Luis Berra is a fantastic composer, pianist and performer. He released his debut album Piano Creatures in 2017. In conversation with Luis we talk about naming pieces of music, the compositional process and much more.
Hello Luis, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
Very good, and thank you so much for interviewing me. I really appreciate what you guys are doing with your online magazine, supporting new musicians. Can I give you a big hug?!
At the moment I’m actually teaching Piano in three different Music Schools in Bavaria and I’m the house Pianist in several Luxury Hotels in the Bavarian Forest. At the same time I do concerts in theatres and cultural spaces. I have a series of concerts, kind of a little tour here in Germany, that will end up with a Concert in Torshavn, in the Faroe Islands on the 9th of August. I’m very excited about it. It’s a lost paradise there…. these wild islands in the middle of the north Ocean… My wife and I will make 10 days holidays there; kind of an adventure. There’s a lot of music there and I ‘m so curious to discover it and to learn something new.
When did you start composing music? Has the piano always been your main instrument?
I played the piano since I was five and a half years old. I can’t really remember when I started to compose.. I think I always created music. I always felt that urgency to create something, to improvise, to feel free. I think it’s a part of me since always.. maybe since a past life…. who knows.
I play basically only piano, but I sing too… I love singing, if you consider the voice an instrument; I didn’t have any singing lessons.. I do it in a natural way. I love to sing blues and swing… I do it often when I perform in Hotels… and I sing Puccini and Mozart too, but only alone in the shower. It’s not something nice to listen to! But maybe I shouldn’t tell you.. this is kind of a secret.
Besides that I don’t play any other instruments, maybe the recorder a little. But there’s something I want to tell you.. I’m so fascinated about musical instruments, especially ancient and ethnic instruments.. hurdy gurdy, lute, iranian daf, african percussions, harpsichord, viol and many others. I listen to a lot of music played by those instruments. When I compose, or improvise at the piano I imagine often that I’m playing another instrument. I consider myself a piano dependent, there is no way I can create music without a piano.
Last year you released your album ‘Piano Creatures’ – which is fantastic by the way. The piece titles seem very visual, were they inspired by those specific things, e.g. Winter Birds Dance? Are there any stories behind these?
Thank you so much, that means a lot. Can I give you another hug?
Talking about titles… Chopin was very critical against Robert Schumann because Schumann started to give poetic titles to music works. It was something new. If we think for example about Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, this name was given by other people in France, not by him. Now the tendence is exactly the opposite, you can’t call a piece Opus, or Nocturne, Mazurka, Prelude, Sonata, Suite etc. I mean, you can but it sounds kind of weird and sometimes a little arrogant, like you wanna compete with the masters. People do need words and titles, also to remember the piece and to help their imagination.
And yes, you are right the titles that I used for the pieces in “Piano Creatures” are very visual, also if Music is something not visual at all it’s the most and maybe the only ethereal form of expression that exists. But anyway, there are some stories of course…
The winter in Bavaria can be very cold and long. The specific title you mentioned, “Winter Birds Dance” comes from the fact that in the winter here, many people feed the birds. I remember one Sunday I was at my mother in law’s to eat, there was quite a lot of snow on the ground and you know, she has these things hanging on the trees in the garden with seeds, bread and all sort of birds food. There were so many birds flying around, and almost fighting to get the food, they were so excited, it was like they were dancing… simple pure beauty.
At the same time I remember the father of my very first girlfriend in Toscana.. I was 18, 19 years old; He was a huge bird hunter. I remember he had this big fridge where he put all this dead little birds (kind of creepy I know!). He told me it was a tradition he’s got from his father, that he used to hunt birds during the War because he was hungry and now, the mother of my wife, she feeds the birds helping them to pass the winter. Two stories that sound opposite, but very similar in a way…. it’s all about surviving!
Then “The Smiling Fox”, “Sleepwalking Deers”, “The Crying Owl”…these are the animals that I see late at night when I drive back home from the Hotels where I play in the Bavarian Forest. Performing for three hours in fancy bars, in front of fancy people. Then finding myself driving in these empty straight roads, in the middle of the forest full of deers, owls, foxes. Then when I arrive home looking at my wife Martina, she sleeps peacefully. I mean, all of this is so inspiring..
But anyway, those are just titles the I gave. The most important stories behind the pieces is the story that You make. You, the listener, it’s your story and only yours and every one has his own personal and unique story. That’s the magic, the strong power of music. If you think about it, before the music it’s silence… and after the music there is also silence. Your expectations before the music starts and what remains in you after, when the music’s over. You, as a listener, are also a creator, just like the composer you create something in this empty space. You “write” your emotions, your memories, your feelings, in the silence.
How would you describe your compositional process?
I see myself as a performer, almost more than a composer. I love the stage and the contact with the people. My music comes to life when it is performed. Most of my compositions are born with improvisations. Then of course it comes to the time when I have to sit down, concentrate and try to give an order to these ideas.
I spend a lot of hours of my time composing, trying and experimenting with new things. There is not a real scientific process in composition I guess, at least for me. It requires a lot of dedications, a lot of practice, of course… but a composition can be made in a second, like a spark. Then it grows on its own.. Slowly or fast, it depends and when this spark becomes a big fire sometimes you are not able to control it.. or like a wild son, when he grows up he does what he wants… the father can’t do anything.
I feel there is something barbaric, ancestral and full of instinct in composition. When I find, for example, a good “ostinato” with the left hand and I start to improvise with the right hand I can stay at the piano for hours. I feel so free, so wild… there is no way I can be civilized while I’m doing that…
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to start composing music?
Don’t do it, it’s dangerous!
It’s very difficult to give advice about composing music, what I can say… Listen to a lot of music, be open to different styles, listen to the classics, the masters but also artists that are not famous. Artists that maybe you think are worse than you, you can also learn from them. Be curious, be hungry, research and practice, practice, practice.. and perform. In the case that you are a “pure composer” and you are not able to perform, make other people peform your music. I’m convinced that the higher moment of music is when it’s played live, in front of an audience.. and again, don’t let yourself being civilized… stay wild.
Who are your favourite artists to listen to? And why?
Bach, Keith Jarrett, Schumann, Chopin, Stravinski, Bartok, Debussy, Beethoven, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington,The Beatles, Simon and Gurfunkel, BB King, John lee Hooker, Bob Dylan. A lot of blues, swing, Italian songwriters like Paolo Conte and Fabrizio De Andrè… so many, I need at least ten pages if I have to write all the artists I love and I discover and listen new musicians every day.
I’ve always listened to a lot of Music. I still have the Vinyl of Keith Jarrett Koln Konzert, it’s from my father. I listened to it for the first time when I was 7 or 8 years old, that LP really changed my life and I’m never tired of it. Piano Creatures was recorded in the Same Studio that recorded and mastered the Koln Konzert, that makes me so happy.
My father was the one that introduced me to amazing music, I’m very thankful to him.
Should we look forward to anything being released from you soon?
I’m working very hard on a new project. I will record it again at the Bauer Studios in Ludwisburg, on the Steinway D that I used for Piano Creatures. That’s for sure, I love that piano. I think it will be mostly piano solo, but I’m also thinking about some collaborations… I don’t know yet, we will see. It should be out in September, or October I hope.
I’m doing a lot of research about European and not European folk music, ancient dances, ritual songs and so on… trying to find inspirations, trying to find roots.. It’s a long process…