Interview with Maria João Pires



The music exists without me

Interview by Sanat Deliorman
“The dynamic of exams and competitions involves rivalry and glorification of oneself, and this greatly risks turning the musician away from the subtle dimension of music, so delicate to get close to.”
These are the words written on the website of Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, a high-level training school which, ironically, has been organizing the world-prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition since 75 years. Now the school houses a project called Partitura, launched by the revered Portugese pianist Maria João Pires, to trace the real grace in music. In our interview with Pires just before her Istanbul concert with Miloš Popović at Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall on 11th June 2015, she opened up the philosophy behind this project and her perspective to music’s essence with the simplest yet the deepest touch of wisdom.
We have been waiting for you for long time Ms. Pires. I guess you had to postpone your Istanbul concert due to some health problems.
I was sick for 10 days, so I had to cancel three concerts, and unfortunately my Istanbul concert was among them.
We are glad you got over it and are with us now. Tonight you will play together with Miloš Popović. What kind of musical partnership is this? 
I must say that this is within a project called Partitura. Partitura is like a score, but at the same time in Greek it means “to share”. So we share ideas about music, the stage. We are a group of musicians –specially the pianists– sharing the stage between generations, but not like that of a teacher and students, or like somebody older presenting new talents. We share just to share.
Somehow I think musicians should participate in a social happening and help people to have music, and not only in concert halls. That’s to say, the people with whom I share the stage also share other things. We have many projects in prisons, in hospitals, in small villages with people who have no music. We built children choirs to sing in places where children have huge problems in life. I mention about ill children or children who have no parents. So we cover all these people in our project Partitura.
And the concert at CRR is also a part of this Partitura Project.
Yes. We are musicians, so our duty is not only to play, but is also to use what we know about music to try to transform things that are not going well. So Partitura is more than just a project. It is a kind of a philosophy.
In another interview you say you think the composers connect us to our truths, to our origin, thus giving us hope. There you point that Beethoven gives us hope and need for fighting for these truths, while Schubert gives this hope through peaceful acceptation. But how do you feel when performing works written just before their death, just like the ones you chose for tonight’s programme (“Lebensstürme” and Op. 111)? Where is the hope? What will you “share” with us tonight?
I like very much the late period works, because you feel so much the maturity.  And also I like so much to see the contrast between how Beethoven wrote his first sonatas wonderfully and then the lasts. But then those mature periods are kind of an incredible example for us to be detached from things that are not worth attention. So you just get connected to the essentials. The essential is so important for us to find I think. And through music you can also connect yourself to essential things or the spiritual life.
What is your opinion and feelings about Beethoven’s Op. 111?
I feel somehow that it is not a piece you can talk about. It is kind of incredibly full of truths, it is so incredibly pure. It is a very essential expression of human being. Talking is very poor.
You also said that great composers prepare the world for the next period coming.
And that’s why I love these last pieces of composers. Because they always are a projection to the future and here in some variations you can hear the jazz rhythms or in Beethoven the modern music. He can project the music until 21st century.
When you listen to new piano compositions do you ever happen to feel the coming of a new age?
What I think about new composers depends on who they are. But there are unbelievable composers today. It’s always an expression of our times. But what are they preparing us for is something we don’t know.
Today we will play a very short piece from György Kurtág. It is Hommage to Schubert. I love that piece. It’s so short, but it is so beautiful.

Once you are connected to the reality you feel peaceful

When you are performing, different from other world piano virtuosi, you have a very peaceful face. You don’t do any extra mimics. Is this pure love of music instead of admiration?
It is very difficult to explain what I have been doing myself, because I am inside. I don’t observe myself from outside. But what I feel is very deep. I need to have a total connection with the music, and when you are connected to the reality, then I think you feel peaceful. The connection to the work, to the composer, to the source of that music is something like that is just coming out, as if the piece is being composed now. So you have to be connected to that source, instead of doing something or interpreting what somebody composed.
Of course you have to get mature and understand that you have to respect the score and you need to learn how to read it so that you give yourself to that. But when for instance, playing Beethoven, I’m going to interpret myself. I won’t be myself. If I can connect myself to that source, then I feel more honest, then I think I’m useful for the music and then the music exists without me. It doesn’t need me. So I’m just there, to make it happen in the material way. Like my body is there. But I don’t feel myself there.
To give a simple example: If two friends converse, each one is listening to the other. They are not imposing on each other what they want. Right now I am not imposing to you what I want. You are also not. So we are listening to each other. And then somehow we both connect to the source of our subject. We don’t need to convince each other of anything.
Do you feel more at home when playing chamber music? Don’t you feel more pushed to play in a more competing way, when with an orchestra?
I never feel competing with anything. I feel I’m completely involved in the orchestra. I don’t feel the difference between me, the conductor, the public and the music. Everything is one. Then the music tells you what to do.

