Meeting extraordinary musicians

By Frances Wilson  -  18 May 2015

A successful blog should have varied and regularly updated content, and in the five years since I established my blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist I have sought to regularly “reinvent” the blog and its content to offer my readers a greater range of articles and posts. In 2012 I decided to launch an interview series, inspired in part by The Proust Questionnaire which appears in Vanity Fair magazine. 

The Proust Questionnaire is a questionnaire about one’s personality and is drawn from a series of questions put to the French writer Marcel Proust. Subsequently, the Proust Questionnaire has become a popular means of revealing the tastes and aspirations of the interviewee. I thought it might be interesting to put a set of questions, based on the Proust Questionnaire, to classical musicians and composers, and thus my ‘Meet the Artist’ interview series was born.



There are thousands of interviews with musicians and composers across the internet and in journals, newspapers and magazines, but many are personalised for each interviewee. My interviews are different and closely resemble the Proust Questionnaire in that exactly the same set of questions is put to each respondent. Questions cover aspects such as influences and inspirations, significant teachers, performing, recording, and favourite concert venues, works and musicians. This has the effect of revealing both common threads (in particular, in response to the question “What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?”) and wildly differing responses, which is what makes the series so interesting. The main purpose of the interview is to give musicians and composers an opportunity to discuss their musical and creative lives and to offer readers unique insights into the working habits of the classical musician. I think there is a great curiosity about how musicians work day to day, and one of the functions of the series is to debunk the ridiculous and outdated view that classical musicians exist in ivory towers and are totally unapproachable. In fact, the interviewees reveal themselves to be “normal” people who leads “normal” lives, who have families, pets, mortgages to pay, homework to supervise, but who also do something wonderful: make, and create, music. 

I was fortunate in the early days of the series (it was established in 2012) to interview some leading British musicians and composers, including pianists Leon McCawley and Peter Donohoe, composer James Macmillan, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston which undoubtedly helped establish the reputation of the series. But at the outset, I was also keen to present young and emerging artists, and I was delighted to feature cellist Joy Lisney, who is establishing herself as one of the UK’s leading young string players; young composer Alexander Woolf; and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who, at the time of the interview, was just becoming known following his ground-breaking performance of the Goldberg Variations, the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms.

A friend of mine once said “You’re so lucky to be able to meet all these interesting people!” but in fact nearly all my interviews are conducted by email. This is deliberate: first, I am not a natural interviewer, and secondly, I feel that people need longer to consider their responses. The resulting interviews are all fascinating, individual and hugely insightful, revealing the myriad pleasures and exigencies of life as a professional musician. One of the most intriguing questions is “What is your most treasured possession?” which is directly drawn from the Proust Questionnaire. Some may respond with “my family”, “my piano”, or in the case of French pianist François-Frédéric Guy “my dear cat Patou!”; but others have offered unexpectedly personal or poignant replies, including a treasured leather music case used by the interviewee for childhood piano lessons, or a holy relic of Cardinal Newman.

In terms of approaching people to interview, there is no doubt that Twitter has been an excellent source of interviewees, and the immediacy and friendliness of the platform makes it relatively easy to invite people to take part in the series. I used to be quite shy about approaching very well-known artists, and hesitated for ages about contacting British pianist Stephen Hough. Of course when I eventually did, he was absolutely charming, and his interview remains one of the most fascinating and popular in the series.


With interviews queued up to the end of 2015, there is no sign of interest in the series waning. Recently, I was asked who would be my “dream interviewee” and I replied “Piotr Anderszewski”. The Polish pianist remains one of my musical heroes, and I would love to have the opportunity to explore various aspects of his musical life, including influences, significant teachers, performing and touring, and his advice for aspiring musicians. (Piotr, if you are reading this, do get in touch.) Meanwhile, my sincere thanks go out to everyone who has taken part in the series and who has contributed to its success and popularity.


 

Find out more about the series and read all the interviews to date here http://crosseyedpianist.com/meet-the-artist/

About Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, music PR, and writer on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. In addition to her blog, Frances is a regular writer for Hong Kong-based classical music website Interlude HK, and has also written for Pianist magazine, reviewed for Bachtrack.com, and contributed a series of articles on Schubert's penultimate piano sonata to The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute of the UK. She has also appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters to discuss the role of music criticism today and the effect of the internet on music journalism and writing. Frances lives in west Dorset with her husband, cat and 'Bechy', a 1913 C Bechstein grand piano.

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