Behind the music. Jean-Philippe plays his orginal score in the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City.
Despair & Hope
AN INTERVIEW WITH CONTEMPORARY PIANIST JEAN-PHILIPPE RIO-PY
Jean-Philippe Rio-Py is a French pianist who draws from 21st-century pop and jazz idioms alongside the classical tradition of minimalism to craft his popular songs. He spoke to Steinway & Sons about his relationship with the piano as a self-taught musician, and about music and performance as salvos from the stress of modern living.
One thing that separates you from a lot of professional pianists is your path. How did you get started playing the piano and how did it become clear to you that this was what you wanted to do?
I was incredibly lucky to have a piano at home, and every time I felt like I needed an escape — I was living with my mother, who was a member of a secular cult — I would play piano. It was the only thing that was nice to me, the thing that I could really go and talk to. It was like my therapy.
Did you have any early training? How did you start playing the piano?
We had a piano at home, and apparently I played from the time I was two or three years old. I don't have a lot of memories from that, though. I do remember later going to the piano and trying to develop something, basically listening to the instrument, listening to things around me, the things I could hear, just playing and creating. I never thought, "I want to play Chopin." No, I just felt it.
To me, music is emotional, and it always has been from the beginning. It's hard to find an intellectual way to describe how I got started. It’s as though you asked me, "How did you start walking?" For me, playing the piano is like walking — I never think about it. I never think, "I'm going to put that note with that note."
You mentioned it was almost like therapy. Can you talk about that?
Of course. I have a very prominent case of OCD, which makes me count all the time: when I walk, when I talk. Even right now I'm counting. I always count, but not when I play the piano. Because I’ve been going to the piano from a very young age, I can hear in it a certain peace, even hope. Step by step, I would press the keys and try to understand. Step by step, fluid, and I could hear music floating in my mind. I composed something — I remember — I was maybe five, six, and I had this little melody. I was in school thinking of my music, and then when I was at home to my parents I could escape by recreating and replaying in my mind what I had written that day.
It's a very, very emotional thing. I tried to develop the technical side because I wanted to be good and have more flexibility — to be able to use the whole keyboard as an orchestra.
'For me, playing the piano is like walking — I never think about it.'
It Sounds Like A Lot Of It Was Very Intuitive In Terms Of Your Process and How You Were Drawn To It.
Absolutely. I've never been forced to go to the piano. They even took my piano away from me when I was 14 or 15 because I was playing too much, so they sold it. I need to play, even today, although now my life is much better. I always need to go and sit at the instrument. Every time I see a piano in a restaurant or in a bar or whatever, I always feel like I have to go and talk with it. It literally saved my life. For me, it's not just an instrument, but a person, something else entirely.
Jean-Philippe, Do You Hang Out With Other Pianists? Do You Hang Out With A Lot Of Conservatory Trained Or Other Professional Pianists?
My best friend is classically trained. He's a lawyer. He plays a lot, all the time. Other than him, though, not really.
Have You Ever Talked With Him About How Your Experience Differs From His In Terms Of His Relationship With The Piano Versus Yours?
No, not really. It's funny because he's from the classical world. Like most classical pianists, for them, I'm not a pianist. A lot of people don’t consider me a pianist because I do not play Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, or Tchaikovsky.
I try to take the full scale, the full keys, the full body of the piano and make it sing. That's why I worked so hard on my technique as well, not just to make something that sounded good. In contemporary music, when it's very slow, and especially in movies, that’s what you get: just good. A lot of composers don’t take advantage of the entire instrument. They have beautiful melodies, but it doesn't use the whole piano.
My friend recently showed me in the last seven or eight years some more beautiful classical pieces. It's interesting to me. I never wanted to play classical music or to learn how to read a score, because I don't really know how. I think it's probably a better thing for me, because I'm scared it might affect the way I compose.
