Hélène Grimaud: The Keys to Life
Early in life, music found Hélène Grimaud. It would turn out to be but one tool for this spiritual seeker.
Hélène Grimaud is a celebrated pianist and writer, known for her bold and adventurous interpretations of classical masterpieces.
Grimaud was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence, France, and began playing piano at age 7. She was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at age 13 and won first prize in piano performance three years later. In 1987, she gave her well-received debut recital in Tokyo and was invited by renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim to perform with the Orchestre de Paris. She has since featured alongside most of the world’s major orchestras and recorded over twenty albums.
She has published three books, a memoir, Wild Harmonies (2003; English translation 2006), and two semi-autobiographical novels, Leçons particulières (2005) and Retour à Salem (2013). Grimaud studies and raises wolves and is the founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem, NY.
She was admitted into the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit, in 2015.
Hélène Grimaud has lived one of the more remarkable stories in classical music. At just seven she came to the piano not just for music but for survival. Quite early in her life, she had exhibited a troublingly obsessive nature and a penchant for self-harm. In her 2006 memoir, Wild Harmonies, she describes one memorable outburst.
AJC: Have you said that music saved you or am I misquoting you?
Hélène Grimaud: No, I’m pretty sure I said that ’cause there was this intensity and I don’t know how it could’ve been channeled otherwise if I hadn’t found music.
AJC: These days you would probably get diagnosed with something no?
Grimaud: Probably, probably.
AJC: Scary, eh?
Grimaud: Yeah, yeah you’re right I mean I’m not sure there is a need for treatment for everything. I think you have to look at your life, you have to look at first recognize who you are and if you’re not sure of that you need to make abstraction of what surrounds you for a while, try and find out who you are and then make changes to your life accordingly. Once you feel you can be at one with your surroundings depending on who you’ve established you are as a person and what your needs are then if you’re still not fine then maybe you need to go and get another layer of help but I think it would always be better to start with that. I know it’s easier said than done but I think if you can do without you should at least start differently.
AJC: Do you still have that level of hyperfocus, if you were to start I don’t know stamp collecting or kickboxing does that hyper focus come out now still?
Grimaud: Yes, it does I mean—
AJC: That’s great though, right?
Grimaud: Yes, it is, it still wants to apply itself to whatever I choose it’s just that music is pretty exclusive and so it’s taking most of what’s there and it’s channeling it so there is not too much leftover to start creating new pathways of obsessions but the potential is still there.
AJC: We shouldn’t expect you to become a world class stamp collector any time, no?
Grimaud: No, not yet.
Music is the center of Hélène Grimaud’s world though she conceives of it differently from most of us, she has synesthesia meaning she associates sounds with colors. To her, middle C is black. She can also rehearse entirely in her own head. But for all that goes on between her ears, Hélène Grimaud is now quite attached to the physical form of the piano itself.
Grimaud: I do tend to feel better when there’s an instrument in the vicinity even if I’m not necessarily touching it. I think about the instrument a lot even if I’m actually not practicing at the instrument, I’m often playing the pieces through my head, and alongside that, you do get physical sensations of what the right sounds are supposed to feel like when you touch the keyboard so it’s always there.
AJC: You practice in your head a lot? I mean you can go a long time without physically touching a keyboard?
Grimaud: Yes, that’s true.
AJC: Is it as good as the actual practicing?
Grimaud: You know there were phases of my life where I was convinced that that was the better way of working for me and then I’ve gone through other phases where actually the only pleasure I could get from the piano is the tactile pleasure of touching it and there all of a sudden everything becomes, as they would say in German. as we would say in French. “Obvious” doesn’t really work in English but where it just feels right, simply and you’re gonna get your hands in there and make the sounds and take the sound and work on the phrase and repeat something and that’s how it feels good and that’s how it evolves so I think they’re different ways of doing it.
Hélène Grimaud is a rubato artist meaning that she has an unusual relationship with tempos, stretching and shrinking time bar by bar.
Grimaud: It’s very delicate in the sense because sometimes people will think oh well you can just distort the phrase to no end but of course it’s not true because the time you have stolen you have to give back somewhere so you have this ebb and flow to the phrasing and that is exactly the question where do you take, where do you add that tension, where do you take it back and let it recede? It’s a reconciliation of opposites in a way when you practice because you have to really pay attention to everything which is on the page but then you have to look behind and sort of open yourself up to take the keys to the secrets that the piece is offering. And only through your work of that text, looking at it, thinking about it, getting your hands into it, your mind into it, are you going to be able to get beyond what is written. And that’s the miracle of interpretation is that it lives anew every time and not just with every artist. With every concert, with the same artist and I think that that’s the sign of a concert which is special, it’s when you know it has happened in the moment, you’ve lived it in the moment, you’ve discovered something in that moment, you’ve had the freedom to follow whatever this inspiration, something which is communicated also through that shared freedom with the audience, with the colleagues on stage and to work with that energy which can only happen at that moment in this particular configuration. And that you are able to just go with the flow of that instead of sticking to something which you had prepared ahead of time where you are in your comfort zone and you just want to stay in command of what is going on and then maybe missing some of the most beautiful opportunities in you life, musically.
Despite being multilingual and having written three books, music is Hélène Grimaud’s most treasured language. She remains skeptical about the power of words.
Grimaud: Look at your own thoughts, your own sensations I mean even a thought, which can be fairly rational when you think I can translate it into words and it can be right on but very often as soon as you do that you’ve already betrayed it and if it’s a sensation or an emotion well then it’s just hopeless you can’t you can’t really appropriately describe it and accurately describe it when you start to use words and words are as intelligent and wonderful as they are and as poetic as they can be, they mostly serve as a—
AJC: Instead of—
Grimaud: As a barrier, right and instead of exactly.
Now approaching 50, Hélène Grimaud lives a life driven by her deepest passions. But unsurprisingly she’s still reaching.
AJC: This is it, this is enough for you?
Grimaud: I don’t know how to answer this question because part of me thinks, yes this is it in the sense that it isn’t enough in the sense that it is challenging enough there is enough of it left for me to explore, there is enough undiscovered depth about some of these pieces of music so I think what I would like is this idea of constant growth that there’s always more that can be had.