Interview in Platea Magazine. Signed: Gonzalo Lahoz.
María Parra has just released her second studio album, a perfect opportunity to meet her in a unique location in Madrid such as the Café Gijón and chat about the reasons for her new album, but also the reasons for her piano. The conversation flows naturally as the artist breaks down some key aspects of her music and her feelings: Paris, Alicia de Larrocha, the French creation of the turn of the century, Spanish piano and of course her dreams and their materialization, because this is how Mouvement arises.
Your life these days is about the new album that you have just presented, Mouvement, which appears with apparent links and some difference regarding your first album, Rêverie. How did this Mouvement come about?
In fact I conceive them as a diptych, the second is meaningless without the first, although they can be heard separately. There is a very important period in my life that somehow gives meaning to both albums and that I lived prior to my studies with Alicia de Larrocha at the Marshall Academy: Paris. I arrived in Paris without having much feeling of knowing how to play the piano, at least as I wanted. Circumstances led me there and although it was impossible for me to support myself, living there with a piano at home and attending classes, I found a way to be able to go and return by train from Barcelona, every fortnight and for three years. Paris was my awareness of what it meant to be a real pianist.
Indeed, it must have been crystal clear for you if you had to go every 15 days by train to Paris. At what point did you convince yourself that this was worth it?
You are advancing with the conservatory courses and you are encountering difficulties, especially technical, but I had a vocation and a lot of desire, and decided that I had to put the best of me. I realized that I had a lot to learn and little by little I realized that the learning process is continuous. That city was my baptism of fire, we could say, and that time marked me, marked my piano and made me grow.
The tranquility with which you talk about your career is surprising, your serenity and awareness of the work done and the work to be done…
Well, the artist cannot remain suspended on his/her laurels. Perhaps that is one of the blunders in which an artist can fall today, with the speed at which this business works. Seeing yourself engulfed in a single flash of success means that the subsequent step must be equal to or faster and equal to or greater.
If the artist only knows how to use his/her instrument, if it is only done on an artistic and non-human level, there are a number of things that no matter how good a pianist you are, no matter how good an artist you are, if you don’t know how to assimilate that based on a life experience, you can completely lose contact with the ground. Stages should not be burned quickly, but all facets of life must go in parallel.
Having the ground, the patience, the head, is surely one of the most difficult things…
I perceive it that way. I think we are a whole. You cannot be an artist on the one hand and a person on the other. No. You have to be as consistent and cohesive as possible. If not, you will always be like a basket with holes: no matter how much water you put inside, it will end up losing it. You have to maintain, at least as I see it, consistency. That leads you to be honest with what you say, with what you do, with others and with yourself. So you can live what you do and be sustained by what you say.
And that can be transferred to the piano?
In the end you cannot fool anyone. With the instrument you can mislead, try to full everybody and sell. But the essential is not seen, as Saint-Exupéry said, but is felt. In Art, as in life, in the end it is the heart that governs everything. Or should it be! But unfortunately the society and the business make prevail that imposture of what you have to believe in. In any case, the public must be moved, if they do not return home minimally transformed, even slightly, in your work as an artist you will have failed.
Today’s artists, especially the younger ones, seem to have a need to differentiate themselves in whatever way…
I agree with you. We enter the ego field on the one hand. I am, therefore I exist, ergo I impose myself. But the business, the commercialism of art is what pushes towards it on many occasions. The main thing is to be able to look in the mirror and honestly tell yourself that everything is progressing well. If you feel good at the time, then everything is fine. Ego pushes you to do somersaults on a path that we all travel that is life. I understand that in the life of an artist it is better to walk that line of ascension, in every way, to make sense of the path you have chosen and walk it step by step until the end of your days. I remember Pau Casals in his late 90s making his long notes every morning and saying “Now it seems that I start to sound good”. It may sound exaggerated, but it is significant. Better to move forward in life and feel good. The opposite, obviously, is contradictory and can happen to those who are looking for shortcuts and non-artistic formulas. Decline or discouragement comes when you trade art for success.
