Freedom on stage: the pianist Igor Levit on the portrait film “No Fear”, the need for passionate art education and the limits of German culture of remembrance
In her extraordinary documentary film “Igor Levit – No Fear”, the documentarian Regina Schilling succeeds in creating a remarkable double portrait of the pianist: while she lets the interpreter’s work become visible with appropriate patience, she also accompanies him in his political interventions. In fact, both grow out of the same admirable passion. Rarely has classical music been conveyed so cleverly in the cinema, and rarely has culture’s struggle for survival in the Corona crisis been described so vividly.
Igor Levit, culture was suddenly no longer a matter of course during the lockdown, which made communicating it all the more important. As the film shows, you are particularly passionate about it, you remind me of Leonard Bernstein…
First of all, thank you very much, as far as the mediation is concerned, the director Regina Schilling and I often talked about Leonard Bernstein. As is probably the case for anyone in their right mind, Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts are a role model. Of course he is. But we live in different times. We are currently having enormous problems with legitimation, and it is a particularly difficult task in this political situation. On the one hand it is about renewal and on the other hand it is about preservation. It’s the same with cinema. If we don’t manage to preserve places, we can do the renewal somewhere else. But if we don’t renew, the places will eventually become obsolete. To the outside world, I don’t see my most important task as explaining how my secret works, but rather to inspire people to participate: Listen to this stuff! experience it! Experience it! I see this kind of mediation as my, if not my most important, task.
Why not explain the secret of how to do it? Is that untouchable for you? I’ve known actors who work so intuitively they’re afraid to talk about it.
To be honest, I can only agree with the actor colleague. I don’t even know what to say when I put my finger on the button. I also don’t share how I work on a piece unless I’m specifically asked to do so. And there are no general answers either. For me, the excitement level narrative is a much more important one.
Is there a point that is taboo for you? For example, your self-confidence in the performance, which could be endangered by too much reflection. After all, the film is called “No Fear”.
No, there is no point for me as an artist that I am afraid of. On the piano in general, but especially on stage with people, I experience one of the few real places of freedom in my life. This is a place and a moment where I feel very strong: nothing can happen to me. I don’t have to strive for posture when making music. And the deeper I can go into myself, the more beautiful. This place allows me the greatest form of freedom from fear.
But at the beginning you said something that can be frightening: the culture has a legitimation problem. What do you mean? Do we have so many other expenses that culture has to fight for its right again?
The culture doesn’t have to have to do anything. It must be allowed to exist. In the last three years we have experienced what happens when cultural places are dismissed as unimportant. Now everyone is up in arms and asking why the audience isn’t coming back here and not coming back there. And the answer is very complicated in each individual case. There are places that face existential questions. And that’s what we have to strive for. But what will happen to societies in which places in which questions can be asked freely, because that also creates culture, we can see now.
There are also many deficits in school education. There is no media science in schools, and contemporary music was not even mentioned in my music lessons. With you, people get to know Morton Feldman or the little-known Brit Ronald Stevenson. Do you see yourself as a curator of your music?
I sit at home and think: what excites me? It can be anything. Then I build a program for myself, and then the conveying of enthusiasm begins. Because I’m passionate about what I do. If I learned something from the house concerts at the beginning of the pandemic: people tuned in and never asked about the program. And I said: Today there is Morton Feldman. There were 80,000 people there. Some switched off, others stayed, but there was a basic trust. That is the most important thing for me. And the decisive reason for the mediation work.
Is it possible to convey music that you don’t like yourself?
I don’t ask you questions because I don’t want to play music I don’t like. There is so much good music out there, I never run out of stuff.
In the film you tell how a piece by Muddy Waters, the great blues musician, inspired you. Does it hurt you that you can’t express everything on the piano?
Igor Levit, born in 1987 in Gorki in what was then the Soviet Union, came to Hanover with his family in 1995 as a Jewish “quota refugee”. He later studied at the music academy there and has been a concert pianist since 2010. Levit, who is a member of the Greens, has supported both the “Friday for Future” movement and the demonstrations in the Dannenröder Forest with concerts.
His CDs are released by Sony, most recently “On DSCH” in 2021 with works by Dmtri Shostakovich and Ronald Stevenson.
That plunged me into a serious crisis.
But isn’t that a beautiful utopia? Knowing a piano can’t sound like a raspy blues voice, but could you try?
Of course, the most beautiful thing about making music is the utopian, the immaterial of the sounding air.
Now the way you convey music is very emotional…
Not only but yes.
… but New Music in particular was surrounded by a certain credo of sobriety, especially in Germany. Didn’t that leave a prejudice that is still difficult to overcome? I hardly found anyone as emotional as John Cage, and even Conlon Nancarrow’s jukeboxes had a soul to me. Are there works in New Music that you avoid because they leave you too little room for feeling?
It’s interesting what you’ve just done, you might not have noticed it at all: you named composers who you find inspired, and they weren’t the Germans after ’45. Even a Hans Werner Henze left Germany for good reasons. If you ask me, as I said at the beginning, I don’t play music I don’t like. And the music that I play from the late 20th and 21st centuries is often not from Germany. Now comes the general statement, for which I’m sure to get one in the mouth: I’ve seen the Americans, young composers, find it important to have a direct connection to the audience. And that is very close to me. I don’t feel close to purely abstract music. If she only defines herself through sound and noise, I can’t relate to her. But where it trembles, where it smells, where it stinks, where it burns, where it loves, where it trembles! In Germany Jörg Widmann is such an example, he writes music, I feel very close to him. And conveying that is not particularly difficult. As soon as people are in the room, they’ll hear it. But I don’t play music that only revolves around itself. Others do it terrifically well, I can’t – convey what I can’t convey to myself.
Now you also convey unpleasant feelings, albeit more outside of the concert hall. One of the strongest scenes in the film is your panel discussion with Wolfgang Schäuble: when you quote the terrible words an anti-Semite addressed to you, he shows himself incapable of empathy. Where does the failure of some politicians to face the ugly in this country come from?
The problem lies much deeper. What is politics for you is biography for people like me. We come back to the abstract and the non-abstract. The passage in the film speaks for itself. Linguistically, self-criticism is commonplace. But these statements have little or nothing to do with listening to the victims. It’s deep and it hurts. Where should I start?
We Germans often boast of a culture of remembrance that others lack – for example in Italy, where perhaps that is why the fascists are coming to power. But is this sovereignty of interpreting the past sometimes an alibi for ignoring the present?
I can’t make any comparisons with other countries and I can only repeat myself: Unfortunately, political gestures and actual listening often do not go hand in hand. As I said in Frankfurt at the award ceremony, …
… the Ludwig Landmann Prize for courage and attitude …
… on a societal level, as a Jew, I would protect every single stumbling block and support its installation with everything I have. But as a human Igor, I have to pay a very high price for having to see her every day. I don’t have a solution, but it would help a lot if the country gave me the feeling: Yes, we know there is a conflict. yes we hear you
Interview: Daniel Kothenschulte