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Pekka Kuusisto and The Reddress

Photo courtesy of Pierre Boulez Saal

 

When someone asks me to tell them who Pekka is and what he does I find it pretty difficult to answer in any coherent way!  I can tell you that Pekka Kuusisto is a violinist from Finland, that he can play ANYTHING in an astoundingly beautiful way but that he can also create new sounds that one has never heard before.  Pekka crosses boundaries, challenges you to consider life and music in new ways, to listen with new ears and seek out new meanings and ideas.  Whether he is playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, old Scandinavian Folk tunes or even just improvising on the spot, there is an artistry in his work and a special humbleness in his character that creates something truly magical and utterly unique.

I have to admit that Pekka has been a hero of mine for many years (maybe then, this post is a little biased…!).  Throughout my student years, I was that annoying violin pupil that sat in my room for hours, watching and re-watching videos of him playing any repertoire that I was working on, making notes about every small idea or movement that he would make and trying to copy and implement it into my own playing (God, this is embarrassing). When I got to meet and work with him on Beethoven’s Op. 127 String Quartet a couple of years ago, it was a DREAM and I still feel inspired by that experience!   Pekka treated my colleagues and I as equal musicians, listened eagerly to our ideas, cared about us and our group like it was honestly as important to him as it was to us, worked with us for hours and hours after the schedule ‘told’ us to finish and then continued to sight-read Haydn Quartets with us late into the nights, ate ice-cream with us and made us laugh.  It was such a joy to realise that this violinist whom I SO admired, was also such a nice, friendly and beautiful person, and as a result I am now able to call him my friend.

Unforgettable days working on Beethoven Op. 127 and having so much fun! With Hannah Nicholas (Viola), Carlyn Kessler (Cello) and Pekka Kuusisto (Violin)

 

Alright, I think I’m doing OK so far, I think you get who Pekka is – great violinist, great person.  Now let me try to explain the Reddress.

I first heard about the Reddress during those 2 weeks of working on Beethoven with Pekka, when he told me all about its concept and design.  Very literally, the Reddress is like one huge organism; in the centre and high up on a podium is the nucleus of the dress, where the performer stands and commands, and throughout the body and folds of the dress, which take up the entire auditorium, are little pockets (200 in all) where members of the audience nestle in and become part of it.  The dress was designed by artist, Aamu Song, who questioned the traditional concert set up of a musician on stage in relation to their audience, who are usually so far away from them and sitting in de-humanising rows of seats.  She wanted to invent a new way of connecting musician and audience, make them all part of one event and overcome physical separation and distance.  And this is exactly what the Reddress does.

Song originally envisioned the Reddress for a female performer, and you might be wondering what it’s like to see a male artist, such as Pekka, at the centre of such a dress.  Well, when  Song first saw Pekka playing in the dress, she found that he kind of became part of it, that the dress was gender-neutral and that the whole experience was about so much more than just the dress – it became about the power of music and connection in performance.

In the miraculous and  incredible way that life sometimes works, I was lucky enough to get the chance to see Pekka perform in the Reddress at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin.  It was one of those pinch me moments – I somehow got a very last-minute ticket, jumped on a train from Hannover and just went for it, because I knew I might not get the chance again.  When I arrived at the hall, dry ice and atmospheric electronic sounds greeted me in the foyer and all the way up the stairs and into the main auditorium.  I heard other audience members gasping as they also arrived at the hall, asking ‘What’s going on here?!‘.  Because it was such a spontaneous decision to go to the concert, I sadly hadn’t managed to get a ticket for one of the pockets of the dress, which meant that I was sitting on the balcony and viewing from above.  But actually I found this to have some advantages – I could see the whole thing in action at once and, because of the magnitude and height of the dress, I still very much felt involved.

When the music died away and the lights dropped, Pekka walked out into the room, whistling and making sounds with his voice into a microphone, as he walked between the people in the pockets of the dress.  When it came time to get into the dress, a woman helped him up into it, zipping him in and Aamu Song passed his violin up to him from her own spot in the dress.  Pekka began to play folk music, alternating between deep and moving sounds, upbeat dance movements, cold and shuddering harmonics and improvised ideas.  He played each tune in many different fragments, which were then electronically looped, on top of which he added the new fragment, creating a really rich tapestry of music.  Sometimes the looping stopped and he took the mic off his violin, letting himself play alone, just a sweet violin playing a simple Finnish folk tune in a red dress.  The Reddress also had the capacity for 360 degree rotation, and this gave Pekka the freedom to constantly move as he wanted; he played to every single person in that room, constantly switching his direction, moving left to right and vice versa, up and down, sometimes bending right down to the ground, other times reaching as far up as he could, and I felt that he was always trying to establish a connection with everybody that was present.

When he came to the end of the performance, the ritual of exiting the dress began; the violin was passed back down to Song, the woman who had helped him into the dress unlocked him from it and he climbed back down into the folds of the audience.  The concert ended with Pekka walking again among the body of the dress and the live bodies inside it, playing the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin, adding his own ornaments and decoration in his typical ‘Pekka’ style and silently leaving the auditorium and Reddress behind.

I found it really interesting to watch the emotional reactions of the people who were inside the dress.  There were those who sat up, wanting to be actively a part of the event, those who were tapping their hands along to the beat of the tunes, couples who shared the experience together, children who were fascinated by everything, and even those who were probably asleep.  The Reddress gave this audience total freedom to be who they wanted to be during this performance, and they in turn made up part of the performance itself.

Like me, you might be bursting with questions about the physical logistics of the dress.  How is it maintained?  How do they pack it up and transport it?  What is it made of?  When I first laid my eyes on the Reddress, I was immediately struck by the sharpness of its colour and by how perfect it looked.  The majesty and passion of the red colour that was totally unblemished was extremely powerful.  I was so interested to read about the cleaning process of the dress, which is of utmost importance to Aamu Song, who insists on this for each and every performance.  Apparently the dress, which is made of wool, felt and satin,  is vacuumed and frozen at -20 degrees, and it takes several people to set up and lay out!  Once you see the vast size and sheer volume of the dress, you can only imagine how much work this takes.

Song and Pekka have both remarked on the addictive quality of the Reddress;  Pekka commented that he now misses that same connection to the audience in any normal concert and that the Reddress is his absolute favourite performance platform.  And I can also say, as a member of the audience, that I will definitely miss feeling so much part of a performance as I did on that night.  Both as an audience member, watching concerts from some distant little chair in the dark, and as an artist, performing from a stage which feels so lonely, just seems to make NO sense now!  It feels so unnatural and false.  Of course something like the Reddress is so huge and awesome that it would be practically impossible to bring it, or even something like it, to every performance.  But being part of the performance of the Reddress has really got me thinking about how we, both as musicians and as audiences, can work to make this connection something real and break down that silly boundary between us.  Should we be rethinking the design of the typical concert hall?  Should we reimagine our performance style altogether? Are the general public of audiences and of artists on board for this transformation?  Personally, I am hoping that the Reddress starts a revolution!

So, for now, that’s the best I can do – and I hope I did Pekka and the Reddress justice!

 

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A Few More Berlin Gems For A Lazy Day

It’s fair to say that I’ve written about Berlin at great length here on my blog.  It is truly a fascinating city, with SO much going on and so many different kinds of life being lived there – if you are curious to read more about my thoughts on the city and why I love it, please check out my post ‘5 Things I Love About Berlin’.  If you are heading to Berlin and are in need of some specific recommendations, I also wrote a trilogy of blog posts featuring my favourite ‘Restaurants’, ‘Drinks’, and ‘Attractions’ in the city, so feel free to explore those too!

The thing about Berlin is, every single time you go there, you uncover some new amazing place that you didn’t know about before!  The city is constantly evolving, new eateries, exhibitions and shops are springing up all the time and the city is so progressive, which is something that I love so much about it.  I recently had a free day to spend in Berlin, and I decided NOT to return to any of my old favourite haunts (where I would normally go), but instead chose to explore only new places that I hadn’t yet been to.  I found some real gems that you may not yet know about, as well as a couple of more well-trodden corners that you probably do, so I thought I would collect them all here in one post, for the next time you (or I!) might need some fresh suggestions for ways to spend a lazy free day in Berlin.

Bites To Eat

First off and most importantly: food.  Always a very difficult decision when in Berlin, because there is SO MUCH good food on pretty much every street.  I do have a couple of new recommendations for you though, and they are both incredible and must-gos.

For breakfast/brunch, I decided to try Commonground (a sister cafe to Silo, which I have also mentioned on my blog before and also an AMAZING brunch spot).  Commonground is a big open plan cafe – I happened to visit on a hot summers day, and they had all the front windows and doors wide open which was heavenly.  The food is ridiculously great; I had poached eggs on their unique Sironi bread, smashed avocado and salsa verde, and LOTS of bacon (by the way, there are also plenty of vegetarian and vegan options!).  The coffee is also spot on.  I would say Commonground is perfect if you have a group of people, the staff are all SO friendly and the vibes are just great!

The Commonground breakfast!

Brunch at Commonground pretty much kept me going all day, until about 9pm, which is when I decided to grab some dinner at Cocolo Ramen.  I chose this place because I fancied some ramen and all the reviews online claimed that this was the BEST ramen in Berlin, so my expectations were pretty high.  Things to know about Cocolo Ramen before you go there: they take no reservations, and it is a tiny and extremely popular restaurant, so you have to be prepared to queue out the door for anywhere up to an hour (at popular times).  I would suggest going later, maybe around 10 or 11pm, and not to go in big groups – as I was by myself I actually got seated ahead of a lot of people which was a plus.  I have to say though, the ramen is totally worth it – it is delicious.  The kitchen is right out front, and if you can manage to bag a seat at the bar, you can watch them cooking which is fun.  The menu is pretty small – you can basically choose from about 4 or 5 different ramens (and a few other things on the menu), ranging in price up to about  €10 – and their turnover is fast, so don’t take too long over your food!  But the atmosphere is fabulous and this place is a real little gem!

I got the pork broth – delicious!

Coffee

If you are like me, then coffee is an absolute priority, and just spending an hour in a cute coffee shop is the perfect plan for a sunny afternoon!  Berlin offers some really fantastic and locally owned independent coffee jaunts – they are all over the city so please never, ever, feel like you have to rely on Starbucks for your pick-me-up!  This time, I tried a new coffee place, Ben Rahim.  It is absolutely tiny, and totally hidden away – if you didn’t know about it, I don’t think you would ever find it!  You sort of have to find your way through an alley and then a courtyard and then another alley and then you might spot it.  If the weather is good they put little tables and benches outside, and as it is so tucked away, it feels very peaceful and lovely to enjoy your coffee outside. (But there is also some seating indoors for the cold days too.)  Ben Rahim specialises in Arabian coffee and tea, and you can definitely also get your own preferred style of coffee there too.  As it was such a hot day when I visited, I decided to try their iced latte, and I thought how they made it was genius; they make the espresso shots in ice cubes and freeze them, and then add them to milk when one is ordered.  As you drink it the ice-cube melts and the coffee gets stronger as it slowly dissolves into the milk, which I just loved.  It was a beautiful coffee and I would love to go back there and try their other blends too.

My iced-latte at Ben Rahim

Independent and Vintage Shopping

Of course, Berlin has a large (and slightly tedious) shopping district.  But if you are more into cute little boutiques and vintage shops then I have a few suggestions for you!  For clothes, I would definitely recommend checking out Paul’s Boutique.  It is a little hole-in-the-wall style shop, full of second-hand and vintage clothes for men and women.  They have lots of cool brands and vintage style garments, including a selection of Doc. Martens and Levis.  Even if you don’t find something you like, or you aren’t particularly looking for anything, it is really fun to just look around and see what you can find.  If you are looking for a larger selection of second-hand and vintage clothes, check out Humana – there are actually a few of these stores around the city, and they tend to be pretty big.  Humana offers a wide variety of clothes and ‘stuff’, for men and women, at a range of different prices, from €2 to €200, so again, it’s just fun to see what you can find.  I have had a lot of luck there was things like concert clothes, jeans, shirts… it’s a cool store!

If you are a bookworm looking for some great deals on second-hand books in Berlin, definitely head to St. Georges English Bookshop.  There is a huge selection of all kinds of books here, from floor to ceiling (literally), mainly in English but also in a few other languages too.  From novels to cookbooks, books on Hitler and the war, religion, kids books… it is definitely a little nook to get lost in for a while!  They also sell some new books at regular prices too, and if you are looking for something in particular and are going to be in Berlin for a while, they will happily order it for you.

Attractions

If you fancy spending an afternoon at a museum or an evening at a concert in Berlin, I’ve got you covered.  Berlin is FULL of artistic events going on all the time; every single day there are literally 1000s to choose from.  I wrote a blog post recently on my experience visiting the ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie (read it here!), and if you happen to be in Berlin until the 16th September 2018, definitely get yourself to that!  If not though, or if painting isn’t really up your street but you are interested in other mediums of art, Museum Island is a great place to start in Berlin.  It is a little island in the middle of the city, where all the big museums are located.  If you really want to throw yourself into art and culture you can purchase a day ticket which will allow you entry into all the museums in one day!  Otherwise, I can tell you that the Pergamon Museum (also mentioned previously on my blog!) which houses the Gates of Ishtar, amongst several other amazing things, is seriously awe-inspiring, incredible, mind-boggling and you HAVE to see it.  I mean, you get to actually see a whole Greek temple inside the museum.  It is awesome.

Alte Nationalgalerie, Museum Island, Berlin

If you are seeking a good concert to go to that is maybe a little removed from the mainstream concerts of the Philharmonie hall (which are nevertheless fantastic), check out the newest addition to Berlin’s concert hall scene, the Pierre Boulez Saal.  This hall, nicknamed the Oval Office of concert halls, is the result of a project initiated by Daniel Barenboim.  It is a smaller, more intimate chamber hall which is dedicated to hosting exciting and innovative concerts and music projects in Berlin, which don’t stay strictly true to old-fashioned style classical music concerts.  Keep an eye out for a blog post coming soon on the breath-taking concert that I was lucky enough to witness there when I visited (and which was the sole reason for this day that I got to spend in Berlin!).

Sneak peek of an upcoming post, telling you all about this unique and stunning concert that I saw at the Pierre Boulez Saal

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My Current ‘Technique Practice’ Regime

To write a blog post describing how I practice my violin technique on a day-to-day basis feels somewhat akin to that common teenagers’ nightmare, where one, suddenly and for no apparent reason, finds themselves stripped down to their underwear in front of their high school cafeteria.  The truth is that an open and honest conversation about technique practice amongst musicians, and even more so between musicians and the general public, is a pretty rare thing; we love talking about our exciting concerts and projects, not so much about our scales!  During student years, technique is generally a private matter between a teacher and their student and I am sure you would be hard-pressed to find a professional musician who will freely admit to what they have to do to stay technically fit on their instruments.

Why is this?!  Perhaps we, as musicians, secretly enjoy that the only image the public has of us is when we are at our absolute best – on stage, in performance.  Nobody has to see the daily slog, the painful 3rds and octaves exercises, endless scales and studies that drone on and on.  In a live performance, musicians can hide all of that work behind their music and make what they are doing look effortless… which seems wonderful, but it is only a tiny fraction of the whole story.

I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.  Playing an instrument is SO difficult – it simply cannot be done without learning a good technique and, even more importantly as you get older, maintaining and looking after that technique!  In this blog post, I am daring to expose myself and put out there what I do every day to keep my technique in shape.  I will set out my technique practice routine in the order that I do it, which is also my personal order of priority, according to how much time I have on any particular day.  I hope you might find it interesting, or that it may give you some ideas, and I also hope it will be a useful post for me to look back on, on those days where I don’t feel motivated to practice.  I also wanted to state that this routine is true as of now, this present moment, July 2018, and it does change up often, so perhaps I will make this post into a series and update it as it changes!

One last thing to mention before I dive in, is that I was about 13 years old when I really discovered scales and all the potential ways to practice them; as a teenager I spent about two hours a day practising scales, playing them in different rhythms, bowings, dynamics, tempi, double stops.  I actually enjoyed the structure and nitty-grittiness of this kind of practice and I have to say that the work I did on scales back then has saved my ass SO MANY times – in situations where I am sight-reading, where I have to learn a piece really quickly and just in general daily intonation practice.  So, if you have any doubts as to how worthwhile technique practice is, I can assure you, it is.  And the sooner you start, the better.

Step 1 – Warm up. Every day, come rain or shine.  Approx. 12 minutes

  • At the beginning of my practice, after tuning, I play a simple chromatic exercise, which I think originally came from a Ševčík exercise book, but I’ve been doing it for so long now that I can’t even remember.  It’s basically just a short series of chromatic scales, starting with 5 note scales, then octave scales, and finally two-octaves (in one bow) from bottom G up to C (extended 4th on E string). I use this exercise to warm up my fingers and get them used to the feeling of the strings at the start of every new day.  I might also do this exercise when warming up for a concert, or re-warming up for an afternoon rehearsal, especially if my hands are cold.
  • Next, I will play a slow scale (usually it’s just a 4 octave G major scale), one note per bow.  This exercise isn’t really for the left hand, but instead so I can concentrate on the feeling in my right arm, feeling the weight of it going into the string and using gravity to draw out the sound from the instrument.  I will also think about my bow changes and string crossings, focusing on making them as smooth as possible.  After repeating this maybe three or even four times, I will turn one note per bow into four, and then eight, sixteen, and lastly all the way up and all the way down, getting faster and faster.  I will repeat until I feel comfortable.

These two small exercises take about 12 minutes to complete. On days where I don’t have much time to practice, I will stop here and go straight into practising pieces.  This is also my typical private warm up before an orchestral or ensemble rehearsal, where I am able to arrive a few minutes early and prepare myself privately.

 

Step 2 – Flesch.  Brace yourself.  Approx. 55-60 minutes (split between two days)

Alright, now comes some real nasty technique stuff.  I like the Flesch system, although I am not absolutely devoted – I will sometimes change up fingerings and bowings as I need to, or jump around between exercises if I feel like it.  Basically, each day I will pick a new key (or continue from the previous day if I didn’t manage to complete a whole set) and just dive in.

  • First come the one string, one-octave scales and arpeggios
  • Followed by the full three-octave scale and arpeggios.

These take me about 10 minutes, so this is another potential place for me to stop if I have run out of time.  I do these regularly, basically every day.

  • Next come the scales in thirds and 6ths.

I usually do thirds and 6ths together, and they take me about 15-20 minutes (variable..!) and, again, this is another place to stop and move on.  I probably get to these about 5-6 days a week, and usually I stop here and complete the whole set the following day.

  • Up next are the scales in octaves, regular and fingered.

Altogether, the octaves take about 15 minutes – I try not to spend too long on fingered octaves because it gets painful and isn’t good to do too much of.  To be totally honest, I usually HAVE to stop here, even if I have started with the octaves on a new day!

  • If I can manage it, I’ll add on 10ths.
  • I can’t lie, I pretty much always leave out the harmonics and double stop harmonics… I know, it’s bad.  I’ll work on implementing them more often.

10ths and harmonics together would probably take about 15 minutes. Then, DONE.

 

Step 3 – An enjoyable etude. Approx. 30 mins.

For the last part of my daily technique practice, I will choose an etude to work on.  I try to pick etudes that are related to the repertoire I am playing, or a specific technical issue I want to improve.  For example, when I was working on Kreutzer Sonata recently, I had trouble with the opening chords, so I chose etudes like Kreutzer No. 37  (I know, ironic that I chose an etude by the violinist for whom the Sonata I was working on was written!), and Dont No. 9.  Generally, I love the Kreutzer etudes, the Rhode, Dont and to keep things interesting I switch up between these, or if I find a new unique exercise that I want to try out, or one gets recommended to me, I will add it into my practice at this point.

  • Practice etude slow and intentionally.
  • Focus on the technical issue at hand.
  • Finish by playing it like a beautiful piece of music.

I can spend about 30 mins per day on an etude, or more if it’s a new one and I am enjoying it! I would say, I get around to step 3 on about 5 days in a week of typical practice, but this is totally dependable on my schedule, if I am doing an orchestral project etc.

 

And that is usually where I leave it.  I probably spend about an hour and a quarter in total on my technique practice each day, and this feels about right according to the rest of my practice.  So, now I would LOVE to hear from you.  How do you structure your technique practice??  Are there any particular exercises or systems that you swear by? Please let me know!

 

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Introducing My New Project!

I am so excited and thrilled to share my plans for my new creative music project! I am about to embark on a month-long independent artistic residency at The Banff Centre, Canada, where I will be creating a unique and immersive performance of solo violin music by a wonderful composer, Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, as well as a recording which will be shared in the archives of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation and the Canadian Music Centre.

Please subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep updated with my video-diaries of this whole project!  I will be posting my video-diaries here on my blog too.

Read about the life of Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté in my blogpost

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Why The ‘You’re Too Young To Understand’ Argument Just Doesn’t Stand Up

I have recently encountered, in various different areas of my life, an argument being thrown around by the older generation towards my own age group, that says we are ‘too young’ to be getting  involved in serious political or social issues.  Perhaps it has been one of those things where, once you notice it happening once or twice, you start to see it all over the place.  Regardless, I find so much at fault with this mentality, so many important messages to be taken from it, that it sparked a blog post within me, so here we go!

To give some context, I thought I would talk about a couple of examples of when I have directly faced an argument like this.  The first happened a couple of weeks ago.  I have been planning a concert in London for a while now, with my newly formed, diverse and ‘cutting edge’ ensemble, Hauptstimmen.  The goal of this group of classical chamber musicians is to bring our music to a wider audience, to break down boundaries that we have experienced in our world of classical music and make it an all-inclusive art form, something that everyone can share in and take something away from.  We have organised a concert ourselves in London next week (see all the details here, please come!!), and the theme of our programme is ‘war, time and death’.  I know it sounds a little dark and depressing, but actually it is really fascinating; we are going to be performing unique music that is very rarely heard, including Gideon Klein’s string trio, which was the last piece he ever wrote, just two weeks before being deported to Auschwitz.  It isn’t just going to be a concert – it is going to be a real experience, with cool lighting, sound effects and stage design, where the audience will be encouraged to feel completely at ease with drinks and snacks and also totally engaged with our performance.  In short, this is an event that we have put a lot of thought and work into and one which we think will really create huge impact.

Now, in organising this concert, finding the right venue has obviously been extremely important – the space is paramount to the whole experience, and so it was something we knew we had to get right.  We were overjoyed to find The Red Hedgehog, a cool and intimate venue with easy access in London.  When our group leader met with the venue director, she seemed totally on board and supportive of all of our ideas, so everything looked bright for us.  Two weeks ago, we received an email from this same director and let’s just say that it completely contradicted everything that had been agreed on previously and everything we are striving to achieve.  Her overarching message to us was that we were far too young to be presenting a concert that placed war as its central theme.

