The Story of Mark Birnbaum, Part 2 (see Part 1 here)
I know what you are asking because everyone I know has asked the same things, as I have. I have now spent a total of about six hours in conversation with Mark.
Would you like everything you believe about people brought into question? Do you feel you are a good judge of people? If so, do not come with me into the world of Mark Birnbaum. To be with Mark Birnbaum is challenging and disturbing. To spend time with him will impose a shift in thinking. There is just no way around it.
On my first meeting (Part 1 of this story), I tactfully asked Mark about his background. He was immediately forthcoming. The biggest surprises were his educational achievements. I asked for a follow up interview, anywhere there was a piano. He generously offered to meet in his home. I recorded our entire 3 hour conversation together and video recorded some of his piano playing.
I met him at his home on East 48th Street Sunday afternoon at 2:30 PM. He was on time, waiting for me in the lobby of the doorman building he lives in. My first thoughts were to corroborate his claims and ask about this in as tactful a manner as possible. The New York Times had already done a story on Mark, so I asked if they had questioned his claims. He said absolutely - they had done their homework. When I suggested that I might also want to see evidence, he readily agreed. He volunteered that people can say anything and that I should ask for such things.
He showed me his college diplomas, the purchase contract and proprietary lease for his apartment and his birth certificate showing his birth in Switzerland in 1952 (where he lived for just three years before returning with his parents home to their home in Brooklyn, New York). He allowed me to photograph any documents that I wanted to. I asked direct questions, he gave direct answers. It was refreshing.
In 1974, Mark graduated Summa Cum Laude from Brooklyn College. He then applied and was admitted to Columbia University, where he obtained a masters degree in one year. He spent about an year and a half in Paris and on his return, he reentered Columbia, where he received his PhD in music composition in 1982. Mark also successfully made all the hurdles for admission to Juilliard, one of the most difficult schools in the world to gain entry to. However, at the time of his admission, there was only one vacancy in musical composition and he was not chosen.
I spent much of our time together multi-tasking. As I listened closely and we conversed, I simultaneously searched for evidence of lunacy or some serious psychological disorder. I could find none. His home, which I expected to be a shrine to squalor, befitting the artist eccentric, was nothing of the sort. It was extremely tidy and minimalistic, with his Yamaha baby grand piano as centerpiece.
Not yet knowing about his work and career as a musical performer, I was very curious about his source of income. I was surprised that he owned his own apartment. He had already told me, "I know how to play the game." I was to learn that he had.
Mark grew up in Brooklyn. His interest in music started at an early age with a focus on piano. He was for a time a rock and roll drummer and played in a band. His interest in musical genres spans the gamut - classical, rock, blues, jazz, country and the area of his particular interest, ragtime.
Mark has worked successfully as a performer and teacher in his adult life. He had the typical assortment of odd jobs prior to his days as a student, when he worked as a bartender. From 1989 to 1993, he was musical host on the Joe Franklin TV show. At Manhattan's 13th Street Theater, he had a weekly show "Hot Piano! Ragtime Blues and Jazz" - five months running. From that time, Mark has worked in music as performer and teacher. See his other credits, music, videos, and bio at his website here.
I was rapidly losing ground on my initial assessment of this man. At times I felt my sanity was coming into question, not his. Here was a man who was cordial, brilliant, insightful, generous of spirit, gentle, open, talented, articulate and well educated. Apart from his manner of dress, he was normal by any definition. But to spend substantial time with a man dressed this way while having an extraordinary conversation was very disorienting - I was suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Mark also gone through many incarnations regarding look, as can be seen in my collage of photos from his archives. I asked if he expected that he may reinvent his dress some day, and he said most likely.
We shared so many insights and connections, it was eerie. We had numerous instances of nearly finishing each others sentences. I also share one of Mark's passions, that of walking the streets of New York City. It is one of the most important parts of living in this city to me. You may see Mark around town walking in his very slow, deliberate, signature cadence. Mark sees his long daily walks as "integral to his playing, teaching and composing, a tie to New York’s street vibe.” From the New York Times:
"The street is my inspiration, and if you want to remain immersed in New York you have to walk its streets. I’m a New York street guy, and Manhattan has the best energy in the world.”
Mr. Birnbaum said he realized the musical importance of the daily walk after meeting the immortal ivory tickler Vladimir Horowitz who told him, “Make sure you walk 40 blocks a day, because if you don’t walk, your fingers don’t run.”
Mark told me of his influences. One of his life mentors is Bill Schimmel, whom I saw perform, met and wrote a story about (see The Redeemer here). Mark cited several other major influences - Vladimir Horowitz (whom he met) and Artur Rubenstein.
Ah, you still have the lingering question - "Why does he dress that way?" Let Mark respond:
Perhaps my purpose in dressing the way I do is to spread joy (cheer people
up). When someone sees or says something negative---they are not seeing me...
Or speaking about me. Perhaps I am a mirror or magnifying glass (like Socrates).
I asked Mark if he was gay. He said no. I asked about his ability to find a partner, dressed as he is:
My manner of dress is a plus in meeting a partner as far as I know.
It is a screening process; if someone doesn't "get it" (like it or appreciate
it), she would not appreciate me where it counts.
Mark goes on to say:
This dress code is an outer manifestation of who I am: an apostle of
freedom, Zen and Socratic/Orwellian thought).
Dress Code helps me practice piano, listen, study Zen and the Art of War and
is done out of self-respect. I respect others as such.
I dress this way every day-- once I am up, whether I am going out in an
hour, later that day, or (very rarely) staying in. When I had a cold months
ago and didn't go out one day. I dressed the same way.
More a uniform than a costume.
People see what they like (about themselves) or see what they don't. It's less about me than them.
Some see rock n roll: Elton John, David Bowie, Aerosmith or Kiss--the '70's.
Some see religious significance, spirituality, Shamanism or royalty.
Some think I am a pimp.
Some don't see at all.
I never explain it much; it would be like explaining jazz.
One has to experience it, be with it.
And....People hear what they see; everyone has their own window.
I know - you're not quite satisfied. But then this is New York City where there are not only many wonderful and miraculous things, but there are many puzzles and enigmas too. It's a place where we expect the unexpected. Isn't that why you're here?
Thanks, Dr. Mark Birnbaum, for a look inside your window...
Note: From a recent email conversation with Mark on June 21, 2011:
Fabulous article keeps getting better!
Yes, I walk to the village and back.
When we met on Houston St, that's often as far south as I go.
Bill Schimmel says hello and loves your blog,-calling it the best! ... (he) considers your article on me the next best thing to being in the NY Times, and that it is the best blog he has seen anywhere.
I agree with him.
I'll see you soon---on one of our walks.
View Mark's Youtube channel, Flickr photostream, and website here.
Other stories from Abandon All Preconceived Notions series: Gaby Lampkey, Jenn Kabacinski, Driss Aqil
Other Interesting Individuals: Ferris Butler, Professor Robert Gurland, Susan Goren, Creative Expert Criminal Suspect, Misfits, Jim Vehap, Walid Soroor, Flamboyant, Street Revival, André, Dave, Reverend Billy, Narcissism Gone Wild, Spike