INTERVIEW WITH VIC OLSEN BY RÉNATA VÖLKER
Renata Völker: My first question is: why perform jazz and classical music together on the same CD?
Vic Olsen: What I presume you’re getting at is that because Keith Jarrett is known for his jazz performances, his music is often referred to as jazz. We could go on at length about whether his great improvised solo piano concerts are or aren’t jazz. But I don’t really think this is a meaningful question. In any case, I don’t experience them as jazz. To a classically-trained musician like myself, Keith Jarrett’s music has a much more universal character.
RV: Yet improvisation is a technique used by jazz musicians.
VO: This is a very interesting point. Bear in mind that improvisation has always played an extremely important role, for example in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and others were great instrumentalists and great improvisers. During their lifetimes, they were as renowned for improvisation as for the works they composed. Today, the improvisation tradition is still very much alive among organists. International organ and piano improvisation contests are still being held, based on the language of contemporary music. So that shows that across multiple periods, musicians have always improvised, long before jazz was born.
To get back to Keith Jarrett, what’s so captivating from a creative standpoint is that improvisation, composition and interpretation all flow together in the same acts at exactly the same time. Actually, I view his improvised solo piano concerts as genuine “real-time” compositions, as perfectly finished works. Maybe you have to be a pianist to realize how elaborate, complex and innovative the harmonic and thematic structure really is.
What Keith Jarrett played at the Bregenz Concert is quite obviously music that couldn’t have been written out in advance. It’s too spontaneous, too free, too fiery, even too surprising. But if you consider how beautiful and perfect the ideas are, and how unbelievably the periods interpenetrate and come in succession, you have a hard time rationally understanding how this music could have been improvised. And yet it really was!
RV: Why did you choose that concert in particular?
VO: I consider the Bregenz Concert a masterpiece. It isn’t very important to me whether the music was improvised or read from a score. I’m concerned with the music itself — the work is what counts. Just by replaying the music, you eliminate the “happening” status inherent in an event like a concert. It becomes a work in its own right. That’s the point I want to get across, and that’s why I decided to make this recording. I hope to stimulate the desire of other pianists to add this work to their repertoire, alongside the most beautiful pieces by the Great Masters. So that suggested the need to choose a concert that was musically and intellectually accessible.
RV: Do you mean that this is a recording with a “message?”
VO: Definitely. You might even say I’m raising demands in the process!
Obviously, you can never exactly render what happens during a concert, and I certainly don’t claim to capture the energy, the sense of urgency, the instantaneous quality that gave rise to this work. All that rightfully belongs to its creator.
What I’ve attempted to do, something that underpins my entire approach, is convince pianists, musicians and music lovers that you can play music improvised by Keith Jarrett without betraying it, just as you’d play any piece in the repertoire. I also hope they will perceive the thrill you get from playing this music, yet without falling into the imitation trap. Needless to say, the music’s declamatory tone and characteristic phrasing have to be there, because they are key components of Keith Jarrett’s style. But you can still play this music with your own phrasing, your own distinct personality. It has nothing to do with imitation.
Do you need to have suffered the way Beethoven did when he composed this or that sonata or concerto to be entitled to play it? All the most distinguished observers of Chopin’s time, including Liszt, claimed that no one played his music like Chopin himself. But does that disqualify all the musicians who have played Chopin in the past 150 years and more? My aim in replaying Keith Jarrett’s music is to introduce it into the universal repertoire.
RV: What about his music most appeals to you?
VO: I find it fascinating. No other music makes the piano sound that way. Keith Jarrett’s piano playing above all affects me emotionally. Of course, I could describe it in terms of melodic beauty, structural complexity, endlessly creative variations, the alchemy of sound texture, and all those remarks would be relevant. But the most important point is that when I listen to his music, I’m so enthralled that I feel it first in my gut, before my intellect kicks in.
RV: How did you go about working on this recording?
VO: To start with, I’m convinced that you have to leave to Keith Jarrett what is his and his alone. As I mentioned before, it would be senseless to try to be Keith Jarrett by consistently and indiscriminately replicating everything he does during a concert. For example, he tends to tap his foot in rhythm when he plays. There would be no point in doing the same thing. The same goes for the few seconds when he puts various parts of the piano to percussive use, plucking the strings in the process. That’s him, part of his innermost self. Traditionally, a pianist plays on the keyboard, a harpist plucks the strings of the harp and a percussionist plays percussion instruments. Well, Keith Jarrett does all three at the same time. He’s lucky to know how and be in a position to do that, so let’s just consider it his privilege.
