"Few pianists approach Philip Glass’s music with the level of devotion and insight that Bruce Brubaker brings to it," writes the New York Times. Bruce records on Arabesque and teaches at the New England Conservatory.
New York Pianist caught Bruce between tours to talk with him over coffee at Columbus Circle about traveling, music downloads, and Philip Glass.
NYP: Thanks for making time to see me after getting back from your recent trip to Korea. Tell me about the trip. Did all the air travel work out?
BB: That was okay. However, this summer I was in Mongolia and I had a bad time with those trips. It took me three days to get back to the U.S. because every leg of the trip was delayed for one reason or another.
NYP: Who ever thought of doing a piano tour in Mongolia?
BB: It was a project that they originated and it was supported by the Fulbright Foundation and it turned out to be very interesting. There are a lot of musicians there. There's a national school which is supported by the government.
NYP: One of my other interview subjects was Jenny Lin and she said that everybody's going to Asia now because the audiences are hip and it's a vibrant place.
BB: I don't know that they're "hip." They're very interested in Western classical music, though. I was in Taiwan last winter and somebody there said, "If I tell my parents I'm going to hear a concert with Beethoven in it, that's very modern," because fifty or sixty years ago in Taiwan nobody was interested in Beethoven so it really has a very different cultural meaning. There's a very different "read" for it there than there is for us. I think a lot of young people in Asia are interested in classical music, but it's weighted with a lot of meaning. It's a sign of social aspiration and cultural aspiration, and it can also be a sign of rebellion.
NYP: Do you travel to Asia a lot?
BB: I have recently and I think it's going to continue. I was in Korea twice this year and I'm going to Japan next year and I'm going back to Taiwan in December. I might spend some time in Beijing.
NYP: I'm very curious how the mechanism of booking works these days. Do you still depend on an artist manager to do all that for you?
BB: I have a couple people who do stuff for me, but most of these things just come out of the blue. It's gotten so easy now to reach almost anybody in the world, often now I just get an email from somebody. Last year I got an email from someone in Rotterdam. They said, "Wouldn't you like to come to Rotterdam?" So that's the way it happened.
It's so much less dependent on an established network of professional contacts. I think traditional booking still goes on. However, just as the record business is flailing around, I think the old-fashioned classical music business is flailing around, too. They don't know what to do. It's not that they're not needed, but they're not needed in the same way. It's not that important anymore, just as you can now book your own airplane ticket and buy your own stocks.
NYP: You don't need management anymore?
BB: No. If you compare it to the travel business, although you don't really need a travel agent anymore, it's not to say that a travel agent might not make you a better deal or find a more convenient flight, but it's possible to do without one, and I think that's happening to a lot of aspects of the music business.
NYP: In order to do engagements that "just came out of the blue" didn't it used to be that an artist had some kind of exclusive arrangement with a manager, and if an artist found a booking himself he still had to pay a commission to the manager?
BB: I've had a number of managers over the years. It depends on what kind of deal you have. There were people who used to try to take commissions out of dates that they didn't get for you. I feel like I was often very fortunate to have people working for me who didn't do that.
That's all changed, too. There used to be these agencies whose business really was to extract money from young musicians who wanted New York debuts. Young musicians wanted to try to get the attention of, I don't know what, a manager, a label, or something. I remember when I first moved to New York City, which was a long time ago, the Sunday Times was full of these reviews of debuts. I suppose we're talking about back in the 80's. They used to devote pages, it seemed to me to be pages, but a lot of space to these two or three-paragraph long reviews of New York debut recitals. Every week during the winter season there were probably a dozen of them, maybe more.
Of course, now there's no such thing anymore. It just doesn't happen. If a kid comes to me and says, "I'd like to give a New York debut," I always ask, "Why?" It doesn't have the same impact. There's nothing to be gained. Now it's much more about recordings or simply starting to play. Not that things don't go on in New York anymore. I think it makes less difference where you do something. It's possible to do an interesting project anywhere and the next thing you know, it could be on YouTube or anywhere people have access to.
