Despite soloing with major orchestras all over the world, the term ‘classical music’ is unknown to pianist and composer Francesco Tristano. After a grand show with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, we met for a conversation about his unusual path.
Daniela Shemer: Your career is far from being “normal” – you are one of very few musicians who succeed to pursue a career in both classical and non-classical music. Do you feel that the classical scene is open for more artists like you, or do you see your case as an exception?
Francesco Tristano: I don’t know what classical means anymore, I guess I never knew, nor do I know what normal means because if normal means playing the same things that were played a 150 years ago in the same way and within the same context, then that’s, for me, abnormal. Music has an evolution. If you play today something which was written 150 years ago, inevitably it’s gonna sound different than how it sounded back when it was written, so you might as well take it to the next level and put into a fresh context. To me the most important thing is context. The audience of classical music grows older and older and I believe we either let the music die with it, or we have to reinvent it.
DS: Sure, but if you look at classical music as an industry, you are not the typical soloist who goes and plays the same concerti over and over again…
FT: I do also…
DS: Yeah, but at the same time you have this techno career; there are not so many artists who do that…
FT: There are a few, but promoters tend to get scared from such acts and that’s alright, I think, because if they do book me, they know it’s gonna be something else. Even if I play a Bach concerto, for example, I might improvise a cadence… You know, classical music industry is strange because it has basically been doing the same thing for so many years. The repertoire is the same and the orchestras are the same. Think about Mozart and even Bach; basically all great composers wrote contemporary music which became popular. So I don’t really think about my career that much—in fact I don’t think about it at all—I just do what I think is right.
DS: What’s next on your agenda?
FT: Next week I play Bach French Suits, in France.
DS: On a piano?
FT: On a piano.
DS: How much of what you play and the way you developed as a musician, is a result of institutional studies?
FT: I believe everything I do is connected, even when I make people dance in clubs…
DS: …Juilliard is also there?
FT: Well, not only Juilliard. I mean, Juilliard didn’t really teach me much. It was good to be there but once I graduated I never set foot there again. You can’t get rid of your luggage, you know, your tradition. I started studying music when I was five and everything I do today is a part of it. I believe this works in both directions: some people are scared or intimidated from conservatories and intellectualism, while others need these as a safe ground. When I was in Juilliard I played the piano during the day, and at night I was just fooling around with synthesisers, listening to techno and going out.
DS: So going to clubs was in a sense moving away from Juilliard?
FT: Yes, but at the same time it was a part of the same cycle, because I was in NY, and I had the opportunity to discover the techno scene and to live it really. People at my school—mostly the teachers—were so old-school, except from one; nobody had any idea what was going on aside classical music. I started Juilliard in ’98; there was not even a Jazz department back then. Conservatories, you know, tend to conserve something, like preserving pickles.
DS: So your teachers were not interested or curious in your techno adventures?
FT: Well, you know how we have graduation recitals at Juilliard? All my recitals were improvised shows. My teachers had to sign their approval of the programs, and when they asked me what am I going to play, I just said “well, I’m going to improvise”. They wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t even come to the concert.
DS: Who were your prime teachers?
FT: I had one piano-mama in Luxembourg—Béatrice Rauchs—she was my teacher from age five to twelve. She taught me how to play the piano. Then I had a spiritual father, Émile Naoumoff. He was a student of Nadia Boulanger, so he had a very holistic vision of music. He taught me counterpoint and theory in a very practical way: how to analyse a score and pursue my ideas through interpretation, and composition. I played for him when I was ten years old—I think it was Ravel—and I told him I compose as well, and he said: “Really? Please play something!” so I played for him something I composed and he told me I had to continue with this. In Juilliard my official teachers didn’t really teach me anything, except for Bruce Brubaker, who was my teacher for chamber music and piano literature. He is the one who really supported me. Unlike the recitals, where we could play pretty much what we wanted, in the exams you were told to play this and that. I was being provocative towards the jury, playing Bach and Webern, for example, and you know, all the Russian teachers were like: but where is Rachmaninoff, where is Tchaikovsky? But Bruce – he understood and supported my choices.
DS: I believe the word “playlist” has a special meaning for you?
FT: Yes. I think a piano recital can be like a good DJ set, like a great playlist. A DJ will take you on a journey; he will start to play, he will go with the dance floor and he will play for two, three sometimes even ten hours, while you get lost in the music. I try to do that in my programs. Ideally I would like to have no interruptions in the music. A playlist for me means you’re moving the people from point A to point B and going on—a continuous flow.
DS: How do you keep a balance between being open minded and creative, and being judgemental and professional?
FT: Yeah, it’s difficult. In general I try not to be judgemental, but it’s not easy. I’m especially tough with myself, so when I do something and I don’t like it, it’s out. But I rarely repeat things, so even if I do like what I’ve done, I am not likely to do it again. I believe creativity is overrated. You cannot be creative; if you want to be creative you won’t be. Tchaikovsky, who is not my favourite composer, used to say about inspiration and creativity, that it doesn’t mean anything – you wake up in the morning, you sit down and you write music; there is going to be some good stuff, there is going to be some bad stuff. You keep going anyway.
DS: I always felt that creativity is like a muscle one needs to train.
FT: Exactly – you keep going, and eventually, even if you don’t feel any inspiration whatsoever, something always comes.
DS: Where do you compose? Do you have a home studio?
FT: I do have a home studio. When my first son was born I was in limbo because the piano was in the middle of the apartment and he was crawling all around, I could have basically spend a year without being able to practice or produce or anything, so I built myself a bunker. I lock myself in it – the kids are outside and we all know – now it’s my time. That works quite well, but I also like to take my laptop on trains. I like composing in motion—trains, plains, airports – ‘no man’s lands’. Airports are sad, really… There is a lot of time to be lost, and time sort of stands still; you are just waiting to go on with your journey, so you might as well use the time to work.
DS: Recording studio or stage?
FT: Both. One compliments the other. I love the stage, I think it’s the most rewarding thing to communicate with the audience and have the feedback, but I need the time in the studio, locked in. That’s where I do my hidden work: nobody knows about it, and nobody should know about it, because I’m just fooling around.
DS: Club or concert hall?
FT: Both, same thing. They compliment each other. I need both and I adapt to whichever type of project I’m currently in.
DS: But you do bring a lot of classical music into clubs, right?
FT: Depends. When I play in a club there are inevitably some moments where it sounds classical, for example when I take away the beat and only play the keyboard.
DS: I imagine you have a large collection of instruments. Any favourite?
FT: Many. I also play the clarinet – a little bit! I have about 20 keyboards; difficult to choose, but yeah, my keyboards are probably my favourites, though actually, the best instrument is the human voice.
DS: Do you sing?
FT: I wish I did… I would if I could. I think it is really the most direct instrument – even in spoken word. We, as instrumentalists, we always have to go through the vehicle of another instrument, but with the voice—you just open your mouth and you sing—it can be magical. In my case it’s a tragedy…!
DS: Tragedy can also be magic! If you had a couple of months to learn a new instrument, what would it be?
FT: Cello, maybe.
DS: The last question is a question we often ask here on MOUNT DELA: what is more important, knowledge or fantasy?
FT: Knowledge or fantasy? That’s intense. I think fantasy comes with knowledge. The more things you know, the more you fantasise about things, in my case at least. Improvisation is a good example; you are only free when you really know what you are doing. If you don’t know what you are doing you can’t really improvise—you are looking for something, you are searching, and it’s not good. I think I am the most free when I’m very well prepared—when I’ve really studied a piece and have played it fifty times, when I can auto-pilot it, then I’m free.