On a week that was considered to be the UK’s worst snow storm in 50 years, I managed to speak to crossover artist and innovative classical music pianist Aysedeniz Gokcin on the phone to discuss her new album ‘A Chopin Affair’ and her new series of concerts. This Friday [8pm, 9th March], she will be performing Chopin’s Piano Sonatas with the company of two painters Zabou and Tommy Ramsay. She also told me about her admiration for feminist writer George Sand, Hollywood actors like Meryl Streep and pianist Martha Argerich, and spoke about the short attention span of the new generation which she feels has changed the way people experience music.
Hi Ayse, how are you? Are you keeping warm?
Haha! Yes, I try to not get out of my studio. It’s so cold. It’s crazy!
Tell me about A Chopin Affair and the videos you have created.
A Chopin Affair is very personal to me because I have played the two sonatas; the first in my undergrad final recital and the second sonata during my masters at the graduation recital. I worked with many teachers on these works and I think they are my favourite piano pieces, even though they are very different. I thought it would be a nice range to portray in the album, that’s the more general reason. Also I was inspired by current feminist movements, and I feel that the relationship between Chopin and George Sand was quite special. It was very progressive, especially for that era. George Sand was a feminist writer, so I wanted to make the videos in her style. George Sand would dress up like a man and talk about a lot of topics like philosophy, politics, sex… She was very open, very courageous and very creative. She led her own life, not listening to what society said. That was the inspiration behind the videos, image-wise.
The project came about when I decided to look at the pieces I studied and looked at them as a more mature person. That’s how I recorded them and it was a good excuse, and a good reason, to go back to my roots because I’ve done a lot of crossover projects since I’ve graduated. But, I am, still, a classical pianist, in my heart. I wanted to bring that to the front line of this album. I’m going to record another Chopin album and a Beethoven album in April, May time.
Oh, wow! So you’ve been busy…
Yes, it’s really busy right now. On the other hand, I’m doing a Michael Jackson album as well. So all different random things! I love the whole genre-bending projects. A lot of young people listen to many different styles. Before, people used to be labelled under one brand and style, but nowadays young people are open to new styles. My aim is to unite a lot of listeners on one platform, and that’s what I’m going to do with the concert here.
I’m launching a series in London where each concert will be a completely different topics. This is the second one I’ll be doing at the church [St James’s Sussex Gardens]. Before that, I did a Pink Lloyd concert.
This concert will be with two painters who will paint live in the slow movements of the sonatas, and they are two different types of artists visually. There is a street graffiti artist, Zabou and she does a lot of portraits all over the streets of London. Then, there’s Tommy Ramsay and he is from the Royal College of Arts. He is much more conceptual, so I think it will be a nice visual aid to interpret Chopin, in that regard. And then the next concerts will be very different. One will be with electronic beats and another one will be Beethoven’s Ninth, and possibly the Michael Jackson launch later on.
Have you performed with Tommy Ramsay or Zabou before?
No. I reached out to different people. Zabou is big on Instagram, so I wrote to her and she said she played piano for seven years. She is excited about the concert. I just loved her art. I follow many artists on Instagram and that’s a source of inspiration for me. For Tommy, I wrote to the Royal College of Art and that’s how he contacted me.
How do you want the audience to experience the concert knowing you’ll be playing Chopin pieces and two artists shall be painting at the same time?
I wanted to keep it quite short for the artwork, so I didn’t want them to paint for the entire performance because I think that would be distracting. I think there’s already so much information with just the pianist performing. With the Chopin Sonatas, because they are different stylistically from the other movements, I thought it would be a nice way to get the audience inspired. In most classical music concerts I think what is missing is this freshness because once the pianist starts playing, the concert becomes so long, especially if it is the one composer from the same era. It is hard to actively keep listening, considering the attention spans of people nowadays. I mean, even for mine, performing is obviously a very different thing – you need to be focused all the time. But, as an audience you’re sitting down, watching and listening for the first and the last bits, and possibly the bit in the middle, but most of it gets lost. I want to freshen the audience up with some visual aid. I think it will provoke them to think about how the painter interacts with the music and what will happen with this interaction visually because no one knows. Even the painters will not know what will happen.
Classical music is active listening; that is the primary role of the audience. It is not consumer music – you are just there and entertained by it. You need to learn from it, experience it, and it can be a deeply philosophical way of enjoying music. I think it is more of an educational experience and a bit like consciousness – how you perceive sound. It is one of the few times you have to yourself in this busy life. You sit and listen for over an hour and you’re just alone with yourself, and the real sounds coming from the performer. It’s quite a special thing nowadays because there is noise everywhere. Everyone is busy, we are distracted by social media. We never listen to each other, even for long conversations. It brings us back to this meditative feeling and self-realisation.
It’s interesting that you brought up social media. Do you think social media has affected the way we experience classical music concerts, say in the last decade?
