October 7, 2017
1932 Second Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
October 7, 2017
Show at 8:00 pm
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STG Presents Ludovico Einaudi at The Moore on October 7, 2017.
He speaks as simply as he writes. Hidden in this simplicity is great depth. He has friendly eyes, a friendly handshake, a bashful smile and an engaging shyness that definitely washes up in his music, along with other more mystical fibres. He does not speak with me in his first language, but you wonder whether even in his own language he is as methodical in how he answers questions, reluctant to pin his music and methods down too much and risk shattering its delicate, unguarded status. The reticence, the fastidiousness, eyes glinting because of some private amusement, along with his dark neat clothing, egghead spectacles and the gleaming shaved head suggest some sort of cosmopolitan intellectual. Only a pair of sneakers ablaze with giddy cartoon colours gives away the notion that this is not professor, philosopher, guru, but, oddly, a discreet pop star, now known for presenting his tranquil, rhapsodic instrumental music, that sounds like it is only meant for a few listeners at a time, to thousands of devoted listeners.
Some people, he says, when they first meet him, expect that in some ways they are meeting his music, what they see and hear in his music, the emotions, often something approaching the sublime, as though that’s what he is. It’s an easy mistake to make; he and his music do resemble each other. One cannot happen without the other. But the music does not talk – outside the talking it does, as though to itself, in its own time and space, where time is to some extent frozen, held up for scrutiny – and he cannot really talk on its behalf. He has created it, his being is embedded in the music, but he does not control it. It has a life of its own. It does not call itself minimalist, classical, new age, ambient, world, easy, light, pop, chamber, impressionist, it remains mute, and Ludovico does not describe it as anything so specific either. The closest he would get to defining his music is to talk loosely about ‘sounds without words’, in a tradition that extends from Bach to Part and this to some extent extends to even talking about the music. There are no words, although, in the end, there have to be some.
He was born in Turin in 1955 into a family with a surname in Italy as famous as any. Famous because his grandfather Luigi was the first post-war President of a complicated, newly democratic country recently manacled under the brutal fascists of Mussolini and needing careful guidance to recover. Famous because of the leftist Einaudi publishing house his scholarly, aristocratic and strong willed father Guilio founded in the mid-30s that was one of the greatest if not the greatest in post-war Europe, not least for publishing the first books by Calvino and Levi and for being the first to notice and translate the great classics of the 20th century, including Brecht, Sartre and Proust. The great anti-fascist name was a much a weight on his shoulders as an advantage. Expectations were enormous. What kind of leader, what kind of enterprising, reforming, intellectual creative force recommending radical social, economic and artistic direction, would Ludovico become?
Ludovico’s response to any relative shadow was to withdraw from words, theory and policy into the lucid, elusive abstractions of music, to search for his own mind away from the pressure of continuing the vigorous, nation influencing family business. For him, the family business was the location and refinement of an independent mind. “I needed to shake off the family history, really, to become my own person.”
His father was not interested in music. He would admit in an interview in the late ‘90s that he was a stranger to music, “although I have a son making his way in music.” Ludovico visited him in his home in Rome a few years before he died in 1999 and noticed he had a record player, but the only record he seemed to own was a copy of 4’33”, John Cage’s famous work of, and on, silence – in some ways, more of a literary object, or a form of conceptual art, than a piece of music. “For me,” notes Ludovico, “ a life without music would be too dry, not just because I am a musician – it would seem neutral, lacking magic and the nourishment that stops life seeming mechanical.”
He was introduced to the piano at 6 by his music loving, piano playing mother and his older sister introduced Ludovico to the liberating ‘60s worlds of Hendrix, Dylan and the Stones – an unorthodox, transgressive intellectualism distributing fantastic new ideas to a wide, avid audience. “Music was where we went to be free of my father’s overpowering world.” At 16 he was studying classical composition, and by the late-1970s learning under and then assisting avant-garde titan Luciano Berio after meeting him following a concert in Paris. Berio also taught Steve Reich and Louis Andreissen – and later Max Richter – and it wasn’t so much musical technique or style that Einaudi learnt as general broad minded curiosity that could take in the Beatles as much as Schoenberg, folk and fable as much as academia and historic research. What Berio taught Einaudi was the idea that there is music everywhere, in buildings, animals, dreams, colours, instincts, emotions, voice, newspapers, language, time, fear, movement, rain, waiting to be transformed into organised sound and a new order, a new dream-like realism.
Einaudi’s latest, ninth album ‘Elements’ began as a homage to Berio, a kind of thank you for their intense, revelatory time together. After two years thinking and refining it has become a series of pieces that are themselves inspired by the idea of the elements, from the ancient classical Greek ideas – earth, wind, fire, water, mixed together by love and hate - to the Russian artist Wassily Kadinsky and his theories on the spiritual elements of art and the quasi-religious responsibilities of the artist. Einaudi, surrounded by high minded talk and literary giants as a youngster, takes these responsibilities seriously. “The more I go on the more I demand of myself. My next project must always compel me to do more, to climb a new mountain, arrive somewhere I have not been before. It, the view if you like, must seem new, if at least to me. I researched centuries of ideas about the elements as the constituents of all matter with the aim of challenging my brain and then chanelling all this knowledge into the music. Transferring scientific and philosophical thoughts into sound, finding music in hidden, noiseless places. I also wanted to challenge those who might think they know my work and think that this would be again for better or worse more of the same. I wanted this record to be both more intriguing to me, and to those that like listening to me. Obviously by me but with added . . . elements.”
There are twelve pieces, so it has the shape of a vinyl album, but Einaudi says this is more to do with liking overlapping sequences of three and four pieces that create their own internal rhythms and currents rather than any cosy nostalgia for the 20th century record. “There could have been 24 elements, but ultimately, 12 seemed to work best.” It begins with ‘Petricor’, a composition about the aroma left behind after a rain shower, and ends with ‘Song for Gavin’, a lament for the “wonderful songwriter” Gavin Clark who he met whilst working with director Shane Meadows on ‘This is England.’ In between, because he is classical, but not, and pop, but not, there are no opus numbers, but each piece is titled like a song, to represent elements including the night, the alphabet, numbers, objects, the weather . . . “Sometimes the titles come first, sometimes second, a title can grow from the music, or the music from a title. They contain information and clues about the music but I don’t want to give anything away. The title means you listen to it differently than you would if they were just dry numbers and the key. They’re invitations. I think it was something else I learnt from Berio, he liked titles, rather than merely saying sonata or prelude, and he was very precise about them, so that they were themselves musical, a little poetic, or in their own way the beginning of the piece. To set you in motion. The first note or the first chord. It pushes you in one direction or another.”
In the 80s Einaudi spent time working behind the scenes effectively composing for others, for ballet, films, theatre, and video installations, furthering his studies, but the transformative moment came when he started to perform. The only trend he had followed was his inner need. Eventually, he appeared in concert, playing his own music and, he says, taking responsibility for it. “I was relatively old, nearing 40. By the time I made my own records the music was much more intense and worked out than I think people realised because I had spent two decades finding out who and what I was. It took time to move towards what my artistic self was going to be, this mix of classical concentration and pop directness. During that time I hadn’t felt the need to perform. But something changed. It seemed too abstract even empty to not be seen as the performer of the music I wrote. After my first album of solo piano (‘Le Onde’, 1996) I discovered the urge to appear in front of people. To be physically present, like a poet reading his poems. I could see the way that people reacted to my music, and that changed me and my music. The feedback and the development in my music that followed created the structure of my career. I was not expecting to eventually play in front of such large audiences, but I never changed along the way. My music would be the same if the audiences stayed small. I didn’t plan success. I simply planned the next music. The positive response was a surprise. I never saw this as a commercial project. The important thing was that I followed my vision.”
Once he was the public performer, it seemed like he was standing up for something, even if it was subdued almost celibate sounding. One way of looking at his music, this fretless, weightless music with its erased contours and the way the piano slows him and his thoughts down, so that you can actually hear time, is that it is a distillation of the intensely humanistic, thoughtful work of his father and the analytic, progressive thinking of his grandfather, and a route into freer, more open ended space, to finding purpose and certainty. It sounds the mellow, uplifting and sweetly sparse way it does as much because of how he has dealt with being an Einaudi. He has replaced one sort of volatile communicative energy with another more euphoric, less obviously utilitarian one. And although he might shrug off such a thought, his music is as tough as nails as it is tender and hyper-soft, sentimental but with a certain steel at the centre, because he is an Einaudi, committed to a cause, if less explicitly than his forefathers. It has true power, however intangible.
