Ludovico Einaudi: The man behind the most popular classical works in a generation

Recent years have seen him cross over to mainstream success with greater effect than any similar artist in decades

"For my fingers they had me play and then stop only for five minutes because it was just too cold to go on," says the pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi. He is talking about playing a piano on an Arctic ice-floe, a performance that was part of a Greenpeace campaign.

“I had many thermal layers I’d taken from home in Italy. I wear one of them in the winter but I had four or five and then on top of that, they gave me a total covering sheet that went all over my body, arms included. On top of all that, I was wearing my concert jacket. ” At least appearances were preserved.

In conversation, Einaudi is soft-spoken and understated, and usually in immaculate tailoring and designer specs. Taken together with his bald pate and white tufts, he's like a cross between Larry David and the kind of charming industrialist James Bond might find running an international crime syndicate from his six-storey Monte Carlo yacht.

Even if you’re not familiar with the name – Ludo, to his friends – you’ve likely heard his work. His daintily sparse piano compositions have become the most popular classical works in a generation, and have been used on enough ads and film scores to enter the popular consciousness entirely subliminally.

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Apart from that, Einaudi is famous enough in his own right that he needn't rely on the incidental fame of soundtrack ubiquity. In fact, he comes to Dublin on July 15th following a huge run of sold-out dates, including five consecutive nights in London's Royal Festival Hall. A darling of the contemporary classical scene, the past few years have seen Einaudi cross over to mainstream success with greater effect than any similar artist in decades. His last album, Elements, placed higher in the UK charts than any classical album since the mid-1990s.

He adopts a mildly embarrassed air when asked to reflect on it. “I don’t know exactly the reason,” he says, after a bashful pause. “Every time I’m asked, I always say maybe it’s because my own musical taste is rooted in different worlds.

“I have always lived with different music; listening to classical at the same time as I have listened to rock and pop or folk music. Taken altogether, these different languages started to create my own musical background, to form my musical vocabulary. And that aspect of my music, that it is connected with folk and popular music, perhaps that is what makes it more accessible.”

So does he still listen to such an eclectic range of modern music? “I was just discussing this with a young friend the other day – it’s an interesting moment right now. The mastery of the form in playing music, the sheer quality of production on offer, is very high in general, but at the same time there’s a bit less in terms of strong, deep inspiration.

“There are a lot of very technically gifted musicians, great recordings and performing artists, but I miss something in inspiration right now. Even though there are great bands I love to listen to.”

Having previously cited Portishead, Radiohead and even Eminem as touchstone inspiration for his work, who's doing the same for him at the moment? "The one band that I really love are called Alt-J. I also love to listen to James Blake – in general I find that I have to search hard these days. Certainly, more than 10 or 15 years ago when it seemed there were more bands I liked in that way."

Perhaps, it’s the case that the sheer quantity of music on offer makes it hard to find those standout moments these days? “Yes, I think so, and it’s strange because, everywhere you go, it’s possible to hear fantastic performances. Everywhere. Maybe it is true that the quantity itself is overwhelming. It’s almost difficult to stay on one artist and get inspired, because you jump from one to another to another and, for me, there’s a strange type of anxiety which sets in when you have this much music.”

His own live shows reflect something of that broad palette. Anchored with his trademark piano pieces – plaintive, strolling melodies that run the gamut from bittersweet melancholy to proggy bombast – he also showcases a wider array of differing elements less common to those more famous works.

“I’m coming to Ireland with my whole group. We have six people on stage. The range of music can go from meditative and intimate to parts where we get to those bigger, more dynamic crescendos.”

Einaudi has also scored nearly 30 projects since the late 1980s. Most notable among these are the scores to Shane Meadows' heartbreaking This Is England films and TV shows. "For This Is England, I recorded the music in my studio in Milan. I was in touch with Shane who was in the editing room, trying a lot of different solutions, because there was one scene especially that was long and difficult to plan. I sent him a lot of ideas and it was a very open moment of creation between us and after all the work there was finally a moment where he just loved the music. It was a really nice way to collaborate."

As we wrap up, he leaves me with one last visual from his Arctic experience which particularly stuck with him, as he looked out across the frozen landscape. “It was incredible,” he says, “like playing in a theatre for the gods. I had never seen such a beautiful and astonishing environment, with nothing around for miles - but there was a single beautiful little seal popping out from the water – and there and then, she was the only listener that I had alive.”

Ludovico Einaudi plays Dublin’s 3Arena on July 15th