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'A Character of Quiet': Music That Speaks To A Sense Of The World Slowing Down


Life right now is a lot of things - unsettled, scary, quiet - rush-hour traffic mostly gone, the thrum of our daily routines suspended. For concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein, that has meant no touring, no concerts. Instead, she has recorded a new album at home during quarantine and chosen music that speaks to a sense of the world slowing down. It's called "A Character Of Quiet." And Simone Dinnerstein joins us now from New York.


SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I'm told you gave up piano the first few months of the pandemic. So let me start there. Why?

DINNERSTEIN: Well, I struggled with it. I tried to play. I tried to practice. I thought I should, you know, attempt to learn all sorts of music. But I felt really distanced from music. I felt that, for the first time in my life, music couldn't really express what I was feeling. And I didn't feel creative. I just felt frozen. And it seemed meaningless to me to be playing the piano.

KELLY: I can so relate to that. I do not play the piano, but I'm a writer - a journalist, obviously - and I write fiction. And I've struggled these last few months, feeling there's nothing I can write that remotely captures everything going on in the world right now. It sounds like you were in a similar place.

DINNERSTEIN: Yes. Yes. I felt that I couldn't process what was happening. And music wasn't getting me any closer to it.

KELLY: So what changed and drew you back to the piano?

DINNERSTEIN: Well, I was having a talk with my friend and producer, Adam Abeshouse. And I said to him, I can't play - like, I don't know - I'm feeling really disconnected. I don't know what to do. And he said, you should record. And I thought, how on Earth am I going to do that? You know, every place is closed. And he said, I can come to your house, and we can record in your room. I've never thought that I could do that, like, in Brooklyn, you know - the amount of street noise. And my room is a small room, and I have an enormous piano in this small room. And he said, we'll deal with it. We'll get over it. And he really encouraged me to do this.

And I tried to think about what music would really speak to me right now because I couldn't find any music that I related to. And I thought about music by Franz Schubert and Philip Glass, and I thought that that music was absolutely perfect because the music has a kind of ruminative quality that is both very reflective and introspective and also painful.

KELLY: Give me an example from one of the pieces that are now on this new album.

DINNERSTEIN: The opening of Schubert's "Sonata In B-Flat." This is the last piano sonata that he wrote, and he wrote it while he was dying. And it starts off with this very, very beautiful theme.


DINNERSTEIN: It has a very deep sadness to it and a kind of sense of longing, of memory. It's not straightforwardly happy. And then there's this kind of rumbling trill in the left hand, very, very low down on the piano, in the bass.


DINNERSTEIN: And it just - it's like this kind of unrest that's underneath this beautiful melody. And so it's neither one thing nor another. I think it's just the most stunning opening to a piece of music.


KELLY: And then what about the Glass? Tell me more about why that seemed to be the right choice in this moment.

DINNERSTEIN: In these particular etudes, there's a feeling to them that you could imagine that it's almost like a meditation when you're listening to it. But also, there's a feeling of unease.


DINNERSTEIN: The first etude that I record, which is Etude No. 16 - it's a kind of dance rhythm, which is syncopated. And it repeats quite a few times - this rhythm - over and over again. And even though the notes sometimes just remain the same, the feeling evolves, and it - sometimes it feels like just a beautiful dance. And other times, it feels like something really, really quite sad has come to pass.


DINNERSTEIN: His music forces you to listen in the moment while you're playing it because though it seems at first glance that it's about repetition, actually, it's about constant change. And so though you may be playing the same pattern, something is happening as you repeat that pattern that is transforming it. And you have to be open to it. You have to be listening while you're playing. And as a listener, if you're not playing, you have to be open to hearing those changes.

So right now, this seems to be a period of time when we're almost caught in this sense of repetition each day, not knowing where we're going. You know, there's not the sense of forward momentum that we normally have in our lives. And I think that that feeling that I get playing Glass's music is almost a mirror to what we're feeling right now.

KELLY: That's beautifully put. Let me ask this. Did how you play these pieces change? These are works you've performed before.

DINNERSTEIN: Yes, I was really struck by how my playing had changed when I listened to the recording. I mean, as I said, I had not been practicing. I - you know, I would be lucky if I practiced for an hour a day. And normally, I practice for about six hours a day. So I didn't know how the recording would come out. I was very nervous about it. And I had these two nights where we recorded it where I decided not to listen to anything that I did. I didn't go in and listen to playbacks. I just played for five hours each night without much pause. And so then when I went to edit the recording and I listened to what had happened, I was really surprised because my playing during those months of not playing seemed to have grown tremendously and...

KELLY: Really?

DINNERSTEIN: Yeah, it was really strange. And I think that this may be my best recording so far. And it's so surprising and also very reassuring for me because I thought that I was all dried out and doing nothing. And it turns out that something was happening to me when I wasn't playing. And I guess that's a good lesson to learn.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, congratulations on producing a work of beauty in these unsettled and scary and often painful times.


KELLY: That is the pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Her new album "A Character Of Quiet" is out this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.