in conversation with Thomas Moore
This interview with pianist Yvar Mikhashoff took place on Saturday, October 8, 1983, probably in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Moore: You’ve been performing new music now for quite a long time. Why new music? And do you do other music as well?
Yvar Mikhashoff: The earliest music that I do otherwise is Liszt, I would say from the past ten or fifteen years. Before that of course I had a kind of background and played earlier music, never liking it very much. I remember the first music I heard of Khachaturian and Webern when I was about ten, and I thought it was the real music, and my teacher had me on the wrong track. Why do I play new music? A friend of mine, a colleague, a dear friend, Ursula Oppens, summed it up very simply, when she said — when Morton Feldman asked her why she was playing so much new music, and she said, “Well, you know, I can play the same Beethoven sonata over and over again, and if I have a question I can ask my colleagues. But if I’m doing Wuorinen’s Second Sonata, all I have to do is pick up the phone and ask him.” And that’s how I feel, too. I also like the fact of being part of the culture around me, the music that’s going on. I don’t like museums, either, very much. I’ll go to contemporary art museums, but I don’t go to see old things. I like to feel that no matter how old I get I’ll still be playing the music that is being written right at that time.
TM: And yet you still play Liszt and older material, and you still can’t call up Liszt!
YM: No. But, you know, the way that I treat early Liszt and Debussy, for example, as I guess the way other pianists would treat Bach or Beethoven. See, that’s where the sources and the roots are. I put that music in my programs because it’s sort of something that establishes a base. Like when you need to write something, you have to have a tablet. For example, a program I’m doing is going to be five Debussy Preludes, and then some Danish works, including a new piece written this summer by Per Nørgård, and the second half it’s the Carter Night Fantasies and a piece by James Sellars from Hartford, Connecticut for piano and tape. But the Debussy at the beginning is a Prelude. It sort of opens the door. I will often do late Liszt at the beginning of a program. I do a lot of programs of the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. I regard that as all part of my culture, you see. I think from late Liszt and Debussy, that’s as far back as I go, but I mix that all in with what I’m doing today. All new. I’ve done programs of all new music. I may do that in April or May.
TM: As far as things being part of your culture, what is in your history, your musical history, your studies?
YM: I was born in Troy, New York, and I was raised in Albany. So I’m upstate New York. And, as I said, I began to get interested very early in more contemporary music. I began to write, myself, when I was about eight. And then I went to Eastman as a cello and composition major, and a piano minor, and then left that, and then went to Juilliard as a piano major. And then I did another strange thing, which was I left Juilliard altogether, and for four years I was a professional ballroom dancer. And I trained teachers all over the United States and traveled to Europe and England. It’s a kind of world that people know very little about, especially in this country. It’s very well known in England. As English people will tell you, you know, if someone tells you their son or daughter wants to be a ballroom champion, it’s like wanting to be a movie star. But I was one of the people that introduced English dancing to the United States. And at a certain point, I decided that the satisfaction I got from that was not the satisfaction that I got from being a musician, which all happened, dramatically enough, after a visit to Liszt’s villa. And I left, and I went back to school, and it was as a pianist. Then, I finished one degree, and then I went to Nadia Boulanger and studied composition in Paris with her. Came back to the United States and finished a doctorate in composition. And then I got a job immeidiately, then I graduated as a pianist. And that’s what I have I have the same job now, State University of New York at Buffalo, where I teach contemporary courses for composers in contemporary music. I teach contemporary chamber music and organize a festival every year, and I teach private piano students, especially students who are interested in performing contemporary music.
TM: Do you still compose?
YM: I wrote a piece in ’81, and before that I hadn’t written … I had written maybe a piece a year. I wrote a lot when I was younger. I don’t have time to play the music of other people and write my own music. I wish I did. I am filled with ideas. What I do do is I made transcriptions of other composers’ music. I just finished a version of El Salon Mexico for chamber ensemble for Copland. I did a suite for Krenek from his opera Jonny spielt auf. That’s the way I use my creative juices. It’s the kind of thing that I can practice all day, and then I can sit down and do that for several hours in the evening. I don’t have to choose the notes; I can choose the instrumentation. So that’s a way of keeping my hand in the pot, as it were.
TM: You mentioned Carter’s Night Fantasies. Are you one of the pianists who commissioned that work?
YM: No. Those are Ursula Oppens, Charles Rosen, Gilbert Kalish, and the late Paul Jacobs, who organized the project. I’m learning the Fantasies because I’ve been invited to come to the ISCM Festival in October of ’83 to perform the Night Fantasies and also to do Mantra of Stockhausen and the premiere of an English piano concerto by John Hopkins. And they requested specifically that I play the Night Fantasies and I tossed it around a long time and decided that I would. And Elliott Carter is a dear friend and I think it will be nice to work with him on the piece.
