Text & interview: Rosa García
The pianist María Parra has just released her new album Vision, composed entirely of songs of her own composition. It is a solo piano project full of musical influences of different styles, as well as suggestive evocations of images of nature. Her inexhaustible creativity, as well as her wonderful compositional style, are reflected in this interesting interview in which she illustrates us about this innovative proposal.
– You have a long career as a pianist, as well as an impressive training. Did you always knew that you wanted to play the piano? How did you approach this instrument and the genres you play today?
I approached the music when I was still in the crib. I was very lucky to have a father who was a painter and loved to have music playing all day. Music of any kind, although classical was perhaps the predominant core. There was flamenco, songwriters… So, from a very young age, the musical thread was constant from when I got up until I went to bed. Music is part of my DNA. I was a very lively girl, I spent the day dancing and singing very well, and of course, one day my mother asked me: would you want to learn music? Another day, if I wanted to dance… And I replied yes to everything. I was full of energy and a lot of creativity, which my mother realized.
As for the piano, my grandmother lived in a rural area, and a very dilapidated piano had ended up at her house in the village that my uncle bought for a small price. She kept it there as a sanctuary, locked so it wouldn’t be spoiled by the grandchildren. And I, who had a very good relationship with her, at only 7 years old, asked her to open it up and she did; I used to come in around four in the afternoon and didn’t come out until dinner time. That was my first crush on the piano, with music, as I have already told you, it was long before. I remember creating my own music. It was my mother who saw that I should learn and I went to the Tarragona Conservatory, which was where I had lived since I was a child. I never doubted that music was my calling. Then, of course, the life of the professional is much harder than that of the child who is starting out. The doubts came much later.
– You were the promoter and founder of the Bouquet Festival and the Vermusic festival of Reus, professor at music schools, professional pianist, composer… How have you been able to combine all those professional activities with personal study and having a family?
I think that the motor energy is always the desire. In my case, there is nothing forced. I’ve always wanted to chart my own path. Organization is obviously important. Other times it is by chance: thus the festivals arose. I was doing some guided tours in Tarragona, and the person who was counting on me told me that on a certain day a cruise would take place, in which there would be a concert and they would have a piano. I came up with the idea of organizing a concert in the morning, which was the only time of the day that it could be done. That was the trigger to organize a music festival in beautiful spots in Tarragona; we proposed to the musicians to go to the box office and organized a cycle of 8 concerts in 2013 that we called it the Bouquet Festival. It was a complete success, improving every year and paying well the artists in the end. And Vermusic was a bit of a clone but in Reus, pairing heritage, eclectic music, gastronomy… Although in the end it was only with Vermouth.
The important thing is the daily organization; I am working all day. I manage my time and my daughters know that I am a crazy mother. In the end I think I have instilled that in them, a way of life.
– In relation to the previous question, something that surprises me a lot is how, having relative stability in your work in the “classical” world due to your professional success; you have decided to continue developing your creativity, create new projects, compose, assimilate new musical influences. In what way has all this influenced your album, being the first with songs exclusively composed by you?
Classical music, as I have lived it, has been present since my earliest childhood. When reaching adolescence, I discovered rock, pop, and other more popular music late. In my house everything was more elitist. At that moment a first crisis arises in which I saw that classical studies began to be very tedious, very dry, where everything happened due to something pre-established, a traditional component, with strict limits and without the ability to contribute anything personal. I considered a different training and it was at the Taller de Músics in Barcelona where I began my studies and tried to see if it was compatible to combine the two styles, classical and jazz. Both studies being very demanding, I found myself facing a dilemma. Finally, I dedicated myself to classical because I realized that a good command of the instrument was necessary for any musical project, and classical, due to a rigorous discipline and the constant search for technical perfection, offered it. It contains that beneficial purism that leads to a deep understanding of the instrument. The classic teaches you rigor and perfection.
