The eclectic pianist talks about career choices, Aussie citizenship and the compulsion to compose.
You write, you’re a painter, you’re something of a raconteur – you create perfumes – was there ever a time when you weren’t going to be a pianist?
Not really. We didn’t have a piano in the house and so the only piano I knew was the piano in an aunt’s house. When we went to visit her I was fascinated by this, and I begged my parents to buy me one. Eventually, after much pestering they said okay. Once I started learning, I would have been about six, then that’s all I wanted to do. I had a brief time when I considered giving it up to be a priest but that didn’t last. I think by now I would have been thrown out of the priesthood [laughs].
So as a six year-old were you inspired by other players? Or was it composers? Or just the physical object sitting in your aunt’s room?
I think it was the physical object! We lived in a village about 20 miles from Manchester, so I didn’t get to go to lots of concerts. I watched an awful lot of television, particularly from the age of about ten – we’re talking six hours a day. I wasn’t doing lots of different things then like reading or listening to lots of operas; I was watching soap operas actually, rather than listening to Wagner, so I’m a bit of a late developer. In fact it’s a bit of a miracle I managed to get things off the ground at all because I was pretty lazy, and I can slip back into that quite easily.
So what made you make the decision that you wanted to be a concert pianist rather than just someone who plays the piano?
Well I loved music and I loved the piano so it just seemed to me that that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t know whether you think so much at that age about the implications of careers. Then when I was in my teens I loved it a lot less. I practiced less and I was listening more to rock music and burning incense in my bedroom – you know, all those 1970’s teenage things. I think by that point piano was about the only thing I could do, so it was sort of a career by default rather than by choice.
But I was fortunate that I had a wonderful teacher during those years. Gordon Green, was an amazing man – he opened up so many ideas to me. The main thing was that he wanted you to develop your own personality. So it wasn’t like you learned how to play the way that he liked – he wanted to see what you had to offer and to develop that. It was quite a skill and all of his students sounded different. The other thing that he would always say was that it wasn’t how you played now that interested him, it was how you were going to play in ten years-time. The idea of grooming someone for a competition, pushing them ahead, artificially getting them going quickly, no – he wanted things to take time. It was a very holistic, or organic view of teaching.
I can’t think of many pianists as eclectic as you in terms of recorded repertoire. Are you a sponge for interesting by-ways of the piano, and is there a reason you’ve roamed so widely rather than focused on particular composers?
There are two sides to this. One side is the pragmatic one, which is that to make recordings at this point in history, when there are hundreds and hundreds of CDs of familiar repertoire, especially at the beginning of a career, you have to find something that hasn’t been done by everyone else. But the other side is this: I’ve never played 100% standard repertoire. I’ve always wanted to add something interesting to a program – to turn something around in a slightly different way. I think being any kind of an artist is about a level of creativity, and creativity by definition is making something – making something new, not just turning out the same biscuits day after day after day. It’s re-imagining them, and not so much in an artificial way, but in a way that comes from deep within the excitement of the creative process itself.
I am naturally curious about repertoire, but I don’t play things just because they’re unusual – they’ve got to be good as well. Many times in history there have been different fashions and pieces that were very popular like the Hummel concertos, which were the most played piano concertos of all in the 1830’s, but then by the 1930’s were hardly being played. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in why the change happened, and what pieces supplanted them, and why they did – all of these connections. I think that’s being creative in some way. I mean when the Sydney Opera House was built, they could have built a square box and put an opera house in it, but no, that building is all about not just using the cookie cutter and living with it.
You’re a composer as well as a player. How long have you done that, and what made you start?
I started composing the day I started learning how to read music. It was a total outpouring of something that I just had to do. I wrote quite a lot of music until I went to college. And then I started a piano career when I was 21. I was playing and travelling all over the world and learning repertoire until two o’clock in the morning – going out to Hong Kong, back to America – and there just wasn’t the time. I also slightly lost confidence. I thought: “well what’s the point of writing music when there’s so much other music out there to play?”
