Interview: Víkingur Ólafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson was among the talented musicians that performed in 45th Istanbul Music Festival last month. He is a passionate performer with a rare-found virtuosity and a pianist that has won a lot of awards in his home country Iceland, yet it was not until this year that I discovered him. It happened when the festival announced its lineup, just a few weeks after his latest album was out with Deutsche Grammophon label, Piano Works of Philip Glass. As if listening to one genius composer’s notes with his interpretation for months was not enough, Víkingur Ólafsson’s Istanbul recital was a magical night of another genius composer’s notes, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Just a day before listening to his Bach interpretation in 45th Istanbul Music Festival, I found the chance to listen Víkingur Ólafsson’s words, answering my questions.

Photo: Ari Magg

I am doing this interview for an online platform about Nordic culture and arts. We are actually very familiar about arts, design, cinema and popular or alternative music from the Nordic countries here in Istanbul. But not classical music. How is the classical music scene in Iceland?

I think it is an exciting scene, a very young scene. Iceland is a country with a long music history but that’s all folk music until the 19th century. In the late 19th century we had the first composers writing classical music so we don’t have any baroque, classical or almost any romantic music in Iceland; it all started in the late 19th and early 20th century. So because of that, I think our classical music scene is free, is not burdened with history too much. A lot of people are writing a lot of music, a lot of people are also playing music and some people are only playing music – like me. I think the scene is small because it is just 300.000 people living in Iceland, but it is very intense. A lot of musicians, a lot of bands, a lot of composers, a lot of people just playing music… We have only one professional orchestra, but there are so many small ensembles and many people playing in that orchestra who maybe also playing in a pop band, even in a heavy metal band. It’s a little bit crazy, that’s because we’re so few, but that sometimes yields to very interesting results. You also see that many of the alternative pop musicians, like Sigur Rós or Björk, are very classical people. These are people that have very strong background in classical music. So I think we don’t have really clear boundaries between styles and that’s one of the things that keeps it very interesting.

And how did you become a part of this interesting classic music scene?

My parents are both musicians. My mom is a pianist, she teaches piano and my dad is a composer (also an architect). So for me, it was really natural. We have a wonderful Steinway grand piano and for me that was really the most important toy of my youth. And I just always knew I wanted to be pianist because I couldn’t find anything more fun to do. And I still can’t find anything more fun to do! So this is how I became a pianist growing up in Iceland until I was 18, then I went to New York to study. And I think that was also important because it is an amazing country but it is very small. So for musicians and artists it’s important to be exposed to the rest of the world, to go to a place like Juilliard where I studied, to be able to go see Carnegie Hall concerts or Metropolitan Opera productions and to see all the people my age who were also really serious about piano playing. You know, in Iceland I felt a bit alone. So there is this balance, and I think that’s Iceland in general. People travel a lot for influence, to see more of the world but then they tend to come back home to have this vibrant music scene.

Photo: Ari Magg

In New York, it must be crazy, everyone from all around the world coming there to get a bit of it, to become better… What was the biggest challenge you faced as a young pianist there?

I think it’s a big challenge to be a young pianist anywhere. Because there are so many interesting, good pianists around and a lot of talent that maybe never gets the platform. And I think the challenges for me was really to find my way, really my way. Not necessarily going the route that people thought was the only route to become a concert pianist. Meaning, you know, playing the same recital programmes in the competitions for five years and hope you win one or two of the big ones. I hated that. I think I wanted to have freedom to experiment and to really do my own things. I also don’t like the nature of competitions and the fact that there are six hundred international piano competitions; it’s just noise today. So basically for me the challenge was to remain true to myself, and at the same time somehow find a way to navigate through the jungle of music business.

Photo: Ari Magg

You are not only a soloist but also the artistic director of two Nordic festivals. How different is that experience?