TM: Just as an aside, I wasn’t aware that Paul Jacobs had passed away.
YM: About two weeks ago tomorrow. He had cancer, a long and difficult illness.* As a matter of fact, he recorded the Night Fantasies and the four-hand version of Petroushka and some music of Mozart and Busoni as the three last records. He was recording quite up to the end.
TM: It’s a shame. Have you done much recording yourself? You mentioned you have several albums which are available.
YM: I have a no longer available recording of Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques.
TM: What label was that on?
YM: HMS. And then I’m one of the pianists on the Nonesuch Waltz Project record. I have a recording on CRI of piano sonatas from the ’40s of Hunter Johnson, Jack Beeson and … sorry, I have a blank! … Hunter Johnson, Jack Beeson and Robert Palmer. And a record for Spectrum of the “Concord” Sonata of Ives, which is done in my own edition, as it were, because I did research on all the copies. Another record of Spectrum of the music of Virgil Thomson, and I just finished a record in Denmark this summer for Paula Records of three Danish works that were written for me in the past two years. And I will for that company do a record of American music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, and then there’s another CRI album coming out of a piano concerto by James Sellers, and a piano sonata of Sellers. There are several other projects coming fast and furious.
TM: You’ve had several composers — in fact, quite a few — write for you, including John Cage. Are they all friends? Do you work with them?
YM: Yeah. Isn’t that almost necessary, though? The Cage piece came about, for example, when I was in New York at the debut concert of Aki Takahashi, the Japanese pianist. And we had planned the concert together of four-hand music and solo music of Cage and Satie. And John attended the concert, and we asked him about a piece that would be appropriate, and he said, “Come for lunch tomorrow.” And right after lunch, he wrote out the piece, called Furniture Music Etcetera for two pianos, a mixture of music of Satie and Cage, which he composed for us for that occasion, which we subsequently did in New York, in Connecticut, in Holland, and England. Lukas Foss I approached for a piece in about 1980. I mentioned to him that he hadn’t written a piano piece for 28 years, and I thought he, one of the best pianists around, should write a piece. Christian Wolff wrote Eleven Preludes for me in 1979, ’80 and ’81, which I did at New Music America in Chicago, 1982, which are very beautiful. I’ve played them all over Europe as well, like the piece of Foss, I’ve done all over Europe, maybe 17, 18 times in different European cities. So they are … and Henry Brandt wrote a concerto for me for the Holland Festival. I think I meet the composer, and the composer has heard me play, and seen me on stage, and talked to me, and I feel that I understand the music. I’m a pianist that favors humanisitc music, in the sense … I use that word, in my own way, to say that, for example, I don’t believe I have ever played a serial piece, which is sort of odd, and I have never deliberately steered away from serial music. I just noted it recently when I was preparing for a piano marathon that I’m doing, that there was no serial piece on it, because I had never done one. So it’s the humanistic composers whose music appeals to me, and maybe their personalities too. And those are the kinds of people that have written for me. And then many European composers. Luis de Pablo of Spain, Per Nørgård of Denmark, John White of England. Betsy Jolas of France is writing me a piece this year or the coming year. And most of my activities as a pianist are in Europe, where I spend three to four months total time elapsed every year, especially playing American works and new American works. And conversely, for example, in a couple of weeks, I’ll be playing these two new Danish works in the United States, as I will do the Spanish works. I feel I’m kind of a trans-Atlantic pianist, like the Atlantic cable, keeping the lines open.
TM: In regards to humanistic music, if we may use the term, is, say, Babbitt’s music non-humanistic?
TM: In what way is serial music non-humanistic?
YM: Well … you must remember that …
TM: You feel that there’s a lack of human imprint, somehow.
YM: Yeah. Well, now, first of all, I like Milton very much, and I happen to like some of his music very much to hear. And there is a difference, you see. Like I’m very fond of the Music for Twelve Instruments, Composition for Four Instruments, the Reflections for piano and tape is stunning. But, you see, when I sit at the piano, I seem not to be able to perceive what’s behind it. I think that I am too blinded by the process, and I don’t feel that I can get myself involved. I have a romantic temperament, and, you know, as I said, I play Liszt and … I’m a Liszt/Debussy pianist, and then contemporary music. I am not, for example, the Mozart, Bach and contemporary pianist that Charles Rosen is.
*Paul Jacobs passed away on September 25, 1983, from AIDS, and at the time the disease and its means of transmission were not well understood, and its victims were often regarded with derision. Sadly, Yvar was to fall to the same illness in 1993.