Edmund Niemann, 1945-2016

Edmund Niemann, the pianist, has died. He was a member of Steve Reich and Musicians. The New York Times said, upon his debut in 1984, that “his playing was technically dazzling, his musicality unquestionable.”

I wrote this about Ed, who was my piano teacher when I was younger, thirteen months ago on Facebook:

In 1979 or 1980, when I was 12 or 13, I started taking piano lessons on the Upper West Side.

I rode the train from Chappaqua to Grand Central, and then took the Shuttle and the Broadway/7th Avenue line (I don’t know what it was called back then) up to 92nd and Broadway. The neighborhood was sketchy; looking back, I’m surprised my parents let me do this on my own.

My teacher was Ed Niemann. I had met him at music camp. He was a fantastic teacher and accomplished pianist (he was part of Steve Reich’s ensemble and is on the original recording of Music for 18 Musicians). He introduced me to the music of Stefan Wolpe, Milton Babbitt, and Laurie Anderson.

For a time, I wanted to be a pianist (I was in fact pretty bad), mostly, I think, because I was captivated by that neighborhood and what seemed like the fugitive glamor of the struggling artist in bohemia.

Anyway, today, heading to Brooklyn College on the 2 train, I ran into Ed. I hadn’t seen or been in touch with him in 30 years. He didn’t recognize me, but when I told him who I was, he remembered me and said, “You write things now, don’t you” (or something like that).

I’m not exactly living a life of fugitive glamor or struggling in bohemia, but it made me smile to think of the through line linking my life today to my fantasies back then.

As a teacher, Ed set high standards. I never lived up to them, but there were few teachers whom I wanted to please more. He had a ponytail then—we were just coming off the 1970s—which in my suburban, sheltered adolescence seemed somehow out of synch with those standards. I quickly learned that it wasn’t: a good life lesson about where authority truly lies and how it actually works.

Ed was wide-ranging in his tastes, segueing seamlessly from Bach to Bartok to Marvin Gaye. (He once loaned me his copy of What’s Going On? I don’t think I ever returned it.) That was another life lesson: attend to the work, ignore the larger social meanings and cultural trappings of “high” and “low,” “popular” and “serious.”

He taught me to listen to music, to look out for motifs and harmonic lines, to attend to unanticipated counterpoints, to hear echoes and comments both ironic and sad. I sometimes think I learned how to read music before I learned how to read texts. Not that I ever learned how to really read music: what Ed taught me was to listen and to look, that there was something there to be seen and heard, something there to be found.

Ed also, inadvertently, taught me my limits. As I said above, for a time, I thought about being a pianist. I never discussed this with Ed; I would have been too embarrassed. But seeing him play and watching what it took for him to play, I realized I could never do it. I didn’t have the talent. I didn’t have the will or the wherewithal. That was also important for me to learn.

Most of all, Ed instilled in me a love of music. He didn’t teach me that. He just gave it to me. A gift for which I will be forever grateful.

26 Comments

  1. phatkhat October 27, 2016 at 1:26 am | #

    Condolences on the loss of your friend and mentor. RIP Mr. Niemann.

  2. s. wallerstein October 27, 2016 at 7:18 am | #

    “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Nietzsche.

    My condolences…

  3. JWW October 27, 2016 at 8:13 am | #

    Off topic, Corey, but yesterday as I was reading this article in the New Yorker

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/rise-of-the-reactionary

    I was thinking to myself, “Wonder what Corey would have to say about this?”

  4. Roquentin October 27, 2016 at 11:42 am | #

    Condolences. I had a many music teachers over the years. My parents paid for all kinds of lessons for me from a very young age.

    The one I remember the most was this former 80s metal guy who taught me guitar. He was ridiculously good and had studied classical music in college. He was working for an insurance company at that point. He also had a kid. I’ll never forget how one day he point blank told me “I’ve tried to make money off of music every way I can imagine, and it just doesn’t work.” There was an underlying sense of defeat that went with it. If I learned a life lesson it from the experience it was that it doesn’t matter how good you are, the system isn’t set up to give you want you want. That pursuing a passion only works until people start demanding the bills get paid.

