(02. 12. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)
Interviewer: Ellen Moysan
Interviewee: Narek Hakhnazarian, cellist, gold medal winner for cello at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition.
EM: I begin with my first question and then after that it’s a free discussion. How would you define or explain inner music? I don’t know if it’s an expression you use, but if I say “inner song” what does it evoke in you?
NH: Music in general, we all have inner music because, in my opinion, music is the most essential part of human life. Whenever we walk, we always have music in our heads, whether someone has some pop songs or classical pieces, it’s always there. So, it’s a constant process. Sometimes I wake up in the night with some music stuck in my head and I keep hearing it and hearing it. That’s actually quite fascinating. But I don’t really have a clear concept of inner music. For me as a musician, my inner music is the music I am performing in this period because I am always dedicated as much as possible to what I do. It’s not just work for me which I just play on stage and that’s it. It sticks with me day and night.
EM: So how do you digest it then? You did some improvisation, you work in a jazz band.
NH: Yes, a long time ago.
EM: But playing from the score is different because you have to digest it. My professor was telling me to just read the score. She told me to take the score with me on the metro; thirty minutes a day at least, sometimes an hour. She told me to take it with me, read it, and learn it by memory. And I couldn’t understand at the beginning what the relationship was between this learning and what I would be performing later. So, then I understood it is a way to digest the piece. How do you work on that? You play by memory a lot?
NH: Yes, I try to play mostly by memory, but digestion requires time. You can just spend twenty-four hours every day for a week but, still, I believe you will digest much more if you play that piece or attach to the piece for a longer period of time because more and more new things are discovered. For example, there are so many pieces I have performed hundreds of times—Dvořák Cello Concerto, Shostakovich Sonata—but still, every time I pick up the music and every time I pick up the piece to play, there’s something new I’m discovering. For a musician, that’s an eternal process. You need to have a curiosity or digestion process that is endless.
EM: So it grows in you? At the beginning you have a sketch of the piece and then it grows within you?
NH: Yes, of course. If it’s a concerto, for example, there’s no way to fully understand it and digest it other than by playing it with the orchestra. You can sit on your own and look at the score and play for yourself as much as you want, but the true understanding of the piece comes by actually playing it. For the beginning of studies, and for the introduction to the piece, of course it’s very important to learn the score, learn the part, and, as you said, in a metro, open and look at it. Sometimes, when I’m short on time, I open a new piece on airplanes and try to learn it just by looking at it. In the end it always comes to actually playing it and soaking in the experience of it.
EM: So what does it change when you play with the orchestra? There’s the physical thing that’s not there when you just read it?
NH: Of course, there is the physical feeling. Many things are different from what you would have done if you were to play alone: dynamics, approach, tempo, the general concept. When you play with one hundred other people, then the concept changes. You adjust to the circumstances whether you want it or not. Frankly speaking, that’s how the concerto was meant to be. So, for me, it’s two totally different states of mind between when I practice on my own a piece I never played before and when I actually get to play with an orchestra, piano, trio or quartet—it doesn’t matter. Unless it’s a solo piece, in all other cases the experience and practice, the action, are really what make you truly understand the piece—of course based on your knowledge of the score and all the dynamics and everything the composer wanted.
EM: Yes, but you have just one rehearsal with the orchestra.
NH: One rehearsal and one dress sound check. I would say two.
EM: So, what matters is how you play with them in the moment, but the time before is probably ninety percent of the preparation.
NH: Well, that comes with experience. After playing the piece, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Pittsburgh Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic or any other orchestra, it’s more or less the same approach to the orchestra to the rehearsal process, and that comes with an experience. If you’ve already played the piece several times with an orchestra, you know, for example, here I can do this ritenuto, but here I cannot because there is a flute or wind section playing there, so I’m limited here in my freedom. And you remember that after you’ve played it a few times, no matter how long you haven’t played the piece, when you pick it up you remember it. It’s not a muscle, but it’s your inner memory. It’s like instincts: here I can go forward; here I should hold the horses.
EM: In order to remember it, do you play it so that you feel what it is on the instrument, or is it more intellectual?
NH: If it’s not a new piece, then I don’t need to actually play it in order to fully remember the feelings. It’s all here: I can recover it in my mind. But for technical reasons, for muscle memory, you need to play. But for musical concept and everything it’s all here and stays here once you pass that stage.