 Maria João Pires and Miloš Popović together at La Scala

And also you say modern pianos are more useful for “seducing” and showing off but the old ones are dry yet more humble, enabling you to stay with the music. What type of piano do you play at home for your personal practices?
Of course some pianos are not comfortable because they don’t have sometimes the most beautiful sound. But you can always do something in order to avoid it.

Competitions are the best way to finish with music

What is the first thing you advice to a young piano players you accept them as your student?
There are many things I advice (she laughs). Firstly, I only accept to work with people if we share the opinion that we don’t think about having a big career, having a lot of power, competing with other people, being the best, the first one… All these things are big barriers to your music, to the idea of serving music. If you want many things, you have many barriers.
But can a young pianist reach that state of mind?
Yes. Maybe it takes a little bit more time for them.
Sometimes they just fall again and again on the same trap. But then I stay on their side and show them “You see?” “You see?” “You see?”, saying “this is a trap”, “this is a lie”. You have to find the way to stay pure and honest and stay with music. You have to show them being an artist and not being a professional technician.
What if any way these young pianists should enter a competition to “climb up the ladders of success”?
Come on! For what? I think competitions are the best way to finish with music. They are the best way to go and destroy everything. And it has destroyed in last many years a lot of young people.
Those very old-fashioned competitions were not good but okey. Because those ones were not machines of business. Now it’s a process that has no end and that makes so that no pure artist who loves real music can either never enter or he will never. Or he will be corrupted.
How can you compete in art, when the secret of art is sharing? How can you have the desire and the wish that you are the best, when the secret of art is to be humble? I can continue like this for an hour…
It’s absolutely a terrible issue.

Detail from the photo taken by Bahadır Emre during the CRR "Partitura" concert.

But then what should a young soloist do to survive?
It started in an already bad way. “You want to be a soloist”. You cannot be an artist when you want something. First bad word is “wanting”. Because then you want money, then you want to buy things. You cannot want to develop your soul. To serve an art and be able to go step by step as a human being ready to understand it, how can you want, whatever it is? Perhaps you need food. You need the essentials to survive like everyone. And you don’t have to feel special. Seeing yourself as the special one is the first thing that destroys everything.
The first wish of getting in art is years, years and years of research to get to the point to be happy in your work. And not to be unhappy, wanting things that you don’t know if they will come. Because then you are unhappy in your work. The work is the everyday.
Not just the music…
I say what think, what I feel. And I know that it may not be very pleasant for some people to hear it.
As far as we know Mertol Demirelli is one of your recent students. What do you think about his progress?
He is very talented. But he had a very difficult year with me (she smiles). Because he was used to playing, playing, playing and playing. And he was not used to listening. So, he had to make many steps back to start listening, reading, feeling himself. But he learns unbelievably fast. Also, I think he is very intelligent. Because he understands what I’m asking from him is something that is essential for him. Many times I said to him “Listen, you are one among millions and if you are to express music, you have to be unique in your expression. Because music is unique in every moment. And for that you have to forget what you’ve learnt about wanting to play and wanting to be a great pianist, to have great success and forget all these barriers. Learn how to express yourself in this unique way.”
You are like a life-coach in the purest sense of the word.
I don’t consider myself as a teacher. Because I think in art you don’t teach, you just guide people giving them advice. As you are older and more experienced you teach them how to know themselves and how to do the work alone. This is the best tool. I don’t say “You should play like this and that…”, because this doesn’t work. It’s important if the person in front of you have certain independence and capacity to face consciousness. I think consciousness is what you have to face, which is very difficult in certain periods of life.
For more information on Partitura Project you can visit or their facebook page:
Maria João Pires and Sanat Deliorman at CRR Concert Hall's Backstage on 11th of June 2015




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