It is actually very interesting to do this. Because if you are a pianist and you play a concert, you cannot do so much in 90 minutes, or whatever long the concert is. But if you have a music festival, that’s maybe four days and you have maybe 10-15 concerts. You can express something a lot bigger. You can express a bigger creative idea through programming, through conceptual programming. That’s what I like, so I work with sort of very defined themes and then everything, every musical piece in the program is kind of relating to that theme. And that can hopefully make people experience the music in a completely different way than it would be listening to the same pieces in a more traditional format of concert. I think for pianists it’s important to sometimes stand up from the piano and just listen to a lot of different music. And that’s what you have to do if you are doing a music festival – you have to listen to so much music to know what you want to do and to find beautiful, brilliant and unique programs. You can’t be stuck playing the same Beethoven sonata or Chopin sonata that you have been playing for the last 3 or 4 years, you have to also listen to pieces by composers you may never have heard of before. A lot of contemporary music… And it can be very interesting to put them into context with Mozart and Haydn or Bach and Gesualdo. And that’s what I like to do. To sort of try to surprise my audience and my guests a little bit. We have so many concerts that are predictable today where you have a symphonic overture, a concerto by Brahms and then a Schumann symphony. This can be very nice but I’m interested in finding different ways.

Same thing is valid for albums actually. Your first album from Deutsche Grammophon is a Philip Glass album. Was that more of a decision of yours or the label’s?

I think it was a mutual choice. We had a discussion; of course in the end it’s my choice but it’s very much a collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon. We wanted to make an album with the aim of bringing something to people that they might not know and shedding new light on the music for the people who do know it. So for the people who really know the world of Phillip Glass, I played these piano pieces quite differently from the other recordings out there. And for people who might not necessarily know the music of Phillip Glass, we wanted to make an album that would be very interesting intro for them into this world. Through that we of course selected the pieces that I have worked on with the composer himself but I also did more things: I wrote about the pieces, I wrote an essay that’s in the booklet of the album. I spoke about it a lot in the interviews, how I understand minimalism or the so-called minimalism – I don’t really like that word so much. This music that is going sort of in repetitions which I don’t believe exists. I think it is more like you never travel the same path but rather you are travelling in a spiral. So even if you are hearing the same chord progression again and again and again, you are not really hearing the same progression. You are always changing and you are always finding new perspectives and that’s what I like about it. Exploring sound and sonority at the piano with this music… That’s why I chose Philip Glass’s music because I thought I love this music, I think it’s very interesting and I think there is something very new to be said with it. I think that will always have to be these three things come together when it’s to decide what to record. I mean you can also do a great Beethoven concerto album and it can be the freshest thing in the world. It just depends on how you feel and where you’re at in your career and what’s really on your mind. I would also imagine you can do easily a Bach Goldberg Variations album that could completely find as many fresh things as Philip Glass does, even if it has been recorded so many times. Just depends on how you’re feeling and where you’re at…

…and maybe how much risk you want to take?

Yeah, I mean there has to be a risk. I think in anything you do creatively, if you become too safe, something is lost. You know Sviatoslav Richter, Russian pianist, he said if he plays the same recital more than three times, he gets bored. I’m not saying that’s for anyone, except for Richter because he was a genius and he can do this. But at the same time if you find yourself playing music that you are not really surprising yourself with anymore, you have to rethink what you are doing, the direction you are in as an artist. I think it is important to remember that.

Photo: Benek Özmez

Tomorrow you will be playing Goldberg Variations from Bach. How do those pieces make you feel while playing?

I actually like the way you put this question, because you say “these pieces”. Of course it is one piece but it is really 32 pieces. 32 stories that need to be told… And they are very individual even if they are bound together by the same material, musically speaking. It’s the same chord progression but it’s amazing what you can do with this. I lived with this piece since 2014 as a pianist but I listened to it since I was 13. I played it for the first time in 2014. And I played it sort of every year, maybe a few times since, but leaving a year or nine months. And when I come back to this piece, it’s incredible, I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time even if I have toured it before and played it many times. I really think I’m finding new things in it each time. It’s also a different piece to play at your home or in your studio, in your workshop and then to play it for an audience. Because if you play it for an audience, something happens, it’s kind of a communion between you and the audience and Bach. It’s like this beautiful trinity is formed. It’s difficult to describe, you know. I don’t really want to call it… It doesn’t feel like a piece, it’s more like a happening, an event. This work is so complex that there’s so many things you can do in it as an interpreter. You can play it in so many different ways that I think it’s impossible to get bored of that. I really think I know what I’m going to do tomorrow but I might just completely change my plan tonight and then play it in a completely different way. And sometimes you only decide in the concert. You practice endlessly, in order to be able to forget everything that you have prepared and allow it to be probationary in the concert. Those are sometimes the best. It’s a great work, for me it is, I think without a doubt in my mind, the greatest piano work ever written. It shows what you can do with just very limited material. With these chords that you find in the aria, the famous aria in the beginning Bach creates 30 different worlds. And they’re really independent worlds, they’re really microcosmos. And you know that shows this is the tempt of genius, very few people have that; to be able to create something that is so vast out of something so little. It’s just like if you look at the world has evolved and how different organisms evolve from the smallest seed. That’s the talent of Bach. To be able to take something like an atom and just build and build and build and you feel it’s just like space, it’s infinite. You can’t comprehend this work.

I was gonna ask about the theme of this year’s Istanbul Music Festival, Unusual, and what you think is unusual about Bach’s Goldberg Variations that they are part of the programme, but somehow you have already answered this question. Or maybe what’s unusual is you that this concert is in the programme.

Maybe! You have to ask them actually, if so I’m very happy about that.

Photo: Benek Özmez

Philip Glass and Bach… Besides being strongly mathematical, having all those repetitions… How do yo find Bach’s and Glass’s music alike? – Or do you?

I think music sounds extremely different in some ways as different as you can imagine. But through certain things, you can find similarities and it’s the kind of structural way of thinking about music that definitely connects them together. With Philip Glass, you feel when you are learning the pieces by heart, because I play them by heart, that you are almost learning a mathematical formula. Because they don’t have a linear narrative in that sense. It’s a very different kind of narrative. Bach always has a linear narrative. You don’t really have to memorise it like a mathematical formula, but at the same time you definitely feel that this structure in every measure of Bach’s music and the same can definitely be said about Philip Glass. If you make a mistake in Philip Glass, if you forget one section, if you repeat it one time too little, the piece completely falls to the ground. And I would say, as an interpreter, if you listen to an interpretation of a piece by Bach, if the structure, the rhythm isn’t exact and it’s not compelling, the work loses it’s meaning. Bach is really finding this kind of ultimate creative freedom through ultimate creative discipline. And that’s what I so much like about him. At the same time it’s so grounded, so scientific and so mathematical what he does, but the result is usually somehow up in the spheres and you feel its poetry and that’s the beauty of Bach and I think Phillip Glass definitely goes into that direction as well.

Photo: Benek Özmez

Philip Glass is also known for a wide range of compositions. Like popular music, film scores and classical music… Is it because these classifications are overlapping and the borders are disappearing in today’s classical music scene?

Philip Glass is interested in a lot of mediums and he always collaborated with new people in every other project or so. He doesn’t want to get stuck, he’s always finding new people to work with. It can be famous film directors, different opera directors, different soloists… He’s very much alive and he’s very independent. Bach, on the other hand wasn’t independent because he was always at the service of the court of so and so, like basically most of the musicians before the French Revolution – they all had that kind of a relationship and obedience with the courts and aristocracy. Bach was really writing a lot of music but if you think about him today, I think you will still see the kind of free spirit that you see in Philip Glass. Bach was extraordinarily curious, you can see what he chose to write when he was not writing for the courts and he was really experimenting with almost every style imaginable (except opera). He was always taking new things like writing for cello and violin and finding absolutely new ways thinking about these instruments. Same for piano, in Goldberg Variations he’s doing the things that nobody had dared to write. He’s always expanding. Even if he was stuck with one partition with his supervisor, with this count or aristocracy, he has still made sure he’s not really repeating himself too much even if he wrote more than a thousand pieces. So in a way, Bach is very contemporary – but he was bound by the social structures of his time.

