Ludovico Einaudi blends evocative piano minimalism with almost impressionist touches of ambient electronica, strings, and percussion. His new record, Nightbook, is as definitive a collection as you can expect from a music that is essentially indefinable but if you’re a fan of film, television, or even basketball, you’ve probably already heard his music.
Einaudi might be the most popular musician you’ve never heard of. But if you’re a fan of film, television, or even basketball, you’ve probably heard his music. The NBA, the British TV series Doctor Zhivago, and films like This Is England have all used Einaudi’s lyrical, atmospheric works. In an age when we resort to terms like “post-rock” and “post-classical” to describe some of today’s most interesting musicians, Einaudi is post-everything.
His new record, Nightbook, is as definitive a collection as you can expect from a music that is essentially indefinable. Einaudi blends evocative piano Minimalism with almost Impressionist touches of ambient electronica, strings, and percussion. Nightbook builds on the success of Einaudi’s last album, Divenire, which introduced him to American listeners in a big way: The album’s title track alone attracted a quarter million hits on Einaudi’s MySpace page – well beyond what you’d expect for either a classical composer or an electronica act.
But Einaudi is neither a conventional classical composer nor an electronica artist; and this is the reason his name is not better known in America…yet – most observers of the music scene just don’t know what to do with him. Take Divenire, for example. It reached the top 10 in Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart, hit #1 on the i-Tunes classical chart, and was #78 on the i-Tunes pop chart. But while the chart-makers may have been confused, Einaudi’s listeners were not. They’ve turned out in force whether he’s at the famed Royal Albert Hall in London or the hot new club Le Poisson Rouge in New York. And they’ve already made his new album, Nightbook, a #1-seller on the i-Tunes classical charts in Italy, France, Germany, and the UK, where Einaudi has been especially popular.
Nightbook is, according to Einaudi, a record about the transition between light and dark, between the known and unknown. It is a good metaphor for Einaudi’s music itself, a bewitching brew of popular and classical music, made with acoustic piano and subtle electronics, emotional directness and subtle orchestration. The results will appeal to fans of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film scores, 19th century French composer Erik Satie’s deceptively simple piano works, the post-rock anthems of Iceland’s Sigur Ros, the musical minimalism of Philip Glass, and the ambient music tradition that stretches from Brian Eno to Aphex Twin. In fact, it’s much easier to enjoy than it is to describe.
Nothing in Ludovico Einaudi’s family tree suggests that he could become a musician. But it does suggest that whatever he did, he would do well. The Einaudi family is a formidable one: Ludovico’s grandfather, Luigi Einaudi, was Italy’s second president, and, with a 7-year term, one of its most successful. His father, Giulio Einaudi, founded one of Europe’s most respected publishing houses, working with authors like Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. Ludovico studied music with Luciano Berio, one of the 20th-century’s most accomplished classical composers, and developed the ability to write serious, brow-furrowing music; but he found he wanted to write music that spoke directly to the heart instead.
Einaudi began experimenting with a more personal style of music in the mid-80s, working in multimedia and dance. In 1996, he made his break from the classical music world with Le Onde, a solo piano disc inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The album was a surprise best-seller in both his native Italy and in the UK. A series of film scores followed. Einaudi began incorporating the sounds of Armenia, Africa, and modern club culture into his works, and his list of collaborators ranged from Ballake Sissoko, the Malian harp master, to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
The nocturnal music that became Nightbook started as a response to the work of Anselm Kiefer, the German painter and sculptor whose art often has a mythic, epic quality. Specifically, Nightbook was inspired by Kiefer’s Seven Heavenly Palaces, a huge installation piece that Einaudi was invited to perform within in 2006. The grand piano, suddenly dwarfed by the cosmic weight of Kiefer’s towers, led Einaudi to compose his most mysterious, hypnotic music to date. The piano is front and center, as usual, but the album draws on both the string textures that made Divenire so popular, and the drums and electronics of his Whitetree project. The latter is an ongoing trio that Einaudi has formed with Robert and Ronald Lippok, the German electronica artists. The electronics on Nightbook often begin with the acoustic sounds of the piano, amplifying and expanding those sounds until they seem to reach into both inner and outer space. The album’s opening track, “In Principio,” would be a lovely piano solo, but with Robert Lippok’s electronics, it becomes something haunting and strangely beautiful.
As for the strings and percussion, they add a steadily cycling rhythm that often builds to an ecstatic conclusion, a prime example being the piece “Eros”: this is arena rock for the concert hall. The two “Snow Preludes” come from a larger series, continuing a centuries-old tradition of composer/pianists creating preludes for their instrument. And “The Tower,” a title that refers to the original Kiefer installation, has a magical, tremulous quality, thanks to the interplay of the keyboard, tubular bells, and live electronics.
The album also includes a hidden track, which, far from being a novelty or gimmick, turns out to serve an important role. The track is a solo piano version of the title song, “Nightbook” – a marked departure from the groove-based, percussion-driven version that appears in the main body of the disc. Both have a wistful lyricism, but one, the album version, is full of barely suppressed energy and expectation – wondering, perhaps, what this night will bring; the other is a pensive meditation, the sound of the pre-dawn hours after the book of this night has already been written. Taken together, these two versions of “Nightbook” offer a tantalizing glimpse into the creative process of one of today’s most distinctive musical voices.