Ludovico Einaudi on defining his music; his mentor, Luciano Berio; his compositional process; and his recordings for Steinway & Sons Spirio
By Ben Finane
Steinway Artist Ludovico Einaudi was born in Turin, Italy, and trained as a classical composer and pianist at the Milan Conservatorio before continuing his studies with Luciano Berio, a leading composer of the twentieth-century avant-garde, His career began with a series of commissions for the Tanglewood Festival, IRCAM and recently the National Center of the Performing Arts of Beijing. Yet he turned away from what seemed a glittering classical career to forge his own musical path, giving him the freedom to reconcile his wider-ranging influences. He spoke with our Editor in Chief by phone from his home in Italy.
There are terms that seem to follow your music: ‘new age,’ ‘minimal,’ ‘minimalist,’ ‘meditative.’ I don’t care for these terms, as they permit the listener to pigeonhole music rather than actually listening to it and paying attention and thinking about it. So I wonder if you could talk about your music in your own words — and where your music and aesthetic comes from?
It’s interesting, because when I am asked to define my music with a word I always try to avoid the question, because with a word you’re not saying anything. If we speak of the most famous pop group in the world, The Beatles, and you say ‘pop music,’ it doesn't describe anything that they’ve done.
The background of my work is quite diverse. I grew up listening to my mother playing piano at home, doing Bach, Chopin, standard classical pieces every pianist used to play at home, and she also played folk music — she had this book about French popular music. Some of the harmonies that were contained in that book, they still resonate in my ears, and sometimes even in my work. There were traditional lullabies, but the harmonization within, of these simple songs, was quite elegant and subtle.
This is the beauty of popular music, that it is based on simple and memorable tunes. Take the work of Stravinsky — subtly simple, memorable tunes coming from the folk tradition — and he did all this work around it to make it the sound of Stravinsky with his harmonies, his colors.
I have always loved composers who have been connected with folk traditions of popular music. Part of my focus has been to embrace different perspectives and cultures. Even if I spent years with great contemporary, avant-garde composers, whom I still admire, I never felt that one music was more important than another, rather I love different types of music, from popular to classical to jazz. My effort was trying to embrace all those sounds that I loved in my life rather than saying, ‘Okay, now I need to write music and I have to decide if I’m pop musician or a classical composer or whatever.’ You understand?
So I love the complexity of the tradition of classical music. At the same time, I love the simplicity of some of the classical melodies. I also love the varied beauty, and sometimes complexity, of popular music, rock music, and I think listening to a lot of different music in my life, I started to meditate and take them in, and at a certain point I began to write music that I felt contained different worlds — but with an idea of a new world. Not just with the idea of putting things together, but it came as a natural progress and natural process — one which took me a lot of work to achieve. When I hear people who love my music and are trying to copy it, it sounds strange to me because it sounds so simple, made by other people. It took me a lot of years to find the balance, to find a way to be on the edge of being accessible but at the same time having the echo of a deep, more complex world.
You mentioned avant-garde composers that you’ve worked with, and you had what I imagine was the very good fortune to study with Luciano Berio, and of course he was very experimental and avant-garde. What did you learn from him, given that your music went in such a different direction?
This is true that he was part of the avant-garde world, but at the same time he was, compared to the composers that were around him and together with him, in his moment of history, very much more open to the world. He loved popular music, he loved jazz, and I remember that when I was starting and I was studying at the conservatory in Milan and listening to different composers.
I was studying Boulez, Stockhausen, and listening to a lot of contemporary music of that period, the ’60s and the ’70s, and I remember that when I heard the music of Berio, I could immediately feel that there were harmonies that were coming from someone that was in touch with ancient music, with folk music, with jazz, someone that has been experiencing and loving different types of music. I was immediately touched by the chords and emotion inside his music.
You don’t have to compose a masterpiece every time, but I think the challenge of art is always searching for something different, searching for a new sensitivity, a new perspective, a new vision.
Then, it happened that I met him in Milan. He was making a famous series of television episodes in Italy, similar to — yet different from — the series Leonard Bernstein made in America. There was one episode where he was talking about popular music. Another was about music in relation to dance and images and theater, and each episode featured traditional music from different parts of the world. In every episode, he was interviewing different experts in the community, giving an interesting angle to every point that he was looking at. I liked the clarity of his mind. When I met him, he immediately asked me if — I was in my early twenties — if I was interested in doing a transcription that he needed for work. And he asked again at dinner that night.
So we started like this, in a very informal way, a collaboration that lasted for three or four years, because I was working and at the same time, learning and studying from him, but in a very practical way: it was more like a collaboration. At the same time, we were talking about music; he was looking at the work that I was doing. He asked me to make a transcription of a piece for orchestra, and a year later he conducted the piece — and then he commissioned me another piece that he conducted, another year later in Rome.
So what did this leave me, my work of these years with Berio? First, I learned a lot from him in terms of all the orchestral skill that I have: I could work with him and definitely hear and see the results. It was like a perfect school, not only the theoretical but the practice of music.
He was like a philosopher, in a sense, yet completely immersed in the world of being an artisan of music, and I was lucky to be with a person that had the skill of the great composers of the past: I remember he was able to write music anywhere — in the dressing room before rehearsal, on the train, wherever he was, just like that.
At the same time, he was a great intellectual. Yet the work of writing music was very much doing something without talking or thinking about it, a natural process. When he had to talk about music, he was talking about other things, so it was never direct. So, when he wanted to talk and explain musical perspective, he would describe something that was connected to science, to nature, to philosophy, to literature. He could talk about James Joyce. He could talk about the flights of a group of birds in the sky, saying it would be very interesting to make a transcription of the shape that those birds are doing in the sky.
