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Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a classical pianist and professor at the Paris Conservatory and the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Born in Lyon, France, he is widely acclaimed as a key[…]

Big Think sits down with the classical pianist.

Question: Are there any pop or rock musicians that you admire?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: I have an acoustical problem because I find that the level, the dynamic level, of proper rock concerts are so up high that I feel in danger for my ears. Physically speaking. So I try to compensate as I can and my son, Antoine, tries to make me less ignorant than I am. I had a high level of resistance when I was young. What I now do consider as a kind of narrow-minded attitude that I have, I discovered too late, that in fact you have the same problems in the pop, for instance, or in the rock, or in many musics, than in the classics. Danger of the business. The problem of the isolation of groups that are very creative and that are not often in the… Problems of the fashion and how it can kill some expression, and so on and so on. More than all probably with the relationship with the success, that means with the society in general.

So, I think that better understanding of both parts, if I can say so, somewhere can help to understand the whole mystery.

Question: Are there any skills that are shared by classical musicians and pop stars?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Well, there are many dimensions that are comparable, for sure. The charisma, the presence on stage, the commitment, the energy, the ability for communication, dimensions of expression, understanding for our era, well probably many other dimensions. Yes definitely.

Question: What is the role of the classical musician in society?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: The so-called classical serious musicians, are supposed to be ambi-centers for what we call our classical serious culture, to transmit to new audiences and new generations a very rich heritage and to be witnesses for what happens today. So, to be servants for creators and to be able to participate to the artistic education for the next generations.

Question: What has been the traditional role of the series musician?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Well, what one calls classical music, or serious music, or all these awful words, requires most of the time quite a high level of technical training. This is the price to pay somewhere. Not always, if you sing in a choir for instance, with a good director, you can make very good music. Sometimes with a less challenging education than if you want to play a complex polyphony with a keyboard instrument. But, as you say, there are ways to make music without the same level of discipline, and this is why we can be thankful to live in a world with a certain level of tolerance where many ways of making music, or making arts, is accepted and is feasible.

Question: What pieces have been particularly influential in your life?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: There are many. The most important probably belongs to the very first part of the ****. For instance, when my parents, as musical amateur played probably in a quite amateur way on a very modest upright piano, melodies that I still remember, or when my neighbor on the sixth floor when I went and slept at night, played as an amateur pianist, compositions by Schubert and Brahms. But I think that very important when I became a teenager the different ways to be passionate in music. This could be the way of the romantic, like Wagner with "Tristan" that has been, for me, a reason for living in music for an entire year, and learn old music by heart and could say the whole text by heart, or this could be the way of leaving creators to transform the passion in music into new aesthetics and new languages.

Question: How can we improve our appreciation of classical music?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: First of all, I'd like to say that the educational programs should be much stronger to answer to your question. And if we see – if we observed some countries that have really got some visions from musical education, like Venezuela, Japan, or Finland, we see that the answer is much easier to do. In fact, if one thinks about starting in education, it could be any kind of music. Mozart, Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, or many music from this planet, if the education is well done, this music can make sense and become familiar to anybody, and especially to young people.

Question: At what point did you know you had musical talent?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Well, at the start, I realized that I had a passion, I would say. A talent, I had no idea, but having played a couple of notes on an upright piano at the house of a Grand-Uncle, I had felt an extremely strong attraction and a kind of necessity to play this instrument.

Question: What is your practice regiment?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Work, work, and work. If you want to realize something, to realize it really in any discipline, you have to work enormously. Not just for competition, but for yourself, for achieving something. That's the only way. But of course, only if work makes sense. If you work on something you believe to and with the concentration and nourishing always your work with yourself and your creativity and your soul as one would say in Slavic countries.

It changed a lot because of course your relation with work is different when you have more experience. You can have a better icodemy of your work. It changes a lot also in terms of the performing arts because the performance takes a lot in itself, of time, of travels, all the parts of the activity that interferes with the discipline itself; travels, concerts, interviews, etc. So, you have to – if you intend to keep quality with what you do, you have to fight strongly for preserving the work on the discipline itself and not just on the frames. In other words, not to be a victim of your success, what one could see everyday so much with very famous, or not so famous, people. This is for me, the saddest part of mankind when somebody becomes disappointing in compare with the talents he or she had at the start. So, what can protect you, hopefully against this disease, the mirror somewhere, to try everyday to decide, this was not good enough. This is not myself enough. I'm not risky enough, or I'm too much risky. I'm not prepared enough, etc., etc. So the mirrors are from all kinds. It can be your own years, recordings, etc., can be your friends, but the true friends, the friends who say the hard truth, you know, your judges somewhere. And all the professional that can really help you to become better, or to try to become better.

Question: Do you ever doubt your talent?


Pierre Laurent Aimard: Oh, constantly. But also there is the belief. It's a mix, it's a balance. You can do nothing -- you have go the talent, you know, it's a presence. Well, it's a gift of God, would say people who believe in God, or it's in your chemical structure you would say if you are the sum or the neurologist what I am. The only thing you can do is to work on the best way possible with this talent, or to honor this talent, I could say. So, this is what I try to do, sometimes I have the feeling that I succeed, often that I don't.

As I think that life is a permanent challenge to try to develop yourself the best way you can, very often I think that's the challenges I have chosen, for me, are too high maybe, or are not the right challenges. And then I don't. But then I think I have a lot of obstination. So I go on and on and ahead, and sometimes it works. But of course, it's a permanent fight with yourself.

Question: Why do audiences shy away from less familiar works?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Well, it's the story of mankind. With many dimensions in life, it's the same and one can understand familiarity brings security, a peaceful feeling. Well, of course, too much security kills a dimension in humans and too much protection as well. So, I think it could balance between adventure, spirit of ****, and a certain amount of memories is fine, but of course too much familiarity brings too conservatism and this is one of the problem we have to face in what we call classical music. There is this enormous conservatism especially in the musical education. This is, I think, one of the biggest risks for the future, the lack of musical education and the conservatism in the musical education.

Question: Would you ever advise a musician to quit playing?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: I presume that the person that would ask that, there aren't many of them, I guess, are even able to decide on their own. I can't tell you the admiration that I had for the great Master, Mr. Alfred Brendle. Not only for having done the music he has done in his life and inspired us to highly, but also for having decided to stop at a given moment. I regretted that, I missed him as an artist on stage. But my God, I respect him so much. A big courage. A big mastery and self-control.

Question: How do you prepare for your concerts?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: I have to answer on the larger picture, if I may. We have a strange life. We're supposed to make something fresh on stage. When we plan everything two or three years in advance so our programs are supposed to take into account our point of view on art, on masterpieces, lets' say. Our relationship with an audience, our plan at a given place, at a given moment, and our own forces in order to be okay at a given moment for playing this and that, and to be ready. Well, one can just try our best, but we're supposed to integrate the way to be ready with this or that piece. That means to play it enough to prepare it in the right way, to have the type of imagination that … to play this piece on the proper way.

Some pieces, for instance, are not hard technically, but emotionally or artistically very fragile. Some others will be very demanding physically, let's say. Others can be played only at some moments in your life, etc., etc. So, there is a kind of construction that allows us to play this and that pieces combined at a given moment.

And then when the moment arrives, to know yourself well enough to anticipate and see what you need, work, sleep, awoke, an exhibition, a good lecture, a good book, I don't know what else. A good meal maybe.

Question: What happens if you make a mistake?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: It depends on the mistake. If it's a wrong note; it's done, it's too late, only not to lose control because of that. That's a part of life to make wrong notes and by chance, I'm not a pilot for a plane, or I'm not a soldier, so my mistakes will have less tragic consequences than others. But anyway, somewhere on stage at a given moment we feel that there is a kind of life risk, or absolute emergency situation, so it seems that a mistake is, yes, the most horrifying thing in a musician's life. But it is our life, we have to deal with that and go on and try to go on saving the piece we are serving. So, the goal, I would say, is to consider the mistake in the general vision. How can we make it so that the audience will not lose the piece and the light, the sense, the general picture of the piece, even with these mistakes? This is, I think, the priority.

Question: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in your career?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: It seems that there are often challenges like that.

You know, the stage is not an easygoing place. It’s very impressive, it's quite frightening, and for instance, if you play a piece for a composer, especially the first time, this is quite impressive. So, I remember some moments playing for Mr. Boulay for instance, or Mr. Ligeti, or other creators, where I wouldn't wish too many people to live this kind of feeling.

Now, if you have told for your career, what does this mean? A general vision or development. So, maybe I should speak about one of these moments when you take the risk to make something that represents a lot of risk, but that will add a dimension to your own activity. So, maybe for instance when I answered positively to Mr. **** when he proposed to record the five Beethoven Concertos. This was very challenging because this was not supposed to be a territory where I could be necessarily good, and at this moment they were quite new pieces for me. I had played very few of these concertos before. Three of them never before, because I always thought, my God, so many colleagues play that, sometimes good, for some of them remarkably. Why another one? There are many other priorities. And I thought, why to add another more, or less, good or bad interpretation.

But then suddenly came this proposition and an immense wish to make music with an exceptional musician. And I thought, well I felt, this could be something that could add enormously to your life, well, and I've taken the risk. Well, this transformed my life, sometimes when I hear the recordings; I thought that I make a very risky choice, but too late.

Question: What other arts forms most inform your music?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: I think this is a permanent process, so this would be the list of not all the books that you read in a life, but so many of them because every experiment becomes a part of yourself. Of course you make – you are a filter and you memorize what you memorize. You make your choices. But at the very end, you are consciously and unconsciously a very complex mix.

However, if you ask me to point on some crucial artistic moments that I have had and that maybe I would return to at the moment of my death, for instance. I don't know. But I would probably choose a certain amount of abstract paintings in the 20th century. I'm very fond of abstract arts and not only in the 20th century, but I think that what happened from before the First World War, let say, when **** starts, really. Opens the door for this adventure until the best moments after Second World War is something from in the center of the mystery. And the fact that with abstract arts, one could have such a large scale of expression and languages. Let's say from the ****, sophistication in simplicity from Roflco until the liberation in jester and in complete violent freedom of Pollack, lets say, for having two borders so far from each other is something that has always overwhelmed me deeply and continues to do it.

And if we speak from spoken language, or read language, I think that what remains the deepest in me are some of the pages of, let's say, you know the, how can I call them? Essential poets, that are able to shout about human existence. Like among our French poets, for instance, Francois Villon, with his desperate humanity, or Rimbaud, I think. Well, many others, but should have ****.

Question: What is the link between alcohol and creativity?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Well, I would say there is a link between the loss of senses and creativity and not just alcohol, but drugs, or pathology. And of course, this had been the subject of many studies, very fascinating, and many tries. The question is to know how much, what provocates the loss of the control is needed for that, or is the creator capable or able, to get to this experimental points without what creates the loss of the sense. In other words, this is always the flirt, I would say, with the border between control and loss of control, or between consciousness and unconsciousness that is so fascinating and has been so fascinating, especially at some moments of mankind, and that we can explore today probably with a more acute way thanks to neurobiology.

Question: What attracts you to an unfamiliar score?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: Its unfamiliarity. The fact that it is an open enigma for me to solve, an invitation to make discoveries, an invitation to put my life in question, a challenge for opening new fields and a nice occupation for my brain for my heart, for my fantasy, being somewhere destabilized, sometimes disturbed at some moments, for making the try to enrich my life.

Question: Why do you like to change the style of music you play?

Pierre Laurent Aimard: I have a little of the feeling to try to change my life, I mean to open my life, to enlarge it all the time. I think that if you are an artist, or if you are occupied by an artistic activity, you just can't stay in the same place. Every day gives an occasion to ask again to yourself, "Well, who am I and where am I going to? Which doors can I open?" But in fact, consequently, I don’t have the feeling that I am very different because I think that I've done that from the very start.

For instance, from the very start, there were, I think, no borders, personally, between what one calls old and new. So, I've always played music from today, even as the “today” at this moment is different than well, now and music from the past. But of course, since a couple of years, the music of the past has been put more in *****, more integrated to my public life. Therefore, many people believe that I've started to be interested with this music since only since a couple of years, so what is wrong?

 Recorded on: November 16, 2009