Jean-Yves Thibaudet • Photo © Decca/Kasskara

I interviewed the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet by phone one recent evening, while he was in Paris. We made small talk, discussing a Caribbean vacation he took where he had to have a piano flown in to practice on. Then we moved on to the recording of complete works, movie music, and being a gay classical musician.  

VAN: In 2016, you recorded Erik Satie’s complete solo piano music. What was it like spending so much time with such a weird composer?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet: I don’t know if weird is the right term. I guess he was weird in a certain way, but I find him fascinating as a composer and as a person and character as well. He was a very modern composer, so I think people only see the extreme side. You know, I think he liked to provoke people, it was his sense of humor. But I think he had a very important place in music and in French piano. He was a precursor to a lot of things. People like Debussy admired him very much.

To tell you the truth, I was actually asked to do one record of Satie: just all the popular stuff, the famous things that everybody knows. And I refused. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested. It just sounds like a big commercial idea.” And then they came back to me a few times. And then finally, one day they said, “How about doing a new complete Satie piano works?” And I said, “Well, you know, that’s very different, let me think about it.” And I started researching, and then that’s when it happened. I realized that there were so many fascinating things: even pieces that had never been recorded, that had been discovered recently.

Erik Satie, “Ogives”; Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano) 

When you record a cycle of complete piano music like that, do you do it in one big chunk?

No. Only Ravel—Ravel was very quick because I’ve played all his music all my life, and also because it’s very short. Ravel only wrote 110 minutes of [solo] piano music. So it was done in three or four days. But Debussy and Satie, each one took me two or three years to do.

In the meantime I do other things. I can’t just play Satie for two years, obviously [laughs]. I have to go on with my career and my life. Then maybe a month or two weeks before [the recording session], I would keep that time off, and I’ll just practice only that.

The more you live with the composer, the more you live with the work. You digest it, and then you record it. Sometimes I play the pieces for a while, leave them to rest, then I play them again.

On your “Opera Without Words” CD, what did you hope to achieve that wouldn’t have been possible with a singer and piano?

I don’t have a voice and I will never sing [laughs]. The piano of course is a percussive instrument—still, my dream is to make the piano sing.

The opera repertoire is just such a fantastic repertoire. In a way, [the project was] a little bit self indulgent. But also it’s a tradition that kind of got lost a little bit. In the 19th century, all the great pianists, like Liszt, they were all performing opera transcriptions. It was part of the life of a pianist.

You know, every recording I do has to come from my heart, I need to have complete enthusiasm and to believe in it. I can’t do a project because people tell me, “It will sell well.” If it’s not something organic for me, I can’t do it, and I won’t do it.

Does it happen often that people tell you to do a CD because they think it will sell well?

They try. But I’ve never done it, in more than 50 records that I’ve done. Music and art are not mechanical. It has to come from inside yourself.

You’ve also recorded several film soundtracks. How is it different recording movie music from regular CDs?

I love it; it’s a completely different process. It’s actually almost the opposite of what you usually do in recording. Usually you have a piece of music, and you have to follow everything that’s written. Still, there’s lots that’s left to your own interpretation: you can breathe, stop on one note, slow down or go faster. When you do a movie, the music is there to serve the story or an image. The rhythm is given by the movie; the timing is of incredible essence. I can’t do rubato— it’s just gotta work. In a way it’s a very humbling experience, because you don’t exist anymore.

That sounds like it could be refreshing, if you’ve been playing a lot of solo piano music.

It is—it’s tiring, intense, you have to be very concentrated, but you don’t have to think too much about it and you just jump into that movie and become an actor.

Can we talk a little bit about being gay in the classical music world?

Absolutely!

Have you ever had any negative experiences because of being gay in your career?

No, never. I’ve been very lucky. In the world of music and the world of art in general…we are very privileged people. If you’re a banker—there are a lot of other worlds that are still much more difficult. But I think as artists we are accepted.

Do you think there’s such a thing as a gay aesthetic in classical music?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in generalizations. I think we might have—it’s difficult to say—but a little more of a sensitive, more refined, this kind of the feminine part. But that being said, every human being has both parts. It’s been proven scientifically that nobody’s completely straight or completely gay either. So it’s very difficult to speak in general terms.

Maurice Ravel, Sonatine, I. Modéré; Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano) 

People say that Ravel might have been gay…

Yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to be gay to play his music well. But yeah, my teacher [Lucette] Descaves, actually knew him very well—and not that she told me that he was gay [laughs]—but it’s clear that he didn’t have any girlfriends, and obviously not a boyfriend; at least we don’t know of one. But he didn’t have a [personal] life, he wasn’t married, and in that day and age that was strange. He had very few friends, too. I personally think that it’s a very strong possibility. But we don’t have any proof.

You’re known for your interest in fashion…

I’ve loved fashion since I was nine years old. I remember going for my first little concert when I was seven or eight, going with my mother to the shop and I knew exactly what I wanted: I said, “I want this jacket with these pants, I want this pair of shoes.”

Did you already have an inkling that you were gay back then?

I didn’t know what gay was at that age. To me it was not immediately obvious. What’s really fascinating is, when I was probably at least 19 or 20, when I finally told my mother that maybe I was gay, she laughed at me and said, “Do you think I’m an idiot? I’ve known since you were five years old!” ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.