"Miss Carlock’s tone was gorgeous…her pianissimo playing was exquisite and controlled…and her runs thrilling."
MS: Sandra Carlock, you're an international concert pianist, teacher and lecturer. You've played many concerts in the UK and the US and your music has been described by critics as having dazzling tonal range, sureness of style, awesome musical force. How did it all start?
SC: Well when I was two and half years old, my Mother tells me that I climbed up onto the piano bench and played some of the music that her pupils had been playing. My mother was an organist and a pianist, she taught piano in the home. She was quite terrified by this because she didn’t know what to do about it. I think I would probably have felt the same.
Anyway, she left me to my own devices for about six months and when I was three she intervened because she didn't want me learning bad habits. So she started to teach me then. She taught me by ear, by rote, until I was five, at which point I was learning to read words and she taught me to read music. And I will say that it wasn’t without some sort of resistance on my part because, at that point, being able to play anything I wanted just by listening to her play it first…. Of course, it was wonderful training for my ear and, I think, wonderful training for my ability to memorize. I remember her bringing a lovely piece of sheet music home to me, which had a pretty picture on the front, and I said to her, "Will you play this for me" and her saying "No, I won’t, if you want to play this piece you will have to read it."Sandra's Father
I was very angry and I remember being very manipulative in trying every which-way I could to get her to give in and play it for me. But she wouldn't - rightly so. I did learn to read, and I did, of course, finally learn to play that piece and felt a great sense of accomplishment.
But, the answer to "when did it all start" is really that I can't ever remember a time when I couldn't play the piano. So that actually makes it something that is so integral to who I am. I think that's quite wonderful in a way.
MS: Does it give you a sense of destiny?
SC: Destiny? Yes, I guess I hadn't thought of it, or put it quite in that way, but it makes me feel as though there isn't anything else that's more natural for me to do, aside from of course breathing and walking around the planet and so on.
MS: We normally assume that someone who has developed great artistic accomplishment, has had to go through tremendous sacrifice etc. Has it cost you sacrifice as well?
SC: Oh, very much so in lots and lots of ways. But not at that early age. I mean I didn’t want to deal with the discipline of learning to read music. But, in terms of learning, I think things - musical things - were very natural as a child and tended to just flow. It happened, it was something that I just did. It was a part of me I think. Technical difficulties, the kinds of things that come about when you are really beginning to work with more difficult literature, that comes later, but early on it was just something that flowed out of me and it was just there.
Other kinds of sacrifice came later, though. I was a very intellectual little kid, and also something of a tomboy. I loved to climb trees and I loved being outdoors. I was very active but, on the other hand, I was a tremendous bookworm - reading about all sorts of subjects - and loved to listen to music. My other passion is animals. So there were lots of ways in which I found outlets.
But the real sacrifice came around the age of 7 or 8 when I was developing quite a reliable technical equipment at the piano, and so I was starting to play much more advanced music. And what that meant was that hours of practice had to happen. I was practicing 4 to 5 hours a day and keeping up very high academic standards, so there wasn’t much time for what one would consider normal childhood.
Also, most of my classmates thought I was a bit of an oddity. And I probably was. There was a lot of pain there, too, because I wanted very, very much to belong. As I think all children do, I wanted to be a part of it all. And I just didn’t seem to be able to relate to them. I was much better at relating to adults. So - that was difficult and painful. Finally my Mother felt that there were certain kinds of influences that she simply didn’t want for me. I wasn’t allowed to do lots of things that kids did in those days - and so my Mother kept me apart from the others. So that was the sacrifice. These are all areas where the natural growing up process wasn’t there.
On the other hand, my Mother shaped me in so many ways. She gave me life, nurtured my talents, helped me to develop an understanding of culture, music and art…helped me learn how to explore the world and find joy in it.
MS: Did you have a sense of somehow controlling this talent you had as a child? Did you feel that you were being led or that it was yours or what?
SC: It was mine, I don't think I had a sense of controlling it, I think I was just being it. I was doing something that came so naturally and obviously sprang from a very deep part of myself.