    He eventually refused to teach me any longer because “I sounded too much like him.” I had purchased this BC Rich Warlock, about as 80’s and as metal as you could get, and I had even had this little switch installed in it to boost the gain at different times as he had explained he used to. He had make take lessons from a former student of his after that, but I soon quit. I was more or less as good as he was and he had apparently told one of my friends who also took lessons “I don’t even know why he shows up here.” I played a ridiculous amount of guitar in high school. It’s kind of sad that I don’t anymore.

    I have no idea what became of him. It was more than a decade ago halfway across the country.

  5. JWW October 27, 2016 at 7:02 pm | #

    Earth to Corey…

    • Corey Robin October 27, 2016 at 7:28 pm | #

      I’m afraid that I don’t find Mark Lilla to be an informed or useful source on the topic of conservatism, reaction, or the right. I’ve said all I have to say about him.

  6. JWW October 28, 2016 at 8:16 am | #

    Hmmm, okay, fair enough… but just out of curiosity, do you agree with his thoughts on “immanent eschaton” being a conservative/reactionary boogeyman? I’d never heard of that before.

  7. JWW October 28, 2016 at 8:18 am | #
  8. jonnybutter October 28, 2016 at 10:02 am | #

    Hey, the article is by Tannenhaus, not Lilla. Not that that makes it better. There’s nothing new in it, of course. What matters is not the content but..why now? A good question for Pravda watchers.

    _______________________

    This is a nice remembrance.

    I don’t know if it’s because you (Corey) studied music or not, but some of your writing is musical IMO, but not just in the way people usually mean when they say that (i.e. its being ‘lyrical’). Writing music is (among other things) an utterly rigorous way of being open to subtle connections between seemingly disparate things and forms, and that way of working would also describe some of your writing and theorizing. I guess it’s dialectical relationships, but that makes it sound too pat. That which gives your work richness also, I suppose, makes it more vulnerable to more/less deliberate ‘misinterpretation’ it seems, but..c’est la vie?

    I hope your teacher didn’t die at such a relatively young age from a broken heart. I don’t mean to wallow in boomer self-pity, but living through the change from 50s-70s USA to the Death Valley Days version (post Saint Ronnie) is just so very discouraging, and doubly so if you are a musician (I am). It’s a journey from the highest of hopes to almost no hope at all. The former period was about synthesis and all the fresh new forms and variety that come from that, whereas our post 80s period is about stasis, tedium, repetition – postmodernism; the late obsession with defining endless ‘sub-genres’ is a form of denial about the true state of american/anglo/euro so-called ‘popular’ music: it’s all boringly, depressingly similar, if you look at the actual content (chords, melodies).

    Oh well, maybe we have a burnt out case. Maybe it can’t get much worse and so will get better. Also, Roquentin’s teacher was right: it’s almost impossible to make a living – not a *good* living, just a living – as a musician in the US now. That wasn’t the case 35 years ago.

    • Graham Clark October 30, 2016 at 11:40 am | #

      I’d guess that Niemann’s metaphorical heart was doing fine. The classical (or “post-classical” or whatever) scene that grew out of the minimalism of Reich (and before him La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, et al.) doesn’t feel burned out. It may be getting there – John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” (2013) feels to me like the kind of thing that happens at a Culmination, both the music itself and its winning the Pulitzer – but it’s not there yet. (For now composer and critic Kyle Gann’s tone seems typical to me – annoyed that the kind of music he likes gets little attention or money, but no immediate anxiety about the possibility of a creative dead end: http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/)

      Incidentally, the current state of Anglo-Saxon popular music, where anxiety about stasis is, if not universal, at least widespread, but practitioners and listeners looking to contemporary American classical music for new ideas are comparatively rare – and as far as I can tell, nobody ever looks to contemporary continental European classical music, as the Beatles did 50 years ago – maybe shows the downside of Robin’s life lesson: ignore the larger social meanings and cultural trappings of “high” and “low,” “popular” and “serious” tends to become simply ignore the high and serious.

    • jonnybutter November 1, 2016 at 7:44 pm | #

      Earlier I only very sloppily skimmed and didn’t see that the Tannenhaus article is a book review. Duh. Sorry. My correct question should have been – why did Lilla publish ‘Shipwrecked Mind’ now?

