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Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

The pianists's latest album features some of the most difficult etudes ever written for solo piano by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. "Ligeti took the piano to places it had never been before," he says," and makes demands of the pianist and the mind that had never been made before."


Other segments from the episode on September 27, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 27, 2013: Interview with Vijay Iyer; Interview with Jeremy Denk; Review of the film "Don Jon."


September 27, 2013

Guests: Vijay Iyer - Jeremy Denk

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. On today's show we feature interviews with two pianists just awarded MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called genius award: classical pianist and writer Jeremy Denk and jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who we hear from first.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Iyer was cited by the MacArthur Foundation for creating a unique voice while reaffirming the place of music not just as entertainment but as an essential part of human society. As the son of immigrants from India, pianist Vijay Iyer didn't see a place for himself in jazz early on, but he found one. He was voted Pianist of the Year for the second time in a row this year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

DAVIES: His 2009 his album "Historicity" topped many critics' best of the year lists, including Ben Ratliff of The New York Times. His latest album, "Holding it Down: The Veterans Dreams Project," is a collaboration with poet Mike Ladd, drawn from the experiences of American veterans of color in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terry talked with Iyer in 2010, when his album "Solo" was released.

It includes re-workings of a Michael Jackson song, a tribute to Sun Ra, music inspired by physics - he has a master's degree in physics - and this version of Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."


GROSS: That's Vijay Iyer from his album called "Solo." Vijay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to cover this Ellington piece?

VIJAY IYER: Well, you know that song has been kind of haunting me for about 20 years, at least. I think I first found it in a piano book that belonged to my sister that was sort of an anthology of blues, boogie-woogie and stride piano. You know, my sister was the one who actually had formal piano lessons and so I used to kind of raid her piano bench for whatever I could find there.

GROSS: "Black and Tan Fantasy" always sounds like a funeral march to me and I really like the marchiness that you get from it.


IYER: Well, you know, I really went into the Harlem stride tradition, and I'm very influenced by Monk in that regard. He is somebody who pushed the envelope with that language, you know, in terms really straddling this divide between on the one hand keeping this very buoyant pulse and on the other hand being very expressive and free and somehow embodying all of that in one person.

And, you know, the stride tradition where you're really doing one thing with your left hand and the other thing with your right and they're very independent, you know.

GROSS: You're such a good pianist, it kind of amazes me that you didn't set out to be a professional musician. And correct me if I have any of this wrong, you got your undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale, then you went to the University of California at Berkeley and got your master's in physics?

IYER: That's correct.

GROSS: And your Ph.D. in...

IYER: It was called technology in the arts.

GROSS: So what were you expecting to do with those degrees?

IYER: During my undergraduate years, I was really interested in literature and in philosophy and in psychology and history. But I was also very much groomed for the sciences, as were many - I'd say many people from my community.

You know, I am the son of immigrants from India. My father was a scientist. So that was in a way just what I fell into, and also it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and prudent thing to do. And you know with immigrant cultures, stability is really the first priority, and you can't blame them for that.

GROSS: I'm wondering if what you learned in math and physics applies at all to your music. And I'm thinking, I guess, specifically of a piece of yours that I'm about to play called "Patterns," which is - it's pattern music. It's not really about melody. It's about, you know, repeating and slightly shifting patterns.

IYER: Hmm.

GROSS: And that - it seems like there are or may be connections to math in that.

IYER: Well, you know, I'd say the connection to mathematics is through musical traditions. You know, I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage. You know, as I said, my parents are from India, and I've spent a good deal of time studying on my own terms and sort of coming to terms with especially Carnatic music, the South Indian classical music. You know and, particularly, I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music, and so, I work with a lot of these elements in my music.

And you know, that, the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but it's in a way that is - it's an aesthetic, you know? It's not just about calculation for its own sake or something. It's actually something that pervades not just the music but the visual art and the culture of South India.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Patterns," and then we'll talk more about the Indian traditional music that has influenced you. And this is Vijay Iyer from his new album "Solo." It's his composition called "Patterns."


GROSS: That's an excerpt of the Vijay Iyer's composition "Patterns" from his new album "Solo." How did you first hear jazz because, you know, growing up in the '80s or - '80s?

IYER: Yeah, '70s and '80s.

GROSS: Seventies and '80s, yeah, I mean jazz was no longer like a popular music that was all over the radio unless you sought it out. You weren't going to likely hear it on jukeboxes or, you know, so how did you hear it?

IYER: That's true. You know, it was hard to come by and it's even harder still to come by nowadays than it was then. There were instances of it on TV. I remember Charles Kuralt used to have Billy Taylor kind of...

GROSS: Right.

IYER: a segment on "Sunday Morning."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

IYER: And I remember seeing the Modern Jazz Quartet on there. And I also remember seeing Dizzy Gillespie on "Sesame Street" when I was really little. I remember seeing John Blake, the violinist, on "Mr. Rogers" when I was a kid.


GROSS: Well, and that made an impression on you? That made you think wow, this is interesting?

IYER: I think, you know, it was, and especially because I remember seeing John Blake playing violin and I was playing violin and so I remember thinking wow, you can do that on violin too? And, of course, the whole soundtrack to a lot of those shows like you know, Toots Thielemans played the theme to "Sesame Street" and, you know, Roger Callaway was the pianist on "Mr. Rogers." So like there were gigs for pretty serious jazz artists on TV.


IYER: But then also, I have to say that when I was in junior high and high school, that was around the time of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Okay.


IYER: So that's hit, you know, when I was probably in eighth grade or something and, you know, that was like the kind of bizarre intervention from a jazz musician into popular culture that that had implications, you know, so that was my first exposure to Herbie Hancock.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in 2010 with Vijay Iyer. He was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2010 interview with jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award.

GROSS: So if your parents were part of the first sizable wave of people from India to emigrate to the United States, that makes you part of the first sizable group of Indian-Americans born here. So, as somebody who is Indian-American in a relatively small community, did you pick up that people were thinking well, like, who are you to be playing this music? Like, what's your connection to it?

IYER: Well, you know, I think it's a process that reveals more and more about the listener. And, you know, we're in a very strange period, particularly in terms of how we deal with what it means to be American. And in a way, it's sort of like we're hitting this identity crisis or something. And I say we because I feel 100 percent American.

I was born and raised here. I grew up completely immersed in American culture, you know: the music, the junk food, the movies and so on. I mean I grew up with "Star Wars" and, you know, Michael Jackson and by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and by Andrew Hill and by my heritage as an Indian-American and by a lot of things.

GROSS: Your previous album, "Historicity," did so well critically. It was album of the year in Village Voice Critics' Poll, in the Jazz Times Critics' Poll. New Times music critic Ben Ratliff named it his album of the year. And I want play something from that album and I'm going to play the - your version of the Leonard Bernstein song "Somewhere," with the lyric that we won't hear by Stephen Sondheim.


GROSS: And this is, of course, from "West Side Story." And you - this is like this love song sung between Tony and Maria and they're...


GROSS: Romeo and Juliet types who aren't supposed to be together but they want to be together, and they're singing that like somewhere there's a place for us, and you just - your version just kind of erupts in the middle and in these like pounding descending phrases that are - they're great. But I mean they're almost violent.


GROSS: I mean it's just so not in keeping with this like romantic, oh someday we'll find that place for us. So talk little bit about like reinterpreting this song.

IYER: Well, you know, I kind of was interested in almost intervening on that song and creating a sort of alternate reading of it that presents some reality that's different from its original context, which, of course, is really part of the jazz tradition, I mean the towering example being Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" or...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

IYER: know, or Monk playing "I Should Care" or Ahmad Jamal playing "But Not For Me" or all these, you know, where the sort of classic approaches to a pre-existing song where you somehow transform it into something that's more about you and less about the song...


IYER: ...while still somehow retaining elements of the song. So that was basically my approach.

GROSS: So here's Vijay Iyer from his album "Historicity," which was released last year. And this is Bernstein's "Somewhere."


GROSS: That's an excerpt of Vijay Iyer's reinterpretation of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." That's really great. I love those percussive descending lines that you do on that.