EM: So it’s just unfolding: you have the first few notes and then it just goes?
EM: So lets go to the very beginning, when you start to work on the piece, what matters first and what is your process?
NH: When I start working on a new piece, I begin with exactly what the composer wrote, rhythmically, and then doing the process of digesting the piece and finding your own voice in it. Of course you become more free. But for me, the priority is always to respect the composer and do what is written. The music is like a letter from a composer to people, and our job as musicians is to read that letter. We are a bridge between the composer and the audience. Take Shakespeare, there are hundreds of different ways of saying “to be or not to be, that is the question.” But the words are the same. You can’t change the words but you can say it your way.
EM: But music is vaguer than texts, don’t you think? All those indications, like piano are relative. So, if you start going deeper into it, then there is more variation. When I started the research, I compared ten different interpretations of the same preludes of the fourth Bach suite and they had tons of differences.
NH: Well, Bach is different because there are no indications, Bach is a completely unknown world to all of us because there are no dynamics, there are hardly any bowings—the bowings are different from one edition to another—there are five editions, five manuscripts, no original manuscript, but manuscripts from his students and his wife. So Bach is a different subject.
But if we talk about Beethoven or Shostakovich, composers who actually wrote everything they wanted to be there, they were very precise with what they want. If a musician approaches a piece like it is a message, it’s not just a bunch of notes with dynamic marks and ritardando. It’s very important to learn to read between the lines when you learn and play the piece. So yes, music is vaguer than poetry or writing, but it’s not as vague as people think it is. What I hear these days, many musicians have total disrespect for composers’ markings. A composer writes forte, play mezzo-piano, and many differences in interpretations—drastic differences—come from that; some people respect composers and others want to show off.
EM: So how do you make sure you’re not projecting your own vision of things?
NH: You do need to project your own vision—that’s the point of a performer.
EM: You do need to project and express your own vision of what you read, and that’s why I think that the digestion of the piece matters. But at the same time you don’t want to project too much of yourself.
NH: Actually, for me, it’s much easier that people think to follow what the composer wrote but say it in your own feelings. Different people have different vibrato, bow speed, or different techniques. Piano remains piano and forte remains forte. If the musician’s main task is to express himself, then this is a dead end. It is a path to nowhere. If a musician truly wants to understand what the composer meant and was feeling when he was writing the piece and show it to the listener, then there will be very few questions when learning the piece.
EM: So, you identify your feelings with his feelings?
NH: Yes, you should try to feel the same.
EM: So, what if he doesn’t move you? There are two different things, there is being moved by the piece as such and then there is being moved in the moment when you have to perform in front of people because you have to recall the feeling for two hours. You are not always attuned to those feelings.
NH: Yes, we don’t always perform all our favorite pieces of music. But I’m lucky because no matter what I play, whether it is a great piece or not so good, I love the music when I play it. In the end that’s the most important thing: that you feel what you are doing. I’ve played many pieces which were not my favorite, whether contemporary music or some famous cello repertoire, I don’t like all of it. But still, you try to find the beauty in it and when you’re actually playing, on stage or off stage, your personal opinion goes away, at least that’s how it is with me. For example, I don’t like Brahms’s F major Sonata, but I’ve played it many many times and every time I actually play it, I love it. It’s a bit hard because I can’t really explain it.
EM: Some French musicians I interviewed told me that they are inspired by Stanislavsky’s method of acting where he explains you should enter into the role fully. So, it looks like it’s the same thing. You enter into this for the moment when you play it.
NH: Probably. Yes. Yes.
EM: You become another person.
NH: It’s just like with actors. Not all actors play the characters which they admire or adore. Sometimes they play characters which they even hate. But some actors are still very convincing. Yes, that’s exactly the same as with music. I like that comparison.
EM: So when you prepare yourself to play in front of an audience, how do you get this? I’m sure it’s about internalizing the piece and going into yourself and that’s what makes you able to express it. It’s not just going from the score to the performance.
