One might assume that being the young, beautiful daughter of a major-player in the music world would guarantee easy access to record deals, concert venues, and anything else most other young musicians have to struggle for. Even nine years of competing in classical music, including rounds at the international level, did not pave the way. Clara Ponty spoke to me about her life and music in several phone conversations recently, and I think you will find her candor refreshing and inspiring.
KP: What was it like growing up with world-class musicians all around you?
Ponty: It gave me high standards! It also developed my musical ear very quickly. It's been a tremendous blessing to be surrounded by world class musicians. Seeing what it takes to be a traveling musician and to be an artist, and seeing what their lives are like has given me a lot of insight into what to expect and, at the same time, what to avoid. In some ways, I've been able to learn vicariously through them. Being around great musicians has also helped me to feel proud to be a musician. I hold musicians - at least first class musicians - in the highest regard.
KP: Has having such a famous father helped to open doors for you, or does it make it more difficult to deal with people's preconceptions and expectations?
Ponty: It has its ups and downs. On the down side, a jazz audience is expecting a jazz performance from me. For example, when I did the Montreal Jazz Festival, there were a lot of expectations that the daughter of Jean-Luc Ponty would be a jazz pianist, so I was being heavily compared to him, and that was very tough. My music is in a different style. I think there is a positive and a negative in that, and that's just something I have to deal with - and I don't think it has been as bad as it could have been. The plus side is wonderful because I think people are more open to hearing what I'm doing and might be giving me more of a chance, but they don't give me breaks just because I'm his daughter. When I moved to New York, it took two years of hitting the pavement to get a record deal. It did not come easily at all! It's not like my father's connections paved the way for me. He did as much as he could, but I've still had to find my own way. It's interesting how Life made it so that when I seriously began doing it on my own, doors started to open. Signing with Philips has been wonderful, but I almost gave up. It didn't seem like anyone was interested in solo piano.
KP: It seems like a lot of the record labels are only interested in the bottom line. They want to sell a million or a billion copies of everything.
Ponty: I know that for myself, I have to keep my artistic integrity. Otherwise, I'm not continuing a day more.
KP: Philips/Universal will allow you to do that?
Ponty: So far they have, and, of course, we all hope that the new album ("The Embrace") does well.
KP: It's a great album! I think it's a lot more accessible than the first one.
Ponty: It's good to hear you say that! I really had no intentions of going commercial with the second album.
KP: It's not commercial, but I think it will be easier for people to hear and understand right away.
Ponty: That's important. The first album was not very accessible. As you put in your review, it was a bit remote at first. Now I know that, and I'm happy with how well it did. It did well for a debut album and got a lot of very positive reviews. That really gave me encouragement to keep going. I just didn't realize how remote piano solo can be. I was still in more of a classical mode when I did the first album, and I just didn't see it. Now I see the picture with a different lens.
KP: When did you start competing as a classical pianist?
Ponty: I started competing when I was eleven years old, and I won my first competition! That was encouraging. I didn't win every competition, but I've done a lot of them.
KP: Did you go to the international level with piano competitions?
Ponty: I was 17 when I did my first international competition.
KP: When you were competing, did you specialize in any specific composers or eras?
Ponty: I specialized in Impressionistic and Romantic music, and would put at least one piece from each of those eras in every competition.
KP: When was your last competition?
Ponty: The last one was seven years ago in Paris
KP: Did you record any classical music?
Ponty: So far, I've recorded a Chopin prelude that my father improvised over for one of his albums. I'm about to record a classical piece on Polygram (we should call it Universal at this point) which will be for a compilation album. And I recorded "Les Berceaux" by Faure on my second album.
KP: I love that!
Ponty: I've loved that piece my whole life and I've always wanted to something with it.
KP: You started composing at eight. When did you start composing regularly?
Ponty: I was about 22.
KP: It was about the same time you stopped competing?
Ponty: Yes. You know how it is when you're practicing and competing in classical music. There is nothing else.
KP: What made you decide to switch?
Ponty: I always felt I had an inner calling to compose. When I was at the university, a guest lecturer gave a talk about the neglect of 20th century classical music. He encouraged all of us as music students to promote and even create new classical music. That lecture moved me so deeply that it became one of my inspirations to go into composing. I know that I'm not doing pure classical music, but I consider it to be classical crossover. Another very strong love I had as a child was enthnomusicology. World music is something I was always intrigued by, and my father is responsible for that. He introduced it to me at a very young age. Whether it was flamenco, Eastern Indian music, Tibetan monk music, or gypsy music, we had a lot of very interesting records at home. One of my biggest influences has been my strong love for classical music from other parts of the world.
KP: What are some of your other primary influences?
Ponty: Obviously, the classical repertoire is a huge influence - the Romantics like Chopin and Liszt, and certainly the Impressionists, which I absolutely love! A couple of favorites are Debussy, Ravel, and Faure, who is not well-known, but merits to be. I also love Rachmaninoff and Bach. I don't want to get redundant here. I'm not saying that all classical music is great unto my ears, but I could be immersed in only this music from here on, and would never get tired of it. There is so much to discover. My influences aren't just classical, though. In world music, it would be difficult to mention any specific artists that I feel influenced by directly, because I think that's more of a subtle influence. I don't think I'm really influenced by pop music, although I do listen to rock and pop music, and I do listen to jazz. In jazz, I'm influenced by the great improvisers. My father is definitely a big influence. Eberhard Weber is one of my favorites of all time. And Pat Metheny. I also had a famous classical teacher in Europe who encouraged me to switch from classical performance to classical composition.
KP: Is improvising a big part of your style, or is your music more classically structured?
Ponty: It's more classically structured, although it's definitely a mix of the two. I improvise, and at the same time, with some pieces more than others, not one note changes. I would say mostly that these are compositions rather than improvisations.
KP: Do you write your music out?
Ponty: Yes. In fact, I'm working on perfecting my writing. At one point, I was taking a film scoring class at UCLA, and I had to hand in a new piece arranged in a different setting each week. Sometimes it was a rather unusual arrangement; sometimes it was a standard woodwind quartet or string quintet, but I had to write out all the parts. If I hadn't known how to write by then, I would have had to learn quickly!
KP: Do you plan to collaborate with your father again, or are your styles too different?
Ponty: We've spoken about it, and I think it's very probable that we'll collaborate more in the future. It was our choice to not do that on the new record.
KP: In something I read, you mentioned that your father has a real joy about him when he is making music. How has that affected you?
Ponty: By observing his career and the great, passionate spirit he brings to his music, I've learned so much about how to deal with my own career and with life in general. That's the best example you can give to a child - to show a tremendous love and a passion for what you're doing. Music and his family were a great combination for him and brought balance to his life. I could see the joy - the twinkle! - in his eyes! So, I knew that there was something to this! I think about that when I'm doing my own music.
KP: Too many piano teachers take the joy out of music - especially the ones who are strictly classical teachers. What was your experience, with all of your classical training?
Ponty: My very first teachers were a joy, and I had my first teachers until I was in my late teens. They were complemented with a world-class teacher, John Perry. I would take one lesson a month with John, starting at the age of eleven. That was a big privilege and a wonderful opportunity. At the same time, I was taking lessons with the same teacher I had had since I was a little girl. She was the perfect way to bring me into the music world. She had such a joyful spirit about her, and made learning music so much fun for me. I couldn't wait to get to piano lessons! I loved her very much and she was a very important part of my life. The thing was that she didn't heavily stress technique, so she would not have been the best teacher for preparing me for the big competitions. Later on, I had teachers who strongly emphasized technique. I think if you want someone who will one day become a Horowitz or a Kissin, it's important to have both technique and a strong love for music. Thank God I had John Perry once a month! Later on, I did have some very difficult teachers.
KP: But you already had the love instilled.
Ponty: Exactly! So, it didn't ruin it for me. But, yes, I've had very strict teachers who would literally throw the score across the room if you hadn't memorized or learned your part well! These were very moody teachers! They wouldn't take any laziness whatsoever, and were extremely demanding. And I thank God for all of it! The music business is also demanding! I'm very happy about my training, and feel that I've studied with some of the greatest teachers available, both in the US and in Europe. This is for me like a magic land that I've been introduced to. It's a silly way to put it.
KP: No it's not!
Ponty: It's like I've been given the key and opened the door to a magical world where I've discovered a treasure. That's how I feel about it - I feel very enriched by it. That's why I'm very happy to be continuing now, and trying to give back some of what I've been given. My parents have been very generous in helping me to have some of the best teachers, and I feel very grateful for that.
KP: What's going on with you in the near future?
Ponty: We're doing a music video! It's the fourth track of "The Embrace" and is called "Echo". We're almost done with it. It's very exciting! It's a conceptual video, not just a performance, and this is the first commercially-released video that I've done. I'm excited because I'm very interested in the mixing of media - the visual with the performance. It's very important to me to be able to mix the two - to put pictures to music. Especially with instrumental music, I think it helps people get into your world better, and to understand or feel the music even more. I think music videos are an excellent vehicle, and I hope to do more. I'm also getting ready to do some concerts, some of which will be through a charity organization. I enjoy performing, by the way. That's what I grew up to do, and it's important for me to play my music live. Becoming a performing artist is really what I've worked toward all my life. I love being onstage, and it's a really important aspect of what I do. It feels very natural for me to perform, and there is something that happens that is, for me, the greatest pleasure. I'm also composing and learning orchestration to a deeper extent.
KP: What inspired you to add the voice in your compositions? It's extremely effective and beautiful.
Ponty: I love voice as a texture. I think to use the voice as an instrument is one of the most natural things a musician can do, and for me, it's a very natural progression. On certain pieces, I just felt that there needed to be a voice to bring out the spirit - it just had to be there.
KP: Have you written more pieces since you finished "The Embrace"?
Ponty: Yes, I have. It's important to me keep going when I feel inspired! I have to get it down on paper! It's like my meditation - I need to do it regularly. It's a very important aspect of keeping me in balance. I meditate, and I exercise. There are certain rituals that I need to do in order to feel balanced - composing and playing piano are definitely part of that. I don't feel the same without them. Part of the joy and fun of composing is that it's an evolution. Music for me has always been a more exact communication than mere words, and it allows me to explore dimensions that I can't express in ordinary language. Creating music gives me the courage to realize feelings that I might not otherwise be able to draw on.
KP: Do you have anything else you want to add?
Ponty: You mentioned in the review of my first album that there is a French Impressionistic influence in my music - even a Chopin sort of style. On the second record, I feel that Impressionistic influence going on, but I think some of the pieces are also more Expressionistic - drawing from the inside. I think there is at least as much expressionism going on, drawing from things like the death of my grandmother, which had me dedicate this record to her. I'm often referred to as Impressionistic, which I have no problem with, but I actually go back and forth between drawing from outside influences to what's going on inside.
KP: There's a balance there, too.