I can give you an image that illustrates this - that actually sprang out of a very sad experience. A little over a year ago, my brother and sister and I had to place our mother in a nursing home. Afterwards we packed up her home. I was going through all her books and music and found some family photographs that I knew were there but hadn't seen in many, many years. There were two very early pictures of me, at the piano, as a child of about two and one-half to three. My legs barely came over the edge of the piano bench and I couldn't really look straight at the music desk at all. So my head was tipped way up. I had my hands just moving right straight into the keyboard as if I were playing Lisztian octaves ... my mouth wide open singing full throttle. There was such obvious identification and joy. I don't think at that point I really was playing anything that made terribly much sense but there was just a feeling of this is who I am - this is what I want to do - this is where I want to be ... so that was my sense of identification with my music and it was just natural and no, I wasn't feeling led.
MS: Since then, have you reflected on this early ability? Because there is actually no explanation at all in our genetic theory for how it is that somebody seems to have so much information already in the system. Have you ever wondered about that?
SC: I have wondered about it. My mother of course was a musician. My father was also extremely musical, and in fact his older brother had been a clarinetist but had unfortunately died very young but was apparently wonderfully talented. And my grandfather was a country fiddler - in fact I still have his violin. So I think, when I look back at all of this, that because there was music and musical inclination in the family and because my mother used her music as a means of making a living that it would be very natural for me. And yet, having said that I think I bounded ahead much more quickly than anyone would have expected me to. In fact, as a teacher, I know very well that most young children don't have anywhere near enough fine motor coordination to play an instrument at that age, or if they do, its a very, very early beginning kind of thing, and they're just working bit by bit, whereas I was just jumping ahead.
MS: Lets talk about your repertoire a bit. When I've looked through your programmes and listened to what you've recorded, I have come across Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy, ... it all seems to be from the great classical period and later classical period. Do you play modern music as well?
SC: I've had the wonderful experience of playing some contemporary music for the composers themselves or in their presence and even being able to work on the music with them as I was preparing it. And that's a wonderful and valuable experience.
However, having said that - Yes, I really feel that I identify much more strongly with the sort of Bach to - let's say - Debussy and a bit beyond, but I mustn't forget Prokofiev and Shostakovich and so on. I do feel a very, very close identification, I think, with Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms.
I feel that I need very much to do that which is most meaningful to me, so I go in the direction of the works that really fascinate me and also with which I feel a deep emotional connection.
MS: Is music all about emotion?
SC: Oh, I think so. There might be tons of people who might disagree, but as much as it is about emotion and the communication of feeling it is not just inspiration. Of course, from the standpoint of either composer or performer there is an enormous amount of craftsmanship involved ... so in that way No, it's not all about emotion - but in terms of what is being communicated, Yes, I think it is.
MS: You're very much a performance artist, aren't you?
MS: And I know that you feel that it’s being lost at the moment, the performance art...
SC: I think that's true of both the performance art and the art of composition. I think classical music as we know it is in very grave trouble right now. Part of the problem with performance art, funnily enough, is the glut of CD's that are on the market. The recording industry started out to be an absolutely wonderful thing…people could bring great music right into their homes. Now, however, I think it affects concert going audiences in that it's easier for them to stay home and listen, and in some ways perhaps more satisfactory, because they don't have to sit in either a hot or a cold hall - which may have, or may not have such good acoustics - and listen to people coughing and pulling off candy wrappers and all the rest. There's a lot that goes on in live performances that doesn't happen when you're sitting in your living room at home and listening to CD's. On the other hand what happens with CD's is that they are quite often very heavily edited, whole sections dubbed in from different "takes" - which means you get a kind of "perfection" which might be attractive in some ways and to some people - but I don't feel is real art and real performance.
MS: Why is that?
SC: Well, music was meant to be performed live. And having just produced my first CD, I am thrilled to death to be able to give people a copy of my work ... but I think one thing that is very meaningful to me about that CD is that it was all taken from live performances from start to finish, with no follow-up editing of any kind. So it appears just the way you would hear me on the platform in a live setting.
I think that is exactly the way music was meant to be heard. The composer obviously works hard through many drafts to produce a piece of music and that piece of music is then as the composer intends it to be or as near as he or she can get it to that point. The performer is then left with the responsibility of bringing that back to life otherwise it would be imprisoned as a bunch of black dots on white paper. So the performers job is to understand the composer's intention. That involves knowledge of the style period during which the composer lived; it involves understanding the musical language; it involves understanding how the piece was constructed so there is a sense of continuity and coherence in the performance.
Also inherent in live performances is a sense of spontaneity - things happen that don't happen in the practice room. In a given performance situation there is a huge amount of variety possible. This comes from the type of instrument I'm playing on, it comes from the acoustic of the hall in which I find myself, what I'm perceiving to be my relationship to the audience, whether I'm feeling a really wonderful bond with them and a wonderful connection or whether I'm feeling a bit of a wall somehow....