  9. David EGan October 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm | #

    Corey, a loving evocation of teaching and being. To remember, as you have, fulfills your tutors promise, which is yours alone to share.

  10. Graham Clark October 30, 2016 at 11:07 am | #
  11. jonnybutter October 31, 2016 at 9:24 am | #

    I’d guess that Niemann’s metaphorical heart was doing fine. The classical (or “post-classical” or whatever) scene that grew out of the minimalism of Reich (and before him La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, et al.) doesn’t feel burned out.

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘it doesn’t feel burnt out’ but ‘it may be getting there’? I also didn’t know that there was widespread (if not universal) anxiety about the state of Anglo/American popular music. I mean, that there is anxiety was, in a sense, my point – it manifests in manic and endless delineation of putative sub-sub-sub-genres. But it’s not what I would call a knowing anxiety, because (for one thing) despite said manic subdivision, the content is all the same.

    It’s not a knowing anxiety because, as ever in the anglo world, it’s not music itself that people are interested in. Lyrics? yes; fashion poses? yes; social implications of fashion poses and lyrics? yes. But not music itself. We call Bob Dylan a ‘musician’, but the Nobel committee was more correct to call him an author. He’s a musician too, but not first. Note that I’m not saying that music with lyrics is bad. But music isn’t *about* lyrics.

    I of course don’t know how Niemann felt about his world. But it’s clear to me that in an industrial, radically instrumental culture like ours, art is depreciated (to use an up-to-date word), and the most ‘useless’ art of all is music. This isn’t new, but I no longer see much opposition. Maybe he found a way to not be depressed about it, but I haven’t.

    • Graham Clark November 1, 2016 at 10:19 am | #

      It’s not clear to me that art, per se, is particularly depreciated in our time, still less that such depreciation is a consequence of industrialization. During the industrial revolution(s), artists had greater prestige than at any other time in western history since at least the High Renaissance. It seems to me the two developments happened mostly in parallel: rising literacy made both industrialization and secularization possible, with the Romantic cult of the arts being a response to the latter. (In retrospect, I guess we can now pretty safely say it was an unsustainable response, with modernism representing the last ditch efforts, and postmodernism the final collapse – though, again, said collapse maybe simply puts the arts back into the equivocal position of the 18th, 17th, and later 16th centuries.)

      I would say one important trend today is the OVERVALUATION of undistinguished popular art – see the epidemic of columns explaining this year’s presidential election in terms of Parks & Recreation, Game of Thrones, and Hamilton (the greatest work of any kind of art that Michelle Obama has ever seen).

  12. jonnybutter November 1, 2016 at 1:58 pm | #

    I didn’t say, and didn’t mean to imply, that there was less art-stuff than before, or that art personalities (celebrities, basically) were fewer or less celebrated – they are of course more numerous. And that artists are more celebrated than is their art is kind of my point: the art itself, as something you do for the sake of it (or for the hell of it), is depreciated. It’s worth less, although I originally meant ‘depreciated’ in the software sense: features or support being phased out.

    Music, in our industrial culture, has to be *for* something – it has to make you shop faster, march better, more efficiently produce emotional-pavlovian responses (soundtracks to any hollywood movie), or act as a primitive vessel for chunks of words which support an imaginary ‘lifestyle’, so you can put yourself in a genre or subgenre. Find your own road – just so long as there’s a big enough market for it.

    Art that you make or experience just because it’s beautiful (in the broadest sense) was never valorized much here in the US, but up through mid 20th century it was least kind of neglected, often benignly. Now everything is on the road to ‘rationalization’, down to the fraction of a dollar. Everything that can’t get monetized gets phased out.

    I don’t understand your historical analysis. You call Romanticism et. al. a ‘cult of the arts’, but wasn’t it really a cult of the *artist*? I wouldn’t call high European art a ‘cult’. You don’t show how its unsustainability (or anything else) was inevitable. Meanwhile, as you do show, we now have a sort of knock-off cult of the artist, which is really a cult of celebrity.

    The replacement (or usurpation) of faith by art and science was a spiritual and/or cognative struggle, whereas the new medievalism we’re slouching towards now is all about late capitalism. Pretty different, I’d say.