Let’s go back to the diptych that you were talking about at the beginning. Was the complement to the first album clear from the beginning, that is, that there would have to be a second one?
No, it comes later. The first one had given me a lot of satisfaction, it put me on the map. The first, Rêverie, talks about childhood dreams, which are mine, which I never forgot but I did have to postpone, much to my regret, for various reasons throughout my life. In fact, if I ever considered leaving the piano, I noticed how my life was fading out. So the first album had to be dedicated to that little Maria who always dreamed of the piano. The works on the album are pieces that evoke the elements that made me grow: Paris, the French composers, children’s games, pieces that I studied with Alicia de Larrocha…
The second album could have been approached with a totally different repertoire, but my body asked me to round off Rêverie‘s project, somehow complete it. And since I already knew that I was coming to live in Madrid, which in some way would be a cataclysm in my life, that there was going to be a major movement. To do so, I return to Debussy, with some of his pieces in this French-Spanish tribute, and the name is taken from the third Image of Debussy’s first book, Mouvement, a title that unites the intention of this second CD very well.
You have certainly a special connection with Paris…
Paris is to return to my adolescence. Of course it is a very strong connection with the city and its music. In Paris, when I was 16 years old, in front of the Opera Garnier, I told a friend “in Paris I will do great things”… And I found myself there studying piano at my 20s… and now, on November 29th I will play my debut in Paris.
And what would have been of Spanish piano without that Paris of the beginning of the century change…
Paris and its artists were unbeatable hosts of Spanish musicians who, at that turn of the century, sought inspiration and grow as artists. And of course! It is also what Mouvement collects, on the one hand my personal growth, the materialized dream, but also composers who come together in Paris as when I ended up there looking to grow, complete myself… I always try, therefore, to look for a whole, something that embraces the album, the project.
It is highly appreciated when the artist presents a project, from a record to a live recital, in which you want to tell a whole, giving it coherence. It is something of the piano of now, I do not know if before the artists or the managers had other parameters.
Perhaps there are contexts in which the artist is subject to a schedule for a concert or a certain repertoire for an album. At the moment I am free to decide what I play or record and I think that an artist who is not well known, as in my case, better reflects in a “recital” type program his/her versatility in different registers and styles. In short, I try to live my life and my career with maximum freedom. It is the only way to really enjoy it.
Let’s go back to Mouvement: What are the differences between Debussy on your first album and on this one?
The third element included in the album: nature and its elements. What is on this album is movement in a pure and concrete state. Debussy’s Images are completely pictorial. And in pictorial Impressionism, when you see it, you also hear the water, the wind… because in the music it happens the other way around, that you can see the water, feel the wind, as it happens in the three Preludes that I have chosen… That is Debussy’s great art, being able to see him with your imagination!
After Debussy comes Granados. It is impossible not to ask him about your teacher, Alicia de Larrocha, at this point, but to what extent is it easy, difficult, to separate your Granados from hers, to have your own vision of a work so marked by your teacher?
I confess that it is difficult for me to separate myself from the concept of Spanish piano of Alicia, and more especially in Granados, because she was the bearer of the tradition from Granados himself through Marshall. The music is written so that anyone can interpret it being faithful to what the composer wanted, of course, but in my case I have a kind of “block” to interpret Spanish music, since Alicia’s vision is for me so highly dogmatic that everything I have recorded is because it is really been worked with and assimilated.
Granados reflects a compendium of styles, typical of the moment he had to live, that ranges from the romantic spirit, to the nationalist in many cases, but also impressionist in color. Granados cannot be placed anywhere. He is the one with whom I identify best. He is very pure when it comes to expressing his music, also very complicated at certain times, as in his Goyescas…
After Granados you move to Falla, with the Dances of The Three-Cornered Hat and…
And I end up with a titan! (the Fantasía Baetica). Having recorded the most essential dances by Granados, pieces by Albéniz or Fantasia Baetica by Falla, I think I have already given my best in Spanish piano. Now I will move to something else.