To Go Back To The Therapeutic Benefits You Get From Playing Piano, That Sounds Like A Very Personal Experience. Yet Now You're A Professional Composer and Pianist and You Play For Audiences and For Other People. Is It A Different Experience?
When I play for myself, I know I'm not going to be judged. I'm the only one judging. I believe I'm my worst and my best critic, because I'm hard on myself all the time — I want to be better and better and better.
When I play for myself I try to make something really beautiful, but I'm not going to think about the people around me. I try to lose myself. When I don't think, that's when the magic happens.
You Said That The Piano Saved Your Life, Which Is Quite A Thing To Say.
Yes, it gave me a purpose in life, and a purpose that I didn't really choose. It’s part of me. Given that I grew up in a very difficult environment, don't know my dad, and essentially left my mother on the day of my 18th birthday. Being in a cult, with all its difficulties, playing the piano was the only time where I didn't suffer. It may be a little weird, but I got from my piano the support and communication one normally receives from the family I never had. Even now, and now I’m 32. But thinking of going to play the piano makes me as happy as it did 25 years ago.
When You “lose Yourself,” How Is The Piano Involved? And Can The Piano Help Or Hurt That Process, Depending On The Instrument?
No, it can’t hurt. The amazing thing is, every piano has something to say. For me, that's amazing. Let’s take Steinways. You have a Model D in a concert hall like the one in London, the Wigmore Hall. The piano is unbelievable in the sense that it's tight, it's clear; it's a bit bright, actually, and in that room it really works.
Once I was playing on a very old Steinway. I can't remember where, but it was an upright, and everything was different. It was brown. I ended up playing a bit more “jazzy” on it. Every key of every single piano is going to be different. Of course, Steinways are the most accurate in the sense that even if all the sounds differ from each other, the quality will always be the same, especially compared to all the other pianos one might play.
All the pianos are different. Some sound jazzier, some others sound more classical, some more contemporary, some others are more mellow. That's why I love playing on a piano. Every time I can find a piano, if I see one, I go and try it. You never know — sometimes even a cheap piano can have something special that makes it stick out.
Can You Define Your Musical Style?
Honestly, I’ve never said this so definitively, but I think I'm a classical pianist in the 21st century. We’re in the 21st century where there are really four types of pianists: the pop pianist, the jazz pianist, the classical pianist, and the contemporary pianist. So far, in the industry of contemporary pianists, it's mainly Philip Glass, I guess. Do we say he's a pianist or a composer? He’s really both!
Philip Glass, I think he's a very talented person. I love him. I don't have anything to say against him or, say, Ludovico Einaudi. The only thing is, I'm not doing what they do. Perhaps when I do the music for a film or for a documentary or something, yes. But for my piano playing, when you hear me play live, you see that it's not the same. I'm not saying I'm better than them, or anyone else. Absolutely not. I don't think I'm better than anyone, but what I'm doing is different. Of that I am sure.
‘Every piano has something to say...some sound jazzier, some others sound more classical, some more contemporary, some others are more mellow. That's why I love playing on a piano.'
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
As long as I live and I experience life to the fullest, that's where anything can inspire me. It could be a tree that is just so purely beautiful. Beauty inspires me a lot, of course. Beauty, and people as well, kindness. I love being touched, so when I see something that excites me, something that makes me want to live, want to smile, want to cry, every feeling basically is going to be played through the piano.
I guess it has two sides to it. The good side is I hope I can make some beautiful pieces. The downside is sometimes I do get very depressed and very down, but then I go on my piano and it makes me feel better again.
Can you talk a little bit about Golden Gate, how it came about, what it means to you?
I was at my friend's place, and he’s a big fan of my music. I went to visit, we had a dinner, and then I was with him. I had one too many drinks — I couldn't only just walk. And in that moment I thought, "I need to play the piano, I need to play the piano."
When I did reach the piano, I put my hands on it and Golden Gate was made. I think Golden Gate is a very strong piece and it's beautiful. At the same time, I have no idea how to reproduce it. It's almost like the piano actually gave me that piece.
