To evoke a place by using music you need context, which definitely comes when you’ve been stuck there with no money and no way to get home; and when you’ve visited it countless times, you absorb the vibe through the skin. Pianist Andrei Poliakov loves Paris and devotes his latest song to it which he calls “La Promenade in Paris in the Moonlight.” He’s composing songs about the duality of sunshine and moonlight, and this is one of the tracks that will comprise an upcoming live album, “Moonlight & Sunshine,” scheduled for release in May of 2021.
In describing a Paris that jumps with vibrant colors and flavors, Poliakov summons his classical influences which bubble up alongside stride piano and even a few boogie-woogie strains. Brightly optimistic, the track has a grandness, a fullness and a killer hook, offering his affection for the City of Lights.
How did you come to play piano and when did you start to sing?
One of the earliest memories of my childhood is the game my mom played with me: I hid behind a sofa while she would randomly hit a note on a piano asking me what the note was – helping me develop perfect pitch hearing. I was 3 years old at the time, and shortly after, at the age of 4, I started learning piano.
My mom, dad and my uncle are pianists, teaching and performing; and my grandad was an accordionist (sadly, passed away). So, I would love to say I had a career choice in the early years, but reality was I didn’t; with no regrets whatsoever to this day.
When I was 7, I went to a music school in St. Petersburg for 11 years. The curriculum mixed the musical subjects (like solfeggio, music theory and harmony) with the usual school lessons.
This goes on top of instrument lessons and exams, where you need to deliver at least 4 concerts a year plus performances outside of school, and if you got anything less than 5- on your instrument exam (on a scale of 5), you were in big trouble and they could simply throw you out of the school. Having done this over 11 years, graduates invariably attain a very high level of musical education that allows them to rather easily enter the conservatoire.
When I was 13, I took the oboe as a second instrument and eventually switched to it completely by the age of 16. I graduated and entered the conservatoire as an oboist.
The oboe turned out to be a very practical choice back then. It is notoriously hard to master, and the supply of the oboists was rather scarce.
During my school years I specialized in piano and started touring once the iron curtain had been lifted; my first tour in a group of other kids from the school was to Western Germany when I was 10 (1990), since then I have been travelling like crazy; all this sadly came to a halt in 2020…
When I was 20 years old, I was invited to join the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra led by Gergiev and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic led by Temirkanov, both at the same time! So I had a brilliant choice of the two best jobs available in town. I chose the Philharmonic as I preferred not to be in the theater pit, and had worked there for a number of years, touring, playing with amazing musicians and conductors, seeing the world, and growing professionally.
Then I got bored playing in the orchestra (and the money wasn’t fantastic) and quit when I was 24. I moved to marketing and sales, and ever since I have had a day job to support my family and my path as a musician.
Singing is a completely different story though. We obviously sang a lot in music school, but I had never envisioned becoming a singer. However, when I was 11, my friends showed me how to play guitar chords. I became obsessed with rock and pop music and started writing songs. It was an obvious choice to sing them myself, and so I did. And ever since I have been writing songs, acting as a lead singer in rock bands, and even released a couple of songs on Spotify. Still, I don’t see myself as a singer given my humble voice ability.
What types (or eras) of piano music in particular are you drawn to and why?
When I was in school (yes, seriously underage…) my favorite pastime while cutting lessons was to grab a couple of friends, buy a box of beers, go to a nearest abandoned building (which we had a lot in St Petersburg in the 90s), sit down on a window sill, take a sip of a cold one, and put the 6th symphony by Tchaikovsky, or the 2nd (no, 3rd… any of them!) Rachmaninov’s piano concerto on a Walkman and basically drown in emotions and thoughts…and beer.
My favorite music (not only piano) comes from the second half of 19th to the first half of 20th century – and I must admit, most of it is Russian music or music with Russian roots. Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Skryabin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss. These composers influenced my tastes the most, with a depth of thought, wide array of emotions, unimaginable soundscape and extremely clever and elegant arrangement solutions; beautiful harmonies and melodies…
There was yet another musical discovery I made – The Beatles. I guess it is quite easy to hear The Beatles’ musical influence in the way I compose melody, and I love it a lot.
Boy, I think I memorized all their songs, and played and sang them all the time when I was a teenager (and still do…)! However I had never focused on jazz until recently. I grew up with old tapes of Oscar Peterson who I adored and I knew my uncle was a pro jazz pianist, but he lives far away in Siberia and I had only met him a handful of times. S – so jazz came into my life rather abruptly and late, only when I started to compose instrumental music.
