2019-05-25 - Facts and Arts - Jack Kohl’s striking new collection on music and literature

By Michael Johnson
Original Review

In a rare combination of artistic talents, pianist Jack Kohl offers seven erudite essays on great classical music compositions and his favorite readings, merging both to make an exciting volume of fresh ideas. Bone over Ivory: Essays from a Standing Pianist (Pauktaug Press, New York) puts on display Kohl’s background as a classical pianist and his lifelong obsession with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along the way, we encounter Gershwin, Fitzgerald, Thoreau, Dickens, Beeethoven and Master Yoda of Star Wars fame, among others.

Kohl’s reach is reminiscent of the content and style of the late Charles Rosen, an accomplished pianist and prolific writer whose often scholarly works remain popular among musicians and the literati.

Kohl, an author with two novels behind him, opens with a strong piece on Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, “At the Temple Door” that combines his witty metaphors with well-grounded music fundamentals.

He writes:

“… I will only pause at the doors of the temple to make my case as to its personal influence. I cite only two complementary descending scales delivered in the opening bars: G-F-Eflat-D-C-Bflat-Aflat (bars 2-3); and G-Fsharp-Eflat-D-Csharp-Bflat-A (bars 5-6). Even one with rudimentary piano skills can test out these two scales for himself.” He calls this introduction “nothing less than a suggestive miracle”.

And to lead the reader into this musical discussion, he kicks off with an unexpected image: “Piano practice is like having a dog.” He calls practice a “compulsion” and wonders “how others live without the seeming obligation (of caring for a dog or hitting the keyboard for hours at a stretch).

His musings take him through Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, which he also performs to perfection, and to a personal reflection on Emerson’s famous and once-controversial “Divinity School Address” from 1838.

A favorite of this reviewer is his “Wrong Notes: Principle over Sequence” in which he excuses wrong notes that can distress pianists who play in public. In a passage guaranteed to ease pianists’ anxiety, he suggests that a fluff that becomes a fixation during a recital is actually a healthy sign. The pianist “should have welcomed the preoccupation as a reinforcement for non-sequential suspicions”. He asks, “Does the superficial pianist respect too much the score, the superficial and ostensible sequence, respect too much the figurative map of the stars as they appear from Earth as fixed constellations? I think yes.”

His Liszt essay brings his thoughts to a striking conclusion:

“The Liszt Sonata in B Minor is the only source of guidance from tuitional means that has reconciled me soundly to an end – the dissolution as necessary, in manner beautiful, part of the process of gaining comprehensive and ultimate humility.”

Kohl’s admirers include established figures in music and scholarship, including author and critic Kyle Gann, New York critic and pedagogue David Dubal and Emerson specialist Philip F. Gura. (Disclaimer: Kohl is a personal friend and occasional lunch companion when I am working and living in Boston.)

This volume commits to paper a glimpse of Kohl’s restless mind, and does so in concise, if sometimes complex, exposition. One has the impression this is an opening act, with more to come.

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