Definitely. I can’t speak for audiences from the UK because I’m not from here, but we have lost a lot of attention span, for sure. The cellphones are everywhere and we have a very easy reach. Within a couple of seconds we can click a button and see what everyone is doing in the entire world. It was much harder before to open computers, log onto the internet and wait for the signal. It was quite a mission, but now it is easier, so I think the accessibility makes it much harder to focus on one task at a time. I mean, this could be good in other ways. There are bad sides to it, of course, but information spreads faster now. I can access a ton of music scores, recordings and videos for free. It’s amazing, but I think we should use it in a positive and productive way.
You have done a lot of crossover projects. How do classical musicians keep their performances fresh and innovative?
For classical music, I think some musicians are not doing their best to perform in an innovative way like they used to 200 years ago, unfortunately. If you look at history, Liszt was a showman and Chopin was very much behind the scenes. He didn’t love showing off at all, but he was a great pianist and he did many concerts and improvised. So did Beethoven and Mozart. If you look at all of these great composers, they were very innovative and active. We don’t have that anymore. Classical music has become academic and very lab-oriented. It’s like it’s not for the general public to enjoy in most cases. It’s very hard. If you take someone to a classical music concert and then you play them two recordings it will take them a while to realise the difference. It is whether it touches their heart, or not.
My philosophy of performance is that the musician has the role to change society, a little bit. Although I do crossover projects, they have a message. There are issues that I care about. I did an album before, Nirvana. The whole concept was on Kurt Cobain’s life. He was struggling with a drug addiction. He had a lot of messages for young people. He wrote in his diaries that you shouldn’t use drugs, that it was killing him and he couldn’t get away from it. I’m always trying to incorporate some sort of social message that I care about in these projects. I think there are some musicians who don’t do that, but once you have a platform I think they should reach out about these issues.
Generally speaking, who is your favourite composer?
There are composers that I love listening to and there are composers’ work which I love playing. There’s a difference. For example, for Prokofiev, I love his work, but don’t enjoy playing it because I don’t think my character fits with his sarcasm. I prefer listening to it as opposed to trying it myself. Rachmaninoff is another one. I have played the Paganini Variations before but for the Second Concerto that everyone plays, I just don’t want to ruin it. Sometimes, when you start working on a piece, it becomes work. When you start working on it, you hear all the mistakes when someone else is performing it, and you think ‘this is not how I would play it’. It gets a little bit too conscious, and I don’t like that feeling. Like when you go outside of the concert and you see people smiling, you start staring at their teeth.
I am playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, the first movement in Spain in December. We are doing The Muse as well with the symphony orchestra there. There are elements of Rachmaninoff in The Muse, so we are adding the Second Concerto for a brief period and a cadenza, so it’s still nice.
Do you feel there are any challenges when you are performing Chopin’s Sonatas?
A challenge? Hmm… when I think about Chopin, his work is easy to play. Easy because it fits my personality. I feel his nostalgia because I’m away from home a lot and I can get quite emotional. I think I understand his music very well. Technically, you have to keep fit, but otherwise I feel generally very comfortable with these pieces.
Tell me a bit more about the Michael Jackson album.
It is definitely going to be more commercial. It will have beats and many different jazzy piano arrangements that I’ll be working on.
What inspired you to get involved in crossover projects?
Just life! I never just listened to one genre, I listened to many others. To become a honest musician, you should be playing things that you like listening to. I’m not a purist. When I was growing up I had tough teachers; I wasn’t allowed to wear nail polish, not wear jewellery or to play anything that wasn’t classical. When I entered my teenage years, I told myself I’m going to do jazz. I’m going to riot against my teachers and do my own thing. For me, it was a healthy discovery. It had nothing to do with making money, especially with the Pink Floyd project, it was very deep. I love Pink Floyd. They were icons and filled with many political and social messages. Also, another thing, none of my friends listened to classical music.
You have performed in many places internationally, do you have a favourite venue?
That’s a difficult question. I’ve played at the Kremlin in Moscow. It was right in front of the Diamond Fund, in the museum section. I think it was the armory. There were these amazing costumes with jewellery on top and bibles… I mean that was a great place. The host was wearing a silver suit, it was like The Nutcracker, and felt very operatic. That was quite a while ago.
I’ve also played in Italy. Last year in Palermo, there was a piano city festival. Normally they do it in Milan but this time they did it in Sicily and it was in the backyard of a church. It was a fascinating view and there were over a thousand people on the street, just all of them standing around the piano. There was also another place in Turkey, it’s also an antique site owned by the Ancient Romans. It’s a stone quarry and there were lights set up against this wall, and there were these tree crickets that were singing when I was playing. At one point, the tempo was the same as the music and people were recording it. It was amazing, the crickets were in sync with the music. Those are three places I’ve played in, but there are some unusual places too, like in Ecuador, Ambato; I played in a basketball court there. It wasn’t the typical type of place for a concert, but the children had never seen a classical music performance before. For me, it was a unique experience.
