Eliza McCarthy embraces the now: interview with Xenia Pestova

Eliza McCarthy is a versatile pianist specialising in contemporary repertoire with a warm and honest “no-nonsense” presence in concert. Her commitment to the music she plays becomes manifest in her approach to the instrument, and her experience in studying and teaching mindfulness undoubtedly contributes to her aura of calm confidence. Eliza stepped in to perform with Kathleen Supové and myself in Arlene Sierra’s “Urban Birds” for two pianos and Disklavier in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for first PRSF New Music Biennial, when I got to experience her skillful and sensitive ensemble playing.


XP: You are an experienced soloist as well as a collaborative musician. I wonder if you can tell us more about your current work with ensembles: what are the challenges and joys?

EM: Making music with people is a complete joy. I’m lucky enough to play in ensembles with people I adore and who are also demanding of me. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve been given is “always play with people who are better than you”. In the ensembles I play with I’ve found a place where I’m simultaneously challenged and feel like I have something to offer.


XP: I am aware of your interest in mindfulness, which is something you teach, and I wonder how it informs your own creative work:

Is this something that we can all benefit from as creative performers and composers?

EM: Both of my parents have been students of Zen Buddhism since the mid 90s so I’ve been practicing meditation on and off since I was around 10. It’s only been in the last 7 years that I’ve deliberately incorporated the practices in my life. What I cultivate and discover in my meditation practice supports awareness of my life. For me, it’s about being with, noticing, holding, savoring and responding to my experiences; whether it’s performing on a stage on my own, hot boxing in a studio with others, being exasperated by people on the tube, walking up a mountain, making love with my husband or condemning people who put clothing on dogs. I endeavor to be fully there for all of it.

‘Mindfulness’ has become a buzzword. There’s everything from mindfulness diets to mindful dog training. And as my dad says “Soon there’ll be a mindfulness f***ing Kleenex.” Essentially mindfulness is about remembering to bring attention to the experience of what is happening NOW. Musicians have that. We have been trained to do that from an early age so in a way, that focus of attention is ingrained in us.

When I teach mindfulness to artists and performers I try and introduce ways of placing that attention to every other aspect of life. The root from which musicianship stems is listening, and mindfulness practice cultivates that; listening with every sense and embodying openness. But meditation in this form isn’t for everyone. By embracing our lives we have to face the difficulty. Facing fear and engaging with anxiety doesn’t feel good. So I say yes, if you have the energy, you’ll benefit from it but for some it’s too bare. And that’s also OK.


XP: What are your thoughts on the idea of “balance”: balance in the working relationships and communication between performers and composers / other musicians, balance in terms of taking care of oneself on tour and taking on new projects, balance in terms of work / life?

EM: To me balance means knowing what’s right in any given situation. Sometimes it’s a week filled with 12 hour rehearsals, muscle pain, furrowed eyebrows, socializing, going to every gig in town, staying up all night with friends and wine, pontificating. And sometimes it’s being a hermit, drinking herbal tea, shedding, standing still, reading, listening to music, taking a month-long road trip to see another world. Sometimes they work in tandem and sometimes not. But I’ve realized that to be joyful is not to worry so much because polarity can be nourishing. As a daily habit thought, no matter where I am or what I’m doing I do three things: I move my body, engage with music and sit still.


XP: What are some of the current / future projects that you’d like to share with us?

EM: At this very moment I’m in Dublin rehearsing and recording for Crash Ensemble’s 20th anniversary celebrations. They’ve commissioned 20 new pieces from wonderful people such as Ed Bennett, Linda Buckley, Tansy Davies, Donnacha Dennehy, Andrew Hamilton and David Lang. We’re performing the whole set on the 24th and 25th of November after an awesome summer tour across Ireland’s most remote and beautiful places.

The forecast for next year includes: a springtime album release of pieces for solo piano written for me by Mica Levi. I’ll be going on tour with Decibel around the same time and launching a record we made of music by Ed Bennett. In April I’ll be joining Rolf Hind for ‘Occupy the Pianos’ festival at St John’s Smith Square. On June 7th I’ll be playing Reich’s ‘Four Organs’ at St Paul’s Cathedral with James McVinnie and Nico Muhly.

I’ve recently been dipping my toe into the writing pool. At the moment I’m working with a great friend on a piece for piano and electronics, which will be available for ears in the New Year. There are lots of things in the works that I’m very excited about!