NH: Of course, I think the process of the music of the performer is in the following order: score, heart, and then head, and then it comes out. Some people try to go from the score to the head and then to the heart, but it’s too late already. You know, I can’t really say how I prepare myself to perform with an audience, because it became my routine. Playing concerts is something usual for me. It’s not something extraordinary. So it’s all automatic for me. It’s hard to really analyze what I feel, but I know one thing for sure, once I go on stage and I start the piece, I forget that I’m actually playing a concert. I’m not performing. I’m not a performer. I hate that word actually. I hate that, when in America, stage people say ‘have a great show.’ It’s not a show. I’m sharing something very intimate with people. Show is Lady Gaga, show is pop, show is football, or hockey. But classical music is not a show.
EM: How can you be intimate with one thousand people in front of you?
NH: No, I’m not intimate with them. I’m intimate with the music. And I don’t play for people. I never do that. I mean the purpose of my profession is to play for people, but when I’m on stage I play for the composer, I play for the music. I express the music, I express myself through the composer’s music.
EM: Why did you say that it should be heart before head and not the opposite?
NH: Because you need to feel the music, but our classical education and our intellect is for a purpose there so that we understand the difference between Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. For that you need the head: to understand which styles, which vibrato, which style of expression you can use with each and which you cannot. But first you must feel it. That’s why I say, when you learn it, it goes from your heart through your head, where you analyze whether this is right or not, and then it comes out.
EM: Actually, I think there was this change for me when I went from the French professor to the Russian professor. There’s nothing between you and the music. You just feel and express. So what was your teaching? You went to different conservatories?
NH: Yes, Moscow and Boston.
EM: What was the difference between the two ways of approaching music?
NH: Well, Russian educational system is much stricter and more traditional. It has its beauty actually. Going back and looking at my path of studies, I am very lucky because I got beginning and core education in Russia which is a very healthy way of making and approaching music.
EM: My experience was that it was very embodied. Instead of telling me ‘you should do this and that, and imagine this and that’ my professor would put her hand on my hand and show me the feeling and then put her fingers on my fingers to show me the pressure of the instrument. It was a very embodied and concrete way of teaching.
NH: Yes, so I like that I had that. But at the right point in my life I also studied in the US in the conservatory in Boston and that was total freedom. But I think if I would have had that freedom without the Russian education before that, that would not have been as good. So I managed to build within that freedom on the basis of the core of strict Russian education.
EM: I’ve been living here for four and a half years now, and I think this culture is also very much about focusing on you and expressing what you as an individual have. I don’t know the Russian system really, but at least the French way of teaching is much more structured, and you need to adjust to the system. It’s not like the system is trying to help you express yourself.
NH: Yes, the Russian system is the same. I had a lot of fights with my teacher in Russia in the first two to three years when I moved to Moscow. I was an eleven year old kid. He was constantly telling me, ‘You have to do this and that,’ ‘You have to hold your hand like this,’ and I kept asking ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ In the beginning he always gave the same answer: ‘That’s how it is. That’s traditional.’ I kept asking, and then, after three years, he knew that if he was going to tell me something, he better have a good explanation. After that, our working process went so smooth because he was not pushing me. If he had a comment he had to really explain why he’s saying that.
EM: For posture for example?
NH: For posture, fingering, phrasing, everything.
EM: My first teacher was saying, with posture for example, she would say ‘You hold the cello as you can. You have long fingers so you do whatever.’ And I ended up having tension everywhere. My Russian professor came and changed everything which was harder because at that age I was already set in my ways. But I think the structure is necessary because it’s true, freedom doesn’t lead you anywhere.
NH: There is certain common sense in playing an instrument. Each person and each body is individual. One has longer hands. Another has shorter hands, or a longer neck or shorter neck. So there is no one rule of playing for everyone, but I think that the task of a good teacher is to see the mistake or the problem of the student, analyze the origin of the problem and find an individual solution, not the cliché, rule book phrases. So it should be a combination of some basic rules but also needs to be very flexible. Like the way my teacher wanted my hand to be was unnatural for me. But that doesn’t work for me. I play like this. This works for me. People argue that all cellist are in a war with each other over whether the thumb needs to be like this or like that. It needs to be neither of them. It needs to move. So even if your thumb feels comfortable but it is in the same position all the time, it’s going to get tired. The same applies to pretty much everything.
EM: So in some way the pedagogy is giving you the structure but not so much as to block you. Right?
NH: I think the real meaning and point of pedagogy is to teach students how to think. At least that’s what my father taught me. He is a violinist and my most important teacher in my life. He never told me what to do. He never gave me solutions for my problems. He taught me how to find the solutions. He taught me to question things and analyze. If my thumb hurts, I need to go back and look at what have I been doing the last ten minutes and the last month. It should not hurt.
