‘There is still much good music to be written in C Major’. Arnold Schoenberg’s comment is often invoked in opposition to certain tonal composers of the 20th century.
And so it is again.
My issue with the popular music of Ludovico Einaudi in particular is not that it isn’t necessarily ‘good’. It is idiomatic. It is often succinct. It is atmospheric. It says exactly what it means to (if, indeed, it actually ‘says’ anything at all). It is adequate.
Nevertheless, it is cynically-written. Each piece, each album is written like a prescription. One can imagine him sitting with his accountant, checklist in hand: “Yes, here’s the mysterious bit, the reflective bit, the passionate bit (not too much, mind, did you notice how I cut it short before it got too out-of-hand?), the lyrical bit, the rhythmic bit. Yes, perhaps I ought to add a few more pauses to this one – do I have any more left that I haven’t used yet? That chord progression could do with a suspension at the end.” The harmonies – even those edgier ones (the odd augmented chord, perhaps) – are tempered to be soporific and inoffensive. The titles usually allude to something, but are vague enough that the compositions needn’t be bound by them. Le Onde, ‘The Waves’ is an example. In other composers’ hands, ambiguity is a positive pursuit: flirting with, but not settling on alternative musical or extra-musical possibilities. To Einaudi, it is just another means by which his music can be anything to anybody: it can as much mean nothing as it can mean something. And this is not a positive attribute. I can very well imagine that there are people who reject certain works of art for its meaninglessness, but who laud Einaudi’s music for the very same reason. His music is like an inspirational poster, one which lifts the spirits, but whose message is evasive and with little substance. And I need not provide examples of other, indeed better, compositions and performances in which intent is key; everybody has their own personal reference points.
This brings me to my second and main point: his music is dull. Peter Robinson coined the term ‘New Boring’ in 2011, referring to that year’s Brit Awards, and I feel this term encompasses Einaudi’s own popular output. A case in point: I normally have to pause the radio or a CD part-way through writing if it is interesting to the point of distraction. And yet whilst writing this I have listened to the entire Una Mattina album without diversion, indeed not even noticing that it had finished. For some, studying and working, this is of course fit-for-purpose, but if the implicit assessment becomes ‘it is just what I needed – I completely stopped listening for most of it’, it is hardly a positive spin.
If and when students mention that they want to learn Einaudi, I don’t discourage it. Indeed, it can be useful on such issues as pedalling, balance, voicing, tone, rubato, character and the variety of such approaches that repetition necessitates. In addition, by virtue of style, the pieces often sound more difficult and impressive than they really are, offering a boost of confidence to any pianist. Indeed, since every pianist faces at various points the reality that much technically and cognitively-challenging music does not often sound as such, it is a pleasant reward to find pieces where the inverse is the case. So from a didactic point-of-view, his piano music can be a gateway drug to more substantial and challenging pieces. Nevertheless, this is a double-edged compliment, since I suspect Einaudi’s accessibility under the fingers is as purposeful and cynical as his style is to the ears, bearing out a parallel comment by Mark Kermode that the creators of family movies are invariably far more unpleasant in real life than those who make horror movies.
It would be churlish to resent Einaudi’s popularity and success: he has found a style that works for him and those who enjoy his music. It would be foolish not to take notice or advantage of an approach that works. But it has been 20 years this year since the release of his breakthrough album, Le Onde, and in that time his music hasn’t changed all that much. And this is where I begin to suspect that he holds more regard for his pension than for his audience. Musicians can change whilst retaining a core sense of their style. Bowie, Beethoven, Goldfrapp, Stravinsky, C.P.E. Bach, Pink, Britten, Glass, Lady Gaga, Haydn, Rodney-Bennett, Queen, Tippett, [add your own choices here] and Berg are a handful of musicians who changed their style over time or dabbled in other possibilities. This may lose you an audience, but then again you may recover this loss elsewhere. That said, it’s important not to underestimate the loyalty of an audience once their enjoyment has been captured: many will tolerate a whole host of misfires, particularly today among recorded performances which are of course very cheap, if not free, to listen to before purchasing. I can name many performers and composers whom I would forgive endlessly on the grounds of one performance, one CD, or even one piece. I’m sure you can, too.
Einaudi has of course added to his familiar sound-world with the use of electronics (take the album Divenire), dressing the same notes in new, synthetic clothing. This is all very well, but it is not that dissimilar to Nestlé’s rebranding of Shreddies cereal as ‘Diamond Shreddies’. On the point of Einaudi and electronics I refer you to Bill Bailey’s ‘catastrophic failure at a U2 gig’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8dZwXnMrRU
Music that is all-surface – Ben and Jerry’s for the ears – is not inherently bad. Indeed, it can be brilliant and not without value. But when we assert that there is more to such music beyond its auditory pleasure, we do our intelligence a great disservice.
Postscript: There is hope. I recently heard a pianist playing on a brightly-painted upright piano on Cardiff’s Queen Street who gave a very upbeat rendition of I Giorni. No sustaining pedal, heavily accented, non-legato articulation and with an adjusted left hand accompaniment that met with – and emphasised – the offbeat figurations in the right hand. The effect was a pleasant shot of Joplin into the piece.
 It needn’t be, of course. I would encourage anyone to try Einaudi’s 1988 album Time Out as a comparison. It has a touch of Michael Nyman about it, though the sound-world is certainly dated. Salgari from 1995 isn’t too bad, either.
 See http://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/oct/08/adele-new-boring-ed-sheeran. And whilst I actually rather like Adele’s music, I nevertheless feel that Robinson’s term is entirely (if not more) appropriate in relation to Einaudi’s popular output.