Arts interview

The head and the heart

The Tech speaks with pianist and former MIT artist-in-residence Alan Feinberg

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Alan Feinberg, pianist and former MIT artist-in-residence, performs this Friday in Killian Hall.
Alan Feinberg

World-famous pianist and American music specialist Alan Feinberg was an artist-in-residence at MIT the week of the Boston lockdown last April. His recital, originally scheduled for that fateful Friday evening, will now take place tonight, Friday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. in Killian Hall.

Feinberg has premiered over three hundred works by composers such as John Adams, Milton Babbitt, John Harbison, Steve Reich, and Charles Wuorinen. He is known for pairing old and new music and putting a fresh, provocative perspective on both. The four-time Grammy nominee was featured on the opening night of the San Francisco Symphony’s Maverick Festival, among other noteworthy events. He spoke with The Tech about what music means to him.

The Tech: As students we’re often wondering if we are on the right track, or if we should change directions. Did you ever consider diverging from the career path of a pianist?

Alan Feinberg: I suppose that I could say that becoming a concert pianist was my “divergence” because, by industry standards, it was something I came to quite late in comparison with many of my colleagues. I am definitely a fan of being a “late bloomer.” It tends to rescue you from many of the conflicts which accompany big decisions made at early ages, and allows you to enjoy what comes your way and see opportunities as surprising bonuses.

TT: What is the life of a professional pianist? Is there such thing as a typical day for you?

AF: There is no typical day: you’re home, you’re on the road, you’re practicing, you’re fretting about not practicing, you’re meeting people, you’re alone.

TT: We’re looking forward to your concert this Friday, which was originally scheduled for April 19 but canceled due to the Boston lockdown. Has the performance changed from what you originally planned for April 19?

AF: It is the same program. The first half is extracted from a new CD that was released this summer entitled Basically Bull, which features amazing music from the beginnings of virtuoso keyboard music. There is also a sonata by Charles Wuorinen that was written for me (this is his 75th birthday year), and a work of Chopin. Bull, Chopin and Wuorinen were all composers and pianists.

TT: Is that the “theme” of Friday night’s program?

AF: The Bull and the Wuorinen are both examples of composer pianists writing in avant-garde styles (16th and 20th century) that pushed the technical demands on the keyboard performer to new, and somewhat extreme levels. Chopin, of course, is one of the essential keyboard composers of the 19th century. I have a strong feeling of connection to all three of them.

TT: What, if anything, could engineers and scientists, and MIT students in general, learn from music?

AF: Not really sure how to answer this. The best music seems to comprise the head and the heart and I suspect that any human endeavor that coordinates yin and yang, the physical and mental, the intellect and the emotions is good for our brains and our quality of life.

TT: In 2003, concert pianist Francois-Rene Duchable hired a helicopter to drop his piano into a lake, thereby dramatically ending his career. It sounded crazy, but exciting, to me. He mentioned getting rid of the weight of his career through “purification by water.” What do you think he meant?

AF: The social organization of the music world (and I suppose most areas of endeavor: academics, sciences and entertainment) tends to be structured around a small group of powerful stereotypes that are often quite removed from the deeper reality of the development of the art form. Despite the rhetoric and the marketing there is very little differentiation in what is offered to the public, and an increasing sense that musicians are interchangeable since they mostly all play the same pieces at a fairly consistent level. I suspect that Mr. Duchable was reacting to the glut of similar musicians, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of concert repertoire, and the difficulties of bucking the business interests of the music world he came up against.

TT: Creativity plays a role in all fields, from engineering to painting. What does creativity mean to you?

AF: My own philosophy has been to attempt to be seriously engaged with the areas of the music world that are creating new music and to try (when I have the opportunity) to present concerts that proffer a view of the historical continuum: the connections between the old and the new, the familiar and the obscure. I have been lucky enough to have had many opportunities (such as this concert at MIT) to “do my thing” even though it is outside of the normative fashions of the music world.