Pianist Simone Dinnerstein was at the height of her international performing career when COVID-19 shut everything down.
After taking stock about what making music meant during the pandemic, Dinnerstein decided to record from her home in Brooklyn. The project yielded three albums — “A Character of Quiet,” “American Mosaic,” and her most recent release, “Undersong.”
CapRadio’s Jennifer Reason caught up with Dinnerstein to talk about that latest project.
On the concept of creating a trilogy
I was not [intending to create a trilogy]. Even the first album was a surprise. It feels like everything else I've done in my life — It just kind of evolved into what it was. When it finally became clear that I was able to make these three albums, I thought that was beautiful because I like the number three, and it was three different sides to myself. And, it just seemed like a really nice thing to have achieved in that year.
On the albums in the trilogy
Well, the first stop on the “A Character of Quiet” is music by Philip Glass and Schubert. That's a very introspective album, and it came from a recital program that I did. So that concept of pairing Glass and Schubert was from the recital. But I recorded it in June of 2020, and at that time I really felt very sort of frozen and like everybody else, sort of in shock and fearful and all of those things. So Schubert and Glass have that kind of really deep introspection and stillness to them that felt like the way I was feeling then.
“An American Mosaic,” the second album, is a piece of music that was composed by Richard Danielpour for me to play. He composed it during the summer of 2020, and I've always had a real interest in new music. But in particular, I guess, sort of styles of new music that have a sense of narrative or beauty. Lyricism. And his music is very much like that; he also was listening to a lot of Bach when he wrote it.
And then the third album that just came out: “Undersong.” That is a recital program that combines works from different periods, but sort of seamlessly going from one composer to another. And I guess that appeals to the side of me that likes to produce a story. Juxtaposing these different pieces of music like that is, I guess, highly curated, but in a way that is about telling some kind of a story, a story without words. And I just like telling stories!
About album title “Undersong”
“Undersong” is an archaic term for the refrain in the song. An instrumental music refrain usually appears in rondo form. Rondo form is where you have an A section and you do a contrasting B section, and you go back to the A section … it's always coming back to previous material. And though it was a program that I was playing before the pandemic … suddenly that element of refrain took on a very different meaning to me because I had been living at home since March.
I recorded it in November and I don't think I'd been at home that long in years, because I'm usually traveling to play concerts. The element of repetition in my life had become quite strong, you know? Each day was very similar to the day before. And yet also strangely, not so. There [was] a feeling at that time of wait, what? What month? Or even what time of day is it? What year are we in? Even now I get confused with my years, so repetition and refrain started to feel very familiar. I guess I was thinking about that when I recorded the music.
On opening and closing the album with “Les Barricades Mystérieuses”
The first [piece on the album by Francois] Couperin … is the same piece of music that I recorded at the end of my session because I feel like one of the things about repetition and refrain is that you’re encountering the same music. Because you heard other music in between, and because you're now at a different point in time, that same music sounds different.
And you play it differently, you listen to it differently, and it's like that saying,“you can't walk in the same river twice.” I had never really experienced that on a classical album before. Of course, you can see it [on] some rock albums. Sometimes they'll have other versions of the song that are acoustic or some other kind of format. But I've never seen two interpretations of exactly the same piece of music.
On navigating the pandemic as an artist
At the beginning, I felt really isolated and I felt depressed. I don't know if it was not performing, but I felt that I just couldn't really see the relevance of what it was that I was doing. It just felt like there were just so many horrible things going on, and I felt like music was a bit superfluous during that time.
And then music started to take on a real meaning to me again — my husband and I actually bought a turntable. We hadn't had one in a long time. We bought a turntable and really nice speakers, and we started collecting vinyl and sitting down at night on the sofa next to each other and listening to records. You know, sitting and listening [and] it wasn't just background!
It was a joyful rediscovery of music for me. It had been many years since I sat down and listened to a record like that, and I'd been so busy with my own career that I didn't have time to listen to music like that. So actually, I felt this was really beautiful.
Reconnection to music that took place during this period and then a reconnection with my family and my home and my neighborhood. And I loved all of that. I love performing too. But it takes me away from that. And so I hope that I can find some kind of a balance, a better balance, so that I can still have the experience of being at home. And just this quiet stillness of having the time to do things like listening to a record.
On recording a record at home
I have the most amazing piano at home. I actually met my piano in Berlin back in I think 2011 or something like that when I recorded “Bach: A Strange Beauty.” And it was the piano that I had selected from Steinway to use for my recording. And then I fell in love with it, and I bought it, and I brought it home to Brooklyn.
It took seven men to get that piano into my room, and when they finally got it into my room, they said, “you're never getting this out of your room again!” So I always thought, “I have this absolutely gorgeous piano in a rather small room in Brooklyn, [and] I'm never going to be able to record on it again.”
The beautiful thing that came out of this was that my producer said to me, I can record you at home, which I never in a million years thought he would say.
I mean, we had to hang up velvet curtains and there were blankets on the walls. And my upstairs neighbors were incredibly nice because we recorded at night, like in the middle of the night, so that it would be quietest on the street — less car noise. And everybody had to be quiet in the house!
My son was home from college, we brought him home during that period, and in “A Character of Quiet,” there's this one noise that my producer couldn't get rid of. Nobody would really know. But I know! [It is] the sound of my son eating noodles in his room! It'll always be there.
On her first public performance since COVID
The very first time performing was in July at the Biennale in Venice, and that was with [a] dance company. It's dance, we're doing the “Goldberg Variations,” and [it] was just amazing to go to Venice after all of this. It was very emotional and beautiful.
But the very first piano recital that I gave after it was in August in a beautiful meeting house in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, near Tanglewood. And I knew a lot of people in the audience because I've played up there a lot. I got out on the stage and I was going to say something to them and I looked at them. And I just started crying, and it was very, very hard to play, actually.
So, yeah, it took a while for the first few recitals I did. I always wound up crying. Looking at all those people wearing masks in the audience, and I don't know-it was hard. But now I'm starting to get more used to it. But I also don't want to take performing for granted anymore. It's always a gift.
Simone Dinnerstein is nominated for a 2021 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Solo, for her recording of “An American Mosaic.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.