Steven Osborne. Photo: Ben Ealovega (detail) View full image

All that jazz

As Steven Osborne prepares for a Wigmore Hall recital on 12th March that includes his own improvisations and jazz transcriptions alongside Debussy, Schumann, Bauer, Rzewski and Meredith Monk, he tells us about his approach to programming and performing and the importance of helping students find their own voice.

How do you go about programming concerts?

It’s not an exact science. Normally the starting point is something I want to record. I have an instinct about the balance, the journey through the programme and what emotions I want to feel before or after a particular piece. It’s like putting together a jigsaw. Key relationships have some subliminal impact, so I try not to make those too jarring, and I like to have intellectual links – such as symmetry, or reverse symmetry. I created one programme where the final note of each piece was the first note of the next. That was very pleasing to me. I’m not sure it means much to the audience, but it gives me pleasure!

How does that play out in this Wigmore programme?

The first half has a sort of symmetry, with Schumann’s Arabeske op.18, Debussy’s Children’s Corner and Two Arabesques, and Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

The second half is jazz-inspired and includes Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which I’ve wanted to play for a long time. I loved it when I heard it in college but have never found the right context for playing it. It’s an anarchic, experimental piece, with a lot of tone clusters, which you have to play with your forearms and fists. It copies the machinery of a cotton mill. There’s a ghostly blues in the middle, which gets flattened by the machinery towards the end. It’s an extraordinary concept for a piece

I’m also playing my own transcriptions of three jazz performances, by Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. When I was at music college I was obsessed with Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. I listened to a lot of jazz and mucked around with the style. I wouldn’t call myself a jazz pianist, though – I’m a dilettante. I can give an impression of the style, improvising for a little while, but I quickkly run out of ideas.

What are the challenges for classical players performing jazz?

I don’t know any classical players who can really play jazz rhythm idiomatically – even André Previn, who played jazz to a pretty high level. There’s film of him playing with Oscar Peterson and the difference in their approach to rhythm is like night and day.

With classical music you’re always finessing rhythm. If you play a phrase metronomically, you sound like a computer. Jazz is never mechanical, but there’s an endless stability in the underlying beat that classical pieces don’t have. There may be sections of classical pieces that are flexible, and at the end of the section there will be a breath, whereas jazz never has that breath. For classical players, it’s deeply ingrained that we take a tiny bit time after phrases – but if you do that in jazz, you lose the swing. Occasionally I teach Kapustin’s piano music, which is pure jazz language. I’ll often spend 80 per cent of the lesson just trying to help students understand what swing it is and getting them to move towards it, because it’s so unnatural for them.

You’ll be performing your own improvisations at Wigmore Hall – what does that feel like?

The first time I improvised it was thrilling. I was influenced by Keith Jarrett and his unplanned concerts. What happens when you sit down in front of an audience with a completely blank page and you have to play something? I found that something actually happened, and it felt like it was mine – honest and beautiful in its way. The sense of silence becomes very heightened when you don’t know what’s going to happen and there can be real pleasure if you relax into it.

That empty page experience is important for classical players because it helps you tune in to what composers do. They start with an empty page – but what happens next? They’re trying to tap into some organic process. What emerges out of the void? Maybe a fragment of a tune presents itself. How do you continue that? Where does it want to go? Somehow, improvising has helped me get better in touch with that sense of what the music wants to do.

What does Wigmore Hall mean to you?

I love Wigmore Hall. It was the first real hall I played in. I did a scholarship audition there when I was ten, performing on their most beautiful piano for ten minutes. That was the first ‘real’ piano I played. It was like eating chocolate for the first time. I was so shocked by the beauty of the sound that I almost stopped after the first note. The resonance, how the sound rang, something about the smoothness of the action: everything was perfect. Every piano is different, and I have never got back to the feeling of that piano – you can never replicate such things.

The Wigmore management is also wonderful: loyal and unconcerned with glitz – they really care about musical substance. It’s a huge privilege to play there.

How do you feel on stage?

It can be complex. Sometimes I get self-conscious about wrong notes, but over the years I’ve got better at not getting too distracted by this kind of thing, and just returning my attention to the music. In the end, the little flaws are so much more significant to the performer than the audience.

I had one experience at Wigmore Hall, playing Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, that was almost out-of-body. Somehow, I knew I couldn’t play a wrong note, and watched myself thinking, ‘This is amazing’. I wish I knew how it happened!

Many professional musicians deal with these issues. I always make a point of talking to students about it because if you don’t hear people talking about it, it’s easy to think that if you’re struggling, there’s something wrong with you. It can feel shaming to admit. There are various ways to address the issue, but not if it can’t be spoken about.

How do you relax before performances?

I generally know before a concert if I’m going to be nervous, and I have a few techniques. I’ll have a long bath and talk to myself, trying to say out loud all the most paranoid things I’m thinking. It never works to try to push nerves away, but only makes them worse. I’ll be in the bath coming out with a stream of consciousness: ‘This bit is going to go wrong, they’re going to laugh at me, it’s going to be the end of my career.’ These things are all at the back of your mind but hardly register consciously. If I do that for ten or twenty minutes, I gradually realise that it’s painful to feel like this and as soon as that happens, I feel better. I’ve made friends with myself again.

