Mirian Conti: Remembrance of Things Past

You can listen to Mirian Conti's lovely new album Nostalgias Argentinas on different levels. At first impression, it's salon music - Argentinian piano pieces from the 1920s, infused with dance rhythms and old-world charm. But dig a little deeper and you quickly connect with the Nostalgias of the title, not only in terms of the obvious nostalgia for a more gracious time gone by, but a personal nostalgia on the part of this Argentine-American pianist for the country she left as a teenager, as well as the inherent, permanent nostalgia of all classical musicians, who spend the majority of our time communing with the ghosts of long-dead composers.

With nostalgia and homesickness very much on my mind as I begin work on my own  nostalgia-soaked project, Exiles' Cafe, Mirian's recording resonated deeply with me, and led to a lovely conversation about the things we can miss, and why:

Lara: I really appreciated reading your liner notes on the album - I love the way you express your ideas about looking to the past and everything that evokes. When you're talking about nostalgia, I think this has different layers for you - part of it nostalgia for your own past, and a place itself, but also a nostalgia for a culture that's vanished, or at least diffused somewhat.

Mirian: Nostalgia is so many things. For someone like me who came sort of young to this country - I was fifteen when I came - it's a tough period in the life of any young person to leave a country, even if you come with part of your family and you live with your parents, there are so many things that you miss. It doesn't matter if the move is better or worse, there are certain things - the food, the smells, the trees - that you miss when you are away from your country. But little by little you start melding into a new place, and in my case that had very much to do with finding a new kind of music. Little by little, when you start getting into music like us, studying the repertoire and broadening your awareness, starting to experiment with new music - I mean I was studying the Chopin and Bach and everything as I had in my own country, but I was also discovering new music here, I was always playing new music by new composers, and sometimes then you discover something that kind of reminds you maybe of those moments when you were young in your own house, in your own country, and sometimes you find certain similarities between music that has to do with folk music or popular songs, and the nostalgic feeling comes from realizing that there are certain things that you understand, and you don't even know why - things that are integrated into your emotional DNA or something. So maybe you don't even understand why, but certain music you feel naturally and it comes out naturally. If you tell me now to sit down and play jazz music, even though I like jazz very much and I've played a lot of music that deals with jazz, it's just not something that is naturally part of my emotional being, because I wasn't exposed to it as much. So a lot of the music on this CD, even though I certainly never played any of it when I was still in Argentina, was a discovery to me that there are things in this Argentine music that connect with my own personal being so that I just naturally feel it and translate it on the piano. So there are many components to this nostalgia. It's not just remembering things as they could have been in the past. It's a nostalgia for these composers that are forgotten, and I don't know why - they were wonderful composers who really knew how to write for the piano, which is so important - I feel this music deeply maybe because it's from my country, but it's a nostalgia partly for a complete piano tradition. In this music there are so many different influences - you have a very Chopinesque, Rachmaninoff-like influence - you have a more angular language pointing a little bit to Prokofiev maybe - but in the end, they all sound Argentine. There's something that weaves in and out of these composers - a very unique Argentine way of saying things. It's like when you compare Gershwin and Copland - they both have completely different languages, but in the end they both sound American.

Lara: Yes, of course, there is that sense of place in music that we feel on many different levels. My project now is focusing on music written in exile, or inspired by exile, so this question of longing is something that's really preoccupying me right now, and what is important, I think, is that the longing is not something tragic, it can be something beautiful. I think that sometimes the things that are lost become, in translation, more precious than they would have been otherwise.

Mirian: Exactly. It's like somebody said - one of the French writers - that when you leave your country and you are looking back, it's like you are looking at a painting from far away, not anymore inside of the painting, and your perspective changes very much - now you're looking at the whole picture, your whole life, and all of a sudden you see things  about yourself clearly. 