How was your first visit to the Steinway factory?
Amazing. Of course, it's an incredible experience, being from the countryside in the middle of nowhere, to end up in the New York Steinway & Sons factory with the cool kids. It was great. I couldn't believe how the staff were so happy to see me. That is something, for me, that's very special. They seemed really happy to be here. That was the thing that I think was the most striking.
Why did that surprise you?
Most people nowadays do not like their job. I live in London where — and I'm sure it's the same in New York — most people are corrupted. Most people, even me sometimes, think about how hard life is. People are selfish. Why would they even say hello? In London, if I walk on the street and I say hi, most people wouldn't even look at me, or maybe they would even tell me to get lost.
Being in the factory, people are relaxed, happy and smiling, making jokes, after having been there for years and years and years without ever thinking, "I want to leave." I think that's beautiful.
‘Do I like what I do...it's not even a question of if I like it or love it. It is a question of need. I need to play the piano. I need to make music.’
Do You Like What You Do?
Yeah, I'm lucky. I feel really, really lucky. When I was younger, it was very hard, and it has been very hard. There were times I wanted to give up, because I had nothing, not a family, nothing. I know some people are like, "Oh, you have talent," but I couldn’t help but think that I wasn't doing anything with it. That was five, six years ago. You know how hard it is. Do I like what I do ... It's not even a question of if I like it or love it. It is a question of need. I need to play the piano. I need to make music.
It's not like pop music where you need a voice. I don't need a voice. For me the piano is the most powerful voice. Sometimes of course I have strings as well, and they make the piano fly even more. I don't even love it: I need it like I need to drink water.
What Do You Want Now As An Artist?
Basically, I want to do what I already do for more people. I want to play more, and in bigger concerts. I really want to compose something even more beautiful. I want to compose better music. I want to compose something that is absolutely breathless. I need to do something absolutely so beautiful that you stop talking. That's what I want.
Do You Compose Primarily To Play, Or Do You Hope That Your Compositions Will Be Played By Others As Well?
I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. There is no compromise in the music. I guess it would be might be nice to get some pieces that aren’t hard for people to learn, but I'm not a teacher, and I don't have the patience to teach anyone. I have the highest respect for teachers, but I just want to play and make some music that is beautiful.
Earlier you talked about your emotions and your feeling when you get lost. It sounds like that’s something you strive for.
It is surreal, surreal I guess in the real sense of the word. When I'm in it, I feel like I am outside of the real. I think there is a similarity in a lot of my music, my touch; there is always hope. That's what I feel. Even if I make something very sad, there is very often a little bit of hope. To describe that feeling, it's hard.
It's a sensitivity, I guess. I can talk about it now, because I'm stronger. But before I couldn't really say that, because it was for me almost a weakness. I'm highly sensitive. If I see some news on TV, everything that's happening, for example, right now in the world, it deeply affects me. There is so much pain and I understand pain — I’ve experienced it firsthand and I have a lot of compassion — so I feel it as well. When I feel it, that's when I go even more in the piano. Instead of crying, instead of getting drunk, I go to the piano.
As A Recording Artist, Is There Some Sort Of Ideal Sound That You Strive For When You Have To Capture Something Forever? When You Go Record Golden Gate, For Example, Is It Different From Improvising It In Live Performance?
The purest form of sound. That's what I really, really like. When it's not altered by anything else. Even a piano: a Steinway is a Steinway. I love this round, pure sound. With any other piano, you're going to have the sound of the strings as well. I don't want to hear the hammer or the string, hitting in a kind of very metallic way.
For me, the ultimate goal is to be one, to be only one with the piano. I’ve probably told you this before, but for me it's a race. If I have the right partner, then I win the race. The pedal, the hammers, the strings, everything, the sound needs to be... I don't actually have a word to express what the sound should be like. I know in my heart what it sounds like. And I can achieve it on a Steinway.