It would not be an overstatement to describe Ludovico Einaudi as something of a phenomenon. With 132 million streams worldwide, 400,000 followers on Spotify, 11 million Vevo views and over 1.5 million records sold, his music speaks to a wide and varied audience and regularly fills concert halls. Yet to consider his work purely in numerical terms is to overlook the way he knits together different musical influences, forging a compositional voice which defies easy categorisation but is uniquely recognisable.
This certainly reflects the way Einaudi views his work; he is quick to shrug off any mention of his popularity, preferring instead to speak of the intensely personal nature of his work, which encapsulates the diverse experiences and ideas of a life lived with open ears.
Einaudi was surrounded by music from a young age, thanks to his creative mother and her father, a pianist, conductor and composer. “My youth exposed me to a lot of different musical worlds,” he says. “My mother played classical music on the piano, and I listened to The Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones. It felt natural to listen to everything without dividing music into different boxes.”
He took his first steps into composition as a teenager, initially improvising on piano and guitar. “It felt so natural. I began to write the music down on paper in my 20s, but I found that more difficult – it felt more fluid to compose connected with the instrument. It took me a while to get adjusted to the new technique, but it became natural again after a few years.”
Studies at Milan’s Conservatorio Verdi provided Einaudi with a solid grounding in the history of classical music, and he launched his career with commissions from major institutions at the forefront of musical innovation such as IRCAM, the Tanglewood Festival, and Beijing’s National Centre of Performing Arts.
With everything seemingly falling into place, the young composer nonetheless found himself somewhat discontented. “I realised I was missing the fluidity of what attracted me to music when I was younger. That is why I decided that I wanted to include all the music I loved – I wanted to open the windows and embraced everything.”
Finding a voice
Studying under Luciano Berio, composer of such famously eclectic works as the Sinfonia, encouraged Einaudi to cultivate his own voice. Although the elder composer schooled him in orchestration and 12-tone techniques, Berio’s musical vistas were wide. “Even though he belonged to the avant-garde – which was strict and rigid at that time – he was open to different musical worlds. He was working with folk and traditional musics from across the world, and he taught me how to embrace different styles.”
Einaudi came to realise that bringing together different musical worlds could enhance his work. “I realised that even in the classical music of the past, the great classical music has been fed by popular sources and traditions. If you look at Stravinsky’s music, it’s closely connected with traditional Russian folk music.
“When composers connect to those traditions, they are enriched by them. This is why I feel I am enriched by different sources and I like to be connected with folk traditions.”
His fascination with alternative musical traditions has quite literally opened up new sonic possibilities, with instruments including the Armenian duduk, the kora and the waterphone featuring in his work.
However, his extramusical inspirations are just as fascinating: modernist writer Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves inspired Einaudi’s work of the same name, and Nightbook was conceived as a response to the work of the avant-garde German painter Anselm Kiefer. He is also interested in the relationship between mathematics, science and music. “You can take ideas from science and natural forms and apply them to musical forms and processes. A lot of architecture has taken its ideas from the natural world and its shapes and forms.”
For Einaudi, music helps us to clarify our place in the world – he even describes his life as ‘a musical voyage’– providing him with a means of communicating his experiences as directly as possible. “It has given me the opportunity to express my emotions and connect with other people, and has made my life richer and more balanced,” he says. However, it remains something deeply personal: the composer firmly rejects the idea that he thinks about his audience while composing. “It’s a very personal thing – I have to connect with the music myself. It’s a connection I have to feel between myself and what I do.”
It’s a connection that millions of people clearly also feel keenly. “Lots of people of different ages can find something that inspires them in my music – something that connects them with the contemporary world. At the same time, they probably find something that is more intimate – like something that is part of my personal being.”
Particularly interesting is the fact that young people aged between 16 and 24 comprise 35% of Einaudi’s listenership. When I ask the composer whether he thinks of his works as a means of helping young audiences to engage with modern classical music, he answers by speculating on why his compositions might particularly appeal to young pianists.
“There’s so much fantastic piano music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Rachmaninov, but it’s difficult to find music written after 1950 which brings the pianist the same joy that they get when they play a piece by Schumann or Chopin,” he muses. “I think a lot of young people that love to play piano seem to find in my works a contemporary feel that can fill this gap.”
Love and hate
His works might be a form of pure self-expression, but the composition process is by no means effortless. “It’s always difficult to write a good piece of music. There’s a lot of work and it never comes easily – it’s not like drinking a glass of water! You have to work hard; sometimes you’re happy, and sometimes you’re not. It alternates between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, love and hate.”
The rewards, though, are worth it, and Einaudi clearly continues to take great pleasure in his work. “Every time that I finish something, it’s beautiful to see how people connect to it – what music they like more, if they feel the same emotion that you feel when you write your music. One of the proudest moments of my career was when I completed The Waves, which was the first album I composed, performed and recorded. Writing the piano concerto that was performed at the beginning of this year was an equally beautiful experience.”
I ask him what advice he would give other composers. “People often come to me with music that is very similar to mine, and I immediately tell them that they shouldn’t take my music as their only model. You have to experiment with different languages and different possibilities before you find yourself.
“I would say that before arriving to a solution you have to travel a lot in the world of music. Then you will find your path.”
Article first featured in The Works