“Pianist’s Health” – Interview and photos

Pianist’s Health: Jay Gottlieb
Remarks recorded and photographs taken by Isabelle Françaix of Ramifications – L’actualité classique de la vie musicale, March 30, 2009, in Brussels.

Freshness, passion and openness, the American pianist Jay Gottlieb does not mince words, and expresses himself with the same sparkling energy, the same vitality as when he is seated at a piano: available, concentrated, deeply committed and attentive to the vibrations surrounding him.

On March 29, 2009, this fervent dedicatee of works composed for him, proponent of music of all centuries,  collaborated with Jean-Paul Dessy and the Ensemble Musiques Nouvelles at the Studio Dada in Brussels to record for Le Chant du Monde the Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra by the Uzbek Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. A wonderful, beautiful and intense adventure.

Jay Gottlieb, what is your relationship to this work that you premiered in France in 2007?

None in particular.  I had already played in the contemporary music festival that Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky directed in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, his country of origin.  It was a piano recital full of new music which had nothing to do with his own works. I knew him personally, but that had nothing to do with the concerto context.

What are your feelings about this piece?

The same considerations as for all of his works:  a great spirituality, and his capacity for sobriety and not vainly showing off.  Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky has no problem with shaded hues or with interiority: he masters the interior of the interior and all of its refinement.

I also recognize his influences, what characterizes him and what circulates in his musical and esthetic blood.   He remains faithful to certain sources such as music of the beginning of the 20th century. Certain specific musical modes, particularly octatonic, inform this concerto.  It’s a matrix on which Yanov-Yanovsky concentrates, and that functions with great variety according to a clear given, absolutely spelled out.  All of that is coherent and deeply rooted.

Did you work on it with him?

No. There are two sorts of composers: the doting fathers and those that work in acquired confidence (because they have heard us play, either their works or a vast spectrum of works from the repertoire), and then total confidence (“I know that it will be good”).  What’s more, composers of the latter type are ready for surprises. I had numerous experiences with composers who preferred my vision to what they had initially foreseen.  They changed the score before handing it over to the publisher for printing. Sometimes I modified fingerings, or phrasing, or pedaling, and even changed notes.

Yanov-Yanovsky is a confident composer.  He doesn’t need to be behind my back every nanosecond, perhaps preferring my vision which might be slightly different from his, and sometimes better in its projection of it.  That is the composer’s intelligence…and that is beautiful.

For you, the difference between composing and performing doesn’t appear to be paramount.

I love to improvise and consequently smash that barrier!  I was also a composer and…the piano won out!  I have absolutely no regrets over no longer writing music down on paper or on computer.  Sometimes people look at me with a sort of pity: “Poor soul!  He doesn’t compose anymore.!”  But I’m more than fine, thank you, as a pianist.  The world of creation is so rich: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann are not a problem for me.  I adore choosing for a recital a running theme: a form or a context.  Take for example the prelude: I begin with Bach and continue until today.

Then composing and performing represent the same path?

One must be attentive to not pervert written works, to not betray them.  My pride, on the strength of ongoing dialogue with living composers, is having the impression (without being pretentious) of somewhat inhabiting their head.  And, as a result, the head of those who haven’t been around for centuries.  Playing any form of work, orchestral or solo, is always a form of re-creation. I didn’t say “recreation”.  True, there is also a form of play, but only in part: there is after all much preparation involved!  It is not improvised.  And yet, during a concert one should be able to give the impression that the ink of the score is still wet!  Ink still wet!  That each time is the first time.  And to keep that freshness.  A premiere is a special context of total discovery, but when one replays the work, one finds an incalculable number of treasures and wonders.  This is incomparable and capital.

How can those that fall into that terrifying word “routine” communicate the flame? One should burn in concert with the same flame as creation.  It’s give and take!  And that is the responsibility of the performer, his creativity: fire, curiosity, openness. Whatever the musical period.

And is it the same as far as the barriers between musical esthetics are concerned?

