That latter record, a collection that sees Tristano playing compositions by Bach and Cage alongside one another was one of the many topics of discussion when RA's Todd L. Burns caught up with the composer earlier this month.
What was your parent's background as far as music goes, was it all over the place or was it mainly classical that was being listened to at home in your childhood?
My mom—being the old hippie she was and is—was listening to things like Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk in addition to classical and Baroque things. I also listened to a lot of jazz and fusion like Weather Report. I guess that was the earliest manifestation of my interest in electronic sounds because, of course, what [Joe] Zawinul did was get away from the piano so that he could have a whole bunch of synths around him. He would basically just change his sound for each phrase. I love that idea: To have the synth setup around the piano to bring the sound to the next level.
In other interviews I've read, you've said that you either wanted to play Bach or to improvise your own things. I find that interesting because my conception of Bach is that it's very straitlaced. It has a pulse; it's almost like techno. But these two ideas seem to be the complete opposite.
Bach is techno, but Bach is also free and techno is also free I think—we shouldn't forget that. I mean whenever we want to label something, you know, it's not a limitation. It's an invitation to open it up. So when I play at the piano, whether I play my music or I play Bach, I just want to be the same way. Do I always achieve that? I don't know, I don't think so.
But as far as written music by dead composers—because this is really what the whole classical canon is about—I definitely wanted to play Bach and that was pretty much it. The funny thing is is that there was no piano in Bach's time. I mean he probably got to know one towards the end of his life, but he didn't like it. So it's not an ideal instrument for Bach, and I guess it's not an ideal instrument for techno either. But that's, I guess, my thing. To go the wrong way. To try to do Bach at the piano or maybe techno at the piano.
I was ten years ago."
You're putting out an album on Deutsche Grammophon that brings Bach and Cage together, what is the connection for you between those two composers?
I think they relate to each other on a very spiritual level. There are a lot of connections in terms of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic systems, how each composer works within his system. I think it's fair to say that each great composer defines his language and basically comes up with a new language. But while Bach and Cage have different languages, within these languages the order of rhythm and the order of harmony works pretty much in the same way. Even if the Cage pieces seem sort of ambient and really free, the rhythmic structure is extremely rigid just as in Bach—the Bach Partita for example—each movement has a defined rhythmic structure which is linked to the dance movements of the time.
I also think they complement each other in a way. Cage always said, "There is no such thing as an uninhabited silence," and yet all his music points towards silence as the ultimate state of mind and I think the same is true for Bach. The pieces I chose for this record are more active—there are more notes, there are more dynamics. But then you have the Cage as a commentary of the Bach and it becomes a reflection, more or less in the same key, of the piece you just heard. There's a 250 year gap that you just heard and it disappears in a second.
Moritz Von Oswald is credited with post-production this record. Obviously he's well-known in the electronic world. Have you gotten much response already from classical listeners on this project?
The response is limited, because the album's not out yet. But some people from the electronic world have told me that they like it very much because the processing is very subtle. I guess we could have done something more in your face, just really mess with the sound, but my point was to not forget the original piece, so if a sound was going to be within the spirit of the piece, then we're going to do it. If not, then we're going to discard it.
But the response from the classical world is the one I'm curious about because I break a lot of taboos with this record in terms of sound. I mean when did a dub techno legend like Moritz von Oswald produce a Bach album? Never. So I guess even for him there was a challenge. I guess there's a little bit of provocation with the whole thing, but for me, having spent a lot of time over the past ten years listening to a lot of electronic music, just producing my stuff—Aufgang, different projects—going back to playing a "classical program," just wasn't possible in the way it was before, so I consider the album—any album—to be a studio product and not just a rendition of live piano playing. And, at that point, the question is: How far do you want to go? How far do you want to go in production and post-production and processing? And I guess I realized that whatever my sound is going to be, it has to define me as a pianist as well and in 2011, I'm not the same pianist that I was ten years ago.
What kind of pianist were you ten years ago? How has the electronic world changed the way that you've played piano?
I went towards minimalism in a much more direct way than I might have before. I always was attracted to minimalism, but in listening to a lot of techno, my own playing became very minimal and I wasn't interested so much in having music that is sort of through-composed, but was looking for something much more structurally united so that all the elements that describe a given piece like rhythm or melody or harmony or counterpoint sort of melt into one common element. So you have something like a bassline that can also act like a basic rhythm component and you can't really separate the elements. I feel this is also the case with Bach's music. It has so many attributes which could function as their own thing, but then you realize—the German's talk about the unendliche Melodie, the infinite melody...
Like a Moebius strip...
Exactly. You can turn it around, you can go back, you can transpose it, but it's always going to be the same basic material.
You said earlier that the album could be regarded as a provocation. Do you regard it that way or is it just simply a progression—a place that you've sort of ended up at?
I think both. As I said, I can't really go back to just playing piano in a normal way—whatever that means—but I also think the classical establishment is facing a lot of changes. I don't think I could have done this with this label five years ago, so I think a lot of things have changed in the past five years. But with the provocation, more than in provoking the establishment or provoking the audience, I want to provoke myself because that's how I keep making art and that's how I get inspired to go on and just not repeat the stuff that I've done before.
In that sense, maybe five years ago I wouldn't have processed Bach. I would have just let it sound the way a piano sounds, but since then there have been many projects that have made me appreciate sound in a different way. So when I hear this Bach Paritita now, I hear dance music, I hear some nervous keys that go up and down and if you compress it, you get a better sound. If Bach cries out desperately for a reverb for the last note, I'm going to put it there.
