For the adventurous concertgoer, David Greilsammer’s recitals are treasured experiences not to be missed. On May 27, the Israeli-born pianist presented his third Sony release, Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas, at a sold out evening at (Le) Poisson Rouge.
The new CD continues, perhaps with greater focus, along a path of daring juxtapositions laid out in Greilsammer’s previous recordings. In Baroque Conversations, he played works by Rameau, Frescobaldi, and Handel alongside four contemporary composers; In-Between paired early works by Mozart with a piece by the young composer Denis Schuler.
On stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge, two grand pianos (one of them “prepared” following Cage’s instructions, with screws, erasers, and rubber bands) faced each other, with Greilsammer on a swiveling stool in between. By alternating between pianos and composers, he engaged in a haunting sort of musical storytelling, each alternating short sonata a chapter in the narration. As the time and space between the Italian Baroque composer and the American avant-gardism collapsed, similarities and differences began to appear as the connective tissue of this musical journey.
Despite the dry acoustics of the venue, which limited Greilsammer’s expert use of reverberation (heard clearly on the recording), the beauty of his pianissimo and the freedom and inventiveness of his ornamentations were among the highlights of a memorable concert. I met with David Greilsammer a few days after the recital:
Alessandro Cassin (Rail) : Scarlatti and Cage: It took a long time for the public to fully appreciate the music of these two composers. After Scarlatti’s death, with few exceptions, it took until the 20th century for his music to be performed with some regularity. The music of John Cage is still met with a great deal of resistance…
David Greilsammer: It’s hard to point to a specific reason for this. I think that part of the answer is that their respective works do not resemble in any way those of their contemporaries. In fact, I think of Scarlatti and Cage not only as composers but also as inventors. Inventors of new sounds.
Rail : Many consider Cage’s Sonata and Interludes his masterpiece for the piano, yet it lacks the large aesthetic form and the great gesture, associated with the idea of a “musical masterpiece.” It is a cycle of twenty short pieces for prepared piano that Cage composed in his New York apartment overlooking the East River between 1946 - 48. It is intimate, music of great beauty and complexity, spelled out in miniature form.
Greilsammer: To start with, I would say that we need to re-define what a masterpiece is: to me, it does not have to be of epic proportions. I am skeptical of the whole idea of “masterpieces” … It is time that classical music starts detaching itself from the big romantic heritage, where everything is dramatic, big, and full of pathos. Whatever a composer has to say should be spelled out in the shortest amount of time possible. Our world has changed and has become faster, and we, as artists and audience, must acknowledge that. We cannot make, write, or hear music the same way as 150 years ago.
Rail: On the one hand there are people who still have trouble taking Cage seriously as a composer, but even among those who profess an interest for him as an artist, a thinker, or a theoretician, the Sonatas and Interludes are often overlooked.
Greilsammer: Yes, it is very true. The problem is not with the people who dislike or reject Cage altogether, but rather the many people who find him interesting, but do not really consider him a musician at all. They fail to take his musical skills seriously, they view him as someone who opened new doors, had interesting things to say about art and culture, but was not a “legitimate” composer. The true problem within the classical music community is that Cage has not yet been fully legitimized, and I find that very sad.
Rail: Which in part is the reason for creating this Scarlatti/Cage project …
Greilsammer: Yes, I wanted to expose the fact that Cage’s music is simply beautiful, magical. But the important aspect of the project is the juxtaposition of Cage’s Sonatas with Scarlatti’s Sonatas. Scarlatti was a miniaturist too, and he, just like Cage, expressed emotions in a very short span of time. He wrote masterpieces that last only about five minutes! His works present very simple ideas, but in a truly revolutionary way of writing for keyboard. These two artists changed the course of classical history, in the most innovative, humble and creative way.
Rail: In truth, Cage is better known for his chance-controlled music, compositions such as 4’ 33’’, than his written scores from the 1940’s, such as the Sonatas.
Greilsammer: Indeed, but I think that we should first acknowledge the elegance and the beauty of his musical language. The Sonatas, even without the juxtaposition with Scarlatti, display Cage’s rich and imaginative musical vocabulary. They contain haunting songlike structures made of exquisite melodic lines, intense and complex harmonies, some rich counterpoint, and above all, breathtaking imagination.
Rail: You are presenting the Sonatas and Interludes as music, rather than an example of Cage’s experimentation with the prepared piano.
Greilsammer: Exactly. I am tired of hearing from the “classical music establishment” how fascinating and provocative Cage is. Of course he was an innovator, but what I want to show is that he also created great music. We owe him a lot because he allowed us to think about music and about the classical concert in a totally different way.
Rail: You first recorded Cage’s Sonata No. 5 and Sonata No. 12 in your album titled Fantasie_Fantasme (Naïve), back in 2007. Since then you have performed a lot of Cage. How has your thinking about them and playing them changed over time?
Greilsammer: My interpretation of Cage has changed as my appreciation of him has deepened. Back then I played only a selection of Sonatas. Then, a few summers ago, in a festival in France, I performed the complete Sonatas and Interludes—about seventy-five minutes of music. Playing the cycle in full totally changed my perception of it, as I sensed the emotionality of this music. I realized that “romantic” can mean something radically different than what we usually think in classical music! I sense that the idea of the prepared piano was not only created in order to innovate, but also to find new ways to express deep emotions. If you stop at John Cage the “provocateur," you never get to his true musical contribution.
Rail: You begin your recital and your album with Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 213 in D minor. The pianissimo of the very first bars has the quality of a whisper, a prelude to an intimate confession. It strikes me that Cage’s Sonatas do something very similar; they have a quiet way of drawing you in.
Greilsammer: These kinds of similarities were a starting point for this project. I absolutely love the way that Cage and Scarlatti can whisper some intimate musical secrets into the ears of the listener. But whatever similarities and contrasts I am suggesting in this program, I hope to stimulate the audience to find their own. What you said also brings us back to the idea of musical miniatures. Scarlatti wrote 555 single movement keyboard Sonatas. Then, with few exceptions, for two centuries, no one composed anything remotely as concise. We had to wait for the 20th century, with Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and later with Cage, to find again true miniatures in classical music. Even though they lived 200 years apart, Scarlatti and Cage are the prime examples of great musical ideas expressed in the shortest, most concentrated form. This had already been done in literature, in painting, in practically every art form, but not in music. I always found that very strange…
Rail: There is such scarce biographical information about Scarlatti that it’s hard to know how he thought about his single movement Sonatas…
Greilsammer: It’s a mystery, we simply don’t know. Yet he composed such a vast number of these Sonatas in the last years of his life, that I am inclined to imagine these were very important to him, a form of musical testament.
Rail: Some critics and musicologists like to group musicians together by style, nationality and periods, while you seem to suggest that history and geography are incidental. Scarlatti was a Neapolitan, who, after traveling to England and Portugal, settled in Spain. Cage was an American with, originally, close ties to European music (through Schoenberg), who by 1940s was strongly interested in Indian music.
Greilsammer: I find that classifying composers by chronology or nationality is not productive at all. This is what they teach us in conservatories and music schools, but we should not follow this path. Cage’s music was a lot closer to Indian and African music than to the music that was being composed in the US by his contemporaries. In turn Scarlatti’s music had little to do with Italian baroque music of his time, and we don’t even know if he was familiar with Vivaldi or Bach for that matter…
Rail: Most importantly, by establishing a “conversation” between the two composers, you seem to bridge the centuries that separated their lives…
Greilsammer: I am very interested in the similarities that baroque and contemporary music have in common. In my eyes, there is a direct bridge that links these two periods. In the case of Cage and Scarlatti, not only is there a radical way of writing for the keyboard, but also a unique way to use silence—the musical pause—as part of their language. Cage of course wrote extensively on silence in his essays: he was the first to put into words the idea that a pause does not imply waiting or breathing, but on the contrary, it is a real sound.
Rail: Pauses and rests are central (though less obviously so) also in Scarlatti; can you point out specifically how he uses them?
