Juan Maria Solare, composer & pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Tons of factors. Think of it as a river that receives water from numerous sources. My mother’s persistence is doubtless one of those. But also the fact that early in life I intuitively noticed that I could both communicate with people and express myself through sounds, through the piano. I noticed that I could touch souls (although at that tender age I wasn’t able to verbalise that insight). When you are a kid, you notice when the people’s reactions are sincere and not just a condescending “it was nice”. Another aspect, later in life: the simple fact that I was able to earn money through music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life?

Depending on the stage in my life I can mention of course musicians, but also books that made me understand the nature of telling stories. Since when you compose what you do is to tell an abstract story with sounds, without a concrete narrative reducible to words. In literature, and much more in theatre and cinema, the concept of timing is as essential as in music: the feeling of when you have to confirm or underline some statement, when you have to explain it from another perspective, when you have to change the subject (either abruptly or smoothly), when you have to introduce a contrast element (a character or a mood), when you have to dose the presence of a particular element so that it not gets overused too soon. In this sense I can mention Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition”, a book called “Getting the words right” (by Theodore Rees Cheney) and -this might surprise you- nearly all essays written by Isaac Asimov.

If you want a list of musicians that deeply influenced me in some way or another, hold your breath. Among my direct teachers: María Teresa Criscuolo, Horacio López de la Rosa, Fermina Casanova and Francisco Kröpfl (all in Argentina). My teachers in Germany: mainly Mauricio Kagel, Clarence Barlow, Helmut Lachenmann, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Johannes Fritsch. And among indirect but strong influences: Luciano Berio (I met him three times), Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, Arnold Schönberg, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Astor Piazzolla, The Beatles, Freddy Mercury, Charly García and Luis Alberto Spinetta (these are Argentinian pop musicians).

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I would differentiate challenges from frustrations in that a frustration is a challenge that one couldn’t overcome. Generally speaking, a challenge has been always a huge concert: to play before lots of persons, or in a place that is very important to me. For instance, the first time I gave a recital in London was a challenge; or also before, my first recital in Europe (in Göttingen). The decisive point is that, in order to overcome a challenge and the magma of feelings associated with it, you are forced to find in yourself resources that you didn’t know you had. Some of them are associated with the so-called stage fright and the energies involved. In short, I discovered that you must not try to fight stage fright, but to channel and use the energies that it triggers. A windsurfer doesn’t try to fight the ocean, he uses its energy.

About the greatest frustrations of my career so far, i.e. challenges I couldn’t yet overcome, where I was defeated: they are mostly related to actual recognition with facts, not nice words. For instance: not being able to get a position “with tenure” at a German university. Concepts such as Christmas bonus, paid vacations, bonus for years of service or just a guaranteed continuity in the job, are closed doors for me in Germany. I call that a frustration. Ironically, my working conditions in Argentina were light-years better than in Europe.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

As a whole, my albums Tango Monologues (2010) and Sombras blancas (2017). Because of the quality and expressive strength of the music itself, but also because they are in a way conceptual albums: they tell a story, they develop a continuity. This is particularly anachronic now, since there is a tendency to play music in shuffle mode, which is the opposite to a conceptual album (or to a multi-movement classical piece).

You can listen to those recordings on Spotify (or any other streaming service):

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Well, I play best the pieces that I practice more… and since I understandably practice more the music that I love, I possibly play two things best: the late pieces by Franz Liszt and… my own music. My version of Arnold Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces Opus 19 is also quite good, although this abstract music is not for everybody. I just love that piece, I even dreamed with it twice (tell me how many people dream with Schönberg’s music).

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

One point is that I do not always play alone. When I perform chamber music (say, piano four hands, or violin and piano), not only the duo partners have a say, but also the concert organiser, who usually wishes a particular kind of music (and, often, determinate pieces). So I actually co-decide my repertoire. When I have absolutely free hands, I tend to play the pieces that I want to record soon or that I recorded recently.

