On the Bench with Stephen Hough

Lara Downes on May 7, 2015
Stephen Hough (Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Stephen Hough (Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Even in this age of the multitasking musician, British pianist Stephen Hough inhabits an elevated plane as a master of polymathy.  He is acclaimed for “the most perfect piano playing conceivable” (The Guardian), and his concert career takes him around the world to every conceivable great stage and orchestra. His recordings, over 50 of them, have likewise been recognized with every conceivable international award.  His compositions have been performed by many noted soloists and ensembles. His abstract paintings have been exhibited at London’s Broadbent Gallery. He’s a brilliant writer, currently working on two books as well as maintaining a fascinating, frequently funny, sometimes controversial cultural blog for The Telegraph. Most importantly, he is a perpetual seeker and thinker, with a true generosity of soul that is the driving force behind his seemingly boundless creative energies.

Next Tuesday night, Hough brings a recital of works by Chopin and Debussy to SFJAZZ, presented by San Francisco Performances.

We talked about finding the arc in music and life, and the art of searching, waiting, and sometimes letting go.

You have spoken about being a musician as a “bringer of joy, inspiration, and ecstasy.” And you are using the word ecstasy in its true sense, meaning to stand outside ourselves. Talk a little about the experience of living as an artist who is so conscious of the ability and the responsibility to bring joy into the world.

I think that when we’re playing music we have to see how extraordinary it all is. We’re playing music by composers who have written pieces that are all somewhat ecstatic, in the sense that the music itself exists outside of the people who created it, remains long after its composers have left the earth. We now have that responsibility to bring that music to other people, to bring it alive, and I feel a deep kind of inspiration in that.

I love how, at a concert, people come from all over the city, from all kinds of lives, all kinds of backgrounds. There are young people, old people, people with difficulties. Maybe some of them are ill, some of them are about to get married and they’re very happy – and they all sit down in the same room and the music joins us all together in some way, and that’s just incredibly moving. It sounds almost tacky or sappy to say so, but I really do feel that it’s a privilege to make that happen, and I never get tired of it.

We can have this intimate relationship with each other, without saying a word. The music is the common thing. Not only is it wordless, so we don’t have to understand it in a concrete way, but somehow it moves everyone in a different way. Some people find it soothing; others find it bringing great tension – it awakens things in us, it brings us, as you say, to a kind of ecstasy.

Your teacher, Gordon Green, was a great influence and inspiration to you, and you’ve quoted him as saying to you, when you were a young student: “I don’t care how you’re playing the piece now, what I care about is how you’ll play it in 10 years.” Is that still true for you? As a deeply spiritual person, how do you experience the balance of making personal effort, and also just waiting for the revelation part of that learning process?

With this business of searching, I feel that I’m still very much a beginner. The idea of being patient for 10 years is not something that comes naturally to me at all! But I do think that it’s important for us to develop this kind of patience. It’s almost like farming. I mean, if you want to grow beautiful fruit, you do have to let the trees grow. You can dump chemicals on them and get them to produce very quickly, but if you want delicious fruit that’s going to grow season after season, even beyond your own lifetime, there’s a certain sort of time that simply has to pass, and I think it’s the same with learning music. We can learn a piece of music very quickly, but we have to be aware that it’s going to get so much richer over the years. We can learn a piece of music very quickly, but we have to be aware that it’s going to get so much richer over the years.

When you are learning something new, do you have a balance of the private and the public aspects of the growing process? How much time do you hope to have with a new piece to let it grow inside yourself before you start sharing it with listeners and letting it evolve in a more public space?

Well, if I have a big new piece to learn, I like to start working on it about a year before I play it in public. But of course it doesn’t always work out like that. Especially for artists at the beginning of a career, opportunities come up and you have to take them because that’s how a career starts. Although I do think it’s important to say ‘no’ sometimes, even in those early years of a career – to say “No, I can’t conduct Parsifal tomorrow if I’ve never conducted it before! Because it’s not helping my career in the end, it’s not good for my development.”

On the other hand, sometimes we have to take tremendous risks with a new piece. I suppose there aren’t any rules in human life that don’t have exceptions….

You’re working on many different levels, creating and communicating in different ways, as a pianist, a writer, and a composer. How do you experience the process of creativity in these different forms? Are they different languages to express the same impulses, or do you channel different things into different media?

I suppose it depends what the communication is. I suppose where they all join together is in a kind of fire inside me which seems very much the same whether I’m creating music or writing words or playing the piano. It feels like the same source is driving all that, but whether it’s communicating the same things I’m not sure really.

I’m working on a big composition at the moment, and I’m just getting started with writing two books as well – a memoir and a novel. And I was thinking just this morning that I feel the same sort of excitement about all of those things. I don’t think there’s any difference – it’s just artistic process. I think we’re going back to this idea of ecstasy really. It’s this wanting to express something beyond the everyday, beyond the prose — the reaching for the poetic in everything we do.

I spoke recently with our colleague Jeremy Denk, who also divides his time between writing and music, and he told me that he prefers to separate his time very cleanly between the two pursuits. He keeps himself to writing days and piano days – he doesn’t like to mix them up. Where do you stand on the question of time management and separation of disciplines?

I haven’t been able to make the separation really! The only thing that I really have to do is, obviously, if I have a concert coming up then I have to make sure 101% that I’m ready. I tend to be over-careful about that sort of thing. The playing always takes priority because it’s so time-sensitive. If I have a concert in San Francisco next Tuesday at 8:00 in the evening, then I know that I have to be prepared for that precise moment.

But with writing and composing, I mostly just have to slot things into the spare moments. But funnily enough, I find that a very fruitful thing. With my writing, ideas will just come to me as I’m walking along the street and I jot them down, and I do find that I can write a paragraph while I’m waiting for the subway. It’s the same when I’m composing music – it’s constantly running through my head, and I’ll be in the elevator thinking “Now, does that transition work?”, and I’m thinking about it and teasing it out, and I jot things down. And then at a certain point I’ll find that I have 50 or so pages of sketches, and I just have to look at them for a while and they start to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I do find that’s the most fruitful way of working.

You know, I think if I said, “Right, Tuesday, that’s my writing day,” I’d sit down at the desk and turn on my computer, and I think I’d just go blank. But the fact that I kind of keep throwing twigs on the fire is very helpful. Because of course, eventually there does have to come a Tuesday, and you do have to sit down and get everything sorted out. But when I do that I have masses of notes and ideas, and I can just gather them into some sort of logical whole. You know, I think if I said, “Right, Tuesday, that’s my writing day,” I’d sit down at the desk and turn on my computer, and I think I’d just go blank.

You’ve compared the process of composing music to giving birth, as compared to the more adoptive process of playing another composer’s music. How parental do you feel about your music, especially your piano music? Are you writing it specifically with yourself in mind as a pianist? And what does it feel like to then let it go to other pianists?

I had a wonderful experience last year at the Royal Academy in London with a young pianist who was playing my Second Piano Sonata, quite wonderfully, and in fact he was playing it by memory, which I’ve never been able to do! And I was sitting there thinking: “This is just great. I don’t need to play this piece anymore. I’ve played it and recorded it, and I’m happy to let him take this piece on, if it’s going to be played as well as this!” It’s very thrilling.

I suppose if we’re going back to the analogy of compositions as children, if you’re wheeling your baby along in the pram and someone says “Oh, what a beautiful baby,” then that’s very nice. You like people to admire and appreciate your child, you take pride and delight in that.

Yes, but most parents don’t want people scooping up the baby out of the pram and running away with it!

That’s true, yes; the analogy only goes so far! But in any case, I do feel that with my music, I write it and sign it at the bottom and send it to the publisher, and now it’s gone. The child has left home and gone off to university, and I’m still around but that child has to live his or her own life. So when I come to play my music, I’m really playing it as if someone else had written it. It’s very important for me to have that slight distance between me the composer and me the pianist.

Let’s talk about two other great pianist/composers: Chopin and Debussy. You’re bringing their music to San Francisco – a program of suites and small pieces by Debussy and the four Chopin Ballades. What are the common musical and pianistic qualities that you find between these two composers?

These are two composers who love the sound of the piano. And we love the sounds that they made on the piano. There isn’t a bar in this entire program that doesn’t have in it a moment of perfection, in how the music actually sounds on the instrument. And this is something that is not always true. Even the great composers don’t always write so idiomatically for the piano. Even Beethoven, although he was also a composer/pianist, sometimes writes awkward things.

Beethoven isn’t really about the cult of the beauty of sound at the piano. And I think that these two composers very much are, and that’s something that unites them, and it’s what makes it such a pleasure to play a program of their music.

You define the Chopin Ballades as epic tales and the Debussy pieces as poems. How do you navigate these transitions in scope, from the epic to the fleeting?

I think it has to do with structure. Really, Chopin was a classicist; although he was a great Romantic. He’s thinking always of structures of forms and proportions. The music never has anything excessive; it’s very tightly constructed, so that when you play the Ballades, you sit down at the piano and you have a vision of the entire work as you begin it. There’s a whole building to be approached.

With Debussy, he’s a Romantic who’s a modernist in the way he thinks. And when you play his music, although it’s also beautifully constructed, I think it’s much more about the moment, about the particular sound you’re constructing at each moment. Whereas with Chopin, if you get too concentrated on the thing that’s happening in the moment, you do lose something essential about the way the piece actually hangs together.

I always feel that finding and expressing the arc in music presents equal challenges at both ends of the spectrum, the biggest pieces and the smallest pieces, but in totally different ways.

Absolutely, that’s right. And the arc is the most important thing. It’s really what separates great music from not-so-great music. It’s why Beethoven’s string quartets are different than Irving Berlin’s White Christmas; although I like both! But it’s something to do with the combination of heart and head, music that appeals to both. It’s this sense of the arc, the sense of proportion, something that just works. It’s like a great painting, something that holds together with a sense of unity as well as something that’s beautiful in its parts.

Going back to the beginning of our conversation — we don’t need to talk about how you’ll play this music 10 years from now, but tell me how you experience the evolution of your relationship with these pieces night after night, during a condensed and concentrated period of touring a program as you are now.

I think when you first play a program, even if you’ve played all the pieces before in different contexts, it’s difficult because it’s not just about the individual pieces. You have to find your way to creating also the bigger arc of the entire recital, and that takes a couple of times before it feels comfortable. I think when you first play a program, even if you’ve played all the pieces before in different contexts, it’s difficult because it’s not just about the individual pieces. 

I’ve played this program maybe 10 times now, and I’m enjoying it so much because the music is so fantastic, and I love the relationships among the pieces — the way the Debussy flows into the Chopin, and then the end of the tragedy of the fourth Ballade, how that goes into the wonderful tender innocence of the Children’s Corner Suite. That’s a great example of how the whole can change the parts.

When I’ve played the fourth Ballade before, I’ve almost always played it at the very end of a program. When you play it, as I am now, in the middle of a program, everything changes, because the piece suddenly doesn’t have the responsibility to be the end of the concert, the culmination of everything. It can be a very tender piece, quite introverted and private in moments, and I love having the opportunity to just let it be whatever it is.

The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire (with apologies to Proust)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

Look at the time, and then usually roll a few rich chords to wake up the vibrations of the piano.

What’s the last thing you do before you go onstage?

Check a certain zipper

If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?

Probably Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall - although I'd love to have been in the room when Liszt played his Sonata and Brahms fell asleep.

If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?

Bite my nails.