Interview

Verena Wiegand: You're an artist, Oliver – a pianist – and yet you see yourself, as you say, as 'a perfectly normal guy'.

Oliver Schnyder: Sure, I hardly correspond to the clichéd pianist madly tearing away at the keyboard. No chaos, please, never! The reason is that as a performing artist, I have to stand behind the work of another. I filter it, transport it, realize it. My own person is of secondary importance, so I don't have to fit the image of the quick-tempered genius. Sure, I can play the piano well, I do have Beethoven's barely manageable tousled head of hair, I'm sometimes moody, left-handed, never good in the mornings – but I'm still a normal guy. All the same, I possess certain sensibilities – ones I've also cultivated – that don't just allow me to venture forth through the medium of music. They allow me quite generally to perceive certain vibrations around me, to empathize with certain atmospheres. And I do have a well-developed aesthetic sense – a sense for what is beautiful, I suppose.

So not quite a normal guy after all. But what is 'beautiful'?

In general, the beautiful is something perfect in form. Content, form and effect all grow out of one another. All the proportions balance each other. The fact that we feel how these proportions are in balance is perhaps the only common denominator of everything beautiful, in a Platonic sense. In music – such as in Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven or Brahms – there indeed exists this absolute beauty. On paper at least, in the score. The translating of this score into sound, its interpretation, will however remain imperfect, since it can only approach it, not reach it..

That sounds to me as though beauty is for you something absolute, as if it were not just explicable, but also measurable.

No, of course not. In contrast to what I've just said, there is Kant's idea of beauty, which is defined through the subjectivity of the observer or listener. You don't just happen upon beauty – you have to seek it out. In this sense, I realize that I become ever more vulnerable to beauty. Yes, beauty can hurt! But beauty also purifies. 'Go for beauty' was what Leon Fleisher often exhorted us students to do, if we got too bogged down in a problem of musical interpretation. Not that he wanted to reduce our playing to mere beauty of tone. No, when he said that, he wanted to free us from the pressure of having to prove how detailed was our knowledge of the score. 'Go for beauty!' – and we didn't have to show any more how intensely the music moved us – which is in fact a terrible distraction from the music – but we had to 'go' where beauty begins to purify, where the 'I' of the performer dissolves itself and melts into the universal. But beauty sometimes does signify something absolute to me. Ella Fitzgerald's voice, for example, the violin of Fritz Kreisler or Dinu Lipatti's piano – for me, gravity no longer seems to hold them down . . .

How do you find your way to your own interpretation?

Besides the daily upkeep of my technique, my practising, the most important part of my work lies in finding and taking the path that leads from the first reading of a text all the way to the interpretation that is right for me. This exciting, sometimes painful search is carried out using the means that I have gathered in the course of time:

  • my theoretical-musical knowledge
  • my historical knowledge of the musical styles of different epochs
  • statements made by the composers themselves, plus the study of their other works
  • knowledge of the technical possibilities of the period in question
  • knowledge of the cultural and social background
  • reviews from the period in question
  • of course, my sensibility for, and confidence in, different styles – what one would call 'taste'
  • my common sense, which allows me to read between the lines. And then, of course, listening to the 'aura' of what I play!

This listening to the music's 'aura' is really the crux of the matter when working on an interpretation. It is the only thing I have left when my knowledge, sense of style and understanding are no longer a help when I approach the composer's work. Then I attune my inner ear to the echoes of what my fingers haven't even played yet. That sounds a paradox, but it works. The musical impulse is formed in my inner ear and jumps over to my body, in other words to my arms, hands and fingers, compelling them to reproduce for others the sounds that I have already 'heard'. Practising at the piano is nothing more than training this connection between inner hearing and its realization in the physical. In other words, finding the right means to realize on the instrument what was heard in advance.

So is your technique good enough to reproduce what you hear inwardly?

Yes. However, I do sometimes carry individual passages from a work within my mind for a long time, until I realize how I can reproduce on the piano the precise sound that I have in my ears.

The task of the performer is to support the composer, you say. What do you mean by that?