Greilsammer: Scarlatti uses rests and silences in very surprising ways. Often you find a fermata sign (a sign that asks the performer to hold and wait for a few moments) over a chord or a rest when the harmony is absolutely not yet resolved! Many times, his pauses have no harmonic explanation: to me they are his radical eighteenth-century way to emphasize the dramatic effect that can be achieved by placing silences within the music, not following the usual rules. After him, for 200 years, nobody employed the pause in quite this way … Then came John Cage and used silence not only in a very specific way, but also fell in love with it.
Rail: It sounds as if at times you slightly exaggerate the length of the pauses in Scarlatti.
Greilsammer: I probably do … But when I do it, it is in a way that serves a particular musical idea, never in an arbitrary way. Also, if I exaggerate a pause in the Scarlatti, it can be because I know that right afterwards I will play a Cage Sonata where the pause has a particular meaning too. I am linking the two uses of silence in order to emphasize this imaginary dialogue between the two men.
Rail: Both on the your previous CD, Baroque Conversations ,and on this new one, you pair contemporary composers with baroque ones. What is the musical connection you see?
Greilsammer: The most obvious connection and affinity that I see lays in the freedom and radicalism of the composers of these two periods. If I had to explain what I look for in music today I would say: I look for something that is both radical and poetic at the same time. I think these two elements truly come together in both some baroque and some contemporary music in the most interesting and elegant ways I can imagine. Mozart can be very poetic but he is not radical, Beethoven can be very radical, but seldom poetic. Baroque and contemporary truly express both elements at once, as one single body.
Also, we shouldn’t forget that Baroque composers were writing for the harpsichord, an instrument that has a fixed and limited range of dynamics and colors compared to the modern piano. To overcome those limitations, baroque musicians took all kinds of harmonic and rhythmic liberties. The modern piano by contrast has such a wide range of sound possibilities that as time went by, performers paradoxically became more rigid. We have lost the improvisation possibility in classical music, for instance. Compared to the baroque, the classical period went one step ahead but then moved back several steps, in terms of musical freedom with the score. Some contemporary music has taught us again how to take more liberties, how to be radical, how to be poetic. I think that jazz has also greatly contributed to realizing that music should have more improvisation in it, and more flexibility in general.
Rail: Your recital at (Le) Poisson Rouge closely follows your new Sony recording, Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas.
Greilsammer: One rule that I follow in conceiving a recording project is that the same program must be viable as a live concert as well. Once I have recorded the program in the recording studio, when I present it live, I follow it exactly in the same order of pieces. This is why when I play the program live, I use two pianos: one is a traditional concert grand piano for the Scarlatti Sonatas, and the other a prepared piano, for the John Cage, and I alternate between the two for seventy minutes, non-stop.
Rail: How often have you played this program live?
Greilsammer: Probably about fifteen times. It took me a while to select the pieces and the order, which Sonatas to play, and how to pair them. Only when I was absolutely sure about this project in its entirety, did I go into the recording studio.
Rail: Can you contrast your experience in playing this program in the studio with what happens with a live audience?
Greilsammer: Music is ultimately meant to be performed live. In the recording, I made a point of playing all the repeats: both Scarlatti and Cage follow the AABB binary form in these Sonatas. But, within this binary structure, both composers disregard the symmetry of the structure. Sometimes a theme comes back once, sometimes four or five times, and sometimes it simply disappears completely! This lack of symmetry within the structure is something the two composers share, each in his own way. In the recording I repeat each A part and each B part in all Sonatas. However in concert I never decide beforehand what repeats to play and which to skip. I like to feel the atmosphere during the concert, the emotional feedback from the audience and their level of attention. Then, I make a decision on the spot. This way, as you noticed, some Sonatas become longer during the concert (with the repeats) and some shorter. Also, during the live concert, I can improvise and add ornaments, and this adds to the excitement of the live performance.
Rail: Over the years you have managed to build your own very specific audience, can you attempt to define it?
Greilsammer: Different people come to my concerts for different reasons. For me it’s a much bigger compliment when someone tells me, “I came to your concert to hear your program,” than if somebody tells me they only came to hear my playing.
The concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge started a bit late, and as I was entering the space I saw an older man rushing down the stairs. Upon seeing me he said ”I am so glad you have not started yet, I just drove five hours from Vermont and hit some traffic.” I did not know the man and told him I was moved by his words and impressed by his dedication: “Of course I came down from Vermont, I would not miss a concert with Scarlatti and John Cage played together,” he told me.
After the concert, as I was signing CDs, I realized that there were people who had come more for the John Cage, who ended up being really interested in how it worked together with Scarlatti, and some Scarlatti fans or baroque lovers, who never would have chosen a Cage concert, but were “converted.” I couldn’t be happier.
Rail: Your artistic statement involves both the way you play—your interpretative skill—and the programs you put together. Your careful selection of an often daring repertoire is what sets you apart from most classical pianists. The audience never knows what to expect, other that they will be surprised.
Greilsammer: I take this as a compliment. For me the choice of the program is extremely important: I am completely committed to my musical selections and I take a lot of time to think about each program I create; it is a crucial point for me. If you allow me somewhat of a generalization, I believe that today musicians can be divided among those who are basically interpreters of musical scores and those who are also creators of programs and projects. The first category, by far the largest, is recent in history, something that began only a hundred and fifty years ago. The idea of a specialist of the piano is a recent creation. Nobody had ever thought that someone would play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto 100 times in one year on tour! In the baroque era, artists took interest in so many different fields, played many instruments, composed, wrote manifestos, were politically engaged…
Rail: Can you mention some other musicians that you feel are using programming and repertoire in similar ways?
Greilsammer: For instance, the Italian pianist Marino Formenti, but there is also a growing number of conductors and composers. Among the composers I admire, Matan Porat, (also a fantastic concert pianist and improviser) who also has a CD centered on Scarlatti. And the Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. For all of them, being an interpreter is only a part of their musicianship.
Rail: What are your first considerations when you approach an orchestra, a record label, or a festival?
Greilsammer: I always begin by asking myself what do I want to express, and from there I base my proposals on the program. I never say: “That is a good piece, I will play it.” Instead I try to develop a program, like writing a story, with many chapters … My interest is in capturing something in the world that I live in today, and that has importance. Then, I try to find musical ways to express it, like embarking on a long journey.
Rail: Do you see what you are doing through music as part of a larger discourse?
Greilsammer: Often, when elaborating a new musical program, I try to think if there is something in the project that could contribute, even on a small scale, to the world we live in today. This is why my programs present very often encounters, meeting points, dialogues … I would like my projects to bring people and concepts closer to one another, to stimulate conversations. And I would like to bring more open-mindedness and freedom to the classical music world. We should be focused on the future, not only on the past.
Rail: In Geneva you are realizing one of your dream projects: the creation of a new orchestra…
Greilsammer: It is called the Geneva Camerata (GECA), and it has brought together very talented young musicians, about thirty of them, from all over Europe. We present about thirty-five concerts per season, in Switzerland and internationally, with the most radical programming that mixes not only periods and styles, but also musical genres. We gave concerts where we juxtaposed music by Monteverdi with Jimi Hendrix, klezmer with Cuban rhythms, jazz with Mozart, electronics with Bach ... I am particularly proud that we continue to commission new works from young composers, as I feel that it is essential to promote the music of the composers of our generation.
Rail: What do you see yourself doing in the near future?
Greilsammer: I want to continue playing, conducting, and especially creating new programs and projects. I have worked extensively with baroque groups and with contemporary ensembles, but most of all I enjoy conducting symphony or chamber orchestras. I love to try to push the players to think differently about what we are doing as musicians. I always maintain a “historically informed" approach to conducting, but I try to keep my eye simultaneously on the past and the future. It’s amazing what one can achieve with an orchestra in only three or four days of rehearsal. When bringing rare baroque works or avant-garde contemporary music to a traditional symphony orchestra, I feel that I can sometimes change a lot in the way that the players think about music and about giving concerts in the 21st century … Together, we can move forward towards the future, towards advancement, towards innovation. That should be our role as artists.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.