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A Pianist Hears Chopin From Inside His Instrument

Chad Lawson's new album is The Chopin Variations. (Courtesy of the artist)

Even if you're not a fan of classical music, you have heard of Frédéric Chopin: His music has appeared in countless movies, TV shows and commercials, even video games. But it's almost certain you haven't heard the Polish composer performed the way Chad Lawson plays him.

A pianist with a strong background in jazz, Lawson presents 10 Chopin works on his aptly named new album, The Chopin Variations. It's not just the way he arranges the music that makes these recordings different. There's an intimate, otherworldly feeling that comes from the way they were recorded, a tactic Lawson first tried on his 2013 album The Space Between.

"I record, usually, late at night; we have two small children under the age of 5, so no one wants to hear music at 2 a.m.," he says. "I had felt placed between the strings and hammers because it really mutes the sound, and it created this really warm, resonating tone. ... You're able to strike the note without it having a really harsh attack. But with doing that, though, the microphone setting is placed really close to the hammers inside the piano, and so you hear all the creaks and the cracks of the piano itself. You're hearing it as a machine, almost."

Hear more of Lawson's conversation with NPR's Arun Rath at the audio link.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Even if you're not a fan of classical music, you have heard Chopin, unless you live in that proverbial cave. His music has appeared in countless movies, TV shows, commercials, even video games. But you haven't heard the Polish composer played this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOCTURNE OP. 9 NO. 2")

RATH: Pianist Chad Lawson presents this piece and nine other Chopin works with a twist on his new album, "The Chopin Variations." Chad Lawson is here with me at NPR West. Welcome.

CHAD LAWSON: Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.

RATH: So let's jump right into the music with this piece. This is your arrangement of "The Nocturne in E-Flat Major."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOCTURNE IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

RATH: Talk us through what's happening here. What did you hear in the original that you are trying to draw out?

LAWSON: He has a heart, you know. Chopin's pieces can be so incredibly just captivating, even in the most simplest form. And so even with this piece, I mean, I was almost at the point of just recording just the right hand, just playing the melody and nothing else. I mean, because it's so strong and so delicate and just really just connects with anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOCTURNE IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

RATH: I watch you sitting here getting lost in it, even though we're sitting in the studio.

LAWSON: His writing is just spellbinding for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOCTURNE IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

RATH: Let's go into another piece. I was going to say, another one of my favorites, although any of the selections that you picked for this I could say are one of my favorites. This is "The Prelude in C-Minor." Let's hear an older recording. This is from Arthur Rubinstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDE IN C-MINOR")

RATH: Let's hear your version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDE IN C-MINOR")

RATH: Now, I have to say that, you know, it's instantly recognizable as the same piece. But you opened up something in this music that I'd never heard before.

LAWSON: I love space. That's probably my favorite note - the time where you're able to actually just listen to what just happened. The melody with this piece is just - as with every piece that he does, it just rings so strong. And I felt that there was kind of a vulnerability to this piece that just wanted to say hold on. Stop the world just for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDE IN C-MINOR")

RATH: You've recorded this in a very intimate way, as well. I can hear your hands on the keys, the hammers on the piano.

LAWSON: In 2013, I released an album called "The Space Between." I record usually late at night. And we have two small children under the age of five. And so no one wants to hear music at two a.m.

And so what I did is - I had felt placed between the strings and the hammers because it really mutes the sound. I just started recording the last album that way. And it just created this really warm, resonating tone.

And so I knew I had to do it once more with this album. With doing that, though, the microphone setting - it's placed really close to the hammers inside the piano. And so you hear all the creaks and the cracks of the piano itself. So you're hearing it as a machine almost.

RATH: I'm speaking with Chad Lawson about his new album, "The Chopin Variations." It comes out on Tuesday. And we should tell people that your performing background was mostly not classical music.

LAWSON: Correct. I have a fairly strong jazz background. I had a jazz trio for a number of years. And so I have a love for taking something and trying to rearrange it and trying to change its form with respect.

RATH: So you've done things to rearrange these works. Rhythmically, though, you don't force them to swing. Was there any temptation to make them a bit jazzier?

LAWSON: No. I found in trying to mix those two, it was never really well-received because you have the jazz audience that says, you know, that's a little too mellow. And you have the audience that wants to hear this instrumental classical music. They're just like that's too jazzy.

RATH: Did you have any trepidation as you approached this that, you know, gosh, I better not mess up Chopin?

LAWSON: Absolutely. I mean, he's, you know - he's the poet of the piano, you know. Here is something that I've been playing since I was a child. And I knew that going into this that there may be some people that will say, hey, you know, it's not really right to be doing this. But I don't know if, really, Chopin would feel that way. You know, I know Bach was really good about - take my music, and do whatever you want to with it. You know, mess it up. Make something really interesting. Let it become alive. And I think to some degree, I think that Chopin would be really OK with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPIN SONG)

RATH: Chad Lawson's new album is called "The Chopin Variations." It comes out on Tuesday. Great speaking with you. Thank you so much.

LAWSON: You as well. Thank you very much, Arun. I really appreciate the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPIN SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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