Why Musicians Need Silence in an Always-Connected World

Since he burst onto the concert scene in 1983, pianist Stephen Hough has become widely regarded as among the most versatile and probing of artists. "In addition to being a pianist of uncommon depth and sensitivity," the Boston Globe's David Weininger wrote last May, "Hough is also an increasingly visible composer, a painter whose works have been exhibited at London's Broadbent Gallery, and a deft and imaginative writer whose unfailingly interesting blog for London's Telegraph newspaper covers seemingly everything: theology, hats, tea, perfume -- and music, of course." He is the first classical musician to have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Hough recently spoke with Carlos Gardels for The WorldPost about the challenges of classical music in the age of social media and instant messaging.

The Internet has changed the way artists work. Just a few years ago a classical pianist working on the Liszt Sonata, for example, had two options if he wanted to hear it. He could go out and buy a CD or go to a concert. Now one can listen to 20 performances through a quick search on YouTube. Surely, this must change the way creative people absorb and reproduce culture?

I find this can be both good and bad. The good thing -- and I've been hearing this from students when I give classes -- is that it's now possible to get a much broader idea of historical performance practices from different periods. Of particular interest to me is the style of pianists who played in the first decades of the 20th century, which can now be heard right there on YouTube without having to search all over in old record stores. That is a tremendous resource for research. I can certainly attest to the fact that I'm hearing more of this influence recently in students than before these recordings were so readily available.

But I suppose the bad side is that it can limit your own imagination, your own creativity, and -- in a way -- your own struggle to learn these pieces. Learning great works like the Liszt Sonata or Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" should be a struggle to a certain extent, where you need to labor intensely with your own brain and soul for the meaning of the work, instead of cutting and pasting a bunch of stuff together from the Internet and boom! -- there you are with a performance ready to go. We need to be original in our conception of a piece but not self-consciously, artificially so. This takes time and too many other recordings jangling around in our heads is not helpful in this.

'The Internet tempts us to think that because an email or a new website can be accessed in seconds that everything works at the same instant speed. Art is more like the growth of a plant. It needs time and space.'

So I think what we must do is use these resources to absorb all of this available material and then let it marinate and enable our own ideas to come out of that, rather than copying anything that's in there. So a good and bad side, but I think weighed more towards the good.

Aside from music, I think more of us need to develop a discipline regarding the Internet. The temptation is to jump around, take things superficially and not dig deep. Certainly I'm guilty of this myself. You know how it goes; you are reading one article, and there's a link to something else and something else, and before you know it, two hours have gone by. So there is a need in the arts to delve deep, and to live with the material and let it be absorbed. This is very important. It's related to any kind of growth. The Internet tempts us to think that because an email or a new website can be accessed in seconds that everything works at the same instant speed. Art is more like the growth of a plant. It needs time and space.

Do you ever purposely turn off your connection so as to avoid distraction?

Not so much when I'm practicing, but I do when I'm writing, both words or music. Ironically, it's important for musicians to step aside even from music, and from listening to music. I think it's terribly important for musicians to have silence in their lives because we're dealing constantly with something that breaks the silence; music is sound waves which interrupt the silence, therefore for musicians, silence is the soil into which we have to plant music; we must nourish the soil, make sure it's of good quality so that our seeds will take root.

A vintage illuminated sign calling for quiet. (Oversnap/Getty Images)

The death of classical music has long been predicted. One of my favorite quotes is by pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, who said: "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." What is your view?

I suppose it depends if we mean the death of music or of the audiences who listen to it. For the latter it is sometimes a problem of concentration. There have always been distractions away from great culture and art -- as it's always been easier to do something superficial rather than something deep -- but I think the sheer amount of that distraction is so much greater today than it ever was with the Internet, Netflix and such, so the danger is that much greater. If you're thinking of going out to a concert, for instance, it's so much easier instead to turn on the television or watch a performance on video. Of course, people lead busy, difficult lives. I understand they might not want to go out on a rainy night, find parking and go to a concert.

I do find it necessary for musicians and presenters not to be scared and think it's necessary to dumb down music, or to panic as we try to find ways to stimulate people into liking great music, saying things like, "Oh, it's not so bad," "We'll find a way to make it cool," "I know you don't like that piece, we'll do something easier" and so on. We're dealing with one of the highest forms of human achievement, and we need to be confident in its complexity! I think a more effective strategy, especially with young people, would be to challenge them: "Yeah, this is going to be a hard evening for you, do you have the concentration to sit through a Bruckner symphony -- I'm not sure that you do!" And then if they are anything like I was, they will say "Of course I do, how dare you think I might not have concentration for something difficult!" I think this sort of reverse psychology might actually be the key.

'For musicians, silence is the soil into which we have to plant music; we must nourish the soil, make sure it's of good quality so that our seeds will take root.'

