February 13, 2024


Two mornings ago I woke up in an absurdly cozy room, all quilt and nook and alcove. Snow was sort of aimlessly wandering around the air outside. I faced a daunting to-do list:

1. Futile nine hundredth attempt to master, once and for all, the impossible passages in Ades’ Lieux Retrouves. (Somewhat urgent, as the concert is that day.)

2. Make progress on my libretto, possibly the first and last opera ever written about musical analysis. (Hilariously urgent).

3. Practice the Bartok Sonata, the Liszt Dante Sonata, etc. etc. Revisit the fundamental laws of piano playing.

4. Continue to develop script for video liner notes about the Goldberg Variations, avoiding the terrible pitfalls of pretension and boredom and gosh-golly oversimplification.

5. Annoy Steven Isserlis.

There are high-priority items on this list. But as anyone who has come into contact with Steven will I’m sure attest, the last item is the easiest, and the most fun. I made it my first order of business; annoying one’s colleagues is an important part of any profound musical relationship. (Longtime readers may remember this.)

As it happens, the place where Steven and I were staying is hosted by a lovely generous woman named Doris who, as I learned from a previous stay, makes incredibly weak coffee. You can sort of infer the weakness of the coffee from the calmness and coziness of the cottage she runs. It’s part of the whole gestalt of the place. Knowing this crucial piece of information, I brought my own kettle and cone and filters and a small Ziploc bag of ground beans. How else is one to withstand Oberlin in early February, at the epicenter of winter?

I brought just enough beans for one person (myself) to make it through two mornings. Let me make this absolutely clear: I could have brought more, but I did not. Now cut, after ablutions, and me padding down two flights of creaky stairs in stocking feet, to a scene where Steven and I are sitting across from each other at a big wooden table. My kettle is humming away behind me. I am slowly then pouring hot water over my beans while Doris brews Steven some of her trademark brew.

Probably you don’t even need me to tell you how this turns out. I couldn’t have really planned it better. I lift my cup to my lips, it’s quite delicious, I smack my lips in appreciation. Meanwhile Steven is taking his first sip of Doris’ coffee. The look on his face: a sculpted masterpiece of resentment. My ongoing cries of pleasure. Steven’s whispered hisses. My giggles. Doris coming in to offer Steven more coffee. Mmm, I say, marvelous coffee, downing the last of my mug.

It was musical, predestined, collaborative, part of an endless series of irritations I have visited upon Steven over time, like Bach’s explorations of all the iterations of harmony and counterpoint.

What’s so satisfying about Steven is that once he grabs hold of some injustice, he gnaws on it for days, months, years. He mentioned my coffee behavior to everyone we met later that day, professors who don’t care, random staff, outreach coordinators, page-turners, whatever and whoever, he wanted everyone to know. But the wonderful thing is, I think all of them, having met Steven, understood exactly why I did it, and why I’d do it (with love in my heart) again and again and again.