“Music and Interferences” – Interview

Translation of the French original, “Musique et Interférences : Interview du pianiste américain Jay Gottlieb.”

Jay Gottlieb is an internationally renowned pianist, and a specialist in particular of twentieth-century music. He is also in France and abroad an official pianist designated by the U.S. State Department. He recently composed the music for the film “La Discrète”.

La Voix du Regard: In your studies, you did a lot more than just music…

Jay Gottlieb: Yes, the American educational system has the particularity of being very broad in scope, providing vast perspectives. Yes, I was fortunate to do, along with music, studies that nearly drove me crazy… given all the time I spent at it. It all gave me a certain grounding, even if music has its own laws and is autonomous, because some studies require pure discipline. Overlooking the Platonic idea of studies that feed on each other, a part of me wanted to deny what philosophy or sociology, psychology, mathematics, or history taught me. At times I asked myself, “What good to have spent all this time, I’m a musician…” , but in fact I think that all of this was extremely enriching. The approach at Harvard was right from the start to teach the courses on the level of specialists: when I was doing philosophy, I was a philosopher, etc. Of course my “concentration” was Music, but this approach enabled me to avoid the equivalent of ethnocentricity (now THAT’S Sociology!), what one might call “musicocentricity”.

LVR: You also studied dance and corporal expression…

JG: This helped me for the stage (1). Especially when at one point I had to play a piece both as an actor (I played the role of Kierkegaard!) and as a pianist.

LVR: How did the music have an effect on your acting and vice-versa?

JG: First of all, the piece was conceived to be played theatrically. The music lent itself perfectly to a theatrical interpretation. In any case, it’s certain that even if many months of preparation are involved, in the final analysis, at the moment of the concert, one is in a situation of representation. And even when one is working on a purely intuitive, instinctive level, giving a recital or playing with an orchestra necessitates a certain theatricality.

LVR: Is this the case for certain works more than others?

JG: Yes, of course. It is better to play Bach in a completely neutral manner and let live by themselves the rhythm and the architecture…On the other hand, for certain works, especially in the music in which I specialize, that of the twentieth century, the more we advance in the century, the more there is a focus on visual, theatrical aspects.

LVR: In general, is this played out in a humorous or in a serious fashion?

JG: Oh, for Kierkegaard, I had to act in every register, and I liked that very much. It was very fulfilling for me.

LVR: And were you able to create a sort of continuity between the music and the acting demands?

JG: Only at certain times. For the technically difficult passages, it was better that I apply myself pianistically, period… If one begins to overdo it, you miss everything. But one can play a chord and make a sweeping gesture, exaggerated…

LVR: Does It influence the chord itself?

JG: The gesture always influences the sound, always…but one can perfectly integrate something that is theater with something that works technically. There is indeed a way to depress the notes of a chord which works successfully both visually and sonically. They are reconcilable.

LVR: In terms of philosophy, does the fact that you know American Transcendentalism (2) help you to play music inspired by it?

JG: Yes, definitely. If we consider the Ives Concord Sonata, whose four movements represent the entire universe and cosmos, it is clear that the first movement especially, “Emerson”, is very Emersonian. It is completely unclassifiable, like Emerson, free, changing, all-encompassing and cosmic…

LVR: How does one render the cosmos in music?

JG: By constantly passing from one style to another, using many different forms of writing, without losing the sense of line. There is a line in this movement: it is a sonata, but Ives succeeded in projecting onto this line these abrupt successions of thoughts, these changes of point of view, as did Emerson, whose approach is precisely like this.

LVR: The Universe Symphony, which is often considered to be THE transcendentalist work of Ives, took twenty years to write and remained unfinished…

JG: There is almost nothing written: it is more of a sketch, and it was meant to serve as an outline around the theme of Music in Nature…Each successive generation of composers was meant to add its contribution to it–that was the idea, and also that it should be played on mountain peaks!

LVR: That was also an idea of Debussy…

JG: Yes, but Ives didn’t really like him, although there are certain transcendentalist aspects in Debussy: bonding with nature, music in the outdoors…But when asked what he thought of Debussy’s music, he replied that it was nothing that a one-week stay in the country couldn’t cure! Ives found Debussy’s music too affected, too remote. He sought aspiration, Rimbaud, Genet, no separation between life and the poem, no representation, the thing itself, not the image of the object but the object itself.

LVR: Is there not then what might be called a philosophical, and even a sort of metaphysical staging of music?

JG: Yes, it is staged, and even if it may seem paradoxical, the staging is as transparent as possible, so we don’t see it. But he was conscious of the importance of the individuality of the “interpreter”, a word that I hate. I prefer “performer”…

LVR: Why?

JG: You have three hours?… (laughs). No, one can say the “executioner” in French, but it has the character of a massacre… There’s no way around it! The performer renders, he renders audible, he recreates. With the word “interpreter”, there is the underlying possibility of distortion.

LVR: Exactly, so does the performer need to know Transcendentalism to render even better transcendentalist music?

