The first important keyboard was that of my mother’s piano. In one of my earliest memories, we were in Milan, at my aunt and uncle’s house – which was next door to ours, in the Cadorna area – and we used to listen to mum playing Per Elisa on the sidelines of some dinner party all together, and I would get excited when the refrain came. A few years later, when I was seven, I started to study the piano myself, and then at eleven even more seriously when I entered the conservatory in Pesaro, and I attended it for many years.
One evening I met Maurizio Pollini, who had gone there to study in the adjoining Pedrotti Auditorium to prepare a concert. Pollini was a piano superstar, and at the same time an ascetic. Totally absorbed in his music, this being, more divine than human, did not seem to care about the outside world, he did not need it, he was above our miseries. At the time, I also thought that true artists had to live closed up in their inner world, indifferent to money, material goods, private affections, and perhaps their own bodies. True artists did not have to enter into anything that was not universal.
Today I understand that for musicians it works like for orthodox priests. There are two types: those who live in the world, love, speak, learn, suffer, marry, take drugs, engage in politics, have children, kill. And then there are the ascetics, the monks, like Benedetti Michelangeli, like Pollini.
I was convinced I was an artist, but the more I studied the piano, the less I understood why I was studying it. I was not a pianist, I did not want to obey, I did not want to be a mere executor of notes written by others. So in the end I gave up, before the fifth-year exam, and never touched the piano again.
A poem by Valerio Magrelli from 2014 entitled English Suites comes to mind:
What’s the point of playing?
a martial art: asceticism,
and in the end the sound that always rises the same…
On the other hand, at that time I convinced myself that I wanted to be a composer, and for a couple of years I still studied in the classical environment of the conservatory, harmony and counterpoint, then I gave up that too and started nerding out. A phase that lasted more or less between 1992 and 2002. Immersed in software, synthesisers and samplers. I read specialist magazines and spent a lot of money on them. I had a Roland JP 8000 synthesiser, an Akai sampler, and a PC on which I used programs like Reason, Logic, Fruity Loops, Cubase. I was so into it that I spent whole days on it, without even taking the time to go to the toilet because the music I was working on totally captured my attention and made me forget all other needs.
It took me many years to get tired of it, and to put the ambitions aside: the problem was that my passion was basically dependent on showing off and being appreciated. So when I saw over time that fewer and fewer people took me seriously as a musician, I gave up. I wasn’t doing it for myself, but for others.
It wasn’t until 2017, almost out of the blue, that I felt like having a piano in the house again, and I bought a digital one: the Yamaha Arius 143.
And putting my fingers back on the black and white keys, I felt free. Creativity can be something immensely tiring and complicated, just as it can be immensely simple. Today, when I don’t feel any anxiety to create something, to save it to make it immortal and let others hear it, I am free to let the music flow like the water in a river, which has nothing special about it and there is no reason to photograph or film it, yet it is in its own way fulfilling, refreshing and wonderful in its naturalness.
When there is music I like, I can turn on the piano while I listen to it and play on it, duetting with the musicians I love, as if we all lived together in the same rehearsal room, away from all judgement and performance anxiety, for the sheer pleasure of it.
For example tonight I duetted with Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness, released by Domino in 2015.
I’ve never been a nerd, but I’m fascinated by people who have the kind of intelligence that allows them to geek out. For me, trying to ‘dialogue’ with a machine makes me nervous, I can’t understand it, I want it to be simple: I’m not really interested in how it works, but what you get. I can get angry with a machine in a way that I would never do with a person, I can insult it, and I am even tempted to resort to physical violence.
And yet, even today, I often go back to poking around in the nerds of electronic music, thinking that maybe sooner or later I will do as I did with the piano and rediscover this passion – but without having to prove anything to anyone. In particular I have a great nostalgia for the sound of that Akai sampler, which today would perhaps be unusable (it worked with floppy disks) but which, whatever sound it captured, made me feel welcome, almost cuddled by its warmth. Now for example there is an Akai sampler emulator available as software for $2.
One of the programs I was most excited about at the time, Reason, claims to be available for free for the iPhone in a compact version. But it’s so compact and limited in sound and function that you soon get tired of using it.
There is another app, Amadeus, which uses artificial intelligence to compose music: it is offered as an aid to musicians in search of inspiration, but to me it seems especially stimulating for its philosophical scope.
There’s another app called AAS Objeq that turns our drumming on the table into a drum loop.
Another one is called Gestrument and, as the name implies, it is based on gestures: you compose music as if you were playing an 80s video game, by moving balls, each of which is associated with a musical instrument (or even several instruments together).
My favourite type of application is the sampler that records a sound live and loops it, so that you can add another on top of it, and then another, until you compose with layered improvisation a whole piece of music on your own. For example, there is Quantiloop, which costs 12 euros. In general, the power of the loop is exactly what makes electronic music so effective and attractive: you only need to scatter a handful of bricks within the standard 16 bars to already have a groove, i.e. the propulsive force of a sound that pushes you to move, to dance and to go on. And at the same time, this is also the main limit of electronic music, what we could call ‘looppism’: once we have built our groove, it is difficult not only to get out of it, but also to develop it in some way. We risk going on with variations, subtractions and additions that are, after all, sterile.
This is the manual for connecting the Yamaha Arius piano to a mobile phone or tablet, and this is the manual for connecting it to a computer.
Keyboards have always been part of my identity, and I feel close to other people who have followed a different path from mine.
I am currently reading a book called Il pianoforte segreto (The Secret Piano), published in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri. The author is Zhu Xiao-Mei, born in China in 1949, who as a child was a piano student at the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This autobiography recounts her passion for Western classical music, particularly that of Bach, whom she considers very close to Lao Tzu: she writes that ‘These two masters are similar and in them the two cultures, Chinese and Western, are reunited’.
The book also contains the teachings of the master with whom Zhu Xiao-Mei studied as a child. Regarding her too-small hands, apparently a serious disadvantage, he observed that ‘everything has two sides. One positive and one negative. You have small hands and this will not make life easier for you in some pieces. But small hands are faster. You will do wonders with some repertoire. You’ll see, the negative will turn out to be positive, just as the positive, in turn, can turn out to be negative. I have known a lot of pupils who, because they had large hands, did not make the effort to work. Bad luck for them.
Another of Zhu’s weaknesses was that she was too tense. The master taught her that this depended on the thumb, which controlled all the others. “If it’s textured, all the other fingers will be. If it is relaxed, the others will be too. Stroke the fingerboard, never hit it. It’s not as hard as you think. You don’t have to put up a fight. The keyboard is actually docile and gentle. Try to find this feeling of docility and gentleness with your fingertips. Try to draw energy from the keyboard and not just transmit it. Imagine you are kneading bread. Ask your mother to knead to see how it is done. It is the same movement with your hands and wrists. You’ll see, this will change everything in your relationship with the instrument”.« Stupore Teoria e pratica dei giochi »