NYP: What changes do you see in the recording business?
BB: People now are just putting up their own stuff, and that's kind of great. At the same time, of course, there isn't the old kind of vetting process; whether you think that was legitimate or whether you think record companies were riddled with corruption, as they might have been in some cases. It's all changed very dramatically.
I really have the sense that many labels won't be making physical CDs much longer. I'll be surprised if we're sitting here talking in 2010 and all these companies are still making CDs. I think they've been so overtaken by online distribution that it doesn't really make sense anymore to create the physical product because it's so much more expensive to do so.
In some parts of the world that's not true. Actually, in Asia there's still a huge culture of buying CDs. Surprisingly, you go to play the concert and the audience is just buying CDs like crazy, but that's really fallen away in the United States. I think it's falling away in Europe, too, and the prices of CDs in this country are going down, down, down. That's because there's not as much demand.
I don't think it means there's no demand for recorded music. On the contrary, there's more demand for recorded music. However, the vast majority of what sells, sells online. I don't know if you ever looked at this thing called Last.fm. That's a music networking site. I don't do it, so I don't really know how it works, but if you use an iPod to listen to music and you are part of this network, then every time you plug your iPod into your computer it also records what you've listened to and that becomes part of your profile, so Last.fm will match you up with other people all over the world who listen to what you listen to, and its really fascinating.
That's the way people find my stuff. The site will predict for them: oh well, if you like Philip Glass and Max Richter and, say, Scriabin, then you're going to like Bruce Brubaker. I've actually gotten thousands of people writing on that. Rhapsody is another one, and all of these sites have some kind of mechanism for contacting the artist.
The boundaries of the musical world are rapidly falling down and it seems to me like the younger listener is really somebody now who has unbelievable exposure to a lot of different kinds of music and in many cases has very broad interests. So the kind of niche radio we had for a while, that we still have with satellite radio, doesn't really apply to a lot of these kids. They're listening to a lot of stuff.
I hear from these kids. I get email from people who have heard my stuff or have downloaded it on iTunes. The recordings I've made in the last 10 years are all recent American music, and I get the impression that most of these people are not listening to Mozart and Beethoven. They're listening to whatever musicians like me are doing on the piano, but then they're also listening to Radiohead and much more pop stuff, which is interesting. I think it's good.
NYP: It's nice to hear that online sales do well for you. I've speculated before that since it is so easy to acquire music free on the internet, the role of recordings will evolve into an incentive for encouraging paying audiences to come to live performances while sales of recordings will mean less in the future of artists' revenue. What do you think of that theory?
BB: I don't think that's true actually.
NYP: Do you have any new recordings coming up?
BB: I have another recording coming out on Arabesque. It will have music by Glass and William Duckworth, who's somebody I've become very interested in. It's something called the "Time Curve Preludes," and I think it's great music. It's from the late 70's and was sort of well known and well thought of, but then it almost disappeared. Some people call it Post-Minimalism. It has Minimalist elements but it also has other styles, and they all kind of bump up against each other. It's very interesting.
NYP: I was captivated when I heard you perform Philip Glass's "Mad Rush" recently. Although, I'm a pianist myself and obviously love the piano, the sound of the piano can nevertheless really pall if the material is particularly repetitive. It can really start to sound like Hanon. Now, the way you play Glass has a lot of color and it makes it really special. I don't know how to put this. I think you put more into the music than might even be really there in the first place.
BB: That's an interesting question. I have a theory about the old triadic relationship between composer, performer, and listener. That's really over, and I don't think the idea of the composer as a creator, as a sort of god-like figure handing down the law (or maybe more accurately handing down the beginnings and endings of things), I don't think that really applies anymore. I think we're all participants in a kind of musical experience that can be more or less than all the other people involved in the relationship, and this has always been true. It's just that in our world now it's more obvious because the old kinds of art which were so dictatorial and so authoritarian on the part of the composer/creator/author, those kinds of art don't work so well in our society anymore. And I'm not saying I don't still enjoy listening to Beethoven, but I do find that that kind of let's call it authoritarian art is not somehow appropriate for us now.
