One of the world’s most popular classical musicians and composers, Ludovico Einaudi talks as fluently as he plays, disarming any critique. By Harriet Cunningham.

Composer Ludovico Einaudi on finding his voice

A grey bearded man wearing glasses and a hat.
Composer Ludovico Einaudi.
Credit: Supplied

Pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi is the most streamed classical artist in the world. The 68-year-old musician tours internationally, filling venues such as the Royal Albert Hall in London, La Scala in Milan and the Sydney Opera House. Most notably, in 2016 he was commissioned by Greenpeace to write a work to be performed as part of the organisation’s Save the Arctic campaign. The YouTube video of him performing his Elegy for the Arctic on a floating platform at the foot of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway, has had more than 20 million views.

In February he returns to Australia to tour his latest album, Underwater. It is, he explains, a work born of the pandemic. “During the lockdown, without any idea if I was going to be recording or performing in theatres again, I decided I wanted to keep a musical diary,” he says. “Every day I was sketching and forgetting and sketching and forgetting.

“After a month and a half I thought to listen to the material and I found that every three or four days there was a good idea. It was like a sine wave going up and down. The pieces that were in the top level of the wave were quite interesting because they arrived in a sort of unconscious way. They were very instinctive and pure, and sometimes I was thinking that if I didn’t record those sketches, [they] would have disappeared forever. Sometimes I thought they were unknown to me completely – I was listening to another composer, and that feeling was beautiful. So suddenly I realised that this was a new project.”

Einaudi talks like he plays – fluent but thoughtful, sometimes pausing in the middle of a sentence, but never for long, as he seeks the perfect way to express what he wants to say. Words stream out in a steady rhythm of well-formed insights and unselfconscious thought experiments. He takes an idea for a walk with no sense of purpose or destination but with eyes wide open for interesting points along the way.

His words are charming and disarming, to the point that when I transcribe this interview I realise I haven’t asked any of the difficult questions critics of his music love to pose. Questions such as how he felt when The Wire magazine described his music as “ambient doodling” or The Guardian critic Ben Beaumont-Thomas called him “a mediocre pianist”. Or when composer and YouTuber David Bruce asked: “Is Einaudi’s music actually good?”

Einaudi’s success – his five concerts at the Sydney Opera House were sold out at time of writing – means these questions are somewhat irrelevant to his ongoing career. Nevertheless, his critics bring up a stylistic tussle that has dogged generations of classical composers who underwent formal music studies in the shadow of Schoenberg, Boulez and the avant-garde revolution of atonality. How do you reconcile the genre’s obsession with a rigid form of modernism with a desire to express yourself? Do you fall silent, like Arvo Pärt, or become a collaborative artist, writing theatre, film and dance, like Elena Kats-Chernin? Or, like Ross Edwards, do you turn to nature? For Einaudi, the answer is all of the above.

Einaudi was born in 1955 into a family of Italian political royalty: his grandfather, Luigi Einaudi, was president of Italy from 1948 to 1955, while his father, Giulio Einaudi, founded a publishing business, becoming a champion of Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, among others. His maternal grandfather, Waldo Aldrovandi, was a conductor and composer who came to Australia with J. C. Williamson’s Grand Opera Company in 1932 and ended up staying. Einaudi still keeps in touch with the Australian branch of his family.

The young Einaudi grew up listening to everything: to his mother playing Chopin, Bach and Satie, to The Beatles and to the burgeoning pop scene. When he became interested in pursuing music as a career, his family was well placed to make introductions to key members of the Italian musical avant-garde, including Luigi Nono, a radical communist and fierce exponent of serial (or atonal) music, and the charismatic, experimental composer Luciano Berio. Einaudi was invited to become Berio’s assistant and for three years worked and studied alongside legendary 20th-century figures such as Berio, Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen. A scholarship took him to the heady realms of the Tanglewood Music Festival for the summer of 1982 and Berio himself conducted Einaudi’s first orchestral commission. But there was something missing.

“The avant-garde language of serial music, even if it was created as a possibility to establish a new language, with a new modern perspective, after a while gave me a sense of losing colours,” he says. “It was a music that, if you were listening from outside, sounded all grey, all the same.”

He pauses as he searches, with care and respect, for the right words. “It felt like it was … to give you an example in a visual term, when you see those terrible pictures of destroyed cities after the war, where everything, buildings are destroyed – this is what this music expresses to me. There are some masterpieces that stand out from Berio and others, but it was not for me.

“Music for me started as a joyful moment, [with] many colours of emotions. I wanted to keep that freedom in my artistic evolution. So I started to experiment with things. I started to use tonal references, but in a different way. I found my own voice.”

It’s a voice that has resonated deeply with artists and audiences. After writing for multimedia, theatre and dance in the ’80s and ’90s, Einaudi’s music found its way into the cinema, beginning with Italian films such as Giuseppe Piccioni’s Luce dei miei occhi (2001) to breakout 2011 French hit Intouchables and, more recently, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020).