Lara: This whole question of being "out of place" for me is very pervasive. I think for all of us who work in this tradition, we feel deeply a constant feeling for the past, because we've had such meaningful contact with the generation before us that really represents a culture that's gone now. All my teachers from my years in Europe were a link to a time and place that is absolutely gone, and that means a lot to me, to have known that. I think we all feel this longing for the past so deeply - well, we spend a lot of our time with people who lived in the 19th century, after all!

Mirian: Yes, it's true, as pianists we live in the past all the time! Even if we are playing new music, to get into the new music, we have to understand the past - there's no getting around it. I mean nothing comes from nothing - all the new music you play today came from something, everyone was influenced by someone before...

Lara: Exactly. It's our permanent condition! Tell me how you discovered the music on the album. Did you have to do detective work and poke around in dusty library stacks? What was your research process?

Mirian: I'm lucky that through the years, every time I travel to Argentina I go to the music stores and buy music, so I've put together a huge collection, many things that are out of print now. A lot of music by Argentine composers is not in print anymore, so you find some editions sometimes and you look at the last printing date and it's 1947 or something, so you think, "Oh my god, I'd better buy it now"! So I try to buy all this stuff, and I have a lot of composer friends who have also over the years collected a lot of music, so I just started looking through the piles. And for this CD I did have a certain sound in mind, I was looking for a certain atmosphere, so there were some things that just didn't match, didn't work. You need to have a concept in mind, not just a bunch of music put together because you know the pieces!

Lara: Well, yes, you know I think so too! I think a narrative is essential, for me at least - a real thread throughout.

Mirian: Yes, and in this case it was a little harder because you're dealing with different composers, and you're looking for a consistency of style, but without being too similar, too boring.

Lara: No, it's lovely. It's very atmospheric, but it doesn't ever become background music! It keeps your attention - really nice balance of contrasts and connections. I think you accomplished that very well. I just love that process of putting together music for an album, striking the perfect balance - it's one of my favorite things. And in the case of your album, you're also introducing your listeners to music that is completely new to their ears, which is exciting.

Mirian: Yes, another point is that I made a conscious decision not to include Ginastera and Piazzolla! There are enough recordings of that!

Lara: Oh I know. Sometimes I think that if I hear one more kid play the Ginastera Danzas Agentinas in an audition I will scream. And now all the young cellists are playing Piazzolla since Yo Yo Ma did his tango album! But I love this music you've shared on this album, and I know what you mean about the kind of subtle Argentine flavor that is unmistakable in all of it. I'm fascinated with Argentine culture and history. I remember there was a period when I was a child when we had family friends who came regularly to visit from Buenos Aires, and I never forget the smell of their luggage - it was a totally distinct smell of strong leather, completely different leather smell, and cigarette smoke, and probably the Yerba Mate they always brought with them...

Mirian: Yes, I know, the smell of the leather! It's infused with the Argentine humidity. When I go and come back from Argentina my husband always says "It smells like Argentina, your luggage".

Lara: Well, hopefully everyone who listens to your record will experience some of that same sensory recognition. Congratulations again, it's a delightful album!

The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire (with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice? 
Make sure my back and neck are not stiff!! It is not good to start without warming up. After that, I can't wait to practice. I always enjoy this time at the piano. I wake up very early and by 8 or 8:30 AM, I am at the bench. 

What's the last thing you do before you go onstage?   
Breathe, stretch my back, neck, arms, drink a lot of water or Gatorade or juice. During the day of performance I try to take a nap, eat well and relax. 

If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?  
I think all the secrets in my life are intertwined in my performances and recordings. It would tell of my thoughts and remembrances of my family and friends not near me. But I think mainly it would tell of the many ways I try to figure out the reason why I play Piano.

If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?   
The last recital by Chopin in England where for the first time in his life, he played a full recital of just his solo piano music. 

If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?   
I would be a singer: a mixture of Callas and Edith Piaf's styles. But if not into music, I would be an art dealer.

No comments:

Post a Comment