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Interview with pianist Bruce Brubaker

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at] A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bruce Brubaker is the current Chair of Piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. An alumnus of the Juilliard School, where he captured the Edward Steuermann prize and taught from 1995 to 2004, Brubaker's writing can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Piano Quarterly, and USA Today; he blogs regularly at ArtsJournal (PianoMorphosis).

In early 2014, Brubaker releases two new albums: the early piano works of Philip Glass (InFiné), and pieces by Meredith Monk for one and two pianos with Ursula Oppens (ECM). On January 31 at la salle Henry James in Nantes, Brubaker performs Glass for La Folle Journée. Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with the eloquent pianist, Bruce Brubaker.

EH: The recording industry has clearly affected the aesthetics of our musical culture. You mentioned on your ArtsJournal blog that we can now see the micro-timings of Martha Argerich’s eighth-notes. Are machines helping us to reach our potential in artistic endeavors ? Or are they hurting the natural connection we have with expressiveness and imperfection ?

Brubaker: I think it’s a very exciting time for music. These projects with technology are allowing us to better understand what it is that musicians have been doing all along. Of course, live musicians play with unequal rhythm and unequal beats, but we’ve never really had a complete understanding of how it’s accomplished. It’s quite empowering, really. The old model was a composer who wrote down all the notes, a performer who followed that score, and the listener who passively received this in a room. That’s gone now I think, and technology is helping us to understand that the three elements are each essential to music.

The three roles are constantly evolving. The personal sound-technology we have is unprecedented: the portable devices, the global, temporally accessible library of music that you can get on your phone! The position of the listener is - not necessarily elevated - but now disclosed, and as important as ever. I sometimes joke that we’re all composers now (which might not be true), but we’re certainly all participators in the substance of this musical art.

I don’t have the statistics, but when you think of the number of hours people are now exposed to music, it’s really changed the experience and definition of the word 'music'. Even the mention of having attended a concert now has to be modified: it’s live music. If we recognize that technology is allowing us to function in ways that are useful - there are so many new things coming along - it’s very exciting, and defining these first moments of the twenty-first century.

EH: Collectors of old musical recordings often reject the talents of today in favor of yesterday’s glorious sound world. You’ve quoted Schoenberg, who said, “It must be admitted that in the period around 1900 many artists overdid themselves in exhibiting the power of the emotion they were capable of feeling…”. Would you like to elaborate on this most interesting subject ? As an aside, does the legend of Franz Liszt have anything to do with this ?

Brubaker: It probably does. There are a couple of sides to it. Schoenberg’s statement was made in an article about post-World-War-II orchestral conducting. There is something seductively appealing about old recordings - I’m thinking of piano recordings by Robert Lortat or Ignaz Friedman. As beautiful as they are though, I wonder if it’s a kind of extreme mannerism, and this might also apply to the symphonies of Mahler, the music of a time when Europe was trying to understand more about humanity. Schoenberg’s statement refers to the period around 1900. I believe Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was first published in 1899.

Philip Glass said something very interesting about the music he wrote in the 1960s. He said, “If there is a new music being made, if that music doesn’t come with a new performance practice, it’s not really a new music”. The idea that there was one privileged, one best way to play something -- Czerny got the truth from Beethoven and then gave it to Liszt -- I’d like to move away from that toward multiple ways of reading a scripted text. (I almost said 'sacred text'!)

One is tantalized by the reactions of people who heard Liszt and the performers of the pre-recording-period. I believe that even if we were magically able to hear the sound waves of a performer like Liszt, we wouldn’t yet be hearing the music he made - and this has to do with what we talked about earlier. It’s very much about what the listener brings to completing the 'musical circuit', we might call it. In order to have music, somebody has to produce it and somebody has to be receiving it.

I’m sure the playing of Liszt was absolutely stunning and fantastic. We have recordings of it in the form of the descriptive words of those who heard him (Heine’s “Lisztomania”). But, in terms of sound waves, I’m fairly confident that to our standards of technical accomplishment, I doubt it would be satisfying to us. I base this on the recordings from the early twentieth century that we do have. I’m a tremendous fan of recordings from period - the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s - but at the same time, my belief is that the music that is completed by me now, the listener listening now, is not the same as it was for a listener from that time. It’s an important thing to come to terms with. Performance history is utterly fascinating, but sometimes I feel we’re lucky not to have sound recordings of the playing of Liszt. Not having such recordings liberates us, and allows us to be part of our own time.

I’m reminded of the writings of Roland Barthes, specifically on the piano-playing of the nineteenth century and the twentieth, where he writes, “For today’s pianist, enormous esteem but no fervor”. I think that’s something in classical music that we’re a bit perplexed by. We can understand intellectually that many of today’s musicians are playing at a level of unprecedented technical accomplishment, but the impact of what they’re doing doesn’t compare with what we read about the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

EH: In your opinion, is there a crisis going on in composition -- by this, I mean the relationship between the public and what they know of composition, composers, and its developments ? What would it take for common people to recognize a Mahler on the streets of Vienna or on the subway in New York again ?