On Fantasía (Fantasy), Rubinstein himself, to whom Falla dedicated it, renounced it somewhat for its complexity… along with Iberia, perhaps the most complicated of Spanish piano…
It particularly pleased me to study, I must say. I am comfortable with it. It is one of the last works that I played for Alicia, who told me that it was fine, so I felt blessed to continue working on it. Curiously, it is not one of the pieces that has given me the most trouble, any piece of Goyescas, with all those intermingled voices, with all those fingered fingers… it has given me more headaches than Fantasia Baetica.
What does a work have to do to get María Parra’s attention, to want to get involved in it and to want to dedicate your time to it?
Identify yourself with the work, with the composer, with its whys and context. Feeling it physically and psychologically as someone who could also be yours but being very clear that it is the creation of another artist. It has also worked for me to admire those who played those works and say to myself, I also want to play it…
The artist must, can admire?
This is like everything in life. The term admiration should not suppose… (thinks)… it should not suppose imitation, but it should be a stimulant, a reference! You have to listen to everything and know what sounds you identify with, but in the end you have to know how to distill everything and make it yours. I would like to know about the experience of someone who has never heard anyone play a specific work and listen and see them interpret it directly from the score.
You were telling me about identifying yourself with a work, being clear that it belongs to another. To what extent can this transfer to the personal vision of the interpreter lead to interpretive genius or interpretation as… tomfoolery?
It all comes down to what you were asking me about differentiation at any price. The essence and the work are there, they are not yours and they have to be respected, you have to have a lot of respect for the work and the composer and never lose sight of them. From respect, you can contribute your own essence without losing the composer’s own essence. At the end of the day, the interpreters are nothing more than mere transmitters. The act of listening to music must always have the three basic channels of communication. Interpreter, message and audience. If the chain works and the receiver gets excited in some way, the communication thread has worked. If the message is distorted and the public does not understand it even believing that it has, it does not work.
At this point I would like to ask you about your side as composer, of which you have given a good sample as a closing to both albums, with your works.
This side arises at a time in my life, when I was very young, before I went to Paris, where I doubted if my music was the classical repertoire or other music, which I studied and even taught jazz and modern music classes for a few years. With all this, I learned to be more spontaneous, to have the ability to improvise and not to be cloistered by the scores. Improvising, improvising, I ended up giving shape to pieces that I considered to be mine, and this is how my first compositions emerged.
And this one specifically: Maria-Martha tango?
It is called like that because it is dedicated to Martha Argerich, whom I admire. I remember meeting her for the first time after a concert by Shostakovich at Salle Pleyel. Years ago of this. I ran to talk to her and found her with a cigarette in one hand and a banana in the other, super cool! (laughs). She looked at me with a mixture of surprise and a bit of calmness, and I told her that my name was María Parra. “My name is also María! Everyone who knows me calls me María Martha!”. I told her then that I was going to call her María Marta and that is how I have done it the times that I have met her. After listening to her play a Piazzola tango, I wrote her the Tango and upon handing it over she insisted that I should also play it. I hesitated a lot but here it is!
There is a phrase of you: “the artist must always seek beauty and truth in music“. What is beauty and especially what is truth in music?
They go hand in hand, it is very sui generis. Beauty has to do with goodness, with harmony, with transparency… In the end when one is well, comfortable, calm, serene… from anyone! It makes its beauty emanate, which therefore comes from a truth! It is the beauty of a goodness, a look towards the other, the truth of giving, of giving to the other. Art must always be an act of giving. When it is given without hesitation, the truth arises. Any intention to give the best to the other, that is beautiful, and when you offer your gift without restraint, without thinking of anything else but to do good to the other, more through Art, that is beautiful… and therefore it is true.