“Messiaen is not so present here, but he is very present in me.” On June 20, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the pianist and first non-UK based artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, realized the composer’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux” indoors and outdoors in nature in Suffolk, England. It was his last major project at the festival, where he has worked since 2009.The 13 piano pieces in the collection were performed in the Hall Café of the Snape Maltings. Starting at 4:30 a.m. and finishing just before midnight, over the pre-dawn reedbeds and the River Alde, we followed the works through strategically placed loudspeakers; picnicked and walked on the hill of the Minsmere; then Aimard brought Messiaen’s birdsong transcriptions outside, into an accidental dialogue with the thrush’s chatter and the raven’s chirp, as they soared beneath the clouds. The last concert took place in the dark in the Britten Studio, where we lay on the floor around the piano, meditating through the 30-minute “Reed Warber,” while the wooden beams above gradually came to represent the transcendental.The next morning, 10 hours after the last concert, Aimard opened the door at his Aldeburgh home and spoke with me for an hour, holding his two-year-old son Arthur. Apart from bringing in Messiaen’s rich body of work throughout the years, Aimard has invited Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, George Benjamin, Benedict Mason, and Julian Anderson to the festival.

All this is a clear artistic political statement. What happened next is coincidental. On June 23, the UK Brexit referendum took place; June 26 was the Aldeburgh Festival’s finale, and Aimard said his goodbyes. He said that eight years were enough, and that it was time to leave space for another era.

VAN: Why present “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” now?

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: 60 years after it was composed, we are still trying to create an unusual frame especially for this music. This shows there’s still potential for the piece to renew our world. That’s why I’ve tried to create different presentations that incorporate different timings, as the piece itself contains varying conceptions of time and space. We traveled from place to place to be sensitive to those dimensions.

The audience at the dawn chorus · Photo Sam Murray-Sutton
The audience at the dawn chorus · Photo Sam Murray-Sutton

What does Messiaen’s legacy mean to musicians nowadays?

I had known Messiaen since I was 12. I was very close to [his second wife] Ms. Loriod, and he was the godfather of my first son. I always felt very close to his music, and I carry it with me like it is part of my DNA.

What I found inspiring is that this music has an incredible spirituality, in a candid sense. It is in full contact with his era, it considered the time as a new age. Messiaen conceived a new world of sound.

How does one understand the relationship between nature and human language in “Catalogue d’Oiseaux”?

There are two types of music in these pieces. One is the transcriptions of the birdsongs, the other is the depiction of landscape, atmosphere, and light. The latter is more subjective of course. Sometimes there is also an idealization of the birds—the human element is always there. The important thing is that the language of birds is his starting point for renewing the musical language.

YouTube video

Olivier Messiaen, “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” I. Regard du Pére; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)

In your view, what is the difference between the avant-garde music of the 20th century and the 21st century?

Traditionally, our artistic culture is not based on imitating or inheriting models, but on transforming them. Depending on the period, there are more or less references to the past, and more or less need for new dimensions, new modernism. The period when Messiaen composed this music, after World War II, was a moment of great avant-garde activity. We don’t live in an era like that at all. But history changes all the time, it is made of waves and breaks and unexpected moments, where the mix of old and new is always balanced differently.

Contemporary music is done by people living today, and I feel more attracted by people who are trying to invent new tools to use language and create new ways of expression. I am more interested in people who try to express their era, not an era that is over. People who try to enrich us, to guide us, giving us keys to live in our time.

What was your vision when you took over the festival in 2009?

I was surprised, since I had no experience as an artistic director. The festival was founded by Benjamin Britten, who was a profound conservative. I was asked to take this position, though I’m known to be much more interested in avant-garde music and certainly not conservative.

I thought my work was very much, but not exclusively, to modernize and Europeanize the festival, to bring many artists from the center of Europe, and also to reconsider the artists from the UK that weren’t in the festival.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” at the Aldeburgh Festival · Photo Matt Jolly
Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” at the Aldeburgh Festival · Photo Matt Jolly

How would you describe the changes to the festival over the last eight years?

At the beginning, I brought four artists who symbolically represented my artistic politics. There was Pierre Boulez, who was a kind of devil for the institution, because he represented another world completely. There was George Benjamin, who had been absent from the festival for almost two decades. From outside, I brought Matthias Goerne to sing Schubert, which is a great tradition here, for three evenings. In 2009, when I made the announcement at the press conference that Boulez will come, all the people gasped. So, obviously, it was the right time for that.

In 2014, you took some time off before recording the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” What did you do during those months?

I had the wish to take some time off for many years. It was the right moment to have a year off, to think, and to live differently. I chose to do this in a special context. I was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, a college for scientists mainly. It was fascinating to meet biologists, historians, mathematicians, and to spend a year with them. That was one of the most important moments in my life, because it was a moment of reflection, to understand better what other priorities there are in life.

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What are those other priorities?

The priority is to choose a priority every day. But for an artist, it is sometimes very intuitive, you cannot answer this question in one sentence. It is to be in contact with your essence, to try to be as independent as possible in the world where you are constantly manipulated.

What was your collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt like when you were recording Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in 2003?

Harnoncourt had such a creative positioning in his interpretations. He was looking for a soloist who would not have played these concertos hundreds of times, and that was the case with me. I wanted to start with this repertoire at around 40, as I thought it needed a certain maturity. Then around this moment the proposition came. He wanted someone with a fresh view, instead of a routine view, on the pieces.

Because I do a lot of new music, I go to the old music with a certain attitude. I don’t want to imitate all the routine that has been accumulated by colleagues for centuries in interpretations that sometimes are good, and sometimes very bad. It’s more of a kind of collective habit than a personal statement. I am interested in the process of personal reflection in front of a manuscript. This is what we do when we have a new manuscript. This is also what I am interested in even with music that is played all the time.

YouTube video

György Ligeti, “Musica Ricercata,” V. Rubato. Lamentoso; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)

Last year, you started a website that helps pianists learn György Ligeti’s piano works. How is the project going now?

I had been taught by Ligeti since I started to play [the piano]. Having been so close to the composer, I feel it is my duty to transmit the essence of his work. He is one of the most inspirational artists of his era, profoundly original and extremely communicative. It’s an ongoing process, we have a third of his pieces now recorded and available and I hope we’ll find the money to go on.

Do you have a relationship with music outside of Western classical and contemporary music?

Academics consider their [Western] music as the most important culture in the world. This is an imperialistic world view, extremely destructive and arrogant. Academies have produced brilliant culture, but it is only a part of many cultures in the world. This world is much richer if we have many cultures representing many differences.

There’s a lot to enjoy and learn from ethnic music, and we always carry the worry that this music might disappear. We live in an era where not only nature has become endangered, but also many human cultures. It’s important to pay attention to this music, not only for opening our cultural world but also to help them to be known and not disappear.

Personally I’ve been very close to music like polyphony from central Africa, music from the Pygmies, which I have made several concerts of; and from Georgia, where there’s also a great polyphonic tradition. I’ve worked with a group from there several times. We can do a lot in this direction if we don’t do it in a superficial way. If we don’t want a global “culture,” we must try to preserve original cultures. There’s a lot of work to do. ¶

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