“I have to say that 70 per cent of film work I’ve done, the filmmakers ask to use music that I have already composed. Sometimes they ask me to perform it again, or adjust it to the film, make some variations around it,” he says. “When I have to compose from the beginning, I immediately try to sketch many ideas and to not focus too much with the idea of finding the perfect main theme. I start to watch the film and get inspiration from the story, the images, the way the film is done. Sometimes I even go to my archive and start to listen to ideas anew … I prepare a palette of 10 or 15 short pieces of music and I send them immediately – sometimes recorded with a phone – and we start to establish a conversation around these ideas. It’s a collaboration.”

The publication of many of his works as sheet music, to be played at home, has contributed to the uptake of his music. “I don’t know how conscious the idea was at the time, but I think I was feeling a lack, a hole in the production of piano music that was playable and enjoyable … I was very happy I did that because many younger people started to enjoy performing for their pleasure my music and now many teachers also are using my music in schools.”

It helps that his music is, as Beaumont-Thomas says, “proudly anti-virtuosic”, accessible not just for listeners but also for players. This strategy has driven a deluge of content created by young piano students and online influencers. Einaudi’s music ripples through adverts, theme tunes and backing tracks to series including Doctor Foster, Top Gear and MasterChef UK. Meanwhile, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are peppered with blurred glimpses from his live concerts and highly produced promotional videos from his record company. There is a video of a pianist performing Experience on a public piano in Heathrow Airport, who ends up playing an impromptu duet with Einaudi, who happens to be there waiting for a flight. Another lifelong fan, another thousand followers ...

Another factor that sets Einaudi apart from traditional classical performers is his embrace of the full arena concert experience, complete with theatrical lighting, projections and multiple screens. This visual dimension has always been essential to his practice: he still remembers receiving a Rolleiflex camera from his father for his 12th birthday. When he’s talking about visual art and photography he really becomes animated. At one point he darts over to a shelf in his studio to show me his collection of cameras of various vintages. Then he holds up a small photo to the zoom camera that shows clouds of colour, like an aurora borealis.

“This is a polaroid with colour, because this film is expired,” he says. “And this is a sequence, a photo made by three photographs of a land where you have different perspectives of the same place, and I quite like it. I experiment sometimes. I do drawings on photos like here and this activity is like a second activity that I enjoy to do.”

His magnum opus of 2019, Seven Days Walking, is framed around a visual diary of winter walks in the foothills of the Alps, with each of the seven solo albums, released across seven months, accompanied by stills and video, much of it taken by the composer himself.

More recently, he has developed his visual practice during a residency at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan where, in addition to 11 sold-out performances, he exhibited an art installation, Walden. The 15-minute installation was developed in collaboration with a lighting and stage designer, using his photographs alongside texts from the journal of American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose work he finds inspiring.

After the epic scale of Seven Days Walking and the philosophical engagement of Walden, his new album Underwater is, at first listen, a humble offering. Underwater uses simple elements, such as an arpeggio or a short sequence of chords, repeated, layered, with tiny, step-by-step changes in harmony building to a hushed transformation. This approach, as Einaudi points out, is central to so many forms of music, from folk songs to pop songs to the music of J. S. Bach – Bach’s preludes, for example, use a constant rhythm to allow complete focus on the harmonic change. But in Underwater it feels like Einaudi is taking his light touch to an extreme, as if echoing the profound emptiness of lockdown.

“I felt like I was in a completely different world, where the world was silent. The aeroplanes were not flying, the emails were not arriving, nobody was calling me,” he says. “For other people not so positive, but for me [it] was a strange feeling of paradise. The time suddenly felt immense and I didn’t have any fragmentation of my days. It was a different dimension, like when you are swimming under water and you feel in a completely different world.”

Although the album was originally released as a collection of solo piano fragments, his Australian show will include his band and a specially prepared piano. “I was composing those first ideas on a very old upright piano with a beautiful tone,” he says. “I decided I wanted to keep some of that sound with the grand piano, so I called my technician and we worked on the hammers of the piano to adjust and find a softer tone, an underwater sound.”

The effect of this preparation, on the studio recording at least, makes the notes in the lowest register of the piano sound like the dull thuds of a string bass, while the top notes still cut through. It’s disconcertingly mesmerising. Einaudi is the master of the breath-catching pause, the poignant fade away to nothing. He makes you wait patiently, lulls you into a trance with soft, repeating figures. Then, after you have surrendered yourself to the comforting loop, he can introduce a simple melody in a different register and it catches your ear like spun gold.

And there it is. He’s got me. I feel great. And I’ve entirely forgotten what I was going to ask …

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Talking under water".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription