History and Mystery The piano spheres of Ludovico Einaudi

LUDOVICO EINAUDI / Nightbook (Harmonia Mundi)

Ludovico Einaudi with piano

On the subject of what back in the day was quaintly referred to as “new age” music, I once made a snarky but I thought acute observation to Can bassist/“acoustical landscape painter” Holger Czukay that this type of music seemed to lack intellectual content. His response was a definitive squashing of my thinnish wisdom. He said, “Music is a stupid way of art, usually for stupid people. If you are writing literature or poetry, then you should be an intellectual; as a really good musician, that’s not a must.”

All this by way of discussing the case of Italian pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi, whose music is by no means stupid or empty, but does explore a gorgeous, lyrical sonic system that spins perilously close to the spiritually ornamental world of new age music –– so close, interestingly, that one finds one’s self reconsidering the undeniable power of merely beautiful music. (This is very tricky terrain.)

While his is a delicate sensibility, Einaudi’s is better seen as a passionate curiosity about the infinite possibilities inferred in music itself. The Turin-born, conservatoire-trained Einaudi (who also happens to be the grandson of Luigi Einaudi, the first post-war president of Italy), has pursued that fascination in numerous scores of a broad variety of creative modes, for ballets, operas and film and television scores (the NBA, This Is England, the British TV series Doctor Zhivago, among many others), and has collaborated with a wide-ranging assortment of the new music’s more progressive proponents, from Malian harp chief Ballake Sissoko to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

Einaudi’s latest album, Nightbook, was conceived and recorded as a response to the work of Anselm Kiefer, the German painter and sculptor, and was also inspired by the drums and electronics of the Whitetree project, a performing trio that Einaudi has formed with Robert and Ronald Lippok of German electronic group To Rococo Rot; brother Robert supplies extraordinarily evocative shadings to this strings-and-percussion-laced album framing Einaudi’s dramatically minimal solo piano compositions.

The point about this post-post-post Nightbook and Einaudi himself is that his music is both uncategorizable and very, very powerful –– and that that is a very good thing. He talks about it over the phone from his home in Milan:

BLUEFAT: You’ve called Nightbook a record about the transition between light and dark, between the known and unknown.

LUDOVICO EINAUDI: For me this project is to go toward new perspectives in my music. I enjoy changing, and opening new doors in my activities. And this time, I was a couple of years ago playing in Milano in a very strange place, a big industrial space called the Bicocca Hangar, and this space was renewed as an art gallery. I played the piano between an installation called The Seven Heavenly Palaces by Anselm Kiefer. And the sound of my piano in this space, it was like playing in a very strange cathedral; there was incredible reverb, and with the character of those immense towers around me, it was a sort of apocalyptic experience. There was a spiritual feeling inside.

And so when I was rehearsing there, I was trying out the sound, and I realized that I couldn’t play music that I had already composed, I had to do something specific for this event. So I went back home without the time really to think too much, and I decided on some sketches that I put down on the piano and then I went to the performance space and did the concert improvising around these sketches.

When I was listening to the concert afterward, I heard that it was new. And I saw this new, obscure light; there was a mysterious feeling in that music that I really liked. I found that there was a color of this light around this music, and there was both a sort of bleak inspiration and a kind of conscious inspiration that you find inside yourself.

Well, it was a different idea for me of going into this darkness, into these particular adventures, and I knew that these were going to be for my new album. Of course, I had decided to fill these darkened caverns with moments of light, because if you make some concerts you understand that the darkest themes are juxtaposed with lighter themes, so that you understand all the differences.

Ludovico Einaudi at piano

So the ambience of the live setting –– the things that you saw and the sound of the space itself –– informed your musical ideas in performance.

But I also realized that sound by experimenting in the studio by, for example, using electronics on the piano; I’ve been working in my live shows with Robert Lippok, who was on the album, too. Sometimes we went on completely unknown sound adventures, different worlds around the piano where one sound begins to play the other.

How does the interaction with Robert Lippok’s electronics work?

We were working in various ways, sometimes it was music where we had experimented with sequencers, where the piano was miked out via separate channels to his sequencer, reordered and altered with digital effects, and I was playing off the output back to me from the sequencer. Then the piano is becoming fantastical, partly because the sound coming back to me is different from the piano, so what I play is then influenced by the sound that I hear with the sequencer. Sometimes we use a delay, or ways to project sound in a very long delay sound, and so with this idea came the actual composition of the music, as some pieces came out in improvising around these sounds with electronic effects.

With electronics you don’t know where you’re going, so it’s a very difficult way of doing the music. But I really enjoy hitting a balance between my piano and this other special energy. And when you add other instruments, it becomes organic and complete.

This music has a warmth, a romanticism, that marks a break from the heavily theoretical contemporary classical path on which you originally started, beginning with your studies with Luciano Berio. Was there a point when you decided you wanted to get away from music for the head?

Really, my musical background was partly in classical music and partly in contemporary music. Since the beginning I was very much interested in popular music, but also music that is coming from old, ancient times. My interest has been in looking for the roots of music and trying to find connections, causes, to see where different aspects of our culture are coming from. So I was interested in modern music, like club music, and old music, from Armenia and Africa or different parts of the world, because I found very interesting the idea that there is a language of our time that we musicians can use, and you can build stories basing what you want to say on a language that is comprehensible by everyone, in the sense that you can use some harmonic, melodic or rhythmic feel that is not actually of our time.

This idea is not something I invented; there’ve been many composers going back into the roots. It’s just that from the ’60s or ’70s there was the idea that music should be invented from zero. Then composers like Glass and Reich, the minimalists, they started to work on this, to use the rhythms and harmonies of other times.

Much of what you do concerns itself with saying more by saying less. We can draw a line between you and the minimalists, obviously, but there is a connection with Satie, as well.

Yes, Satie, or the piano music of Chopin or Schumann, there are things that I can relate to, the idea of sounds without words. The influence is very strong from popular music, harmonically, and the way of building the structural lines of the song. There are some pieces, however, where it doesn’t necessarily refer to a song in the normal sense, pieces in which it builds like a bolero, and in terms of dynamics, there is a melodic structure that is repeating and building through different layers from the piano, and you have the big climax with a lot of additional instruments at the end.

So my music is a combination of different musical forms, and in a way that I feel is not completely harmonious –– but is what I was looking for. I didn’t want to set myself on one level; I wanted to experiment in different possibilities and take the listeners to different travels, adventures, new heights. You have to go for the adventure.