Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website

On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

On record: Max Richter – Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

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Summary

For his follow-up to the extraordinarily successful SLEEP, Max Richter turns his attentions to the works of Virginia Woolf. He has been working on a Royal Ballet production with Wayne McGregor, and this full length album documents his responses to Woolf’s novels.

The resultant soundtrack features Woolf’s own text, read by Sarah Sutcliffe, Gillian Anderson and the author herself, her only surviving recording, where she reads Craftsmanship to the eerie backing of Big Ben. Anderson reads her suicide note, a deeply felt letter to her husband to which Richter responds with the extended meditation Tuesday.

What’s the music like?

Richter shows his versatility as a composer throughout this album, drawing on his legacy as an electronic composer but showing also how he continues to effectively exploit analogue instruments.

The music for Mrs Dalloway is incredibly intimate and has a small-scale setting to go with it. Utterances like Words and In the garden are simplicity itself and are subtly scored, while War anthem features a resonant cello, beautifully played by Hila Karni, that soars in the spirit of John Tavener.

Orlando contains a varied selection of shorter pieces. Morphology has a lovely, open texture, and like a few of the numbers here it would have been nice for the music to have longer to open out and present itself fully. Perhaps because of the constraints of the director, some of Richter’s music adopts more of a sketch form here.

That is emphatically not the case for the final, heartrending Tuesday, Richter’s response to the suicide note that makes up the whole of the Waves section. It is a powerful meditation, deliberately written to connect with Zen Buddhism, and comes close to Hans Zimmer’s music for Interstellar in mood. Richter’s musical development is subtle, the elegiac motif generating a deep and lasting power that leads to a final, exhausted coda.

The Waves, Woolf Works from Ravi Deepres on Vimeo.

Does it all work?

Mostly, and it presents Richter as a multifaceted composer who can work on the small scale of chamber music but also a larger orchestral stage. Tuesday is a really impressive piece of work, showing how he can command the attention of an audience over a longer structure – which SLEEP did of course, but in a very different way!

The music for Mrs Dalloway is very simple – too much at times – but at its best is also deeply effective. The sensitive use of speech around the music is effective.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Not always the cheeriest album, Three Worlds does nonetheless become both a restful and emotionally powerful piece of meditation, a heartfelt response to the works of one of Britain’s finest 20th century novelists.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Francesco Tristano – Mixing it up

francesco-tristano
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

Alice Sara Ott – The Chopin Project

alice-sara-ott
Alice Sara Ott

German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has recorded Chopin before – but not like this. Signed to Deutsche Grammophon, she has recorded the composer’s complete Waltzes for piano – along with discs of Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky. Now she returns to Chopin, but with the Broadchurch composer Ólafur Arnalds for company. The Chopin Project is their collaborative album, featuring recordings made by Ott on a less-than-perfect piano, complemented by pieces for strings from Arnalds.

Ott is enthusiastic about the project as we grab a quick phone call in-between her rehearsal schedule – which has just reached the Barbican, where she has selected a piano for a concert. So, as Arcana begins with every interviewee…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My mother is a professional pianist, so there is always music in our house. That means the first classical music I heard was probably when I was still in her belly! I think my first concert experience was when three years old, and I had to go with my mum as she couldn’t find a babysitters.

At that age, you’re not able to communicate with adults, but every child still wants to be understood. Everybody wants to find a way of expressing themselves other than with the voice, and I was fascinated by the idea of about 200 people listening to someone in a room, playing piano, without talking.

I think I started playing piano as a simple wish for being understood and getting some attention. It goes beyond spoken communication. The music was not necessarily what moved me, it was the situation, and the language everybody listened to and understood.

Can you remember your first encounter with the music of Chopin?

It was around five years old. I had a cassette tape – I think Deutsche Grammophon had a series for children where they got an actor to tell the story of the composer with different recordings. I think it was a birthday or Christmas present, and that was the first time I experienced it. I couldn’t pronounce it!

Where did you meet Ólafur?

I had never really listened to his music before, but I met him through a producer who used to be my producer at DG. When Ólafur started to talk about the idea he came across the Chopin Waltzes disc I had done, and he contacted me through the producer. In the beginning I couldn’t imagine the idea. I’m very careful with these collaborations, as I see myself as a core classical artist.

 

What did you think of his music?

When I listened to Ólafur’s music it had taste and style, and I really liked it, so we spoke on Skype and I ended up accepting the offer. I play the Chopin pieces as written, but it was good to get a little bit away from the perfect, stereotypical sound we get in recording these days. Everything is so clean and perfect, but in those days before recording it was not so important and everybody was closer to the artist. You don’t hear the pedals or the hammers in piano recordings any more, you just hear when the sound reaches the acoustic.

Nowadays we have great instruments, and great halls, but with The Chopin Project we wanted to bring people back to really listen and get an intimate experience. It was an all-acoustic thing, and it was great for me. We are planning on a tour with the project. It’s so much fun!

How much input did you have into Ólafur’s compositions?

Almost nothing at all, he wrote them separately. The one track where I’m playing is where I play little ornaments, but this is his part of the album – me joining his project, his idea.

I like the idea he didn’t do rearrangements and came up with original pieces, and I think the pieces with strings complement the ones with solo piano. He felt it was more appropriate for strings and the one track where he uses the solo violin.

You said how important the more natural approach to recording was – do you think modern recording can be too clinical sometimes?

It’s a very different sound experience, the concept is different. We tried to distance ourselves from how recordings are made today.

It’s a great thing the technology is so advanced and everything is possible, but sometimes I wish for more live moments, and I like to record something with a natural flow. You will never get the same as experiencing the music live, but it is a lot closer to that.

Will The Chopin Project bring his music to a new audience?

I hope so, and I want it to bring in not just a new audience but the audience that have heard him one thousand times. I think it sits very well with the times we live in. Things are so perfect in those human moments, experiencing live music – these moments are very precious. The old audience gets a new perspective, and at some points in the recording I can even hear myself breathing. It makes it very human.

You have worked and recorded with Francesco Tristano, who also crosses between classical and other forms of music such as techno. How did your collaboration begin?

With Francesco it started out of friendship; and a passion we share for the music of Bach. I grew up with him aside from our passion for food.

I had the idea to invite him on as a guest for a French Baroque album, and then for a Bach double album that didn’t work out. We decided to base a two-piano album around The Rite of Spring (given the title Scandale) and came across the music for the Ballets Russes company. These are some of the major pieces in classical music, so we chose Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and found a couple that went with it. We have now played 30 concerts together, and we’re at a point where we don’t think about most of the music on the disc originally being written for orchestra.

For me you enter a new world. We never can play without energy, and that’s the fun part. It’s very physical and we wouldn’t do it after an espresso or something! It’s all about dance music. It’s rhythmically very challenging but so fun. When we play it you see the audience react physically, moving their shoulders, and that’s so nice to see, that’s what music does and that’s the common language that goes beyond words, and makes you feel very privileged.

What are your future plans?

I’m in London now for my performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto no.2, and then I move on to Shanghai, South America, the United States and then a couple more times to London. Francesco and I will come to London with Scandale.

The Chopin Project is out now on Mercury Classics. You can find out more about Alice and her recordings by visiting her website