'Support the composer' is a phrase of Fleisher's, and encapsulates a lot. It means: 'Play it late, but in time; long note long, short note short.' In this one short sentence, Fleisher describes a natural, musical phenomenon. If, after an often painful process of working at a piece, you then really understand what it means, then it provides the basis for a gripping interpretation, for a music that makes rhythmic and declamatory sense. 'Support the composer' compels one's ear to hear every note precisely in advance, in order to place it properly. If it's placed properly, the battle is already half won! If I play a long note, then I listen to it consciously for as long as it has to reverberate, and that is usually longer than the notation states. I win this time back by playing the shorter note even shorter. Here, music begins to be formed – it becomes flexible, alive, it begins to 'groove'. But if I reach a rest, then I have to 'listen' to it. Then it has to be 'late, but in time'. With this precise, inner hearing in advance of what is in the notation, I am supporting the composer who, because of the constraints of notational possibilities, is unable to record such minute modifications in his score. In this way, as a performer, I can and must help the composer.

In order to help the composer, you have to know what he wanted – quite precisely, in fact. How do you gain this knowledge?

 

Of course I can never know precisely what he wanted – not every detail – for he is no longer with us. And for this reason, every interpretation remains an approximation to the composer's ideal. And yet when I'm working on a piece, I start by believing that I can recognize the composer's every intention. You can't do it any other way, for you can only convince others when you're convinced yourself. When you're on the podium, this certainty is intensified. There is nothing more beautiful for me than to sit up there at the piano and to experience 'it' playing, as if in a moment of inspiration. Then, in the moment of performing the work that I have studied, there is only one true interpretation: this one, the one that has already sounded in my head, in my soul, and which my body has to draw out. Unfortunately, we musicians can't compel these great moments to happen. But you can entice them to come, by preparing carefully in advance.

That work 'in advance' – people say of you that you play in a very natural manner, with a lightness of touch and technical dexterity. Do you practise often? And how much? How do you warm up for a concert? Tell us about your technique.

When it comes to practising, I'm disciplined. I practise every day, though rarely more than four hours at the piano itself. Learning new repertoire is done mostly in my head. It doesn't matter what I do or don't do – music accompanies me all the time. Whether I play football, do the cleaning, draw my cartoons or read the newspaper. When I'm preparing for a concert, autogenics training is helpful; in some cases, it can even serve instead of warming up. If everything is right in my mind, then my fingers run by themselves!

In order to train what you normally understand by 'a good technique' – dexterity of the fingers, great octaves, virtuosic runs in thirds and sixths – you have to study. For me, on top of everything, technique means producing a quite specific sound, achieving a kind of subtle shading that I have already recognized inside myself. The prerequisite for a good technique is thus in my head and in my heart. Without an artistic imagination, you lack the essential drive to win the battle to acquire the basics you need at the piano. So I improve my technique with every new piece, since every type of music requires a tailor-made technique. This search for the right 'touch' does not let go of me until I've solved it. Sometimes, it's even come to me while asleep.

So let's assume that you've found the solution and on top of everything you've just enjoyed one of those 'great moments' in a concert. Can the joy that it brings outlive a bad review?

A bad review of a 'great moment'? I can't imagine that happening. And, on the whole, the happiness after a successful concert usually lasts only a short time. It's dissolved by the next morning. We musicians are often masochistic.

How do you cope with the critics?

I've promised myself to be happy when they're good, and not to get worked up if they're bad. That doesn't mean I always succeed.

Apart from the reviews in the papers, which purely for reasons of space have to remain superficial, do you need criticism?

Yes, of course. Criticism can't deflect me from my path as an artist, but it can certainly help me along it. I was lucky in always having the right teacher at the right time when I was studying. They supported me in becoming who I am today. And because I believe in myself, I can be open to criticism. I take every criticism seriously that is discerning, not just when it's positive, and not just from so-called experts!

If I don't reach you as my listener, then I need to know that. It's as it is with every form of dialogue. Whether I speak to you or play to you, I have to be exciting, demanding enough for you to hear me at all, and I have to express myself in such a manner that you can't misunderstand me. Misunderstandings are never just the fault of the listener. But if someone simply doesn't like my musical understanding of a piece, then we've simply been unlucky. Both of us.

Do you think that someone who has a fundamentally opposing understanding of the music is in the wrong?

