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Interview with Jean Muller

img  Tobias Fischer

Jean Muller doesn't just want to take classical music into a new age. He intends to outright 'demolish genre distinctions', as his official biography puts it. The martial terminology is merely a statement of intent, but it does indicate the urgency of Muller's mission. Behind the piano, all his faculties are working over-time, his hands channeling his passions and intellectual insights into riveting performances of mostly 19th century repertoire. Perhaps quite aptly, the Luxembourg-born artist holds a particular affection for the oeuvre of Franz Liszt, with whom he shares a deep fascination for the connections between sound and the written word, between philosophy and music. Both, too, regard virtuosity not as a goal in itself, but as the foundation for expressing oneself on one's instrument – or, as Muller describes it, as "a condition sine qua non for a musician." And just like Liszt, Muller, enjoys life as a self-made entrepreneur, taking the task of releasing his latest CD Transcendence into his own hands. Again focusing on Liszt and featuring an integral recording of the latter's Études d'exécution transcendante, it may perhaps not exactly demolish your expectations of his work. What it might just do, however, is to re-inforce the notion of this music being of timeless power, which, as Muller puts it in this interview, will remain relevant for as long we exist.

What were some of your first interests and the most important aspects of your musical education – and how did they manifest themselves on Transcendence?
As a child I remember being fascinated by this huge, black, sound-producing machine. Later on I liked some precise instruments, and with the accumulated experience I tend to love the concept of a piano, while the instrument itself is now more like a tool in my eyes: a canvas to project my ideas of sound on.

My father was very important for my musical education. I believe this starts with the sheer amount of time and patience he invested to help my musical development. It was the kind of a day-to-day coaching that is impossible to get from an “external” teacher. Through his extensive record collection, he also made me discover a huge amount of music, which definitely shaped and refined my taste. Some recordings would literally obsess me, and I would listen to them over and over again. One of my particular favourites: Vladimir Horowitz’s version of the Mephisto-Waltz No. 1, a piece that I finally ended up recording on the current Transcendence album. Horowitz as a pianist pushed the limits of what could be achieved with the instrument, both technically and artistically, that’s why he continues to inspire so many people.

So in that sense, recording this program is the fulfilment of a childhood dream and therefore also a very personal statement. I have been preparing this recording very carefully over a period of three years, and was lucky enough to have five days to record it. I remember it as the most intense recording session I have ever had. The piano had to be tuned every 45 minutes, due to the big sound required by Liszt.


Speaking about Liszt: You once said in a different interview that you 'need the repertoire of the 19th century'. In which way?
In that particular interview, I was asked whether it is necessary to add my own interpretations to the extensive discography that already exists in this repertoire. I replied that even though no-one forced me to play this repertoire, I still needed to play it, because it is important to me. This music deals with the everlasting problems and joys of the human nature: love, death, war, peace, the question of the sense of life etc. Those things will be relevant as long that we continue to exist. So no doubt the music will be, too.


How would you describe the scene for classical music in your home of Luxembourg during your formative years?
The classical music scene in Luxembourg has made a spectacular development over the last twenty years. Not only is there is a multitude of gifted composers, but also a really proficient group of performers. An excellent music education system contributes to that, as well as the small size of the country, which greatly encourages meeting and exchanging with colleagues. Last but not least, the Luxembourg Philharmonie, which opened in 2005, gave the scene renewed energy and inspiration.


You studied a year in Riga in 1995 under Teofíls Bikís, an event credited with forming your decision to devote your life to music. Afterwards you spent time at different universities in Europe. What were some of the  insights you gained during this time?
Going to a country of the former soviet bloc as a 15-years old shortly after the rise of the iron curtain was a cultural shock, which put a lot of things into a different perspective. I was very impressed by the talent and dedication of my fellow students and Professor Bikís lead his class somehow like a family with never tiring energy and an immense appetite for music-making. He taught me how to really express myself on the piano, how to play very long phrases, how to extract the sound of the instrument and so many other things. To sum it up I would say he gave me the first glimpse of what one may call “grandeur”.

Being exposed to diverse schools of thoughts during my time at European universities made me realise that it is very important to remain creative as a performer. Complying with standard interpretations cannot be the goal of a classical music artist. Musical notation is - even though very refined - always just an approximation of the intention of the composer. Much freedom is granted and even wanted. To communicate the highly emotional and often philosophical content, a great deal of personal involvement is required. Following stereotypes does not produce living and exciting interpretations.


The 21st century is presenting massive changes for all artists, but the pressure to adapt has possibly been most radical within the classical music community. What are some of the most important challenges for you personally and how are you dealing with the current situation?
The pressure has been most radical in the classical community because that community has refused longest to acknowledge that something was changing and tried to save the conventional business model for as long as possible. While some of these issues have been addressed already in the past years, many others have not. It will be an enormous task to bring back classical music to the place it surely deserves. Personally I believe two ingredients are of utmost importance: to focus on the quality and to start communicating in a modern way. Through the Internet many of this  can be done by the artists themselves. While that may be time-consuming it is also very rewarding to interact with the audience on a person-to-person base.

When it comes to physical albums, quite honestly, I have no nostalgic feelings about the medium. Music, after all, is vibration in the air, and an album is a certain amount of music. The connection with an object is in a certain way passé, since there is no strong argument to justify a physical medium anymore. Even though nothing will ever replace a live performance, I do believe that recorded music is important, giving us the possibility to enjoy music virtually everywhere, anywhere.


What's your take on the relevance of all the influences we're constantly submitted to? How has the multitude of potential stimuli changed your own way of working and how do you keep focused?
The abundance of stimuli can indeed be quite overwhelming; in a world that defines speed and efficiency as core values, it seems vitally important to me to make a distinction between what is urgent and what is important. After all, chasing a better future sometimes means not living in the present. To remain focused I like to think outside of the box: I find a lot of inspiration in reading science-fiction novels for instance! Looking at our present from the angle of an imagined future, be it Utopian or apocalyptic, puts things back into perspective, and helps to discern the important from the urgent.

Music is a profoundly human art in contact with the essence of our nature. As such it is a timeless value, which helps to remain focused on oneself. This effect is so strong for me that I usually feel I receive more energy back from the music than I put into it, encouraging me to push my own limits in musical interpretation even further.


When you're immersed in music all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious?
It really compares to a Russian doll. Whenever you think you have solved a mystery, the next one comes into sight. What astounds me still, is that you can listen to some works for a thousand times without them losing any of their immediate appeal, and still gaining in complexity. Music is an endless universe.

Jean Muller interview by Tobias Fischer
Photos by Marlene Soares

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