And risks can be taken that come from a moment of inspiration ...and if there is a sufficient understanding of the piece those bits of inspiration are wonderfully enhancing.
MS: How do you mean - "risks"?
SC: Well for example with the timing... how quickly I'm playing or how slowly I'm playing, how much time it takes me to leap from one part of the keyboard to another let’s say. It's athletic ... kinesthetic. If you do something just slightly differently, then it affects the timing - it can be risky. But with that risk comes excitement and drama.
On my CD for example right now, as proud as I am of it, let's say that people play it once and then they play it two or three times, it's always going to be the same. They are always going to hear it in exactly the same way, whereas if they were to come to hear me play, let's say the Chopin C sharp minor Scherzo in a concert hall, say three times in a month, it wouldn't be the same.
And in a studio if you do too much editing - too much patchwork - then you lose the continuity. You lose the progression of the piece from beginning to end, which is in fact the strength of the interpretation ...because the interpretation grows as the structure of the piece grows and there should be a very close parallelism there. Am I making sense?
MS: Yes. So the audience are, as it were, this exclusive band which is getting this particular continuity on the piece, which is probably never going to happen again.
SC: That's right it can't happen again, as human beings it’s not possible for it to happen again. It’s going to be different each time. But different within a particular concept which I’ve developed of a piece of music. And that is art, that is life. Well isn't it? That's life. There’s all this variety and all this scope.
MS: You do something which you call "informance"... can you tell us about that?
SC: Well, I have to say that the term comes from Richard Marble, then the director of the Georgetown Art Guild in Washington. He likes very much to present a concert of an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes which features absolutely serious concert fare but at the same time features an explanation of the music, discussion of the performing issues. I mean it really can be anything that the performers want to talk about that has relevance to the material being played.
You know we were talking a little while ago about the field of classical music and that audiences are shrinking now. I think that the idea a lot of presenters have is that if audiences feel that artists are accessible and that we're not off on another planet somewhere, and that the music that's called "classical music" is accessible, then audiences will not fall away and perhaps will even develop. I think this is very valid. But I certainly don’t think that we should get away from the traditional type of recital in which the music is left to speak for itself.
MS: What exactly happens at an informance?
SC: Well, I might walk out and sit down and play, then get up and talk about what I had just played, or I might walk out and talk to people a little bit first about what I am going to play and then sit down and play. It's whatever I feel fits the music that I have chosen in the best way. And then, throughout the programme I'll talk to people about the music and how I go about preparing it - if I sense that is something that they would like to hear. Sometimes I open the situation up for questions, although generally I like to leave questions for the end so that it can be a little more controlled as I move my way through the programme. Then I can really talk about what I want to talk about and what I feel is pertinent to that particular programme.
But to get back to the more standard piano recital or concert - I think of the programme as a structure, just the way the music within the programme is structured. So, in a sense, the programme can become a work of art or a composition in its own right. So I think about key relationships and tempo relationships. I think about composers and periods and how one thing moves to another and how the whole programme balances. And, if you're thinking in those terms, then of course you don't want to talk in the middle of it because you want, not only the music to speak for itself, but you want the progression from one composition to another to project a kind of feeling. To project something to people so that they walk away feeling a sense of the whole as well as the content and the emotional message of the music.
MS: I asked, when we first met, whether you had favourite pieces of music and you were quite definite that you don't have favourites - but you must get a particular sense of different composers and special feelings about them. No?
SC: Well, a very important part of musical interpretation stems from knowledge about the composer, knowledge about the style period in which the composer was writing. So, yes, in order to play the music of any composer convincingly I feel I need to sort of climb into the composer’s head and that really means that the performer is an actor or an actress. It's like taking on another identity, it's like becoming someone else, understanding how someone else was thinking and feeling ... there must be that. I move from one perspective to another, and try to find out under what circumstances the music was written - and this can give great depth to my sense of the emotional content of a composition. So in that way, no, I don’t have favorites as such. I just need to go very deeply into whatever music I’m playing at the time.