I erase completely the line between different musics!  Whether we are dealing with William Byrd or Luciano Berio, it is still the same love, the same freshness, the same passion. I am just as excited by Baude Cordier (Ed. note: French composer, Reims, end of the 14th century-beginning of the 15th century) and his graphic scores as by those by the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s.  And yet quite a few centuries separate them, and I find so exciting the spirals of history!  As my marvelous mentor Nadia Boulanger said, the more one progresses, the more one realizes that there is in fact no real break, even if one is quite convinced that there are radical esthetic breaks.

On close observation, one realizes that throughout history there are successive sunrises and sunsets on concepts, ideas, energies.  Things return, disappear, come back again…Let’s look again at the example of Baude Cordier, 1400, graphic works:  afterwards musical graphics did not interest people much! Then in the 1940s-1950s in the United States with Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, or in Italy with Bussotti, etc.: absolute graphics return!  It isn’t radicalism, but a return.  However, one must already be aware of the antecedents!  The list is very long.  In the 18th century, Friedrich Wilhelm Rust, a German contemporary of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, employs pizzicati, instrumental effects inside the harpsichord, blocked keys, what Ligeti took up in the 1980s.  Yes, with time, it is very clear: nothing so radical, so earthshaking, so overwhelming, not such great revelations as all that!  And this is not at all a disappointment.  On the contrary, for this totally eradicates temporal space!  It is a marvel to feel a part of this curve!  One is in harmony with the cosmos, with the past and the future.

When you are labeled as a specialist of contemporary music, do you feel this to be limiting?

Evidently!  When one really looks at what is going through the veins of music, as I was saying for Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, is it a crime to recognize and to cite all the composers of the past?  Not at all!

What counts is what one does with the material.  This is true for all forms of art, in fact.  George Crumb imagines “Makrokosmos” (which bear their name well) in 1972-73, quoting Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy…And yet he creates a totally other form.  Entirely open, he understood the availability of the material that one caresses, sculpts.  That is healthy!

Within the same recital, I have included the most diverse, even antinomic, musical esthetics.  I recall one recital in which the audience offered enthusiastic applause, but when I began a work that displeased one particular composer, who until then had been screaming BRAVO, he left the hall, noticeably slamming the door behind him.  He didn’t understand that the same Gottlieb played all of this music: that it was necessary to take it in its totality!  My message wasn’t acceptable for this composer who wanted to display his belonging to one camp and not another.  For me, this is a stress that shouldn’t be.  One ought to be capable of saying yes to all that is interesting.

Composers often appropriate what they find interesting for their own use and disown the rest.  Thus, when they say, “This is the way it is…”, there are two little words missing from their statement: “…for me”!  But it seems that the sentence “This is the way it is for me” is taboo.

So contemporary music that wants to completely obliterate the past is misguided?

It’s the little boy who wants to get out of the clutches of Mama and Papa!  “And I kill them!”  It’s as old as Freud!  Or should I say as young as Freud!  No, no…that will never go away, and it’s perfectly human: “This is ME, I create, etc.”, while refusing to  cite sources or give away recipes.

In a colloquium, the immense Ligeti spoke with superb metaphors of what influenced his work. Someone asked him, “But how did you get those notes?”  This person really wanted concrete answers!  And Ligeti said, “Oh, you know, it’s like being in a train. You look out the window and the vistas whiz by…It’s a bit like that.”   Well, what he said was charming, but not at all the answer!

I could give hundreds of illustrations…I could snuff out very concrete influences on very great composers, but I’ll keep their secret.

In short, to think of oneself as entirely unique and exterior to all influence is a delusion.  We are absolutely influenced by all that surrounds us and has preceded us.  Once again, it is what one does with the material that counts.

Since we are speaking of material, why did you choose your path with the piano?

It has been my instrument forever.  I decided nothing.  There wasn’t really a choice between composition and piano, even if I always say that the piano “won”!  The piano was absolutely parallel to composition even before the age of 1.  Let us be clear: I always was a pianist.

