Vikingur Olafsson: Music Can Take Us To A Better Place

Vikingur Olafsson: Music Can Take Us To A Better Place
Nenad Georgievski By

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The Icelandic classical pianist Vikingur Olafsson has built an impressive international career. Sought after by top orchestras and major concert venues worldwide, his records are published by the renowned Deutsche Gramophone. Olafsson's playing impresses with its brilliance, projection and exactitude, eliciting an impressive range and diversity of colors from his piano. On the other hand, Olafsson also refuses to be pinned down, as evidenced by the diversity of his recorded output. He has explored the music of composers like Philip Glass, J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy and Jean-Philippe Rameau (as on his latest record Debussy—Rameau ), all of which display his signature exquisite tone, poised musicality and deep wellsprings of feeling.

Debussy—Rameau is a juxtaposition of tracks by two French composers from different eras, Claude Debussy and Jean-Philipe Rameau. In his own words, Olafsson tried to achieve a certain dialogue between these two composers who are considered as innovators. Olaffson's concepts sees him exploring the similarities and contrasts in the music of these two towering composers, regardless of the fact that they are separated by two centuries. Olafsson spent 6 months assembling the compositions that constitute this record even before he learnt them. The end result is another triumph. Stylish and idiomatic, Olafsson lives and breathes this music with as much immediacy as if these works had been composed yesterday.

We did this interview on the eve of the release of his new album Debussy—Rameau in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide lockdown due to a coronavirus pandemic. Like all artists worldwide, he had most events cancelled for the time being, but was in a good mood, with plans to use the spare time to work. Over Whatapp from his home in Reykjavík, Olaffson spoke about the healing effects of music over complex problems in the world, the music of the artists he has performed and other subjects.

All About Jazz: What is your perspective on the value of music during these challenging times we are living in?

Vikingur Olafsson: This is a big question. I can only speak for myself personally. During this period I had many current and exciting projects canceled. I was very much looking forward to doing some big and important concerts that I've been preparing for months. So, what I've learned is not to take things for granted and I learnt to appreciate much more, I think, the life I am lucky enough to live, which is to travel around the world and play music for people. That's really a wonderful way of spending your time on Earth. But I think, once you are grounded like we are all grounded right now, you realize that none of this should be taken for granted. And you realize that your health is not to be taken for granted.

So, in a way, when I play music at home, like now, I feel so grateful and I appreciate everything more than ever. I appreciate music even more. It has taken a new meaning for me. These are very dark times in the world and for many, many people and I think of them and I pray for them, but at the same time, when it comes to art, and I don't want to sound cynical, but the most interesting art is created when the world is in a state of change, a turmoil almost. So great art helps people in many different ways. So, we'll see dark times but I hope there will be some rays of sunlight that we might be seeing in the coming months.

AAJ: What role can music play in healing the complex problems of the world?

VO: I think I can only agree with Philip Glass, a composer and my friend, who said that "music is a place as real as any other place you have ever been to." But I think when we are grounded and feeling worried and anxious, music has the ability to take us to a better place even though we are geographically on the same location. You listen to music and you can travel almost anywhere. So even though the borders now are closed, the musical borders are very, very open. Music can take us to a better place.

AAJ: I read an older interview published by the Guardian where you state that this is the golden age for classical music. Can you elaborate on this viewpoint?

VO: When I was growing up and during my studies, I kept hearing all of these worried voices that the age of classical music is going out. When I look at the numbers around me, I see people listening to classical music everywhere, all the time. And you can see that. I'm only one pianist and only on one platform like Spotify I had like 20 million streams last year. That's only me on one platform. Think of all these individuals, pianists, everyone and combine it. I think never before in history there have been so many people listening to what is called classical music. The numbers are astonishing. This music has never played such a big role in people's lives as now.

AAJ: Please talk about the new record Debussy—Rameau. How did you select the repertoire for this record?

VO: When I record an album I do it from scratch and I play for many months what I want to record i.e. music that I feel is very much like me. I record music that I feel there is a lot to be said with my new interpretation and my way of looking at it. With Jean Rameau, I started recording Rameau because after Johan Sebastian Bach I think Rameau is, for me, maybe the greatest keyboard composer of the Baroque period (second to Bach). The way he wrote for the keyboard is really, really astonishing. And there are very few recordings of Rameau's works on the modern piano. You can find it on the harpsichord, but really on the market, there are only a few Rameau recordings there. And it's not only interesting music but it's truly great music. It's divine music. Then I started to think about whether I should do a full contemporary album of Rameau or something else. And I chose Debussy since there is such a strong connection between these two composers. Rameau is very much like a man of the future and I also think Debussy is often misunderstood. I believe too much is made of the fact that he is an Impressionist. He was equally a man of the past as he was equally interested in items from the past -Japanese prints, all these other things. He didn't see himself only as an impressionist as that is way too narrow. So, I wanted to show the other side of Debussy and the future side of Rameau, and I wanted to make the album in such a way that people will almost not be able to not know who is who. And I tried to find a way where they all hopefully work like a dialogue so one composer starts with a thing and the other one is listening and then responding and their works are weaving together.

AAJ: You are a master interpreter. How much of the interpretation, and not just this album, but Bach, Philip Glass or any other work in your program, comes from the tradition of the performers that have come before you versus yourself? Or is it simply inherent in the score?

VO: It's not inherent in the score. The score is so limited and it only tells a fraction of the story. The music is not found on a printed page. Of course, I've been influenced by a lot of different things, a lot of different performers, and different approaches. I try to make sure that remains deeply in the past when I make these albums when I try to find exactly how they should sound. That's what my ideal is. And I try to be as specific as I possibly can to play what I believe should be played. So the "I" is very present. When I made this recording, I wanted to play these pieces the way I believe they should go. So, in a way, the answer is that when I play music that I really believe in I try to find a very personal expression. It's a very intimate personal expression that sometimes I find that when I play those pieces I am more me than ever simply by playing this music.