Maybe that’s why we still hear new interpretations of Bach and still can be amazed…

It’s just like Shakespeare, you know, the text is so deep… I think the music is totally infinite and I think I will keep playing this forever. This is the only composer I can play for the whole day, without feeling the necessity to play something else as well. I would get sick of even Beethoven, but Bach, I would never get sick of him. His music is concrete, it is not his personal journey with these pieces. If you go into Beethoven, you are really going into his personal world. He is giving you a piece of his personal sorrows and tragedies and victories and fights… Bach is not doing that, Bach is just expressing the cosmos, expressing the universe. And that’s definitely what he’s doing in Goldberg Variations. You do not feel like you are a part of Bach’s sorrow when you play Variation #25, this famous minor variation from Goldberg. It’s not his sorrow, it’s the sorrow of mankind. So in a way that’s why it’s very freeing, you can really be yourself in Bach.

I’m very excited to listen to it tomorrow night.

Yeah, me too. I’m very excited to listen to it and play it.

Photo: Ari Magg

You have played in many countries, cities and venues – what was the most unusual place you played so far?

I remember once I played at a psychiatric unit in New York City, in Manhattan. This was when I was still at Juilliard. I went there and I played Debussy preludes for patients who had really serious psychological disorders. One man came to me after that performance and he said to me, crying, “This is the first time I’m allowed to hear music. I haven’t been allowed to hear music for six months because of my treatment. And Debussy is my favourite composer.”. Then he wanted to hug me but someone sort of took him away. That was a moment that I will never forget. You never know whom you’re playing for and where they’re coming from. Also I remember this concert in China in 2008, in one of my first tours abroad. I played in the big cities but also I played in an island. I was playing the first piano recital ever been given in that island. That was kind of very interesting. They specially transported a grand piano there and that was really surreal.

Photo: Utku Çubukçu

We see you playing in Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik in the videos. It’s one of the concert halls that I really want to visit some day. How does it feel to play there?

Well, I played there for the first time in May 4th, 2011. I remember the date because that was the opening day of the house. It was the very first concert ever given in the house. I was playing the Grieg Piano Concerto with Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy was conducting. So it was a very big day for me and I realised when I played there, in that concert, whatever I do in the future there was never gonna be a bigger concert than this one. Because the people of Iceland had been waiting for this house to come for more than a hundred years. It was in the 19th century, 1870s when first articles were written by Icelanders in the Icelandic newspapers complaining the lack of a concert house. And it took more than 130 years to actually build it. We had this banking crisis and nearly decided not to build the house, but at the end, thankfully they decided to actually build it. So whenever I go back there I feel very proud that we did this. It’s there and it really changed the way people think of Reykjavik and changed the music scene indefinitely. The acoustics are great, really special and really warm. I was playing there a solo recital in March, I really enjoyed that but it is also great to play with orchestra, I played there every year with Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. You can do anything you want, you can change the acoustics completely, make it like into a cathedral. You can make this huge rework, or you can completely shut it down so it’s good for electronic music if you want. So the hall itself is like an instrument, you have to learn to play it. That’s very fascinating. I think it will take definitely decades or at least years for the people to understand all the potential of this hall.

Photo: Utku Çubukçu

When is your next performance there?

It’s in my own festival there, in two weeks. I have this festival in June called Reykjavik Midsummer Music. So we are playing in the chamber music hall, which is called Norðurljós, which means Northern Lights. And we’re playing also one concert in the epic auditorium called Eldborg. So in two weeks I’m going there again.

Watch Víkingur Ólafsson playing Philip Glass’s Étude No.13 in Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik: