Recently, Malakoff Kowalski and Chilly Gonzales engaged in what amounts to an artist’s talk after a dinner at Hotel Excelsior in Cologne. One of them, Gonzales, recorded a 21st-century classic 14 years ago with his album Solo Piano. His pleasantly temperate compositions, which are often compared to those of Erik Satie, appear on every second playlist. His current concert tour is largely sold out until the spring of 2019. Kowalski, originally known for songs on the guitar, released his first album of piano music this spring: My First Piano is, as the title implies, a love letter to the wooden shell with a black-and-white striped edge that introduced him to the entire world of music as a child.
Chilly Gonzales photographed by Alexandre Isard

CHILLY GONZALES: You’ve just played me some amazing new music that makes me think you have more to say on the piano for sure. After your first piano album.

MALAKOFF KOWALSKI: I’m happy you say that because I’m about to record some stuff over the weekend. I’m planning to record material that I want to release. Should I speak about the title?

CG: Maybe not yet. It’s too soon. Interviewing you as a fellow pianist, my main question is what is it like to suddenly come over to my place and play pieces that you’ve been working on on a new piano. For me it’s always an eye-opening, ear-opening experience to feel different emotions just because it’s on a different piano—how could that be? I was at the Steinway factory where they have a room full of eighteen pianos; I just played the same two bars and decided that I would play the exact same phrase in the same rhythm with the same finger weight on all the pianos in that room. To hear the endless variations of emotions. So what’s it like for you to play on my home piano?

MK: The thing is, I know your piano from your records. And also from your new album Solo Piano III, which we listened to multiple times during your studio sessions. We’ve gone through the pieces.

CG: You were a consultant on that album for me. You were popping in at just the right time to make me question what I needed to question. Just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on some musical opportunities.

MK: And I enjoy that so much—picking out just one little detail and really getting into it. With you I could actually do that and I had someone listening to me. Appreciating the fact that I’m getting lost in tiny details, almost as though I were on the autism spectrum.

CG: Usually you’re listening to a finished album…

MK: Where you can’t do anything about it, exactly!

CG: You can’t yell at the person playing six months before…

MK: It’s like when I’m listening to, I don’t know, Maurizio Pollini playing [Beethoven’s] Appassionata and I’m not happy with that one little staccato he’s playing. I would love to talk to him and say, “Listen man, give me a little legato there.” But that’s never going to happen.

CG: It’s

MK: Yeah. But there we could actually do it. And you were re-thinking stuff. We could discuss it. It was beautiful. So I know this piano very well. It’s almost a stardom kind of thing. Because I started listening to your music before I knew you.

CG: And then you came and played it, and recognized that sound …

MK: Yeah, but do you remember when I started playing the first chords, and I said “What’s with that piano?” I couldn’t believe it. It speaks to me in a completely different way than all of the other pianos that I’ve played on. And you always talk about the three-dimensional sound of your Bechstein.

CG: Because it’s an upright. Most uprights don’t have that depth, even when they’re good. Even when they’re really good. It’s just not in their job description.

MK: Exactly.

CG: But this one happens to have that.

MK: Last time I was here, it was badly out of tune because you had moved it from somewhere. But this time it’s very well-tuned and it just sings. And there’s something about the bass, which is so firm—is it the right word?

CG: That’s right. It’s like cupping you in its hands.

His real name’s meaning is silence. His mother still finds it odd to call him Kowalski. But does it anyway. © Julija Goyd

MK: Every piano is like a person that you’re talking to. Some people you take to really quickly; some people are just okay, some bore you, some freak you out. Some are way too harsh…

CG: So what about other instruments? If pianos are people, then what’s a saxophone?

MK: Every instrument is like a person, I believe. Or do you mean animals? A saxophone is more like an animal.

CG: No, I would say instruments are more like people. Because certain people—you write them off. You meet a person and you’re like, “Hell, no. And clearly don’t let me sit next to this person on a train for six hours.”

MK: Sometimes you buy a guitar and you never ever play it again after you’ve paid the bill.

CG: There you go. But we’ve already decided that we love pianos. We’ve decided to devote our lives to pianos. So pianos are not really like people to us.

MK: Wait, I love people. But not all people.

CG: Yes! But metaphorically… I believe that pianos are like a group of people that I already know I’m going to have a connection with. I just don’t know how. But it’s a pre-chosen group of people.

MK: So you don’t think it’s possible to sit in front of a piano that turns you off?

CG: Pretty much.

MK: Ballsy, man!

CG: I think I can always find a way to make a connection with every piano. It might involve extreme negative emotions but I won’t be bored or turned off. I might fuckin’ hate it. I might stand on top of it. I might beat the hell out of it.

MK: You took my theory to a whole new level! But it’s true, of course. It’s hard to imagine that there’s absolutely nothing you could do with an acoustic piano.

Chilly Gonzales: “I like beautiful better than pretty. Beautiful can be death, sex, humor.”
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CG: It’s also unfair to say that all people who work in banks are boring because they do a kind of financial job. It’s a bit like saying, “I don’t like the trumpet.” I don’t like the trumpet, but there are always going to be exceptions. Miles Davis is a musician who happened to play the trumpet. It’s like Ken Anderson from Duke Ellington’s band; when he hits the high notes it’s essential that he exists. I get it. But pianos are a pre-chosen class of people. Pianos are our people. It’s just a matter of how you’re going to make a connection.

MK: Probably. I can tell you this: I want to go to bed with your piano.

CG: Uhum.

MK: This is what happened here. And I also remember that I was here maybe two years ago.

CG: When the pieces were still four-and-a-half years away from being recorded. That was February 2016.

MK: That was before I recorded My First Piano.

CG: You had demos then. You didn’t love my piano at the beginning.

MK: I was too shy. I loved that piano so much, I loved your music so much. And also, I wasn’t sure about my pieces. I hadn’t played them in a very long time. I don’t remember why; I just hadn’t. So I just played a few chords and you said, “Oh, that’s nice!”

CG: And then you said, “I’ll send you some demos soon.”

MK: That’s how it all started. Playing your piano was like being at a high school prom. A shy, awkward kid looking at a beautiful girl, thinking, “She’s never going to talk to me.” It’s all different this time. I came to the party; I was dressed well. I was in my zone. I went up to the lady and said, “Can I have a dance?” But tell me one more thing: When you finish a piece—and you’ve written some remarkable pieces for the piano—do you ever think, “I won’t be able to write something that good again?”

CG: Not in the moment that I’m finishing it. If I do have those kinds of feelings, then it’ll be at a much later stage. It’ll be years later.

MK: Years!

CG: It‘s because my state of mind changes with time. I look back and I see that there was more urgency in my life back then. Higher stakes for my compositions. There’s an intensity that I’m sometimes afraid I will not be able to find again. That’s a bit more existential. It’s more like looking back, years later.

By the way Glenn Gould complained about his hand feeling cold all the time so he felt that he had to stick them into very hot water until they had the colour of a boiled lobster to be able to play. Mr. Gonzales enters the stage in a gown. © Alexandre Isard

MK: So you’ve got a piece on Solo Piano that you listen to now and think, “I might never, ever be able to repeat something with this intensity, this beauty?“

CG: Either this intensity or this level of simplicity? Sure! I mean Solo Piano III is not the most straightforward, simple pop piano album compared to Solo Piano most of all and also Solo Piano II, to a certain extent. But that’s where the album took me. I’ve learned to not try to force myself into an abstract idea of what I should be doing. There was a moment when I looked back and thought, “It’s interesting that it seems like I could never, ever come up with an idea as simple as Oregeno again.” In retrospect, it almost seems like wondering how Mozart felt when he came up with something simple and perfect. Sometimes I think I’m just not where I was back then. And now I come up with all kinds of different shit. Maybe I’ll look back on this period in five years and think the same thing. If I could have some kind of wish fulfillment… It’s about the very, almost pre-existing feeling behind some of the pieces on Solo Piano. Like a beautiful flower that no one else saw? And I saw it, really? Now I come up with pieces that don’t have that same level of clairvoyant simplicity.

MK: Which I love.

CG: Which you have a lot in your music, too.

MK: What I meant was, you have that on the new record.

CG: Well, now it’s just coming from a juicier place.

MK: Juicy!

CG: Yeah, it’s juicy.

MK: I like it, man. Juicy, that’s what it is. Sometimes I use the phrase flowery.

CG: Yeah. It’s not flowery. It’s juicy.

MK: It’s not flowery?

CG: It goes deeper than the petals of the flower. It extends to the stem and to the roots. Juicy soil. And beautiful shit coming out of that juicy soil.

MK: Is flowery an insult?

CG: “Flowery” in English would be bordering on Richard Clayderman. He’s flowery.

