Elizabeth Newkirk, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I can indeed share that exact moment. I had started piano at the very common age of seven. Upon reaching that also common five-year mark, my interest started to wane. My mother and my piano teacher attempted several schemes to recover my focus. The musical proved to be the winner. When my mother introduced me to ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, I was initially sceptical but grew incredibly interested (mostly because the first recording she had was one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s remixes from the late 1980s that featured an inordinate amount of synthesizer). When we finally got our hands on the recording by the original cast, I was hooked. The cherry on top was a serendipitous trip to New York City and the chance to see it live on Broadway. I had stars in my eyes for the next decade.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Creating a lasting momentum. Finding an expression that is 100% my own and thus, 100% sustainable.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of my debut release, the Americanist. It is a complete expression of my taste, intellect, and creativity. the Americanist is an album of inter-war orchestral works for solo piano and an accompanying essay that builds an American cultural myth from the philosophies of the transcendentalist and New Negro movements.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I am an early 20th century fiend. My sweet spot is that blend of late impressionism, jazz, and the steely influence of the Machine Age.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I read…like crazy. Writing and research have become my lifeblood.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Going off of my previous answer, I am always thinking of a theme, one that can be developed by both music and writing. Luckily, my obsession with the early 20th century aligns nicely with another programming objective: bridging the gap between the oft performed standard canon to the in-vogue, contemporary works of today.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I have many, many answers to this question. For the sake of brevity, I’ll share just one. The following is an observation I encountered among the research for the Americanist. Right before the turn of the twentieth century, there was a certain technology that took the public and music industry by storm: the phonograph. American “March King” John Philip Sousa notoriously warned: “In front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs…but now, you hear these infernal machines going night and day….If you do not make the people executants, you make them depend on the machine.” While Sousa’s sentiment might be old fashioned, his warning detects an unfortunate trade-off between active participation for passive consumption. This reduction of music making, specifically the physical experience of it in casual and recreational ways, suggests a disconnect from the functional and primal aspects of music. This distinction is important, because it would also explain why having more professional and virtuosic musicians does little to address the dwindling audience dilemma. Locating how to revive a direct link from music on stage to recreational music making, I suspect, would greatly reward each genre of the musical spectrum.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That’s a hard one. I view it in two ways. The first, by the metrics standard to any other career (financial, steady work, optics); and second, to the core values I hold of what constitutes an artist. These are often in conflict, which is why I find the answer difficult. Success might be that utopia where the threshold of both are met.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Read. Music has never existed in a vacuum. Read history, philosophy, poetry and literature, they all reinforce one another. Your technique will never be as interesting as what you’ll discover there.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

the Americanist is the first step of a much larger undertaking. I hope to complete a compilation of essays that articulate an American cultural philosophy while producing several more recordings that provide a direct cultural link to the ideas of the book.

What is your most treasured possession?

My home, where my cattle dogs, books, piano, and wine collection reside.

What is your present state of mind?

Ready Freddy.

The Americanist, Elizabeth Newkirk’s debut album, is available now. Find out more

Elizabeth Newkirk is an American classical pianist and writer. She specializes in music of the early 20th century as exemplified in her latest release, the Americanist. Her research and essays focus on American culture, systems, and identity. With a passion for history and philosophy, a central narrative can be found underlying her musical and written work.  

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