A Real Life Notovich
As the title suggests, classical music plays a large role in this book. Booktunes had the chance to ask Alex some questions about his book, the music in it and his favourite interpretations of the greats: Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Liszt.
Booktunes: Notovich becomes more manic in thinking and behaviour as the story progresses. Apparently he suffers from manic depression. You describe his behaviour and thinking in a remarkably compelling way. Where does your knowledge of this psychiatric disorder come from?
Alex van Galen: I've done quite a lot of research into manic-depression among artists. It’s astounding what you can find. Around fifty percent of all artists suffer from bipolar disorders or depression. Great artists suffer from these diseases, such as Vincent van Gogh and Dickens, and more recently Mel Gibson, Frank Sinatra and (as recently revealed) Anthonie Kamerling. If this condition is not treated on time, it often leads to suicide. There are some very sad stories, like the story of composer Schumann, who jumped in the river Rhine to drown, but was "saved" and spent the last years of his life in an asylum, where he died a horrible languishing death, refusing to eat and drink.
In one way or another, I recognized myself in these stories, I recognised myself in Notovich. I'm not manic depressive, but I think there are few writers who can not imagine the enormous peaks and valleys that the creative process simply entails. Like the euphoria of the creation and black holes where you sometimes inevitably end up.
BT: Classical music plays a big role in your work as a writer. How does that relate to your private life?
AvG: I love all kinds of music, including modern bands like Radiohead and Rammstein. I enjoy going to Pinkpop with my oldest son. But indeed: classical music is a passion of mine. The love began when I played the piano as a child (which I still do, though it is more improvisation and blues).
Classical music has a depth that pop music doesn’t have. In some way I need Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich daily, like I need oxygen. It often helps me to write in the right mood. For inspiration I also use film music, such as Hitchcock's regular composer Bernard Herrmann. A genius. Because I write thrillers, I need music that is exciting and the music of Herrmann has not only the suspense but the depth of 'real' classical music as well.
BT: Can we compare Notovich to Franz Liszt, and if so in what way?
AvG: Notovich certainly identifies with the great Liszt. Liszt was one of the first 'devil artists', a pianist with an unprecedented mastery of his instrument. Liszt was a composer who also played a completely new spectrum of sound harmonies. As Liszt played, women fainted in mass numbers. This was partly due to the hype, he was a kind of pop idol avant la lettre. On the other hand, at that time people were not used to the intensity of the music Liszt played. I would like to have seen one of his recital back then. Liszt invented the phenomenon 'recital' by the way. Also, we owe the powerful and modern wing designed pianos to him because Liszt tended to slam his pianos into pieces.
Notovich increasingly identifies himself with Liszt as the story gradually continues. Slowly he loses his grip on reality, with all its consequences. As a writer I know only too well what it is to sink into a fantasy world. It is tempting, but also has a harmful side. It is not easy for the people around you if you are not 'on earth' for a while.
BT: If the ‘Duivelssonnate’ really existed, which sonata would come closest to the sound of this magical piece of music?
AvG: The first thing that comes to mind is the legend of the Sirens, the goddesses who sang so enchantingly that everyone who went past with his ship broke down on the rocks. There is also a Devil's Sonata by the Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini, who claimed that he had sold his soul in a dream to the devil and in return got for this piece. It is certainly an amazing sonata with great emotional depth, and Tartini never achieved that level of composing after that dream. So who knows what exactly happened...
BT: How did Franz Liszt become the main subject for your novel?
AvG: When I heard the story of Tartini, I did some research into the phenomenon of ‘devil’s artists’. When I heard the story of Tartini, I did some research into the phenomenon of ‘devil’s artists’. I quickly ran into the brilliant violinist & composer Paganini, who was such an amazing musician that people said he must have made a pact with the devil. Paganini was actually one of the first professional violinists, who sometimes studied twelve hours a day. Paganini exploited his image cleverly. He behaved so convincingly as a 'devil' that no priest wanted to bury him after his death. His body was left to decay for weeks in a basement somewhere.
However, I found Paganini less interesting than Liszt. Liszt was in a deep depression when he heard Paganini play one night. When he knew him, he knew that he also wanted to play with such virtuosity, except with his piano. The rest is history. Liszt's music was revolutionary, he invented modern piano technique. Liszt also had a very interesting love life, and that made him more interesting to me.
BT: We made a playlist of pieces being referred to in the book. Could you point out one song that could stand as the main theme for your novel De Duivelssonate?
AvG: During the last Liszt Competition in Utrecht, Vitaly Pisarenko (who later won) gave a magical performance of the Danse Macabre. That piece exactly carried the atmosphere and impact of a Notovich performance. The competition has been recorded, but I do not think its for sale on national and international markets.
BT: It’s not easy to find the right interpretations of the sonatas because most of them have been performed by many different orchestras. Could you have a look at the list and if necessary make some recommendations?
AvG: I'll tell you which pianists have inspired me for Duivelssonate: Svatoslav Richter, the Russian with his idiosyncratic interpretations. Marga Argerich, one of the greatest pianists of all time. That status is I think, never been given to her, perhaps because people have trouble with a woman in the role as ‘devils artist’. And Glenn Gould, about whom I've made a documentary. I like him especially for his eccentricity but I am less enamored of his musical interpretation.
The most beautiful Liszt CD of all is that of the Russian pianist Volodos. I've seen this guy play live and I was really blown out of my chair. He has everything that a real life Notovich should have.
interview by Rosalie van der Meulen