (with a capital M).

He is powerful in his vivid descriptions of the uncritical concert-going public. “Bending, stuffing, folding and rolling themselves in seats – like eggs being rolled back into places in their cartons – were thousands of people gathered for an altogether sanctioned and esteemed activity.”

With heavy symbolism, Kohl puts the music world in a funeral home setting, and he finds many overlaps. Says his narrator: “I have seen snorers, seat shifters and whisperers in both venues (concerts and funerals), yet almost no one challenges the assumption that the subject of the main venue is to be deferred to at all costs.”

“I was always pleased to think that I was part of a business with such a powerful, implicit code – part of two such businesses, actually.”

And his rather dark view of performance emerges in a scene in a concert hall: “…(T)he opening work was a new one for full orchestra – of the sort that would be tolerated and executed brilliantly by orchestra and conductor, then recorded, feted in a few magazines and journals, and then never played again.”

Kohl turns Music (meaning traditional repertoire performed to note-perfect perfection in conservatories and competitions) into a monster that must be eliminated. He acknowledges a debt of inspiration to Herman Melville’s classic story of Moby Dick, the great white whale that needed to be killed for the good of mankind. 

Describing the Music monster, he writes of one of the cousins completing his required pieces in a competition. “He strutted off the stage and was called back. He was called back twice in fact, and Music took the bows with him and then labored to the wings – its old, fat wheezing self, still adulated and confirmed by a hundred fools in the early morning quiet if the preliminaries.”

He calls the note-perfect craze a place for the “re-creative artist”. I asked him where he thought we were headed. “I think the re-creative artist will eventually have to remerge as a creative artist,” he said. “We cannot forever be textual slaves sand hope to remain relevant in a glutted market.” 

Kohl’s portrait of one rather creepy high-level teacher, whom he calls Neil Silver, is devastating. The teacher offers the narrator tickets to one of his concerto performances but this was not a magnanimous gesture, for “he was not offering the tickets, he was selling them”.

Others who have read this book have wondered who the model for Silver might be. One New York music professor guesses a Juilliard teacher of some repute but no one is naming names. I asked Kohl who inspired him.  Silver, he said, “is a composite of many professors of music I have had who also had careers in the performance field. I was able to transcribe almost all his dialogue from life throughout the book.” 

Kohl’s writing is workmanlike but shows promise. Writerly touches emerge unexpectedly. Riding the notorious Long Island Railroad back from New York, he peers out the window. “As I considered my own transparent reflection in the car’s window – as other rail lines and the backs of houses and schools seemed to pass across the features of my face – I thought of my cousin’s return.”

Or describing the state line separating Connecticut and New York State, he sees “the state line that nebulously ripples across the Sound”.

Jack Kohl has constructed a multilevel, sometimes difficult, story that music-lovers and professional musicians will find much to agree with. I asked him to explain in more detail how he came to his darkish themes, how he combines his music and writing careers, and what he hoped to accomplish in this impressive philosophical work.




Question: At what age did you start piano?

Answer: I was eight years old -- with just a mother's hope that I might like piano lessons and learn to play for my own pleasure. Several years later I heard and saw performances on the musical stage in New York, and that led to a love of Franz Liszt. I resolved to see how far I could push myself with my playing.


Q. Where did you go for advanced training?

A. In 1985 I auditioned for the Juilliard Pre-College Division. I did not get in but one of the teachers on the jury, Leonard Eisner, a professor in the Juilliard Pre-College Division, showed some sympathy for me and agreed to prepare me for trying the next year. That time I made it into the program and spent two years there.


Q. By now you were finished with high school?

A. I was just graduating and made the audition rounds of Curtis and Juilliard. I did not get in, and so I chose to see my way through the entire four-year Bachelor's of Music Program in Piano Performance at Queens College/CUNY -- in part because they permitted me to continue my piano work with Eisner. In 1991, Eisner passed away, and I moved on to study with Gerald Robbins.


