An interview with Ursula Oppens

by Joshua CODY

Contemporary virtuoso pianist Ursula Oppens was the daughter of a musical family. Her mother is a piano teacher, and though not her first teacher, was very involved in guiding Ursula's early piano studies. "She was very committed to the European, and especially German, tradition of classical music, which means that I grew up with Bach and Haydn and Mozart and Schubert," says Ms. Oppens. Her mother had studied briefly with Anton Webern, and although they did work on the Berg Sonata when she was seventeen, her training was mostly classical.

"It's hard, looking back, to be sure whether my background was completely traditionally classical or if it was quite unusual to have Bartok and Schoenberg there-not as composers I performed habitually (although of course I played the Bartok Mikrokosmos)- but as composers I knew about, as I knew about Mozart and Beethoven. I can't say that I knew the music of Schoenberg as a child in any way, but I did know the name.
"When I was in my early twenties, I think that because I had had such an intense musical environment growing up, I had to find some area of music that was completely my own, so to speak, that I hadn't been taught. It was necessary not so much in career terms, but just in terms of my own growing up as a musician, in order to discover something about myself.

Looking for a contrast to the music, Ms. Oppens went to college. "My parents were musicians, and I had non-stop music growing up. So I studied English literature. I had the ability, before going to college, to read a book one day and to forget its title, author, and contents the next. It was really terrible, and I'm not sure I improved much in college. In that sense, the studies I did in economics at least stuck with me a little longer. I do think the ability to read and write are absolutely basic. At the same time, I do regret not having studied counterpoint enough, not being expert in keyboard harmony or transposition, and perhaps that's why I'm so much in favor of the academy in some sense; I think that the more skills you have, the freer you are."

One topic that we currently hear a lot about is the conflict between different aesthetic schools-minimalism, serialism, neoromanticism, et cetera. At a time when it's often professionally advantageous to take a certain side, Oppens has recorded an incredibly wide range of works.
Oppens is known for her interpretations of a wide variety of composers, from Carter to Rzewski, but she is very modest about her accomplishments. "I don't have a terribly long attention span, so I sometimes prefer short, funny pieces to very long ones, which sometimes means that a certain kind of minimalism loses me. But then other kinds of minimalism, like Louis Andriessen, really grab me, so it isn't so much the style that is the determining factor, but perhaps my temperament.
"I really think one can have wonderful and terrible pieces in all kinds of styles. Actually, I really like the current period, where there are many different styles going on at once. I think it's a lot of fun. Sometimes, when I'm in my most optimistic frame of mind, I think that music, instead of being socially behind the rest of the world, might be socially a little bit ahead of it, in showing that one can be quite happy in a pluralistic society."

Over the past decade, Oppens has come to the forefront of American contemporary musicians. Her concerts are characterized by a warmth of tone and presentation, and a welcome enthusiasm about new music. Despite-or perhaps because of-her unorthodox training, she performs with virtuosity and skill, and an inimitable understanding of the music.


Mr. Cody: You're celebrated for your Beethoven performances. Let's talk about your philosophy on performing older composers; I was wondering if there are some pre-1900 works that attract you more than others.
Ms. Oppens: I like all the great ones. They were all new when they were written: I think that's the basis of the "philosophy." And many, many, many composers of the past were famous improvisers. It was actually quite recently that someone told me that with Chopin, in fact, a lot of the works that we think of as "composed" were really improvisations that were transcribed, sometimes even by his friends. Right now, there's this movement called "classic jazz," at Lincoln Center among other places, which I feel is trying to do to jazz what was done to classical music: to take something that is of the present and try to fix it, place it in a box, contain it, as a thing of the past, with a fixed meaning, when this isn't really what it is.
Here we could touch upon the debate on period instruments. Sometimes it is good to work on period instruments; I think it's not required. But [if one performs older works on modern instruments,] then one must consider it an arrangement for a different instrument. And that's okay! To some extent, you should know what the original instruments could do and couldn't do; for instance, on an early keyboard instrument, the difference between the bass and the treble is greater than on the present one; or on an earlier keyboard instrument, playing many notes was the best way of playing louder, rather than [using the modern instrument's great dynamic sensitivity]. If you know things like that, you can apply those to your interpretations, your arrangements, of older music for the present. But the other thing is to remember the general sense of newness, of fantasy, because it was new music of the time.

