“In the Contemporary Universe” – Interview

Jay Gottlieb: In the Contemporary Universe
Piano Magazine (January-February 2004)

Jay Gottlieb was born in New York, where he was an honors graduate of the High School of Performing Arts, simultaneously studying at the Juilliard School. He received a Master of Arts degree from Harvard University. He worked closely for many years with Nadia Boulanger; with pianists Robert Casadesus, Yvonne Loriod, Aloys Kontarsky, and with some of the greatest composers of the last fifty years. Laureat of the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation, recipient of the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation Grant, National Endowment for the Arts, he has won numerous international prizes (Lincoln Center Prize, Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize, International Improvisation Competition in Lyons, Master Award at the Berkshire Music Festival, Tanglewood, etc.). A pianist sought after by innumerable composers who have written for him, Jay Gottlieb is equally in demand as a pedagogue, much appreciated for his lectures and master classes on 20th and 21st-century piano music. His recordings of modern American and European composers have received many awards. To kick off 2004, Jay Gottlieb has a new CD with works of Régis Campo, Benoît Delbecq, Frédéric Lagnau, Lukas Ligeti, Charles Koechlin, Francis Poulenc and David Lang (for SIGNATURE/RADIO FRANCE).

PIANO: You are going to spend four months in the USA as guest professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Will you have “carte blanche” or have they specified what you are to teach?

JG: Both. I will give a doctoral seminar on 20th and 21st-century solo piano music, but I will also have private piano students with whom all repertoire will be considered.

PIANO: You have always done much teaching…

JG: Especially master classes. I had proposals, in France as well as in the USA, for steady positions, whether at the Paris Conservatory or in the City University of New York, but I was afraid of not having enough time for students. And also I felt I was too young for that. Nonetheless, I very much believe in “transmission”. I give a lot, and enjoy easy human contact. I love to communicate, which is not necessarily given to every pianist. In fact, certain are rather private and their only means of expression is music.

PIANO: In a master class, how do you impart without the student just purely and simply copying your playing?

JG: It is necessary for them to understand that the basic given is the score, not Gottlieb! And especially to avoid giving solutions, rather keys for finding them or, if it comes to that, suggest to them interpretive solutions. The student should be put in danger, pushed into the lion’s den. They should doubt, search. That is the rule of the game.

PIANO: Does all of that evoke for you your lessons with Nadia Boulanger?

JG: Ah, Nadia! She was quite literally indispensable for me. She never leaves me. I think of her astonishing memory: hearing a piece played once and knowing it immediately by heart, replete with all nuances and soul, not like a parrot. I think of her as music become flesh and blood. I remember her exquisite intelligence, her critical mind. Her Socratic method of teaching. Her respect for others. All of that made her unique and difficult, wonderful and formidable. She’s the first woman to conduct such august institutions as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and many others. With her, no blah-blah: go to the piano and ask your questions with sounds, not words. She could detect if you had a truly deep love for music. Without it, no use persevering. She observed everything, even how you handled yourself in society, or at the dinner table. Music for her was the basis of everything. “What book did you read this week?”, she could suddenly ask. She sometimes put you in impossible situations, especially for an adolescent.

PIANO: The repertoire for piano being so enormous, many pianists don’t have time to devote to new music. In your case, you play predominantly works of the 20th and 21st centuries, but you also know the standard repertoire. How do you find the time to do all that?

JG: A big help is having begun very young. I acquired the reflexes for learning quickly and efficiently. You can’t imagine the ton of packages I receive almost every day with manuscripts of composers or scores from publishers from all over the world. I’m drowning under scores, most of which haven’t even been opened yet. But it is fantastic when I catch a glimpse of something and, suddenly, there’s a surprise. In those cases, one can no longer claim that boredom is clad in fashionable garb! (Laughs) It is truly exciting. But I assure you, those moments are rare, and most of what I receive is useless. At first glance of the first page I know if the piece is important or not. It has to do with the phenomenon of surprise. A work ought to offer new slants, and therefore carry the element of surprise. This was the case, for instance, with the music of Bruno Mantovani. When I first met him in 1998, he was still completely unknown. He was 24. We were both invited to the New Music Festival in Perpignan, France. The organizer wanted a world premiere to figure in my recital, and Mantovani was asked. I harbored, needless to say, the greatest doubts as to what this work would be. Then a package arrived with the score in question. I opened the envelope, 10,000 per cent skeptical. And there, the shock: “Wow! Magnificent! I love it!” It was the piece called “Jazz Connotation” which since has become a “hit”. Of course subsequently I premiered other pieces by this young and very talented composer, who currently has won the Prix de Rome and international recognition. In the context of surprise, I was also well-served by Régis Campo. When I met him, he was already–even at his young age–a confirmed talent. I premiered his Piano Concerto, written for me, as well as solo piano pieces. I consider these works essential. And still in the surprise category, the Piano Concerto of the young Portuguese composer Antonio Chagas Rosa is beautiful.

