Riding the crest of worldwide interest in his work that began three years ago, Ludovico Einaudi seems to strike a unique connection with listeners.
Last year, the Italian composer pianist made history when his album Elements debuted at No. 12 on the UK pop charts, even briefly outselling Taylor Swift and James Bay. That’s a feat reputedly only ever achieved once before, when Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs topped the international pop charts two decades ago.
Yet that kind of success, as impressive as it sounds, explains little about Einaudi’s music or why people like it. The one-time student of Luciano Berio comes from a quiet corner of the classical world, where post minimalism meets ambient music, where Satie-like meanderings on the keyboard take on an almost hypnotic effect.
In performance, his lonesome café bar piano playing hooks up deftly with violin, jazz guitar, electronics, or unusual items like the waterphone – a bowed percussion instrument encircled by bronze rods, much loved by new ageists.
Certainly, Einaudi’s pieces defy easy categorisation. They move slowly and voicelessly in rolling waves like salve for an injured world. Some describe it as nostalgic and liken its patterned harmonies to pop music. In truth though, this Milanese musician has invented a solitary musical path of his own, one where genre distinctions cease to matter and establishment practices are left far behind.
Two years after bespelling Adelaide audiences at the Festival Theatre, he is coming back, this time with an enlarged crew of muso friends from around his home base in Lombardy, to perform music from Elements.
The album’s name seems to be suggestive of the properties or processes of nature, and Einaudi agrees this is partly right.
“It’s also about nature, but the main feeling is about how we, through different fields of human endeavour, try to understand the world,” Einaudi says. “It is about how to give a sort of order to the world. I was reading about the Elements in Euclid, the elements in chemistry, Kandinsky’s writings on art, and how all these ideas are trying to understand how the world works.
“It is allied to an understanding of the language of music itself, like Schoenberg and like myself. This reflection gave me the surroundings for Elements.”
One notices on listening to the new album how, almost Bach-like, each track begins with a germ of an idea and steadily gains complexity. It’s no coincidence. “Bach is one of my gods,” Einaudi says.
“There’s always been a fascination for me in the relationship and balance between the mathematical and philosophical approach of these older composers. The idea of Baroque music is based on mathematics and cantus firmus, a skeleton that keeps the music going.
A lot of that appears in their vision, and in mine. But a similar idea underlies African music, and also if you go to Balinese music and Indian tabla music. They all have these
Is it possible, though, to connect up all these strands of history and ancient culture with the modern listener in a fast-moving technological world?
“Well, of course we are living in a moment when everyone almost needs more vision and contact with everything. We live with technology rather than having direct experience with things,” answers Einaudi.
“So it’s a sort of contradiction. I think especially in the early years of our life, we should have the experience with natural things – to see and hear fire, to feel its warmth, to smell its embers. Technology helps us in many ways, but these days we should consider that music can give us that kind of experience too, in any moment of our lives.”
Nature for Einaudi is something less about scenery and more about one’s state of mind. He likes walking and birdwatching, or even sitting in one spot and learning about nature’s processes. “I enjoy the spectacle of just watching the complexity and beauty that you can see and discover in nature. There is something in the act of observing,” he says.
“This is one of the main inspirations. But I think I take ideas from everywhere – from life, my soul, my ideas”.
At the keyboard, Einaudi is a disciplined yet subtly magnetic artist. He does so much with so little. One even wonders as he plays whether he might be right into yoga or meditation. But that isn’t so.
“I’ve been doing different disciplines like them sometimes,” he says. “But I’m not like that really. At the end, music is my life. In music everything is conveyed. Music is meditation too.”
It might not be immediately obvious either, but tension is another fundamental ingredient of his art. It accounts for his music’s inner emotional turbulence, especially when Einaudi is playing with a sextet of fellow musicians – as will be the case in his February concert in Adelaide.
“Tension has to be there too, because the big crescendos and climaxes we achieve require a great amount of dynamic shaping in every way,” he says. “So I could say it’s like a football match when we are out there, because a lot of heat goes into the sound, the development, that we want.”
Beads of sweat can’t be seen a few rows back in the audience, but no doubt they will be present. Einaudi’s art is serene but heated, erudite yet passionate.
Italian to a tee really. Expect to also see him up at the Barossa while he’s here. He’s a wine connoisseur.
Ludovico Einaudi, Elements
Wednesday, February 8