An Interview with Jean-Guihen Queyras

By · Translated from the German by · Photography © Anne van Aerschot · Date 12/21/2017

Some art works live off the music of Bach like parasites. They sample him, stage him, ritualize him, dance to him—and often end up sucking the original work dry of its life blood. These semi-new works rarely hold their own in the face of the original. Instead they are banal, merely decorative, or kitsch. But what can art forms and works say to one another when their respective essences are brought into dialogue? One example where true engagement with Bach’s music results in an independent, valid work of art is the production “Mitten wir im Leben sind,” developed by the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, her dance group Ensembles Rosas, and the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. The production probes deep into Bach’s Cello Suites. “I wanted to work with dance for a long time,” explained Queyras. “I looked around a lot, but there were very few choreographers who I felt could really become one with the music. Anne Teresa really gets to the core and creates her own work. These are her Bach Suites now.” What exactly is this “core”? What does it mean for a cellist to work with dancers? How does aging and mortality change an artist’s image of himself? I spoke to Queyras the day after a Berlin performance of “Mitten wir im Leben sind.”

VAN: AS A CELLIST, IT’S DIFFICULT TO EXPRESS YOUR INNER EMOTIONS IN OUTWARD MOVEMENTS. IS THAT DIFFICULTY ESPECIALLY PROMINENT WHEN YOU WORK WITH DANCERS?

Jean-Guihen Queyras: Sometimes I do envy violinists or violists, who can move while playing standing up. But with this project I don’t miss it at all. I have the feeling that the dancers react directly to what I’m doing, that they become an incarnation of the music, which is often something of a dream for musicians. So I don’t need to move at all.

SOME OF YOUR CELLIST COLLEAGUES TRY TO IMPOSE A CERTAIN FEELING ON THE LISTENER THROUGH GESTURES, FACIAL EXPRESSIONS, AND BODY MOVEMENTS. YOU DON’T DO THAT…

I hope that doesn’t mean there’s a sense of distance?

ON THE CONTRARY, I ACTUALLY FIND IT VERY SOOTHING.

It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Anne Teresa. When she works with music, she starts by going to the roots. Why does this music exist? And then she finds her own little branch, out of which a new work arises. The idea is to find the seed in the interpretation and then create something new. I find that more interesting than starting with a definite idea and then trying to tease that out of the work.

DOES THAT COME FROM PIERRE BOULEZ AND YOUR 10 YEARS IN ENSEMBLE INTERCONTEMPORAIN?

Yes, but Boulez was even more extreme. “Substance! Transparency! Clarity!” With him it was almost like striving for objectivity. With the Bach Suites, I still want to allow for subjectivity to a certain extent. I’ve noticed that I play differently when the dancers are there. There’s this interaction; I don’t want to be hermetically sealed off from outside influence.

YESTERDAY I GOT THE FEELING THAT IN THE FIFTH SUITE, WHEN YOU WERE PLAYING ALONE ON STAGE, YOU SOUNDED DIFFERENT THAN WITH THE DANCERS.

That could well be true. We decided that the music stands for itself there, so I interact with time a bit differently. That’s not to say I have less freedom with the dancers. With the Bourrées in the Third Suite for example, when Marie [Goudot] and Anne Teresa dance around me in a circle: I’ve never played them so freely! I notice how they pull the tempo back with their part—it’s like the difference between dancing with a partner and dancing alone. Since working with Anne Teresa I’ve performed the six Suites on my own a couple of times. At first, I missed the weight in the embodiment of the music. It took me a whole Suite to overcome the feeling that something was missing. Since we started the project, I’ve been playing them more rhythmically and dance-like.

WHAT ELSE HAS CHANGED IN PLAYING WITH THE DANCERS? ARE YOU LESS PERFECTIONISTIC FOR EXAMPLE, BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT SITTING ALONE ONSTAGE AS THE SOLOIST?

You’re right, there’s actually a difference there. It took me many years to distance myself from this perfectionism, and I still need to, because it’s absolutely antithetical to creativity.

WHEN I LISTEN TO THE SUITES, I ENTER INTO A STATE OF COGNITIVE CLARITY, AS IF NEW SYNAPSES OR NEURAL CONNECTIONS ARE BEING MADE IN MY BRAIN. IS IT POSSIBLE THAT POLYPHONIC MUSIC FOR A SOLO INSTRUMENT, WITH ITS IMPLIED VERTICALITY, MAKES THE LISTENER SUBCONSCIOUSLY REASSEMBLE AND EXPAND THE HARMONIC STRUCTURE?  

I’d be happy if that’s true. I always tell my students that we have the responsibility, as players, to give the horizontal sounds a vertical depth. That’s what we try to do with Bach, and it’s something many students find very difficult at first.  

OTHERWISE IT’S JUST TOO MANY NOTES.

That can really be the problem. This deep-rooted three-dimensionality of the music that you mention also has something to do with the fact that my timing and articulation bears upon an—often virtual—bass line. I mentioned that to Anne Teresa so many times that she eventually just told me, “Jean-Guihen, I need this bass line!” So I put the bass line in the score and even recorded it separately. Not only could the dancers work with my recordings of the Suites, but with the bass line too, or with both simultaneously.

“MITTEN WIR IM LEBEN SIND” PORTRAYS, OVER THE COURSE OF THE SIX SUITES, A KIND OF LIFE CYCLE: THERE’S A COLLAPSE IN THE FIFTH AND THEN A RESURRECTION IS THE SIXTH. DO YOU TRY TO EXPERIENCE THAT EMOTIONALLY WHILE YOU PLAY?

Yes, and it’s also the reason why I always want to play the Suites in order. I used to think there had to be balance. I tried to combine an earlier Suite with a later one for the sake of balance, because the later ones become increasingly powerful. But since then I’ve become convinced that there’s really a story there, a development that makes philosophical sense.

WHAT DO YOU DO ONCE YOU’RE DONE? DRINK A BEER?

[Laughs] Yeah! You meet friends and celebrate your luck of being able to experience these special moments through Bach.

EVERY SUITE HAS ITS OWN CHARACTER. DO YOU CREATE VISUAL WORLDS FOR THEM? HOW DO YOU EXPRESS THESE DIFFERENCES IN YOUR PLAYING?

Yes. Incidentally, that was the first thing Anne Teresa asked me when we started working together. They’re not concrete images, rather abstract atmospheres. With the First Suite it’s this flowing, this closeness with nature. The Prelude is really like a creek [Bach means creek in German—Ed.]. With the Second it’s melancholy, with the Third it’s a joie de vivre; the Fourth is a wonderful mix of celebration, vertical form, and love. The Fifth is the most dramatic, with a real break at the totally metaphysical Sarabande. The Sixth is simply a declaration of love to the entire world, with this upward energy.

YOU’VE PERFORMED THE PIECE AT DIFFERENT LOCATIONS: IN A MACHINE SHOP AT THE RUHRTRIENNALE IN GERMANY, IN LA MONNAIE IN BRUSSELS, IN THE ELBPHILHARMONIE IN HAMBURG, HERE AT HEBBEL AM UFER. WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST LOCATION SO FAR?

In the machine shop, with the huge machines and the enormous stage—the interaction with the surroundings was one of a kind. To work with the light outside, we left the windows open and started a little earlier every day so that it would get dark at the right moment, during the Fifth Suite. One time a heavy storm passed over and is began to rain inside, just at the Courante of the Fifth Suite.

The Elbphilharmonie was rather difficult. I really like playing there, but for this the lighting wasn’t ideal, and the audience weren’t perfect for the kind of project where a guy plays Bach for two hours. I not saying that they need to be initiated, but that was the other extreme. Many of them left.

YOU RECORDED THE BACH SUITES 10 YEARS AGO. ARE YOU STILL HAPPY WITH THEM?

I still stand behind it. There are enough other recordings of mine that I don’t want to hear ever again.

WITH THE BACH SUITES THERE’S THIS SENSE THAT YOU NEED A CERTAIN ARTISTIC MATURITY TO RECORD THEM. ROSTROPOVICH AND CASALS WERE BOTH IN THEIR MID-60s. DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?

Somehow, yes. I was 40 when I recorded them; for me it was the right time. For Rostropovich, I think it was a different story. He was very afraid of this repertoire, for cultural reasons he didn’t feel so at home with it, but wanted to do it anyway. But Bach has so many levels that even the youthful energy of somebody in their 20s could bring something out of it.  

IS THERE ANY MUSIC THAT YOU’D SAY PEOPLE SHOULDN’T PLAY TOO YOUNG?

If I had to say, then maybe something like Mahler? I know that when I was 18 his music made me think: “Why do you have to make life so complicated?” By 40, I began to understand that, thank God, one makes life complicated.

DO YOU EVER ADVISE YOUR STUDENTS TO WAIT A LITTLE BIT WITH CERTAIN PIECES?

Yes, but it’s less a case of “wait until you’re older” than it is about the right order. When a young undergraduate student comes to me with a late Beethoven Sonata, it makes little sense to me—not because of their age, but because they should learn to phrase a Boccherini Sonata first, then maybe Haydn. Then they will understand the unbelievably complicated ways of Beethoven better—want to, and be able to, convey them technically.

