In this project, Tristano has not only delved into a new interpretation of the prelude and Fugue. Together with his illustrator friend Daniel Jimenez and under the direction of the filmmaker Elena Molina, they have recorded a video clip in homage to Gulda and his rebel spirit. The piece, shot in an old textile factory in Barcelona, is inspired by the transgressive spirit and the maverick figures of Gulda and Tristano in their respective times. The director is committed to filming Tristano’s interpretation of this classic work in a space that at first glance seems unnatural but ends up merging into a symbiosis between the delicate piano lines and the industrial elements of the abandoned space. The piano notes playing with the light that filters through the broken windows create the atmosphere for the central performance of the video, performed ‘four hands’ by Francesco Tristano on the piano and Dani Jimenez with the marker pen. The realization is weaving the complicity between both artists, inviting us to participate in their exquisite hooliganism. Flashbacks, format changes and careful cinematographic underlining symbolic details allow us to immerse ourselves in this tribute to Friedrich Gulda — an extensible tribute to all those who break the rules, pushing beyond the limits imposed on some artistic circles.
In what way do you feel indebted to Friedrich Gulda?
He taught me two key lessons. Firstly, that you don’t necessarily have to do what people expect you to do. It’s very often much more interesting to do the opposite, to do what they’re not expecting you to do. Gulda was a radical figure in 1950s Vienna – he was playing jazz, a genre the classical establishment just dismissed as the territory of black musicians. But it was important to him and he carried on going his own way. The second thing I learned from him, then, is a realisation that music doesn’t begin and end with the classical repertoire. In the last ten years of his life, you have no idea what to expect if you went to one of his concerts. He might appear on stage with Chick Corea or Joe Zawinul, he might play solo piano or perform with a full orchestra.
What impact did his death have on you?
27 January has been a memorable date for me ever since the year 2000. He was very important to me during my teenage years – I think I was 13 when I bought my first Gulda recording. When he died, there was virtually no coverage. The news didn’t appear in the French papers, apart from L’Humanité. That may have something to do with the fact that in 1999 he issued a press release announcing his own death, at a time when he’d really faded into obscurity. Then a French journalist recognised him at an airport. He had the bad luck to die just four months later, and people thought he was faking it again.
Why did you decide to record Prelude and Fugue?
It’s my favourite Gulda work for solo piano – I’ve known it since I was 11 or 12. My teacher in Luxembourg gave me his complete piano works – he wanted to show me that you could use old forms and structures to do something contemporary, in this case, something with a real groove, with those mind-blowing jazz harmonies. I realised that tradition and the avant-garde weren’t diametrically opposed to each other, quite the contrary: traditional elements can be used to create something cutting-edge and with contemporary relevance. The model here is Bach, but he takes it to a new dimension. It’s almost like Stevie Wonder. I’d never played it in concert, but I recorded it in Tokyo last October.
What fascinates you about Gulda the performer?
He was a child prodigy and one of the first pianists to tour the far-flung corners of the world. There were particular areas he focused on in terms of repertoire – Bach, the First Viennese School, and French music too, Ravel and Debussy. But he wasn’t happy to stick to just classical music. In the 50s he got interested in jazz, learned to play sax, and created a kind of alter ego so that he could play in the jazz clubs of Vienna, without neglecting his classical career. He was an anti-purist, and for me, that became a personal conviction. There were times when he performed in the nude, or in streetwear, but always wearing his watch and that inimitable headgear. It wasn’t so much the way he dressed or presented himself that influenced me, but his transgressive attitude: it was a declaration of intent, an understanding that a concert had to offer surprises and not be tied to a script. He might say he was going to play Schubert at the Vienna Musikverein, then turn up and play jazz instead. He was invited to play at a rock festival and played Mozart when he got there. Towards the end of his life, he got involved with dance music and Ibiza DJs, because he could see the potential of that scene. He went off in all kinds of different directions.
He was a misunderstood figure. Do you think his reputation will be rehabilitated in the near future?
He went too far sometimes. If you come out on stage in the nude or go off to Ibiza as a hippie, many people in the classical world will lose interest in you. It’s unfair that he’s been forgotten, although really he hasn’t been completely forgotten, because he gained new audiences as he did new things. But what he did changed things forever – he helped reinvent the concept of the piano recital. Concert halls aren’t just temples to dead composers, they’re places where musicians can explain their history. He wanted to open up programming in order to display his vision of the world. Today, in 2020, it’s completely acceptable to go to a concert hall and listen to jazz, or an orchestra featuring electronic musicians. And it’s Friedrich Gulda we have to thank for that.
Friedrich Gulda (1930–2000), the 20th anniversary of whose death falls on 27 January 2020.