In concrete terms, probably. Because in the moment that I'm performing, I'm convinced that I'm doing the only thing that's right.

As I said already, when I'm working on my interpretation of a work, I try to understand the composer so precisely that I can support him in every detail. But even when my feelings tell me that something is meant 'just so', I still know that, when it comes down to it, my understanding of the composer can only be approximate. Every interpretation, however convincing it may be, remains approximate. But in the same way, the critics cannot fully appreciate what they call my understanding of the work, just as they cannot fully know what the composer intended – and this is regardless of whether they are newspaper critics or critical colleagues in the music world, friends or teachers. And every one of them sometimes feels that his or her understanding is the only correct one..

You also play chamber music. Do you seek out musical partners that think and feel things in a manner similar to you, or can you play with everyone?

 

I only play with good musicians, for what is the point of playing with someone without subtlety in how they play? Or hasn't got the necessary technical skill? In those cases, the prerequisites for everything I want to do are simply not there. However, in chamber music, if not everyone right from the start has the precise same goals, then it can be extraordinarily exciting. To be different and remain so as musicians, to want different things at first and yet still to find each other in the music – that takes away all glibness from the interpretation. It makes it exciting, alive.

Some people think that a soloist can't play chamber music and a chamber musician can't play solo.

If anything, the second half of that statement is more probably true. A chamber musician, even the leader of a string quartet, is never as exposed to the audience as a soloist is. If he's become a chamber musician because he can't transform the fear of being alone into musical energy, then your statement is correct. But if a soloist can't play chamber music, then that simply means that he can't listen (to himself) while playing, that he can't take a step back where the music requires it. I hope very much that I'm not like that!

What do you prefer playing?

I don't know. I prefer whatever I'm doing at the moment. For example, I would love to play the cello sonatas by Beethoven or the piano trios of Haydn. But concert organizers maintain that duos and trios sell badly. I don't understand that. There is such a wonderful repertoire for these ensembles!

What does chamber music bring you?

I can learn things from my partners in chamber music. I learn, especially from string players, to sing even better on the piano. Let me explain that in technical terms:

A melody is in principle a horizontal movement. The string player bows horizontally, and a wind player blows horizontally, while I as a pianist press down the keys, again and again, note after note. I first have to find the horizontal line between notes that have been created vertically, so that my melody too can sing. What Karajan said of interpretation in general is especially true for the pianist: music is formed between the notes, it is formed when no time is lost between them.

When I pay particular attention to what happens between the notes I play, I attempt to turn my 'percussive' instrument into a melodious one. When I play on my own, I often think of a female voice, such as that of Ella Fitzgerald. When playing chamber music, it's the string players in particular that inspire me to 'annul gravity' on my instrument.

I would like to return to the method you adopted from Leon Fleisher of 'supporting' the composer: 'Play it late, but in time; long note long, short note short.' Are you talking here of the difference between the lifelessness of metre and the breath of rhythm?

Precisely that. Metre is a constant in the chronological flow of music, and can be produced by a machine. Music only becomes artistic expression when rhythm plays with this constant, such that tension is created, and the whole begins to pulsate. Through lengthening the long notes and shortening the short ones – or sometimes the other way round in the Romantic repertoire – I achieve the desired result.

My activity is ordered by metre, but a feeling for the temporal proportions of the smallest detail is to my mind extremely important for the quality of an interpretation. Without this rhythmic sensibility, music never begins to 'groove', and even the finest sense for tone colour is to no avail any more. I furthermore believe that we are talking here of a gift, a talent that one can cultivate, but in essence cannot learn. We say, after all, that someone has 'rhythm in his blood'. Rhythm is the oldest musical parameter, and I think it assumes precedence above melody and harmony. Every exciting interpretation is defined first and foremost by rhythm.

Do you vary the rhythm when the composer demands a repeat, so that the listener does not have to hear the exact same thing twice?

Well, I naturally consider and practise several possibilities and decide on the one that's right for me. I don't always feel a need to vary something, just because it occurs twice. If a composer repeats something, such as the exposition of a classical sonata, then he wishes to clarify for the listener the material that he has used. If I were to play this exposition differently the second time, I wouldn't be taking the composer's intentions seriously. That doesn't fit with my artistic credo. But what I do attempt is to play it more beautifully, better, more trenchantly and with better articulation the second time. Just not differently!