You were born a pianist?

It is what the extraordinary Nadia Boulanger, the most immense musician I ever met,  said to me after having played a few notes for her the very first time.  If she said it, it must be the case, for she was music itself!  In any case, I have always been undetachable from this instrument.  It was necessary to extirpate me from it to bring me back to reality, it absorbed me so completely!

At about the age of 22, true, I had to make a choice: piano or composition.  Both are so compelling.  And at a certain level, it’s too much.  One can’t do one or the other half-heartedly.  The piano “won” for it is an obsession.

Do you feel possessed by a mission?

I in fact have several, and this word often comes out of my mouth.  As a cure for cancer or despair, to do art, to offer beauty to the world can certainly be considered as a mission.

I don’t believe that I make music in a vacuum.  I believe that there is a significance, a meaning. Many people on the planet are suffering because of a lack of meaning in their lives.

I recently saw a cartoon in THE NEW YORKER, often caustic, not to be taken at face value.  A man has fainted and just regained consciousness. His tie and his suit are completely disheveled.  This happens at his office, and he’s surrounded by two of his colleagues.  When he comes to, he says, “Really, I’m fine. It was just a fleeting sense of purpose–I’m sure it will pass.”   That’s juicy!

People who live blindly, repeating gestures mechanically, prefer not to ask themselves too many questions, especially when they venture nowhere, because as soon as there is a rash of questions, the world is jostled…and art is made!  Artists are really very lucky people…even if, indeed, reckoning with the crystallization of things is not easy.

Everything that one does in life:  our studies, each meal, each dish, whether it be Tibetan or Thai or Korean, each spice informs every note!  Music crystallizes everything.

I believe that musicians that don’t have interesting lives are not interesting musicians.  They’ll never project, in an urgent and fully-lived way, the music that they play.  I don’t like the word “interpretation”.

Why?

“interpretation” implies distance.  If a composer gives me his confidence, it’s because he understands that I can be at the interior of the thing, retrace his compositional process, and become, in an Oriental way, the work, the composer.

It is what I love to do, and that is just what is so demanding!

It is much easier to stay on the outside, to “interpret”, but I don’t want that!  I want to become the thing.

The word “play” is less disturbing to me.  The concept of play is crucial in the making of a work; it is not solely a solemn activity.  Being rigid and tight impedes the projection of it.

But beware: “This is not a game!”  Neither the learning nor the performance of a work is a game.  And yet, Oscar Wilde said, “Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.”  Paradox doesn’t disturb me at all.

Le Rochefoucauld, in his “Maxims”, wrote: “He who lives without madness is not as wise as he thought”…

Yet another illustration of the return of the same thought across the decades, like the successive rising and setting of the sun.  Seneca, born before Christ, pronounces ideas such as “In order to write down one’s dreams, one must be completely awake.”  Paul Valéry, in the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, repeats this, speaking for himself.

Of course, in order to realize this, it is necessary to be aware of Seneca’s writings just as it is to be aware of the works of Baude Cordier!   But when one knows this: what serenity!  One feels so in phase with the 14th, 15th or 16th centuries; it’s not something that intimidates or frightens me. It was a different life, with less comfort, for sure.  But you know the famous line of Debussy speaking of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”:  “Music of the primitive with every modern comfort!”

Despite the primitivism of the 16th century, when one sees today how thoughts converge across the centuries, one concludes, “After all, we’re only human!”  That is very reassuring.  I absolutely don’t feel the need to repeat the rallying cry of Boulez: “Burn the museums!”  What an adolescent he was.  Or “Let’s kill Papa” in his famous article “Schoenberg is Dead!”  It’s huge, but of course it was in keeping with his own personal needs.  Schoenberg’s need to use old forms–gigue, waltz, etc.–was repugnant to him.  Of course, in 1952 they were of no concern to Boulez.  But once again, he omitted the essential “for me” or “as far as I am concerned”…

If it were possible to put back this “for me” into a man’s mouth, he who would still persist in not articulating it would perhaps lose his charisma and his power!  He would be unmasked…

Let’s talk then about the “for me”, but “for you”!  Do you have elective affinities in music?

