On the Bench With Jonathan Biss

Lara Downes on June 16, 2015
Jonathan Biss Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Jonathan Biss doesn’t do things halfway. As a pianist, teacher, and writer, he tends toward an obsessive, full-immersion approach to any project that commands his attention. Currently, his attention is focused on a massive, multi-year exploration of Beethoven’s piano music. He is in the middle of recording the complete Beethoven Sonatas; he teaches the hugely popular online Coursera course Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas; and he has just launched Beethoven/5, a project for which the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has commissioned five composers to write new piano concertos, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.

Biss joins the San Francisco Symphony in their own full-immersion Beethoven extravaganza this month, performing the G minor Piano Fantasy, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy as part of the Beethoven Festival.

For the last several years, you have been in a committed, if not strictly monogamous, relationship with Beethoven. Some years ago you took on a similarly intense Schumann project, with an international schedule of over 30 concerts, as well as recording and writing. And it seems to me that these are two very different musical adventures. Of all the composers whose music we play, Schumann compels us most deeply to enter into his mind and soul and struggles. How does the experience of living with Beethoven compare to living with Schumann?

Right, they’re extremely different. I think that an immersion in Schumann may be different from an immersion in the music of any other composer. When you go in his world, there is a way in which privacy, or privateness, is the most important aspect of his music. He’s so brave about exploring the most uncomfortable aspects of his own humanity, and he asks you as a performer to do so as well.

The indication that Schumann uses in his music more than any other is “Innig” which translates to something like “innermost”. When you play his music all day long, you feel that your energy and your concentration and your exploration is heading inward rather than outward all the time. Whereas Beethoven is interested in the whole universe, so when you spend the whole day working on Beethoven, it's incredibly intense, but you feel energized by it in a way. I find that working with that same kind of intensity on Schumann makes you feel almost drained. So they are very different experiences, although certainly both incredibly moving.

How has your teaching about the Beethoven Sonatas influenced your relationship to them? It’s sort of a chicken and egg question I guess. But what is the input-output balance of communicating insights and information about this music as an educator, and on the other hand immersing yourself in your own very personal communication of his music, as an interpreter?

The danger for me is that the last thing that I would ever want to be as a performer is didactic. You know, when you play music for people you want to feel that you are sharing it with them, not telling them what they ought to hear and feel. I try to teach that way as well, when I talk about music either to an individual piano student or in a lecture to tens of thousands of people. What I’m hoping to do is to provide them with a window into the music, saying “These are the aspects of it which are notable, beautiful, often sometimes even astonishing. Make of them what you will.” So I hope that if somebody listens to me lecture on Beethoven, their takeaway is not “this is how you should hear it, this is what you should feel about it” because I do think that one of beauties of all music, but great music in particular, is that once you sort of understand its framework by bringing yourself to it as a listener, you can experience it in an infinite number of ways. “… when you play music for people you want to feel that you are sharing it with them, not telling them what they ought to hear and feel.”

There’s a very delicate balance, I think, between actively educating and simply facilitating entry into the music. As performers, it involves a certain amount of trust, doesn’t it? And also a kind of vulnerability, to open up our experience of the music, which is such a personal thing.

I think it is an objectively interesting topic, right? Understanding how a performer relates to the music that he or she plays is really fascinating, because when you go to a concert you see only the edge of that, the end product. So I totally understand why a person would want to have the whole process fleshed out for them. In all the work I do, when I practice on my own, or when I’m teaching, or when I’m lecturing, or when I’m writing, I’m trying to make sure that I’m expanding the possibilities through all those activities rather than limiting them.

You talk about emotion and courage and risk-taking and fear-facing and humility as central in making music. And recording the Beethoven Sonatas takes a healthy measure of all of those qualities. For a pianist, it’s Mt. Everest! You’re just about at the halfway point now of a 9-year process of making these recordings. What are some of the fears you’re facing and the courage you’re finding as you live this adventure?

Well, this discovery didn’t come as a surprise, but my experience certainly has been that when you record a piece of music you don’t begin to come close to some sort of ultimate rendering of it. I think for me, the big part of making a recording is really coming to accept that.

But I find that hope does spring eternal. I’m just about to record the fifth volume of CDs in a couple of weeks, and I have somewhere within me the same desire that I had with volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4: that the recording somehow will encapsulate everything I feel about this piece. I know it won’t happen, but still, some little part of me thinks that if I really prepare the right way, maybe it will happen.

The problems of recording, when it comes to great – impossibly great – music, is then about trying to let go of that quest for perfection, because I find that the more I do let go, the closer I come to achieving what I want to. It’s never, ever, all the way there, but for me the biggest obstacle in making music is the desire to control it too tightly.

But don’t you think that there is some adjustment to this, because of the way we make and release recordings now? In the old days, maybe you’d record an LP of a Beethoven Sonata, and then you probably wouldn’t ever have the chance to record the piece again in your lifetime. But now, with all the platforms we have for sharing music, we know that we can always go back and revisit something, record it again and differently, and make the recording so easily available in so many different ways.

Yes, absolutely, and also frankly the fact that the audience for recorded music is not what it once was makes a difference. I think that it used to be that you felt that when you played concerts, you played for a small number of people, and then you made the recording and that was for the masses. And therefore obviously you had the feeling that the recording had to be closer to your ultimate version.

But, you know, now the numbers have shifted somewhat. Any given year I play live performances of the Beethoven Sonatas for, I don’t know, tens of thousands of people! The balance of communicating live and by recording has really evened out. So I think it was sort of weird imbalance in the past where the recording was supposed to be the end-all and be-all, and the live performances were secondary. That’s gone away. And I don’t know much about the future but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be playing in public for as long as I can play the piano! So yeah, there is less pressure somehow in the recordings to make some ultimate statement. I know that my thoughts about the pieces will keep changing and I know that I’ll keep having opportunities to demonstrate that.

I want to ask you about your Beethoven/5 project, in which you’ve asked five composers to write new concertos meant to be inspired by, and correspond to, each of Beethoven’s five concertos. Tell me about the process of selecting composers for this project, and the parameters you’ve set in how their pieces will connect with the Beethoven concertos.

My priority in picking the composers was to create as wide of a spectrum as possible in terms of style, age, and geography, because I think that what’s notable about Beethoven’s influence is that it’s just inescapable! Even those rare composers who have made the claim that they really don’t like Beethoven’s music, and that they exist outside that tradition – even that act of rejection is a sign of influence in some way. Like it or not, you have to deal with Beethoven’s music if you’re a classical musician, whatever that means. “… the composers whose music I tend to like, the only thing they seem to have in common is that they have something to say about the music of the past, even if they write in a totally modern idiom.”

And then obviously, people whose music I respond to. It’s interesting, I’ve noticed that the composers whose music I tend to like, the only thing they really seem to have in common is that they do have something to say about the music of the past, even if they write in a totally modern idiom. It’s music that does seem to belong on some kind of continuum, going all the way back to Beethoven and probably beyond that to Bach, and in some cases maybe even earlier.

How closely are you collaborating with the composers as they create these pieces for you?

I’ve given them almost no instruction at all other than the pieces should, in some way, be specific reactions to the Beethoven concertos. I don’t really care what those reactions might be, as long as they’re genuine ones. I guess I would say my general M.O. with this is that I’ll have as much communication as a composer wants, but I won’t instigate any of it because I really just want the composer to write the piece they want to write, rather than the piece that they think I want them to write. I think that’s a better recipe for getting interesting pieces.

I think there’s something very powerful about this idea of producing contemporary responses to canonic works. It’s such an interesting way to broaden the repertoire and further the tradition, while also acknowledging the history of that tradition and honoring the family ties that bind it.

Yes, absolutely. And I think it’s important to train all of us, the performers, composers, audience members, out of thinking that new music is its own category. It’s just music! And if we can encourage ourselves as performers to approach new music in much the same way we approach old music, and vice versa, we can also encourage audiences to listen that way. I think everybody wins.

Right, the continuum… You grew up in a family with a long history in music. Your grandmother was a concert cellist; your parents are both concert violinists. So in your household you had daily access to the reality of making a life in music, both in the profound and the practical sense. How did that prepare you to make your own way, find your courage and take your risks, face your fears, as a musician?

Well, I think that it was a huge help that music was really a spoken language in my house, and I mean that in an alarmingly literal way. The grammar of music was something that I intuitively understood from the time I understood English grammar, the idea that it was a way of communicating and that it had natural rhythms attached to it – that it was a way of not just expressing, but unleashing feeling. I just can’t even begin to guess whether that would be the case if I hadn’t heard music played by people who feel passionately about it, literally from birth.

In terms of the practicality, I don’t really know if it was an advantage or a disadvantage that I knew more about this life than most young musicians. I think the good thing about it was that I was very aware that it was a difficult profession, it was a frustrating one, at times a lonely one, a very insecure one. I think I was probably less likely than your average gifted young musician to get into it for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t doing it to please anyone, because my parents probably would have been more pleased if I hadn’t done it, and I wasn’t doing it out of any misguided idea that it would be easier than doing something else, so I think what it brought me was the clarity that for me there was a kind of inner necessity to become a musician.

Well, there are the things that don’t ever change. There are the central aspects of making music that we experience in our musical DNA, going back to Schumann and Beethoven and everyone. If you had to pick one sort of central musical truth that gets passed down, what would it be?

I think maybe it’s simply that the only good reason to be a musician now, as it was when my parents started, and when my grandmother started, and back in the time of Beethoven, is that you have to feel that it’s a vocation. You have to feel that this the way in which you communicate, that this is the lens through which you see the world, and that you can’t really imagine yourself doing anything else.