IYER: Thank you.

GROSS: Now your first instrument was violin. You started taking violin lessons when you were six, is it?

IYER: Three actually.

GROSS: Three? Yikes.


IYER: Yes.

GROSS: That's really Suzuki method, isn't it?

IYER: That what is was, indeed.

GROSS: Oh was it really?


IYER: Yeah. And so I mean the benefit of that was that my ear was trained first and from very early.

GROSS: Is that the method where they train your ear before they give you the instrument?

IYER: Well, before they give you notation they train you by ear, you know.

GROSS: I see.

IYER: So you kind of learn more by imitating the teacher. And...

GROSS: You have these little toy violins or something if you're three?

IYER: Oh yeah, you have a - I think I started on a 1/16th size or something. You know my daughter is going through the same exact thing right now, which has been interesting. And so I'm kind of reliving a lot of those things.


IYER: So it's hilarious and charming.

GROSS: What did you get her, a violin too?

IYER: Oh yeah. She's - it was her choice, in fact, so there must be something about it that appeals to little ones. So...

GROSS: So what point did you realize that violin wasn't your love and your true love was piano?

IYER: Well, you know, they kind of proceeded - they happened at the same time. I took violin lessons until I was 18. And so it wasn't like I ever said oh, you know, violin is not my true love or is my true love.


IYER: It was actually just something that I stuck with for quite a while until I was into college - in my sophomore year, I think, was the last year of my violin lessons. And the only reason I stopped was because I couldn't keep it up to the level that I wanted to and continue with my studies in physics at the same time.

So, but piano - so the way it worked was because I had this early training by ear, it meant that I could actually kind of transfer that skill in some, you know, limited way to another instrument. And piano was around because my sister was taking lessons, and so I just started messing around on it and exploring and figuring things out little by little.

GROSS: Well, I've chosen the music that we have heard so far and sometimes to prove what a generous person I am, at the end of an interview I'll let the performer choose a record.


GROSS: So, is there a track you'd like to end with?

IYER: Hmm, well, you know, I had fun making the last track on the album, which is...

GROSS: That's the one dedicated to Sun Ra.

IYER: That's right. It's basically a blues that's in his honor. You know, a lot of people think about Sun Ra as this theatrical and very...

GROSS: Kind of crazy? Yeah.


IYER: ...elusive, kind of playful, I'd say, imaginative space cadet, literally...


IYER: the sense, you know, because all this stuff - he kind of conjured his own mythology about being from Saturn and so forth, and I love that side of him. But, at the same time, I feel like sometimes people forget that he could play some piano.

And some of the most influential albums for me are the solo piano albums that he made. There's one called "Monorails and Satellites" and there are a couple from the '70s that were on Paul Bley's label. And, you know, I think it's amazing.

And in a way I think it's so mysterious and so profound that people haven't really dealt with it yet. He was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up. So this is kind of my homage to Sun Ra, the pianist.

GROSS: And it's called "One For Blount" because his birth name is Sunny Blount.

IYER: Yes.

GROSS: Well, Vijay Iyer, thank you so much. A pleasure to talk with you.

IYER: Thank you. It's been an honor to be on the show.

GROSS: Thank you.


GROSS: Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer's spoke with Terry Gross in 2010. Iyer was recently granted a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award. His latest album in collaboration with poet Mike Ladd is "Holding it Down: The Veterans Dreams Project." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


JEREMY DENK: (Instrumental)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: Classical pianist Jeremy Denk makes a practice of tackling devilishly difficult material. He's one of the 24 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation so-called genius award. And in a sweet stroke of timing, Jeremy Denk has a brand-new recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," which we're listening to now. It's one of the most challenging works in the classical piano repertoire.

In his essay, "Why I Hate the Goldberg's," Denk writes, the piece is 80 minutes long and mostly in G major. Just think about that for a minute. Then, without a bathroom break, think very similar thoughts for 79 more minutes, winding around the same basic themes, and then you'll have some idea of what it's like to experience - you might even say survive - "The Goldbergs."

Terry interviewed Denk last year about his album "Ligeti/Beethoven," which features a Beethoven sonata and a series of etudes composed by Gyorgy Ligeti. An etude is a composition that's meant to build technical skills. In the liner notes, Denk says quote, "these etudes celebrate the genre's perversity and repurposes it into wild unheard of art. Drawing inspiration from the etudes most unpromising attributes: Obsession, monotony, ad infinitum repetition, mathematical dryness, Ligeti fiercely redeems them." Denk describes some of Ligeti's writings as fiendish. You'll hear why in the crashing descending lines that conclude the sixth etude.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Jeremy Denk, welcome to FRESH AIR. So that incredible descending climax that we just heard, it sounds so physical to me. It sounds like the force of gravity expressed through music.

JEREMY DENK: That's good.


DENK: Mm-hmm. That's...

GROSS: I just feel this pull, you know, and then this thud at the end. It almost reminds me, I don't usually use analogies like this, but when I throw trash down the trash chute, and you hear it kind of falling down, and then it, you know, hits the ground, it's kind of what it - it's like so physical. Can you talk about just the experience of playing that?

DENK: I mean, it's sort of like trickling down the drain of tonality or something like that.


DENK: And the idea of the piece, I guess, is something Ligeti was obsessed with late in this life, was this lamenting, descending chromatic idea, you know, and descending chromatic lines like are - have been used in music for centuries to, you know, designate sadness. And there's this way in which that idea just becomes so obsessive and destructive and takes over and becomes - transforms from something beautiful into something sort of horrible and all-consuming. That's the idea, anyway.


DENK: It's also very physically difficult, unfortunately, because it's so - he wants ever louder and ever more complicated sounds towards the end, and you're just trying to get this devilish feeling.

GROSS: What are these Ligeti etudes that you've just recorded intended to do? Are they intended to be exercises, performance pieces, both?

DENK: Well, they're kind of like explorations of new frontiers, I guess. It's interesting because Ligeti took the piano to places it had never been before and makes demands of the pianist and the mind that had never in a way been made before. But all of it is derived from ideas from earlier piano etudes and his love of the great piano repertoire.

So it's an interesting mix of things. Ligeti was obsessed with chaos theory and fractals, and so part of the etudes is extrapolating these sort of mathematical ideas into music; infinite complexities and things that begin simply and then with one small branching or one little instability suddenly become incredibly complex and wild.

GROSS: So I want to play another excerpt from one of these etudes, and this is from "Vertige," which means vertiginous, dizzy.

DENK: Uh-huh, yeah, this is another chromatic nightmare, just like - yeah.

GROSS: You call this one the most fiendish of them all.

DENK: Yes.


DENK: Well, what he's done is pretty despicable at the beginning.


DENK: He writes a set of - any pianist will tell you. He writes a set of chromatic scales, you know, very fast, and he writes over them legato. And he also writes - so you have to play them super-connected, right, so there's no spaces between the notes. And then he keeps adding different chromatic scales at different time intervals.

So you end up playing like - it's like a million exercises in one thing, you know, like every kind of thirds, fourths, all kind of intervals. Like every little finger-twister you can think of happens in the first page. And then it's all supposed to be incredibly soft, connected, and then he writes - the real mean thing is he writes no pedal...


DENK: ...which is like kind of this - you know, you can't even rely on the usual pianist's crutch for doing these sorts of things. It may be that I relied every so often on a little, hidden pedal in this opening passage to help, even though Ligeti told me not to.

GROSS: So I think what I'd like to do is play that opening passage and then kind of skip ahead a little bit to some of the more bass clef madness that sets in afterwards.

DENK: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: So let's hear the very opening.

DENK: Great.


GROSS: So that's the opening that you were describing. I'm going to skip ahead a little bit. We're continuing to hear those trebly notes, but they're starting to get louder, and then the left hand starts in and starts rumbling away in opposition. Can you tell us what's going on in that passage?

