In conversation with French pianist and longtime collaborator of György Ligeti, Pierre-Laurent Aimard:
UChicago Presents: As a young man, you had a remarkable teacher, Geneviève Lièvre, who exposed her students to an incredibly wide-ranging musical repertoire. Can you tell me more about her and her influence on you?
Pierre-Laurent Aimard: Well, the impression was not to be stuck in a system, but to have somebody who opens you to the world. [She] brought a very large range of artistic information and tried to provide it in a very alive way. For instance, from the very beginning, she played with me; she played the flute, so [we] made chamber music during our first lessons. She was also playing in a student orchestra in Lyon, in the conservatory, so she brought me to the rehearsals. Because she also composed music for avant-garde theater in Lyon, she would tell me all the stories about the rehearsals of the shows that she would attempt, describe them, and show them to me, physically; she would imitate the actor.
So, in fact, they were much more than piano lessons. But this doesn’t mean that this was a kind of world full of fantasy. It was extremely disciplined, as well. This mix of fantasy, wide information, and discipline was a privilege for a very young boy.
UCP: You were appointed pianist of Ensemble InterContemporain by Pierre Boulez himself at just 19, right? Did that ever feel daunting/overwhelming?
PLA: It was an extraordinary thing for two reasons. First of all, it gave me the chance to work with Pierre Boulez, who was a giant of his musical era. I was conscious of this extraordinary artist, because I had heard a lot of his concerts, knew a lot of his music, read his books. In fact, I had [never] dreamed I would work with him because he was not living in France [at the time]. He was living in Germany and working in England and New York, mostly. So, to have this privilege, suddenly, was overwhelming.
The second reason was, when I was a teenager, I intended to become a musician in the largest way possible. That is, I was hoping to have many different experiences in my life: to play as a chamber musician, as a soloist, as a song accompanist, to teach… I certainly never intended to be only a soloist. I would have found [that] very reducing, restraining. And one of my wishes was to be a member of an ensemble for new music because I was so interested in new music and I thought it was the best way to be in the center of all that happens—to play always in different instrumental combinations, to be in contact with the theater, to be always open to what could happen. It was great that this experience that I wished to have anyway could happen in the best possible frame: this high-quality ensemble created by Boulez.
UCP: How did Boulez find you?
PLA: Well, when he came back to Paris, he was asked by the president Pompidou to create a big center for new music and acoustic research, which became IRCAM. Then, he realized he needed an ensemble for playing the new music. He looked for musicians and asked for people who could have the profile, and let me know that he wanted to listen to me. This is how it happened; it was very natural.
UCP: You also met Ligeti through Ensemble InterContemporain. When was the first time you were introduced to his music? That you worked with him?
PLA: Well, I listened to Ligeti’s music as a young boy. When I was in Lyon, we had an excellent opera house and orchestral, instrumental, and vocal concerts. But we also had an exceptional new music series—really avant-garde, with the best interpreters. So, I’d heard several compositions by Ligeti in this frame.
Of course, in Ensemble InterContemporain, we played a lot of Ligeti, so this is how I met him. But my relationship with him has been mostly independent from Ensemble InterContemporain. He was looking for a pianist when he composed a lot for solo piano, or piano and orchestra, or chamber music. That’s how this very deep relationship of about 20 years started and developed.
UCP: What was it like to work with him?
PLA: It was fascinating, because he was a great artist: profoundly independent; loving freedom; original, with an endless but very original culture; great, but [with a] light and fanciful intelligence; an incredible fantasy; and a strong sense of humor. All these years close to him have been breathtaking, because he was living the artistic experience, really, with a burning intensity.
UCP: You have a website dedicated to Ligeti’s works for piano, including a video masterclass series in which you pass along notes and advice from Ligeti himself. What made you think this kind of resource was particularly important for Ligeti’s music?
PLA: I think it is important especially for my colleagues, for the younger generation. You know, very often, one starts to get interested in a music [whose] creator is already dead. Consequently, a lot of information has been lost. So, it is crucial that the person who witnessed these artists give it to the next generations… All the things I’ve learned and heard from him I wanted to be shared as much as possible. This is what I do when I teach, normally, but I wanted that to be larger—that if any pianist living, [whether] in a province in China or in a tent in South America, wanted to work on a Ligeti étude, they could get the most authentic information as far as I could provide it. I thought the best [way to do that] nowadays was not to write a book but to make a website. I’ve been very lucky to have the best possible partners in the Klavier-Festival Ruhr and Dr. Tobias Bleek.
UCP: Your mention of “music by dead composers” reminds me of a quote of yours I love, which is that one must “play old music like new music.” But when we’re talking war horses by Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, and so forth—pieces you’ve played hundreds of times and for which thousands of recordings exist—how do you approach these pieces anew? Or, if you were giving a masterclass, what advice would you give to a young pianist about approaching these pieces with a fresh perspective?
PLA: I think [being] fresh is not only important, but the way to go to the piece. If we remain stuck with generations and generations of interpreters who have played a piece, then we are just considering how the piece has been played. The first place we should go is to the piece itself and work on it first of all, as we would do if the piece has just been composed. How I go to a piece by an old composer—a war horse, as you say—is the same way I go to a new piece. That is, I look at the piece itself and its potential, and I try not to have wrong ideas because of all the things that have been done with this piece—which are sometimes very good and marvelous, but are very often not.
The worst thing for forging an interpretation with a piece is what some young people [have done] at international competitions. [You] hear the first four bars of the Beethoven concerto [imitating] one interpreter, and then the two next pages [imitating] another interpreter, et cetera, et cetera! I think this is contrary to a what an interpretation [should] be; this is a corruption somewhere, a perversion of what is an interpretation. So, I think working with living creators can teach us how to look at and study the score.