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NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks to concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein about her new album, A Character of Quiet, which she recorded at home during the pandemic.


Life right now is a lot of things – restless, scary, calm – the rush hour traffic is mostly gone, the hustle and bustle of our daily routines is disrupted. For the concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein, that meant no tour, no concerts. Instead, she recorded a new album at home during the quarantine and selected music that gave a sense of the world’s slowing down. It’s called “A Character Of Quiet”. And Simone Dinnerstein is now coming to us from New York.


SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I was told that you gave up the piano for the first few months of the pandemic. So let me start there Why?

DINNERSTEIN: Well, I struggled with it. I tried to play. I tried to practice. I thought I should try to learn all kinds of music. But I felt really distant from music. I felt that for the first time in my life music couldn’t really express what I was feeling. And I wasn’t feeling creative. I just felt frozen. And it seemed meaningless to me to play the piano.

KELLY: I can relate to that. I don’t play the piano, but I’m a writer – a journalist, of course – and I write fiction. And I’ve had problems over the past few months and have had the feeling that I can’t write anything that remotely captures everything that’s going on in the world. It sounds like you’re in a similar place.

DINNERSTEIN: Yes. Yes. I felt like I couldn’t process what was happening. And music didn’t bring me any closer to that.

KELLY: So what changed you and pulled you back to the piano?

DINNERSTEIN: Well, I had a conversation with my friend and producer Adam Abeshouse. And I said to him, I can’t play – I don’t know – I really feel disconnected. I do not know what to do. And he said you should record. And I thought, how on earth am I supposed to do this? You know every place is closed. And he said: I can come to your house and we can record in your room. I never thought I could do it like I did in Brooklyn, you know – the amount of street noise. And my room is a little room, and I have a huge piano in that little room. And he said we’ll take care of it. We’ll get over it. And he really encouraged me to do so.

And I tried to think about what music would really appeal to me right now because I couldn’t find any music to relate to. And I thought of music by Franz Schubert and Philip Glass, and I found that music is absolutely perfect because the music has a kind of ruminant quality that is both very reflective and introspective and painful.

KELLY: Give me an example of one of the pieces that is now on this new album.

DINNERSTEIN: The opening of Schubert’s “Sonata In B”. This is the last piano sonata he wrote and which he wrote while he was dying. And it starts with this very, very beautiful topic.


DINNERSTEIN: It has a very deep sadness and a kind of feeling of longing, of memory. It’s not just happy. And then there’s that kind of rumbling trill in the left hand, very, very low down on the piano, in the bass.


DINNERSTEIN: And it’s like – that kind of restlessness that lies beneath this beautiful melody. And so it is neither one nor the other. I think it’s just the most breathtaking opening for a piece of music.


KELLY: Then what about the glass? Tell me more about why that seemed like the right choice at the moment.

DINNERSTEIN: In these special studies you have the feeling that you could imagine that it is almost like a meditation when you hear it. But there is also a feeling of discomfort.


DINNERSTEIN: The first etude that I record is Etude No. 16 – it’s a kind of dance rhythm that is synchronized. And it repeats itself a few times – this rhythm – over and over again. And although sometimes the notes just stay the same, the feeling evolves and it – sometimes it feels like a beautiful dance. And sometimes it feels like something really, really pretty sad happened.


DINNERSTEIN: His music forces you to listen the moment you play it, because although at first glance it looks like it’s about repetition, it’s actually about constant change. And although you may be playing the same pattern, something happens as you repeat the pattern that it transforms. And you have to be open to that. You have to listen while you play. And if you’re not playing as a listener, you need to be open to hearing these changes.

Right now, this seems to be a period of time where we are almost caught up in this sense of repetition every day and not know where we are going. You know, there isn’t that sense of forward momentum that we normally have in our lives. And I think the feeling that I’m playing Glass’ music is almost a mirror of what we’re feeling right now.

KELLY: That’s beautifully put. Let me ask that. Has the way you play changed? These are works that you performed earlier.

DINNERSTEIN: Yes, I was really impressed with how my playing changed when I listened to the recording. I mean, like I said, I hadn’t practiced. I – you know, I would be lucky if I practiced an hour a day. And I usually practice about six hours a day. So I didn’t know how the recording would come out. I was very nervous about it. And I had those two nights that we recorded it where I decided not to hear anything I did. I didn’t go in and listen to playback. I only played five hours each evening without a long break. Then when I edited the recording and listened to what had happened, I was really surprised because my game seemed to have grown tremendously in those months of not playing and …

KELLY: Really?

DINNERSTEIN: Yes, it was really strange. And I think this could be my best shot yet. And it’s so surprising and also very comforting to me because I thought I was all dried out and not doing anything. And it turns out that something happened to me when I wasn’t playing. And I think that’s a good lesson to learn.

KELLY: Yeah. Congratulations on producing a work of beauty during these troubled, frightening, and often painful times.


KELLY: That’s the pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Her new album “A Character Of Quiet” is out this week.


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