“Igor Levit’s career is a stark demonstration of the dissolving of boundaries between art and commerce, journalism and public relations,” wrote Hartmut Welscher in an article for VAN in 2020. One can add publishing to the ever-growing list of formats whose traditional ethical boundaries Levit has blurred, as House Concert, written by Florian Zinnecker under the watchful eye of Levit’s team, confirms.
House Concert is a strange read. Despite the cover, marketing blurb and title, this isn’t a first-person autobiography of Levit written by a ghostwriter. (That might have been advisable given Levit’s slightly puzzling rant about always searching for “I” rather than “one,” a point that surely lands better in German, where the impersonal pronoun “man” is more commonly used than its English equivalent “one”). Nor does it conform to the traditional biography format. Zinnecker, a journalist with the German national newspaper Die Zeit, rather unwisely straw-mans the art of biography writing in the introduction, as if he is the first author to consider that “life doesn’t consist only of events, but also of feelings, intimations, urgency, tedium, insecurity, good and bad luck.” It’s drawn from a series of conversations, but not one where participants go toe-to-toe—I think of Tom Service’s Full of Noises: Conversations with Thomas Adès—as Zinnecker’s own voice is limited to asking short, shallow questions, delivered to a distinctly unbothered crowd. An early exchange with Levit’s proactive press agent Maren Borchers sets the tone. After asking how his political engagement impacts her, Zinnecker turns the question back to Levit. “And what about him? Does it make his life difficult? Wouldn’t it be easier to do things differently? She thinks for a moment. ‘No.’”
House Concert combines a lot of formats: chatty biography, conversations on trains, diary entries-cum-concert commentaries, and very long, unedited monologues from Levit. “Please let me say a few words before I start,” Levit says before a speech from a performance the night after Trump’s election. The speech is quoted in full, filling three pages. But this is no burbling, Joyce-like experiment with form, for Zinnecker wantonly repeats the same feat again and again. An exchange from Levit’s appearance on German television station ZDF’s Morgenmagazin? Four pages. Levit’s program biography, cut and pasted from his press materials? A page, just. An interview that critic Eleonore Büning gave to WDR, and lengthy passages cribbed from her Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung profile that brought a young Levit to the attention of German-speaking audiences? A couple of pages, at most.
Zinnecker is clearly thinking about filling space as he doubles down on looping, repetitive, pseudo-artful prose: Levit “plays as he plays, thinks as he thinks, feels how he feels”; in 2016, after Trump and Brexit, “the natural order of things no longer seemed to apply. Top and bottom, left and right, good and evil, right and wrong.” Zinnecker regularly chains questions together; four, five, six in a row, not necessarily requiring an answer, but not receiving one just to be sure. At one point, he lists 16 musical dynamics in a row. And with every stretched moment and even-handed cliché, Zinnecker is twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom from what I imagine was a nightmare assignment.
Yet, for someone so full of questions, Zinnecker is surprisingly uncurious. More challenging topics, like Levit’s relationship with body image, his inability to sleep, his fear of having free time alone, his complete amnesia about whole chunks of his early life, and even his immediate personal relationships, are hardly probed at all. And, despite borrowing generously from secondary sources, the number of people Zinnecker quotes that aren’t Igor Levit himself (irritatingly styled in a weirdly impersonal third person throughout) are few. Perhaps it’s because, when they are consulted, such sources are a little too honest. “Igor is rigorous in some respects,” says Simon Bode, a friend of Levit’s, and a rare contributor from outside Team Igor. “He simply parts company from people who have disappointed him, or who don’t work as he needs them to.”
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Issues around access and control of the narrative simultaneously pose the biggest problems for the book, and inadvertently offer the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Levit’s world. Coded references to editorial control are littered through the opening chapters, as a casual first meeting between Levit and Zinnecker becomes a covert operation: “Neither his manager, nor his press agent know about this date, despite the fact that there is hardly anything in Igor Levit’s life that they haven’t authorized.” The admission that Levit’s press agent has the term “pianist of the century” deleted from all his interviews makes you wonder how many more revealing details have been cut from a piece of work that’s closer to home.
And the disbelief expressed by Zinnecker when Levit reveals he can’t remember a whole chunk of his childhood (meaning, shockingly, that the author might have to do some secondary fact checking) is symptomatic of a tendency for personalities in the social media age to assume that they are the sole arbiters of their story, and for journalists to simply take that at face value. Take, for example, Levit’s lessons with Julia Goldstein, whom he studied with from the age of nine. “I can’t remember what we worked on,” he says. “But it was three very important years. I hold her in very high esteem.” On her website (which contains contact details) Goldstein lists Levit first among her roster of former pupils. But emailing her to confirm basic facts seems out of the question for Zinnecker; what Levit can’t remember, more often than not, we don’t find out.
The editorial scythe of Levit’s team looms large over the book, but Zinnecker is dealt a difficult hand that he plays poorly. Often, he edges too close to vapid, PR puff. Describing the ZDF #Beethoven250 interview, Zinnecker combines top-tier brown-nosing with stomach-emptying faux modesty: “It’s impossible to imagine a better, more famous, and more high-profile guest for a Beethoven special. From Igor’s point of view, however, he’s only here because Beethoven himself can’t make it.” Elsewhere, Zinnecker is left with particularly uninspiring access points. That he saw fit to include details of Igor walking to the shops to buy an apple, before returning to the TV studio to find a full fruit bowl, or Igor asking for the Wi-Fi password from a TV showrunner, only to be informed that actually, the internet isn’t working backstage, but if he wants to access the internet, he should head to the studio lobby where there is a better connection, suggests that Zinnecker struggled for moments to color a man so often praised for his colorfulness.
We do learn a fair bit about Levit admittedly, who is a committed (if verbose) voice about politics, more precise (yet still loquacious) on anti-Semitism, and who has been on the sharp end of awful hostility in recent years. There are moments of creative flair; music criticism is “the deathless echo of the concert,” Twitter is “intoxicating because it allows us to question power relationships in a constructive way.” But for every pithy moment, there are at least five platitudes to dilute it. Levit’s “style has solidified into a rhetoric of authenticity by which banalities are treated as profound statements,” Welscher wrote in 2020, and such banalities have been cut up into little chunks and sprinkled through the book, aided by a journalist with a taste for punchy declarations. The sheer number of these moments (like “you can’t play music indecisively, and Igor can’t speak indecisively” or “his stylistic device: determination”) leaves Levit in an odd position, like if Mike Tyson awoke to find his hands had been replaced by two jellies and decided to carry on boxing regardless, every jab more farcical, squishy and futile than the last.
Despite his outspokenness on political issues, the way Levit is characterized is still couched in the language of the status quo. Apparently, Levit is on the “extra-extra-extra left,” but, according to Zinnecker, Levit’s political modus operandi is reaction: “He doesn’t pursue an agenda of his own, he himself seldom raises subjects, but he doesn’t avoid them either.” This is in spite of the most revolutionary aspect of his lockdown experience: the moment where Levit realized that, via his House Concerts, he had a direct route to his audience that avoided the traditional structures of agencies, critics, programmers and concert halls. However accurate Zinnecker’s description may be in reference to social media (there are a couple of very revealing passages about Levit’s troll-ish approach to Twitter), by characterizing him as reactionary, Zinnecker does a bit of careful brand management, urging donors and supporters not to worry, as Levit wouldn’t dream of actually being political. And besides, the ground is shifting on that front, as mainstream celebrities the world over incorporate issues around social justice into their brands. Given that shift, is the proactively political classical star, unafraid to pledge their allegiance to a political party or pursue an agenda they feel strongly about, really such a bad thing?
A more worrying trend lurks underneath. Daft statements like “Igor Levit can only be understood in the context of the immediate present” open the floor to flagrantly anti-historical passages barely discernible from breathless marketing copy: “The goal is for the pianist to make the piece his own. To tell his own story. In the classical sphere, which consists of rules, conventions, and traditions, rights and wrongs, that’s completely new.” There’s a sad moment where Zinnecker realizes that, not only does denying history make for a bad book, but, more pressingly, it’s almost impossible to eke out a non-historical biography for 250 pages. Tail between his legs, Zinnecker then winds the clock back to Levit’s upbringing, before a remarkably brass-necked trot through a succession of events: teachers, schools, prizes, performances, and defining moments. The passages on Levit’s three main inspirations (Busoni, Eminem, and Thelonious Monk) do have a whiff of the Key Playersons about them, but they’re among the book’s more interesting moments, as Zinnecker digs deeper into music, aesthetics, and what’s motivating the irrepressible Levit.
It’s difficult to tell if there’s a better book in there somewhere. Via the minute-by-minute description of Levit’s marathon performance of Satie’s “Vexations,” we get closer to the sort of engrossing, claustrophobic account that matches Levit’s manic energy. Given that sort of access (and Levit’s cooperation) more consistently across the book, Zinnecker could have been on to a winner.
But Levit didn’t need that book, so it wasn’t going to happen. “I hate talking about my career,” he announces, 234 pages into a book about his career. Levit never seems particularly thrilled about the project, nor do subject and interviewer ever develop any kind of relationship on the page. Zinnecker inadvertently highlights this in his inspiring closing dialogue:
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. You?”
“No idea.” ¶
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