On the Piano

Interviews • Remarks on the Piano [On composing for and playing the piano.]

Your music makes extraordinary demands on the pianist. What do you do to prepare yourself to play such works?

What helps me is to practice something much more difficult. In order to jump two meters, there is nothing better than to jump two and a half meters. And if one prepares by jumping three meters, one is very calm when jumping only two. In the case of certain pieces, I take it to the extreme and think like a person who has to jump thirty meters. I sit in my chair, not at the piano, and imagine my hands on the keyboard playing through the piece, but without moving them. That is so extremely difficult that playing the piece on the piano afterwards seems easy. Also, thinking that things are easy or difficult is a habit of mind. To do anything, if you analyze it closely, is very complex; the most insignificant motion represents an enormous number of complicated actions.

What are some unique characteristics of your approach?

One technique that appears in many of my pieces is to play two notes almost, but not quite, together. To do this in a maudlin fashion is one way that bad interpreters murder Chopin. I use it when I need a different kind of expression than can be obtained by sounding two notes together, such as a state of vacillation or insecurity. For example, in Sonatinas de Amistad, it creates an atmosphere where everything seems broken. I also use it to show a certain type of agreement being reached, since one of the things I like in life is that sometimes by a miracle, we do come into accord. In Ontogenia, such an agreement is reached, but haltingly; not with everyone singing at the same time, but instead like a vague disagreement, which at moments becomes an agreement. First, someone says: "Oh, I understand." Then another: "Yes, I understand, too." It is very difficult to play this disagreement, however: the intepreter must express with certainty that state of uncertainty, must describe with confidence the lack of confidence. It's much easier to march in unison like soldiers than to march a little bit in disorder, in an orderly disorder.

What led to your compositions for multiple pianos?

I have always thought of the piano as an autonomous instrument, one that doesn't always mix well with other instruments that also have strong personalities. In general, I don't enjoy piano concertos; they have always seemed to me to be created for the pianist to show off. But combining piano with piano is different; it gives the piano an expanded territory. The sonority of two or more pianos is for me like a new instrument.

What music for piano has had special value for you?

The Well-Tempered Clavier and the English and French Suites of J.S. Bach (on the piano, not the harpsichord), certain sonatas of Haydn and Beethoven, the Nocturnes and Mazurkas of Chopin, the Preludes and Éloge of Debussy, the Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith, the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich, the Twenty-four Fugues of Hans Gál, the Sonata of Stravinsky, Almería of Albéniz, the Tales of an old Grandmother by Prokofiev.