Q. Robbins was one of the Cliburn laureates in 1969 and continues to perform, I believe?

A. Yes, he ranks almost at the level of the supernatural, with Lisztian skills and a Lisztian level of mind. Yet he must struggle for intermittent engagements. He epitomizes the tragedy of the truly gifted pianist thrust into a market that cannot really support the selling of his wares.


Q. Where did you earn your advanced degree?

A. I took my master's and doctorate in piano performance at the University of South Carolina. They offered me an assistantship in accompaniment, which allowed my skills as a sight-reader and musical generalist to flourish. By the time I finished at age 30, the notion of only pursuing a solo classical career no longer seemed like the only satisfying goal of life.


Q. Did you focus on any role model as a pianist?

A. As a teenager I was especially enthralled – and still am -- by the swashbuckling virtuosity and artistry of André Watts. He was truly the piano hero of my teen years. I recall the thrill of seeing his 25th anniversary of his debut concerto program at Avery Fisher Hall in 1988.


Q. All good pianists have an urge to perform. How do you satisfy yours?

A. I play a lot New York’s in musical theater, and work as an accompanist and collaborative player in all sort of venues. I have musically directed countless standard shows at the regional level. "The Boy from Oz" and "Starting Here, Starting Now" stand out in my mind as favorites. But I also still play in the classical field. I will be doing a four-hand Beethoven program with Gerald Robbins in Oyster Bay (Long Island) at a Beethoven Festival September 13.


Q. How happy are you with your career?

A. I enjoy my role as a generalist. I still play for a living, whereas most of my peers, if they don't succeed in their exact original aims, go into other professions.


Q. Other professions -- like Robbins in teaching, or others out there selling insurance?

A. Yes, and the reason is obvious. The market simply cannot bear the volume of players it attracts. The warnings have been given for decades. I remember reading them in David Dubal's Reflections from The Keyboard in the 1980s. I too ignored the warnings. 


Q. Aren’t we witnessing a lemming-like stampede? Aren’t Asian conservatories training thousands of talented youngsters, most of them aiming for careers in the U.S. and Europe?

A. Yes, the throngs of pianists keep coming, and throngs of really good ones. I do not believe the next generation will be the last in classical music. The music will survive because of its greatness. But the medium of the large concert put in place with, say, Mendelssohn and Liszt -- and the re-creative artist as window on the imagined intentions of the composers -- perhaps must, perhaps should, play itself out.


Q. Look ahead 30 or 40 years. What might replace current classical music performance traditions?

A. I think the re-creative artist will eventually have to remerge as a creative artist. We cannot forever be textual slaves and hope to remain relevant in a glutted market. I don't know where the new music will come from. But I know it will emerge and join a place with the canon -- and it will be something that will be loved.


Q. Are young artists already starting to rebel?

A. Indeed. What young, thinking mind can long honor the mantras and standards that are put forth by the conservatory and university if the ideal of the re-creative artist is principally, if we are really honest, simply playing as cleanly as possible from a page of score written by someone centuries ago? Everyone attempts to cite all sorts of flaws to the present system - but this simple and monstrous flaw stares everyone in the face and no one speaks of it. It’s repetitive music-making.


Q. A teacher friend tells me one of his young Asian students working on the preludes and fugues of Bach expressed astonishment when told there are two complete books of the Well-Tempered Clavier waiting for him to learn. He had no idea.

A. The story of this kid doesn't surprise me at all. There are always thousands of dopes like that -- in any field. What is really surprising is that there are as many pianists out there in fact with the requisite culture awareness and imagination to know the full range of intellectual and emotional responsibilities of a re-creative artist. But, as I said, the market cannot support their numbers. I don't believe any of the composers that we celebrate in the canon would evaluate today's recital system as healthy. 


Q. Did you always see yourself as a writer/pianist? What drove you to be a writer – surely the loneliest of professions next to piano.

