Name: Lang Lang
Current Release: Lang Lang's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.
Recommendations: My favourite painting is The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, it has these beautiful colours combined with a romantic feeling.
My musical recommendation is Bach's Goldberg Variations. I hope you will like my new recording of it!
If you enjoyed this interview with Lang Lang, visit his personal website for more information. For recent updates and personal insights, take a look at his facebook account and Instagram profile.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing the piano at the age of three. My first influence were cartoon characters! The first real pianist I saw was Vladimir Horowitz live in Moscow, when I was four years old. I still remember the "Träumerei" by Robert Schumann he played was so inspiring to me.
I also remember, at the age of ten, watching Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations by Bach with a magnificent sound.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Obviously, at first, we have to be influenced by the great musicians of the past. Personally, I was deeply inspired by Horowitz, as I mentioned, as well as Arthur Rubinstein, and many others. And it wasn't just pianists. I was also influenced by Leonard Bernstein, von Karajan and Pavarotti, for example.
In a way, we need to be exposed to great music making in the beginning. But then, we need to get to know our own personal connection – and to feel that personal connection - to the music. We also need to learn historical stories, the stories behind the music. We have to study composers, and we have to know how to analyse the scores, to find a respectful way of approaching the music. All composers are different, after all. They all have their style, their own way. Beethoven, for example, was very strict about what he wanted from the performers. Others give you more liberty to do your own thing.
Either way, your heart needs to be in it, the technique needs to serve the music.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
Obviously, when I started out, I had to really focus on playing the right notes, and have complete control over the keyboard. Without that as a basis, you can not do anything, you can't even complete the piece. We need to be realistic: You start out with the Cmajor/Aminor scales and then gradually improve your abilities, learning small pieces by Bach, Mozart, and then arriving at more difficult pieces. The main artistic challenge in the beginning is really how to build a piece in its entirety.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process?
Since I'm a performer, it doesn't really matter that much. I just need a quiet place with a good piano. I don't need a special environment of any kind and I don't think it has that big of an influence on me personally.
If I'm close to the beach, or next to a beautiful landscape or with my favourite people, it does help. But I I don't strictly speaking need it, nor is access to technology that relevant. Just give me a good piano and I'll find the right vibes to practise anywhere.
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one?
I had a small piano in the beginning, it was not a very good one. [laughs] But I still like it. At the time, we simply couldn't afford to buy a more expensive one. Now, of course, I have my own Black Diamond Steinway piano. I have to have a piano with a full range of colours, of power, of sound, emotions and dynamics. I also need to be able to play extremely legato. My piano is my soulmate.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work?
It depends. If I have a concert day, it's very different compared to a regular day. To me, the travelling, taking the plane, are not very pleasant. During the actual concert day, I have to sleep slightly longer. Then, I get up, get out and have a big lunch. I do this because I don't want to eat right before a performance. Then I take a walk and start practising afterwards until the concert begins. Afterwards, I'll surf the web a bit or watch some videos on my cell phone to relax [laughs]. Oh, and I like to get a good massage! Not every day, but it's nice to get one as often as I can.
On a normal day, I will have a nicer setting. I'll get up slightly earlier, have brunch, start playing a little bit. I also need to take care of some administrative work that requires my attention. Afterwards, if I have time, I'll go to a coffee place and drink some tea. I try not to have too busy days, but unfortunately it can sometimes seem like I need 48 hours in a day. But I do appreciate being with my family, talking with my friends, visiting an art gallery, looking at the paintings.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
The way I see it, as concert pianists, we don't really become creative in the true meaning of the word. What we do, basically, is to recreate a piece. But I always try to find an angle to the piece that's important to me, that establishes a connection between the music and the moment in my life I'm currently in.
I also try to develop interesting programs. Let's say I want to play some Beethoven. Then I could combine it with Chopin. Or teaming up Brahms and Schumann. Or doing something non-classical. Working with a pop band and looking at their work, for example. Or collaborating with a visual artist. So I try to be creative by means of collaborating. B
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you?
I like to visualise something while I'm playing. My strategy is to feel grounded first and to then soar high.
How do you make use of technology?
I do use technology for social media and when I make a new recording, I also try to get the best out of the technology that's available. But I truly believe that there is nothing better than a live concert. It's still the number one experience.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
Collaborations are a key element for me in terms of reaching a wider audience. But they're also ideal for making my life more interesting. As human beings, we need to remain open, so we don't just stay in our own world, but also discover other worlds. One of these world is technology, but it could also be sports. I'm actually a big fan of basket ball, tennis and soccer.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
These are very different things. When you're playing live, it is a one-time-experience and you only get one shot. You're playing a lot more spontaneously and then you have the audience around you – which, for me, creates a better ambiance. I actually prefer the live situation!
When you're working on an album, like the Goldberg Variations I just released, or the Beethoven sonatas, the studio is the ideal place. Still, nothing beats a concert. So when I conceptualised my current Goldberg release, I decided to do both, and combine a studio and a live interpretation.
I do like to improvise, but as you know in classical music, this is not particularly common. It is accepted to improvise on the ornamentations or in the cadenza. But you can not really change the notes. That's just not possible in our world. But we do have the possibility to play things differently every night. It's like looking at the same object, but describing different aspects of the soul. You need to have at least an element of improvisation.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
I'm a big dreamer. I always want to think about the sound – do I want more clarity, do I want more of a pearl sound or honey … like drinking honey tea. I want to taste the sound first.
It's almost like a sixth sense. You have to imagine it first, and then you need to make use everything you've learned, everything at your disposal to somehow channel it through your fingertips, your shoulders or your elbows.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
For me, when you're making music, you're using all of your five senses plus a sense of spiritual emotion. When you're on stage and in the process of making music, you need to be open with all of your senses. You need to be open minded, open hearted and you also need to smell the notes.
You need to hear everything. You shouldn't let your emotions take over everything. It is possible to feel too much. So the border of your interpretational freedom is delineated by one word: balance. Without balance, that river of emotion, that you do really need to make great music, will overflow.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Music and art will always heal our heart. They are like portals into a better world. This is especially important in difficult times like today. The world has become a lot more divided. We have to use music and art to rebuild the connections between people. We need to use them to foster more understanding and respect. Music can go directly to the deepest spaces in our heart and it has a unique ability to stay there. Art has a memory. If you experienced a beautiful concert, you will always have that synergy of wonderful energy inside of you forever. It stays with you longer than your mental memories.
That's also why it is so important to have a good educational system for the arts and for music. We need to do all we can to support arts schools all around the world.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
I like the current form! Especially now with the pandemic, as we've lost our stages around the world, this serves as a reminder how much we need live concerts. The way I see it, this will never change.