I assume that you wish to awaken emotions on the part of your public. How do you do that? Do you transpose your feelings onto the individual listener, or do you invoke their emotions directly?

I would like to awaken in the listener the feelings, the sensory impressions that also guide me while learning a piece. I translate them into music such that they resonate with the listener. That is a high-flown goal, I know. But I also think I know what I can achieve with what musical means. When, in a concert, a 'spark' really does jump from me and 'my' music to the audience, it's not just thanks to my careful preparation, but also something else, something irrational, the magical chemistry of the moment. I certainly don't celebrate my own emotions on the concert platform! No posturing, no grimacing, no public rapture or exaltation, even though not a few people want to recognize musicality in all of that. On the contrary: I have learnt the piece like an actor learns his role, and while playing on the podium I can call up what I have acquired in the way of emotional and pianistic choreography. I know the spectrum of my musically expressive possibilities, and I play the piece as I have prepared it. In this manner, I also give a structure to my own emotions when I play. If I didn't do that, they would run off with me, and I would be the only one enthusiastic about what I'm playing.

So you're talking of yourself and your emotions as an actor would?

Not of what I feel on the podium, but the emotions that I have experienced while getting to know a work and learning to play it. I slip into the work, as it were, and transport it. And if I have a good day on the podium, this essentially sober manner of performing (which is planned and structured down to the smallest detail) is married to the magical chemistry of the moment. I can't express it any other way. And then the sparks fly! And a wonderful intensity is created, in the audience and in me.

What moves you in life? Are there things that move you to tears?

 

Yes, and always when the 'I' is transfigured – in childlike, trusting innocence. Or a childlike enthusiasm for something. Or if an old person discovers his former powers for a few moments. And especially when someone rises up out of great suffering and moves on, fortified.

Now we're talking about Oliver Schnyder the man. You come across as warm-hearted, you interract with your fellow beings in a sympathetic, charming way and at the same time you draw cartoons of the most evil monsters (see the Bodo slideshow!) But little ones, all the same. So who is he, this Oliver Schnyder? Is he a charmer or a nasty cartoon figure?

Both, probably. But I have to say that the cartoons, the 'Bodo's, aren't just bad. At times, they're really also very nice. I think that in a human being, positive and negative energies balance each other and that both types, even the negative, can be utilized for something positive. That's what I try to do in my work. But I don't want to lose a sense of what is really important, for that which seems essential to me..

Why don't you tell us more about your 'Bodo's, which you know I like so much? Have you perhaps already noticed that many of your monstrous little men and women express the serious intention of doing bad, but then – luckily for us – either can't move, or can barely do so? They are all blocked, they haven't got a functioning way of moving, they appear as if they've been planted down with no one to fetch them. Where is the link to you?

Yes, that's true. With the Bodos, I make fun of the dark side of myself. They are a kind of ironic self-portrait. I admit that they're nasty, aggressive, and often vulgar too. But as you have rightly observed, I don't let them act, but place them on the spot in their anger, powerless, letting them hang out their tongues. I like their coarseness. Probably they're a safety valve, a waste product of my striving for artistic nobility. But there are also nice Bodos, Bodos in love, sentimental, sad, intelligent, cheeky, industrious ones, aren't there?

Yes, I know them too. They're really very human, but all outsiders. All of them live somehow in another world, or they live in our world, but act outside its rules. They're alone. Are you alone?

We're all alone.

Back to your negative energies: You wanted to use them to positive effect in your music. How does that work?

Composers, too, use their negative energy in their work. Just think of the abysses in Schubert's soul that open up behind the cheerful, beautiful, sometimes almost sweet exterior. Or of Beethoven and his often devilish energy that he lets come to the surface in an earthy, grumpy way, while he at the same time laughs at both himself, in his rage, and at us, who are taken aback. In this sense I'm even happy that I have such real aggression in me, that I know what spiritual pain is. Because of this, in such passages I can try to understand the composer from the inside out, and I have a better chance to create musical truth.

Oliver: why are you a pianist?

Why do wild pigs like apricots?

Official Site of pianist Oliver Schnyder