What are the benefits of playing solo?
I once played a competition as an oboist and one of the pieces was written for a solo oboe (no piano, no accompaniment). This is not a usual experience for the oboists, and I was so stressed that I had to take a “magic pill” (a very strong tranquilizer) to soothe my trembling knees. I blacked out after the show; funny enough I won that competition, but I had no recollection of whatever was happening on stage while I played… Creepy isn’t it…For a pianist playing solo is an everyday chore. Piano is a polyphonic instrument. You basically have an orchestra at the tip of your fingers. But this is exactly why there are so many pianists in the world yet very few good ones.
I think the main benefit of playing solo is that you own the show. You have the undivided attention of the audience, and it is totally up to you to steer the emotional environment of the concert. The feedback during the performance is the greatest and the most coveted drug musicians get addicted to.
With great benefits comes great responsibility, so a solo performance, especially in the classics, is a very stressful experience, apart from touring instrumentalists who play hundreds of gigs per year and feel very comfortable on stage. Yet even they still stress out every time delivering a solo performance.
What types of ensembles do you prefer to play in, smaller or larger (bands or orchestras)?
When I was 17 years old, I formed a woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn) with the friends of mine. This band was one of the greatest experiences in my life. We played a lot of concerts in St. Petersburg and then we were invited to join a way larger group of musicians in Portugal for 6 months to work at the World Expo in 1998. This turned out to be an eye-opening cultural and musical experience.
While I can’t say I have a strong preference to playing with any certain number of people, for me the easiest, the most practical, and the most stress-free group of musicians is 3 to 5 people. A quartet, a quintet or a trio – easy to communicate, straightforward to agree on musical nuance, no major issues in collaboration, scheduling, recording. Lots of fun on stage, beautiful repertoire available for any configuration, and importantly – chances are your stage partners can be your close friend, making it even more enjoyable.
Orchestra? When you’re in a symphony orchestra, you are feeling like you are a part of a huge musical machine which delivers waves of sound, and it gets quite physical when you start feeling as if you were a part of this immense, unfathomable soundscape. Absolutely smashing experience, emotionally speaking.
How did you capture the way Paris sounds at night?
Once I was stranded in Paris with a friend of mine (we were 19) for a couple of days with no money at all – the only several francs we had left we needed to keep in order to buy a bus ticket to get to the airport on the last day. At some point we wanted to go to the Triumph Arc and decided to use the metro without buying a ticket. We were then caught by the police and had to give all our remaining money away as a fine. We had a guitar with us though; a couple of hours at Place Pompidou singing some Beatles songs and we were good to travel to the airport by taxi the next day.
I have been to Paris something like 15 or 20 times in my life, traveling for work, touring, or just for leisure, so I do know this city pretty well, and I love it wholeheartedly.
The one thing that I was keen on capturing in “La Promenade in Paris in the Moonlight” was the mood Woody Allen created in “Midnight in Paris” movie – a fantasy masterpiece that is, to me, the ultimate manifest of Paris’ spirit. I totally loved the movie, I watched it quite a few times and was so inspired by the feeling of the film (not as much by the plot) that I wanted to recreate it musically.
Fun fact: I often struggle with the titles of the music I compose, and my compositions often change names so “La Promenade in Paris in the Moonlight” had 2 or 3 other titles (one of them was “Aperol-Spritz”) before I came up with the current one. I believe that naming the music is an art in itself and in my creative process it takes a huge amount of thinking and time.
You are working on the “sunshine” side of this project for release in January. How have you put yourself in a different mindset to compose for that?
As “La Promenade in Paris” is the 3rd release that follows this logic of moonlight and sunshine, I have already developed a pattern that helps me come up with the sunshine side of a piece.
The “Moonlight & Sunshine” album has an unconventional structure for the modern classic genre: every next release features 2 different versions of one motif, coming to life as a piano solo piece, interpreting a narrative in the moonlight – a nocturnal perspective, and a fully arranged piece, revealing the same story under the sunshine – a diurnal view.
The album is evolving live on Spotify thereby gradually forming the full album as new pairs of tracks are released. The completion of the album “Moonlight and Sunshine” will take yet another several months. I started releasing on the 14th of July and will be done in May 2021.
This is how it works: I compose a piano piece and record it; then I come back to it and tear it apart, keeping a rhythm pattern here, a melody line there, generally leaving the main motif intact and then building some variations from it. It becomes a fully arranged instrumental work and the arrangements styles vary from one piece to another. Quite an eclectic way of doing things. To date I have released two pairs of moonlight-sunshine tunes: “Declaration of Love” and “Lullaby”.