WHAT RECORDINGS OF THE BACH SUITES DO YOU ADMIRE?

Anner Bylsma was definitely an inspiration, even more so in direct contact than through the recordings. I once took a one-week masterclass in the Bach suites with him, that was a revelation. Suddenly I discovered new dimensions to, and life within, the music. On a completely different aesthetic level, Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings made an impression on me when I was younger. When I hear them today, it’s not what I’d do myself stylistically. But I find—as always with him—that he really understands how to guide the music through a dramatic course, and to keep us under his spell from the first note to the last.

THE NAME OF THE PROJECT, “MITTEN WIR IM LEBEN SIND,” COMES FROM A HYMN BY MARTIN LUTHER. “MITTEN WIR IM LEBEN SIND / MIT DEM TOD UMFANGEN [IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH].” THE THEME OF TRANSIENCE IS OMNIPRESENT IN THE CHOREOGRAPHY TOO. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON IT?

It’s a strong phrase which is relevant on a number of levels. On one hand, it’s autobiographical: Anne Teresa and I are both in our 50s, where you look in both directions. A few people have brought up the title with me: “That’s a bit gloomy, when you know how the rest of it goes…surrounded by death.” But with that, he’s only expressing what’s obvious: that “from nothing and back into nothing,” from which we take the energy needed for life and creation.

We mentioned Rostropovich earlier. I remember that for me he had a singular charismatic energy on the stage, which sprang from his primal fear of death. In the way that he walked onto the stage, you actually felt that it was a matter of life and death. I experienced this from him once in Paris with Schnittke’s Third Cello Concerto. As always, he played by heart, 40 minutes of music, a huge amount, a million notes by rote—that’s the insanity there. And right in the middle of it, a lapse in his memory—not just a few seconds, but a whole chunk. He sat there like a lion, surrounded by predators, and simply played open strings fortissimo. Anyone else would have seized up, but instead he shared the danger he was in with us. Seeing that in an artist of such incredibly outsized importance, you felt the deep necessity of acknowledging your own transience.

HOW HAS THE AWARENESS OF YOUR TRANSIENCE CHANGED FOR YOU OVER TIME?

It’s become more present for me of late, more a kind of force that helps me reach the essential. With us stage performers, the desire to be loved can become a real enemy. “We need you in the hall, please, please love me, so that you lend my existence meaning.” It’s normal for things to be like that; in the beginning it’s probably a part of the inspiration that leads us to play and practice our entire lives. But this desire can also very much stand in our way when it comes to reaching a truly free interpretation, where you say, “Bach is like this for me. I love you guys, but I will not compromise, because something more important is at stake.”

IS THAT STRONGER NOW THAN BEFORE?

Yes. Of course I still get butterflies when I go on stage, but I’m more in a position now to say that I love my audience. But ultimately, especially if I really do love my audience, it’s not that I need to make myself popular. It’s more that I need to love the music as much as possible, and that’s all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvmqVjp6qio

IS THERE ANY MUSIC THAT PARTICULARLY RELATES TO YOU CURRENT STAGE IN LIFE, OR WHICH SAYS MORE TO YOU NOW THAN PREVIOUSLY?

It might seem paradoxical, but through this freer feeling I have now onstage, I can almost be more inclusive with the repertoire. For example, it seems easier to play simpler music, because that’s also part of life. When I was with Boulez in Ensemble Intercontemporain, it was always about substance, substance, substance…

…AND YOU DIDN’T PLAY ANY SAINT-SAËNS THEN?

Exactly. Not out of principle, but it just didn’t even come up. Or Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” Recently I played them again for the first time in years, and thought, “Man, what a great thing, so much ease and humor.” I just played Saint-Saëns on tour with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal and Yannick Nézet-Sénguin. At first I protested against it: “Please, Yannick, can’t it be something more substantial, deeper?” Eventually I was grateful to him, because this small piece was a gem. It’s not as existential as an Elgar, Dvořák, or Dutilleux, but there’s so much touching love hidden within.

WHAT IS THE MUSIC FOR YOU, LIKE BACH WAS FOR ROSTROPOVICH, IN WHICH YOU DON’T FEEL AT HOME?

For a long time, I haven’t trusted myself to play music that is extremely powerful—I’m not made for it anyway, and my aesthetic never suited it. Now for the first time in years, I’ve chosen Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante as a cello concerto. I’d like to risk it, just to see how it goes. Perhaps afterwards my Russian friends will tell me, “Jean-Guihen, don’t bother. Better play Bach, Saint-Saëns and Schumann.” ¶