RV: You call this point in the concert an Interlude. Why?
VO: A number of years ago, I was studying the score for the violin and orchestra concerto by Henri Dutilleux, L’Arbre des Songes, and that was the word used by Dutilleux to characterize certain episodes in his work. A while ago, when I first started working on the Bregenz Concert, the word “interlude” came back to me. I found it both beautiful and ideally suited to the character of that particular passage. And later, when I read several interviews with Keith Jarrett on Radiance and his new approach in that period, I discovered that he also used the word to describe some of his short, improvised pieces in an abstract, multi-tonal style.
RV: The Bregenz Concert, the Liszt Sonata — what’s the connection between the two?
VO: To begin with, it’s important to recognize that Keith Jarrett has made a tremendous, indisputable contribution to musical creativity in our age, and that his oeuvre marks a new stage in musical development. His influence on other musicians is significant. What makes his music so compelling is its universal character. By itself, it already covers music history — the history of all types of music.
In addition, to me, the Bregenz Concert is the Liszt Sonata of today. It’s not that the music is the same. It’s just that both works have such breadth, such epic sweep, such dramatic quality and such developmental scope that they get through to us with the same power, greatness, nobility, beauty and poetry. They leave us the better for having listened to them.
Another similarity is how much they demand of the performer in terms of psychology, intellect and instrumental proficiency.
RV: What connections do you see between the two men?
VO: A very interesting one occurs to me. Liszt was the person who invented the recital as we now know it, meaning a performance given by a soloist. Up until the Romantic period, a concert involved a variety of pieces played and sung by a large number of musicians. Pianists only got to play a few short, rather inconsequential pieces — no more than two or three — and not necessarily in succession. Liszt revolutionized public performance, not only because he stepped forward as sole performer, but also because he was the first one to offer programs devoted to a single composer. In doing so, he turned an occasion for light entertainment into a cultural event. This was something utterly new at the time.
Keith Jarrett is the musician who invented the totally improvised piano recital. No one before him would have dared to go out on stage and perform an entire concert without having rehearsed or learned specific works. The great improvisational pianists in the past always based their improvisations on themes from popular songs, famous opera arias or folk dances, with the mood of the day and the specific setting suggesting the rest.
With Keith Jarrett, you get something new and completely different. Suddenly, you’re dealing with an artist who hasn’t planned his performance. He just shows up, sits down at the piano — and the journey begins. In fact, this is diametrically opposed to what classical concert performers do. They have to assimilate loads of knowledge before they can give a concert. In contrast, Keith Jarrett says he has to free his mind so that it won’t stifle his creativity. That takes an awful lot of guts.
RV: How did you get psyched up for this recording?
VO: By keeping the passion alive. The Bregenz Concert, very much like the Liszt Sonata in fact, has such breadth and depth that if you fail to stoke the engine and stay on track, not only will you get lost; you’ll also run out of steam, and fast.
A long time ago, I heard a radio interview with pianist Alexis Weissenberg. When questioned about his approach to music, he said that it all boiled down to “shock” and “non-shock.” That seemed funny to me at the time, since musicians rarely used words like that. And yet it stuck in my mind, and today, I really appreciate how well Weissenberg understood the issues and how tersely he summed them up. How intense the emotional shock is that you experience when you listen to a piece of music will determine how far you’ll go to serve that music.
RV: Did you prepare in the same way for the Liszt Sonata?
VO: The Liszt Sonata has been a part of me for a very long time. It’s a mythical piece. In the piano literature, it’s the equivalent of Mount Everest — a high point in heroic piano playing. My outlook on it has changed a great deal over time. At this stage, I’m more interested in the sensitive, inward-looking composer than in the extroverted, legendary virtuoso. What I’ve tried to emphasize is how profound his music is. I fervently hope I’ll be conveying its beauty and greatness.
Liszt was both an astounding artist and a teacher very much in demand, a cultured, forward-looking educator prized for his immense perspective on music, art and the world. The finest pianists of the period turned to him for advice, and thanks to the account they have handed down, we have a fairly clear idea of how Liszt must have played his own works, what kind of advice he gave and how he instructed others to play. The writings, observations and notes on his master classes left by some of his most brilliant and illustrious students helped me enormously to confirm and sharpen my vision of this work, which also makes extensive use of agogic accent. As I see it, this is crucial to the aesthetics of interpretation.