A. My drive to be a writer came from my steadily decreasing respect for myself as a re-creative artist as a pianist -- playing the text, note for note, of another creator wasn't enough for me. I felt I had limitations as a composer and improviser, so my instincts led me to the written word. I have never accepted the notion that words are not an expressive and intellectual match for music. I can say that years of practicing the piano make the solitude of writing seem rather easy.


Q. Have your years of work on That Iron String trilogy drawn you away from the piano? 

A. Not at all. The piano and my experience in music fueled every word, phrase, and page. I worked on the two in tandem, really. The real trouble -- the real years that are lost in conflicting labor -- go to the struggle of publishing anything outside of genre fiction.


Q. How does String fit in with your novelistic output? 

A. That Iron String is part of a trilogy of novels set on Long Island. One book, Locomotive, follows That Iron String chronologically. The other novel is called, You, Knighted States (I stole the title from a bit of marginalia that Charles Ives wrote on a score manuscript: "Written in these You, Knighted States") a nineteenth-century to early twentieth-century prequel to That Iron String. I also have written a memoir of my childhood, a book of Proustian length and density which I plan to revise one day. Right now I consider it retired, a work without opus number. 


Q. So, what led to String? 

A. The book first occurred to me in 2000, when I was playing a summer chamber music festival and was unhappy with the experience. The Music, I concluded, had seduced me into a market that did not need my wares -- or even the wares of my peers who were my superiors. Now I knew I had a bigger issue to address.


Q. To what extent is this novel autobiographical?

A. In terms of the history of my thoughts over many, many, years of practicing -- those thoughts often running parallel to the abstract ideas of Boston Gourd's during my darker musings. If I resemble anyone in terms of personal traits and history, it is Portsmouth Gourd, my narrator.


Q. Did you have a structure in mind?

A. I set my story to follow the track of Herman Melville’s Pequod in the oceans of the music industry, and challenged myself to address the actual practical and spiritual problems of a most dangerous institution, the whale equivalent in Moby Dick. I created a protagonist who does not hold back at all, or steer a neutral course, but who, Ahab-like, has as his object a mission colossal, one of revenge for the sake of his fellow man. 


Q. You seem to be taking on the impossible – great music as the great white whale.

A. I went for the jugular. I steered a course right for the usually spared yet singular malefactor at the root of it all -- The Music itself. Using the joyful medium of speculative fiction, I went after the deepest, most complicated issue about the re-creative artist, about which no one wishes to speak.


Q. This sounds complex. Sum up the plot in a few words.

A. I decided to create a pianist with the highest technical mastery, one who could be sure of his renderings nearly every times he plays. He prospers for a time. Then the market starts to weed him out in favor of the newer crop. Yet he is too idealistic and too self-reliant to blame his fellow man for his slipping career. Thus he can only demonize one thing for seducing him -- and so many other virtuosos into this field -- the Music itself.


Q. A dystopian situation with no solution?

A. Not at all. My protagonist's aim is to forgive, to pardon, even these human foibles of the present conservatory, competition, and concert circuit system. He really aims to address the darkest and most flawed part of the mission of the re-creative musical artist in our time.


Q. I was intrigued by the underlying subtheme of the funeral parlor and embalming room. How did this occur to you?

A.I remember as a student noticing that pianos looked like coffins, especially when their lids are propped open, suggesting caskets at an open-casket viewing. Later I noted that large arrangements of flowers were often placed at the edge of the stage. And I thought that all the Egyptian-like mummification that goes on in a funeral parlor would make an impression on my character Boston Gourd and that he would start to feel that he, too, was a kind of undertaker, constantly preparing corpses of a sort as he practiced and tried to add rouge to the cheeks of the figurative ‘dead bodies’ of the most hackneyed piano literature.


Q. Do feel like an outsider attacking the system out of frustration?

A. No. When I finished the book, I recalled Melville's remarks on the completion of Moby Dick -- he had written a novel of evil but he felt as spotless as the lamb. I too feel spotless as the lamb in telling my tale of the problems of the piano world. I am convinced that all thinking pianists and musicians in the re-creative field know the harpoon that my man throws is one that must be pitched.

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