Portrait by Alban Low
The Argentinian composer and pianist Juan María Solare (Buenos Aires, 1966) has lived in Germany since 1993. He has performed as piano soloist and within diverse chamber music groups. He also conducts, has edited music for Ricordi Berlin, and his own compositions are included on 17 CD albums.
Juan tells his story…
My story? Rather my stories.
With half a century of rambling in this world I gathered enough to tell!
One of the things I learned is that the “me, me, me!” approach to life and to the profession is useless. Nobody is hooked by reading a list of achievements (or even pseudo achievements). And at the end of the day, all biographies of all musicians are the same: all were born sometime and somewhere, all of them studied with someone, won this or that prize, they work at this or that university or have their own studio, they played in this or that venue, participated in this or that festival.
All you have to do is replace names, cities and venues. Uninteresting.
So my main concern here is that the “center stays empty”, i.e. I will talk about my stories, but trying to avoid forcing myself too much into the middle of the narrative. A nice challenge indeed!
The Aroma of the Piano
Did you notice that a piano smells? Exactly as a person has their own aroma, a piano is like a living being that also smells. I don’t mean a bad odour, a stink, or that they “reek”, I actually mean the smell, the scent.
In the case of the piano, a combination of wood, metals, ivory or whatever materials were used, glue, plus the piano’s personal story and history. The places where it has been, the persons who played on it. It is not only the smell of a piano, it has its aura.
Does it sound strange to your ears to conceive a piano as a living being? Does it sound too “animistic”? Arguably an exaggeration, but this is what I actually experience when I recall my first contact with a piano, my oldest memories at the instrument, sitting on my mother’s lap and learning the French folk song J’ai du bon tabac – and smelling the keys.
When I go back to my childhood house in Buenos Aires (I live in Germany now) one of the first things I do, when I’m alone, is to smell my old piano, a Lauberger & Gloss that accompanied my mother first, and later my whole time studying, until I was 26 and moved to Germany.
Smelling that piano is also one of the last things I do before leaving Buenos Aires. I cannot imagine selling this instrument without feeling a huge pain. It’s not a piece of furniture, it’s the depository of too many experiences, frustrations or achievements. You do not sell a friend.
I hope that you have a similar relation with your first piano, because in this case we would be sharing an experience, and communication is only possible if based on shared experiences.
In case you think that I am just trying to avoid a direct answer to “When and why did you take up the piano?” I want to add something: this kind of thing (the acceptance of the vocation) doesn’t usually happen once and forever.
One takes a decision at some point, based upon only a few rational elements or none at all, and confirms that decision (or changes it) during the years to come. Concretely it means that I felt attracted to the piano at 3 or 4 or 5 (at such an age you don’t document exact dates), took my first official lesson at 6, but chose definitely the instrument as profession only later, at 18 or 20.
I clearly remember that a well-intentioned friend wanted to make me change my career decision and nearly forced me to study at a university. So I began to study Physics with the idea of specialising in either Astrophysics or Astronomy.
This only served to confirm my musical inclination. I discovered that I could perfectly well become a frustrated physicist, but not a frustrated musician.
Well, it also helped me for other things: among the teachers at the university there was one fan of the music of Iannis Xenakis, which for years I have tried to get without success (we are in the pre-internet era and in Argentina, where – for some unilateral decision of fate – things are twice as difficult to achieve and to keep). I also made friends with several like-minded guys, mathematicians such as Dr. Pablo Amster, with whom 30 years later I am still in written contact.
As for that well-intentioned adviser, one important factor that supported my decision to go ahead with music as a profession was that by that point I had already began to teach music (at the Conservatory of Tandil, roughly 330 km from Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires), so it was impossible to use against me that common phrase, “as a musician you will starve”!
Memorable experiences of lessons
So many! Just to mention one:
When I studied piano (with María Teresa Criscuolo at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, now called Universidad Nacional de las Artes) the usual procedure was that all the pupils stayed together in the room and listen to each other’s playing. Seldom was such a thing as individual, private tuition. So I was actually two hours, twice a week, listening to my fellow students. Later, I always tried to impose that system in my own lessons, with zero success. For most people, this is time-inefficient.
The results? I now know very well repertoire that I never played, just by listening to it week after week. I also gained a good intuitive, natural idea of what to point out, as a teacher, in players who are very different to me (since, of course, every person is a universe).
I also built up a strong sense of belonging with my class comrades, a feeling that is still alive and strong. The blood pacts you make in those study years are for life. As part of that community-building feeling, our teacher organised integral concerts with a particular theme, for instance in the first years all Little Preludes by Bach or later all ten Scriabin Sonatas (I played 8th and 6th).
Collective lessons, with everybody attending and listening, would be a compulsory subject in my “imaginary conservatory”.
The music I most enjoy playing
I must clarify something: I see myself as a “centaur”, that mythological combination of horse and man. In this allegory, the horse is the pianist, and the man is the composer. It is a hybrid combination but impossible to split. An inseparable unity.
This is not only my isolated case, of course, but is the model of Liszt, Chopin, Bill Evans and nearly all baroque musicians. What is more important? The pianist Juan María or the composer Juan María? That question would have no sense: do you prefer that your upper half or that your lower half is cut?
I enjoy playing Tango Argentino and music of the Romantic era (say, Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin) but also from the 20th century, and of the present: Satie, Cage, Schönberg, Mompou, some Henze, some Stockhausen, some Berio. And music by some lesser-known colleagues such as Jorge Pítari or Luis Mihovilcevic (both Argentinians).
But I must confess that I enjoy performing my own music, because I enjoy composing the music I want to listen to.
You might thing that this is an obvious point, I would reply that it took me years to understand that it is not easy to know what you really want to compose (or to perform) because in the learning years you must try to learn (and move at ease in) as many different musical styles as possible.
It is later in life that you have to go deeper and deeper in a smaller selection of the sounds that more resonate with your soul.
My goals for the future
We stay fresh by doing things we never did before. In my case, I find myself in a stage where I want to record as much music as possible.
Recently I recorded a Chopin waltz (no. 15, in E major, Op. posth. B. 44) which is one of the first pieces I learned. Psychologically, it is also a way of putting past and present together. Tangentially, you can find this and most of my recordings on Spotify.
Since I am a working musician – i.e. my income depends, in part, on playing piano – there is not a real gap between piano and work. On the practical side, playing concerts and streaming royalties bring money, so it makes it easier to “justify” before my family and the rest of the world.
What does playing the piano mean to me? Consolation. Finding sense. Speaking to a friend that understands me. Remembering what I am. All this at a personal level, at an expression level.
But music, in my case piano, is also a way of communication with others.
A relevant point is that not all people want to deeply communicate with music or through non-verbal sound. For most people, music is about forgetting reality, a pastime, just entertainment (at an extreme, for some, life itself is just entertainment). For most people, music is like heating: it is either on or off.
For how many is music a decent, acceptable communication form? I don’t want to sound negative, but rather point out that real, deep communication between two human beings is very difficult to achieve: through words, through music or through anything.
But communication is not everything. When performing for an audience (i.e. not for myself), my goal is to transmit energy.
A relatively early experience that branded me for life: When I was 23, I performed a concert at the Auditorio Promúsica in Buenos Aires. It was a short recital, and honestly not my best presentation. However, after the concert a mature man in his fifties approached me visibly moved and told me that my playing gave him back his will to live.
That anonymous man made me understand things from a much larger perspective.
Juan María Solare