So I think in the music that Philip writes down, he is really writing down something else. In fact, he's said this quite explicitly. Glass has talked about how he believes that an art work (any art work but let's talk about music), any composition is not really finished until somebody hears it, and their hearing of it completes the art. So it's not really a finished thing, and of course the result of this is that each person who hears it, and let's also include everybody who plays it, too, everybody who plays it and everybody who hears it, those people each complete it differently, and they complete it differently on each occasion.
So the parameters of this piece now just become much bigger and much longer. So if you say maybe I'm playing something in these pieces which isn't really there, it's not so much that it isn't really there. It's that he didn't put it there.
That argument can come up just as easily in Mozart. Does every performance of a Mozart sonata only include what Mozart put there? I remember years ago a very interesting conversation where somebody asked Milton Babbitt that question. Babbitt had noticed something very provocative in one of the symphonies of Mozart, something about the way Mozart used a certain register only for certain instruments, and it really was the kind of thing you'd expect Babbitt to do, and a kid put up their hand and said, "Mr. Babbitt, did Mozart put that there?" and Babbitt said, I think quite aptly, "It doesn't make any difference."
He didn't go on to complete this, but here is how I'm going to explain it. To the extent that he had noticed it was there, then it is there, and whether Mozart put it there consciously or unconsciously, it doesn't matter because part of the reception of the piece, Babbitt's sort of completion of this symphony by Mozart was to now include that aspect in the hearing of it.
What is a performance really except a reading and a hearing? That's the way I like to look at these pieces of Glass and, although this sounds really pretentious, my goal is not to do anything. I really, ideally, like to just be present. I play the piece, I practice the piece, and if I'm lucky I allow things to happen. I don't make them happen, they just happen. It's not really a conscious process where I would say, oh, here's the second repetition, I'm going to play louder now or I'm going to play a little jerkier rhythm. I would like not to be conscious of those things.
I think what I'm saying is equally applicable to any music, but is especially noticeable in stuff where there is so much literal repetition on the page. It's an interesting question in Glass's music or any kind of repetitive music. It sort of gets to a philosophical concept of de-centering or re-centering, which is just this idea that every time we add to our total experience as human beings--we add a little new idea, or a little new thought, or something happens to us--then our total experience is slightly changed. As a result, when you hear a highly repetitious piece, you hear something the first time and it has one implication or meaning and then you come back five minutes later and when you hear the same music again it isn't the same music. Now it's a little later and you've already taken it in before, so even if it were somehow literally to be repeated exactly the same way, it really wouldn't be the same thing because its position is a little bit different in your total experience of the piece and your life. It sounds like some kind of Zen Buddhist thing, doesn't it? Just to be present.
NYP: I think it's a very real thing. I think one of the things that makes it possible for you is you really have the pianistic equipment to convey it because as long as it's just an intention, it doesn't connect to anybody. Intention must coincide with effectiveness.
BB: You know there are all these traditions in theater with Stanislavski and people like that, with actors like Marlin Brando and Clint Eastwood who would not repeat something in the rehearsal process. Those guys didn't practice line readings, you know, "Make my day; make my day." They didn't do that. I think the whole notion is that you find some kind of inner, dare I call it Truth, and then if you can find that place again, then every time you go and do the performance, the specific details will be different. The only thing that remains constant is the place you're coming out of.
I always imagined that's the way somebody like Schnabel practiced. My fantasy is that Schnabel would not sit there saying, "Oh, let me practice this so I can play it exactly the same way every time." I think we know very well he didn't do that. So what was he looking for? I'm sure he practiced and I think he was looking for some kind of aliveness. That sounds hokey, but some kind of connection to the material.