MS: One composer that you have been particularly identified with has been Clara Schumann. Tell us about her.Todd Trice - Photos
SC: She was an amazing lady, she was the first woman pianist to become an internationally famous virtuoso. She was also the mother of eight children, seven of whom lived. She was the wife of Robert Schumann, a very loving companion of his for many years - some years even before they were married - and also a very, very dear friend of Johannes Brahms. In many ways I think it could be said that she was the soul mate and muse to both her husband and to Brahms. She was very central to the tremendously generative and creative period which was the romantic era - right through to the end of the last century.
One of the things that performers of that time did was to write their own music as a vehicle for virtuosity. Her father, who was her teacher, helped her to compose pieces at a very early age. And as she became closer to Schumann, he encouraged her to write and then later on Brahms encouraged her to write. So she actually wrote quite a lot of music between the time when she was an early teenager and her late thirties which was when Robert died.
MS: So what drew you to her?
SC: ... Because of my fascination with her as a pianist. I think any female concert pianist should relate to her just simply because she beat the path for us …or at least opened up the possibilities. It was in finding out about Clara as a person and as a pianist that I began to realise that she had written all this wonderful music. I was fortunate enough, I think, to find the one complete recording of her solo piano works at Tower Records back in 1995.
I bought it and came home and sat down at about seven on a Sunday evening. At twelve midnight I got up. I had listened to all of it and I was astonished and moved ... really just flabbergasted - that's all I can say. I had no idea that her music would have such depth and such beauty - such warmth.
I realised that 1996 would be the 100th anniversary of her death. So I developed a lecture recital to celebrate that event. And this is again, a different way of performing - different to a standard recital or to an “informance.” I discuss Clara’s life and the influences on her composition and how her composition developed. The circumstances surrounding each piece of music, the relationship that she and Robert had through their composing and also she and Brahms. And about half of the time is spent demonstrating her music. So it's a different way of presenting music and information about music.
All this has led me to a very strong identification with Clara, and I think her music is wonderful. She isn't a Brahms, she isn't a Robert Schumann, she isn't a Chopin. Her music was not quite on that level but it's wonderful music and audiences respond very strongly to it. And, because there have been so few well known women composers, her work needs to be explored and put forward.
MS: Coming back to yourself.... Does it matter to you what size audience you are playing for?
SC: No it really doesn't ... I always remember, years ago when I was in my early twenties, I played a concert in a little town in North Carolina ... the wonderful comedian, Victor Borge was playing in the same town, the same night, so of course we had something of a smaller turnout. This doesn't happen a lot but it has happened. In fact I once played a concert where there were only four people in the audience. I played quite happily for those four people and I was delighted - and actually ended up being invited back later …so ultimately there was a larger audience.
My feeling is that I have a very strong responsibility to my audience, and I feel a very definite commitment to the audience, so I don’t care how many are there. Because the people who have come are the people who really want to be there. That evening with the four people - it was a wonderful performance and there was a lovely feeling in the room, a lovely bond with those people.
That leads me also into other thoughts about the performer's responsibility to an audience, I think composers have responsibility as well, but the performer is the middle person really. The performer is responsible for transmitting the composer’s work of art into sound and into a coherent performance, which is something we’ve already discussed. But I feel very strongly about the necessity to do that well.
One of the most difficult things about doing that, however, is that I have a strong personality and lots of performers do. In point of fact, to be a performer I think you have to have a strong personality. So how do you take the composer's music, project it to an audience, convey the composer's intentions, do this forcefully, dramatically, sensitively, lyrically ... and at the same time not impose your own personality. I need to use my personality and its force but without imposing it - and that's quite a trick.
And another thing about the audience ... there are times when I've played a piece of music when I don't want applause - that can sound crazy, but I don't want applause, because I don't want people to feel that the mood has to be broken because of some sort of expected response from them. If I feel that I've managed to achieve that sort of a mood then very often I simply sit with my head bowed over the keyboard and my hands still there for a long time.
I can feel when people are with me - and that’s what it’s all about - that’s what you want. On the other hand, if you’ve played something that is wonderfully exciting and dramatic - then immediate applause is a kind of release for the audience and that’s spontaneous and absolutely appropriate. Applause of that sort makes me feel rewarded. But when applause breaks a mood…I don’t like it, I don’t want it and I do whatever I can to keep it from happening. I mean…I’m there as the middle person. So this is all a part of how I see my responsibility to my audiences.
©Sandra Carlock MS: Recently you had an unusual performance opportunity in Norway ...?