I usually repeat past repertoire because my practice time is not eternal. So it can happen that I play again something I played ten years ago. This is not an ideal situation, but which situation is ideal?

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I first think on the Bolivar Hall in London. It belongs to the Embassy of Venezuela. Reasons: the piano is very good, the venue has a great, yet intimate acoustic, and they treat me like a world champion. Besides, everything works fluently: they make a reasonably good advertisement (which in London is not easy) and have an audience that goes to nearly everything they organise. Add to this my own community of fans in London. Oh, and I can take a warm shower just before the concert! As a consequence, I play here at my best. In the Bolivar Hall I feel myself like playing in my own living room, with the difference that neighbours don’t hit the walls.

This description should apply to all venues in the world – the truth is, not everything is rosy in the life of a performing musician.

Who are your favourite musicians?

You will be surprised when I say Claudio Arrau and Freddy Mercury. Both being as opposite personalties as imaginable. Arrau, among other things, because he avoided every unnecessary movement that didn’t transformed into sound. Mercury because of the energy he transmitted and his stage presence. It is irrelevant that they performed such a different kind of music. We can learn a lot from them by analysing their performances.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are several, mostly all of them related to a new step in an imaginary stairway towards an imaginary goal. For instance, the first time that I played before more than 500 persons (in Seinäjoki, Finland, during the 9th World Tango Summit). Also a very important one was in Buenos Aires at the auditorio Promúsica, but for completely different reasons. It was back in 1989, a short recital, and honestly not my best presentation. However, after the concert a mature man in his fifties approached me visibly moved and told me that my playing brought him back his will to live. That anonymous man made me understand music from a much larger perspective.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Musical bilingualism. I feel at ease in both experimental avant-garde and in genres related to popular music, such as Argentine tango music and the so called neoclassicism. This is by the way a misguiding name, but many persons and institutions use it – what can be done? When I studied, neoclassical were Stravinsky, Hindemith or Prokofiev. Now, neoclassical are Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm or Goldmund. I would rather speak of post-romantic.

Anyway, I practice a musical bilingualism where a concrete piece can be closer to avant-garde or to post-romantic or to tango – and you can sometimes even find traces of all these genres in the same piece. These musics can interfecundate each other. Art music and light music are not irreconcilable extremes, but poles in a force field.

As a composer, how do you work?

If you are expecting that I say that “I wake up at 5:15, compose until 7:30, take a shower, have breakfast and go on composing until 9:25, then I read the newspaper and answer four emails” you will be disappointed. The truth is that in actual life you cannot have such a regularity, except in exceptional periods. In real life I compose a lot when traveling, since nobody interrupts me and the concentration is therefore higher. But these are anyway the frame conditions.

What I find interesting in my way of composing is what I call the onion approach. A typical piece would grow in stages: after a few chaotic sketches, when I begin to put order in the fragments, I first write down only a main melody, or a main abstract process (depending on the style of said piece), eventually leaving empty room for further ideas yet to come. This gives also the raw structure of the piece, which is extremely important. So I write this melody down, print it, and put it on the piano. Then I proceed to discover and decide details, for instance all the harmonies involved (although sometimes the chords are also defined in the first stage). Typically, the bass line is decided at this point (in this example, the piece is tonal).

I now arrive at something like an “expanded lead sheet”: not only the main melodies but also the whole structure of the piece. I print it again and check it at the piano. Now it is about “details” in the accompaniment: textures, eventually register changes, tempo nuances, agogics. Slowly, the piece gets its personality, its individuality. Again, I print it and go back to the piano.

Is the piece for several instruments? Now is the moment of making detailed decisions about instrumentation in short keywords, then to write them down in a real score (i.e. each instrument in a stave), and print again. Possibly you see now holes: instruments that are doing nothing for too long. So secondary lines grow. Echoes, comments, imitations. Also decisions about dynamics must be written down, because they clarify the hierarchies (what is the main idea, what is a secondary).

