Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I started playing on a whim. My mother walked in from work one evening and asked out of the blue if I wanted to learn the piano. Neither of my parents are musicians but they have the broadest musical tastes of anyone I know and had a wicked sound system which was playing music constantly. I gave an offhanded “yeah why not” and it all snowballed pretty quickly from there.
After a year or so I started participating in local competitions in Philadelphia where I was brought up and when it looked like I was taking music seriously we moved to England so I could attend the Yehudi Menuhin School.
When I was eleven one of my teachers told me I’d never be a pianist because I started too late. That was it – I had to prove her wrong and here I am! Maybe she was flexing her reverse psychology knowhow.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
I spent some time in the Gambia to study Wolof drumming and in Bali playing and listening to lots of Gamelan. Both of those trips had a huge impact on my playing. Mostly they changed the way I listen. Especially coming from a background which is so focused on learning visually – from a score. They were incredibly liberating experiences for me.
Some other important influences are watching dance and doing it, the photographs of Ansel Adams and practicing meditation.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Staying balanced, healthy, positive and productive in a life which can fluctuate between breathless busy-ness and the threat of total stagnation.
After finishing my formal education and years of having the luxury of playing for my teachers on a regular basis it took some time to start trusting my own musical instincts and to believe my own feedback.
Which repertoire/composers do you think you play best?
All the music I haven’t played yet.
How do you make repertoire choices from season to season?
Often a venue will request a specific piece or composer and I’ll build a programme around that. I also keep an eye out for anniversaries and featured composers in up coming festivals.
I’m all for choosing pieces that really suit my playing. It can be tempting to perform works I think I ‘should’ play or adhere to what I think will placate a certain kind of audience but if it doesn’t suit me and I don’t totally love it then there’s a risk of a performance falling flat (and it has!)
I always have something on the go that pushes me to my limits and balance that with pieces that come more naturally.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I don’t get much enjoyment out of recording as a soloist but absolutely love recording with ensembles. I used to be a member of the band Jetsam and we wrote and recorded an album called Disruption which was commissioned by the Barbican in collaboration with the street dance company Boy Blue Entertainment. We wrote most of Disruption as we recorded which allowed for our imaginations to run wild. There’s a big Japanese Taiko and Noh theatre influence in the piece which meant a lot of recording us stamping in a padded hallway. I spent a couple days at the piano recording every sound I could think of on the strings, metal frame and wood. Playing with harmonics, using chains, plastic, glass and rubber. It was a proper prepared piano geek-out and the album sounds amazing.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I recently played at Café OTO which was so much fun. It’s small, dark and intimate – I think I nearly head butted someone in the front row when I bowed. The audience was one of the most attentive, supportive an electric I’ve ever played for which restored my faith in the contemporary classical music audience. I also love performing in the Barbican. I’ve performed in every one of their performance spaces as a soloist and in ensembles and bands I’m involved with and it has such a stimulating and creative atmosphere. On any given day there is something weird and wonderful happening in one of its nooks and crannies.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I’m very fickle. I tend to think that whatever I’m playing in the moment is the Best Thing Ever!
I love performing George Crumb’s ‘Makrokosmos’. I have a secret predilection for a bit of theatre and because of the extended techniques, singing and moaning involved in its performance it’s a full body theatrical experience. I used to get so frustrated by the static nature of the piano and was hugely jealous of my cellist friends. The process of learning ‘Makrokosmos’ taught me how to overcome that immovability, become more malleable and dance with the instrument.
To listen to…shall we just say for the Spring/Summer season? Otherwise we’ll be here forever.
Appalachian Spring which, thanks to my dad, is my first memory of music. Lately I’ve been listening to John Legend and The Roots album Wake Up which transports me back to growing up in Philadelphia. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw, Chaka Kahn. I’m always inspired by hearing what my friends make and have been listening non-stop to Sam Mumford’s album Scatter and Old Man Diode The King Krill.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are so many I admire for different reasons and on different days. To name a few: Glen Gould, Bjork, my husband and saxophonist Jon Shenoy, John Adams, Beyoncé, John Cage, Seth McFarlane, Joanna Newsom, Pat Metheney, Punch Brothers, Joan Baez, Charles Ives.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A few years ago I performed ‘Phrygian Gates’ for John Adams. Before the concert there was a Question and Answer session in which he said he didn’t like the piece very much anymore. After I performed he came up on stage with tears in his eyes, gave me a hug and said to the audience “I’ve changed my mind, I like it again.”
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Keep your ‘don’t know’ mind. Play with musicians who challenge you. Get involved with projects that scare the hell out of you. Make mistakes – they could turn into something wonderful. Learn how to meditate. Meditate. Practice as much as you can while you can but remember that it’s only a small part of the process.
You have been working with the composer Mica Levi on some new works for piano. Tell us more about this collaboration and the pieces….
Working with Mica has been my ideal collaborative process. We’ve had the time and space to learn each other’s processes. Trying out loads of ideas, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, trying something else. It’s been such a valuable experience to learn her compositional language in every stage of the works progress. From conception to performance. The pieces she’s writing are a collection of short piano studies. I performed three at Café OTO at the beginning of the year and will be performing three new ones at the Forge in June.
Each of the six pieces presents a single theme, for example an interval, the resonance produced in a particular register of the piano or a specific attack on the keys. They are really ‘studies in piano’ in the purest sense. Beautiful, raw and a little bit dirty. At times quite exposing for the pianist, which exhilarates me. Mica is extremely specific about what she wants to hear and it’s been exciting for me for me to work with her in finding the best way to translate that on to the piano – playing around with notation which can perfectly capture both the sound in her ears and how I can best physicalise it.
What are the particular challenges and pleasures of working with a living composer?
The moment I start playing someone their piece the doubting voice in my head immediately shouts “Ah, you’ve completely misunderstood everything they’ve written – you’re going to embarrass them and yourself”. That voice is a total liar but the fear creeps in nonetheless.
The beauty is that the composer is there to answer every question and wonderment that’s come up for me during the learning process. To help me get down to the bare bones of their work and discover the weird and wonderful processes a composer goes through to translate an idea into sound. The defining moment for me is when a composer trusts me enough to cut the umbilical chord and hand me the ownership of their work.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Yamaha grand piano which has travelled with me from Philadelphia to London with many stops on the way. But if there were a fire I’d grab my red Versace wedding dress.
What is your present state of mind?
Open, alert, mischievous, spacious and a little self-conscious.
Eliza McCarthy premieres new works by Mica Lewis, together with music by Henry Cowell and John Adams at The Forge, Camden, north London on Wednesday 3 June. Further information and tickets here