MK: Oh shit.

CG: Too pretty. I like beautiful better than pretty. Beautiful can be death, sex, humor.

This cap’s model is called ”Prinz Heinrich”. It has nothing in common with the signature cap of the late chancellor of germany Helmut Schmidt who prefered a model that is called “Helgoländer Lotsenmütze”. © Julija Goyd

MK: Do you like making music that feels as though it had always been there?

CG: Well, that’s what it was like with Oregano. The minute I wrote it, it felt as though it already existed. But I also feel that I didn’t know I was making an album when I did Solo Piano. And you can never recreate the naïveté of doing something without realizing it. There’s no replacement for that. Rather than force myself to be naive again, I chose the wisdom of the endless beginner. The permanent student. That’s where I am right now with the piano. And the real beginner’s mind is the Gonzervatory where I can really be naive again. Because I do not know what I am doing. But I became an expert in manipulating myself to do these kinds of “beginner’s mind”-type projects. Whether it’s making the Ivory Tower movie or writing the Re-Introduction Etudes book—those off-brand, non-album projects. I want to feel the thrill of trying to do something that I don’t know how to do. I have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see things in a way the experts don’t. It’s like I’m like a child, trying to make a music school.

MK: You are a child!

CG: But it’s not the same when I do Solo Piano III. I can’t be that naive. In that case I’m a child, but with ultimate wisdom—an old man. I am an old man when I’m playing the piano. Because I’m looking for those finer points of wisdom that a Zen person would look for. That’s what I heard in your music today. Everything you played for me earlier was almost a much more nuanced answer to a question that was asked by a piece on your first album. Now we know who “Olmo Rosenthal” might be. After we got introduced to him on your first album. And it’s almost like another scene with him in it. Like season two of an amazing show that you’re binge watching. Something almost sounded like a comment on the “Euphoria, Lobster & Champagne” piece from My First Piano—and I love that. The interlineage, the family tree of songs. That’s how you build a universe.

MK: I like that! Take Bill Evans, for example; he does it all the time. And I like it about James Brown, too, in his rap, singing and screaming improvs where he’s constantly quoting himself.

CG: Jazz musicians have their little patterns they come back to. Rappers come back to their flows. If you never repeat yourself, then you’re failing as an artist.

MK: True, you should be able to repeat yourself. I never thought about that. I just liked it personally. Musically, I’ve always liked it when people were able to repeat themselves.

CG: Do you ever notice stuff like the number of notes in your phrases? Whether your phrases end with downward scales or upwards? Every composer has these favorites that they just haven’t noticed. But they mean something to us. You’ll never know what it really is, but it’s yours. It’s like an unconscious theme that you always return to. Of course you should evolve. Composers go out of their way to do this in the later part of their lives. They jam up their own systems. When I do that, I work with multi-tracking. In that case I’m looking more for an atmosphere rather than just going to the piano to write, because that’s where I fall into similar numbers of notes, patterns, hand placements—all these different things. I think you always have to be questioning it while letting things happen at the same time. You’ll never have no themes at all that you return to. They morph. They evolve. They come back like the ghosts of people you knew and never stopped thinking about.

Chilly Gonzales: “I would never claim to be a classical pianist. ”
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MK: Listening to Solo Piano III, there were moments and little parts where I had to think of you. Which I loved. And I told you so in the first listening session, that I’m so happy that you’re also quoting yourself. Continuing older, known things in a new and different way. I remember very well that I was so happy that the stuff was good. A person in your position could also go terribly wrong. It happens to all of us. Musicians. Artists. You have accomplished two great piano records. There’s a third one coming up. And I would have hated to sit there thinking, “What can I say that won’t insult him?” Because technically, that can happen. The greatest people fail at some point. But I loved everything! I was truly excited.

CG: The trick is to have something new to say that will have its old identity. The weird balancing act is to repeat myself in the right, evolved way while also allowing myself go places that I wouldn’t expect. A few more dissonances than I’m used to putting in. You have a higher threshold for dissonances, I think. I tend to shy away from them.

MK: You hate my open endings!

CG: I’m used to it by now. I know you love those.

MK: They feel so natural to me.

CG: That’s what I am saying: They mean something to you.

MK: My director friend, Klaus Lemke from Munich, told me something a while ago: Spielen (“acting,” in German) has something to do with spielen (playing). The same word means both things. But you could also say playing music is about playing. You play around. You fool around. And that applies to acting as much as it does to music.

Maestro Gonzales holds the world record for the longest piano concert in world’s history. In 2009 he played non stop for 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. 300 pieces en suite.© Alexandre Isard

CG: It does in terms of what your fingers do and how your mind approaches it. The Gonzervatory, with its beginner’s mindset, is exactly that. It was as if I were a child, given the chance to invent a music school: “And it’s gonna be amazing! Cups with my hands and logo all over it. I’m gonna walk in with a Segway! And then there’s gonna be a giant stage in the middle of the house, where we’re gonna rehearse all day!” That’s what every artist is trying to do: get in touch with the world before society turned us into people who pretend, and hide, and don’t really express things. When you’re five you just express what you express. You don’t have a concept. What’s great about a child is that he or she is just taking everything as it comes. Existing in an eternal present-tense. That’s what everyone is trying to do with their various self-care regimens. It’s all about getting you into the present. Don’t try to make musical sense of whatever your fingers are doing just because record light is on. You have to trust yourself. Perfectionism isn’t even an option. Sculpting is not an option. In a very mild way, I try to recreate a fight or a child’s way of responding to the moment. Every time I do that, I get something more valuable than I would if I were sculpting something to near perfection.

MK: Two weeks ago, a journalist asked me if my approach to making piano music was like a punk kind of approach. And I said punk was never really my thing. At all. I said that what I’m doing here is not rebellion.

CG: And you were not purposefully trying to make a statement about virtuosity.

MK: I said this is coming from a place of respect, and a love for the music I’ve grown up with. I think you’re kind of the same.

CG: My rebellion might happen in terms of how I conduct myself on stage. As a stage performer.

MK: Because you’re rebelling against the formal restrictions.

CG: In a way. I’m questioning what it is to be a performer. Trying to challenge some of the basic expectations people have about how someone should act on stage. At that moment I have a real love of dissonance, discomfort, some avant-garde concepts from conceptual art that influenced me. But also edgy stand up comedians, politicians sometimes, self-help gurus, cult leaders—there’s a lot of stuff that inspired me along the way. It has some correlation with the ethos of whatever punk is—not as a style of music but as an attitude. But musically speaking: God, no! My musical approach is one-hundred-percent humility and respect and trying to understand that I’m standing in a long line of musicians who came before me. That eternal student in me is very brav, as the Germans would say.

MK: Brav. I think so, too.

CG: For me, it’s the old school entertainer’s ethos. Come on, people have paid good money. My tickets are expensive, man! And I know that every part of their experience will affect whether or not they will have a memorable, cathartic and intense evening. But make no mistake, that’s all to entertain them. It’s not punk rock to me.

MK: So we’re both no punks.

CG: No. I see it as entertainment. I know real punk people. Just as I know classical pianists. I would never claim to be a classical pianist. The only thing I’ve ever pretended to be is a musical genius. That was playful and also deep at the same time. My entree into music was my grandfather, who was very much about respect for composers and European culture.

MK: Do you wonder what old composers like the masters would think about you and your stuff?

CG: I played for Quincy Jones once.

Don’t speak. He might be composing. © Alexandre Isard

MK: How did that go?

CG: He said “You’re bad, motherfucker!” I mean, it’s the highest compliment you can get. He had watched my entire show from the side of stage. While eating sandwiches. Montreux is kind of his festival. The string quartet right behind me could see him. After the concert he said, “Are you Jewish?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I could hear it.”

MK: I love Nina Simone’s piano playing so much. But she never recorded solo piano music.

CG: She only became a singer by accident. She had a job, playing the piano in a restaurant. On the first night the order was, “You have to sing!” And she was reluctant, but she wanted to do the job. She changed her name and became Nina Simone.

MK: She does all these Bach things on the piano. It’s so Bach what she plays.

CG: It’s very economical. But it has a lot of soul. It has very little of the typical pianist’s ego.

MK: That’s beautiful, isn’t it?

CG: And that’s beautiful in the George Gurdjieff stuff, and that’s beautiful in your stuff. I hear that more in your music than in my my own, for example. Must be your mystical Persian side.

MK: I need to get to that Persian side.

CG: You’re getting there—any news?

MK: Slowly. There are some minor changes here and there. I’m hearing more eastern European, Jewish-Persian elements happening within the new pieces. Which surprises me.

CG: Yeah. An eastern wind is blowing over the country of Kowalski. Atchoo!

MK: Bless you!