DENK: Well, that's a wonderful moment, and I guess, you know, Ligeti's written this series of kind of overlapping chromatic scales coming down. And while the scales are coming down, the pianist is creeping ever farther up into the stratosphere of the instrument, right, and you have this great sense of sort of falling and rising at the same time.

And, right? And then as it gets softer and softer, hopefully, and then you get to the very top of the keyboard, and at that moment the bass comes in. And that's such a classic Ligeti thing to go from the very highest register to the very lowest, to kind of span the mind gap between the top and the bottom of the keyboard.

It's a very Beethoven thing, too, actually, to explore these registral extremes, but it's very wicked sounding and very disturbing when the bass comes in.

GROSS: It is disturbing. It's very invasive.


DENK: Yes, it is, and very difficult, also. He writes some very nasty things there for the pianist to do.

GROSS: OK, so this is Jeremy Denk from his new album "Ligeti/Beethoven," and here's more from the Ligeti etude "Vertige."


GROSS: That's Jeremy Denk from his new recording of Ligeti etudes and a Beethoven sonata. So how obsessive do you need to be in order to learn a piece like we just heard?


DENK: Well, I'll tell you, there was a period, I don't know if it was a fun period or a miserable period, and last - maybe a year and a half ago where I was sitting in my apartment for four weeks. I was brewing two pots of coffee a day, and I was practicing maybe seven hours, you know, with a little break in the middle for a walk or some sort of entertainment.

But I did nothing else and put in - I mean, the amount of fingering, the amount of sort of mental focus, you know, and there's - Ligeti's deliberately written things that are going to screw with your mind in one way or another. And you have to develop new muscles, new kind of mental muscles, 'cause he's really fascinated with, you know, simultaneous different rhythmic groupings going on. So in a way, you have to divide your body and mind in two parts.

GROSS: I'm just trying to think about what the sheet music must look like for this. You know, I'm one of the many people that played piano or got piano lessons in elementary school and junior high and then gave it up and so on. So I have like a child's understanding of, like, sheet music. And you show me something really complicated, like this would look, and I would just have no idea what any of it meant, even though I can read simple music, because it gets so complicated.

I mean, how do you even figure out how much of a beat each note gets when things are so fast, and there's so many notes crowded into each measure? Does that sound like an incredibly stupid thing to ask? I'm sorry, But I really do have like a child's understanding of all of this.

DENK: It's not a stupid thing to ask and actually because it happened that I was following along with the score when we were editing together the record. And I often had trouble finding myself on the musical score, where I was. So somehow I was able to play it, but I wasn't able to follow the music at the same time, if that makes any sense.

The scores do tend to look, some of them especially, look a little like undifferentiated, like, streams of data, you know, like you'd imagine a programming code would look. And it takes a little bit of practice to, you know, pick out the important one. It's sort of like reading the matrix or something from - you know, you have to know what he's after.

And then once you kind of discover the principle behind the etude, the musical score will look a little more commonsensical, but it takes a little while, especially, for example, the first one, "Desordre," where he splits the sort of bar line between the left and right hand, it begins to split like there was a seismic shift, and it was like a crack splitting between the two bar lines.

And then you have to make all sorts of decisions of how you're going to think of the rhythm because Ligeti was obsessed with, like, not really writing in bars or meters but the constantly shifting sense of what the meter is, you know, the pulse. Not the pulse, the pulse is fixed, but the meter is shifting.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Pianist Jeremy Denk speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Denk was recently a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry interview recorded last year with classical pianist Jeremy Denk. He was just granted a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called genius award.

GROSS: So, we've heard some of the Ligeti that you play. Let's hear some of the Beethoven. Let me start by asking you why you've grouped these two composers together. What commonality do you find in them?

DENK: There's a lot of different commonalities. One thing is that late Beethoven was so insane in many ways that those - some elements of the last pieces, the whole 19th century couldn't really deal with. And I think only in the mid-20th century do people begin to sort of take up the weird mania of late Beethoven and use it for further explorations.

And I think in some ways the Ligeti etudes can sound like sequels to some of the weirdest moments in late Beethoven, and Ligeti is really obsessed, as I said, with like chaos theory and fractals and these things that are infinitely complex. And almost every one of the etudes is kind of like a little visit to infinity of one kind or another.

And the last Beethoven sonata seems to me one of the most profound sort of musical journeys to infinity ever made. The whole piece seems to want to bring us from sort of a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless. So that's kind of the connection between Beethoven's sort of vast infinity and Ligeti's bite-sized bits of infinity.

GROSS: And on a more prosaic level, I think a comparison is that both the Ligeti that we've heard and the Beethoven we're about to hear seem very obsessive about, you know, repeating a certain theme or a pattern in a very tumultuous and demanding way.

DENK: Yeah. Beethoven obsesses about this three-note idea in the first movement, and it becomes kind of a - kind of what they call kind of a fixed obsession, like fixed way

GROSS: An idee fixe?

DENK: Idee fixe, yeah, yeah. And he's so interested in his last works in sort of concision and how much can be said and how little. So this whole first movement is just on those three notes.

GROSS: So let's hear an excerpt of that first movement.


GROSS: So that's my guest Jeremy Denk playing an excerpt of Beethoven's Sonata No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 111 from his new album of music by Ligeti and Beethoven. I have to say listening to that reminds me really of mind on a very bad day, where, you know, like you're just totally obsessed with something, and it won't stop, and just as you think it stops, it's, like, back again.

DENK: That's true.


GROSS: GROSS: But it's really just so commanding. You have such an incredible commanding presence at the piano. And no matter how fast and tumultuous the playing is, I feel like every note is so crisp, so delineated, so, like, clearly delineated.

DENK: Oh, that's nice. That's - I hope so. Yeah, that's - in this movement especially, there's a sense that, you know, you really want to pound out the idea with kind of steely fingers. You know, you really want to hear each note as it kind of obsessively climbs in these kind of fugal passages.

GROSS: You recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the difference - about recording.

DENK: Yeah.

GROSS: And how if you're a classical musician now, and you're making a record, you're not doing it to make money because the odds are against you.

DENK: Yes.

GROSS: You are probably not going to make any money, but you'll be able to sell it at concerts. And you talk about how difficult it is to record a piano and record it well. What are some of the problems of recording a piano compared to other instruments?

DENK: I was kind of under-educated about, you know, the real, like, nuances of mic placement, but the piano is always decaying, right, so that you always have the beginning of the note, and you have the attack, and then you have this sort of ephemeral singing remainder that comes off of it. And the balance between those two elements is really delicate.

And depending on where you put the mics, the piano can sound completely different, all right? And you can capture more bass or more treble. So it's like this really chameleonic situation. And that's a whole other, like, layer of relativism in making a record that's amazing. You're like this is the way I play this piece, but then depending on where he puts the mics, you know, your piece sounds completely different.

GROSS: How willing are you to use digital technology to fix things, to change the length of a pause, to change the beat of something, to edit in different parts of different performances to make a complete performance?

DENK: I'm disturbingly willing to do these things.


DENK: But up to a point. And Adam, my producer, is - you know, always the best thing is to have it just as it is, you know, some great take. And occasionally you feel you really must monkey with a little bit of timing or something that wasn't quite exactly right or something. But the best thing is to have the take there and to just put it out.

You know, and a lot of the 111's second movement, for example, is in one continuous take because of the nature of the music. You want it to speak naturally, as you would when you were playing. But sometimes it can be fun when you want to bring out - you know, there are certain times that I forgot to bring out one voice or another, and you're able to voice up one note or another in some of these Ligeti etudes, for example, to reveal some dirty laundry.


DENK: So, you know, it can be fun in a little way.

GROSS: Well, Jeremy Denk, thank you so much for talking with us.

DENK: Thanks, my pleasure.

DAVIES: Jeremy Denk speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Denk was recently awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. He has a new recording of Bach's Goldberg variations. Coming up next...


JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) There's only a few things I really care about in life - my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls. And my porn.