Oh yes, but they are so heteroclite that certain people might wonder if they are dealing with the same person.  To them, I would retort immediately, and with a great wink: “That precisely is my wealth!”  Many would like to pin me down, and when I do a little pirouette and speak of things they don’t know, that closes the discussion.  Yes, “that is my wealth!”

I could cite hundreds of names. It’s endless.

A composer who I know counts for you: Scelsi…

Yes, I was fortunate to know him during the last four years of his life.  We became close, and I had the privilege of being “elected” a Scelsi pianist.  The term “elected” is neither pretentious nor inappropriate since Scelsi was a guru: he was more inclined to refuse people who, according to him, were not worthy.  It was necessary to be at a sufficient level as a liver of life in order to bring to his music all that it requires: the crystallization of everything.  Scelsi heard immediately if one was inhabited by music or not.  And in order to play Scelsi, one must be.  One must plunge to the interior of the heartbeat of each sound.  If each fingertip is not capped with grey matter, it doesn’t work!

It is not an exaggeration to invoke the notion of “rite of passage” required by him.

So many people flocked to Rome to see the Master!  And so many were refused. He was on another planet!  I was lucky to be already seasoned at the moment of my meeting with him.  Fortunately!  It would have been completely demoralizing and insufferable to be rejected by this man!   In any case, quoting Pascal, “You would not have searched for me if you had not already found me”…I believe that if I had not already been so fascinated by Scelsi, that I would not have had the idea of going to see him, and would not have been ready.  So much for that little ego trip!  (Laughs)

Every detail was scrutinized in a guru to disciple context.  “We will use the familiar form, Jay, since we are musical brothers.”  That was disturbing, hard to get used to.

“And of course we will speak French, the only civilized language.  What is the definition of ‘just’?”  “Well, what is ‘just’ is…I began using rather technical language: “the golden mean, Pythagorus…”  The master’s reaction: nodding of the head and a circular motion of the hand for me to go farther. When I exhausted my technical stock, he said, “What is ‘just’ is ecstasy and illumination.”  The meeting could now be called official.

We continued for hours, there in Rome, in his apartment opposite the Forum and the Coliseum.  He said, “In the middle of my salon is the line of demarcation between the Orient and the Occident…about which I know a few things.”  He pointed to it, in his salon.  And what a salon: crowning it was a diptych by Dali that was done for him!  One felt inside history…He was also a close friend of Henri Michaux, whose convulsive poetry is among the most fantastic that exists.  And he had been an inveterate socialite, which he never minimalized: medieval education, fencing, marriage at Buckingham Palace, international dance competition prizes, tango, rumba, etc. He knew Fred and Ginger!  This is the same Scelsi who meditated and did yoga everyday and saw no one before 4 p.m.  He was everything at once!

It was one of the great meetings of my life.  I saw the man, played for him, he attended concerts I gave which included his music, and we became very close.  I was not his student: I was already 31-32 and, as I said, seasoned, but I consider him as one of my mentors.  Diametrically opposed to Nadia Boulanger, who was essential to me, the greatest of all possible mentors.  The two combined give me plenitude, the essence of my entire being.

What does teaching represent for you, now that you in turn are a mentor?

I often give master classes, on an invited guest basis.  Prestigious institutions have offered me permanent positions…I prefer teaching everywhere in the world: in Japan, in Russia, in New York, in France, in Italy…That said, there have been situations in which there was a longer commitment, for example at Indiana University in Bloomington where Janos Starker, Menahem Pressler, etc. are on the faculty.  It’s one of the greatest music schools in the world.  I went twice for three and a half months, in 2004 and 2006, and they proposed a permanent position there, as did the Paris Conservatoire…which did tempt me.  But I turned it down.