PIANO: You also have premiered pieces written for you by composers known worldwide, such as the “Study for Piano” of Magnus Lindberg…

JG: Oh yes, superb! A very powerful experience, as with the music of Sylvano Bussotti. This Italian composer is an esthete; he stages operas, designs costumes. His music is refined, complex, at one and the same time avant-garde and lyrical, an astonishing mixture. I premiered his piece “Gemelli”. And another Italian composer, Franco Donatoni, wrote for me “Jay”, for piano and seven brass. A splendor. I trembled with emotion when I asked this giant to write this work. Unfortunately he is no longer of this world.

PIANO: At one point in your career did you begin concentrating on contemporary music?

JG: At the age of 21-22. It was a turning point in my life where I had to make a very difficult decision: I had to choose between composition and piano. And although I had studied and performed the standard repertory, my life was naturally linked to new music, not to mention the fact that most of my friends are composers.

PIANO: Are you afraid of being tagged with such a specialization?

JG: I have always been fearful of tags and labels, but recent experiences I have had comfort me in the realization that perhaps the world is changing, or, in any case, that it isn’t quite as categorical as one might think. Perhaps post-modernism has altered our way of thinking? Will the Third Millennium succeed in wiping away these categorizations that are so embedded and ingrained? I recently received a letter from Bertrand Ott, the author of a remarkable book on the technique of Liszt. He saw me on the TV station Mezzo, in a recital of American music–Ives, Glass, Adams–filmed two years ago at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. In his letter of several pages, he wrote that he was moved because he observed that there is Lisztian “retropulsion” in my playing. The fact that this specialist of the 19th century, and most essentially of the technique of the genius that was Franz Liszt, should write to me shows that the frontiers between musical worlds are, finally, rather small.
It is true that the piano works of John Adams require a virtuosity which could be qualified as “Lisztian”.

PIANO: Do you sometimes have the desire to play Bach or Chopin, Mozart or Schumann?

JG: But I do play them, most often for myself. I need it all. I have a large capacity for assimilation, and these works sometimes spring up to the surface from out of my interior reservoir. I warm up with Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. Schumann fascinates me with his imaginary world, his form of madness. I have always adored Beethoven as well as Mozart. I give lectures on the notion of surprise in music from the 15th century to today. I explain how surprise is the secret of greatness in compositional terms. Musicians who use formulas that are simplistic, prefabricated, banal are forgotten by history. It’s Salieri as opposed to Mozart, rather conventional music as opposed to inspired music.

PIANO: How do you lead a recalcitrant public towards contemporary music, often considered to be arid and not very attractive?

JG: But neither do I love arid contemporary music! I love colorful music. And believe me, it exists and is very much alive. To answer your question, I would say that the solution is to present this music, to introduce it to the public. More and more, we can’t just let listeners be confronted with this complex music without any explanation. Consequently, even if it is rather difficult for me–as for the majority of musicians, as it is very disconcerting to speak before or during a concert–I increasingly break down the barriers by speaking. Here is one example: at a recital at the Orangerie of the Bagatelle in Paris, for the Chopin Festival, my program linked the Polish genius to a living composer, according to the extremely intelligent format that they have established for programs. My choice was to link Chopin to “Dream Images”, a movement from the “Makrokosmos” of George Crumb. After playing an excerpt from Liszt’s “Années de Pèlerinage” followed by some Chopin, I was about to continue with the Crumb when suddenly I felt a strong urge to explain what it was about to this very 19th-century music-loving audience. In these “Dream Images”, Crumb quotes the “Fantaisie Impromptu” of Chopin. I explained how in the middle of this modern sound matrix, like vapor or light smoke, emerged this nostalgia, this memory of Chopin’s soul, of his breath, in the form of the fantaisie impromptu, before being swept away once again by the modernity. It’s almost visual. You can hear it, perceive it completely between the notes and the silence. Without these explanations, the audience would not have grasped all of that as strongly. On the contrary, thanks to my explanations, the audience was captivated. They really listened, in search of the traces of Chopin. Not only is this exciting, but also very educational. Also, what is very moving in this piece of George Crumb is that the listener is almost surprised and disturbed by the apparition of music of Chopin amidst this contemporaneity, and breathes again when it’s Crumb’s notes that take over again, as if here the norm was the contemporary, and the romantic repertory the intruder. It is very amusing to witness this, especially with an audience used to standard repertory.

PIANO: Does working closely with the composer on his music limit your sense of personal freedom of interpretation or, on the contrary, provide you with a greater sense of freedom?