AAJ: How do you imprint your identity on Bach's music? With so many generations of brilliant pianists before you, still you have found your own place in it. How did you make Bach sound so fresh?

VO: It took me a lot of time with this music. And you can make a record and you can learn the music, play it and record it. In a way, you have to go much further than what might seem good enough. So if you have a piece for a concert and even if you play the right notes and everything is correct and you are looking at the score thinking you know it -you don't know it. It takes a lot of time and you cannot buy time. You cannot escape it, you just need it. So you have to learn how to grow it in you and to grow it for some time, which is the reason why it took a long time to make this album. Otherwise, I could have made it in a second. And I think time is not so much important for artists, but how much time they have given their sounds and how deep they have gone in what they are trying to express. It always carries through one way or another. And you always hear if there is a shortcut.

AAJ: What was the reason for making the Bach Reworked companion album? What made you want these performances to be reimagined in such manner? There are some interesting names taking part in it like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hildur Gudnadotir...

VO: Bach speaks to so many different musicians whether they are from the field of electronic composition, classical, pop, rock. Bach is for so many people and so many musicians. They are so different. And because of that, I thought the Bach release would be nice to open it up and have artists take my recordings and use them as their material. Sakamoto took part in, but I also included wonderful Icelandic musicians. I think Bach was a great experimentalist himself.

AAJ: What was it like to perform for the soundtrack for The Darkest Hour, something that wasn't 100 or 200 years old, but fresh and previously unheard music?

VO: I do it all the time. I played in Paris just two weeks ago and a week before that in Amsterdam the music of composer John Adams. I played his new piano concerto with him. I work with living composers all the time. I like that very much. In a way, they are so flexible because you can write music but the printed page is only one thing and then you have to make it come alive. So when I worked with Dario Marianelli and director Joe Wright it was so nice because it was a different experience. It was a new experience. Joe Wright showed me every scene of the movie in the studio when I was recording it. There is a point in the movie when Winston Churchill is writing his famous speech to address the British Parliament asking the Parliament over Hitler, not to do a deal with him. And I was playing this in a recording studio with Gary Oldman's recorded speech which he already acted over. In my right ear, I listened to his speech and I was supporting his speech with my playing. It was wonderful and it was really an interesting experience for me.

AAJ: Is there any other music where you have strayed from the classical repertoire?

VO: I never think about music as classical and non-classical. I don't think about music like that. I don't think about this label. I don't like the word classical. It seems to imply that you are `somehow in a museum or somehow in the past. But I think, when you play music even if it was written 300 years ago that if you approach it like yourself it really becomes new music. So, when I play Bach I find it as contemporary as any film score or any other music of today. It's contemporary. We are playing it differently and I am playing it differently. I play it the way I play it. When it was written first, it was during a period when the horse was the only means of traveling around. Since everything has changed so much we all play Bach different than ever before. Probably I'm going to be collaborating with David Lang now. But it remains the same with the living composers as well as the dead is that the music is so flexible and I find different ways to approach it.

AAJ: Please talk about Philip Glass' music. Why did you choose to record his Etudes for your debut Philip Glass: Piano Works with Deutsche Gramophone?

VO: Deutsche Gramophone is so rooted in the old world of classical music and on the other hand, it is the most progressive label. It has a very old tradition going, maybe 120 years. It may be the oldest record label in the world, I don't know. So, I thought for Deutsche Gramophone it would be interesting to do something new and surprising but without making people scratch their heads asking who is this? So I wanted to play Glass with the same seriousness as I play Debussy, Rameau, and Bach.

AAJ: All three records that were published by DG are geographically different and that the eras that these composers have lived are also different. What do these works reveal about your multiverse view?

VO: There is a quote by Debussy that says: "An artist has to escape his own success." What it means is that you cannot repeat yourself. If you have success with something like the Philip Glass album which went very well both with the critics, but also with the sales. I was surprised I guess as it went really well. So there were loud voices in the company asking me for another Philip Glass album and to repeat the success. But I did Bach because that was what my heart told me to do. I had to fight, but in the end we did Bach and it did even better than Philip Glass. People wanted this to be followed by another Bach. It is important to try to be one step ahead in regard to business. The business wants to repeat success but artists have to learn how to escape their own success like Debussy had said.

I think that is why often bands have three very good albums but you rarely have super groups doing their best work in their '40s or '50s. Then they get diluted and are trying to repeat past success and the whole marketing machine is so big that there are so many factors involved. The same goes for classical music where the best ones tend to be the first ones people make and then they start doing the same thing over and over again. It can be beautiful but it may not be as creative or searching as it was. So I think that's the goal of the artist, is to constantly try to find new questions and seek new answers to those questions. So in a way, you can spend your life doing records with the music by Philip Glass, Steve Reich or John Adams or you can only do the Bach thing for 10 or 20 years. All of that is fine but I don't want that. I like the element of surprise and to always widen my own horizons as possible.

AAJ:And what does the future hold for you?

VO: I'll try to stay healthy and I'll make sure that my parents stay healthy and that everyone to get through these dark times with the coronavirus. Right now I'm at my piano at my home working on music that I never had time to look at and I'm going to be preparing to record the next album even though this one is coming out now. I always want to be one album ahead. Of course, I'll be touring the Debussy Rameau all over the world. But, I'm also working simultaneously on a new project and this one is very different from the ones I have done. So that is going to be the fourth album for Gramophone and I promise you it is going to be great.

Photo Credit: Ari Magg

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