How did you know you wanted to become a concert pianist?
I think I was a serious child, that was my strongest trait. With everything I do, I’m quite serious, which isn’t always a good thing. I was five and a half when I started but I knew when I was six this would be my career. I was doing a lot of repertoires compared to my classmates, so I skipped a lot of grades and by the time I was seven, I was playing Chopin. I write about this in my album, but it was the Chopin Waltz that was the first piece I performed. It was a serious thing. It had been performed by many giants and I felt like there was a lot of pressure. I remember how important it was for me. I was very nervous but also very excited. I knew the value of the piece, performing in front of people. I never did it as a hobby, it was always quite serious, so when I performed that, I knew I was going to be a pianist. It was never a question I ever asked actually. It was more like ‘should I do something else?’ I’ve always tried to multitask like I went to an academic school, then I went to university and studied political science as well as a minor in film and media studies. I was always curious about life and other topics because I didn’t want to miss out on the important bits. But, I think I was always a musician. Without actively deciding, it was in the background.
How do you rehearse before a concert?
Usually, before a concert, I cancel all of my social activities. Just a week because I’m usually going out – all the time! I panic and I’m like ‘oh my god, I have a concert!’ And then I stay home – already I’m on autopilot; my fingers play, the sound is fine, but it is still important to be conscious when you play. It’s still spontaneous when you perform on stage. You pay extra attention and have so much adrenaline that you need to know how your body will react to unknown circumstances which you don’t have at home. I usually play to friends and family members, and even to my cats – I do Skype with them. I actually have a video of me Skyping and playing Chopin to my cats. I think it is nice to do some live streaming, too. It’s a really good way of getting rid of stress. Let’s say, for example, the concert is for 300 people, the social media post may reach 20,000 people, and who knows who is watching from that 20,000. In some cases, it is more nerve-wracking. What else do I do? I guess, just practice and try to focus.
Do you have any inspirational role models?
It’s a bit random, but I love Hollywood actors because they are so professional. Every time I see them on TV as their real selve, they present themselves really well, and they keep up the standard and quality, usually. I find this is really nice. I’m more of a dramatic person. For me, I don’t know what will happen in the next moment, but I can be very academic as well. I like the fact they can be so simple to reach to people. There are many TV shows like The Jimmy Kimmel Show; they play and act with other actors. It’s quite innovative I think.
Do you have an actor in mind?
They change from time to time. I’m a bit of an oldies person, but I like the actors and the scriptwriters. They are brilliant; I feel like they come closer to composers. They can make you laugh and cry. I am addicted to Friends. I think it is written in a genius way, and now I’ve watched a few episodes of Black Mirror, which is quite cool and realistic, unfortunately. To be honest, I don’t watch as much TV, but if you look at actors like Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman… there’s a lot of actors I admire. In terms of classical music and piano role models, I would say Martha Argerich. She is great! I wish I had her fingers and her brains. She is absolutely fascinating.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a successful concert pianist?
I would say consistency is the key. If you’re not consistent, it’s not going to work, but if you are consistent and keep trying, it will happen. It’s all about that because what you’ll win is a lot of people who will quit. There are a lot of talented kids in university with amazing skills, and you might think ‘oh my god, there are these amazing people, how am I going to succeed?’ Most of them end up quitting, so if you keep going, it will happen. That’s the easiest advice I can give. Firstly, they don’t have that courage to take risks to pursue it. Maybe they don’t love it enough. There are all these reasons why it doesn’t work and could work. It’s quite tough and challenging as a career, especially as an independent artist. For example, I’ll get a lot of concerts in one or two months, and then I won’t have any concerts for three months. So, it’s about doing something in those three months that you can add to your portfolio and still be productive. It’s a tricky thing to balance. I’ve learnt how to use the time when I am not performing and that’s when I do the recordings and create new projects. It’s basically a business model that you need to create for yourself.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love going out with close friends in London. I also love going out to the theatre, and that’s one of my favourite thing to do here. These are amazing productions like if I could, I would go every night. I saw Amadeus at The National Theatre and it was a fascinating production – it was amazing! I’m inspired by British skills in theatre productions and the actors. It’s just incredible. I love cooking too, and watching cat videos because my cats are in Turkey, and I miss them.
The concert takes place at St James’s Church (Sussex Gardens, Paddington) from 8pm on Friday 9th March.
General admission £15, student price £12 and £8 early bird tickets. Click here to purchase tickets now.
Follow her on Instagram on: https://www.instagram.com/adpianist
- AyseDeniz Gokcin’s A Chopin Affair Concert (2018)
- Q & A with Jean-Paul Gasparian, Classical Pianist (2018)
- Q & A with Stephen Higgins – Music Director and Conductor
- Q & A: Layale Chaker – Composer and Violinist
- ‘Don’t trip and fall on your face.’ An interview with Alexander Joel, conductor of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House (2018)