Over a third of YCAT’s present cohort reside in Berlin. I asked pianist-composer Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula, one such artist, what it is about this city that makes it so enticing to young musicians. Berlin, Jean-Sélim says, is ‘a city for everyone’ and ‘a place for so many different kinds of people’. ‘There is a feeling that you can do whatever you want...a real feeling of freedom and general acceptance’. Berlin is ‘a welcoming city for people who are not necessarily wanting to make money’. With a relatively low cost of living, and a traditionally generous welfare system, freelancers can thrive in this ‘place that cares about the arts’. I Keep Walking is recent evidence of Berlin’s tendency to unite the artistic; Jean-Sélim met Adel Onodi  ‘completely by chance on a plane... coming back from Budapest I was sitting next to this girl and we just started talking... just about random things, and she said she was a singer’. He even managed to convince her to sing there and then: ‘- a bit of Summertime - not so loudly’. They lost touch for several years before Adel came across Jean-Sélim’s first video and she asked whether he would like to write her something. Though initially hesitant, the concept remained ‘stuck in my mind’ and musical ideas began to form. 

Like his grandfather before him, a budding medical student who left Tunisia for France, Jean-Sélim looked to study abroad. ‘First I was thinking of Germany… and then I happened to meet George Benjamin and I really liked his music and everybody was advising me to study composition with him. I met him in Lucerne, and he gave me a lesson, but he said he couldn’t teach me because he was going to write his wonderful opera [Written on Skin] - which I found fantastic’. Benjamin recommended that the young Jean-Sélim study composition with Julian Anderson at Guildhall, ‘and quite quickly my teacher thought I had the potential with piano… I didn't think this way [but] I ended up studying much more piano than composition’. Has this often felt like a balancing act? ‘Actually it’s always been quite stable: I composed sometimes, and practised all the time’. ‘I’m thinking [of] composition long-term… I’m thinking that there could be a moment also when I’m older, when I’m really going for it: and I think with composition there are really no rules.’

Having struggled to learn and teach composition myself, I ask Jean-Sélim what have been the main differences between his piano and composition lessons. ‘I actually believe one can’t teach composition...I don’t know if my teachers would agree!’. Of course there’s a healthy dose of score analysis but, here, he draws parallels with writing: ‘I think it’s a bit more about feedback… and giving the right inspiration at the right time’. Interestingly he’s clear that ‘one doesn’t need to be composers to give honest feedback - just sensitive. When I compose something I always send it to some friends’. Piano seems different: ‘this year, it was so interesting for me to study with Ferenc Rados, who is the teacher of [András] Schiff’. Rados ‘completely changed my playing’ and ‘gave me some answers that I had been looking for for 15 years, finally. And I didn’t know these answers existed’. Will he spill the beans? - Rados supplied answers ‘about the physicality of playing piano, which was always, probably, my weakness’ - maybe you had to be there. Receiving lessons from another musical generation has been illuminating, and he notes that since  he’s been studying with Schiff’s teacher, quite a few people - including Gidon Kremer - have remarked upon his (unconscious) resemblance to Schiff on the piano. 

Returning to those lessons that unlocked so much, Jean-Sélim tells me: ‘Before, I had maybe one concert out of ten where I felt in control. Since those lessons, I’ve had maybe seven concerts out of ten where I’ve felt comfortable and the three out of ten where I did not, I knew why’. (This was no easy process: it was ‘painful teaching’.) Are these physical changes? ‘Not really’, he says: ‘it’s about understanding what I’m doing and understanding why’. ‘I’ve always been very weak at imitating somebody physically. Like the few times I’ve had yoga lessons, it’s crazy… even if it’s other inexperienced students - and they do something very simple with their body - I’m the only one in the room who has no idea what they are doing: I can’t imitate’. It’s the same with ‘any kind of practical thing’, he says, anything ‘actually using the hands like opening something, or the feeling of space. And so I need to find other ways. Always understanding cerebrally how it works from the inside.’

Rados has pointed out to Jean-Sélim that his need to understand things theoretically may well be a desirable trait for a teacher. And as if sensing my inability to reconcile the idea of someone with supreme control over his extremities struggling to open a jar, Jean-Sélim brings forth a prop: ‘actually I am sitting right now on the only chair that I built myself, from IKEA - it’s an incredibly easy model to build but I can tell you [it took] three embarrassing hours’. (Gesturing in the direction of the chair in question - as if to confirm the veracity of this example - Jean-Sélim accidentally knocks several books onto the floor.) Tending to my lingering scepticism he adds that his clumsiness also affects the ‘piano, actually! But this has been improving’, and, never one to miss a tennis analogy, ‘I read in an interview that Nadal is incredibly clumsy’. ‘I just find that it’s difficult to understand some rules - some physical rules - ... I just need to understand them from within.’

