Leif Ove Andsnes: Moments of freedom

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes ranks among the leading classical performers of our time. He is not only brilliant; there is something more, something different about him: he is free. He has transcended the artistic ideal of the immense effort that culminates in the breathtaking performance. Instead he breathes.

Leif Ove Andsnes 2009 (photo: Yngve Leonhardsen/MIC) 1

A Zen master with a bow and arrow can hit the target, dead centre, again and again, with eyes closed. -Because there is no cerebral processing involved, just a pure manifestation of physical knowledge. Leif Ove Andsnes knows the feeling:

-When I play there is no thinking going on, says Leif Ove, because concrete thoughts are much too slow. However there is an acute consciousness of some other order; the mind is observing and enjoying rather than controlling. It is a moment of perfect freedom, a kind of freedom I experience in no other situations in life. I live for those moments, which are in a way beyond the music. But it is the music -in its physical essence- that takes me there.

A principle of Zen is mind over body, body over mind. This means that first, with uncompromising will and discipline, one forces the body to learn and internalize physical techniques and skills. Then, when the body has learned and the knowledge has become purely physical, the activity -and thus the soul- is released from the self-conscious mind. It is at this point that the immense sense of freedom occurs.

-I can completely relate to that principle, says Leif Ove. In fact, I become more and more aware of the degree to which we are physical beings and that even the most incorporeal human experiences and activities are determined by our bodies. In my view there is little doubt that our most fundamental impulses are always physical and that our bodies are our first and primary means of understanding. We are slaves of our physique; for a pianist it’s the actual hands that determine the musicality.

This becomes very evident, Leif Ove relates, when he takes up a piece of music that he has not played for some time:

-The work is in my brain somewhere, like a data file. But upon the first new reading of the score I always get confused. My hands don’t know what to do and I don’t sense what the music asks me to do with it. Then, as an inversion of the roles, the hands suddenly take over. Subsequent to the first mental retrieval of the music –the opening of the file, so to speak - the bodily knowledge is activated and then it is the hands that know and the hands that tell me what to do. My primary recollection is physical, and it is in my body that the music is inscribed. Only via the body can I access the deeper intellectual aspects of a piece of music.

The notion of an individual, bodily foundation for music also relates to how Leif Ove views the concept of originality in an art form which is primarily about recreating.

-Originality is obviously a very problematic concept. It is very easy to be original you know; to simply push things further and be unpredictable. But such solutions are cheap and originality as such, as a free-standing concept, is in many ways empty. In my view the primary concept is authenticity, because only through authenticity can one hope to be original in the real sense. The reason for this is that the only thing that is truly original and unique is the person, the human being. An interpretation cannot be original in a profound sense if it is not based on the genuine and unique character of the artist. So for me the most basic guideline as an artist is to be as authentic as I possibly can. Obviously, I have good days and bad days so the goal is to be as good a Leif Ove as I possibly can. The point is that the horizon of expressive possibility is simply my individual self.
Leif Ove Andsnes 2009(Photo: Yngve Leonhardsen/MIC) (300x446)

Therefore it is important for Andsnes to allow that self to thrive in the interplay between music and other kinds of input and experiences.

-It is all-decisive that I have a lot of people in my life. I feel that encounters with strong personalities help me understand that it is always the unique person that must be the basis of art. I know that simply immersing myself in music alone would not work at all, because neglecting all the other aspects of my personality would rob me of the core of my music. This is a difficult balance though, since I also have a great need of retreating into the music and concentrating on nothing else. The tug between isolation and communication is at the heart of classical music, because while it is an undeniable fact that accessing the essence of a work demands huge amounts of concentration and thus isolation, it is at just as true that music only becomes itself in communication with others. Music is a momentary thing really; at least that is my opinion.

The deeper Leif Ove delves into the musical universe, the more bottomless it gets. Some artists go mad from this experience. For Leif Ove it is an unequivocally positive feeling.

-It is a remarkable experience, says Leif Ove, because at the same time as the music becomes more and more bottomless, the knowledge and understanding that I acquire underway gives me the tools to embrace this infinity without loosing my footing.

Early in his career Leif Ove was deeply fascinated by the Russian school of music. He was ensnared by its uncompromising sense of importance and its potency. His mentor, the Czech pianist Jiri Hlinka, inspired a notion of the great drama of the eastern European artistic tradition into the young Leif Ove, and his hero Sviatoslav Richter was a model of existential commitment and artistic urgency. The more mature Leif Ove remains fascinated by the Russian and Slav weltanschauung; the immense visions and the willingness to explore the absolutes of the human condition. However, it is no longer something he can - or wants to- embrace.

-I find the concept of the vast Russian soul and its immense sorrow very arresting in a way. But I have come to wonder what this self-agonizing principle is all about. It obviously has a lot of artistic energy inherent to it, at the same time I find that there is something suffocating about this rejection of happiness. I have enough melancholia in me from the start, so I don’t need to embrace this existential concept of sacrifice. In fact that would be counterproductive. I need the opposite; human diversity, lightness and natural flow. I have replaced the ideal of the breathtaking performance, which is kind of the Russian artistic ideal, with the notion of a breathing performance. And that is a very key difference.

This brings us back to the principles of eastern thought: Leif Ove acknowledges that the notion of the breathing performance presupposes a holistic ideal and a sense of self-transcendence that stands counter to the concept of the struggling, suffering artistic genius.

-As we talked about before, the enigma is that it is only by giving up your self, i.e. the self-conscious mode of being, that you can become genuinely personal. And I think that it is only by being fearlessly personal that the art work itself can stand forth in its true manifestation. So the notion of breathing rather than holding one’s breath actually applies to the art work itself too: only when the artist breathes can the artwork breathe. Sometimes I feel that I am completely one with the instrument; there is no difference between the piano and me or the music and me. That is when I get the feeling of absolute freedom. However, this moment has to be prepared for and the preparation is certainly breathtaking, it is pure mind over body.

Part II

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