Was it to avoid a form of routine?

No, because finding a fresh approach each time, each day, would be capital for me.  Once I did a tour giving lecture-demonstrations in schools throughout the great suburban area of Paris.  One of them was the exception: a difficult school with students who were not at all musicians.  The very official organizing council wanted to do an experiment with me.  Several of its members observed me from the rear of the class, taking notes of all of my actions, how the E.T. that I was dealt with this alien context…The students should have been 15, but in fact they were 17 or 18, having been left back several times!  When I entered the class, indeed, they were throwing paper airplanes and chairs.  Total chaos. My first gesture was instinctive: I threw my coat on the floor, violently, fortissimo.  Then I started asking them questions in English, hardly articulating, pianissississimo…

In ordinary circumstances, I’m in concert halls and theaters.  But here, I was in a rough school, confronted with real life.  Talk about mission!

I returned to French, and slowly but surely a dialogue ensued.  I uttered some regular, pulsating percussive sounds and asked them to tell me what it was.  Someone said rhythm…which led me to show them the difference between pulse and rhythm, the organization of sound in time, all the while changing my tone, and modulating my voice.  After that lesson, I asked them to tell me what I had just given them.  The answers came like bullets: “information”, or “definitions”, etc.   Silence.

And then I responded, “I gave you power”…Very dramatic, I had them clinging to my every pause.  And then suddenly I shouted, “Stand up!”  As if in a geriatrics ward, it took an unbelievably long amount of time for them to get on their feet, and then I gave them a quick course in conducting: how to beat 2, 3, 4.  They learned immediately, with no mistakes.  At the piano, I played various excerpts from the classical music repertory, asking them to conduct with the corresponding meters.  They found them immediately, and even screamed at the one poor fellow who just once got it wrong.

And only very progressively did I even get to the subject for which I was invited there in the first place: American music.

When I was finished, they didn’t want me to leave.  The connection had been established.

Enter the notion of routine.  The teacher who saw these students every day and who had given up on them a long time ago (“They’re all dunces!  They’re impossible!”) was jealous: “This time you got ‘em, but you wouldn’t be able to hold up down the road. Just from the standpoint of your throat, you give so much of yourself that you’d have no more voice left!”  Every word counts!  “Madame, do you really think that I lack imagination to the point that I wouldn’t use a mike?”  Even if were a teacher every day in a high school, even though this is not exactly my destiny, it would be with a mike and with very different approaches. That’s how I am: there will not be routine.  I don’t do things systematically in the same manner.

Take the expression of Schoenberg: “continuous variation”, the variation of the variation!   It’s never finished, always in flight, said Franco Donatoni, the immense composer who dedicated to me a work that I adore and that bears my name.  The definitive solution is never found. It’s always in flight, always in movement.

During a broadcast on Radio France, an interview, I related the above story at the difficult school, and concluded with the indictment of Emile Zola: “I accuse…the teacher!”   The switchboard exploded with callers expressing their solidarity!

You awakened consciousness!  Which says worlds about a way of being, a desire…

Ah!  The word “desire”…It often was pronounced by the wonderful Nadia Boulanger.  She quoted her great friend Paul Valéry (who, as we said, quoted Seneca…)(Laughs), and his words inscribed on the pediment of the Trocadéro in Paris: “Whether I am tomb or treasure / Whether I speak or remain silent / It depends only on you / Friend, do not enter without desire.”

It is true of life, it is true of our vocation of musician: “Do not enter without desire.”

There is no obligation.  It is such a calling…

Stronger than a dream?

Often a dream becomes reality. Works that are written often are the results of dreams. Certain pieces are woken dreams…

I would like that what desire led me to do might incite others to dream.

Pianist’s Health: Jay Gottlieb
Remarks recorded and photographs taken by Isabelle Françaix of Ramifications – L’actualité classique de la vie musicale, March 30, 2009, in Brussels.

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