EM: So it’s like self-reflection?
EM: Yes, because in some way too much freedom blocks you because you don’t know where to start. So you need to have some kind of structure and then be able to question that. So for the first three years, you just did what your professor was telling you to do?
NH: No. I always questioned, and he couldn’t give me an answer so I wasn’t going to do it. And I’m very happy because then he realized that that is not how my hand should be. I have a different structure and a different way of playing. I don’t have the heavy and slow Russian bow. My bow is faster with more flow, so that technique doesn’t apply to me and doesn’t work for me.
EM: Do you feel you inherit from this Russian tradition?
NH: I inherit something. As my father taught me to analyze everything, I picked what I needed to pick. The same with the American tradition. So in a way I really can’t say that I’m representing the Russian school, the American school or the Armenian school. I am representing myself.
EM: Maybe I’m wrong, but I still claim that the Russians have a way to express things in a more full, dense and compact way that I don’t find in other cases. Isserlis for example. I think he is also Russian tradition.
NH: Yes he loves Shafran
EM: Misha Maisky. They have these very thick sounds.
NH: Yes but Isserlis doesn’t have a thick sound. So I wouldn’t compare Isserlis to the Russian tradition.
EM: You don’t think that you have this full fluidity between what you have in your head and what you play? My own theory is that what makes the great musician is this full fluidity in the sense that nothing is blocking you from expressing exactly what you want to express: the technique is not blocking you because you have an appropriate amount of technique to play what you want, and then you have an appropriate level of comfort with your instrument—because sometimes we struggle with our instruments—and so there is a channel through which the inner music just comes out.
NH: Ideally that’s how it should be. Technical practice is of course very important. You have to have a technical base to be able to express what’s in your head to translate it to the instrument. But still, I think many people struggle because they don’t analyze what their mistakes are and why it doesn’t work. There is always a danger of playing a phrase or making music not as you really want it to be but as you can do it. I always try to avoid that so I never go for easy fingerings or bowings. I go for the most expressive fingerings. I remember studying with Mstislav Rostropovich and once I was playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto to him and I said ‘You know maestro, here the fingering is very uncomfortable, is there any alternative way?’ And he said “Narek, is the music comfortable here?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘well then, the fingering also should be uncomfortable. You need to struggle so we can hear it in the music.’ It’s a very interesting concept—up until a certain point, of course.
EM: If you go for the easy easy way you can give up something.
NH: It’s what we call German fingering. You can play on four strings in the same position or you can play on one or two strings with slides which is much more expressive but harder. When it’s a scale, you can play it on three or four strings in the same position, comfortably.
EM: That’s the German fingering, really?
NH: That’s at least what Russians joke about. You know, because Germans are famous for being very practical and reasonable, so that’s the joke.
EM: So, when you rehearse, what you try to do is to reduce this difference between what you want and what you play, right?
NH: Honestly, I consider myself very lucky that at this point there is not really a difference. I’m able to express whatever I want on the cello. I’m blessed.
EM: Still, you worked. You rehearsed and spent time to achieve that. When you work on something, new or not, what you do is like cleaning.
NH: Yes, of course, that’s the eternal process of a musician, especially if you pick up a new piece or a piece which you haven’t played, of course it requires some time to reach your goals. I never even think about it. I have an idea, a clear idea, and if it doesn’t work the first few times I play, I never give up because I know it’s going to work. It’s just a matter of effort. Nothing is impossible.
EM: So how is this idea? How do you hear it? Do you sing in your head? Or do you use your voice?
NH: No, but it’s a good idea. I don’t need to. I mean I don’t feel the necessity of that because most of the time I have a pretty clear idea of what I want. I guess it’s the inner voice. I don’t really need to sing it to understand how the phrasing goes because I have it in my head. I sing in my head. But, quite often, I give master classes and I feel that students don’t have any idea what it should sound like. In those cases, I ask them to sing it. If you don’t have the music in your head, then singing helps because singing is the most natural thing. You can’t sing badly. You can sing out of tune but you can’t sing unnaturally. Whatever you sing is the right way of phrasing.
EM: In some way the voice helps to make it clearer because you can hear it with your ear instead of just hearing it inside your head?
NH: I think singing it out loud is actually relaxing. It opens you up and maybe gets rid of some complexes or some tensions which are holding you back from expressing yourself. Especially in a master class, if I ask someone to sing publicly, it’s a big embarrassment for many people. And that’s why I do that. I want them to step over those boundaries and I want someone who never sings, to sing out the phrase they couldn’t play on the cello. And after that, actually they are more relaxed, more confident in what they do on the cello.
EM: Maybe it helps to feel it also?
NH: Yes, also feeling it.
EM: How do you feel your inner music? I mean, when we hear something, it’s easier to feel how it is, but the inner music is kind of embodied too, you feel it. The inner music is not just abstract. When I was starting my research, my philosophy professors were saying that it’s an idea, it’s something intellectual.
NH: It’s instinctual.
EM: They said it was called a musical idea. I said, no it’s not intellectual. Ask any musician and they will tell you that they feel it. It’s not like a perception because it doesn’t come from the outside, but still, it’s really embodied.
NH: It comes from somewhere within, deep inside. Yes.
EM: Do you think it’s related to your cultural background also? You come from a country where there is a lot of folk music.
NH: Definitely. Cultural background affects. My vision of music, I believe, is totally different than German, French, or Russian musicians.
EM: So is your musical world full of those Armenian folk songs and Armenian musical culture?
NH: It’s not full of that, but they are always part of me. I remember when I was studying in Boston, my teacher was Laurence Lesser, and he studied with Gregor Piatigorsky, and he told me that Piatigorsky once told him to do a phrase, with Armenian phrasing. And I asked ‘What is Armenian?’ He said that if you have this phrase—Da da da da (fa#, la#, do#, re#) then that’s the usual way of playing it. But the Armenian phrasing will be: Taa, da, da, da. It’s so true. I can’t really explain how Piatigorsky understood that: maybe something in Armenian language because he had some Armenian friends; I don’t know.
EM: So, I think culture also influences the way we express ourselves. Here there is a culture where people ask questions, people express their ideas. My culture is more repressed. How would you qualify your upbringing? Some musicians told me that people in—I think it was—Hungary learn a lot of folk songs in their childhood. I don’t know how it is in Armenia.
NH: Sometimes I find something Armenian in the most random pieces. It’s always part of me. I grew up listening to the Armenian duduk and all the folk songs and everything. Some nations are very attached to their musical history, others are not so much. But Armenians are very attached, and almost inseparable from our musical culture.
EM: And are there also influences from a spiritual background? Do you connect music with spirituality also?
NH: Armenian spiritual music has a big effect on folk music and even Armenian classical music. We are a very, very religious country. I’m not religious but my culture is. We are the first Christians in the world [The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the first Christian institutions and Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as the official religion]. The religion and Church and spiritual music is a very, very important part of the culture.
EM: How does that influence the way you play? Does it connect you to something else?
NH: I can’t answer that. It’s something inside and I’ve never analyzed that. And, frankly speaking, I don’t want to analyze it. Because that is something that is there and should stay there. Why should I analyze it and spoil it? It’s just instinctive.
EM: I understand. So you said you play by memory because it helps to digest a piece. Because I think playing by memory connects us to our inner music because you are not distracted by the visual.
NH: Yes, exactly. The score distracts in a way. I mean, I think, if it’s a concerto or a solo piece, you need to be at the state of preparation such that you soak in everything that’s in the score and you have it in there so you can really go into that meditational state and just be in it. But of course there is chamber music which you cannot play without the score, or some new pieces. But of course I prefer to play without it because it’s a different level of dedication and soaking in the music.
EM: Do you feel different connections according to the orchestra with whom you play?
NH: Oh, yes. Every orchestra has a different atmosphere and attitude. Even the vibes between the musicians affect my attitude to the orchestra and our interaction. It’s truly very important; not only the professional level of the orchestra but also the atmosphere. I have played with some really great orchestras which had a very dry and not very warm atmosphere. The music making is different: it is perfect in a technical sense, but it’s missing something. At the same time I’ve played with maybe not so great orchestras, but with so much enthusiasm and love of music that it is actually contagious and you also get that enthusiasm and you try to do your best.
EM: One of the beginnings of my research was the observation that this musician is very technical but the music doesn’t move me. Other musicians connect with you through the music. And I think this is how you open up. It’s more of an emotional thing.
NH: I think the most important thing in music is emotion. And nobody should chase technical perfection if the cost of that is sacrificing the music. I agree with you. I also hear many musicians, many colleagues who are perfect technically, but I come out of the hall and I don’t remember what they played.
EM: What if the piece is very technical like today?
NH: It has both technical and musical parts. Even performing the technical parts, I didn’t play perfectly at all. But my goal was not to play every note but to play every note as actively and energetically as possible. Of course I try not to sacrifice even a couple of notes.
EM: So there is a tolerance for imperfection?
NH: No, but there is a priority of expression rather than perfection. For example, the end of the Concerto Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra.
It’s fireworks. Some musicians can play it clean and perfect but it’s going to have zero impact and it will ruin the whole point of the piece which leads to that moment. It’s very important in technical and fast parts not to forget about music.
EM: Although people also come to see that, the technical piece.
NH: Trust me, it’s much more impressive if you play expressively—technical and fast, impressive, but expressive. In master classes, when people take something virtuosic and play as fast as possible out of control, I tell them ‘Look, you are actually doing the opposite of what you want to achieve. Play a bit slower but with more character and that will sound more virtuosic than if you make a mess just for the sake of the speed of the bow and fingers.’ It’s always character which matters.
EM: And in competitions—you were in many competitions?
NH: I never play in a competition like I am playing in a competition. I always play like I’m playing a concert. I never really worry about how the jury judges me.
EM: Yes, how do they judge you? At a certain level everybody is good and you still have one that is picked.
NH: Well, they judge musicality and what you have to say. Because, as you said, on that level everyone plays technically perfectly. But that’s when the real artistry matters—what or if you have anything to say.
EM: Like your generosity—if you are able to give everything without holding on?
NH: For me, every concert is like my last concert. I don’t know any other way. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere in the middle of Texas, whether it’s two thousand people or twenty people, it’s the same. Actually, my main problem which I am trying to change in me is that even when I practice, I give it all.
EM: So you end up exhausted.
NH: Yes. It’s very unwise of me to do that, but I cannot help myself. Maybe for two minutes, I think about it and I play calmly, but then, after one hour of practice I am completely wet and I realize I did it again.
EM: Why is it not good then?
NH: It’s just not rational. When you play so many concerts and travel all the time, you can’t give everything all the time. It’s just not practical as a traveling musician. And it makes no sense to really give everything when you practice because it’s the different tasks you are trying to achieve when you practice.
EM: Why is it a different task?
NH: Because I practice some technical things. I have the musical expression. I don’t have to practice it. It’s just there. It comes from the heart. Sometimes I block something, if it’s too much for Beethoven for example—you know, that’s where the head comes in. When I say that I give it all, you can have that feeling of expression in a fortissimo, for example, but you can play it mezzo-forte when you practice, with the same feelings and intentions, but without giving it all physically and emotionally. I’m not saying I want to practice like a robot. You always have to practice with the feel of the end performance of the concert. I remember Rostropovich once told me, ‘Narek, when you practice, you need to imagine that you are practicing in front of a jury of the best cellists that ever lived.’ That’s a very good image, actually.
EM: Because you feel judged?
NH: No, because you feel the responsibility to do your best.
EM: And you don’t think that some music requires you not to give everything? You mentioned Beethoven, but do you play Baroque music?
NH: No, it’s not my cup of tea.
EM: So, I think this is the weakness of the Russian way.
NH: Yes, definitely. I had many fights in conservatory because I was playing Bach with the urtext but they were demanding that I play with another edition but I hated it. But other than Bach, I don’t really play Baroque.
EM: I think it’s all about pressing things and being measured.
NH: Yes, and that’s what I don’t like. Even when I play Bach, I don’t play non-vibrato. I don’t play like the Russians, but it’s somewhere in the middle. My idea of Bach is that since three hundred years ago, people have evolved so much, culture has evolved so much, music changed so much and artificially forcing yourself to go back and play non-vibrato with viola de gambas and everything. Some people do that okay, and many people like it. That’s fine. I don’t like it. I think that with enough respect to that culture—as I said, not like Soviet playing—adding vibrato or a bit of expression or a bit of romanticism is, for me, acceptable and it’s necessary in Bach because Bach in particular is a composer who is out of time. His music is eternal.
EM: It’s like cultural appropriation.
NH: His music has no boundaries. It has no nationality, no time. It’s really something unique.
EM: Have you tried Baroque cello?
EM: I tried a Baroque cello for the first time four days ago during Thanksgiving and you kind of feel that Bach has a culture because it just comes naturally because the bow is different and the feeling is different.
NH: Of course Bach himself had a culture and was living at a certain time and he had no idea that it was going to be Rachmaninoff in two hundred years. But what I’m trying to say is that the music of Bach is so unique that it fits to any culture and will fit until the end of time. [Sergei] Prokofiev might not fit. Even Mozart might not fit.
EM: Well you feel the culture a lot with Mozart. You can imagine the atmosphere.
NH: Yes, exactly. So Bach is different. But I don’t enjoy Baroque that much. I play Haydn concertos, but he’s not quite Baroque.
EM: But I don’t think it’s necessarily going back artificially. Because some cultures—like with Anner Bylsma…
NH: Oh, I love Bylsma!
EM: I don’t think it’s recreating something from the past. It’s also part of their culture still today.
NH: Bylsma actually is my favorite Bach player. His Bach was the most natural and made more sense to me.
EM: So when you read a piece, you create the culture in some way too, right? You have to imagine things.
NH: When I play a piece, ideally, I try to read what was happening with the composer or what was happening in that period with biographies or letters. I think it’s particularly important for western musicians to read a bit more about Soviet composers like Prokofiev or Shostakovich because they have no idea what they are playing. Absolutely no idea. And all cellists play Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, but none of them know that in the last movement, Shostakovich is making fun of Stalin by including a Georgian folk song in not the best manner. And none of them really realize that it’s written in 1959, Stalin died in 1953, and in 1957 Khrushchev destroyed Stalin’s cult. At the Soviet Party’s annual meeting, he actually said Stalin was not a god, not an idol, but a simple man. After that, this concerto was written. So there are a lot of things with Soviet music that build up to one big picture.
EM: So it’s like it’s part of the digestion of the piece to have this cultural background on it?
NH: To try to have it. I’m lucky. My parents lived in the Soviet Union. I was born in the Soviet Union. But of course I didn’t live there and I don’t remember it, but I hear so much about it. I was surrounded by it all my life.
EM: It’s the heritage. It takes time to go away.
NH: Well, I hope it will not go away because it’s a fascinating period of history. But for Western people and especially younger people who have zero connection with that culture, the best way is to read some historic books. Letters are the best. Shostakovich’s letters to his friends are really incredible.
EM: Why are letters the best? Because you express your intimate thoughts?
NH: Well, because you read what he was feeling and thinking about.
EM: I think what fascinates me in the soviet culture is this idea of creating a new man. Actually it succeeded.
NH: Creating what?
EM: Creating a different kind of person. It’s part of the project.
NH: Oh, you mean the very beginning of the Soviet Union. Yes.
EM: So it impacts the way we deal with emotions and the people around us, it’s not just a historical context or economic situation. Actually, the way you deal with yourself is impacted by that.
NH: Yes, of course. In the beginning of the twenties, that’s when it started. Creating a new society, a new man.
EM: That’s the teleology, to create something different.
NH: Well, yes, because there’s no God in the Soviet Union. Religion was forbidden and Lenin said that religion is an opium for people. He is right actually, I agree with him.
EM: Nietzsche says that when we kill God then we have to take the responsibility of becoming a god.
NH: I don’t think it was quite that concept, but it was definitely the concept of killing the God.
EM: So it kills God without killing the spirituality or the spiritual heritage?
NH: Well, people were still religious. There were still many churches.
EM: They were saying that churches are just reviving everywhere.
NH: Russia has always been a religious country. And it was quite naive for Soviet leaders to think that they can destroy religion. People were praying secretly. It didn’t go away. People were just afraid of expressing their spirituality.
EM: Do you think that repressing things makes them actually come back stronger in some ways?
NH: Well, I strongly believe we would never have Shostakovich if not for the precious Soviet regime. For that I am thankful to the Soviet regime because Shostakovich is one hundred percent a product of resistance to that regime, resistance in his music, not in his lifestyle. Actually, during the Soviet era, there was a very interesting musical boom.
EM: And I think that this is because you repress freedom. If freedom is repressed like this, it has to explode somewhere.
NH: Of course. I believe that struggling helps artists to develop and discover. The same with musicians. I have met so many musicians who grew up in a rich family and had a comfortable life. They have no idea what struggle means. So when they play music which is supposed to express struggling, they don’t know what to do. They try to invent something artificial because they don’t feel it.
EM: I was reading something before you came about the rites of passage and how in some tribes it’s making you bleed because you feel yourself when you suffer. So in some way suffering is this radical thing that puts you in touch with who you are and, without that, if it’s too easy, you miss that kind of thing. So do you think you’ve had those kinds of experiences while learning music? If you are very talented and things come naturally, don’t you think it can be a problem?
NH: Talent is just a small part of being a musician. Intellect is very important. I don’t mean making things up artificially, but really, as I said, understanding what you are doing—what this piece is about—that has nothing to do with talent; that has to do with intellect and dedication to music.
EM: And resistance, I think. Being able to keep questioning, like what you were saying before, about not giving up with your questions. The culture tells you to stop questioning, I think this is a very common thing.
NH: Yes, you always need to question. I remember a journalist asked Pablo Casals when he was ninety years old, she said ‘Maestro, you are Pablo Casals. You are the greatest cellist ever. You’re a superstar. You’ve achieved everything you could in your life. But I know that you are playing Bach’s Suites every morning. Why are you doing it?’ And he said, ‘You know, I am hoping that one day I will finally learn them.’ And that’s the key of being an artist and a musician in particular: that learning process and questioning. The moment you think ‘Oh, I know it, it’s perfect’ That’s the moment when you need to quit, actually.
EM: It’s the same in philosophy. If you stop questioning, you lose not just the motivation but the goal.
NH: Yes, especially in philosophy, because it’s an eternal process. The question is the core of philosophy. It all comes from the question.
EM: But in music it would be not questioning what the professor is telling you, not questioning the piece and how to do it?
NH: You need to question every single thing you hear in your life. The problem is that some students don’t question, they deny. What I mean by questioning is that you need to always filter everything through your intellect and see whether you agree with it or not. But some students and people are constantly denying everything, and that’s also wrong. You need to question but you need to be open to answers even if you don’t like them.
EM: Yes. I think it’s also part of freedom. I think freedom is being able to do this, not just obeying blindly.
NH: Yes, but freedom also means for some people ‘I can do whatever I want and nobody can judge me.’ And that’s also wrong. Because, in a way, you should never give yourself too much freedom. That comes to the questioning. If you do something, you need to question ‘Did I do it right?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right or not?’
EM: Right in regard to what?
NH: Right in regard to the meaning of the music; not in regard to what the teacher said. Right in regard to what you think the composer wanted to say.
EM: So do you discuss this with other musicians? Because I think that, at least in philosophy, questioning with other people in community is part of the thing: it’s a dialogue, it’s not just you questioning things, it’s you entering into a dialogue with other people that are challenging your own interpretation.
NH: For me, I don’t verbally discuss it. But, for me, that dialogue is playing with people. So, for example, if I play with Maestro Manfred Honeck, I’m not just doing my things and closed to any ideas, I’m always open for new ideas. Or, I love playing chamber music with great musicians because it’s so enriching and, as philosophers can gather together and have a dialogue, it’s the same with music, our dialogue is chamber music. We gather together and speak through the music.
EM: That’s what Edward Said and [Daniel] Barenboim say in Parallels and Paradoxes. I don’t know if you know this book. It’s about dialogue in music. Edward Said is the writer of Orientalism. He’s an American thinker. This book is all about dialogue in music.
NH: I never knew Barenboim had such a book.
EM: Yes, you can research it. It’s a very good book and it’s all about dialogue. So do you think that listening to other interpretations is entering into dialogue with other musicians?
EM: Because you hear something and it becomes a part of you also.
NH: For me, it’s almost always absolutely pointless to talk about music.
NH: No, I don’t mean that this all is pointless. I mean, talking about phrasing and everything. I hear it when I play with great musicians. For me, playing with a good musician is worth one hundred master classes with a great musician. Because when I play, instinctively, I pick something which I like.
EM: Again, it’s the same in philosophy. Speaking about the authors is not necessarily useful, you have to do it !