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24 July 2017

Stephen Hough Q&A: “Silence is the necessary soil for any thought to flourish“

The pianist on Pope Francis, Line of Duty, and John Cage’s classic 4’ 33”.

By New Statesman

Stephen Hough, 55, has appeared as a soloist with countless symphony orchestras around the world. He has recorded more than 50 CDs and teaches at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

What’s your earliest memory?

Seeing the dining room at our house one morning sprayed with shaving cream. I must have been about three and my parents had had a mad party the night before.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. I was fascinated by his research into how the brain has quantifiable reactions to certain musical sounds. It makes science out of the fairy tales in which we musicians have always believed.

What political figure, past or present, do you most look up to?

Pope Francis. And any politician who can put aside cliques and tribes; who has firm, humane convictions but can change her mind; who has intelligence and compassion but who can admit he might have made a mistake.

What would your Mastermind specialist subject be?

It’s a terrifying programme! Pianist composers perhaps? A bigger topic than you might think because all pianists, until roughly the end of the war, also composed.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Maybe London in the 1890s – but as a gay man, I’d possibly find myself in the next cell to Oscar Wilde. Today is definitely the best day to be alive, but the most interesting decade might have been the 1920s. Paris, Berlin, Vienna, New York…

What TV show could you not live without?

If you’d asked me 30 years ago, it would have unhesitatingly been Coronation Street. These days I occasionally like to binge-watch old Columbo episodes – and recently Line of Duty has increased my heartbeat and reduced my palms to a fist of sweat.

Who would paint your portrait?

Singer Sargent or Auerbach. Give me flattering elegance or psychological insight. But don’t ask me to sit still for too long.

What’s your theme tune?

John Cage’s 4’ 33” from 1952 – a pianist sitting with a stopwatch in complete silence. Silence is the necessary soil for any thought to flourish. The piece is a “musical” equivalent of a painter like Ad Reinhardt. A black canvas. A blank canvas. An empty space – but nothing is empty.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Live in the present moment. The past and future are nonexistent. Only the present can be grasped or, better, embraced.

What single thing would make your life better?

A bigger studio where I could paint enormous canvases.

When were/are you happiest?

Every time I realise (with gratitude) how infrequently I am unhappy.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

It depends if I needed to earn money. If not, I’d try to be a full-time writer – of music and words. I love teaching. Masterclasses in beautiful locations. A studio with vast windows on the coast in Sydney.

Are we all doomed?

Yes and no. Life is an incurable disease leading to death, but it’s also an unrequested gift, which, if we can manage to keep giving it away to others, can keep giving back everything to us. 

Stephen Hough performs at the BBC Proms on 29 July, broadcast on BBC Radio 3

This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder