"I love the interview, it's really well written, interesting and very truthful to what I said (which is a rare thing!)."

- Boris Giltburg

Boris Giltburg: Creating space with a few notes and sound


May 2016


I met Boris Giltburg in December, the day after his Taiwanese debut. I had a very interesting, thought-provoking conversation with the 31 years old Israeli pianist, which continued in the inspiring master-class he gave half an hour later. In our conversation, as well as in his master-class, Giltburg pushed young musicians to listen to themselves, in order to make reality as close to what they have in mind as possible. He also spoke of selflessness in front of the music, of the importance of intuition and the idea of space in music.


Boris Giltburg comes from a family of musicians. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all pianists. “I loved playing the piano so much from the beginning that there was no point at which I consciously took a decision to be a pianist.” Giltburg began performing when he was 7, and working as a pianist when he was 8. His family was having a tough time and he helped them by giving small concerts. From that point on he continued to perform. In the last years Giltburg has enjoyed what he is doing even more: “maybe because I understand a bit more now, maybe because I have more tools at my disposal to get closer to the magic behind the notes.”


Giltburg believes that the true way to succeed in music performance is to listen to yourself: listen to what you feel, to what you want and listen to what you are actually doing. “I was my entire life searching for a formula, a set list of things I could do and then have a good performance. I found there was no formula but rather a very generic workflow, which includes recording yourself often and listening to yourself. Because there is a gap between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing. I find when you are playing it’s very hard to be objectively aware of anything beyond the small details.”


Giltburg encourages musicians to trust their musical intuitions. Musical intuition – this feeling when your are in front of a piece you have never seen before, and something inside you happens and guides you in the right direction – is very important. The music of great composers has enough musicality to allow the performer to try different options. It’s like when an actor performs Shakespeare, his art goes way beyond simply saying the words. There is a lot of space for the actor, for the life. It’s the life that makes a piece of music magical.


“In the end, I find sometimes that it is not so helpful to have conceptions and ideas. I often find that these ideas are less than the music.” Giltburg encourages musicians not to be afraid to be extremely personal, to draw attention with their “voice”, to force the attraction, to build their understanding of a piece with what they have under their eyes. Even when there is a very strong storytelling element, everything should still come from the music, and not from outside.


One of the greatest events in Giltburg’s life was when he stopped taking piano lessons. It was a very painful transition. He had a teacher whom he loved, admired and respected profoundly, on whose experience and knowledge he could draw upon, knowing that he would play for him and get his answers. “The transition from that to having the responsibility for every single note you play, for every single musical decision you make was difficult. It took me a few years but I think it was a really important step. At some point you reach a level where you cannot really become yourself unless you do that.”


For Giltburg the music comes first and foremost. Selflessness is essential in music making. “I always find that the best performances were the ones where it all went from the music, not from wanting to leave an impression on the audience. But of course you have to be there, you can’t completely erase yourself, you have to lead the music, it has to go through you in some way. Don’t allow your sound to be passive. Put yourself into what you are doing, put your personality in your playing and interest the audience. Don’t just keep the audience entertained, but captivate it.”


A few days before our interview, Giltburg listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach and Furtwangler conducting Brahms. “At first it seemed like two worlds completely apart. But then I realised they had a lot in common. There was so much purity. Gould and Furtwangler, both of them were completely selfless. And then the directionality: how long the line is. Gould has incredibly long lines (and so has Furtwangler). For me, the selflessness of an artist, his humility in front of the music somehow opens a window through which I can get into the composer’s world, like a conduit that allows me inside.”


Giltburg thinks a lot about the creation of space and colors. “Often in the piano repertoire, the composers use different registers of the piano to create sound spaces. I don’t see the distance between the low and high registers as two separate things. It’s more like the left hand sets the lower point and the right hand sets the high point, and there is an entire space created in between right away. I find it quite magical that you can create space with a few notes and sound.”


“It’s as if there is some kind of membrane which is either being created or not. This is something that is behind the note. The notes are the necessary first step but then there is something behind them and this something is a bit of a mystery. It’s as if all these notes are combined to create something bigger than the sum of these notes. I think this is where the main part of interpretation lies.”


Another crucial concept in music is “the moving through”, the story telling. “The story telling aspect is something I like very much. I think subconsciously I choose pieces that have a strong story telling element. It doesn’t need to be an explicit program, it’s more like the feeling of a story happening. Sometimes music bypasses the understanding part of our brain and goes deeper, to our heart and soul. It can be totally visceral.”


In the end Giltburg found that true art really only happens during concerts. “Everything is in sharp focus, you have a very special kind of concentration, and there is this response of the audience, this silence of the audience. It’s a living silence. For me this silence is the sound stage for the musicians. We play into this silence. A concert is not about me as a performer, it’s about this live re-creation of music on stage, inside the hall and united with the audience. For me the audience and I are united by the silence that they provide to me and the music is created in it.”