Francesco Tristano – Mixing it up

Picture by Marie Staggat

Francesco Tristano has a number of musical specialities. You may know him as a pianist, partner with Alice Sara Ott in recent concerts revealing the percussive power of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or you may know him as a pianist who has shown his worth in improvisation, playing alongside Carl Craig – and showing his love of techno in a pioneering arrangement for piano of Rhythim is Rhythim’s Strings of Life.

If you know him for this, you are likely to be aware that Tristano also DJs regularly – and has added his voice to the already illustrious crowd who have mixed an instalment of the Get Physical label’s Body Language series. Tristano’s own brand of body language consists largely of his own work, either through originals, remixes or collaborations, but it is clear from this interview he is far from self-centred. Though of course we had to ask him a few things about himself…

How long have you been DJing, and how did you start?

I got in touch with the DJ world when I was living in New York City in the late nineties. By the end of my NYC stay, in the year 2003, I was DJing in a bar/lounge downtown. But I knew my thing was to play live. So I didn’t really DJ publicly except for one party at the Rex club in Paris and I recorded a DJ set for BBC Radio 1. Body Language isn’t really a DJ mix either – it’s more like a produced session with many live elements such as live synths playing.

I gather you had a shortlist for Body Language of several hundred tracks. How do you go about choosing a selection for commercial release from that list?

It was important for me to find a common thread of melody and harmony throughout the mix. It was mostly about listening to which collection of tracks would make sense harmonically together.

You included the Joe Zawinul track The Harvest, which really stands out early on in the compilation. What made you want to choose it?

Zawinul is arguably my greatest inspiration, and from a very early age. I guess I just had to have one of his tracks on the album. The Harvest is taken from his 1985 solo album Dialects – that’s just after the break-up of Weather Report.

Would you say some of the pieces here – Amnesie with Luciano, for instance – are more about rhythm and atmosphere than out-and-out melody?

We actually made the track for a film, Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesie which, you guessed it, takes place on the island of Ibiza. In accordance with the script I was working with cello samples, and also a vague harmonic relationship to the film’s main theme (which is also played by the cello). The rhythmic programming is Lucien’s, and provided a great drive for the minimalistic cello figures.

Does the mix tap in to your own clubbing experiences?

Sure. I like techno which is not limited to kick drum and high hats. Bring in some vintage synths please.

Why do you think the piano is so important both in club music and in your own music making?

The piano has been my companion since I’m five years old. I can always count on it. It doesn’t even need power. . . As for the piano in club music, I am not entirely sure. Chicago house made ample use of piano samples, but it wasn’t really using live pianos. Maybe piano is present in electronic music symbolically because it is the ancestor of the synthesiser…

Would you say constructing a DJ mix is similar to constructing a larger-scale piece of classical music, in terms of key relationships and development?

Sure. Beat-matching is not enough.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

There was a piano at my house. My mother listened to Bach, Wagner, but also Pink Floyd and Vangelis all day long. It was only a question of time until I touched the keyboard.

How does your work with Alice Sara Ott, playing Bach and Stravinsky, complement the work you do as a DJ?

Since I don’t work as a DJ (live sets only) it’s pretty much the same. Music is like cuisine: you have ingredients, and you can create very different dishes with the same set of ingredients.

Do you think dance / electronic music and classical music have a lot more in common than we realise?

I wish we would loosen up these denominations. Who decides if a given piece is classical? Detroit techno classics are called classics for a reason. Mozart never thought of writing a ‘classical’ sonata. It was the contemporary (‘techno’) music of his time.

What does classical music mean to you?

The same as techno ¬ i.e. nothing. Music is one long, universal continuum of which we are all part.

What are you listening to at the moment, and what piece of classical music would you recommend Arcana readers go out and find?

I am listening to Bach’s St. John Passion and I can only recommend it. But I would also recommend Starlight by Model 500. . .

Francesco Tristano’s contribution to Get Physical’s Body Language series is out now. The series includes mixes by DJ Hell, Modeselektor and Dixon. Meanwhile Scandale, his piano duet album with Alice Sara Ott, includes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Ravel’s La Valse. For more information click here – it is available now on Deutsche Grammophon

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