I remember in school during English lessons I would ask the teacher what were the most difficult books to read, and when she'd say "Ulysses" or something, I'd run off to the library to check out a copy, eager to attempt the most difficult mountain.

People aren't that enthusiastic about climbing a two-foot hill, but if they're going to have to go into training to attempt a really difficult mountain, then that's something really exciting! So, relating this to classical music or any complex art form, the excitement of difficulty is something we haven't really begun to explore. We're so scared of turning people off that we turn to excuses ... "It's easy, don't worry," etc. I think we should be more tough with people, and say "this is not going to be easy and you need to enjoy the challenge."

Your performance schedule takes you to dozens of countries each year. What are some of the differences in attitudes and habits of both audiences and artists that you observe around the world?

I'm not sure it differs country by country, but there are certain cities which have tried different experiments. For instance I'm going to Los Angeles, and there are a number of interesting things they've asked me to do; pre-concert talks, public discussions and doing one concert that is a shorter version of the main program. I think that's all very fascinating.

'People aren't that enthusiastic about climbing a two-foot hill, but if they're going to have to go into training to attempt a really difficult mountain, then that's something really exciting!'

As far as audiences are concerned, I have great confidence in Asia. I was just sitting in piano auditions at Juilliard a few weeks ago, and around 70 percent of the students were from Asia, which I find absolutely thrilling because this is a part of the world where 150 years ago none of this music had ever been heard, and now they are leading the way. This is a terrific example of how classical music can reinvent itself. Asian audiences tend to be younger -- I played recently in Thailand and Singapore, and it's fantastic, such young audiences, scores in hand, and just totally enthusiastic about Western music. That is very different from certain places in America or Europe where sometimes the audiences are a bit more jaded and have heard it all. I haven't played a lot in South America, but I've been told things are developing enormously with younger audiences down there as well.

I'd like to touch on the topic of being both a performer and a composer. Typically, the 20th and 21st century classical musician has not written their own music. I've found this baffles a lot of non-musicians, and for good reason: All of the great virtuosi of the past from Liszt to Beethoven were not only great instrumentalists, but also great composers. Today, all types of musicians outside of the classical genre compose their own music, but classical musicians don't. The great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould said he thought it was a tragedy when performers stopped being composers. I'm curious why you think this happened.

It is rather strange! You know, in the 19th century, unless you were part of an orchestra, if you came to a town and called yourself a musician but said you didn't compose they would have been puzzled: "Then how can you call yourself a musician!?" I compare it to words; anyone who can read can write. You won't necessarily be Henry James, but the actual technique of writing words down is similar to reading them on the page. I would certainly encourage all young musicians to try their hand at composing. I have found, with words, the more I write, the more the words flow.

I think this idea that one shouldn't compose and perform at the same time came around a time after the First World War when a kind of intellectual snobbery took root, the idea that only a small number of people really knew the "inner secrets," or were members of club to which few belonged. Look at writers such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot. They were all great writers, of course, but all esoteric, complex and working within a very small exclusive world. Virginia Woolf famously said that she would be horrified if the ordinary man in the street could understand what she was writing about because then she felt it probably wouldn't be any good. It was only of value if it spoke in an exclusive way to people of high intelligence and from a particular cultural background. I actually think this infected a lot of musicians' attitudes as well because they tended to feel that unless they were writing masterpieces they had no right to compose music at all. That should be left to the experts.

stephen hough
Stephen Hough performing the music of Beethoven, Janacek, Scriabin and Liszt at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, November 18, 2010. (Hiroyuki ito/Getty Images)

This continued further on into the later-20th century when after Schoenberg and his 12-note system, it was required to write in that style with that technique and sound. However, I feel that this has pretty much disappeared now; people are free to write in any style, in any way. So now is the time for people to come back to writing again -- words or music. Don't worry about what the experts tell you, and just have this wonderful sense of freedom and self-expression. Not that I'm encouraging amateurism, because obviously writing a good sentence or a good musical phrase requires a certain technique and observance of rules which come from a learned tradition, but let's not avoid something because the experts claim it's their property. Let's have the confidence to try things out ourselves and to experiment and have fun. I have to say I was quite scared when I started performing my own compositions in public, because I sensed something of this attitude at times. "Well, you're not a professional composer" or "By putting your music next to Mozart's or Beethoven's, aren't you suggesting you're as good as they are?" Now that I've been doing this for quite some time I feel more confident and don't really care so much what people think!

You're not only a blogger, a painter, a composer, and a touring soloist -- but also working on a novel. Are there certain things in life that you've learned to avoid or block out that give you this robust energy, time and focus?

I don't watch television! At least not when I'm traveling. For some reason I have always found it depressing to watch television in hotel rooms. I try to use that time, as well as time on planes, to write. I'm flying back to England next week, and I showed the first draft of my novel to a publisher who was very encouraging but had a few suggestions, so I'm going to use the time on the flight to go through my manuscript and make some changes.

This interview has been edited for clarity.