“The Adventure at One’s Fingertips” – Interview

Translation of the French original, “Jay Gottlieb, l’aventure au bout des doigts.”

Student at the Juilliard School, Harvard and of Nadia Boulanger, winner of many international prizes, praised by the greats such as Messiaen, Boulez, Bernstein or Ozawa, Jay Gottlieb is an unclassifiable pianist whose primary characteristic is an adventurous temperament. He recently gave a recital in the prestigious “Piano aux Jacobins” Festival in Toulouse.

Jay Gottlieb, you are a specialist of contemporary music. Does the word specialist bother you?

No. I specialize in imagination! My specialty is having a flair for interesting people, to generate creation. This is nothing new: from the age of ten, I began to compose, parallel to my piano studies. It was also at this time that I met the person who, I can say now with hindsight, was my first mentor.

This was Stefan Wolpe, a musician with an incredible imagination. He was a musician of German origin, one of the avant-garde artists of the Bauhaus, who fled the Nazis, first emigrating to Palestine, then to New York, my hometown where I lived with my parents.

This amazing man, who died in the seventies, was a close friend of Kandinsky, Klee and the New York underground. He organized Dada “happenings”, burning pianos and smashing icons with delight. He was one of the few personalities of the time who knew at the tip of his fingers the music of Schoenberg, Busoni and Webern – the latter two had been his teachers – and linked American pop repertoire to the European avant-garde.

Imagine the impact of such a personality on an adolescent passionate about music, but who only knew what the followers of Schumann and Mozart and Dvorak taught in my country. It freed me from the gravitational pull of tonality while providing me with a taste for gesture, physicality, movement, theater.

Other personalities who had an impact on you?

Yes, especially Nadia Boulanger, with whom I studied in France, at Fontainebleau and in Paris. The world that I discovered with Wolpe had nothing to do with that of “Mademoiselle”, but it would be inaccurate to consider her a reactionary personality. Quite the contrary. My passion for Mademoiselle Boulanger was total.

Following her example, each of us examined the past in order to create the future, not to lock ourselves in the study of perishable masterpieces! Her knowledge was encyclopedic. She could leap from Bach to Stravinsky without complex, and always advised us to go as far as we could.

She wanted above all to stimulate our critical sense and enlarge our horizons in terms of forms of expression. With her, I did everything: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, but also Bartok, Messiaen, Boulez, Ives, who was not well-known at the time.

You have been identified as a pianist of the new and off-the-beaten track rather than as a pianist of standard repertoire. Is this justified?

It’s a market issue, and I have no problem with it. For me it is urgent to serve creation. All my colleagues dive into Chopin and Brahms whom I love and also play. I’m going voluntarily towards the creators, towards the music of our time.

Sometimes I mix eras as do many of my colleagues, but I Iove creation for itself. I am not using it to provide new evidence that composers of the past have had prophetic visions such as Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, or that composers today rely on the grand repertoire!

Several of the titles of works on your program in the Piano aux Jacobins recital include the word “Etude.” Is this by design or by accident?

Maybe it’s a sign of the obsession of a retarded teenager, the word “etude”! Yes, I am commissioning composers to write “etudes”. An etude explores a world, it also has a character, not unfinished, but in the making: it is a moment of creation.

It is also a musical form that has no boundaries, since precisely it goes beyond known boundaries. It is an investigation of a specific musical or sonic problem. One might ask several composers to write etudes on the same problem and compare.

Note that in my program in Piano aux Jacobins, the piano is still played on the keyboard, there is no “preparation”: everything is played on the keyboard in the traditional manner.

What are your immediate plans in the context of the woes of America? (1)

Thank God, none of my family or my friends has been affected by this murderous madness, but I cannot help thinking of the unfortunate innocents who perished. I’ll be playing soon at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I am filled with anxiety.

In addition, Betsy Jolas wrote a concerto for me. It is a concerto accompanied by a chorus that will be premiered on October 4 at the Musica Festival in Strasbourg by the choir Accentus, then we will do it again on October 10 at the Theatre des Arts in Rouen. It will precede a “carte blanche” given to me by the festival “October in Normandy” where I will be focusing on the lighter aspect of my personality with Gershwin, Keith Jarrett, Leonard Bernstein and John Adams, and where I will premiere four studies written for me by the Frenchman Gilbert Amy, the Finn Magnus Lindberg, the Dane Poul Ruders, and the Spaniard Luis de Pablo.

And the sad current events?

In Toulouse, before my concert I will read the following text :
“This recital is against barbarism, against non-creativity, against dependence on symbols that are stupid and antiquated and counter-evolutionary, giving way to a blind, infantile, irresponsible fanaticism, culminating in violence and destruction. This recital is for civilization, creativity, human dignity, the highest and noblest manifestation of which is CREATION. This recital is for memory, for the synthesis of history, the only possible means of assuring a now and a hereafter of intelligence. This recital is for the capacity to listen…to listen…to listen!.”

(1) Interview conducted on September 14, 2001, just after the tragic events of September 11.