    • Graham Clark November 1, 2016 at 5:08 pm | #

      – I don’t mean to denigrate Romantic high art with the word “cult.” But the Romantics did try to make art that would perform some of the functions previously performed by religion, and when an attempt at a new religion fails to survive for even 200 years, I submit that “cult” is the correct word.

      – I don’t think the Romantic cult was of the artist as opposed the arts. Looking at great paintings and sculptures, reading great literature and poetry, and listening to great music was supposed to be good for you, in approximately the same sense as religious rituals.

      – I didn’t try to show how the decline of Romanticism was inevitable, but if you asked me, I would say: when your ideal is art breaking free of arbitrary convention, then in retrospect it’s pretty obvious that what you get is more and more conventions broken until finally there are none remaining and there’s nowhere left to go except postmodernism. What concerns me more is that high art may be parasitic on religion: that as Christianity declined, so did the necessary incentive to keep up the high level of technique attained by Christian European high art – possibly repeating what possibly happened to Greek and Roman high art as the Olympian religion declined and/or was supplanted by Christianity.

      – I don’t think we today have merely a cult of celebrity. Two of the examples I mentioned suggest otherwise: People care more about Game of Thrones and Hamilton in aggregate than they do about any of the individual performers or the authors.

      – “Late capitalism” implies capitalism is almost over. I submit that this remains to be established.

  13. JWW November 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm | #

    Thanks for the link, Graham…

    “Political hope, whether it belongs to the workers of the twentieth century or to the precariat of the twenty-first, represents nothing more than the childish delusions of those demanding heaven on earth.”

    Man, that is a pessimistic vision… if only the rich and powerful were as pessimistic about politics!

    • Graham Clark November 1, 2016 at 5:12 pm | #

      The moderate intellectual’s job is to sadly and/or gravely explain that for pragmatic reasons the world should be ruled by exactly the people who currently ruled the world.

  14. jonnybutter November 1, 2016 at 5:50 pm | #

    Yes, interesting piece at the link. I like this from J. Purdy:

    Neoliberalism….is not so much an intellectual position but a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true and others were unspeakable. It’s not a doctrine but a limit on the vitality of political imagination.

    And the idea that liberals like Lilla work to keep civic life and politics stultifyingly boring and narrow is pertinent to all the art stuff we’ve been talking about above: boring shitty gray art is nothing to shrug about. It’s grotesque. It stinks to high heaven. And we are marinating in it – an art with a *very* narrow horizon, particularly in the music bidnis.

    I don’t want to say bad things about Minimalism in music because the qualities vary quite a bit. But boring repetitiveness is not unknown, and they fit in with some economic and emotional requisites.

  15. jonnybutter November 1, 2016 at 6:51 pm | #

    the Romantics did try to make art that would perform some of the functions previously performed by religion…[Art is] an attempt at a new religion [which has] fail[ed] to survive for even 200 years…

    I don’t think you can reasonably prove the first statement, and the second is supposed to be a rephrase of the first, but it’s a really quite *different* statement. This is rhetoric. The entire Romantic period cannot be reduced to Goethe and Faust (although I don’t know if that what you were thinking of).

    The bigger problem though is a subtle fallacy – the idea that supplanting religion with something else means that this second thing is like a religion. The implication is that religion is normative. Not a very modern, high euro art attitude. In fact, religion was not replaced so much as dethroned. Doesn’t mean art sat on the same throne.

    What concerns me more is that high art may be parasitic on religion: that as Christianity declined, so did the necessary incentive to keep up the high level of technique attained by Christian European high art…

    Hmm. I don’t know what you mean here, sorry. Interesting, but…?

    BTW, listening to great music and reading great literature *can* be good for you. Doesn’t make it a religion. Or a cult.

    when your ideal is art breaking free of arbitrary convention, then in retrospect it’s pretty obvious that what you get is more and more conventions broken until finally there are none remaining and there’s nowhere left to go except postmodernism.

    I’ve heard this argument from conservatives – the through-line from Romanticism to Modernism to dissolution (especially about music! The ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’ of M. Babbitt). There is even a ‘thoughtful conservative’ talking point along these lines. {I know because someone I know pretty well is a bell weather on this one – he would never have come up with it himself and he reads only certain kinds of journalism, so..gotta be).

