Listen Magazine FEATURE
Igor Levit on improvising; his ‘very direct’ and personal sound; and his love for Frederic Rzewski, Marina Abramovic, and voices beyond the classical canon
By Ben Finane
Steinway Artist Igor Levit has established himself, according to The New York Times, as “one of the essential artists of his generation.” He won the 2018 Gilmore Artist Award and was named Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards. He spoke to our Editor in Chief with his characteristic frankness and curiosity.
I was listening to your recording of [Bach’s] Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical). You took the repeats, and it struck me as I was listening that Bach ornamentation really adds another level of difficulty to what can already be very difficult music. How do you make decisions on ornamenting Bach?
Well, I have certain ideas of certain patterns, but most of the time I don’t really pre-decide. I just go with the flow, and I also do improvised ornamentation here and there. I mean, it really depends on my state of mind, the mood of the variations, the structure of the variations. But I don’t have, like, preset rules I can lay out for you.
But that’s remarkable: to have the fluency in this music where you can actually improvise ornamentation — because I would say that most pianists script them in advance.
No, I never do that. I never script anything.
And that, of course, will give you a more immediate sound —
And that’s something I like about your sound. I don’t want to use the word “accessible,” I don’t want to use the word “direct,” but I would say “present.” You don’t really knock before you come into the room —
[Laughs.] No, I rarely do. In real life I do. But I kind of know how I want something to sound, and this will change from piano to piano, from space to space, from day to day, so I’m… Yeah, I’m very direct.
Again, that’s an element of improvisation: just sitting down with the instrument and attacking based on the immediate response of the acoustic.
Well, yeah, I prefer the quick and direct — I don’t want to say “easy” sound, but sort of … “direct” and “accessible,” I kind of like these words.
Okay. Good. Well, then I won’t be afraid to use them in the future.
No, don’t be.
What are the priorities for you when you sit down to turn a score into music? And are these priorities the same with every composer, or do they vary depending on whose music it is?
Well, first of all, I read the text. I try to sort of, to make it sound in my head. I imagine it, but then I… It’s hard for me to say. I don’t think in these terms. I just start playing, but I’m the one who tries to understand what the text says. I’m the one who tries to bring life into it, so these are basically… They might sound kind of unspectacular, but these are the priorities for me. That’s it.
Just transmitting the text?
Well, no. Obviously [I’m] transmitting the text from my very own personal perspective, which includes my life and my mood and my experiences. And so I use these to bring life to the text, but I am the one who tries to do it.
That’s interesting. In literature, we would say this is more of an “open reading” than a “closed reading.” That is, you’re willing to bring in your experience, your feelings, whether you had a coffee this morning or not — that’s all going to play into your interaction with that music. It sounds very interactive to me.
Yes, it is. Absolutely. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes. Totally. I never like this idea of the artist as servant to the music and to the composer. I’m not serving anyone. I’m trying to understand and I’m trying to bring life to it; I am the one who reads the text and [tries], once again, to bring life and sense to it. But it goes both ways. I’m not serving it, but I’m also not ruling it. I’m its partner.
I hear you. So when I asked Maurizio Pollini this question he said to “try to understand and convey the composer’s intention.” Your approach, I would say, has more flexibility.
Well, my question to the most — how do you say — admired and…
…beloved, great, great musician Maurizio Pollini would be: “Well, how do you really know?” And then I would also respond with Busoni, who said that music is so limitless and so free and so immaterial that you automatically limit yourself by trying to write it down on a piece of paper with black dots. And so, then, the performance aim is to set it free. Busoni writes, “How on earth can a performer even imagine that this piece of paper I’m handing over to you as a composer could ever be the last straw?”
It’s impossible. It’s impossible. It’s against music’s nature, so I go with Busoni there, totally.
And then there’s electronic composer Paul Lansky, who said, “Notation is a trap.”
Well, notation is maybe not a trap, but you can certainly make it a trap — and then trap yourself. Absolutely.
‘I never like this idea of the artist as servant to the music and to the composer. I’m not serving anyone.’
I really enjoyed this combination of Bach, Beethoven, and Rzewski [on Levit’s 2015 album from Sony Classical]. Tell me what drew you to Frederic Rzewski’s music. I know, of course, that you reached out to commission him, but what was it that initially attracted you in the first place to his sound world?