In the meantime, I applied for a scholarship to go to New York to study jazz, but they didn’t grant it. It was then that the opportunity arose to go to Paris to continue with my classical studies and I temporarily put the jazz part on hold. It is also true that they were opposite worlds: one is the world of the night and the other that of getting up early and pounding. I left the creativity and jazz part to myself. In the end, life confronts you with the reality that there is no part without the other. With the acquired knowledge of the piano as an instrument, I have all the tools to create, which is what I like the most. I can create with a classic substrate, with sounds and techniques; and with influences from other music styles. However, it cannot be said that it is a specific style: it contains some pop, jazz, classical… But everything goes through María Parra’s filter directly to my piano.
– In what way do you think you being a woman has affected your professional career? Have you encountered obstacles at different stages of your life, such as training, or when getting contracts; as well as different moments of discrimination in the professional world…? Do you think your inner demons have played an important role in music? In what way do you think music has helped (or not) your own personal growth?
Yes, in different areas and at different times. Very young, in France I met boys my age who told me that to play Brahms, Beethoven or those composers who are very impetuous, you need to have what it takes to be a man. There were prejudices that the feminine has to do with a cowardly sensitivity and that to interpret male composers with a certain power and vigor, you need to be a man. I did not see it that way: in the same way that there are very sensitive men and they play very sensitive music. Sensitivity is always in art and does not know genres. When someone found out that I was mother, then went on saying that “being a mother is incompatible with an artistic career”. Unfortunately, there are many people who keep the image of their own mother in front of the stove all day, and are unable to see beyond. And so on in multiple occasions.
Fortunately, that way of thinking has changed and now is normalized the fact of being a woman, being a mother and being a professional… We take out a magic wand and we can do it all at once, because there is a part of motherhood that is more complicated in the woman. Still, it is a source of energy and motivation. When I found myself in tough situations that led to divorce, I doubted if I was being a good mother. But the truth is that you give the example of what you are to your children, you don’t have to invent it. If you are a person who sits in front of a piano all day, hitting some keys and your children see you happy, then they will assume it with total normality. Such situations have bothered me a lot. In the male sphere, it is common for them to criticize you because your ability to carry out various tasks overwhelms them. You must put double or triple impetus so as not to doubt that you have every right to go ahead with everything you propose.
– This is your third album on the market and has been published by the Warner Music Spain label. How did you end up on this label? How does the label you work with affect your music?
I started my record production quite late because I didn’t know how to do it. I come from a city like Tarragona, where there was no reference, where local artists published their recordings themselves. So I decided to record at home and, with the support of the asociació de músics de Tarragona, I released my first album. I arrived in Madrid with the record under my arm: I presented it at La Quinta de Mahler store but they told me that they couldn’t do anything with that record. They recommended that I approach it in a different way, more professional… And so I did. This is how I published my first and my second albums.
With such a personal job, I decided to go to the big three record companies: Universal, Warner and Sony. While I continued to compose and firmly believe in my proposal, Warner Music emerged, and with whom I spoke very clearly and without asking for anything but simply that they could welcome me. I made it so easy that they accepted my proposal. I didn’t see myself again on an independent label. I wanted to find the best opportunities to distribute my album.
– Something that has made me very curious since I listened to your album for the first time has been the importance of images or visual metaphors. Almost all the titles of the work (Nenúfares Bis, Rocío de la mañana (Dew in the morning), Amanecer (Dawn)…) evoke images of nature. Can you tell us about this and about your creation process?
It is a very personal job. I recently read an interview with Yuja Wang and they asked her what the piano was for her, to which she replied that for her it was similar to being an actress and she played different roles and personalities to express music. On the other hand, I don’t want to play roles, I have a lot of trouble with being myself. Interpreting other personalities and delving into the time of another person to play the music they devised is extremely hard for me… However, I want to convey my own universe and therefore I do not need to present myself under another aspect that is not mine and the one that transcends my work. There are many influences that have been very important to me, such as French Impressionism, which is a time when the musical and the pictorial coexisted perfectly. There is music that can be seen and painting that can be heard, and when you put them in parallel, they coexist perfectly.
I felt the need to create a sound film where the listener could find his/her own visual universe. Like when you read a book and they describe places and so on, you create your own movie. Like music, subtle and invisible… My greatest desire is to reach the public through an imaginary universe that allows the music to be illustrated. Nature is fundamental, and from it I get a lot of the energy that I have.
– Would you prefer to present a record work with the works that you compose or with the works of other composers? How does this affect your career as a professional composer and performer?
When you play other people’s music, it turns out that there is a kind of “authority” to judge whether you are doing it right or wrong. I myself give my works a different twist because they have multiple prisms. However, there are ten thousand controversies as to whether Bach is played with a pedal, without a pedal, with legato… It is the problem of the classical. There is a basic, traditional criterion, but then you get lost in other details.
My father reproached me for spending my life playing other people’s music, which in the end I was just “copying”. Then he would say to me: “If I want to hear Beethoven’s symphonies, I go to Fnac and buy them, I’m sure they’re all fine.” You can dedicate yourself to comparing works, but in the end you end up listening to the same work played by different interpreters. What is immortal is the work of that author. For me it is much more gratifying to touch my work and not get into a field in which everyone has criteria to say what is worth and what is not.
– You incorporate different aesthetic influences in your compositions, such as jazz, folk, flamenco and classical music. How do you integrate them to achieve such a balanced and personal mix?
It comes out naturally. When I start composing, everything is very intuitive. I put my hands on the piano and start improvising. So, I am detecting where the piece is going, and it depends on me that from that improvisation a nucleus emerges and begins to pull the thread until it ends up being a piece. I determine what influence will predominate if from that germ I have found a meaning and decide to develop it.
– From what I have been able to hear, I understand that there is a constant throughout this musical framework, and it is the pulsation present in the songs on the album, that perpetuum mobile. Other works of yours such as Il pleut sur Paris or Martha Tango, for example, from previous works, are presented more static and with more space. Why have you made that decision of dynamism? Is it part of the very concept of the work?
It is evolution itself. The first two songs that I timidly included in my classical works are the very first works that I composed. They are more static because I didn’t know how to develop the themes either, I didn’t want them to beat around the bush. But on this last album I have taken off my corset so that everything flows. I have realized that many times we impose limitations on ourselves, and when we free ourselves, it is important to highlight how the movement arises… Now I have material for another album, because I have been composing, and I feel that it goes further, it is more dynamic. Each piece has a life of its own. It is to flow and evolve; this is life. If you are paralyzed by fear, by prejudice, about what other people might say… Then you do not advance and you are blocked. The rhythm of my life, musically speaking, is set by my influences. In my opinion, the most authentic thing is to be able to recognize yourself in something that is an experiential reflection of your experiences.
– Can you tell us more about the “Suite Granada” and about the songs Olvido (Oblivion) y Miradas al sur (Looking South)? We would like to know about your relationship with flamenco and how you integrate that aesthetic into your compositions. What did you want when creating this suite?
The first of all was Miradas al Sur (Looking South). I am very fond of it. It came up playing around, I wanted to do something more jazzy, and I thought of giving it a flamenco air too. When I began to transcribe it, that night from February 24 to 25, I dreamed that Paco de Lucía was visiting me. The next day, I heard on the news that he had passed away. I dedicated that song to Paco de Lucía and there it stayed. On October 12, the song was welcomed by the Ventana (Window) program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by the AECID, reaching the whole world, and at that moment I thought: “maybe Paco already knew …”.
Then there’s Olvido (Oblivion), which I wrote a year or so ago. It transmits that need not of not forgetting the heritage that you have both personal and cultural. Spain is a country very rich in history, be it Roman times, Visigoths… Sephardic Spain, Andalusia leave a wealth and an impressive cultural legacy… I have 25% of blood from Granada, I studied Spanish music with Alicia de Larrocha, I always liked flamenco, and I have always wanted to find my own language in that style. I have two compositions in that style, and in the end I decided to compose an entire suite dedicated to Granada. The first piece is titled Rocío de la mañana (Morning dew), which refers to the beginning of the day in Granada, then comes Amanecer (Dawn), followed by Atardecer (Sunset), closing with Alhambra, that moment in which the golden light of twilight appears.
– Can you tell us about your future projects?
I star in a movie where I play myself and in which I also play my own music. We had intended to present it at festivals this year but unfortunately it was not possible. It’s called Venus, and that’s all I can say for now. I also have the project with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and AECID. On Twitter my music is shared in Spanish embassies around the world, and that is very gratifying.