Part 1

Name: Aisha Orazbayeva
Nationality: Kazakh
Occupation: Violinist, composer
Current Release: Music for Violin Alone on SN Variations
Chamber Works by Luiz Henrique Yudo played by Apartment House
John Cage Morton Feldman Radio Happenings

If you enjoyed this interview with Aisha Orazbayeva, the best place to find out more about her and her work is her website.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I’m not sure if my memory of this is true or received through numerous accounts told by my parents and then me. I began playing the violin when I was four and a half years old.

I saw a woman called Aiman Mussahadjaeva play violin on TV and that was the moment I decided I was going to be a violinist. I can’t remember what drew me into the music or the sound of the instrument but it must have made an impression in order for me to pester my parents for half a year to sign me up for preliminary auditions at the Special Music School in my home city Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Everyone in my family is either an actor or a musician, my grandfather is both and I will always remember his wonderful singing accompanied by dombra. At the time it didn’t seem to influence my music making, after all learning the violin could be quite mechanical and not involve music making as such. But now the memories of his warm and open voice and the sound of the dombra are inspirational. 

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

For some kids violin training starts at such an early age they haven’t yet developed their long term memory. If you start doing something before you’ve reached consciousness it’s very hard to know why you are doing it. At the point at which your mind enters the room your body already knows how to play and as a result you don’t question your teachers or question why you are playing this instrument in the first place.

Often with the Russian school of music an interpretation of a piece is your professor’s interpretation of that piece which in turn is her professor’s interpretation of that piece - it is the interpretation of that piece and there’s no other way to do it. It’s a bit like memorising a poem in a language you don’t speak.

My original voice started to emerge when I began to question and then to rebel against that kind of approach to music. This is when I was able to take myself out of the equation and focus on sound and music itself instead of focusing on the tradition of performing certain pieces in certain ways. When you only copy and emulate others without actively engaging your mind the music becomes just a vehicle to showcase your “beautiful playing”.

Having rebelled against that system I have come to the realisation that those early years of strict and rigid training have equipped me with the tools I need to achieve any kind of originality in my playing. Sometimes you need to reject something completely and step outside of it to see that it’s not all bad or all good. 

What guides my practice today is an interest in an unfamiliar violin sound, a sound that instrument produces that we won’t necessarily recognise as a violin. This search for the unfamiliar has also led to my practice as an improviser and now a composer.

What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

My main challenge when starting out was finding a platform. As an artist I was in between worlds, never belonging to any one in particular. At the time I finished the academy you were either an orchestral player, a chamber music player or a soloist. I played contemporary classical music, I was interested in making installations, I just collaborated with Peter Zinovieff on a violin and computer piece - I had too many interests and as a result I was nowhere. I couldn’t get on to any schemes and I was definitely not getting booked to play Wigmore Hall, the phone wasn’t ringing - instead I made an album and used the medium of recording to get known.

Interesting venues were emerging in London - one of them being Cafe Oto. Lucy Railton started running a series there which was an ideal platform for someone who didn’t fit anywhere in a traditional sense. I still feel that there’s a need to label musicians. It’s very difficult for someone to play experimental music, old classical repertoire, baroque, contemporary and to be seen just as a musician who can play all those styles. Most of the time festivals and venues are also bearers of labels and if you don’t wear the right sticker you’re not going to get booked. Which makes me think that often it’s not about music, or performing music in enlightening or interesting ways, but it’s about preservation of each scene, giving audiences what they want to hear, giving them familiarity and comfort.

These days I’m focusing more and more on early music and since I’m mostly known for “confrontational, uncompromising” interpretations of contemporary repertoire I don’t know if my new passion will find an audience. I’m also slowly emerging as a composer and that brings a whole lot of other challenge.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

I don’t have a dedicated work space yet although I’m thinking of converting a very small room in our house into a recording studio. For now whenever I have to make a recording I use a laptop, a sound card and a couple of mics to set up anywhere where it’s quiet enough. Mood, ergonomics aren’t important for me. I have a small child and everything has to work around her schedule. So whenever I get a moment to myself I practice or record, it can even be in a bathroom with a practice mute.

Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?

My instrument is made by Swedish violin maker Ulf Kloo who is based in Beziers (the closest city to where I live). I’ve only had it for three months but it is the best violin I’ve ever played. It has a powerful and complex sound, we worked together closely to bring out everything I was looking for in an instrument. It would project to a hall with thousands of people but it can whisper, so it’s on the edge of audibility.

It’s a very welcome change from the violin I had for the past ten years, a German violin from 1863. I put it through hell and back: prepared it with hair pins, paper, rings, hung it in installations, had it played with a fan. I think my old violin is great for experimental and quiet music (especially Feldman), and it will always be dear to my heart, its initial limitations helped me find my own voice.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

At the moment I can only work two and a half days a week. It’s chaos most of the time but the two working days are exactly the same: I begin by cycling my daughter to her nursery which is 5.3km away. When I come back I practise, record, edit, do my admin until the moment my daughter comes back from the nursery.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

My composition “Ring” that features on my latest album is essentially an exploration of one extended technique. I like to give myself a limitation and see what can happen.

I was looking for a breathy sound, almost like a woodwind type sound on the violin for another piece I was working on at the time. I would bow the violin really high on the fingerboard and it wasn’t quite what I was looking for then I noticed my wedding ring (which is broken in one place making it very easy to attach) and decided to put it on the bottom string of the instrument. I began to bow only the ring and what came out were gutsy, breathy, low, dark harmonics.

For days I was trying to learn how to control it, to find out which pitches this contraption produces, I moved the ring up and down the string to see what difference it makes to the sound. Once I came to know how it behaves I had to give it a shape to turn it into a piece of music. I recorded it a few times over one week until the shape I was happy with emerged. 

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