It’s very humane, it’s very direct, it’s very communicative, it’s very warm, it’s very emotional, and it takes a stand. His music takes a stand, and his music requires everyone who listens to it to take a stand. He’s an incredible storyteller. He’s an incredible communicator. He’s like Pete Seeger in a way. He doesn’t particularly like Bob Dylan [laughs], but I would say he has a certain likeness there. And he really knows how to write for the piano. But Frederic is a very particular person: He’s deeply complicated and, [I] can say, troubling — but we became very close friends. From the very beginning I had the feeling, “I trust this guy,” so I went from there.
Is Rzewski a troubadour in the Bob Dylan tradition?
Oh, absolutely. Totally. Though his response probably would now be, “What do you want? What do you say?” But yeah, I believe he is. Absolutely.
Okay, since we’ve stepped outside the classical canon, I know that you put other composers on par with the classical guys. I know Thelonious Monk is a big influence for you. Are there others you really enjoy?
Well, Pete Seeger is… I mean, of course I never met him, but he’s some kind of a hero. So is Leonard Cohen. So is, as you said, Thelonious Monk. I can think of many.
In those you just mentioned, I see a bit of a singer–songwriter trend.
Yeah, but also singer–songwriters in the hip-hop realm; I find they do a tremendous job. Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper. There are great, great artists out there, and I really think that the political storm of today is hip-hop — and so, automatically I’m really interested in that.
Yeah, I think Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — those are on par with any of the great protest albums.
Yeah, I agree. I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Just keep listening and keep an open ear.
‘I like control, but I don’t exaggerate it.’
That’s it. Keep an open ear. That’s all I keep telling people. And this argument of “Well, you can’t put classical in the same breath as blah blah blah” — I just can’t enter that argument, because it’s just so tired.
I first encountered that a couple of years ago and found it infuriating. But nowadays, I just think it’s spectacularly boring. I can’t. It is deeply reactionary and, I think, really goes very much against the idea of music as an art form. If these people would think, I think they would understand that they’ve imprisoned music, and that’s not what they should do.
I ran into Marina Abramovic in the West Village many years ago. She was talking to her manager and she was saying, “Yes, we make good decisions.” I think one of the great decisions was her collaboration with you. What did you learn from that collaboration with Abramovic?
Oh boy, I could talk about that for weeks. Think about the procedure before a concert: So you sit backstage, and you’re alone, and you try to focus, and then you focus, and then you’re focused, and then you walk onstage, and then you play. So that’s a summary of what happens before a gig. Now, with Marina it was a little different, because the procedure of focusing happened while I was in the hall, so, as you know, I was in the hall and then there was this thirty minutes of silence before I played the first note.
So I experienced the silence together with the audience, and I realized that this is a profoundly more spiritual and deep experience: to actually focus together with the audience, rather than alone in your backstage room. You can focus as much as you want, then you open the doors, and then they clap, and you’re up. So this experience was quite extraordinary: to be with the people and breathe with them, to focus with them, to be with them. It was quite extraordinary.
Whatever happened that night, and we did it eight times, happened together with the audience in the most direct and sincere way. It was not artificial. There was no separation whatsoever, and it gave each and every one in the audience — and myself — the feeling that whatever is happening onstage, it’s about myself. It’s about me; it’s for me. And I spoke to many people who were there, and they all said the same thing. They all said, “I had the feeling that you played just for me, and for me only.” I was fine with that. I really miss these days. I miss her, too. I gotta call her.
Yeah, she really is.
I gave a piano recital in 2007 after not playing for a few years. It was just one hour, but afterward I was completely exhausted. Over a decade ago, you went on a real fitness regime and lost weight and gained stamina. I think if I hadn’t had that experience of being tired and unfit, I wouldn’t understand it, but I do. We all know that being fit helps, in general! But could you quantify what benefits you gleaned from that experience as far as how it helped your musicianship?
I wasn’t thinking about it in these terms of helping my musicianship. It just entirely changed my body. It changed the way I breathe, the way I move, and so on. I don’t really care if it changed it for the better or for the worse, it just changed it. I mean, obviously I became much more flexible and much more light — in the most direct sense of the word. I think it really changed a lot for the good. It, of course, provided me with an incredible sort of self-experience, an experience of what my body can do and how far I can go, and it brought a great deal of self-awareness, so I would recommend it to everyone. Absolutely.
Which composers do you want to tackle that you haven’t played yet? Who’s in your sights?
Isaac Albéniz is. Ronald Stevenson is. I really must think about it. I don’t make these plans. Like, I run into someone and then I know: Boom, that’s it, that’s my thing.
I have to say your answers are really leading me to think of you more and more as a guy who’s more spontaneous and improvisational than I would have imagined.
Totally. I do know what I want. I like control, but I don’t exaggerate it.
[Photos: Felix Broede, James Ewing]
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.