My initial response to the email was anger, of course, followed by a real sense of sadness.  I felt so sad because, here is a group of young musicians who are trying to do something different and creative and combine their art with important world issues, only to be shot down by someone older and with more ‘power’.  Today, after having dwelled on it for a while, I feel so strongly the error in her way of thinking!  The fact is that war and death are very much part of our world, and unfortunately this is something that is becoming  more of a scary reality everyday.  To think that only people of a certain age should be talking about it is naive; I am in my twenties and part of a generation that will have to deal with the remnants of what is left post-Trump, or with whatever the future holds for North Korea, Syria, ISIS etc.  We are exactly the ones who need to be talking about it and understanding what is happening and why – we are the ones who can help the future.  As musicians, we have such a special way of sharing these ideas.  Through music, we can reach out to people and bring people together, we can talk about fears of war and death through our playing and use music to make it relevant to everyone, no matter their age.

The second example I wanted to mention was something that I saw on a social platform a few days ago.  A friend of mine had posted an article about veganism – a topic sure to fire anyone up, I know, and of course it did.  But the most offensive response to the article, in my opinion, was from someone from a slightly older generation who advised my friend that she was too young and shouldn’t be concerned with issues like veganism, rather she should just live her life and spend her time ‘dreaming’.  I am just so confused how anyone could suggest that talking about veganism is only for people of a certain age!  What is this age, exactly? Because I am definitely not looking forward to turning this mysterious age when suddenly the weight of the world will be on my shoulders.  And, as my friend pointed out in her reply, isn’t bringing up issues such as veganism on social media exactly what ‘dreaming’ is? Dreaming of a better world, dreaming of what the future could be.  I am not purporting to be an advocate of veganism or not – that is not the point here – only that I certainly think that anyone who wants to talk about veganism, or war, or death or any other huge political or social issue absolutely can and even that we, as young people, should!

And this ‘young’ thing… I mean, I’m 26! I am not exactly a spring chicken.  I have been old enough to vote for a long time, and I have definitely held strong political views for pretty much my whole life.  I am lucky enough to live in a society where I can freely express my views, so who is to tell me, or anyone else in my generation, that I shouldn’t because I am too young?!  In fact, in recent elections, basically all the ones where shit really started to go down, it has been shown that young people really do have a voice and really do know what they are voting for and the consequences of what they are voting for – it’s the older generations that have really screwed things up for us all.

Basically, I want to make it clear that, yes, I am young and yes, that absolutely means I will continue to use my voice and my art to share ideas and fears and issues that I believe in or that I believe are important.  I hope that if young people like me are also facing this ridiculous argument from our elders – that we are too young to be concerned with these important topics – that we can feel inspired to rise above and speak even more loudly.  Age doesn’t equal power, and with our youth comes a responsibility for the future, so let’s engage with each other NOW and make the world a better place.

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Summer at The Banff Centre

If there is one place in the world that could remind you about ‘the bigger picture’ in life, it’s the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.  And if there was ever a moment when this reminder was especially important, I think right now is it!  In this era of Trump, Brexit, racism, sexism, prejudice, social division and everything else, I find it all too easy to get lost, to forget what’s really meaningful and why it is that I do what I do.  However, having just spent a couple of weeks with some of the most interesting, creative and intelligent minds on the planet, in one of the most breathtaking-ly beautiful places on earth, I feel completely inspired and reinvigorated.  I have come away from my experience with bucket-loads of new ideas and a renewed drive to bring them forward into my work, and I can’t WAIT to start sharing them here on my blog!!

In case you didn’t know, the Banff Centre is an artists’ hub, a platform for creativity and imagination, a space to work and put your ideas and projects into action, and I think it must be the closest thing to paradise that there is!  It is like a campus where anyone who is interested in ‘creating’ can go – whether you are a musician, a dancer, a writer, a poet, a literary journalist, a photo journalist… And it provides all the facilities and resources that you could possibly imagine and more!  Something that I really loved about my experience there this summer was the connections and friendships made between the different disciplines; dancers became involved in contemporary music performances, journalists sat in on rehearsals and interviewed other artists, I got to work directly with composers and perform their music.  Sharing different perspectives in this way was so inspiring, and I feel like this is something that can be very difficult, if not absolutely impossible, to do in ‘normal’ day-to-day life.

Banff is full of wildlife!

It is said that your experience of something, however good or bad, is made by the people with whom you share it, and the people whom I got to meet and work with at Banff definitely made my time there incredibly special, in so many ways.   These are musicians who have all taken the paths and led their lives in directions that I dream of.  They are the risk-takers, the ones who take a chance on an idea, are never satisfied with something that isn’t great or isn’t what they believe in.  I have increasingly felt over the past few years, as I have come to the end of my ‘student’ days, that there is an expected or normal route that I should be taking, and that all of my colleagues around me are following.  And it has given me so much angst and grief because it is NOT what I want, which in turn has made me question my whole career choice and even my life decisions.  But being able to spend time with musicians who feel the same way I do has shown me that there is more out there, there are so many options and if you have a fire and if you believe in what you do, then you can make them happen.

But I don’t want to get all airy-fairy here!  It’s not all about ‘chasing your dreams’ and believing that good things will come if you just wait for them.  The artists that I met at Banff talked about how to be savvy, how to have a business mind, what exactly needs to be done in order to realise your goals, and these were some of the most important lessons I took away from Banff.  Even being coached on things like how to speak to my colleagues, how to have meetings, what exactly the important points of discussion are – these are all hugely important in life but when have we ever been taught these things?!

I attended the Banff Centre once before, five years ago, when I had the opportunity to spend a month at the masterclasses there.  This was a whole other amazing experience in itself, but since then the music programme at Banff has been completely redesigned, offering a totally new style of residency for all different musicians, and this year was the first in its new format.  Led by new co-artistic directors, the fantastically inspiring Claire Chase and Steven Schick, this summer I attended the brand new ARC Chamber Music Residency. From day one, Claire told us that she was looking to design a programme that would be completely separate from typical masterclass-style festivals, something that was very far away from a ‘school’ structured curriculum.  Her idea of the new programme at Banff was to give total artistic freedom to the participants, and to give us the space to play whatever music we wanted in whatever form we wanted.   It was up to us to create our own timetable, plan our own repertoire and rehearsals, decide what we wanted to perform and when.  I have never been put in such a liberating setting as this, and I can honestly say that during the programme, I felt so artistically fulfilled and had a real sense of purpose.

I thought I might write a (somewhat) brief account of what a typical day for me in the ARC Chamber Music Residency at the Banff Centre looked like, although each day was totally different so I will just give a general overview as an example!  I would wake up at about 8am and grab some AMAZING breakfast in one of the restaurants that overlooks the mountains.  At around 8:30 a few people would meet for the daily morning hike up Tunnel Mountain, whose trail leaves directly from campus.  The hike takes about 30 mins to go up and 20 to come down, with an inevitable few minutes at the top to just sit and take in what you are seeing.  I remember one time sitting up there and saying to a friend how difficult I found it to be really present, in that moment, looking at those awesome mountains – it felt overwhelmingly unreal – so this was something that I was continually striving to achieve; total awareness of the present.  Rehearsals started as soon as we got back, and for me these varied between Haydn Quartets, Beethoven Quartets, Boulez ‘Livre’ for string quartet and quartets that I was working on with composers themselves – I got to work with Marcos Balter on his quartet called ‘Chambers’ and with Camila Agosto on her piece, ‘Blemish’.  At 11am everybody would gather for the ‘Daily Meeting’, which would be taken by a different faculty member each day; we heard from the musicians of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble from New York), the Concert Master of the Handel and Haydn Society – Aisslinn Nosky, the Miro and JACK quartets, Imani Winds, Suzannah Clark (one of the world’s leading musicologists), Maros Balter (composer) and many more besides.  I loved these meetings, as each one was totally unique and each artist had something so interesting and different to say; I really learnt a lot here.  After the meeting I would head down to the cafe for lunch and then straight back to more rehearsing.  During the afternoons I would usually find time to visit the simply incredible library, or to practise by myself in one of the little practice huts (frequently visited by deer or elk) until dinner, which I would eat in either the main restaurant or at the chilled ‘Maclab’ bar.  After-dinner time would normally consist of concerts, more rehearsals, hang-out ‘beer’ time and fantastic conversations with colleagues and new friends, or making use of the free and unlimited access to the gym or swimming pool/hot tub facilities.

Enjoying a local beer at Maclab with a spectacular view!

Practice hut with elk visitor

I want to write separate and much more detailed accounts of each of these experiences, as they were all so fascinating and important in themselves and there is SO much more to say about all of them! I simply can’t fit it all into one blog post though, so I have decided that this will do for the first ‘overview’ of Banff and I’m looking forward to writing several more posts, each focusing on a different aspect of Banff, in the next few weeks.

The lasting impression that the Banff Centre and the artists that I met there made on me is how important art is in today’s world.  Art makes connections, brings people together, highlights profound issues in very pure, human and accessible ways.  Art can be found anywhere and there will always be space for people to create it, one just has to find it and remember the value that it has.  Banff has nestled itself right into my heart; it has given me inspiration and courage, it has refilled my life with colour!

The JACK Quartet, performing John Luther Adams on top of Tunnel Mountain at sunset. This was a moment I won’t ever forget and sums up my whole Banff experience!

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An Artist in Focus: Sara Cubarsi

It’s such a crazy, wonderful thing to be able to say that your friends inspire you.  Although each of my friends live in different corners of the globe, I feel so connected to them through this inspiration and through a deep, profound respect for what they are doing and their work.  My friends are creating new art and music, asking new questions, re-inventing answers to old ones, revealing new paths and I absolutely love and value these things, besides the wonderful people that they are!

One old school friend of mine – violinist and artist, Sara Cubarsi – came to visit me in Germany last year (she is originally from Barcelona and is currently living in California).  She was then right in the middle of a huge project that she had created and developed – actually, the project is still not finished!  The other day I got to catch up with her and asked all about how the project was progressing.  As she told me about it, I found the ideas behind it and everything she has achieved thus far so AMAZING and so COOL, that I decided I just had to write a blog post about it and share it!  This is the story of the ‘Wax Painting Project’, by Sara Cubarsi.

Something to know about Sara, right from the beginning, is that she is not only a clever and talented violinist, but she is also an artist.  Remember in my post about Picasso’s Mad Man (read it here), I mentioned that I had a friend who drew her own mad man on her bedroom wall – that was Sara!  She has done some really wonderful paintings (I’m still waiting for one that she promised to make for me one day) and her style of art and emotion is really present in all of her work, whether its through music – her own compositions or more classical pieces – paint or any other art form.  So, Sara had the idea that she wanted to create a painting to go in one of her performances, and that’s where the origin of this project stemmed from.

The next step of the project came about purely as a joke.  Someone said to Sara, what would happen, though, if your painting would accidentally melt under the heat of the stage lights?? In the moment, Sara laughed, but then realised that that was a fantastic idea and EXACTLY what she wanted!  So she began to research what would make the best material for a painting that needed to melt, and wax became clear as the most ideal option.  Another thing to know about Sara, is that she adores the work of Francis Bacon – you can probably see this in a LOT of her work!  She absolutely loves his organic and raw style and wanted to capture this in her own painting and wax seemed the best, most fleshy and human-like material for her to use.

