Alexandra Coghlan chats to shape-shifting composer Ludovico Einaudi to learn how he’s subverting the classical rulebook and smashing digital sales records.
Ludovico Einaudi is big news. He regularly sells out stadiums, nightclubs and concert halls all over the world. He tops charts, breaks digital download records and inspires devotion from legions of fans. Standard, surely, for a big international act these days? Perhaps, but with just one difference: Ludovico is a classical composer.
Or is he? It’s a question that has dogged the career of a composer and pianist whose meditative, cyclic music has been described – or dismissed – variously as ambient, new age, atmospheric and even easy listening. Sitting somewhere between the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, the lyric al flow of Chopin and the otherworldly soundscapes of Eno or Autechre, Ludovico has championed melody when it is no longer fashionable and sold sincerity where cynicism and disillusionment are the standard currency.
All that matters is whether music is able to communicate something to the listener
‘I just always try to write music that I like myself,’ he explains gently. ‘I don’t understand why there is this snobbery. It’s really not necessary to take this moralistic approach to the arts. All that matters is whether music is able to communicate something to the listener – and that can be through an avant-garde piece of atonalism or an incredible tonal piece.’
Chris Butler, worldwide Head of Publishing at Music Sales and Ludovico’s publisher, agrees. ‘There’s this sense that classical music has to be difficult or unapproachable in order to be taken seriously.
‘As a publisher that’s the last thing I want. I want music to find an audience. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s shallow. Ludovico understands that he needs to connect with his audience, but that doesn’t stop him being experimental. Each of his projects introduces new sounds, new elements, yet he always manages to take his fan base with him.’
In a stadium, Ludovico and his piano can hold the attention of audiences more used to a three-minute pop song for a whole hour – calm, magnetic, focused. But in person the softly-spoken Italian composer looks much more like an expensive psychologist or business consultant than an artist – thick-rimmed black glasses and black jacket his unchanging uniform.
The composer spends much of the year on the road, touring all round the world. But when I call he’s at his vineyard home in Piedmont, sitting near his beloved Steinway. What’s on the piano? ‘Bach, always Bach; The Beatles Songbook. But it can be anything – folk music, pop songs, rock music.’
It’s this eclecticism, this uncomplicated love of music in all its forms, which has shaped Ludovico’s distinctive voice, making him one of the few artists to be played both on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 1. And it’s a diversity that doesn’t stop here. You’re as likely to find the composer working on a film score or collaborative dance project as you are writing his own solo works.
‘I don’t like the idea of different categories of music. I don’t like the idea of different categories of people. I’ve spent my whole career being unpredictable and have made a success of it. For me that’s a good sign – a sign of the time, a sign that the rules are changing. I dream about a world in which anybody can listen to any kind of music without genres or boundaries getting in the way.’
It’s a dream that’s quickly becoming a reality, with the rise of digital music exploding the old record shop categories and generating a whole new market for music. Ludovico is the first classical artist whose digital sales outstrip his physical albums – the ‘first classical digital star’, as Butler puts it – something that has begun to influence the way he writes.
‘I grew up with vinyl. Then the CD came along and suddenly music changed because an album could contain so much more music than a record. Similarly, Mozart’s concertos or Bach’s cantatas were written for a specific purpose and were written to a particular length,’ Ludovico says.
‘Digital music changes everything. The only time limit you have to take into account is human concentration. You can write a three-minute piece or one of three hours. Now we as artists have the opportunity to take back the authority, to decide for ourselves what the limits should be.’
But with so many possibilities, so many traditions and sound palettes to choose from, how does Ludovico go about composing? ‘I generally sit at the piano. An initial idea might emerge from improvising, but then I write it down and go through a long process to develop it and explore all its possibilities.
‘I’ll only stop once it feels mature and complete – it can take days, and at other times it’s quite quick. When I’m touring of course it’s harder. If ideas come I’ll generally sketch them down and save them to work on later.’
Many listeners speak of the ‘spiritual’ quality of Ludovico’s music and respond very intensely to its shifting, evolving patterns and song-like melodies. ‘It’s something that is very mysterious to me,’ the composer says.
‘There’s certainly no recipe. Every time I write music I search for something truthful and just hope, eventually, that I will find it. I delve into memories, things that have given me inspiration. I try and recreate those sensations but transform them with new forms and shapes. I put all my visions, my emotions, my spirituality into what I write – they are all laid out for people to see. I think if I didn’t people wouldn’t respond in the same way.’
Ludovico gets his own inspiration from other artists, frequently collaborating to produce film scores (notably Shane Meadows’ coming-of-age drama This is England and 2012’s quirky hit Untouchable).
It’s mystery that attracts me to a project, whether that’s in another artist, an idea or an image
‘It’s mystery that attracts me to a project, whether that’s in another artist, an idea or an image,’ he explains. ‘I have to develop my own work within someone else’s limits – following a story, perhaps, in a film, or using particular rhythms in a ballet. You build a creative dialogue with someone else, and out of that two-way conversation a third thing emerges.’
He credits these collaborations with helping develop a style that has taken him from minimal, solo piano albums to a much more symphonic sound today, most recently enhanced by electronic textures.
‘During the nineties I wanted to discover what the essence of my music, my language, was. So I took everything away and distilled it right down. After that I began slowly to add elements back in around that core, building different colours and textures alongside the piano. Recently it has become more layered and dimensional, and harmonically much bolder.’
Ludovico’s children – his son a film score composer, his daughter a singer songwriter – have also influenced his development. ‘We suggest different music to each other. My son showed my some amazing beatboxers on YouTube recently, and I played him some Stravinsky. But we share a lot of common ground, and our work music feels very connected.’
But with the proliferation of digital music – Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, SoundCloud – will this next generation of composers be able to make a living as their father has done? It’s a problem Chris Butler takes very seriously. ‘It’s absolutely still possible to make a living as a composer, but you need to have an audience. You also need infrastructure.
‘From a publisher’s perspective there’s no point having all this artistic success unless you’ve got structures in place to help you capitalise on that. Ludovico has just joined us to help assure his commercial future – to turn artistic success into the income he needs to survive.’
However, for the composer himself, priorities are a little different. ‘Success for me is not about how much money you can make; it’s about connecting with people through music. That’s what fascinates me, what makes me want to sit down to compose. How can I bring out emotions in someone they never knew they had?’
For an artist so digitally active, Ludovico is surprisingly insistent on the value of the concert hall, the live musical experience. ‘I want to invent new forms of listening to a concert, to get audiences involved in different ways. Just look at what theatre companies are doing now – using unusual spaces, getting people walking around. I want now to start exploring that interaction between theatre and music, to combine different modes of expression to take my music into new territories.
‘There’s a magic to a live performance, and it’s a magic that bewitches and transforms the performer as well. As an artist I embrace digital change and innovation, but I hope we never lose that – it’s what music is all about.’