For a young composer, especially, ‘finding your own voice is the big challenge’, thus the salience of imitation in this context too. I raise the question of musical influences, and in particular that of George Benjamin: ‘I couldn’t say who I’m influenced by... these things are quite subconscious: I just write the only note I don’t hate at this moment. I couldn’t really say I’m influenced by his music, but for sure I love it and probably if we love something it will influence us in a way that’s so difficult to be conscious about. Some people think he’s from the French tradition - I don’t know what that means. You know it’s like when people ask me “What are you as a person?” … if I were a computer I would answer “error message”’. Those who reel off a list of self-describing adjectives, he explains, fail to distinguish between themselves and the ego, ‘the image we have of ourselves’. ‘I think we are what we are - this is the only thing we can say - and I write what I write. And the rest can be interesting but I think it has nothing to do with reality.’ 

Of Jean-Sélim, Schiff has said ‘when he plays Bach, Chopin and Schubert, he does it with a composer’s understanding.’ I ask Jean-Sélim how he understands the sentiment: ‘I don’t really know, but what I do know is that I have always found this extremely exciting: the writing and the link between what you write and what you are supposed to play’. ‘As a kid’, he continues, ‘I spent a lot of evenings when I would listen to music with a score. I didn’t like to listen without a score. When I see the score, I’m always interested in the writing and I see so much beauty in the aestheticism, in the choice that has been made. Also in things which are not there, like “why did he not put a dynamic there?”’. Has Jean-Sélim’s approach to composition changed over the years? ‘I would say the biggest difference is that I suffer much less’. He would ‘write something, and the next day or the next hour I look at what I’ve been writing and I hate it; and then an hour after  I love it… a lot of neuroticism’. ‘I learned to consider it as normal - this suffering -  and it’s not suffering anymore because I see it as part of the process. When you spend two full days trying something and then actually you throw it away...now I see it as part of the process, and I know that if there is one note I keep, there will be so many that I don't keep, and that every good bar has a price, and I’m ready now to pay this price. And ping pong helped me a lot, and watching tennis; it’s a lot about the attitude, and not giving up and pushing yourself, and also accepting you fail sometimes.’

If there was any doubt about Jean-Sélim’s sincerity concerning the adoption of sporting rituals he reveals to me that he has ‘been having cold showers: like some tennis players, you know Nadal takes a cold shower before each match’ - I do it ‘to push myself...there’s a lot of inner fight, and it takes a lot for me to get to the end of a piece because the more I write it, the more I care about it’. Fortunately Jean-Sélim is now able to harness this extremely self-critical streak in a more productive, positive way. These, I believe, are the ‘dark moments’ alluded to in Confined within a score. ‘But they don’t need to be dark if you accept that it is part of the process… it’s a matter of awareness in the moment’. An awareness captured by his aperçu that ‘composition is mostly being stuck’.

Such tribulations have not been exclusive to composition. A rather extreme bout of self-doubt preceded an earlier YCAT audition. ‘I remember I played horribly, I’m so embarrassed - I hope everybody forgot’. ‘I was in completely neurotic mode with piano, trying to understand how to play...I was so tense with my ideas that I couldn’t play’. ‘Three days after, I was supposed to go to Prussia Cove for masterclasses with Schiff and I thought “I can’t, I’m playing so badly” and I actually called Rosie from Prussia Cove, the organiser, to cancel, and she happened not to answer the phone.’ So ‘I arrived at Prussia Cove and I had a very late night’. ‘And then, I was playing the best I could and I remember it was one of my best weeks of playing and everybody was very happy with me, including Schiff’. 

The power of circumstance can be observed further: on a high after Prussia Cove, and ‘still in this very good shape’, he successfully auditioned for a year’s fellowship at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto. Here, Jean-Sélim enjoyed the luxury of being able to ‘study with every teacher I wanted...there was no limit’. ‘Some weeks I had five lessons with five different teachers...whatever you wanted, you could do it.’ He recalls this first proper taste of North American culture as ‘quite a culture shock’: ‘how everything looks, how everything feels, how people think… but it was very positive, very interesting.’ This was an intensive period spent ‘practising all day for nine hours every day’, with little composition. The Music School was open 8 am to 3 am with ‘incredible facilities’ and he lived very close to the school, which influenced his decision to spend Christmas alone in Toronto. My melancholy picture of Jean-Sélim trudging back to an empty flat through gelid streets dissolves as he reassures me that in this context, solitude was precisely the aim. ‘I was really trying to understand things - I went to Toronto with this idea: I need to find some answers about piano playing’. As we know, this search for answers wasn’t to be satisfied for some years.