The first wax painting that Sara created was called ‘The Blind Cow’ and the performance of it took place late one night in February of 2016.  It was a small painting of a cow with a bloody eye that hung from the ceiling of a dark classroom.  To accompany it was a white noise track,made by one of Sara’s friends, with Sara speaking on top of it into a microphone, with distortion; she was reading poems by T.S. Elliot and a Catalan poem about a blind cow.  Sara used candlelight to melt the painting and it worked!  The painting melted completely.  Although, the funny thing was that Sara was facing a wall and unable to see the painting while she was performing the poems, so she had no idea if it was working or not!  This was also what made it so exciting, though, as she just had to have hope that it was all going to plan.  And so went the ‘first public melting’.

After this success, Sara thought – OK, this works, now let’s make it big.  She decided she wanted  to make a new wax painting, big enough that a string quartet could hide behind it, and melt it using electric heaters.  The painting that resulted, which Sara called ‘Ludwig’s Ear’, was 12 x 8 feet and the performance was planned to take place in a bigger concert hall in March 2016.  Sara composed a string quartet to go with the painting, which was very much related to it; she told me that her music emanated the feeling of wax melting, its pace and it’s colours.  Now, here is where is starts to get really exciting.  The night before the performance, the heaters broke – smoke came out when she tested them!  Running out of time, Sara went out to buy six irons and planned to have people standing behind the painting, ironing it to get it to melt!  However, during the performance, there was SO much electricity being used (six irons, speakers, heaters etc.) that the electrical circuit broke!  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), at the end of the performance, when Sara stepped out from behind the painting, she saw that it had barely melted at all and the public reaction was extremely awkward – here were all these people who had come to see this monster wax painting melt… and nothing happened!  But isn’t this the nature of experimenting?!  We have to try stuff out to see what works and what doesn’t.  Sara called her ‘second public melting’ a “successful un-happening”!

Ludwig’s Ear, pre-wax

Ludwig’s Ear, post-wax

Sara was nowhere near finished.  We have to remember that, while all of these wax adventures were going on, Sara was still trying to live her life, as a musician and an artist dealing with all of her own insecurities.  At around about this time she was playing a LOT of contemporary music and was feeling really anxious about her classical playing – she felt that she had lost touch with Bach and with the violin and was trying to find herself as a violinist again.  She decided that she had to force herself to put on a concert and perform some Bach, as this would simply MAKE her practice it.  Connecting all of her work together, she created a new abstract painting for a performance at Art Share, L.A., to which she would play Bach’s Second Partita.  This piece is made up of four smaller dance movements and a monumental Chaconne final movement.  The day before the concert, Sara freaked out – she was feeling so uncomfortable with her playing that she decided to cancel the four shorter movements and just perform the Chaconne.  The very last note of this movement ends on a very powerful ‘D’ chord and at that point in the performance, Sara held this ‘D’ note as a drone, on top of which she sang microtonal intervals, all reflecting the huge Chaconne movement, in a kind of slow motion, while her little painting melted.  I see this concert as a sort of interlude from the main project, but nevertheless very important and relevant to Sara’s personal development and also to show her own personality in relation to the rest of the project.

And now back to the main wax project.  What came next was a painting that Sara called ‘Concerto For A Painting’ which was composed to 9 string instruments and piano and performed in April 2016.  Sara’s music was somehow Wagnerian, but with no rhythmic gestures, and the painting was ambiguous – it could have been a womb or even a woman’s breast (I guess it depended on one’s own personal interpretation).  What I find really cool about this painting is that Sara really made the wax look like flesh, so that when it melted, it left the painting red.  She told me that this made it look like a baby had been born, almost like there was now no baby left in the womb.  Only two heaters were needed to melt this painting and it worked beautifully – the painting melted.

Concerto For A Painting

But remember that huge painting, ‘Ludwig’s Ear’, that didn’t melt? Sara had no idea what to do with it.  This was the point at which she visited me and we discussed what she could possibly do.  She had the idea that she wanted to burn the painting somehow (an idea that also stemmed from a joke comment made by a friend!) and had a vision of doing this in a desert space where there is nothing, no life, around.  My boyfriend, who knows California pretty well, suggested Salton Sea.  It is right in the middle of the desert, it’s not very populated so she could find a space to be alone, and it’s not a ‘nice’ place – she didn’t have to worry about being too careful there.  So when she went back to the States, in October 2016, she took her monster painting to the desert and set it on fire by throwing gasoline all over it.  Of course it was impossible to make music to go with it in this context; the desert was too hot, this escapade far too dangerous and extreme.  While she was burning the painting she was also filming it all and I think the silence aspect and having no music will come across amazingly well on film.  She described to me that by the end she was so light-headed and hot, worried about what she was doing and if she would get caught, heavy from so much physical work… she actually couldn’t finish and had to leave her painting burning there in the desert (it was found and some reports of it turned up on social media and the internet by people wondering what it was!).

Ludwig’s Ear in Salton Sea

Sara’s final wax painting performance, titled ‘Exvoto Study’, happened in November 2016.  On a trip home to Barcelona, she went to visit the gothic cathedral at St. James’s Square, Cereria.  This area is really, really old and very religious.  When someone is suffering some kind of ailment or wound, here they can offer an ex-voto – a votive offering – of the wounded body part, made of wax, to the deities, hoping that they may be cured.  Sara found a little wax ear and took it home, where she decided to film herself melting it.  Her new idea was to project this little film onto a screen for her performance.  However, this wasn’t to be a normal screen – she planned to make a screen of wax!   She got hold of a canvas, which she covered in black paint with white wax on top of it, and this became her screen.  The score that Sara wrote to go with her film, which she performed with two colleagues, reflected what the ear hears; bubbling, gurgling, coughing.  It wasn’t a totally smooth concert; smoke started to come out of the heaters that were melting the wax screen and somehow, because of the light and darkness in the concert hall, this became very visible to the stage managers – they turned off the heaters!  This was a bit of a disaster because Sara needed the screen to melt to achieve her effect, so she got up herself during the performance to turn the heaters back on.  Because of this, the screen only melted partially, but the overall effect of the video of the melting ear being projected onto a screen that was melting LIVE definitely came across – I WISH I could have seen this!