“La Promenade in Paris in the Moonlight” will be released on 11th of December and its Sunshine version is due to see the world mid-January next year. Actually the music is already composed and recorded – and it is very sunny, merry, and funny. We are featuring a live chamber orchestra and brass band, piano, percussion and synths. My team is now putting in the final mastering touches preparing “La Promenade in Paris in the Sunshine” for release.
Why are you inspired by the natural world – colors, seasons and places?
When I was a kid, I lived in the USSR. In the 80s USSR was an okay place to live, no major drawbacks or concerns – at least for our family, as we were not dissidents or anything.
But everything seemed to be colored either grey, or black, or pale/faded colors at best: clothes, faces, buildings, weather, even movies and animated cartoons.
And then at the age of 10 I traveled abroad for the first time; it was a tour to the Western Germany. I will never forget the color shock I had when we came there. Remember all these fluorescent, eye-tearing colors popular in the early 90s? I am still attracted to them … you should see my fitness gear, I am like a 10-year-old girl wearing pink, bright green and lemon yellow.
What I became obsessed with lately is rather the diversity of the world we live in. My strongest belief and mindset are that the world we live in is much more than just a black-and-white, yes-or-no kind of a planet – and hence I am painting a picture of a multicolored universe with my music.
I love nuance and detail (in music, but also overall in life) as I think it opens up a whole microcosm of emotions, feelings, and even stories.
Talk about some of your earlier CDs and how have you developed as a musician since then.
I had never written instrumental music nor been too excited about it. All this changed when in 2018 I bought a new piece of an audio gear (a proper soundcard) that allowed me to plug my keyboard into my computer appropriately.
By that time, I had written about 400-500 songs but in 2018 I switched to writing instrumentals because I got excited about telling the stories without words, only with music, only with piano – and since then I never returned back to writing songs.
I recorded and released “RefleXions,” an album of 10 tunes, piano-led, arranged across many styles (jazz, hip-hop, rock, trap), a very exiting journey into the musical story telling. For example, there is a piece about a puppet who fell in love with a real girl – “Puppet world”; or there is a piece about a boy who is learning a new music on piano – “The Bach”, and there is a fantasy about a drugged pianist who is hallucinating – “Pianist’s dream”, etc. It was the first full album of mine, released last year in March.
Then I took my chance and went on a daring attempt to capture the whole life cycle through the “Four Seasons”, which let me explore way more genres and more interesting arrangement options and instruments: Summer features a balalaika to paint a carefree, light-hearted atmosphere of a sunny summer morning; Autumn is pumped with a church organ boosting this eerie, solemn yet very beautiful feeling of nature slowly dying under the red and yellow cover of leaves…
Overall, I believe (and hope!) I am learning and improving as a composer as I compose more. I explore unusual harmonic diversions (influenced by jazz, Stravinsky and Prokofiev). I also explore melody storytelling.
If we have only one life indeed, I doubt I will complete this journey!
What are your musical goals?
I must stay too honest here: I do not really have any specific goals. I am exploring a path and this path leads me to places I never imagined discovering.
I want to keep composing music that people can relate to, on one hand, yet on another hand, I need to keep composing in order to pour myself out, regardless of anyone’s reaction or liking.
I will stay honest to my beliefs and values in music. The honesty is a very undervalued, financially speaking, element of music, but honesty is the one single most important thing one needs to keep while composing.
When do you think you will start performing live again? What to do until that time?
My last performance was in January this year, right before the lockdowns started taking place. We had a splendid late Christmas celebration with a big band of singers from around Europe.
My next live performance? Actually, it is pretty soon, mid-December (the date yet to be decided, either 16th of 17th) I will play several pieces of mine during an online Facebook event, organized by my label, PA74 Music, called “concerti dal divano” (concerts on a sofa). Looking forward to this event, really, as I have been missing playing live and I hope that the live feed on Facebook can replace (at least partially) all the joy, adrenaline, and connection to the listeners.
Between that? Composing, creating more good music and learning more and more…
I am super blessed to be working with a fantastic Dutch sound producer, Wouter Kronenberg, who tirelessly helps me bring my music ideas to life; I do not think I would have ever achieved this level of proficiency had I not met this guy; so many thanks to Wouter!
And I also have a very good friend of mine, a very talented artist and pianist – Natalia Osenchakova – who has kindly allowed me to use her beautiful paintings for my CD. She is simply the best.
For more information visit www.funkypianoplay.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission from the artist.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke