In a time of Babel, the pianist as polyglot

Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Marco Borggreve
Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is deeply admired for his interpretations of modern masters such as Ligeti and Messiaen, and has in recent years been broadening his central repertoire, reaching back to the music of Bach and Mozart with the same sense of intellectual and spiritual penetration.

At the same time, the pianist has been recognized with increasing frequency for his curatorial imagination, his gift for building programs that dart provocatively through music history. In 2009 he took on the artistic directorship of England’s Aldeburgh Festival, cofounded by Benjamin Britten, where he recently spoke to the Globe. He will also direct this year’s edition of the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music, which starts up on Thursday and runs through Aug. 12.

Q. At both the Aldeburgh Festival and the Festival of Contemporary Music, the curating of programs has often been done by composers. Is there something about your role as a pianist that suggests a different approach to this task?


A. Yes, I try to bring the point of view of the interpreter, who in some sense could be more free than a composer, because a composer with a strong identity often has a very particular cultural world [view]. Sometimes I think that as an interpreter, who is in permanent contact with a lot of artists, traveling and playing with people all the time, you may have a different [ability] to feel which presence makes sense in a program.

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In my numerous residencies in the last 10 years, I tried in fact to make every time a different kind of program, adapting my project to the place, the institution, the country. I’m not interested in bringing my own world and selling it everywhere in the same way, but in understanding the roots of what a festival means, and to see what contribution I can give — at this moment and for the future.

Q. How did you apply this approach in practice when mapping out the program of this year’s FCM?

A. I think if you go somewhere for five or six days, one time in your life, you should be very radical, very clear about what you bring. Well, in such a festival as this, with such a tradition of great creators from all over the world, and this extraordinary pedagogical dimension, it seemed to me that it would make sense to bring a strong presence of creators who are big — in my opinion — but that are not so present in the US landscape. This is why I decided to focus on [German composer] Helmut Lachenmann and [Italian composer] Marco Stroppa. Lachenmann is better known but not very much heard in the US. And Marco Stroppa is almost never played. Their works are the main basis for most of the concerts. And of course Elliott Carter’s departure made obvious that we would have a tribute to him. The festival will end with what I think is a major event, the US premiere of “Written on Skin,” the opera by George Benjamin.

Q. How do you approach searching for the right balance between younger composers and established voices?


A. I see occasionally in reviews that I am criticized, “what about the younger composers?” I do program them when I can, in the appropriate frame. But one of my problems is that there are many major musics from the last three-quarters of a century that are at the moment often ignored, but they are in my opinion crucial. They bring so much in terms of artistic experience, in terms of message, in terms of work on the language, that we can’t just leave them aside with the risk that they’ll go away and maybe be discovered again in 50 years. So it’s my function, I think, to somehow say: Stop. These are crucial people. We have to know them very well. We may like them or not. But this is part of our planet’s history at the moment, let’s really take the time to study them carefully.

Q. I once heard Lachenmann say to an audience before a performance: “Try to like it.” He was clearly aware of how his musical language — with its elusive grammar of scrapes, rustles, and sighs — can seem quite foreign to first-time listeners. He seemed to be asking for a momentary suspension of skepticism.

A. Yes his music is definitely not about routine. It’s not about the language we have always spoken. It’s much more than that. The vocabulary is completely different, the way to organize phrases is different. In a period like ours — which is a period of the Tower of Babel — the only choice we have, in terms of art, is to learn as many languages as we can. And in the end, these are big pieces of art, so let’s change our [monolingual] habits!

Q. Benjamin’s opera has already garnered much acclaim from performances in Europe. How do you view this piece?

A. Well it seems it is so hard to write a good opera, and this is in my opinion an absolute masterpiece. I’m very happy, a little proud even, that we can do it at Tanglewood. In this case, this is a piece that takes charge so well of all the dimensions of the opera — and brings them really to the utmost level. It has such a clever and artistic way to deal with the relation between text and music, with all the different levels of comprehension. I think it has been one of the big artistic events of the recent period, and it is a truly overwhelming piece. I think that with this piece, he found an ever-more impressive dimension as a composer.


Q. Looking ahead, I understand you will be taking a rare sabbatical next season to develop some new projects involving returns to both Bach and Ligeti.

‘I’m not interested in bringing my own world and selling it everywhere in the same way, but in understanding the roots of what a festival means, and to see what contribution I can give — at this moment and for the future.’

A. Yes, and I hope to do what everybody does on sabbaticals: travel and read — and read not with the tyranny of time in a busy life, but with the time dictated by the books themselves. I will also stay more in one place, so my suitcases will not be the main thing in my life. This is so important, with music as well. The tension that the stage provokes is a great thing — a kind of social catharsis. But then you become completely focused, and your life hangs on the stage. So it now becomes crucial to give time to the time, simply speaking — to breathe, to live — in order to keep an independence from a world that goes so fast, and where you can so easily become a prisoner of its systems, fashions, and crazinesses. One should remain crazy [laughs] but somehow in an independent and healthy way — not in a manipulated way. That is our duty and this is why we are here [involved with music]. All of us!

Interview was condensed and edited. Jeremy Eichler can be reached at