by Bożena U. Zaremba
It’s hard to know why a particular kind of music touches you the way it does. A few years ago, when I was living in Poland with my family, my wife was quite interested in taking tango lessons. I don’t dance at all, but I thought I’d just see what it’s like. So, I learned to dance—rather badly [laughs]
—but we had a lovely time. And then we saw that there was a concert being presented at the Cracow Philharmonic Hall called Tango Bridge, and since we enjoyed the music we danced to, we decided to go. We went, and I was so deeply affected by this music that I went backstage to introduce myself to the artistic organizer of the event, Grzegorz Frankowski, who was also the double bass player there. He already knew who I was and invited me to actually perform some of Piazzolla’s music. I was really quite frightened about it because this is a whole different area of music that I had no experience with but felt deeply drawn to it, to its deep longing and its really very dark side. I had a few tragedies in my life—within a couple of years before that, both my parents passed away. Sometimes you just hear the music that connects with your experiences.
BUZ: It is quite menacing, actually, and if I were to attribute a color to this music, it would be black
That’s funny because when we perform Piazzolla, we always wear black [laughs]
. But it’s important to remember that Piazzolla grew up in big cities and saw people suffer and live in poverty. His music reflects that harsh reality and is very much in touch with human life. But it’s also sensual, though not in a way that you would listen to, let’s say, French music, which has a particular lightness to it. It’s a different kind of sensuality. Love, or rather longing for love and lack of fulfillment, is one of tango’s greatest themes. This music has so many surfaces.
BUZ: What is your approach to interpreting this music?
My view is not so much that we put our personalities into it like applying makeup, but rather we try to realize and convey the personality of the music. Each of us personally has to be open to this music, which means taking a real risk because you give up your own personal control and allow the music to control you. You need to be very receptive, almost passive, really. And the other part of it is that when we do work together, we have to be very disciplined and listen carefully to each other and work through the problems of textures and balances, always maintaining a good deal of flexibility.
BUZ: My view is not so much that we put our personalities into it like applying makeup, but rather we try to realize and convey the personality of the music. Each of us personally has to be open to this music, which means taking a real risk because you give up your own personal control and allow the music to control you. You need to be very receptive, almost passive, really. And the other part of it is that when we do work together, we have to be very disciplined and listen carefully to each other and work through the problems of textures and balances, always maintaining a good deal of flexibility.
He created the real concept behind the group, and he has many years of experience not only performing Piazzolla but arranging it for various ensembles. We all contribute and share our ideas, but Grzegorz is really the driving force behind it. It was his dream to take this music, which is often seen as an extension of pop music, and put it where it truly belongs, which is high-quality art music. With that traditional classical setup—piano and strings—we are really trying to make a statement that this music deserves to be heard as classical music and that it can be performed alongside great classical music.
BUZ: But do people perceive it as classical?
I think that classifications that we give to music are highly arbitrary and artificial. You can’t really see any fixed natural lines where the classical music ends and pop music begins. That’s part of the charm of Piazzolla’s music—it does expose this problem of classification. When he was in New York, he spent a considerable amount of time listening to Bach, and you can find a lot of counterpoint in his works, as well as the energy and clarity of Bach’s music.
BUZ: Has the collaboration with Piazzoforte changed you as an artist?
It definitely opened my musical horizons. I started to encounter music that I frankly had no experience playing, and I have had to develop skills that are used by jazz pianists, like improvisation. I had to listen very carefully to performances of Piazzolla’s music with the bandoneon, because the piano part is often taking on the bandoneon part and I had to find ways so that the piano actually reflects the sound of the bandoneon2
. This all has been really fascinating for me. I do feel that in the last couple of years it has had an overall effect on the way I listen to any music. It gave me freedom and greater power really to explore music in the ways that I was not aware of.
BUZ: During your American tour, you will play Piazzolla side by side with Chopin. Sounds like music from two different planets.
Well, these composers do appear on the surface to have nothing to do with each other— different generations, different life experience, different culture. But, on the other hand, they are connected more than seems possible. There is something similar about both these composers in the passionate way they explore the human condition. The second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor
, for example, that recitativo
in the middle, is very “piazzollaesque”: It has the same function, this quality of a monologue of someone who is in deep anguish and frustration.
BUZ: What do you find most fascinating about Chopin?
He is so multifaceted and connected with so many aspects of music. He is an intelligent composer; his works are put together magically—anything, from a tiny prelude or a mazurka to a sonata. And the colorful sense of sound that inspired so many composers after him—that is truly irresistible. And it’s deeply expressive of inner emotions.
BUZ: Yet, it is truly difficult to play.
It is difficult. There are not a lot of pianists who can play Chopin completely convincingly. It is so easy to encounter readings of Chopin that are either over-sentimentalized or over-virtuoso or overly-academic and colorless. It’s very hard to find that perfect balance. There are constant contradictions in his music—Classicist and Romanticist. Somehow, he defied all the attempts to define and limit him, and that makes the interpretative process very difficult.
BUZ: What is the role of intellect in this process?
There are many structural issues that require a lot of thought beforehand. It’s not just expressing your emotions in the heat of the moment. His music is charged and spontaneous, but underneath it all, there is this structural backbone. And if you don’t have that, it just becomes sentimental and superficial.
BUZ: In the 1980’s, you studied piano and lived in Poland for quite a while. Tell us something about that time.
That was an incredible experience. I was there at the time of great suffering—that was the time when the Solidarity strikes began. It was horrendous for Poland. And I saw how the Poles worked together to get through and how amazingly supportive they were to me and my mother, who came to Poland with me. They had that great strength and a great sense of humanity, which I admired so much. And, years later, I was very fortunate to have met my future wife in Poland. Now we go there very often, and I want to pass my love of Poland to my children.
BUZ: The year 1990 marked your success at the Chopin International Competition and other prestigious competitions. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned how futile it is to trust the competition process of comparing pianists, how arbitrary it can all be to put numerical values on an interpretation. In one competition, you can win the top prize, and in the next one, you might not pass the first round. Ultimately, you have to look inside yourself and know for yourself that what you have inside you has value and it is rather irrelevant to what other people think about that. It has been very hard to develop that trust in my own work as an artist; winning that big competition launched me on a journey of freeing up what is within me. My whole desire to explore other areas of music, like tango, has been a part of that journey.
BUZ: So, it is a constant journey for you, also in a literal sense—you live in London now3, and it sounds like you have picked up a little bit of the British accent
Have I? Well, my friends here would disagree with you on that [laughs]
. But on the other hand, since I teach here and, for me, the most important thing is to communicate well, my English is more international. I feel very international. I have probably lived more than half of my life in different European countries. That has also been an experience that awakened me to the realization of how artificial our classifications are when we speak of nationalities. Shortly after moving to England, when I was searching my ancestry, I found out that there were some Kenners living in the 1500’s only a three-minutes-drive from my house! I felt like I was coming home. I felt that I belonged everywhere. The most important thing to identify with is our humanity.
Please read the interview with the Piazzoforte leader > Grzegorz Frankowski, “Over the Borderline.”
1 Piazzoforte project created by Grzegorz Frankowski combines the music by Fryderyk Chopin and Astor Piazzola.
2 The bandoneon is a type of concertina, a musical instrument that looks like a miniaturized accordion.
3 In 2015, Mr. Kenner moved to Miami, FL.