So I have quite a wide variety of questions that I’m excited to ask you, so we will just get started and see where this goes.
Dig in – we’ll have a ball!
Obviously you are a very prolific performer as well as a teacher, so how do you navigate being able to perform as widely as you do, maintain this expansive discography, and teach simultaneously?
It works wonderfully for me, because I actually get a tremendous amount of energy from each area – they feed each other. The fact that I am an active performer is a real inspiration to my students because they want to be doing the same thing, BUT at the same time the art of teaching really invigorates my performing as well. Digging in and thinking about music in different ways really gives me great ideas about how to perform music, how to present it, all of the psychological, spiritual, and emotional issues that have to be dealt with when teaching and which relate to my performing. I don’t see them at all as separate ventures, but things that really go hand in hand.
Your CD “New Generations” has just been released, which incorporates works of Phillip Glass as well as that of rising young composers – where did the idea for this project come from?
The impetus for this whole CD project came because Phillip had written these new etudes that I fell in love with, but also I turned 54 this year, which is kind of a milestone for me as I begin to think about my own mortality. I thought it was about time that I started supporting younger musicians. I was playing a new music festival in Los Angeles, and I ended up meeting all of these really young composers. That is where the idea for a double CD came from–one CD of Philip Glass with these wonderful new etudes, and one CD of music written by younger composers. That also is where the title “New Generations” came from. The great thing is that it is an incredible affirmation of what is to happen in the future - the music I am playing is absolutely gorgeous! You know, I just got back from a tour in Florida, as one of the composers on the CD, Jason Bar, teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University. If you don’t know, Southwest Florida is Snowbird City – plenty of retired, wealthy people - and I sold more of my CD’s at that recital than I had ever sold before EVER!!! They just went bonkers for it! They loved the Glass pieces, of course, but they really loved that I was playing the music of these really young composers.
Speaking as a singer who is currently working with a young composer in preparation for my own recital, I don’t like to think of the freshly-composed as categorically “new music.” Do you really see music as the old versus the new, or do you just perform what personally speaks to you?
First of all, I agree TOTALLY with you, and think that is wonderful! I should tell you a little story about how these pieces on my CD came to be. When I got booked for this new music festival in Los Angeles, I had to pick 5 pieces from young composers to be featured with me. I got probably 25 scores and recordings, and I started listening – and they were really horrid!! I was starting to get really depressed because there is no greater punishment on the earth as a pianist than being forced to play music that you hate. But as it turns out, the last five that I listened to were actually fabulous – it was really a close call there! So my only rule is that I will never play anything that doesn’t personally speak to me. You know, I adore Liszt and Chopin as well as Glass and Pärt. It’s all music, and it all speaks to human beings.
You seem to be drawn to minimalism in a lot of your performance music – do you believe that to be true?
Oh yes, very much so. The fact is that we live in this hyper-frenetic paced lifestyle. So when I get the chance to sit back and contemplate, it’s wonderful. I am the head chanter at a Greek Orthodox Church, and in Byzantine music, the idea of a drone is very necessary and present. I love the concept of eliminating really fast harmonic motion, which forces you to consider other musical parameters. I play a lot of Arvo Pärt…
Oh, I LOVE his music!!!
…Ahhhh, how could you not love it?? A single note beautifully played – what more do you need? What more do you want? To just focus on the absolute beauty and purity of the sound instead of what you can do with it. I am really drawn to composers who really take their time, like the Ivan Moody piece – I ADORE the Fiorature (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_3J4RckP40). There is no sense of hurry, it is just a 12-minute love affair with the note F. And I’m also drawn to the pedagogical element – I think these pieces really engage and inspire my students’ ears.
Actually, so in response to that: You have a quote on your website that says “I don’t want to create an army of cerebral pianists. I think that is the worst thing you can call someone, because it means the focus is on the brain.”
(laughter) When I teach the piano, I use the term “incarnational piano playing.” What I mean is that they are so in tune with the score that when they see an articulation, they don’t even think about it, they are just so well trained that their body just completely reacts properly. In the West, I think we are way over-cerebralized. We think that everything is about the thought process, with a clear distinction between the mind and the body. But everything is connected – you should never separate your mind from your body. Playing the piano is not a science project or a glorified video game where you just push a button – it is the direct connection that is made when beauty encounters the human heart, and that is what really excites me as a pianist. That is the absolute payoff - music is a vehicle that gives you a glimpse of something that is so much bigger than who you are. Does that make sense?
Oh yes, absolutely.
I KNOW it does, because you are a singer and your instrument is your body!
Yes, exactly! So how does that mentality translate into your teaching? Do you have any concrete examples of how you structure your lessons and student interactions to promote this idea?
I have absolutely zero tolerance for un-imaginative playing. They have to make sure that they are communicating with everything that they do. They are thinking about harmonic progressions, melodic shape, sure. But if what they are playing is boring and flat, we stop and we rethink the whole thing. I want to inspire their imaginations. I’m sure you saw on my website, I play a lot of Liszt and am a member of the American Liszt Society. Liszt had this fabulous idea that the musician is a priestly type – conveying the grace of God. My students need to know that everything they do on their instrument has to be meaningful and packed with intent.
This is kind of a jump now, but you write a lot of your own transcriptions – does this stem from experience as a composer, or is this just something you discovered a passion for as you began performing?
It’s interesting that you should mention that, because if you look at my Facebook (and I notice that we’ve been talking for 10 minutes and you still haven’t accepted my Facebook friend request, what is that?!). If you look on my Facebook page, there are some awesome photos of Glass and I at his unbelievably cool house in New York in the East Village looking thru transcriptions (oh, and I see you accepted it now, thank you!). When we first met on the plane to my job interview in Nebraska where I am now teaching, I told Glass that I loved his music, was playing in New York the next season, and did he have anything that I could play. I ended up playing a transcription of Satyagraha, which, if you look at my YouTube channel, is now my number one hit. After the recital, he invited me over to his house, and I told him I would love to transcribe more of his works. He gave me the dance movement from his opera Akhnatan - oh my God, was it fun! It was the first piece I had ever transcribed, so I was really inspired by the challenge. And of course I just love to play orchestral music in a solo recital.
So just to kind of wrap it up, I have one last question: How would you explain the importance of new music to audiences and your students, as well as promote the continuation of that passion?
Simply because of all of the emerging technology and social media, it is SOOO easy to disseminate music today. It makes it so much easier for people to be exposed to new pieces via iTunes, Soundcloud, YouTube, you name it. I can be driving my car, have a 70s flashback, download an album, and listen to it in the car before I get where I am going. That is just amazing! It is a fascinating atmosphere to be in if you are committed to the creation and spreading of new music. But as I mentioned earlier, my main commitment is to the performance of good music. People love to hear good music. These programs I’ve been doing, nobody has heard one single note of anything I’m playing, but they just love it! What I want to teach my students is the ability to effectively communicate new music ideas, and if they are good ideas, audiences will absorb them and be fed by them.
Thank you Paul Barnes - we are greatly looking forward to welcoming you back to the Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival’s 21st Season!!!
For more information about Paul Barnes, his CD New Generations, or his performance schedule and complete discography, check out the links below: