There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I can only dream about having an ideal state of mind for being creative. Instead if there’s a deadline, a concert coming up or a recording that has to be submitted I have to do it in the little time that’s available to me. There’s no time to think or to get into a state of mind to be creative. Instead it is a “this has to be done now and I only have two hours to do it” situation, which is an efficient if stressful state to be in. It’s important to keep your professional life going especially in the times of a global pandemic where your profession seems to be under an existential threat.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I use technology for recording, editing and mixing. Everything else is violin. Sometimes I think about getting pedals or working with electronics but haven’t come round to exploring those things.
Humans excel because they have so many limitations - a limitation is a challenge, is a way to find a way around it, to grow and to discover what lies within the limitations; and machines excel with their limitless possibilities which is in turn could be their fault.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
My favourite person to collaborate with is Tim Etchells. He is a writer, artist and the artistic director of a theatre group Forced Entertainment.
It is a violin and spoken word improvisation. We set out to reverse our roles: where the voice and words take on musical qualities and violin takes on qualities of the words or rather loses its usual melody-driven characteristics.
That limitation of avoiding the melodic and the familiar has opened up a whole world of new extended techniques. In fact I think this collaboration is where most of my interesting sounds come from. The imposed limitation really pushes me to find different types of sound on the violin and Tim’s texts are always great to work with and work against as well.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
From the time I did my first album Outside - where I recorded the same piece in 20 different acoustics and put it back together as a collage - I always saw a recording as an opportunity to do something you couldn’t do live.
I used to be a writer when I was young and I found a blank piece of paper the most exciting thing in the world because you could put anything down, you could write a story that has 35 beginnings and never goes anywhere, you can write something that doesn’t make sense and there’s no-one reading it, in that moment you are alone and you are free. That’s how I feel about recording.
Live performance - you are certainly not alone, you could be free but you can’t stop and you can’t edit … You have to play the whole thing without stopping, you have to be inside and outside of the process and often you play from memory which adds an additional stress. Recording is cinema and live performance is theatre. I enjoy the presence of an audience and trying to gauge their mood as I play.
The only connection between recording and live performance happens when I record the same piece that I might be playing in a concert. Recording is once and for all so I tend to go for the “perfect” rendition which then helps in how prepared you are for a concert. If you’ve recorded a piece - you know it inside out.
My compositional practice comes directly out of my improvisational practice. Improvisation, like a recording is a space for experimentation, you come up with things on the spot and if you like them you want to keep them and then write them down, but write them down and give them a form - that’s my idea of composition.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
I spend a lot of my time thinking about sound and specifically about quiet or almost inaudible sound.
I found that classically-trained violinists don’t often explore the very quiet/inaudible dynamics. Composers like Feldman, Nono, Cage, Bryn Harrison build some of their pieces entirely on the threshold of audibility and when you first find yourself playing those pieces it feels like you don’t know how to play. There is nowhere to hide.
In a funny kind of way when you start to zoom in on a tiniest of sounds you start to hear so much more within their walls, and after a while it doesn’t seem quiet anymore. Working with the repertoire that makes you look into something with a microscope teaches you a lot about your instrument’s sound and timbre. I would spend hours looking for that special sound, making sure that the bow doesn’t suddenly jump or make a loud noise, it’s almost like you re-train your bow arm in order to be able to play that quiet.
Such intricate and involved work with sound production opens your ears in a way that leads you into hearing and imagining other types of sounds and in my case that was the beginning of my desire to become a composer.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I’m not sure if for me the sense of hearing ever overlaps with any other senses. Hearing something can make me see images but I never listen to music in a visual way. I find the sense of smell most interesting. It is the only sense that brings back vivid memories, takes you to that moment in time, your kitchen at home, that afternoon with shaded sun, your mother’s voice, the tablecloth.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I used to be very uncompromising in my approach and refused a lot of engagements and opportunities in my life because it didn’t feel right.
In hindsight I wonder if it wasn’t a little extreme. It’s important to do things and work with people and organisations you believe in. However staying open-minded and not being quick to judge is just as important. Unfortunately in the face of financial hardship it’s not easy to be idealistic and keep your integrity completely intact. Losing all my work to COVID-19 made me re-think the role art plays in everyday life: Is it a luxury, is it sustainable, does anyone without any links to the art world need it? I question whether my practice has any real connection to the world, there doesn’t have to be a connection of course, and one can practice their art in the comfort of their own universe, but it would be nice for it to be a part of life.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
It feels strange to answer this question in this precise moment in time as we are still finding ourselves in the global pandemic. Concerts are still not going ahead, most performances are happening online and I have a feeling that we won’t be back playing live for a long time. These are testing times for all musicians, we don’t know whether live performance will survive such a long silence - how will that change the way we make music in recording studios and at home?