Straddling the realms of contemporary classical, pop, new age, jazz and beyond, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi has developed a devoted worldwide following; on any continent, his concerts regularly sell out. As for the secret of his success, it’s simple. “There is no recipe, other than the fact that I trust what I do and I follow my heart,” he said. “I take inspiration from many different sources — science, philosophy, books — and this presents my audience with a variety of approaches and points of entry into my music.”
His latest tour, dubbed “Essential Einaudi,” brings him to Orchestra Hall for an SCP Special Concert on Oct. 24. His quietly immersive piano music will be accompanied by a band of five multi-instrumentalists on cello, violin, guitar, percussion and electronics. In signature Einaudi style, the stage will be cloaked in darkness, with carefully designed projections and swirling visual effects. The concert will offer a portrait of the artist drawn over the last 20 years, featuring selections from his most successful albums, including “Nightbook” (2009). At the core will be works from his latest album, “Elements” (2015), in which Einaudi takes inspiration from natural elements and their infinite combinations, as well as from mathematics, Wassily Kandinsky’s writings on form and color, and the interplay of landscapes and architecture.
Through his hypnotic and sinuously melodic music, Einaudi readily connects with audiences in both live and recorded events, and he often uses that ability for good causes, most prominently to raise awareness about climate change and global warming. For a video shot in 2016 as part of Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign, Einaudi played his Elegy for the Arctic with his Steinway piano secured on a pontoon raft as it floated by massive glaciers. The clip has been viewed millions of times. “Climate change should touch every human being, because we are all victims of what happens to our planet,” he said. “It’s natural for me, and it’s always been part of my life to be concerned with the environment and with whatever interferes with the natural life of the planet. It should be a natural thing for everybody to share this concern.”
Is this political? “It’s political because effects on the environment are connected to decisions made by politicians,” he said. “It’s not my role as an artist to make political statements, but the Greenpeace video allowed me to share my vision and beliefs with people all around the globe. I don’t do these kinds of things all the time, but I did it because I felt it was important.”
Audiences of course won’t see an iceberg on stage at Orchestra Hall, but the idea of the natural world and the integration of science and the rest of human endeavors will be front and center in what they observe and hear. Einaudi dedicated “Elements” to Luciano Berio, his composition teacher at the Milan Conservatory, and the person who taught him how to find music everywhere and transform everything into music: “I always remember how Berio talked about music while talking about anything but music: literature, poetry, science, architecture. He showed me how we make literature into music, science into music, and then music into literature and architecture.”
It seems that everything is continually morphing and mutating in Einaudi’s music, like the infinite transformations of natural elements. “Yes, this is what allows me to create a musical language that doesn’t have only one meaning, where there is always an additional layer and a sense of never-ending expansion,” he said. “This is what fascinates me, in music but also in life.”
Other inspirations for his work include the music of Mali. Einaudi traveled to that nation several times to play with Toumani Diabaté and other virtuosos of the kora, the traditional West African harp, often heard in instrumental and vocal music that combines elaborate, intricate rhythms with beautiful, plaintive melodies. While Einaudi’s subdued piano renditions shed most of the works’ original rhythmic complexity, their gently unfolding melodic lines retain some of the dream-like melancholy heard in kora-based music sung by Malian vocalists.
The idea of beauty plays a large role in Einaudi’s music. “Yes, beauty as a vision of the world as we would like it to be,” he said. “Not just in the environment, but also in terms of human and social relations, of how we share emotions with people. It’s a vision I try to foster with my art.”
For Einaudi, the piano is rooted in his childhood. “It’s the flavor of my home growing up, of my mother playing it for me as a child,” he said. “In the piano, I can find the poetry, I can sing and express myself.”
His childhood home in Turin, Italy, was not just full of music, it was full of ideas about literature, philosophy, history and politics. His father, Giulio, founded the Einaudi publishing house that championed the works of Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi. His paternal grandfather, Luigi, was president of the newly founded Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, entrusted with the country’s physical, political and moral reconstruction after the end of the war and the fall of fascism.
Ludovico has warm memories of Calvino hanging around the house “like s a very inspiring uncle.” Could there be a moment when he takes inspiration for his music from Calvino’s magical and elusive prose, as he recently did with Virginia Woolf’s The Waves? “It’s possible, I’ve always been inspired by Calvino’s writings, especially Invisible Cities, and by him as a person. As for my next project, I’m still searching, reading many different things, letting my ideas develop and expand in many directions. Like it was for my teacher, Luciano Berio, my next project will come from an idea, not from the music itself, but it will become music when I sit at the piano and start fleshing it out.”
Marta Tonegutti is a free-lance music critic for several print and online venues. She is an editor at the University of Chicago Press and is managing editor of “The Works of Giuseppe Verdi.“