What is your relationship with the audience?

I love the sense of the silence and space, and the connection with the audience – the feeling that we’re all sharing some kind of experience. This naturally happens when you feel a conviction about the music. I’m fascinated by the question of what is happening when you have that magic at a concert. I arrived at the idea that this capacity to connect through music is an evolutionary byproduct of how mothers and babies respond to each other. I’m convinced that music works because it creates that kind of deep biological connection. Technically, it’s about mirror neurones.

What’s the best advice you were given as a student?

I had some lessons with Charles Rosen in Manchester and there was a section in a Chopin sonata that I was pulling around. He said, ‘You don’t need to do that. There’s nothing here – if nothing is happening, don’t do anything!’ It’s so simple, but very profound for students. You don’t always need to show how musical you are. For me, one of the greatest examples is Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting Rachmaninoff. His recordings are very strict and straightforward, so the structure is clear and the important moments stand out, yet the underlying feeling is overwhelming.

It’s a question of how you feel the music for yourself. This isn’t talked about nearly enough. Students are left not knowing in what direction to go. It’s easy to pull the music around to show that you’re musical and make it seem expressive from moment to moment, without a clear sense of what kind of expression it is and what the emotional arc of a piece is. There is no right answer to these questions, so a student has to find their own sense of conviction.

There’s an increasing emphasis on performing exactly what the composer wrote. How do you feel about this?

I think this has become a big red herring. If you’re not putting yourself into the music, all you have is the rhythm and notes on the page. You could just present a midi file. If the only point is to do what the composer wants, it could be you playing it or anyone else. It seems to me a fake humility. There’s a famous story about Czerny performing Beethoven’s wind quintet and adding a cadenza in the middle of it. Beethoven told him to play it exactly as written and people have taken that to support this kind of attitude. However, when Beethoven played the same piece, he created a huge cadenza in the middle. You could say, well Beethoven can do what he wants to his own piece, or you could say the music allows that.

To give up your natural instinct about a piece because you think the composer wants something else is pointless. Why are you playing it if you’re not invested in it? The fundamental thing we’re trying to do is to communicate something to the audience, and you can’t communicate something you don’t feel deeply.

I think the relationship with the composer is more like a marriage than a master–servant connection. There’s compromise. The score is telling you something, but you may feel you want other dynamics or phrasing. There’s also the process of thought and experimentation, and a curiosity both about what the composer wrote and one’s own instincts, attempting to find the best possible merging of your emotional world and the musical score. In my view, it’s not only permissible to do something different at times – it’s actually imperative, if after all that exploration and thought, what’s written still doesn’t fit with your overall view of the piece. Composers never play exactly what they wrote. And in the end what does the average audience member care about more: knowing you’ve played every dot and slur faithfully, or being captivated by the music?

That’s not to discount these questions: they are important. One certainly shouldn’t be casual about what’s written – then you end up just splurging your preferred emotions into every piece of music. But the most vital thing is conviction. How can you arrive at the sense of being burningly passionate about the music and excited to share it? I don’t know how you can do that if you have a museum approach of perfectly recreating every detail.

The problem is that music can make perfect sense on the page – a musicologist might analyse its sonata form and motifs, and you can create a fantastic view of the structure and construction, without having the slightest idea of the feeling of it. That’s the element that can be forgotten in classical teaching. It’s literalistic: there are dots, a forte, a slur, and all these things, but how do you get to the life blood that motivated the composer. We don’t have to be motivated by the same thing as the composer, but we’re trying to find for ourselves the emotional need that’s within the piece.

How do you help students find this ‘need’ within the music?

I talk about this whenever I go to music colleges, to get students thinking about it. They sometimes wait for a teacher to tell them how to play the music, and sadly teachers are often quite happy to do so.

The first thing is to sing the music, because your voice and breathing tell you something immediately. It’s also about paying attention to how the music makes you feel in your body: light, heavy, solid, happy, sad, or what? One can think in terms of images and stories, but it’s about feeling the music instinctively as much as thinking about it.

Moving is also helpful. I walk around the room, singing, letting my hands be free, just seeing how I want to move. I did a lot of that at college and it helped me internalise music in a different way.

Making up a story is very useful. If the piece started, ‘Once upon a time…’ what would flow from that? What does the opening feel like? It doesn’t matter how banal the story seems to be: banal things can be helpful because they’re clear. It doesn’t matter – it’s just something that captures the feeling. And if that’s the beginning of the story, what comes after? Try to piece things together, feeling the whole emotional world of it, not just a bunch of nice tunes with different feelings. I find this works well with students because it’s creative, and makes it clear that there’s no right or wrong – it’s about what the music feels like to you.

Steven Osborne performs Debussy, Schumann, Bauer, Rzewski and his own improvisations and jazz transcriptions at Wigmore Hall on 12 March.