This pacific power has perhaps helped generate its success, along with his total confidence that prettiness can be profound. His complete belief in music as a source of spiritual elevation makes others believe; there is an emotional infectiousness. And its combination of strength and fragility makes it very versatile. It can change shape depending on where it plays and for whatever reason. It could emerge from ancient monasteries as well as 21st century cinemas, decorous food and travel documentaries, reality tv shows, mobile phones and wireless speakers. It is a boundless seeming soundtrack to an increasingly achronological and unsteady world of linked, sharing friends craving kindness, solace and new forms of intimacy. It is fluid, flexible and familiar enough to belong both in the old analogue world, of records, concert halls and charts, and also the new, decentred digital world, where music as information and decoration as much as expression and insight is distributed, and arbitrarily floats, into all sorts of connected spatial territories, corners and contexts.
Why, I ask, does he think his quiet, slow, idealistic music become so popular?
“I think it is because the world is so fast and disposable, and more and more people are looking for an extension of lost privacy, something which can help create a personal space. It can become important in their lives, because they sense it is made with a certain level of integrity. The music is itself a metaphor for the idea of reflection, patience, privacy, prayer, of the internal. The internal that can become the eternal. It is saying it and being it. And I have never shied away from reaching an audience, because I always loved how difficult ideas in rock and pop could reach lots of people, more than classical. From the beginning I wanted my music however calm and soft to communicate to as many people as possible. I never wanted to build a wall around what I did that created a distance. Sometimes calling something classical immediately builds a wall. It is dismissed by so many people as if it is of no use to them. I didn’t want any of those borders to interfere with anyone who might actually like it getting to my music.”
Is the popularity ultimately to do with the enigmatic enchantment of melody?
“Melody, and harmony, is a mystery, and in a way it is about memory, and a capturing and channelling of time, and what has gone before. It definitely grabs your attention by instantly taking you somewhere else, to another place, another time, one you may never have actually experienced, or one that is unique to you. I love to explore melody. A great melodic line is like a person’s soul, and coming up with an original melody, it can be like you are illustrating the soul. People look at you like you are a magician. You have conjured up something out of nowhere that no one has before. You are creating a route to the soul.”
Does he like the attention he gets because he seems to be doing this? “I like the attention that is paid to the music. It is fantastic when you write a piece of music that touches so many people. It is very satisfying because you have collected a group of emotions into one place and then see it travel so far. You cannot really answer any questions about the music, because it has become something else, in the ears and mind of the listener. It is gratifying that people identify with the music, but it has gone beyond my understanding. The combination of the music and the listeners’ feelings about the music are not something you can really talk about. It’s more than a mystery. It is a mystery that is always changing shape.”
As TS Eliot recommended to all creative artists, he took from history what he needed to accomplish what he wanted - the calculation and vision of Bach, the deliberation of Chopin, the energy of Stravinsky, the rejection by the avant-gardists of the 50s and 60s of stiff classical music formalities, the arresting, glamorous directness of the pop, rock and folk he listened to with his mother, the persuasive slow motion of the arch minimalists - but it is his personality that is the dominant factor. It gives this fragile, romantic music a definite identity – even at its most slender and hushed it could only be Einaudi.
His music can be played in a reflective group crossing centuries, cultures and countries that includes Chopin, Schumann, Satie, Mompou, Feldman and Cage, or amongst the insistent, radiant intimacies of Reich, Glass, Nyman and Adams. It’s a late, post- rock, post-classical part of the tradition crudely labelled minimalism that re-evaluated tonality after what happened in the musique concrete 50s and after serialism by plunging back in time to when music was mostly of the Church offering a glimpse of heaven. He absorbed Berio’s intense desire to investigate and document the essence of sound, if not travel to the very fragmented edges of music, to where it drifts and breaks beyond. His music fits alongside the wandering contemplative spirits of Hindemith, Hovhaness and Part, unashamedly incorporating divine influences. Because his music can be conveniently filed under Soundtrack when other genres aren’t quite right, it can appear in the stacked up modern playlists that streaming algorithms constantly generate alongside Richter, Arnalds, Mansell and Johannsen, and Vangelis, Newman and Morricone. Some might like it because of where they find it between Simon and Garfunkel and Coldplay, or because they find Sigur Ros between him and Mike Oldfield.
He speaks as simply as he writes. In the simplicity is great depth. Outside the rain has stopped and the traffic seems a little less demonic. I watch Einaudi as he walks to the lift and gets inside. He is on his own. The doors close. He disappears. I imagine him rising up through floor after floor, leaving the earth behind, higher and higher, elevated, into the air, hearing his music in his head, another world, taking him higher and higher and somewhere else.