Exvoto Study

The thing that I find really interesting about the whole project and in all of the performances, is that there are two elements going on all the time; the music and the melting painting.  The process of composing and performing the music is very calculated – there’s a score and a system and musicians know what they do, it’s very organised and clean.  But the painting is always a total risk.  For one, the musicians can’t ever see it, so there is no way to ever know if it is melting or not and if the performance is working.  And secondly, it’s always unpredictable – Sara can never know if the heaters will work, if the wax will melt.  These two art forms are continually working together and against each other during her performances, and this is what makes it so truly exciting.

Another thing to think about is that these are performances that are ephemeral; they can only ever be done ONE time, because the painting can only melt once.  It really is amazing, because Sara then puts absolutely everything into this one performance, but there is also a sad quality to this; the painting melts and will never again be what it was, it gets lost to the moment of the performance.  This is performance art at its most real, most meaningful, most alive!

And now? I don’t think Sara is quite finished with her wax painting project yet!  She told me that she wants to master it so that it can be done anywhere.  She also wants to make a film of the Salton Sea experiment, of which she has many hours of footage.  I can’t wait for the next melting episode!

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June: Freya Chooses…

Over past the few weeks I have made many wonderful discoveries that have given me real joy and added value to my life.  I know that these ‘Freya Chooses…’ posts are largely personal to me, but I so enjoy reading similar kinds of blog posts, where bloggers write about what they have been loving recently, or about small ways in which they have been able to improve the quality of their lives; I love taking inspiration from other people and am just a bit nosy about the kinds of things that make others happy!  So, here are just a few of the things that I have LOVED throughout the past month!

Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan

I actually had this book of two short novellas by Sagan sitting on my bookshelf for a few years without realising it!  A moment came about recently when I had finished my current book and was waiting for the new one to arrive.  At a loss, with nothing to read, I turned to my bookshelf and found this absolute gem!  I really didn’t know anything about Sagan and her writing, but I fell in love with these stories, which were published when she was only nineteen!!

The first, Bonjour Tristesse, is probably her most famous work.  It is about the relationship between a daughter and her father, who live a carefree and somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, full of love, sexuality, passion, and contemporary political attitudes. This all gets sharply interrupted when the girl’s father suddenly decides to remarry, creating huge conflicts that result in some shocking consequences for both characters.  Although I adored this novel, it was the second one in the book, A Certain Smile, which I totally devoured.  In many ways it is a quieter, slower, more intense story and for me, this is what drew me in and got me immediately hooked.  It is about a young French girl, living and studying in Paris, full of her own ideas about life and love, although a little bored with her own lover and situation.  An older, married man comes into her life and shows her emotions and feelings which dramatically change the direction of her life, in many complicated ways.

These stories are simply beautiful, witty in that charming French way and very, very emotional.  They are so sweet, yet they have a way of tugging on your heart.  I’m so glad I found this book on my shelf, and I definitely recommend getting a copy!

Seattle

I recently got the chance to visit Seattle for the first time, and I just loved the city!  I wanted to write about it here as, for me, I never really considered Seattle as serious contender for one of the cities at the top of my list of places to travel in the U.S. – those spots are always filled by cities like New York or San Francisco.  But I have to say that this is SUCH a fantastic city, and if you have the opportunity to visit the States, definitely consider taking a trip there!

Seattle is a very vibrant city that has a drive; it’s busy, it has a hustle and bustle, everybody is out there, doing their own stuff.  There is a lot going on, in its business as well as culturally, but it doesn’t have the chaotic, stressed feeling of New York!  Seattle has all the ‘busy-ness’ but still with that wonderful, relaxed, west-coast vibe, and it’s just great.  There are so many cool little corners in the city too; great markets, coffee shops, bookstores, cool little international shops, and many, many, fantastic micro-breweries (if you are a beer fan, this city will be your heaven).  And all of this is set in an incredibly beautiful part of the world; the mountainous backdrop and ocean views follow you all around the city.

Dvořák Cypresses, Performed by Miró Quartet

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to hear a performance given by some of my current FAVOURITE musicians, the Miró Quartet, of a piece I had never heard of: a set of songs called ‘Cypresses’, arranged for string quartet, by czech composer, Antonin Dvořák.  This was originally a song cycle for voice and piano, set to poems by Czech poet, Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky,  that Dvořák composed when he was just 24 years old and later transcribed for string quartet.  At this time in Dvořák’s life, he had fallen deeply in love with one of his students – a love which, unfortunately, was not returned.  Although I have not heard entire work in its original form, I found the string quartet arrangement to be incredibly beautiful and totally capturing of Dvořák’s sad and passionate feelings of unrequited love.  There were so many truly special moments in the music, moments of darkness and light, intimate melodies, sounds coming from within the heart of the quartet – this was truly spellbinding.  It seems weird to me that this is a work that is not performed more often… but I am so glad that I got the chance to hear it and I really recommend looking it up if you don’t know it!  My particular favourite was song/poem number 9:

‘Thou Only, Dear One’

Oh, you my soul’s only dear one,

Who will live in my heart forever:

My thoughts circle around you,

Even though cruel fate separates us.

Oh, If I were a singing swan,

I would fly to you, and with my last breath,

Sing my heart out to you,

Ah, with my last breath.

What beautiful words, and music!  On that note, I have to also say that the Miró Quartet are absolutely wonderful, as people and as musicians.  They live and breathe the music in a way that make it come alive and I found this very inspiring.  This is a quartet of big personalities which shine through in their playing; their audiences love them and it’s easy to see why.  I can’t wait to work with them again in a couple of weeks time!

Catch my last Freya Chooses… post here!

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