An Interview with Anna Sutyagina

I first met Anna Sutyagina (pictured below) several years ago on Facebook. I greatly admire the way she has built a successful career performing and recording Contemporary piano music, and sharing it with her growing legion of fans. Anna is the artistic director of Moving Classics TV , a website which highlights her own recordings, videos and interviews with a variety of living composers hailing from all around the world. After recording one of my educational pieces (please see links below), she kindly agreed to give me this interview which offers an insight into her background, motivation and inspiration.

1. Tell us a little about your background; when did you start studying the piano and who do you regard as most influential in your piano playing?

I was born in Tomsk, Russia. Tomsk is one of the oldest towns in Siberia with ca. 500 K population and 6 large universities. Tomsk does not have the reputation of being a musical town, it is called a “science city”. It is a 3 hour car drive from Novosibirsk – a real piano centre with a good Conservatory in Western Siberia.

I was lucky enough to learn the Russian piano school. From my early childhood I was put into a strict system with systematic learning and emphasis on the discipline to progress to the more difficult works by Beethoven and Chopin. I am thankful to my teachers for helping me to learn sight-reading. I remember me playing through hundreds of compositions from my Mum’s library instead of practicing the same passages from the obligatory repertoire 😉

My other childhood memory is my sister practicing Chopin and Liszt etudes. “Revolutionary” and “Gnomereigen” are still my favourites. My Mum had a singing warm velvety piano sound that our Scholze upright would give back. When I was alone, I would listen for hours the Sofronitsky recordings of Rachmaninoff. Of course, replaying the prelude op. 23 nr. 5 …

2. When did you become interested in recording and highlighting Contemporary piano music?

In the years after the break of Soviet Union, there had been big changes. The intensive cultural focus was substituted by the fascination of foreign cultures. My priorities in life were from now on to learn foreign languages and travel. I was lucky to get two scholarships for business administration: student exchange programmes in Oklahoma State University (USA) and Frankfurt/Main (Germany). During those years my interest in piano performance was low.  One possible explanation could be that I grew tired of the traditional academic musical education with the required programmes from several epochs that we had to learn and repeat over and over again. Fortunately, my keen interest in music came back and I was hobby experimenting with singing and acting only to realise that piano was my vocation. During no-piano times I learnt about the music business in Munich, one of the leading musical centres in Germany. The Munich audience is known as being conservative and loyal to big stars and big concert halls. There are several piano recitals/concerts happening EVERY day so you can imagine the high level of piano performance and as the result, the huge competition. On the other hand, these pianists play the same compositions and increase the competition even more!  Imagine that in one season you can hear 4 Schumann piano concertos or 5 complete Chopin etudes recitals.  My observations are that pianists tend to play the same Romantic repertoire over and over again; It is completely opposite to literature and visual arts where the most popular works have been created recently and where every year you can expect something totally new.

This huge discrepancy made me curious: what is new piano music now?  At that time, I could not give an answer. I just did not know who was composing music in 2016. The social media was a powerful source of information for my research. My curiosity led me to a totally new scene full of amazing composers and their precious music that was often not played or recorded. It was a perfect challenge for me!

3. You have been extremely successful with your website, Moving Classics TV. How and when did you begin?

At first Moving Classics TV was just an experiment to combine music and film. We started with video recording of the well-known piano compositions and would make up a story to go with the music. After some time, I could see that my wish was not sustainable. But a new solution was already on the way: my curiosity about new piano music and my wish to document it, to record and to present it in the Internet were very strong. I would not be able to realise this ambitious project without a great support of my friends. We are 5 music lovers in different professional fields: a camera person, IT specialist, strategy consultant, musician and me as a pianist. Great team is the prerequisite for a lasting infrastructure and the continuity of our initiative and it helps me to focus on the artistic and musical issues.

4. You perform and record all types of Contemporary music, but which styles do you prefer to play?

The idea behind the video recordings is to share the beauty of tonal contemporary piano music as heard and appreciated by the general Internet-music-listening community. My challenge is to re-introduce the beautiful contemporary music to the broader audience. With the music that I choose to play, I would like to capture the spirit of our times or what I call “zeitgeisty”. I do not like to define the style or genre; it is more the philosophy behind the composition. In a world of increasing intensity, in which everything gets faster, more complex and more extreme, new piano music seeks to strike a balance to the intensive life and offers listeners an emotional escape. The music of today invites to lean back, relax and to gain strength. The new music gives room for ideas and feelings. It gives people what one is seldom getting in everyday life – beautiful and harmonic moments. I am searching for this important quality in the music that I choose and play.

 5. I really enjoy the ‘composer of the week’ series. How many composers have you featured and how do you select the music and composers?

Every Friday we feature a new composer – “Composer of the Week” with a profile presentation, an interview and a video recording of the composition. As of today 125 composers had been featured as “Composer of the Week”. In total we currently present 230 composers on Moving Classics TV.

For the selection of new piano music, I would listen to playlists and suggestions in YouTube and Spotify, Soundcloud.  I would go to MuseScore and listen to new unfinished compositions. At the beginning I would be contacting the composers in the hope of getting their scores to read and play. As Moving Classics got more popular, I started getting emails with submissions from different countries. I would also get recommendations from our followers.

What I am searching in new piano music is the “zeitgeisty” quality of the composition.  To be more precise, it is the mixture of my experience what Moving Classics Internet community would like to listen to and interact with and what I consider to be the musical reflection of today as I above.

6. I particularly like the way you include music by renowned Contemporary composers alongside those who are less known. Is this a conscious decision?

Yes. Usually the music we hear for the first time needs repeated hearing. They say that the typical psychological process of listening would have three stages: avoidance, curiosity and friendliness/acceptance. In comparison to the names like Bach and Beethoven, even renowned contemporary composers are not known to the audience. I was surprised to talk to my colleagues about Max Richter and find out that they never heard his name or music. Today the profession “composer” has so many faces and can mean totally different things. Many composers are professors at the University and are known to their colleagues only.  There are composers who have the support of big publishing houses and get prestigious commissions. There are talented pianists-composers who popularize their works in the recitals. I know composers who are very successful on Spotify and manage to get financing through Patreon. Some have day non-musical jobs. But they all express the feelings of today in their music. There are so many fascinating new composers whom I would love to show at Moving Classics TV. Surely my heart is with the indie composers who are real heroes!

7. Do you feel a strong connection between music and other art forms?

I am a big fan of symbiose of the arts: for example, in my Munich Classics Salon I tried out piano recitals with visual and light/laser effects or literary-musical soirees dedicated to famous personalities. My last project was “Dante – Divine Comedy” in St Markus Church in Munich: it was the combination of architecture, coloured lights, music compositions for piano solo and choir acapella.

8. How does the repertoire you perform in public differ from that on your website?

It is very difficult to attract the audiences for the piano recitals with new piano music. Unknown names in the program means a risk for listeners to get something they do not like.  Internet is a very powerful tool to reach many people and take this fear away and discover at no cost the music that would otherwise not have a chance.

With my public piano performances, I try to turn classical piano recitals into a real emotional experience. I created “Concerto Sentimentale” where I take the audience on the musical journey through the world of emotions. Concept is to use the spoken word to intensify the played music , to help sharing my thoughts and stories about the music of my favourite composers whom I play.

9. Where can we hear you perform live?

My next exciting project is going to be dedicated to minimal music. It is the solo piano recital on the 15th of September in Kassel (Germany) where I will be playing the music of John Adams, Kris Lennox, Douwe Eisenga, Olivia Kieffer, Irminsul, Ulli Götte and others. It is a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in the world of minimal music and share the beauty of it with the audience.

 Thank you for your questions!  

Thank you, Anna.

Here are a selection of videos from Anna’s impressive collection:

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.





Contemporary piano music?

I was recently asked to name some late 20th and 21st century piano pieces suitable to play for diploma exams (some boards such as Trinity allow candidates to submit own choice pieces). On examining the diploma syllabus  I was struck by how little contemporary music was included – and by contemporary I mean music of today. I am not talking about composers such as Charles Ives, John Cage, and Stockhausen, because whilst they are all great, they are not viewed as cutting edge anymore.

I then realised how little contemporary piano music I knew! I was horrified as I do really enjoy listening to new music and I frequently review it. Contemporary music is vital if classical music is to survive and grow.

So I decided to delve a little deeper and discover just what  living composers have to offer in terms of piano music. I should say right here and now that this list is certainly not exhaustive – it is a work in progress. Here are my musings so far…….

Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012) is American and over 100 but he is still a busy composer. His music from 1950 onwards is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. Here’s a selection of recent piano works: Retrouvailles (2000), Intermittences (2005), Tri -Tribute (2005-6)

Harrison Birtwistle (1934 -) is a British composer and his music is complex, written in a modernistic manner with a clear, distinctive voice. Piano works include: Harrison’s Clocks (1997-8), Ostinato with Melody (2000), and Saraband (2001).

Arvo Pärt (1935 -) is an Estonian composer. He works in a minimalist style that employs his own self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music also takes inspiration from Gregorian chant. I find his music moving and strangely beautiful. Here are a few piano pieces to look out for: Fur Alina (1976) and For Anna Maria (2006).

Steve Reich (1936 – ) is an American composer who was one of the pioneering composers of minimal music. Reich’s style of composition influenced many other composers and musical groups. He has been described, in The Guardian, as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”. Reich has written a lot of music for multiple pianos (notably recorded by the wonderful Piano Circus) but his work Piano Phase (for two pianos) has been performed and recorded on one piano.

John Tavener (1944 – 2013) is a British composer known for his religious, minimalist choral music. Taverner was influenced by Messiaen and Arvo Pärt (amongst others) and this is immediately obvious on hearing his works – there is a real spiritual quality present in his sound. Here are some piano pieces: Palin (1977), Ypakoe II (1997), Mandoodles (1982) and In Memory of Two Cats (1986).

John Zorn (1953 -) is an American composer who draws upon his long experience in classical, jazz, rock, punk, and klezmer music. A leader of the “downtown” music scene centered around the Lower East Side of New York City,  Zorn feels most connected to the tradition of the avant garde . Piano works include the highly innovative Carny (1989).

Judith Weir (1954 -) is a British composer and her musical language is fairly conservative in its mechanic, with a “knack of making simple musical ideas appear freshly mysterious.” She is known for operatic and choral works but has also written some solo piano pieces: The King of France (1993) Roll Off the Ragged Rocks of Sin (1992) and I’ve turned the Page (2007),

David Lang (1957-) is an American composer and his music is described as post-minimalist or totalist. He recently ran a piano competition featuring the performance of one of his works via YouTube offering the winner a chance to go to New York to perform it. Here are a few of his piano works: Boy (2001), Broken Door (1997), Memory Pieces (1992-1997) and Wed (1992-1997).

Oliver Knussen (1952 -) is British and is one of the most respected composers of his generation. I love his brittle, yet expressive style. His piano pieces are really worth exploring: Sonya’s Lullaby (1978), Variations for Piano (1989), Prayer’s Bell Sketch (1997) and Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010).

James MacMillan (1959 -) is a British composer whose music is infused with the spiritual and the political. He has written a whole myriad of piano works: Angel (1993), Birthday Present (1997), A cecilian Variation for JFK (1991), Piano Sonata (1985) and Walfrid, on his Arrival at the Gates of Paradise (2008).

Julian Anderson (1967 – ) is a highly respected British composer whose music is influenced by the folk music of  Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian traditions–and also by the modality of Indian ragas. Piano works include the Piano Etudes Nos. 1-3 (1998).

Roxanna Panufnik (1968 -) is a British composer and is the daughter of composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik. She has written a wide range of pieces including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber compositions and music for film and television which are regularly performed all over the world. Piano Piece: Second Home (2003).

 Thomas Adès (1971- ) is a British composer. His complex yet appealing music exhibits a flair for drama, humor, and personal expression, and is notable for the creative use of instrumental color. He has written many piano works including: Still Sorrowing (1991-2), Traced Overhead (1995-6), Under Hamelin Hill (1992), and Darknesse Visible (1992).

 Tansy Davies (1973 -) is a British composer. Her music is informed by the worlds of the classical avant-garde, funk and experimental rock. Piano work: Loopholes and Lynchpins (2001).

Emily Hall (1978 -) is a British composer known for writing classical music, electronica and songs. Heavily influenced by folk music, Emily’s piano piece, No Currency was written in 2006.

Charlotte Bray (1982 -) is another British composer. She judged the 2012 Young Musician of the Year Competition. and has been described as an ‘outstanding talent’. She has won numerous prizes for her work. Her piano piece off the rails was written in 2005.

I realise that I have only merely scratched the surface here – and it’s been most enlightening. I will be returning to this vast topic soon. Meanwhile if you have any other suggestions of either piano works or composers to add to this list then please let me know.

Here are a few YouTube clips of some of the mentioned works:

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.