Emanuele Arciuli: “Round Midnight is a classical music project, not jazz.”

Emanuele Arciuli does not play jazz; he’s making a point in clarifying this any chance that he gets. If he commissioned some of the most important contemporary composers to create variations on Thelonious Monk’s eternal jazz standard ‘Round Midnight’, it is only to point out its artistic merit, re-imagining it as an avant-garde classical music piece. ‘Classical’ of course is a term with many definitions itself, almost as many as ‘jazz’, which makes any attempt to pinpoint Emanuele Arciuli pointless, or at least counter productive. The best way to go is to just listen to the music, and marvel at the virtuosity and musicianship of this superb artist.

How did this project come to be?

I was in Cincinnati, June 2000, as I did every summer from 1998 to 2008. My idea was to investigate different languages and styles in American contemporary music, that was becoming – as it happened, in fact – an important aspect of my musical life. So I conceived a cycle of variations commissioned to several composers.

Why Monk? Why ‘Round Midnight’?

‘Round Midnight’ because of three reasons: I love that song, its not classical music, and it is very complex – harmonically and melodically – so it was a challenge for all of them. The structure of that cycle was turned in four parts: morning, afternoon, evening, round midnight. The idea is that the theme could be discoloring, like the Rouen Cathedral by Monet, from the strong light of morning to the dreamlike atmosphere of midnight. Joel Hoffman, dean of CCM at University of Cincinnati, and respected composer, loved the idea and supported it.

How has it evolved since its inception and first performances?

Most of composers accepted the challenge, and they wrote lovely music 2-5 minutes long. The shorter was Bolcom 11:59, the longest was the Joel Hoffman piece. But the great and moving surprise was George Crumb, who hasn’t compose any music in the last five years, and we went back to work, completing a large suite 20 minutes long.

Important to tell: It is a classical music project, not jazz. The jazz ballad was just the starting point.

What have you discovered about yourself throughout this experience?

That even though I am European and proud to be witness of a glorious tradition and culture – American Music is part of my soul, and I couldn’t be a musician without American culture and music. I don’t love every American cultural / musical product, not at all; and I’m very much critical about many many features of American way of life. But I consider American music part of my life.

If you could choose any composer in history to contribute to the Round Midnight variations, who would that be?

John Adams would be the perfect musician, also because I love his music. Philip Glass too. Among the young generation of American composers I’d tell Derek Bermel, Nico Muhly, Timo Andres and Matthew Aucoin. Butt also Mason Bates would be great. BUT, Round Midnight is a work done.

‘Round Midnight’ is just a little part of my recitals. I’m presenting a great selection of American music, beside any connection with Monk tunes. The five Variations I’ve chosen are very different each. Rzewski is counterpoint and rhythm. Babbitt is based on post-serialism, totally abstract from the original song. Torke is postminimal, energetic and pop, Harbison very close to the song, Daugherty is jazzy, has sense of humor and virtuosity.

What is your favourite version of ‘Round Midnight?

So many: Jarrett, Petrucciani, of course Monk

Is jazz the American classical music?

Jazz is jazz. My recitals work, in fact, to bringing to the audience the American classical music. The may be influenced by jazz, but it is not jazz. It is, in fact, American contemporary classical music. It is important to avoid any misunderstanding. My recitals will be not jazz!

What is the most challenging part of a solo performance?

To have a good command and control of your emotions. The best thing is, sometimes, when you can really reach the audience and communicate with them.

Who are your heroes?

The American music heroes are John Cage, Charles Ives (I dont want to mention any living composer) and Louis W Ballard, the first Native American composer. We were friends, and I’m proud to perform his Preludes in Melbourne.

My living hero is the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who I consider a sort of father (or elder brother), the most important, the most intelligent, generous and creative conductor (but he’s a wonderful pianist too), a great supporter of American Music.

What is your main source of inspiration?

Depends on. It could be contemporary art (I’m a collector of Native American contemporary art), looking at the sea in front of my living room, reading a book, talking with intelligent people.

Emanuele Arciuli will perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre onThursday 19 October (8pm) as part of the Melbourne Festival.