IT and art in one life
ReadSquare, 7 April 2016
Mikhail Dubov is a software engineer and an amateur pianist. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering from Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow and is currently a Master’s student at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée in France. He has worked as a software engineer at such companies as Google, Mirantis and Empatika.
As a classical pianist, Mikhail Dubov is a top-prize winner of various international competitions, including the prestigious Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Paris. He frequently gives solo recitals and performs diverse chamber music programs with both amateur and professional musicians.
We asked Mikhail a few questions about how he combines IT and art in his life.
RS.: How is it possible to succeed in two opposite areas: science and art?
M.D.: It is quite natural that I became passionate about both IT and music in my early years: my father is a musician, while my mother is an IT journalist. I feel lucky to be able to do two things in my life, as I am a kind of a person for whom devoting all the time to a single job is a bit too boring. This was actually one of the reasons why I dropped my career as a musician: you really have to use all your time to practice and give concerts to become a professional pianist with a vast repertoire. But this is also exactly the reason why I still devote a significant amount of my spare time to music: switching to something different gives my mind the rest it needs.
RS.: Are there any parallels between science and music?
M.D.: I indeed have a strong feeling that music is not that far from informatics. In fact, I would even argue that it helps me in doing my job: it often seems to me that music and mathematics stimulate similar areas of my brain! For example, I have noticed that I perceive many algorithms from classical computer science as beautiful pieces of art – their elegancy plays upon my aesthetic sensitivity more than just their formal definition. I would probably never be so passionate about computer science if there were not so much beauty in it!
Another parallel I see is that with software engineering. At some point in time, I realized that the so-called "sense of form" is as important in software design as it is in playing piano sonatas. Again, it is my aesthetic feelings that helped me many times in doing my job well as a software engineer.
Being a concert pianist teaches you many other qualities you would need in your corporate life: public piano performances contribute to your ability to keep calm in stressful situations, while learning a technically challenging piece requires a lot of concentration and perseverance.
RS.: The other way around, can scientific activities somehow contribute to how people make music?
M.D.: Absolutely! Mathematical thinking can also bring very much to the art. A nice example from the history of music is that of Sergei Taneyev, a Russian XIX century composer. Taneyev was an outstanding personality who had a great scientific mind but devoted his whole life to the art. His approach to music was revolutionary for his time: he considered pieces of music as purely combinatorial objects. Throughout his life, he tried to make a scientific investigation of the laws of musical beauty, and he was quite successful in this striving! For me, Taneyev is one of the few composers whose music evokes truly deep emotions in me.
So I can say that the mathematical background I have both helps me understand Taneyev’s works better and also influences to some extent my interpretations of his music. This is basically true for many other composers I perform. The thing is that producing a good interpretation requires not only a deep emotional understanding but also a careful analysis of the piece you play. That is why having a scientifically shaped mind is of a great help.
RS.: You are quite active as a chamber musician. What attracts you in ensemble playing?
M.D.: Yo-Yo Ma, a famous Chinese cellist, once said that chamber music is “the most intimate form of communication between people”. This is indeed a very exciting thing: you must have a keen understanding of co-performer empathy to be able to make music together. This is again something that is important not only in music but also in everyday life! And just like in the real life, the most fruitful partnerships in music are long-term collaborations. After playing together for several years, you start knowing each other so well that music making becomes much more inspired. This is something I enjoy in a piano duo that I form with Polina Rendak, another HSE alumna.
Performing chamber music also gives you an opportunity to learn from other musicians. In this regard, one of the most exciting partnerships for me has always been that with my father, violist Sergei Dubov – not just because he is my father, but because he is indeed a top-level musician and one of the best violists of his generation, who knows how to make complicated things simple.
RS.: Is there enough interest in amateur musicians these days? What about classical music in general?
M.D.: The community of amateurs has been growing rapidly in recent decades. There are new competitions and festivals appearing all the time, and the audience indeed shows a lot of interest in these events. For example, the Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Paris attracts more than 1000 listeners every year, and they are usually quite enthusiastic as contestants demonstrate a really high level of piano performance. A lot has been done to support the interest in music at the universities. I was lucky to be a member of the HSE piano class and to take lessons from Olga Potekhina, a wonderful pianist who also taught at the Moscow State University. These days, there is a student classical music association that unites music lovers from different regions of Russia.
As for the classical music in general, I have an impression that the interest to it is growing these days as never before, despite many people claiming the converse. The fact is that classical music has now become widely and freely accessible through the internet. I know many stories of people who would never buy a CD with classical music but occasionally encountered, say, a Bruckner symphony on YouTube and became huge fans! Something like this was never possible before.
RS.: What are some particularly interesting features of amateur music making?
M.D.: I would say that amateur musicians tend to be more free of stereotypes, which often leads to quite unconventional and interesting performances. Many amateurs also love bringing to the stage some extremely rarely played composers whose works usually do not appear in the concert programs of professionals. For example, Dmitry Lyusin, a research fellow at the Psychology Department of HSE, has recently rediscovered the piano music by Abram Zhak, a totally forgotten composer who was also a pianist at the Bolshoi Theater. Later this season, I am going to perform a very rare piano sonata by Nikolai Golovanov, the former chief conductor of the same theater.
One should also keep in mind that the boundary between amateurs and professional musicians can be quite elusive sometimes. For example, Alexander Borodin, the famous Russian composer, made an outstanding career in chemistry and was technically an amateur! Mark Taimanov was torn between music and chess all his life and became both a grandmaster and a renowned concert pianist. These days, we can see many more examples of people who are able to maintain two careers at the same time. I find this truly exciting!