NYP: After asking you about music that is repetitive I want to ask you about programs that are repetitive. What about hearing the same standard repertory over and over again?
BB: As old music endures, it actually acquires more and more meaning and it becomes something more and more nuanced and rich. It's a curious thing that pieces which become extremely familiar also acquire the possibility of becoming very strange again. When we start to know a piece like the "Appassionata" and it becomes familiar, then when we hear people play it we're much more able to respond to the things that are different. With new pieces it's a very different operation. We don't have that familiarity.
Of course, it can be dangerous, too. Some pieces almost get to the point where they seem worn out. I think those of us who listen to a lot of young pianists come to feel that way about a lot of the standard repertory. It's hard to hear the "1st Ballade". It's hard to hear the "Appassionata". If some kid comes in and says, "Gee, I'd like to play this for you," and you already have a certain feeling about it, in a way it's not fair to them, but it's still the feeling you have, and of course it's the feeling that most critics have, too.
If you're writing a review and somebody says, "Please come to this concert, the orchestra's playing the '5th Symphony' of Beethoven," let's be clear very about it. It's tough to hear the "5th Symphony" of Beethoven, and I emphasize the word "hear" because almost instantly when those sounds start to come into your ear, you say or you feel or you unconsciously respond with this idea, "I know how that goes," and you don't really take it in.
It's like recognizing somebody on the street. If it's a person you really know very, very well you might miss some changes in their appearance because you just know them and so you say, "Oh yeah, hi." If you never heard this piece before, you have to pay attention in a very different way. Not to say that there aren't a lot of people in the world who never heard the "5th Symphony," and not to say that there aren't a lot of people who could still listen to it, but I think it gets difficult.
NYP: So a little repetition can lend familiarity and richness, while too much of it saps vitality and the music can get in a rut. It isn't alive anymore.
BB: Yet music can have multiple pathways. Another aspect of Glass's music which is tremendously appealing is that it doesn't really have a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn't necessarily have a conclusion. When he first wrote "Mad Rush," for example, it was an open-ended work. He continued to repeat things until he got to the point where he wanted to conclude the piece. When he published it, he decided to write it down in a form that had a certain number of repetitions, the coda comes in a certain place, and that's all set. I'm not sure you have to stick to that, but that is the way it's published. In the first performances, I don't think Phillip had that in mind at all.
The first time I played John Cage's "Dream," Cage was in the audience. It was a kind of benefit concert and after it was all over we were standing around drinking and eating and somebody asked him, "In that piece, 'Dream,' what would happen if the pianist got lost?" and Cage said instantly without even thinking about it, "Oh, I think that would be wonderful!"
That's sort of what we were talking about before. Is performance the recreation of something determined exactly beforehand? Not at all. He really thought that if you got lost, that would be the best thing possible.
NYP: That's very funny, but pretty iconoclastic, too.
BB: I'm not all that interested in this old fashioned conservatory kind of teaching--and by the way I think this is almost gone, although there may be some people who still do it--this kind of teaching where the teacher gives you an exact recipe for how the piece would go and one that perhaps they got from their own teacher. This sort of idea that, "I studied with somebody, and they studied with somebody, and they studied with somebody, and they studied with Beethoven, so I'm going to let you know how that is." I think a lot of us can play that kind of family tree game, but it's not a good game to play because it gives a very distorted view of what really happens in art.
I played another commissioned piece by Cage back then, too, a chamber music piece and it was one of these pieces he had written with a very broad pen or maybe even a brush, so a lot of the notes were deliberately globby. I had my part and I was a kid and I went to him and I said, "Mr. Cage, what is this note supposed to be?" I couldn't figure it out, and he said something which at the time frustrated me very much, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. He said, "Just listen, and then you'll know what to do."
That should be over the doors of every music school! That's the most profound advice you could give a musician, and of course to me it was tremendously frustrating then. I just wanted him to tell me what note it was.
Bruce Brubaker on the web: MySpace.com - Bruce Brubaker
Photo: Jan La Salle