JG: I have always made an analogy between the direct presence of a composer for a new work and the non-presence of a composer for older works. It’s a feeling of being in direct contact with composers who are no longer around via contact with living composers. In fact, it’s by way of today’s composers that I can have answers, or at least elements thereof, regarding works of past masters! But it is evident that for certain works of Bach or Beethoven, many questions will remain forever unanswered. Just recently, a student who played for me some Bach asked me two very pertinent questions to which I could respond in part, based certainly on musicological knowledge, but also on feelings and intuition. Obviously when dealing with a piece by a living composer, if I have a question, I have but to give him a phone call.

PIANO: Yes, but can they always answer your questions? Aren’t there many unconscious aspects to composing?

JG: They know. Of course they know. When I would call Maurice Ohana, I would have my answer immediately. But of course all depends on the composer’s personality. For certain ones, it’s more complex, more subtle, more unconscious, and then you must discuss and reflect before obtaining an answer. And most exciting is when these discussions lead the composer to change things in the score. That is gratifying. You have a sense of having participated in the creation of the work; certainly a tiny proportion, but deep inside you know you have.

PIANO: Could you tell us about the music of Lukas Foss, unjustly little-known in France…

JG: He’s a genius. Certain have said about him, “The world has gotten it all wrong. He is Leonard Bernstein.” Just as you could say in the world of art that France exalted the wrong P.: Picasso instead of Picabia! Picabia claimed that the artist is one who eats fire. That is a must in my pantheon of all-time favorite quotations. To get back to Lukas Foss, he is a complete musician: pianist, conductor, and composer. What is lacking with Lukas Foss in comparison with Leonard Bernstein, and a determinant factor for notoriety–although non-musical–is a sense of diplomacy and a certain taste for things popular. Lukas Foss cannot and does not wish to compose for Broadway, whereas Bernstein adored that. That said, writing for Broadway or for films doesn’t make a composer a lesser creator–except in the minds of certain elitists who love attaching labels. I am perfectly capable of playing works deemed “serious” by certain intellectuals, and immediately afterwards launch into “West Side Story”, which is clearly a masterpiece. When a composer produces works like this and is also a big media target, as was Bernstein’s case, the downside is that the media always give the public the impression that all of this comes easily. Bernstein, whom I had the honor of knowing well, said to me one day, “Everyone talks about my facility, my intelligence. All of that is very charming. But why doesn’t anyone talk about the endless time I devote to work?” He was deeply troubled by this media tendency to always underscore the tinsel.

PIANO: You have played a lot of American music. What are its predominant characteristics?

JG: First of all, I think that currently with the means of communication being what they are, and musical study based on the same great repertoire in all developed countries, that most working composers have had the same influences. Certain works of George Crumb, for example, are bathed in a Debussy-like sound world. So, to speak of Russian or French or American music today, for me, signifies much less than in the past. However, there remain mechanisms and ticks that can be associated with one kind of music more than another. Thus, regarding American music, I would say that it is characterized by certain rhythms and by the presence of jazz-related elements.

PIANO: Do you feel as if you have a duty towards the music of your time, a duty to present it to the public?

JG: I do feel as if there is a missionary side to me. But it is important to remember that I was a composer; an important detail.

PIANO: You never play your own works composed before you were 21. Do you think that one day you will go back to composing?

JG: I have no idea. There is no pre-programmed or pre-calculated career plan.

PIANO: Where do you like to perform in Paris?

JG: I like Salle Gaveau, even if you can’t play everything there. And of course the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, of which I have
beautiful memories.

PIANO: The American government named you “official pianist” to represent the USA abroad. How does that function concretely?

JG: A committee in Washington, D.C. selects official artists to represent the country. But it’s more of an honor than something concrete, although I did play in some Embassies. (Laughs)

PIANO: What were you doing on 9/11/2001?

JG: I was at my Steinway practicing for the Piano aux Jacobins Festival in Toulouse, where I gave a recital three days later. I walked on stage and read a text I had written. We were all in tears. In order to remain functional, I purposely did not look at newscasts and the profusion of shocking images before this recital, which included the world premiere of “Volubile” by Yan Maresz (commissioned by the Piano aux Jacobins Festival), as well as works of Maurice Ohana, John Adams, Bruno Mantovani, etc. Once over, I was steeped in the grief.

PIANO: Do you feel more American or French?

JG: I feel more French when I’m in New York and more American when I’m in Paris. In any case, it is well known that estrangement from one’s country is the best way to foster nostalgic patriotism, almost idealizing the abandoned country. I love belonging to both nations which, when said and done, adore each other. It’s a long love story, love-hate and mutual attraction, which has lasted for so long.

Piano Magazine (January-February 2004)
Interview by Celine Marie