Brubaker: The classical music press talks about this a lot, but I can’t think of a more lively time than right now - at least not a time in the past thirty or forty years. The mechanisms of music production - and I’m using that word on purpose - are radically shifting. I think the composer, with a capital 'C', is going away. In the academic world of composition, that’s a bit scary. But there are all sorts of interesting things coming from 'sound artists' and people who aren’t traditional composers.

The public is quite receptive to new music - to the music of Nico Muhly, for example, who was trained in a traditional, perhaps elitist way. He’s having a large impact. I’m very interested in art that is useful for people in the moment. The idea that art is written for posterity or discovered long after it’s made is not a very good thing, in my opinion. Historically, Rossini was the most important composer at the beginning of the nineteenth century - it wasn’t Beethoven, who wanted to be Rossini. But, how many of Rossini’s operas are now heard? It’s certainly not an indication of what his music meant to the people of the time. The music that lasts the longest is not necessarily the best.

People ask me about Glass: 'Will Glass’s music be heard a hundred years from now?' And my feeling about it is that many people are interested in knowing and listening to his work right now! It is also possible that certain kinds of art are not aimed at a very large audience, and that’s fine also. We shouldn’t necessarily measure the value of something according to the number of people who appreciate it.

EH: Speaking of Rossini and Glass, renowned critic Tim Page, a fan of both, said, “I wouldn’t trade Pollini, Argerich, Richard Goode, Peter Serkin or Bruce Brubaker (to mention a terrific younger artist) for any handful of Horowitzes!”. Who are some of the pianistic giants of the twentieth century who have influenced your artistry: is there a performer whose recordings you find yourself returning to after all these years ? And is Mr. Horowitz one of these ?

Brubaker: That’s so interesting. As a very young pianist, Horowitz was my model, and I would say my early intoxication with the instrument was brought about by his recordings. It was such an obsession - probably frustrating to my teacher - that there was a time I would only study pieces that Horowitz performed in public. These days, to be honest, I don’t spend much time listening to canonic music. There are a few recordings I’m involved with that I might listen to, perhaps once a year (laughs). With Ignaz Friedman’s recordings of Chopin’s mazurkas, for example, I feel I’ve already become too affected by his interpretations. I’d like to preserve some neutrality (laughs).

In the case of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie - a piece I first heard played by Horowitz (his recording from the 1960s) - I had to exorcise his ideas from my playing. I had, wittingly or unwittingly, absorbed his ideas, his rhythmic sense, into my understanding of the piece. It became very difficult to get closer to the substance of the piece. Performance practices become ingrained in our understanding. Chopin’s First Ballade is another excellent example. Routinely, we hear seven beats played in many of the twenty measures of the first material (it’s notated as six beats per bar). Where does this come from? Well, it comes from Rubinstein and his generation. I think as illuminating as older recordings can be in terms of the essence or nature of a style, these details can be dangerous because we inevitably copy them.

EH: Speaking of exorcising Horowitz, Virgil Thomson had much to do and say about the profession of the music critic. In your opinion, what is the purpose or role of the critic ? Has the job description changed since Thomson’s days on the aisle ?

Brubaker: Yes, I think it’s radically shifted just now. I was entertained, several years ago, when I read the blog of a critic who I admire very much. He speculated that perhaps one day, people online - blogs and other formats - might replace the knowledgeable newspaper critic. I chuckled when I read this, because it’s already happened. One of the things we’re seeing, with the cutting of newspaper critics from larger papers around the world, is simply an acknowledgement of what’s happening. Of course, I enjoy reading certain people - I very much enjoy reading Zachary Woolfe in the Times. I’m delighted that the world is still set up so that reading someone like him is possible; but it may not be the case for much longer.

Some of the things we once relied on critics to do are perhaps no longer necessary. It’s very easy to sample or stream a track now. Do I really need a critic to tell me to go out and buy it? I was recently involved in a run of performances in New York, and we were really hoping the Times would review the show. They sent a photographer, but for whatever reason, there was no review. Some people were upset about this, as a review often helps sell tickets. But, as it turned out, there were so many online reviews, Twitter, and so forth, so many people posting things about the performances that the tickets pretty much sold out. The Times critic, in some sense, was no longer needed. So I think we don’t need middlemen as much as we used to. I don’t want to imagine a world without intelligent writers about music, but their function has definitely changed. If this isn’t necessarily good, it is indicative of our present time.

EH: A question I often ask young performers fresh out of conservatory is “What would you have liked to learn in music school, something that wasn’t taught ?”. As the Chair of Piano at NEC, what are some of the misconceptions you find among students ? Is it a lack of open-mindedness towards certain branches of the repertoire, confusion about careers, etc. ?

Brubaker: That’s very interesting. I find that among my students, there are many different kinds of musicians. Some are engaged in a wide variety of repertoire, others are interested in entirely different kinds of music - non-piano, non-Western music. I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to be a very good idea to be involved in a specialized, very narrow branch of classical music. When a student comes to me and says, 'I plan to make a life out of really knowing all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas', I feel that is a lovely thing on a personal level. But, as a useful pursuit in our artistic world, it’s not a very needed thing. It takes some people a long time to figure things out.

On the other hand, there are musicians who are more interested in what the world needs. I see all sorts of things that need doing, and I wish young, talented musicians would serve that purpose. A lot of old conservatories are coming to terms with how to help students in the world we’re heading into, one without so many middlemen. It used to be that one would get a manager, one who would sell you to the world, but this really isn’t happening very much anymore. There might be five people who get this kind of treatment (laughs). Seeing the kids who win the top competitions, you find that they need to be just as resourceful as everybody else. I don’t expect that Daniil Trifonov (interview) will pursue the same kind of career that Van Cliburn had.
There are many combinations that are now available, walls that have come down, a bit of crossing-over. That said, I am concerned. There are many highly skilled people who are learning about music. Will there be a place for them? The situation in America though, may not be echoed in China, or elsewhere.

EH: On the subject of Philip Glass, I would love to hear about the evolution of your relationship with his music (video). For young music students unfamiliar with its power, what words of advice do you have for them?

Brubaker: Oh, of course! In terms of the power of Philip’s music, I would say that it really started to dawn on me after I played some of it in public a few times, in places where it was heard by people who were not primarily classical music fans - particularly younger listeners at colleges and universities. I remember playing at Harvard, a thirty-minute set of early etudes that Philip had written. I also played some traditional canonic pieces, a sonata by Schubert, some music by Robert Schumann. Some of my musician friends, coming up to me after the concert, said, 'Oh, that was a lovely concert, but what was that Glass piece you played?'. Some students also came backstage and said, 'The Schubert was beautiful, but that Glass piece was amazing!'. I became more and more aware of this possibility as I played more of Philip’s music.

Like many people in the classical world, I was skeptical of minimalism. When I started my career as a performer, it wasn’t a part of my repertoire. At some point, Tim Page told me that he was interested in making a recording of some minimalist piano music. He wanted me to learn several pieces, one by Philip, one by John Adams, another by Alvin Curran. I threw myself into it. I played for Philip, who then gave me other music to learn, which I did, and back and forth I went. And it evolved, quickly coming into the category of things I felt needed doing. A lot of the repertoire from the 1960’s and 1970’s had been played, but not to the place where I felt it could go - the point where a strong case was made for the music. I still think that’s important, and it’s unfortunate that many in conservatories remain skeptical of Philip’s music.

In an essay about Schumann’s intimate piano music, Barthes talks about how some simple pieces cannot be played by professional musicians, that the only way to get at them is to play them yourself. With Philip’s music, there is access - a platform that connects it to the traditional, intimate music of the nineteenth century, to Schubert, to Schumann. It has the same personal, emotional possibility.

EH: In early 2014, you will be releasing two new CDs - Meredith Monk’s music for one and two-pianos with Ursula Oppens (for ECM), and piano music by Philip Glass that you recorded in France. Would you like to share a bit about these projects ?

Brubaker: The Meredith Monk record - I believe we’re calling it Piano Songs - is set to be released on ECM in the spring of 2014. There will be performances associated with it, including one in New York at the Poisson Rouge. The project is very close to me. There are four pieces that I transcribed from her vocal and other non-piano music. That was a fantastic experience of moving to a different sound-world. It’s the first time her music will appear in a whole recording without the sound of her voice. We took a long time working on the project - seven years from the time we started talking about it.

The Glass recording is a new recording of all of Philip’s early pieces, many of which I recorded and released previously, several years ago. This is sort of a sound-explanation of these pieces, and it’s for the French label, InFiné. I think they’re interested in the sound of the sound. Just what it’s going to sound like is something I’m very interested to hear. These tracks will also be the subject of some remixing.

EH: My final question - and one that I ask every pianist because every pianist’s hand is a little different - which is the most difficult Chopin Etude for your hand ?

Brubaker: That’s such an interesting question. Without thinking about it, I’d say Op. 10, No. 2. You know, the centrality of Chopin’s etudes to the pianist’s education is simply remarkable. I once generated the term most often used on my blog, and I was very surprised to find that it was 'Chopin'. I wondered then what a pianist would sound like if they had never studied any of Chopin’s music.

We’re now hearing etudes that were almost never performed live - ones like Op. 10, No. 2 and No. 1. Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff and Hofmann never performed these. Too difficult! Is it what Busoni called "pianistic Darwinism"? I guess in every generation, we expect our runners and swimmers to move faster. It’s just fascinating to observe younger pianists playing all of the etudes, having the means to view music in a very different way. I’m constantly wondering what this kind of music is doing to us. Along with improved physical piano playing, the study of Chopin’s etudes brings with it the learning of certain musical syntax, particular harmonic and periodic expectations. This has been a powerful intergenerational link, a basis of understanding what music is, or has been.

EH: Mr. Brubaker, thank you so much for taking the time.

Brubaker: It was my pleasure, Elijah. Thank you!

A full list of reviews and interviews with artists can be found here, and new material can be freely sent to your e-mail by clicking ‘Subscribe’ below; follow us on twitter@elijahho.


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