JG: It depends on the works and on the composers. Scelsi (3) told me he did not care what I might have to say about his music. He wanted only “life force”! But to take again the example of the Concord Sonata, I think that it is probably a better idea to know the transcendentalists, but especially to know the writings of Ives on Transcendentalism, in order to have a sense of durations, the non-stability he required. And sometimes just because Ives indicates very specifically how to play this sonata. Once, a French pianist asked me what I knew of Transcendentalism because he was going to play this sonata in concert, and he was shocked to learn that things were much more profound and overwhelming than he thought. Even if that does not imply that he had been able to fully internalize musically what he had come to understand, because there is still a step between understanding and rendering…

LVR: Exactly. What were, what are the relationships between French music and American music?

JG: Actually, at the beginning of the century, music was in a state of crisis because ossified, in a rut. It’s Russian music, especially with Stravinsky, and a return to Mussorgsky, and then the jazz of the United States, that brought a new freshness to music. And then, amidst all of this, there was Mr. Debussy (4), very inspired by Oriental music.

LVR: Gombrich has studied the question with regard to the painting of the same era.

JG: Yes, and Nietzsche already suggested that one ought to be much more modest when dealing with texts, taking for example the cautious approach of the philologist to a text by Horace. It is in this sense that Stravinsky spoke before the incredible mountain of criticism he faced. He fought against this trend of criticism to make an artwork of the review, as Thomas Woolf explained in The Painted Word, evoking critical literature about painting. Stravinsky himself takes the example of Adorno and his writings about music: he becomes so distant from music itself that it is he who is making a self-contained work (with its own qualities: consistency, originality , seduction, etc…). Besides, I also believe that philosophy in its purest state should express nothing: it is we who put the meaning there. “We want to give life to a stone,” in vain, said a Russian philosopher on this subject.

LVR: Returning to the example of Ives, would you say that Transcendentalism is just a pretext for his music?

JG: Ives said that he was himself a transcendentalist, a transcendentalist activist in a sense, but it’s the music that counts, the sound… Luciano Berio (5) said something in this domain that I find very true: the only way to speak intelligently about an opera, a symphony, is another opera, another symphony. Meaning, when speaking about the Concord Sonata, the real question is: how does this sonata relate to the Hammerklavier of Beethoven, or to the sonatas by Liszt and Stravinsky?

LVR: A score represents a musician for another score, in the sense that Lacan expressed: “The signifier represents a subject for another signifier…”

JG: “Each love is the one before…”

LVR: Does this mean then that there is a constant gap between what the composer wants to signify and what is received?

JG: Yes, it was Paul Klee who said: “A work of art does not represent what is seen but what will be seen.” Scelsi was so horrified at the idea that his music might be distorted, it is only at the end of his life that he finally consented to having it published. He said that he was wrong: “I must leave my music in the world,” he added. Scelsi nonetheless wanted to then control all the concerts where his works were played.

LVR: That is like certain trends in the theater; for example, Beckett wanted to control every staging of his plays.

JG: The work first and foremost! The work for itself. One might say that it is justified the assertion that the best interpreter of a work is its author.

LVR: But isn’t this precisely a way of interpretation, the will to cut the work from its realization?

JG: The beauty is there, in the tension between the music on paper, and the music played. Over time, what matters anyway is what is written. In the last analysis, who cares if it’s Glenn Gould or someone else who plays Bach?

LVR: Well, in fact, written music has been criticized by some composers.

JG: Yes, in the fifties and early sixties, what mattered to composers close to John Cage was the act, the performance. We’re back to what we were talking about before, with the logic of the happening taken to its limits. Very close to the aesthetic of Pollock, with sonic drips, etc…These artists were in fact great friends. Abstract Expressionism in New York. The mode of purely graphic pieces was very much in the air. But they returned to written music; there was no more unity. They agreed with Berio, who said about pure improvisation, “It is not virtuosity that interests us so much as virtuosity of consciousness.” This allows greater control by the composer. Good music is written in the head.

LVR: You were yourself a composer…

JG: Yes, I learned a lot thanks to that. Now I play every piece from the perspective of the composer. For twentieth-century music in particular, I would highly recommend that performers have a minimum of notions of composition, since these compositional problems are central.

LVR: Consequently, to what degree does composition have to bear in improvisation? You recently composed music for the film “La Discrète”.

JG: Yes, there were improvisations based on already-existing themes, themes by Scarlatti and Schubert.

LVR: How exactly did it happen?

JG: Luciano Berio has said of improvisation that it is like the permanent adjustment of a target, the correction of errors. He quoted something Thelonius Monk said after a not very successful concert: “I made the wrong mistakes,” he said. (Laughs) As for “La Discrète”, I worked on previously timed sequences, with a different mood each time. I played according to the mood as needed.

LVR: Your improvisation, I think, is both very jazzy, and yet quite in the continuity of the pieces by Schubert and Scarlatti.

