An Interview with Keith Lipson

What kind of music do you love to play on the clarinet?

Whatever music I am playing at the moment.

How do you define “new music?”

Music that isn't "old." Actually, I don't really like the terms "new music" and "old music," these artificial divisions we make between classical music and contemporary music. All great art is timeless.

Do you have a preference for solo or orchestral pieces?

My musical mentor Yehuda Gilad once told me a great little phrase: Note=Note. His meaning was that no matter what music we play, we should fully invest ourselves in its performance. I have no preference.

Can you share one of your musical highlights in China either as a performer or listener?

As a listener, hearing a group of girls of the Dong minority sing some of their traditional vocal music in Dimen village, Guizhou province. As a performer, the concert we just gave at Penghao Theater. I really felt that there was a strong connection with the audience.

What are the major differences between classically-trained musicians in China and the US?

I feel that modern "classical" training is very flawed around the world. These similar flaws exist in China as well as the U.S. and Europe. Nowadays, we are only taught to attempt to flawlessly execute other people's musical compositions, and taught to worship certain randomly pre-determined "great" composers and perform their music exactly as it is written on the page. As a result, a certain dogmatism arises which alienates musicians from the music they are performing, and alienates the audience from the performer and the performer from the audience.

"Classical" music now is in a state of "crisis." I feel that this crisis is actually a very positive thing. Musicians now are starting to reevaluate themselves and their relationship to music and the audeince. I believe that crisis can lead to new artistic and personal growth. In the past, musicians were not only trained to play an instrument, they were also trained extensively in counterpoint and solfege. They were taught to fully hear and understand the music that they were playing. In addition, there used to be a great tradition of improvisation. Musicians learned to improvise around established music forms. The ability to improvise is essential for any composer. In essence, instrumentalists of the past were not only re-creative performing musicians, but were also creative artisits, who could improvise or compose their own works. This tradition has remained alive mostly in American jazz music.

During your recent concert at Penghao Theatre you read excerpts from the Daodejing in Chinese and your English translation. What do you enjoy most about the translation process?

To be honest, I don't enjoy the translation process. A book like the Daodejing is really impossible to express effectively in any language, including its original version in ancient Chinese. The first six characters of the Daodejing state clearly that: "The Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal, immutable Dao." The Daodejing, in essence, attempts to express things that cannot be expressed in words. The original inspiration of this book comes from places deep inside the human psyche. By merely reading and studying this work in an academic fashion, one can never really understand it. In a sense it is like all great art. How can you take the beauty of a Beethoven symphony, or a painting of Van Gogh and express it in words? The best way to "appreciate" art is the direct immediate experience of it.

Who are some of your musical heroes?

I'm not a fan of the term musical hero, as I am not a fan of hero worship. However, there are some musicians that have really inspired me. Conductors: Willem Mengelberg and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Eli Marshall. Instrumentalists: violinist Bronislaw Huberman, violinist Jonathan Gandelsman, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, pianist Adrius Zlabys, pianist Vitalij Kuprij, jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw, klezmer clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and David Krakauer, the great jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet, saxophone giant John Coltrane (possibly one of the great musical artists of the 20th century), jazz bass-clarinet master Eric Dolphy, Turkish clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici. The list is much longer.

What are you reading at the moment?

Most recently The Platform Sutra of the Chan (Zen) master Huineng.

What are you listening to at the moment?

The sounds of birds chirping outside my window accompanied by the gentle hum of my laptop computer. People's movements and voices can also be heard.

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