GROSS: In a moment, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Don Jon," written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The 32-year-old actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his directorial debut with the comedy "Don Jon," in which he plays a man with an addiction to Internet porn. He also wrote the film, which costars Scarlett Johansson as the woman who tries to help him kick the habit. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the last decade, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and he's been so successful it's easy to forget he came of age in the '90s sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun." The guy has comedy chops, and he's exercising them again in a smart new movie he wrote and directed called "Don Jon."

He plays a prolific seducer named Jon Martello. Don Jon is the nickname his pals gave him in the movie's obvious nod to Dons Juan and Giovanni. Those literary namesakes end up in hell, but for this Jon the hell is during sex. He has regular one-night stands, but he's miserable. In voiceover he complains at length about the missionary position.

He hates having to look at women's faces. He can't, he says, lose himself. So while his conquests slumber, he turns on his computer and watches porn. "Don Jon" is a sex comedy - an inventive and rambunctious one. It's in the syncopated style of "(500) Days of Summer," which Gordon-Levitt starred in, but it's funnier and more far-reaching.

Its theme is absolutely serious. Jon's porn addiction - I'll spare you the dirty details - isn't just a quirk, it's an outgrowth of the fact that he can't truly be with a woman. Maybe it's not hell, but it's emotional purgatory. Perhaps his ticket to a new life will be Scarlett Johansson as a woman named Barbara Sugarman. She's what his buddies call a dime - 10 out of 10.

At a club, she dances close but won't go home with him. She won't even give him her name, so he plays detective and finds her and asks her to lunch at an outdoor cafe.


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) How'd you get my Facebook?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Oh, came right to it.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) Yeah.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) I just looked up your name.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) I didn't tell you my name.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Well, obviously you did 'cause I looked it up.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) No, I definitely did not tell you my name.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Yeah, you did.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) I think I would remember that.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Well, no offense, but you were pretty wasted the other night. I mean...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as waitress) Can I get you guys some drinks?

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) I mean so was I.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) Yeah. A diet Coke, please.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Yeah, a Coke.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as waitress) Coke and a diet Coke. I'll be right back to take your order.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) All right. I had a few drinks the other night so I may not have remembered telling you my first name, but I definitely did not tell you my last name.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) I'm telling you...

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) Don't lie to me.


JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) Look, you don't know me so I'm going to let you off the hook this time, but trust me, in the future you'll be much happier if you always tell me the truth.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Wait, wait, wait. I'll be happier?

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) What? You don't think I can make you happy if I wanted to?

EDELSTEIN: Johansson is so fast she's dizzying. She detonates every Jersey-girl diphthong. When Barbara finally gives in to Don Jon, she plays the long game, molding her man, ordering him to go back to college to rise above the, quote, service class. But alas, he can't quit his porn habit, and when Barbara discovers it, she's repulsed. It's not just that she thinks it's for losers. It stands for a string on him she can't pull.

Based on zero inside knowledge, I'm guessing the cast of "Don Jon" was happy on the set. You can tell. Happy actors like to surprise and delight their fellow actors, and themselves. Julianne Moore plays the woman in Jon's college class who sobs outside class over some hidden woe and then settles into her seat and babbles with embarrassing intimacy. It's a rare chance for Moore to merge her gifts for deadpan motormouth comedy and teary drama, and she's wonderful.

Tony Danza and Glenne Headly get a great rhythm going as Jon's parents. There's a lifetime of sitcom precision - and heart - in what Danza does. Rob Brown of "Treme" gives a lift to his scenes as Jon's romantic adviser, and Brie Larson has a sly cameo as Jon's sister, whose eyes are riveted to her smartphone but who turns out to have peripheral vision.

"Don Jon" has one subversive touch. Jon is a Catholic; he even recites the Hail Mary prayer when he's pumping iron. Every Sunday he goes to Mass with his family and takes confession, where he's absolved for his sex-related sins. But when he fights that addiction, when he changes his behavior, he's upset when there's no change in the number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers the priest commands him to say.

Gordon-Levitt seems to be suggesting that Jon's weekly confession was like his other addiction - mechanical, empty - and that sex and religious rituals have no meaning when your eyes and heart are closed. Needless to say, "Don Jon" the movie is wide-eyed and openhearted.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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