SC: Yes, I occasionally give concerts on cruises and I was on the P & O cruise ship Arcadia. We went up the west coast of Norway. Bergen was one of our first ports of call, and it's the former home of the composer Edvard Grieg. My agent arranged for me to play not just in the little concert hall there - where there is a concert series - but actually to play on Grieg's own piano in the sitting room of the villa where he had lived, which has been restored as a memorial to him. I gave a mini recital for the tour groups that were coming through that morning. It was an absolutely astonishing and privileged experience. I have played lots and lots of early pianos but it's not often that one plays an instrument which belonged to a great composer ... to actually do it in Grieg's own home... I felt a very strong sense of his presence and I think many of the people there did as well. Many people told me that they were deeply moved and touched by the experience. It was a wonderful thing to be able to do.
MS: In contrast to that, there was another anecdote from that cruise - something to do with Chopin and a force eight gale...?
SC: Oh yes. The Norwegian sea had several days of almost twenty-four hour sunlight, which was very exciting and, as we went, many whales traveled with the boat, played games with us and that was a total delight.
But then we went to Iceland ... and it was about an hour south of Iceland, on our way down to Cork, Ireland that we ran into a real north Atlantic gale - a force eight gale - and it stayed a force eight gale, hardly changing, for forty-eight hours.
Now when I'm on board ship I’ll do anything from eight to twelve concerts - two in an evening with six completely different programmes - and my Chopin recital was planned for the first evening of the gale. I must admit that my primary worry was whether the piano would stay on the stage or end up in the audience! But the piano was weighted and had brakes on the wheels, so it sort of moved with the ship and didn't slide around the stage, so the people who were sitting in the first row of the audience were not endangered; but obviously playing a piano that's not stationary is a very different experience; it gives a completely new meaning to performance anxiety because you start worrying about things that you don't normally have to think about - such as the piano bounding up and down or dipping wildly from one side to another. We were talking about technical timing a little while ago ... well it very much alters that, as you can imagine. I was also talking about concentrating on feeling the music is coming through me - getting away from concentration on everyday things ... such as what I had for dinner ... well, you can imagine what my tummy was doing in the middle of a force eight gale.
MS: Sandra, the future ... well, how do you see it?
SC: I've never been particularly ambitious in the way that a lot of people think of ambition. I once had people say to me "don't you want to play in all the greatest halls in the world and don't you want to be known all over the world as a very famous pianist" and I think I have to say, quite honestly, that if that were to happen then I suppose it would happen, but it has not been a goal. My goals have been, I think, much more personal in a sense that I have always wanted to play the piano as well as I possibly can.
I’ve also always wanted to communicate the beautiful music that’s written for the piano as well as possible, in every way that I can, and with a degree of real integrity. I want to do this very, very well because it is so important to do. Because the music is deep, wonderful, rich…it’s a reflection of human experience that must be heard. I want to make audiences love this music as much as I do. I want them to feel that great music is completely accessible. I have something to share and I must do that.
You know while we've been talking I've felt I wanted to come back to that question you asked about suffering. May I?
MS: Of course.
SC: Well, very often people do think that creativity requires suffering; and I think what I would say about that, is that creativity requires, rather, a tremendous breadth of experience. All kinds of experience can be used.
Something which happened in my own life, was that thirteen years ago, my husband died very suddenly, and although we had only been married about four years at the time, I had known him for nine years in total. I know that something happens when you go through real tragedy - when you work through something like that.
You know, I talked a little bit earlier about how performing is a bit like acting and in a sense that sounds almost as though you're pretending and I suppose when it comes to representing a composer's point of view, you have to pretend because in many instances composers lived a long time ago so you can't really know, because you can't speak to them, so in a way that is pretending.
But the use of everyday experience, the incorporating of life into one's art and the way in which one expresses oneself, that I think, is something that everybody does in different ways. The death of a husband, I can tell you, was tremendously painful and difficult to go through. Now I obviously know that Kurt did not die so that I could grow - he clearly had his own agenda there - but I did grow and it's the fact that I've experienced great pain and also great joy that enables me, I think, to go back to what we were talking about earlier ... it enables me to look at a piece of music and to really.... well .... you asked at the very beginning if music was about communicating emotion - I think it's about communicating experience - it's about communicating life and obviously an awful lot of that is feeling and emotion, but the more experience you have had and the more deeply you've felt it, then the more successfully you can take a work of art, understand what it is about and go from there.
MS: Sandra Carlock, thank you very much.