But then wasn't that what
Bach was living in too?"
A lot of electronic musicians have dabbled in classical music—Jeff Mills, Thomas Fehlmann, Carl, Moritz—is there anyone aside from these that are doing something that is fascinating to you in this space between the two disciplines?
One of my favorite albums last year was the On Bach record by Sutekh. That was out there definitely, because it took some Bach and some Handel and did a complete remake of the material without losing the essence. That's by far one of the most successful attempts of electronic musicians using the classical canon as a basis. There's some interesting stuff in the ReComposed series also. I personally liked the Moritz & Carl ReComposed very much.
What is it that you hear with what they did that's so interesting to you?
Well, it's a remix, it's one long remix. I think it's fair to say that we're living in a remix culture. But then wasn't that what Bach was living in too? He was just sampling stuff from Italy and from France and making it into his own as well. With ReComposed, though, I'm also a fan of Boléro, the original piece I think is one of the groundbreaking pieces of the repertoire of the 20th century.
It's definitely a classic example of minimalism. A lot of the things on Idiosynkrasia were quite minimal, but at the same time had a lot of emotion to them—it's never an academic exercise for you. Is that something you have to fight to keep inside what you're doing?
I find minimalism a deeply moving experience, I don't know why when you say "minimalism" that you imply that it shouldn't be emotional. For me, minimalism has nothing to do with the amount of emotions—it's just a structural device. Minimalism is not a word that describes a state of mind, it's a tool, a working tool that limits your actions to a very reduced radius of action. In that sense, I think the compositions on Idiosynkrasia are minimal because they are pretty much laid out like a producer lays out his techno tracks.
But of course I play the piano and that's when people get confused because they think that the piano has this romantic feeling. The piano, of course, is a moving instrument, but the sound of a Prophet is beautiful too and it can move me more than a piano in a given situation. [It's interesting because] the piano wasn't readily accepted at first. It was something weird, it was overpowering, people couldn't really do anything with it. It was too much, It had such a big keyboard, such a big sound, such long strings and pedals. It was a big technological leap, and it's now had 250 years of evolution and perfecting of the mechanics.
Do you think that that perfection is taking something away from it in a way?
Oh no, I don't think so. Because it's not perfect. The piano, as much as it might make you cry or what not, is a percussion instrument [hits the table]. The key hits the string and then there's a decay and that's it. So whenever you want to play something that will inspire emotion, you have to fight against the instrument because it's not made for that. The instrument is really a percussion instrument, it works very well in the bass, it works very well inside the piano, but if you want to sort of make a beautiful sound, a singing sound, you have to fight the decay of the piano sound. I guess that's the beautiful thing about the piano—you can hear it in many ways.
He was the executive producer, so he organized the whole session for me to feel at ease at his studio and we had reserved a piano—I traveled to Detroit in the past and checked out a few pianos, there was one I loved and I said, "If we do this record, it's got to be this one"—and that piano wasn't available for a long time. So Carl was involved with this, with renting the piano and getting it into the studio.
In the studio Carl was also very involved with the setting up of mikes and the whole engineering process as well. He had never recorded a piano album so it was a challenge for him to make it sound right. He got a whole bunch of mikes, got a whole bunch of preamps and we tried out many different things. Beyond that, he was very helpful when I needed his advice for setting up machines.
I've read that one of the founders of Infiné contacted you after a show where you played some classical things and also "Strings of Life." Had you been eager to find an outlet at that time that wasn't necessarily classical? Did you have an idea that Deutsche Grammophon would never be interested in releasing something like that?
I think "Strings of Life" is a classic in a way, it could very well work on Deutsche Grammophon. I had always spent a lot of time composing and improvising just in my own music and, for some reason, all of my albums at that point were classical albums. Maybe I was in some instances trying to do something a bit different—recording with the Russian National Orchestra, I played two concertos and then at the end of the disc I played two improvisations based on the concertos that are on the record. That's something not necessarily unusual, but definitely different than the classical establishment. So I guess, yeah, I wanted to put out something under my name, definitely. I had a lot of compositions already that were ready, I had others I was working on and then the meeting with Infiné just made everything possible.
Is it hard in the classical world to move from pianist to composer? Is there the, "What's he doing?" [element]?
I think it's changing. In my case I always did compose and improvise. There was a time when all composers were instrumentalists. You were not a pianist back in the 19th century or in the 18th century—you were a composer who amazed the audience while playing the piano. The 20th century marked a separation between composers and interpreters. Why, I'm not exactly sure. I think the invention and the rise of the gramophone is part of this, because all of a sudden we could record music. We could work on our chops and make it real good and then someone else is going to come in and say, "Wait a minute, I'm going to practice the piano—I'm going to make an even better recording!"
This explains to you why we have maybe 500 or 1000 recordings of Chopin's "Ballades." But I think it's coming back. History tends to move in cycles anyway. I never considered myself a pianist although I was playing the piano. Really what I really wanted to do was to my own stuff. When I play classical music I do something else with it or I try to, because the "classical" genre—I always mark it between quotes because, I mean, what's classical? I mean, Carl's a classic, Derrick's a classic... I think we could all be classics in a way, or maybe none of us is and everything is just a process, one large work in process. We keep reinventing and we try to label things in different ways, but ultimately it's just about an invisible hand that leads us in the process of making art and making music.