Do you think your career would have been different had you concentrated on performing the standard classical piano repertoire?
I think that I would have been different.

You've lived in New York your whole life. How do you feel about the contemporary music scene in New York?
Well there is a lot of it, and the main danger for someone of my age is that we can't keep up with our own contemporaries, what's interesting, of course, is listening to young people that one has never heard of before. So the scene should always be changing. In the last ten years in New York, you know, the Knitting Factory became the interesting scene. But the main thing is that a young composer looks for some place to present his or her own music, and whatever place allows a composer to do that is automatically interesting. The cutting edge of today will finally tend to present only the music of more established people, so in some sense one is always looking for a place that is wide open.

Have you ever lived in Europe?
I never have, although I've traveled a lot. I'm very English language-bound at the moment; I don't speak another language well, and I love to talk! [Laughs.]

Do you have the impression that contemporary music is very different in Europe?
I think so. In Europe in general, I think of contemporary music as being better funded and better supported by the state; but that also means that there are fewer cracks through which people whom no one has heard of can enter, because it is more organized. The other thing that I've noticed, quite to my surprise, is that there is less integration of contemporary music into the subscription program. It's very often "This Week of New Music," or a special festival like Darmstadt; an audience who comes to hear a Beethoven symphony is never forced, in a way, to listen to something new, and in some senses American orchestras do more of that.

Louis Andriessen thinks the attempt to force the twentieth-century repertoire into the American orchestral system is ridiculous: the audiences don't want to hear it, the musicians don't want to play it…
Oh, I don't think that's true. When I played Lutoslawski in Chicago, the orchestra seemed to be very much into it, with a sense of, "Well, let's see what we're getting into"-as opposed to, "Oh, we're dying to play it!" But once they were involved, they enjoyed the experience and were pleasantly surprised, and I didn't find there to be a big reluctance. I think I disagree with Andriessen, and in that sense maybe I'm very committed to this American way of trying, again, to integrate the new and the old, just as we were speaking of stylistic plurality.

The relationship between contemporary music and the audience might lead us to the subject of popular music.
I don't really know popular music very well. I kind of like it when I can hear, especially in the context of electronic music, that some very inventive stuff has made its way into popular music. Then there's an area, which I haven't followed much, of experimental rock that is interesting. Popular music is not interesting to me when it gets commercialized and smoothed out, just as you can do with classical music by selling a record of "Tranquillity," or "The Greatest Melodies." I just don't think this is good for music when this happens in any of its areas.
On the other hand, I've been playing some Schubert recently, and I think that with Schubert, almost more than with any of the German classical composers, you hear how full it is of the folk music of this time in Germany and Austria…Actually, I think that in today's period we probably aren't as good as integrating as composers were in the past; I think it's done with more difficulty. When it's done self-consciously, sometimes it doesn't work. But even Elliott Carter says he was very influenced by jazz, and you can hear it. But it's a very well-integrated influence; it's not on the surface.

How do you feel about teaching and conservatories: Is there a good and a bad side to the academy?
I think that academies are torn by the fact that you can't teach everything if you're going to teach something well. That fact, however, doesn't mean that the academy is limited to teaching "the European tradition." But for me, it would more interesting to take one other tradition and teach it in depth, rather than providing a very general overview of everything. Different universities could specialize in different areas. People who are against this broadening of curriculum say any broadening will be superficial, and that is of course nonsense. But then one must divide the disciplines between various schools.
The good thing is that there really are skills one has to learn, and there is practice to do; there's no way of getting good at anything without a fairly disciplined and rigorous approach to it, where one works pretty hard at things that aren't much fun.
This isn't true only in music; it's true of every discipline and every form of music: Indian masters, jazz musicians, African drummers. In this large sense, I think the academy is necessary-or an academy, whether an apprenticeship or enrollment in a university. I really do believe that you have to work very, very hard in a traditional way in order to learn how to break the tradition in an interesting way. Whatever form you're studying, you have to become a master of that form.

Roving new music exponent Joshua Cody interviewed Ms. Oppens in New York City, 1995


This interview was recorded for an exclusive radio broadcast by WNUR-FM, Evanston-Chicago, with PNMR editor Joshua Cody. Interview © by Joshua Cody. Thanks for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in our talk with another amazing pianist, Alan Feinberg.