Now the piece is possibly mature for a first rehearsal, if it is feasible. This is something I learned from Stockhausen: a piece is not actually finished until you check in the real world if everything works, technically and aesthetically. During the rehearsals I will find the precise dynamics that the piece needs. I would eventually also understand the piece better in terms of timing, which in my experience is the main concept of composition. Timing is expressed in terms such as “here a longer transition is needed”, “here I need a sudden stop”, “the coda is too long” ,”this secondary element should be subtly anticipated before”. Understanding timing means intuiting what is needed in each moment: repetition, variation, contrast, break, surprise, confirmation, recalling something said two minutes ago…

Since the act of composing is much slower than the piece itself, there is a huge danger that we feel the need of a surprise just because we are working on the piece too long and we get bored (not the music). But what you wrote in 10 minutes is actually 10 seconds long… so you have to split the psychology of composition from the perceived timing. This is best achieved through listening to your piece live – in rehearsals better than at a concert. Certainly, nowadays, music engraving software lets you hear the music and supports a lot your sense of timing. But I realised soon that one should never underestimate the power of real musicians playing in a real room. Also because in the end of the day music is not about abstract waves in the air, but of the personal feelings involved. So, by testing your music with persons you are also indirectly testing the reception of the piece.

I underline the importance of having the whole structure before your inner ears and before your eyes, and of developing each stage of decisions as a whole before going on: if I write up to the last detail 4 bars, I might later discover that those four bars are not what the piece needs – and I wasted my energies.

Of course, in real life some of these stages overlap: you can know very early that “this melody should be played by a clarinet”. But the onion principle is clear.

I conceive the act of composing like a space travel in which you gradually approach an unknown galaxy (your new piece): you first see a rough shape, a constellation, but when you get closer and closer you begin to discover details, colours, more shapes, more stars, planets, moons, even objects that weren’t visible from a distance. Composing is getting to know better what you imagined. Composing is seeing the details of what you conceived as a whole.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Franz Liszt, because he was a master of the structure and of conveying musical character. Gustav Mahler, because of his extreme contrast of sublimity and banality within seconds. John Cage, because he invented without prejudices and jumped out of the system. Maurice Ravel, because of his extreme finesse. Karlheinz Stochausen, because he always had the overview of a large piece in one single page, like a map. Olivier Messiaen, because he allowed diversity to coexist in a single piece. Mauricio Kagel, because of his exquisite humor that resembles a musical Oscar Wilde.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That my music will be still heard in the year 5001. And that I can live of my music now.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

– Lack of concentration poisons talent.

– Try to avoid starting too many projects before bringing old ones to an end.

– Develop your tolerance to frustration, because nobody is free from seven years of skinny cows (nor from difficult colleagues, door-keepers and tastemakers we depend on).

– This is a marathon, not a sprint.

– Nobody loves the “me, me, me” approach.

– Listen to sound advice – and make your own “fair copy” of it.

– Know in depth the tools you use: “the software did it that way” is not a valid excuse.

– Inspiration is everywhere – if you are aware. And if you are not aware, inspiration is elsewhere.

– Train your intuition so you can trust in it: it is your wings.

– Spend time with your instrument – but you know this already.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

An accurate question, because any answer is not just a wish: it orientates our current activities towards that goal. I would like to be “in the movies”, or rather that my music is used at the highest level of the film industry.

I could write a longer wish-list: for instance I want to record this or that album, or give a concert at the Carnegie Hall or in the Maracanã football Stadium, or conduct Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker, or to be managed by Sony/Universal/Warner (this one is not a current goal), but actually all other goals are indirectly related to Hollywood. In other words: if my music is heavily used in films, don’t you think I can’t rent the Albert Hall?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being able to play piano well until I die. That every day somewhere in the world at least one of my pieces is performed. That my music is streamed millions of times each month. That a bunch of people deeply understand my music.

What is your most treasured possession?

My talent.

What is your present state of mind?

The what?

www.juanmariasolare.com

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