So what I did was wrote little transcriptions as encores, and over the years I played some of Richard Rodgers arrangements of songs – things that were fun and lightweight. And I did one of the waltz, from Carousel. The American composer John Corigliano heard it about 15 years ago in New York and said, “you should write your own music! It shouldn’t be any different if it’s your own melodies,” and I thought that was an interesting idea, so I started writing again – little pieces for friends’ birthdays and such. And then I wrote a piece in memory of a composition teacher I’d had who died, and someone heard that and asked me to write him a piece. And then someone heard that and asked me to write them a piece, and before I knew it, I’d written three or four hours worth of music in the last seven or eight years.
Your Second Piano Sonatas is on your new CD. It’s absolutely engrossing – full of interest and energy. It sounds like a bit of a bumpy night. What was it that you wanted to evoke in the work?
There’s nothing autobiographical about the piece. It’s about the night, but not in any direct programmatic sense. I think when you’re writing a piece sometimes it’s a flavour; it’s an idea; it’s a colour; it’s the sound that you want to create. It’s a hook on which you hang the piece. I think it can be understood without any of the notes, just as a purely abstract piece because in the end it really is abstract music. I had a feeling when I was writing the piece of a brashness; of a city; of the night. I was thinking of Singapore or Hong Kong or Bangkok – one of those Asian cities where people are cooking into the night, and yet there’s this passion and loneliness underneath everything.
This of course makes you a composer pianist like so many of the greats. When you look back on that extraordinary lineage is there someone you feel you’d like to emulate?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think of myself as a composer pianist through the serious pieces that I’ve written. But I do in the transcriptions, because those seem to me very much linked to my psychology as a pianist, and the way I play the piano. But when I write my serious music I feel like a different person. So just like Graham Greene who answered the question “are you a catholic novelist?” with “no, I’m a novelist who’s a catholic,” I feel a little bit the same. I’m a pianist who composes, rather than a composer pianist.
Of those composer pianists, do you have heroes?
I’m not really a hero worshipper. Of course I have people that I think are incredible and that I admire enormously. The three composers that I find very fruitful when I listen to them would be Janáček, Britten and Poulenc. When I listen to their music I want to go and compose. Not necessarily in that style, but I find their music is rich – like a soil in which you know things are going to grow. There’s something about Poulenc. I love the way he plays with the edge of melancholy and humour, and has tragedy without it being Mahlerian – that you can have a light touch and still create something that’s very profound. And I love Britten’s whole harmonic world – I find that very rich. And I love Janáček’s crazy passion – this kind of volcano of inspiration. When I listen to Janáček, I just want to grab some paper and start writing music myself.
You’re an Aussie citizen, and you’ve suggested you’d like to spend more time here as you get older. Are you getting any closer to that goal?
Oh, I don’t think I’m old enough to spend those endless months walking along Bondi beach with a handkerchief on my head… not quite. I love coming to Australia very much – it’s always an absolute highlight of my year. It’s wonderful to be able to hop in the citizens’ line, rather than that huge long line of people trying to visit! There was a very deep personal issue with this, because my father was born in Australia (though he never really spent any time there). But his father spent nearly 40 years living in Australia from 1926 until he died in the 60s. My grandfather and my father never met, and they’re now both dead. I feel that Australia is a very important link to them, and that in some strange way by me picking up that link I’m keeping it going.
One last utterly trivial question; as a fragrance fan, have you smelled Lang Lang’s perfume, and what do you think?
I haven’t! Is it out? I knew it was coming out, but I didn’t realise when. I think Lang Lang’s reinventing everything in so many ways. I think it’s a lot of fun and I’d love to try it.
And have you ever thought about making a Hough perfume?
I’d like to work with a great perfumer and do something, that would be fun, but you have to have chemical knowledge to create something that doesn’t smell like fly spray. I’m not sure I’m up to that. But I’d certainly be interested in creating something using notes that I like. There’s a lot of music about perfume in the way people talk about it. I think I’d have lots of rich things – leathers, woods, you know – something I hope that’s got a little subtlety but would last a long time. Gosh I’m thinking of all the double meanings behind creating your own perfume now [laughs]. I like perfumes where there’s a point in putting it on your wrist. If it fizzles out in ten minutes then why bother. But you don’t want something that’s so strong that it hits everyone in the face every time you walk in the room.