    It’s way too simple to say that the ideal of Romanticism=>Modernism was merely ‘breaking free of arbitrary convention’. For one thing, convention isn’t typically completely (or even mostly) arbitrary. The art is in how you deal with conventions, and of course to do that well you have to know what they are (which takes technique, etc.).

    I think capitalism makes some degradations more/less inevitable, but I don’t see the inner nature of European high art itself as having the same or a similar effect. It’s the horror of capitalism, IMO.

    ‘Late Capitalism’ as I use it does not mean that we are near the end. I know it sounds like that, but that’s not how the term is commonly used, I don’t think. Others here please correct me if I’m out to lunch.

    Thanks for taking the time to argue with me.

    • Graham Clark November 1, 2016 at 8:26 pm | #

      The entire Romantic period cannot be reduced to Goethe and Faust (although I don’t know if that what you were thinking of).

      Whether Goethe and Faust even qualify as Romantic is controversial. Anyway, I wasn’t primarily thinking of him, though certainly his reception is relevant here – that is, how people read him later in the 19th century. (That is, again: Reading this is good for you. Reading this makes you a better person.) Likewise the reception of Ingres, Beethoven, and so on. As for the artists themselves, there’s the extreme of Wagner, who all-but-explicitly tried (with partial success) to make his operas and performances into religious rites (not bothering to codify a doctrine, skipping straight to the ceremonies). But the earliest clear case is probably Wordsworth, who tries to make the perception of nature, as mediated by poetic consciousness, provide consolation for suffering when religion no longer does.

      BTW, listening to great music and reading great literature *can* be good for you.

      True. But if you’re going to blame capitalism for convincing people otherwise, consider that today many dedicated anti-capitalists reject the claim that there’s any such thing as inherently great art, and regard that claim as a mechanism of oppression. (Yesterday I saw somebody who I greatly respect announce that she never wants to go to a museum to look at paintings of naked white ladies.)

      I’ve heard this argument from conservatives – the through-line from Romanticism to Modernism to dissolution (especially about music! The ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’ of M. Babbitt).

      Well, you seem to agree about the “dissolution” part. If anything, I have the impression that you find less to admire in music today than I do. And you seem to be using “postmodern” as a pejorative, which I’m not. I don’t think the fall of modernism and rise of postmodernism necessarily entails a decline in quality – though I do think it may coincide with a continual decline in technique that began, maybe, slightly before modernism (I would say around the second half of the 1880s).

      Late Capitalism’ as I use it does not mean that we are near the end. I know it sounds like that, but that’s not how the term is commonly used, I don’t think.

      The term is not commonly used to explicitly say we’re near the end. But I think wishful thinking to that effect is implicit in the term.

      Thanks for taking the time to argue with me.

      I thought this was more of a conversation than an argument, but either way, you’re welcome, and thank you for the same. I’m really enjoying this! (Robin – very sorry if this has been inappropriate use of your blog.)

    • Robert November 1, 2016 at 11:28 pm | #

      It’s “bell wether’, a castrated ram or goat who leads to slaughter his herd with the assistance of a bell around its neck.

    • Robert November 1, 2016 at 11:32 pm | #

      Handel’s Messiah was vaudeville fare.
      All the verbose academics heer should try the poet’s way- say in a few lines what Prof. Schmidlap needs 1500 words to get across.

  16. jonnybutter November 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm | #

    I don’t want to clog up Corey’s blog any further. Thanks!

  17. Thomas Dumm November 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm | #

    Thanks for that remembrance,Corey. It brought me back to my own misspent youth.

    I had a similarly charismatic piano teacher when I was ten years old, a Brazilian composer, conductor and pianist named Leo Pirrachi, who, for reasons too complicated to explain here, was a guest conductor for the Altoona Philharmonic when I was eight years old. He gave free group piano lessons to the choir boys of my church, Our Lady of Lourdes, in exchange for us singing some choral music he was writing. Within three weeks, I was the only one left, and he taught me weekly, for free (couldn’t have afforded to pay!), for two years, before he left to take over duties as the conductor for the Rome Opera. Wild, huh? He was old school — technique was all, and enforced with the whacks of a 12 inch ruler. Great guy. I had no idea he was so celebrated in Brazil until I was in my twenties.

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