RV: The virtuoso, demonstrative quality Liszt’s music is usually what comes to mind.
VO: True. Generations of pianists have simplistically assumed they had to play Liszt in ways suggested by sketches from the period that portrayed him as having both the instrument and the audience totally under his command.
But the fact is that by the time Liszt composed his Sonata in Weimar, his heyday as a super-virtuoso was already a thing of the past. The manuscript, which is dedicated to Schumann, is dated 1853, when Liszt was 42. He was highly cultured, with a keen interest in philosophy, literature and religion, an artist in full possession of his creative powers. So I view this Sonata as a work of maturity, a deep work that should be performed with real depth.
RV: Does that means authenticity is the goal?
VO: Sure, but even if you hope to get pretty close, it’s hard to claim you’ve really made it. So much time has elapsed since Liszt was alive that you simply can’t bridge the gap. Let’s just say that once you’ve taken the time to read, study, assimilate and compare the available materials, you’re in a good position to piece together his personality and style, to sense what kind of musician he was.
RV: How does that play out in musical terms?
VO: This Sonata feels as if it were one long improvisation written down on paper. The improvisando indication is crucial here. Metronome speed doesn’t coincide with the inner tempo you need to express everything the piece has to say. A musical phrase can have a thousand different meanings; it all depends on how you interpret it. As with words, declamation and prosody are essential components of phrasing, which is also affected by the instrument and acoustics.
RV: You use the term “improvisation” to describe this work. But isn’t it rather an elaborately constructed piece?
VO: Yes, you’re right. The architecture is not only ingenious, but also extremely innovative. The Sonata is composed of several parts that flow together into a single movement. Prior to Liszt, the sonata form for classical and romantic works involved three or four separate movements, and no other work called a sonata had been structured in this way until then. This made Liszt’s Sonata incredibly modern at the time. And it still is. Even today, over a century and a half after it was written, a number of contemporary composers still consider it a benchmark. That’s pretty impressive.
To get back to the improvisando idea that’s so important to playing this piece, it’s more a question of attitude than of tempo. That’s ultimately what it’s all about. What matters is the “inner attitude” with which you experience the world and convey that experience. But that obviously doesn’t mean you’re free to stretch out the tempo to the point of undermining the whole architecture of the piece.
In the Sonata, for example, the “recitatives” are genuine improvised phrases put down on paper. They serve as links between ideas, and are crucial from an expressive standpoint. Right while you’re playing those phrases, the listener should be under the impression that you’re improvising. They’re written in smaller notes on the score. Traditionally, pianists were supposed to play such smaller notes as faster, spirited cadenzas, for example in Chopin’s music, or as delicate, undulating ripples. But I just can’t imagine that Liszt included such phrases in the Sonata to give performers a chance to exhibit their virtuosity, that they were meant to be played con brio. If there ever was a time when Liszt’s music showed introspection, this is definitely it. So I’ve tried to capture the transcendent quality of these melodies, some of which are punctuated with fortissimo chords. They are like vocalizations that express human pain and suffering. There’s something imploring about them. I give them a declamatory quality to highlight their dark beauty, which contrasts so strikingly with the brightness of this extraordinary piece.
© Contre Vents & Marées
“Artworks, especially those of the highest dignity, await their interpretation. The claim that there is nothing to interpret in them, that they simply exist, would erase the demarcation line between art and nonart.”
Theodor Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory
"Translated into our context, it dictates a seemingly obvious, yet suggestive hypothesis: any musical product to which the practice of interpretation attaches itself in reality may be termed art music, and therefore cultured music. In other words, no musical product is inherently, or solely by virtue of the intent behind it, anything other than a mere consumer good. It only becomes something else when the interpretative instinct comes into play. Once translated into collective praxis, through the process of reproduction and critical reflection, that instinct confers upon the work a kind of posthumous existence that extends beyond the reality and intentions of its creator, and not only in temporal terms. This “second life”—and nothing else—is what makes a musical product a work of art that escapes the logic of mere consumption."
in L’anima di Hegel e le mucche del Wisconsin
(Hegel’s Soul and the Cows of Wisconsin)