This is a condensed and edited version of a longer interview with the composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi that I conducted over the phone on June 7. Centered on his reflections on time, environmental issues, and the role of art, the conversation expanded to his formative experiences and his passion for photography.
Francesca Pietropaolo (Rail): In your musical compositions, such as In a Time Lapse (2013), you often evoke notions of time and, particularly, the time of nature. In the past year and a half, as a result of the pandemic, the transformative experience of living in a seemingly forever-suspended time has changed our lives. How has your reflection on time developed, in light of this shifting turn?
Ludovico Einaudi: I have loved the slowing down of time globally, during the pandemic. I feel part of these rediscovered slow rhythms, the rhythms of nature. Reflecting on time and observing nature have become more and more important to me. The velocity of the city, the speed of a life lived running after things doesn’t interest me anymore. I am interested in this transformation outside of us, in the natural world, which is fascinating. This is my response to the new experience of time the pandemic brought with it. Also, nature benefited from our absence during that period. Sadly, while there was much talk about learning from this experience to chart a new course, it seems to me that the world is resuming to go about as though nothing ever happened.
Rail: Trying to build on this notion of a slow, deeper time and thus countering that impulse to move on as though nothing happened, what role, in your view, can art and culture play in the process of shaping our future?
Einaudi: On the role that music can play, I can say that if I had a class of young students who would like to do a workshop with me, I would take them to a mountain or on a walk. I would take them to see how one can transform a cloud’s movement into music; how one can become part of the natural world by observing it, honoring it, and creating music. Respect for nature is fundamental. There is a lot of talk about ecology and the environment nowadays, but in fact too often it seems like a fashionable subject for people. I would rather educate the new generations more in the direction of studying nature and feeling a compenetration with it. This summer, I will do a tour in selected natural sites, places where the stage encompasses the landscape around us; thus nature enters in the music and also in the visual and auditory experience of the audience. Hopefully, this kind of experience generates a form of awareness. This is what I can do.
You know, in conceiving In a Time Lapse, my reading of the writings of Henry David Thoreau, which I continue today, was very important, in particular Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and his Journals. The journals, in which Thoreau wrote down his observations of and thoughts inspired by nature, are a continuing source of inspiration for me.
Rail: Did they also inspire you to keep your own dairies gathering observations from the walks that you are used to take in nature?
Einaudi: Yes. I started writing diaries of both words and music. By now they form an archive I can dive into. I also keep diaries that include my photography.
Rail: How did your interest in photography develop?
Einaudi: It was triggered by the gift of a Rolleiflex camera from my father, when I was around 12. Later on, I was lucky enough to learn how to print photographs at Ugo Mulas’s studio lab. For a while I concentrated on music and then, 15 years ago, I took on photography again and, in the past 10 years, I’ve started making photography using film cameras. Photography is a daily practice for me. I will show some photographs for the first time this summer, at the Climate Space Film & Music Festival in Melpignano, Italy: black-and-white images of nature, taken in the Arctic.
Rail: In the context of the stimulating cultural environment in which you grew up and which revolved around the publishing activity of your father, Giulio Einaudi, you met Italo Calvino and received encouragement from him about your early photographic work.
Einaudi: Of the many writers and figures who frequented our house, Calvino was the one with whom I developed a close relationship. I remember that for a birthday, when I was a kid, he gifted me with a small plant from Guatemala, a Sedum, telling me that from its fallen leaves, put in the soil, a new plant could be born. That fascinating story stayed with me. Calvino had a special sensibility for nature—his father was a major botanist who was also the first one to introduce the avocado in Europe, from Cuba.
At home, I had a darkroom in the basement. One day, I printed some photographs and Calvino put them all out on the floor in the dining room and looked at them. He selected a photograph that he considered the best and explained to me the reasons why he found it interesting. We continued our dialogue over the years. I was very fond of him.
Rail: The relationship of Man to Nature, a central theme in your work, is at the core of your recent work Elegy for the Arctic (2016) and the extraordinary musical performance of it in which you played the piano on a platform of a modernist, minimal design floating among the glaciers in the Arctic Sea (a video of the performance was produced for the 2016 “Save the Arctic” campaign organized by Greenpeace). Can you talk about this project and touch on your interest in nature running through your work, at least since the 1990s, as your 1996 album Le Onde (Waves) demonstrates?
Einaudi: My work Le Onde takes its cues from Virginia Woolf’s book The Waves (1931) in which nature becomes a metaphor for life: existence is a process with a beginning and an end like a big sea wave. That reading gave me the desire to translate the ideas explored in the book into a musical project. After Le Onde, I composed Elements (2015) focusing on the elements in nature, drawing from both scientific and mythological readings on the subject—for instance, I studied closely the Table of Elements. In Elements, it is all about going beyond the human-centric perspective and being in contact with something grander, mysterious, magical and its time. I have always been very sensitive to environmental issues, which are increasingly urgent today. The Greenpeace “Save the Arctic” project that I participated in aimed to create awareness on the fragility of the Arctic and advocate for the creation of a protected area in the Arctic sea. For it, I composed Elegy for the Arctic and performed it in front of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier, by the Norwegian Svalbard Islands.
Rail: In the video of the performance, it struck me that the sounds of nature “participate” in your piece. You welcomed the sounds of the environment around you.
Einaudi: Yes, a mountain of ice started coming down as I played. An element of chance entered in the present moment of playing music. When that mountain of ice came down, a beautiful synchronicity with my music took place. Indeed, it felt as though nature entered in dialogue with it—and personal time, musical time, and geological time seemed to conflate. It was a beautiful, unique experience. Imagine low skies, calm waters, and, since it was summertime, a continuous light.