So I think he was very interested in the idea of transcribing other experiences that were not coming specifically from a musical world. So the process of, I don’t know, the change of light: ‘How can I transcribe the change of clouds or the shape of the clouds that are moving in the sky into a piece of music? How can I make a piece of music in the form of Joyce’s Ulysses? How can I….?’ The perspective was very humanistic, not specifically closed within the world of music technique. The vision came from the wide vision that he had of the world.
I think this is what I learned — apart from what I mentioned regarding technique, orchestration, et cetera — but this vision is something I retain, that I feel as a heritage within my vision today. Three or four years ago, I was composing a piece that I dedicated to Berio called ‘Elements,’ and it was based on the idea of elements of philosophy, science, geometry, art — and I think incorporates the idea of transcribing one world into another and trying to open your world to other perspectives.
You approach your work from a different point of view, and then maybe you discover that you can write, invent a different form of music because you discover — in transcribing the flight of the birds or in reflecting upon how a stone is composed — you maybe discover in the process of experimenting with a new idea. Maybe you have a great result, maybe not. You don’t have to compose a masterpiece every time, but I think the challenge of art is always searching for something different, searching for a new sensitivity, a new perspective, a new vision.
When you write music, is your music through-composed? Or are there different sections of material that you try to marry together? Does it start with an idea or a motive? What’s the process for you?
I like the flow of music that is a balance between something written and at the same time has the flow of something that is not written. This is something that I battle with every day when I work. When you called me, I was sitting by my Steinway with music, with a writing book and my pencil. I also use computers, but the more I go on, I feel that when I write my music with a pencil, I feel it more — when I feel it. When I write with computers, this is something more distant.
So, I’m about to go into the recording studio in a week and I have the process of this new work, developed from improvising at my piano, because I’ve been touring extensively in the last three years, and would sometimes just record — from Montreal to New York to Shanghai — wherever I was on my phone, recording all these ideas that came when I was on the road.
I listened to all these things in over the past few months to see if I had to start from zero — and I found a lot of things that I liked. So I first selected what I liked most, and then started to write it down on the paper. The process of writing down, when you were writing down, is an important step, because it’s like you say to yourself, ‘Okay, this is going to be a piece that I write,’ because until it’s in the air, it’s not anywhere for a composer.
When you start to write it down, you start to focus on the piece, and then you start to say, ‘Okay, now there is an idea!’ Maybe you start to listen and you start to play it, and then you discover a second idea — and then you compose. Then, the piece has a second round and you start to put it down and discover secondary ideas, other ideas, maybe an idea that was even better than the first one.
I will leave open the possibility to people that listen to my recordings that they hear something that was born in that moment, in the moment that I recorded it.
I could go on forever with this process, but there is a moment that will start in a week where I have to go in and record the music, and I’m sure I will keep those writing books in front of me, but I want to keep the possibility of being open and continue to feel and to create the music as a flow. I don’t want to feel that what I’ve done will sound as if I’m reading something, and I like the idea that I can keep the creative process flowing, and I will leave open the possibility to people that listen to my recordings that they hear something that was born in that moment, in the moment that I recorded it.
Because this is a very special moment, when it happens, and so I’m trying, in the process that I’m experiencing now, to put down the ideas on the paper, but at the same time, I don’t want to finish completing them. I don’t want to say, ‘Okay, let’s start like this and end like this.’ There are a lot of sketches sometimes to bring the details, sometimes less detail, but it’s like I want to clear the space — and to define things in the moment.
For Steinway & Sons Spirio, you have recorded ‘Una Matina,’ ‘Stella del Matino,’ ‘Andare,’ and ‘I Giorni.’
When I went to New York, I went to the studio at Steinway and I thought that to record something for the Spirio library, it was maybe good to record at least a couple of pieces that were more popular, so I chose ‘Una Matina’ and ‘I Giorni,’ but in all four tracks I made some changes and improvisations, so they are not exactly the scores as written.
There are some small variations in ‘Stella del Matino’; there is a coda that I improvised. Also, the tempos are very different from those recorded on the CD. I wanted to be open in this moment to give the chance to do something unique.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and it was quite surprising and amazing, because I felt that the piano, when the Spirio started to play back the performance I’d done, I really felt it was me. I mean, I knew the technology was progressing fast and though I was expecting to hear a performance, but I was not expecting to feel my voice — and this was quite special.
‘Una Matina’ became very popular because it became associated with the movie The Intouchables, popular in Europe and elsewhere. Everywhere I go, people know this piece from the movie.
‘I Giorni’ became one of the most-played piano pieces because I was probably among the first of a new generation to create and to write down music that was, let’s say, playable and contemporary. I think it became a problem, at a certain point, where you couldn’t really find contemporary repertoire that you could enjoy playing at home. If you were a pianist or in the middle of your studies, you could play Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, but you could not open a book and play the Klavierstücke by Stockhausen.
I think the music that I started to create was, in a way, filling the space left open and abandoned by composers. I mean, you had pieces from Bartók and Stravinsky, but not so much that you could play, really. After that, it was a desert.
I think when the young people started to realize that there was a new generation that was creating something new for the piano, something that was playable and relates to the emotions of our time — because this is what every composer does… and I think even if I write something that could be associated with sometimes, they are associating my music with, I don’t know, Schumann or Satie, the emotion is different. The emotion is, for sure, something that is connected to today.