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London, 2020

During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani; through discussions around his latest release, Musique?, the musician shares some of his views on the art and the harpsichord. 


Mahan, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you consider as the highlights of your career so far?


Well, that is a tough opening question. I don’t know whether my work has had any great trajectory aside from my simply having done what I felt like doing and hoping that I’d be sufficiently remunerated for it, at least to the extent whereby it would enable me to continue doing whatever I felt like doing. In other words: I’m a musician because it lets me have the life that I wish to have — I get to travel, meet different and interesting people, spend serious time with the art (that is to say, music) that matters most to me, and I learn more about myself and what I’m capable of doing. 

It’s difficult to say what a highlight is? Is it playing in a great hall that one has always wished to play in? I mean, sure, the Barbican and Albert and Wigmore Halls and Musikvereins and Lincoln Centers and Tonhalles all are nice in the sense of ticking off boxes that one feels necessary to tick off in addition to having really quite informed and responsive audiences, but I’d say actually that you tend to find your most interesting audiences in the least expected cities and halls, in the places where an audience’s reaction actually helps you formulate better to yourself the kind of artist you should be. The late-night audience at Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics Festival in Glasgow was exactly like that: I remember going on stage, totally terrified about playing electro-acoustic music and thinking, “well, now they’ll know me for the fraud that I am,” and somehow the thirty-minute dialogue with the public led me to understand myself better and understand that maybe I connect better with the whole post-war/Darmstadt sound than I thought I would! So, a highlight is really anytime you learn from each other as player and listener. That’s really quite an experience. 


Now, what about Musique?, tell us about your latest project.


Musique? is as close to a labour of love as I have come to in a recording project. That isn’t to say that the works of Bach or the Virginalists or Rameau or whomever doesn’t involve love, but I did go into the studio with this particular album thinking that I might be the only person who would love or even like the album. It is just a compilation of some modern and contemporary music that I felt like playing at the time and pieces which I had played in concerts over the past two or three years prior to recording them. People will be surprised to see me saying this, but the central work, for me, is actually Henry Cowell’s 1960 Set of Four, which seems rather conservative on the surface when compared to pieces by Saariaho or Ferrari. But actually the Cowell was the main inspiration behind recording the album as I feel it contains a clever bit of imbedded provocation in the way it takes American sounds and European forms and turns them on their respective heads as Cowell grapples with his own troubled sense of what it means to be an American in a country which fundamentally failed to ever understand him. Actually, I suppose very little has changed in that respect. And of course, the works by Saariaho, Abbasi (which I commissioned), and Bryars are special as they’re works by people whom I consider friends and whose personal contact has meant much to me on my journey with this music. It just occurred to me that I’ve said all this without mentioning that the harpsichord is supposed to be a vehicle for old music, but weirdly only Americans and other backwards peoples — the ones loudest about being state-of-the-art individualists, mind you — have commented on that. Everyone else just listens to the album and takes it for what it is. After all, it’s just a box with some strings and pointy things which pluck said strings and that’s how it makes noise. Who cares about its history, otherwise? 


What is your selection process? What made you decide to record these particular composers and pieces? 


As I’ve mentioned, the selection process was just what I like to play. There’s more to it than that, I suppose, but as Nietzsche said, the process of finding the words reveals that the thoughts are already dead within me, and perhaps the process of verbalisation reveals some contempt for it which I’d rather not admit to. I picked the Ferrari in particular because I thought it would be interesting to set down as a recorded document a piece whose aleatoric elements would seem to elude the act of recording. 


Tell us about your musical relationship with John Cage. 


I wouldn’t say that I have a particularly deep musical relationship with John Cage so much as a serious intellectual one. I’m not particularly drawn to his music one way or the other, but he is the great elephant in the room when one discusses most modern music, isn’t he? I am very moved by his notion that the old ideas seem more frightening than the new ones. It reminds me of a saying I saw written on the wall of an art gallery in Prague, something along the lines that there are no kings on molehills. In other words, the act of taking oneself less seriously actually can be a great act of respect and re-engagement with the traditions of the past whilst inspiring one to take up new ideas with vigour. I fear Cage’s intellectual lesson is being lost on some thinkers of the present age, who have a hard time understanding that one can do two things at once. 


How do you think your background as a musicologist influences your behaviour as a performer?


All I can say to this is that it is better to think about something than to not think about it and then to accuse thinkers of being pedantic. I really don’t get that. This binary choice between intuition and the pejorative side of being scholarly just makes no sense to me. I like this question very much, though, because it gives us an opportunity to ask whether the separation of the performer from the composer and from the musicologist has been an altogether positive thing. 


What do you think is the place of the harpsichord in today’s musical world? What about in tomorrow’s musical world?


Anyone who has listened to this album and who is reading this interview knows that the answers are in my work up to this point. 


So, after Musique?, what’s next?


Lots of things. My recording of the first part of J.S. Bach’s Clavier-Übung - namely the Six Partitas BWV 825-830 - will be out some time in the next few months, as always on Hyperion. Then there’s the second part of the same collection, which includes the “Italian” Concerto BWV 971 and the Overture in the French Manner BWV 831 and other bits and bobs - I’ll record those in December. And then maybe I’ll record the French Suites BWV 812-817. You’re noticing a pattern here, I suspect! And next autumn I’ll record three modern Czech harpsichord concertos with Alexander Liebreich and the Prague Radio Symphony. Then I’ll have to see what I feel like doing; I’ve always wanted to record the six sonatas (1757) of Georg Anton Benda and maybe some Elliot Carter with the right colleagues. 


Thanks very much Mahan. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film — tell us about your latest cultural pearls?


Book: Maynard Solomon’s (very controversial) biography of Mozart, which I started to read years ago and now have taken up again to finally finish. Album: Souzay’s two recordings of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Film: Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa, whose work I am just getting to know


Bouncing on Mahan’s words; the virtual world has brought opportunities for composers — especially pianists — to present and perform their own music. Whether this is the return of the composer-performer is unsure, but there are definitely some changes on the approach and ownership of music — and art. Read my review of Musique?.

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