Rail: You spoke of the element of chance. American Minimalist music has been important to you—in your music, I find, there is always a delicate balance between expression and reduction to minimal terms—but I wonder if you also have had an interest in John Cage, in his idea of welcoming the sounds of quotidian life, of the world and also in his quest to abandon self-centeredness in our experience of nature.
Einaudi: Absolutely. Cage has always fascinated me, more in terms of his thinking than in terms of the final results that ensued. Perhaps I need more content in terms of musical matter. And, perhaps for that reason, his music never fully satisfied me as a listener. But certainly the notion of chance, the idea of inserting elements that are outside the composer’s control and may produce unexpected results taking us to unforeseen places, all that, which is at the core of Cage’s poetics and work, is important to me, as well as the theme of absence, an absence of the self that lets things breathe on their own, so to speak, with a link to Eastern thought and Zen. This all relates to the reflection on nature, for me. For instance, the observation of a tree, of the complexity of the movement of its leaves in the wind, can give birth to a fantastic composition. In the process, you are solicited to question what the very role of art is.
Rail: Going backward in time, your discovery of music was nurtured by growing up in a family with a love for it. Can you speak about that and also of your formative encounter with Luciano Berio and, through him, with the musical avant-garde?
Einaudi: My maternal grandfather was a musician, conductor, and composer. I never met him, but he passed on to my mother a love for music which she, in turn, transmitted to me. She wasn’t a professional musician, but she used to play and listen to music at home. So it was natural for me to start playing music at an early age. I studied music and also composition at the Conservatory of Milan. From early on, I was interested in the creative aspect and not just in the execution of others’ music. At one point, I focused on playing piano and writing music, which is my signature two-fold practice to the present.
My dialogue with Berio is the central experience of my musical youth. In addition to being a very adventurous composer and a key figure in the postwar avant-garde, he had deep, solid roots in the musical tradition of the past and manifold interests—in literature, phonology, and architecture, for instance. And in observation: I remember that once, when he came to my house in the Langhe [in Piedmont], which is surrounded by nature, we spotted a flock of birds flying, their movement drawing wonderful things in the sky, and he said to me, “It would be interesting to transcribe this movement for a group of string.” He was a true humanist. He transformed all of his readings, his observations, and his experiences bringing them inside his music. This is an approach that I have inherited from him—as the conception of Le Onde shows, for instance. Ours was a teacher-pupil relationship and, naturally, the moment came for me to define my own path. We had three or four years of great intense assonanza (assonance) and then our paths diverged. I keep an intact memory of Berio’s maestria (mastery) and generosity.
Rail: Sometimes you create suites of variations on a musical idea and bring them together in an ensemble, as in your recent work Seven Days Walking (2019). Could you talk about this composition and about the importance of walking in nature in relation to your creative process?
Einaudi: In Seven Days Walking I explored that approach to composition and created seven musical paths repeated in different days within the period of a week, where each day something different happens within a general similarity. In this work, there is a musical walk, taken always on the same path, during which you hear the same things but with variations, akin to what happens when you walk in the same space on different days and you notice different details in the same repeating experience overall. Going back to Cage, I have always been fascinated by the fact that you can play the same musical piece and open up to chance elements that create variations in your performance and in the music, as you repeat it over time. In Seven Days Walking, I wanted to offer listeners a kaleidoscopic vision and experience, like one view that is perceived from multiple vantage points.
Rail: In your work you tend to connect multiple musical worlds across time and space: in some pieces you have brought together Baroque music, pop music, African music, folk music and so on. These references create remarkable stratifications.
Einaudi: I am inspired by music that I listen to and that is part of my life. In the case of African music, I went to Mali twice and studied and played with African musicians. Also, in 2011, I developed a project including the Taranta music from Southern Italy and bridging that culture with African and Middle Eastern cultures, among others, by collaborating with musicians from different parts of the world. Moreover, several musical projects originated from my love for Baroque music, often creating unexpected developments. My crescendi, for instance, are closer to Baroque music than Romantic tradition.
Rail: With your music you reach a wide public, beyond the limits of a specialist musical audience.
Einaudi: I have always been interested in creating a connection with a varied public, avoiding any form of discriminating choice in terms of audience to address—because culture can discriminate sometimes. Opera theaters, for instance, invite a selected public. I like the idea that in my audience there are people of different backgrounds, different musical preferences, open to listening without having preconceived ideas, and including also those who have no musical culture but wish to enjoy music and do not necessarily experience music as an intellectual endeavor.
Rail: It is important, and urgent, that culture reconnect with the world, be open to it.
Einaudi: Absolutely. And I am happy to reach a large public, in that regard.
Rail: During the lockdown in Italy, you have played live for people online, gifting them with intimate musical performances from your home to their homes.
Einaudi: Yes. In my latest album Twelve Songs from Home (2020), I selected some of the pieces from my repertoire that I played on the piano in the evenings over Instagram, letting people know about it with short notice when I felt like playing (these musical performances were not meant to be advertised in advance, as “events”, but just to happen, offering an improvised, “in-the-moment” connecting experience). People left very nice messages in response to those moments of shared music. And it is precisely to remember those moments, to capture them, that I decided to publish those pieces played on a simple kind of piano with a slightly cracked sound, which I had available at home. So the album is a reminder of those days. During that time, I was also immersed in writing new music, and I have just completed a new project that I will present at the beginning of 2022. In lockdown, I was in the middle of the creative flow of that mysterious river that nurtures musical production.
[This conversation, held in Italian, has been translated by Francesca Pietropaolo]