JG: Yes, I obtained this result by inserting in my playing not only melodic, but also rhythmic fragments of those pieces. The background music for the bar scene, for example, needed to be very light, and the jazzy feel was right for it. And then the rather ironic Schubert was perfect for the character of Antoine. Scarlatti was perfect for the more deep and emotional scenes.

LVR: And how did you conceive your interpretation: as an accompaniment or as a counterpoint to the dialogue?

JG: No, the characteristic of a film score is to emphasize the dialogue and atmosphere, as you put a text in italics. That’s it. Highlight the tone, intent, motivation, emotion. I projected my perception of the tone of these sequences in my music, hoping that each viewer might feel the same thing at the same time. Even if it’s true that I could guide him with my music. I saw the movie twice prior to doing the music, once to soak up the general atmosphere, the second for timing sequences in which my music would be used, and to see how it should intervene. After, it’s about working in the studio.

LVR: Is this a similar type of improvisation to what you will be doing soon in a theater, playing for the screening of a silent movie?

JG: I will have to transpose what I feel.

LVR: This echoes an old tradition, when there used to be a piano in the movie theater, until the advent of the talkies.

JG: Right. Absolutely, it’s a throwback to that tradition.

LVR: isn’t music in this situation fully and clearly dependent on the image?

JG: I’ll have to find the closest possible relationship between image and music. But it’ll be a sort of music stream, hopefully with many moments of grace! (Laughs)

LVR: Will you be more inclined to play on resemblances or contrasts?

JG: Actually, when there are scenes in which someone gets hit, or punched, or something along those lines, I will feel inclined to create a counterpoint, because I don’t like when music becomes too obvious at such moments, with exactly the same hits or punches. You know, ultimately, what counts in improvisation is the character, one’s history, one’s failings, one’s automatisms, etc. Whereas in composition, there is the written score, and minus just one voice because there is a hierarchy, and not just a succession of variations or tics. It is a question of temporality. In improvisation, things go very quickly, it’s without a net; with a reservoir, nonetheless, like someone who speaks with a stock of vocabulary and formulas. Whereas composition is a hierarchical construction from beginning to end.

LVR: The musician who improvises is like the actor who jumps onto the stage…

JG: The only difference is that the actor, in general, follows the thread of a text. While the improvising musician, even if one can indeed use the term “performer” for the two, is thrown completely alone into the future. There are improvisations that attain the status of a work: the Improvisations of Stravinsky, for example. There is a short story by Cortázar, “The Pursuer”, which recounts the day of a jazz musician. At one point, he says something that corresponds perfectly to what we are dealing with: “(This piece), I am in the process of playing it tomorrow.” It is a beautiful image that shows that musical invention always works in terms of a “nostalgia for the future.”

LVR: On the relationship between voice and music, Ligeti (6) said: “I use Hungarian as sound material (in his mind it could very well be another language), a kind of phonetic Esperanto.” What do you think of this paradox in which not only is a specific language used in order to achieve musical universality, but also to unhinge the language as in “Aventures” in order to achieve this? This work is in principal completely asemantic.

JG: Yes, we find that in all music that uses gestures and found objects (7). For example in Berio’s “Visage”, an electronic piece in which the human voice is transformed, also from the same period (late sixties). You hear all sorts of strange noises that, according to Berio, can be interpreted as the first attempts of an infant to articulate a phoneme, or as a transition from one station to another on a radio! Here Berio has brought to its limit the equivalency of voice/music, while at the same time the voice itself is totally exhausted as a musical phenomenon.

Interview conducted by “La Voix du Regard” (April 1991)
Ecole Normale Superieure de Fontenay / St Cloud
Interview by Guillaume Soulez
with the assistance of Antonia Soulez, philosopher

(1) A concert by Jay Gottlieb is always a spectacle in its own way. Critics have called him an “electric battery” as his virtuosity and always accurate touch are amazing. This is far afield from the pseudo-lyrical pathos of certain performers. Perhaps paradoxically, because they do not know what a stage is, before it becomes the focus of a concert.
(2) American Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau…) of 1840 to 1870 is a movement of thought highly localized in time and space. The city of Concord, New England, which was its center during those years, was the name given to a sonata written between 1909 and 1915 by Charles Ives (1874-1954).
(3) Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), Italian count, composer and poet. Highly influenced by the Orient, very close friend of Henri Michaux. He wrote in particular “Four Pieces on a Single Note”, 1959.
(4) Allusion to the writings of the musician, collected under the title Monsieur Croche.
(5) Luciano Berio, 1925-2003, Italian composer and conductor. Sinfonia, 1969, Sequenzas, series of pieces for all instruments, and Chemins, continued throughout his life as a composer.
(6) Gyorgy Ligeti was born in Transylvania in 1923 and died in Vienna in 2006. Stanley Kubrick used several of his works, particularly the Requiem and Lux Aeterna, 1967, for the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Other works: Le Grand Macabre, opera, 1974-1977; Aventures, 1963; Atmospheres, 1961; Lontano, 1971-1972.
(7) Any musical statement can be considered as a gesture.