“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
This quote from Mozart seems particularly apt for Steven Osborne’s concert at Milton Court which featured music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, two radical American composers with a special interest in exploring the piano’s expressive qualities as much through the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. Eschewing melody as the main vehicle for expression in their music, both Feldman and Crumb offer the listener a special soundworld infused with simplicity and stillness. Osborne’s interest in stillness in music combined with his ability to produce magical kaleidoscopic shadings, as evidenced by his very fine performances and recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards surl’enfantJèsus, make him the perfect performer for this programme.
(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Silence in music, any music, is very important. Pauses and silences provide “punctuation marks” and create ebb and flow, just as in speech. Silences also create drama and set up expectations in the minds of the listener, while stillness and quietness in music allow the listener to be drawn in to create a special, sometimes very intense connection with the performer. In the pre-concert talk, Osborne talked of how, as a child, he liked to experiment at the piano to see how quietly he could play, fascinated by the tactile experience of producing very soft sounds. He described how the simplicity and stillness of Feldman’s music in particular – music which is sometimes merely a handful of notes or a few carefully chosen chords with no clear narrative nor organic development – allows the listener to engage with the music “in the moment”, with a mindfulness akin to meditation without the need to conceptualise nor admire it as an “art-object”.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
There was a piano in the house and as soon as I could reach the keyboard, I was mucking about on it. I was very, very drawn to it and spent every spare minute playing it. I didn’t sleep much as a kid and I would get up very early and go straight to the piano, and my dad would come down and tell me it was too early to be playing.
I didn’t really think in terms of planning any kind of career. I loved playing piano, I went to music college, won a competition and secured a few concerts and it kind of started from there – I was very lucky with that. But there was always a very visceral attachment to the piano.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There have been a few:
One would certainly be Ian Kemp, my tutor at university. His way of looking at music, at analysing it, was so passionate in an understated way. He went right to the essence of music
Richard Beauchamp, my piano teacher at St Mary’s School in Edinburgh, was very musically opened-minded
Renna Kellaway, my teacher at RNCM, gave me a real grounding in technique which was lacking before
Arnaldo Cohen – he was very influential. He had a way of looking at the smallest detail in the broadest scope
Bobby Mann of the Juilliard Quartet and chairman of Naumburg Competition, which I won in 1997. He was a musical guru without particularly trying to be. But he could make a single remark to me after a concert and that would form the basis of several years of exploration for me. He could put his finger on the absolute nub of an issue.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season
It tends to be based on an instinct of what I am desperate to learn next. Happily, the repertoire being so big, you don’t have to retread old ground if you don’t want to, so I’ve always been moving on to new things.
In fact, in the last few months this has been the first time I’ve actually had to think what I want to play. It’s also driven by recordings – what am I dying to do.
Are there any composers whose music you keep returning to?
Definitely Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Ravel. Beethoven has this incredible balance of very strong structure and an extremely wild spontaneity which breaks out of structure. How he keeps those things in balance, especially in the mid to late works, I find unbelievably satisfying
Rachmaninov’s completely visceral connection to the music, in terms of how he expresses things that really no one else quite does, how open he is to his own emotions
What attracted you to the music of George Crumb and Morton Feldman, and what is the particular appeal of this music for you?
I first heard George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’ while I was at school and I was quite amazed by the variety of character, the craziness of it, the bizarre sound effects: I found it really compelling. There’s the sense that he is really interested in character, with a complexity which never seems gratuitous. Later I came across his piano music. I love the soundworld, the sense of atmosphere. He talks about growing up in west Virginia and the atmosphere of being in the forest – the birds and other sounds.
Rather often composers towards end of 20th century are showing off their wares, especially in the 60s and 70s, and it’s refreshing to find someone who is interested purely in sound, that visceral quality of sound
Morton Feldman’s music is very ambiguous. I first came across it when Ivan Volkov told me he’d heard ‘Palais de Mari’ played in one of his festivals. I found it very interesting, and I loved it. It’s a really really beautiful piece of music.
It’s a very extreme position that he takes on music – like John Cage – that the notes aren’t that important, but it’s the moment to moment experience of the notes, letting go of that self-satisfaction that exists around some music. It strikes me that there is maybe a philosophical paradox to really do that – even though you might be able to encourage people to lose the sense of where they are
Will you perform the Feldman from memory?
Oh no! Absolutely not! I don’t memorise music like that because it’s so much trouble and it seems like a needless waste of energy, and I really don’t think it adds anything to play it from memory. There is this obsession about memorisation for pianists, but increasingly I don’t bother if I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s so insignificant in the great scheme of things
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The big thing is to enjoy it, to play music that you love, not to feel pushed into playing music that doesn’t suit you. Choose music that you really love playing, not because a teacher has told you to learn it.
It can take a while to discover what you really want to do. A lot of people in the profession lose that love for the music, so anything you can do to guard against is important.
Steven Osborne’s standing as one of the great pianists of his generation was publicly affirmed in 2013 with two major awards: The Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist of the Year and his second Gramophone Award, this time in the Instrumental category for his recording of Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition and solo works by Prokofiev. Previous awards include a 2009 Gramophone Award for his recording of Britten’s works for piano and orchestra, as well as first prize at both the Naumburg International Competition (New York) and Clara Haskil Competition.
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