Sunday, November 07, 2010

An Interview With Anna Goldsworthy, Part 1

One of the most notable new books about music this fall is Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons: A Memoir, which not only tells the story of her own artistic development growing up in Australia, but is a celebration of a decades-long relationship with her teacher, Eleanor Sivan. Anna's successes and failures are all tempered through the lens of an extraordinary Russian teacher whose mission is to create a fully realized person as much as a first-rate pianist.

Earlier today I had the chance to meet Anna at Indigo Books in downtown Toronto. She gave an elegantly revelatory mini-recital (Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C# major from the WTC Book I, Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2, and Liszt's Rigoletto Paraphrase), interspersed with readings from Piano Lessons. Afterwards, we had some time to chat, and Part 1 of our conversation is transcribed below:

Chris Foley: I noticed when you were playing that your performance of each composer's work had a clear stylistic integrity. Is that something that you learned from Eleanor Sivan?

Anna Goldsworthy: Yeah, I think that was in large part her teaching from an early age. Understanding the style through a physical understanding, but within that understanding, the individuality of each composer within that style because they don't all sound the same just because they were written at the same time. And within that even further, understanding that every piece by a certain composer is a different facet of that composer's experience and artistry and understanding the individuality of every single thing.

CF: How do you combine the whole spiritual journey of learning music and becoming an artist with the business of music?

Piano Lessons: A MemoirAG: The business of music can take up a lot of time - the organization of a career - and it's very easy, outbound, to become a professional emailer rather than a professional pianist. I've spent so much of my time drawing up engagements, it helps when you have a manager - my trio has a wonderful manager who now takes care of that, and I've got people who take care of the solo aspects of that for me too. My father said to me when I was quite young that the world's not going to beat a path to you. You actually have to go out there and make it happen. And I didn't quite believe it at the time. I sort of thought if you market a career it just naturally happens. But the reality is that in Australia it doesn't just naturally happen. You have to get out there and make it happen, and you have to knock on those doors.

One of the things about being a pianist in Australia is there isn't necessarily the heritage of that artistic culture. I mean, there is a good artistic heritage there, but not as much as there is in Europe or the United States. I'm not sure what it's like in Canada. But what that means for an Australian musician is you actually have to make your own opportunities. A cellist colleague of mine recently said to me "You have to make your own fun" and I think she's right. That can mean a lot of work and a lot of organization. But it can also mean a tremendous amount of freedom. So, I set up my National Trio Series four years ago, and it's wonderful. We own the series and we can do whatever we like with it since we invented it. And it's a huge amount of time generating the audience base. It's a very steep learning curve about publicity and marketing, organization and management, much of which we've now been able to pass to somebody else, but there's something wonderfully liberating about that too, and there's something quite creative knowing it's your baby and that you own it.

CF: And at the same time you're a writer. How do you fit the writing into the performing life?

AG: It's a challenge. I tend to operate without any particular pattern or design. If I have a deadline in one area or another it can change my life for that week. This year has been a very busy performing year for me. I've had a lot of concerts and the writing has taken a bit of a back seat. I'm hoping to get a bit more writing done when I get back home. By Christmas I won't have quite so many engagements.

But it is a constant juggling act. I also have a two-year-old son, and working out how to make the week work while I'm looking after him, trying to practice, trying to write, trying to run a music festival, and trying to teach is just a bit of a logistical nightmare. But every aspect of my life is so enriching that I'm loathe to give any of it away.

CF: How important was it for you, when you were younger, to have a mentor? In your case, it was Eleanor Sivan - what did she do for you as a mentor? How would you recommend that young pianists find a mentor?

AG: To answer the first part of your question - crucially important - I wouldn't be a pianist today if it wasn't for Mrs. Sivan. Her influence extended beyond that. I think she has really contributed to my philosophy of life as much as my philosophy of music. I think having a mentor outside your immediate family can be so stimulating for a young person, and very important. That's the beautiful thing about being a musician, is that we have these institutionalized relationships with teachers in a way that other fields of human endeavor don't necessarily have. I've felt it particularly since I've started writing - I don't have a really clear writing mentor in the sense that I had this really strong musical mentor.

How do you find a mentor? In my case, it was sheer luck - my grandfather found her for me. He was a district superintendent in education and he chanced upon her teaching one day, and he told her she had to become my teacher, and told my dad she had to become my teacher too. I was fortunate in that way. For another young person, I suppose you find out who's around. I think you do need to have a certain chemistry with a mentor for it to work. These relationships can often be very hard work. It was very difficult for me when I was nine particularly, to try to understand that she had an extraordinary will that would take some getting used to.

CF: Do you teach as well?

AG: I do. I teach at the University of Melbourne two days a week, and I have some terrific students. But it's tremendously time-consuming and tremendously energy-consuming but it also makes you that much of a better player They're really wonderful, full of energy and curiosity, and eager to learn.

CF: Mrs. Sivan wasn't just a teacher that taught skills. She also taught the whole spiritual and cultural journey as an artist. How important is it for teachers to know that, and to be able to pass that on these days?

AG: I think it's really important because those areas, particularly areas in which modern society can be a little deficient. It's really difficult for a young person to be immersed in themselves in the physical act of music without examining why they're doing it, what they're trying to communicate through music.Technique is important, obviously. You can't neglect technique. And technique is a large part of my studies as well, but always as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. It's very easy to turn music into a sport, and almost fetishize technique, to become addicted to competitions, which is one of the things that competitions can engender, this fixation on playing louder and faster and more accurately. And of course we need to be able to do all of those things, but only at the service of art. That's a dimension of something she imparted to me at an early age, and it's something I really do try to convey to my students. Some of them are quite receptive to this idea. Others I can see their eyes glaze over, and they sort of think, cut to the chase, show me how I'm going to play that Bach piece. But it's something that I hope even those particular students will come to as they mature.

CF: What do you think musicians can get out of your book? What are the takeaways?

AG: It depends on the person. A number of musicians have said to me it really resonated with them, and really spoke to their own coming of age as musicians.

CF: I got the feeling when I was reading it, I was like, oh my god, that happened to me, that same thing happened to me.

AG: Yeah. And so to articulate that particular aspect of human experience, which hasn't really been explored that much in literature before, I think a lot of musicians have really responded to that. Mrs. Sivan's teaching is so profound, and so wise, and so idiosyncratic, that although many musicians, I'm sure, have arrived at similar realizations, I think there's something quite striking about encountering them in her very distinctive voice, too.

CF: She was able to articulate that very bluntly, and really got to the heart of the matter.

AG:Yeah, I think so, and, it's an interesting thing because I conveyed her through my book using her own fragmented English - her English is not perfect by any means. At times I questioned whether I should be doing that or whether I should be converting her voice into something smoother and more polished, more correct. But actually, in some sort of strange way, there's a particular poetry to her voice that got lost if I tried to do that. The analogies she reaches for are so wild and so surprising, and the way she put language together can be so startling and unique, that I didn't want to lose that. There's also a beautiful rhythm, a beautiful rhetoric in the way she constructs sentences, which I feel is particularly musical.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation in the next few days...

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