Jean-Sélim happily acknowledges recurring unpredictability in his life. ‘It’s crazy, you know, like little things can make big differences in life, like meeting George Benjamin.’ It’s the ‘same thing with a piece: little things can create a piece, and also save a piece… often it’s quite impulsive, quite crazy ideas’. ‘A new thing with composition that also helped me is to provoke inspiration… we need these external inputs, and it can be anything. Even sometimes when I’m stuck I have a dice with 12 faces like the 12 notes and then I [roll and think] “what if I were using this note?”. A compositional “accident” to match the accidents of his real world? Decidedly not: ‘I don’t write random music at all - it’s not at all this kind of aleatory which is something that many composers have been experimenting with. ‘But... very often I would [follow] the dice which suggests to me one note at a given time, and very often it’s not this note - it’s going to give me other ideas. It’s like you are throwing a stone in the water - it shakes things up...habit is so incredibly strong in the human being and it’s very important always to get fresh water.’ 

A perpetual desire to improve as a musician animates Jean-Sélim’s changing work patterns. He continues to make ‘many discoveries in what is the best for piano. And with composition, ‘every day I will try and fail, and whenever I feel quite in the mood, I rush to use these moments. But not being in the mood and trying to compose is extremely difficult. I have some tricks: for me it’s important not to feel too normal… I need to be a little bit restless. ‘It’s good for me to be in a certain state of mind: quite in touch - also using the subconscious somehow, not being too aware of what you do: quite spontaneous; quite impulsive. The evening is sometimes very interesting for me’. A general sense of openness can reap fruits: ‘When I’m writing, sometimes ideas can just come so if I’m in the process of writing a piece, probably I will always have something to write [with] next to my bed in case I wake up in the night’. Does this actually happen?(!) ‘Yeah of course, of course - sometimes bad ideas! But I remember once I woke up and I wrote a piece the whole night from beginning to end; my girlfriend at the time was asleep in the bed, I went to the bathroom, I remember, and on the toilet I wrote a cello solo piece!’ 

He hasn’t always composed from the piano? ‘I think Bach is so interesting because his music doesn’t matter which instrument, and I like to go a little bit in this direction and I’ve decided - or at least for now - I would always start with piano or some kind of reduction’. ‘And when I say piano, it doesn’t need to sound good with the sound of the piano, but I like the idea that it can be reduced to its core… I like music which can also be heard, or considered, as generic sound’. Waning interest in idiomatic writing? A hint of elusion: ‘It’s a difficult question but no, when I orchestrate, I’m extremely sensitive about timbre but it’s a choice. Somehow it could also be for another kind of setting - at least it’s my theory now, I will probably update it.’ Famous examples of unfinished pieces of music abound and I ask Jean-Sélim if “letting go” has ever been a problem. ‘I think there is always a moment when I feel it’s finished or you get to an asymptote’. ‘For example, I finished my second opus, and now I am learning it. I’ve reworked so many things and printed 30 versions - but it’s normal.’ ‘Every day I’m making fewer edits and I feel like it’s getting there’. Once completed ‘I will enjoy always playing it’ and then ‘the piece doesn’t feel so different from another piece of the repertoire’. The opposite, however, is true of working on performing other piano pieces: ‘I always need to get to the point that it feels like I’ve composed it myself’. 

During the recent lull in work Jean-Sélim has been reading literature more than listening to music. He just finished My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos - an ‘extremely beautiful’ book about childhood remembrance. If he does listen to music, it is almost invariably ‘music I don’t know...I love to hear whatever is being done nowadays, and also random things I found on the internet, or music from different countries’. (He waxes enthusiastically about Inuit throat singing.) ‘I love the jazz singers’ such as the ‘incredible’ performers Nina Simone, Hazel Scott, and more current, Jacob Collier. Throughout our conversation, Jean-Sélim’s aversion to rule-bound thought shines through; after revealing such omnivorous listening taste he remarks ‘I hate to think of music from a certain style - it makes absolutely no sense to me… all music I hear with the same ears’. ‘And then there is music that I like and music that I like less: these are my only categories. There’s some classical music I really hate with all my heart!’

Sometimes if asked to explain the creative process, artists prefer to obfuscate, hiding behind metaphysical meanderings; this is, after all, the easy option. Jean-Sélim’s willingness to discuss the daily realities of life as a pianist-composer was, therefore, very welcome. This is not to say that writing music is not a complex activity - far from it - but Jean-Sélim seems to share at least a trace of Warhol’s view ‘that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.’ So the idea that you can over-analyse a good thing to the point that it loses its enchanting aspect probably does apply to his own work. We might even like to accept an element of the non-rational. Jean-Sélim attaches great significance to serendipity and is open about the fact that he doesn’t always know where a musical idea ‘comes from’. Moreover, he suggests that ‘when we are certain about something, it means that we are probably in a very beautiful and solid illusion.’ Thus the essence of Jean-Sélim’s compositional - and musical - nature will most likely always retain a mystical aspect to us but also, I think, to him.

Sean Dunn