Name: Carolyn Surrick
Occupation: Viola da gamba player, poet
Nationality: American
Current release: Carolyn Surrick teams up with Ronn McFarlane on their joint release A Star in the East, available via Flowerpot Productions.

[Read our Ronn McFarlane interview]

Recommendations: I do love young adult fiction. “When the Monster Calls” is one of the most powerful and beautiful and devastating books I’ve ever read – and I mean that in the very best way. I also loved the movie, “Wind River.” And the last time I laughed out loud reading a book was Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone” – and I know that’s three but the first two are really dark.

If you enjoyed this interview with Carolyn Surrick and would like to stay up to date on her work, visit her profile page on Upper Green Books. Or visit the website of the Ensemble Galilei.

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

I was sixteen when I first drew the bow across the strings of a viola da gamba. I loved everything about it. The sonic quality – it’s got a very large range and is strung with gut on the top three strings and silver wound around gut for the lowest three strings – and you don’t usually use vibrato, so the instrument is full of overtones. The way that the bow is held in the right hand, and the fact that it’s a fretted, bowed stringed instrument means that tuning is not the challenge, so starting to play as a teenager is not daunting. Everything about it appealed to me. I still feel that way.

Mary Springfels was my second teacher and there were no limits to what we might do. When I was seventeen, I drove from Annapolis, Maryland to NYC in my brother’s little red Fiat convertible - parked on Riverside Drive, and took the elevator to the eleventh floor. It was an old-style New York apartment with huge, high ceilings, big rooms and my lessons on Saturday morning were the best. We played, talked about feminism and politics, had lunch and I headed home. I didn’t mind the New Jersey Turnpike, or the distance. She gave me so much more than music. She gave me a bigger world.

For most artists, originality is 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?

I found my voice after years of sitting next to Celtic harper, Sue Richards on stage. We covered the bass and chords for Ensemble Galilei, but more than that, her musical sensibilities, the way that she phrased a simple tune, the connection between what her fingers did and her heart said … well, it was a revelation.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I have said many times, “I am the queen of darkness.” It’s a joke but not a joke.

Lots of people who turn to the arts do so because there’s something that has allowed them to see the hard parts of life, and move forward. And indeed, in order to create a well-balanced concert, we have to bring our darkness as well as our light to the stage.

My work in life has been to see (and process) the darkness, and embrace the beauty that is this life. Both/and.

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

There are people for whom being a musician is a linear progression. And there are many women for whom the message was always, “You don’t have what it takes.” The message comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, it comes from teachers, mentors, and parents, from self loathing and fear.

For me, rising about that din was very, very hard. I always thought of myself as a supporting player, someone who could get things done, bring new projects forward, keep a group together and on tour, but not necessarily someone who could command a room.

This is a new place for me to inhabit and the last two years have been a remarkable journey.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?

I’ve owned six instruments, and each has arrived at the perfect moment. But, the instrument is only part of the equation. Every viola da gamba needs a bow – and sometimes that pairing is hard to accomplish. And sometimes when you find the right bow for the right instrument, it’s noticeably and absolutely right. Like people who know you and have heard you play will stop talking, turn around and say, “What’s that? What did you do?” from across a big wide stage. Then you know it’s right. And strings. I love my stringmaker.

But the very first instrument that I bought was really, really important. I was seventeen and a cocktail waitress (yes, I lied about my age) and I saved enough money after paying the rent and car insurance and every other thing, to buy my very own instrument. It was made by Jim Cox in Baltimore, I will never forget how it felt to play it, hear it, experience it, and own it.

Tell me about your instrument, please. 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?

I am the only person who has owned this particular bass viol made by Marc Soubeyran in 1995 in England. I stumbled upon it at Bill Monical’s violin shop on Staten Island when I was not looking to buy an instrument. But I sat down and played it, and it offered a quality that I had never heard before. I bought it and we grew up together (I started touring that year.)

The music in my life is not straight-ahead early music – I play with fiddlers and Uillean pipers, with Celtic harp, banjo, bodhran and recorders. I need to play loud (really loud), I need to play incredibly quietly, I need to be tough and ugly, I need to be incredibly beautiful – and this instrument can do all of that.

Many years ago I asked Bill Monical if I should be looking for a new instrument and he paused and said, “You have trained this instrument to be everything you want it to be. You will not find another one like that.”

How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?

I have to love the place it takes me. It has to open up a door into a sonic and emotional place that regardless of its content, is real and true.

Ensemble Galilei has a rule: everyone has to love every piece of music or it doesn’t make it into our repertoire. The same principle applies to working with Ronn McFarlane. We have to love, really love a piece for it to come to life under our fingers. Then when we start arranging, everything has to support the shared vision. We make so many choices from instrumentation to range, from dynamics to articulation, from key to chord progression. It all has to work.

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?
Collaboration is everything to me. Ensemble Galilei worked with the Hubble Space Telescope Institute, partnered with National Geographic, and collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create multi-disciplinary works with spoken word, photos, and music. Everything we do is collaboration. And we do not work from musical scores so we are each creating our part to play.

In my work with Ronn McFarlane, which has been a remarkable and amazing collaboration, we bring our instruments, our entire musical lives, and the music we love the most – and then we create something that has never been played like that, ever.

Finding someone to journey with who shares your musical sensibilities, has a similar toolbox, and will work really hard too, is a miraculous thing. It’s been challenging, of course. We continue to work, to collaborate, to create music, not knowing when/if there will be live concerts for the music we are creating. It’s not about hope or faith, it’s about creating because that is what we do, regardless of whether or it will have a life outside of our houses, outside of the recording studio.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?

Nothing is the same now. I don’t know when touring will be part of life again.

For now, I leave my house at 7:00am to drive to my job at a church in Baltimore. I’m usually home by 3:00, and my music time is in the evenings and on the weekends. I find that everything that happens informs my music making. The violence and drug abuse in the city, the quiet and grace of the woods when I’m walking the dogs, the calls from my daughter who is in college in San Diego.

Love, life, death, struggle, peace, grace, beauty – it’s what life and music contain, whether I am listening to a parishioner whose spouse has just died, or driving down a trash strewn street, it all informs what I play.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

It has to be Fermi’s Paradox. That was the beginning of my work with Ronn McFarlane, the beginning of stepping into new musical skin, the start of a new musical life. As 2020 began, we started working on a concert that would be cancelled by the pandemic, but then we never stopped working. Every Saturday we met and played and created new work, believing that someday it would find a public life.

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 don’t have a lot of time. I need to be able to sit down and play, sit down and create. Yes, it needs to be quiet in the house, but it doesn’t have to be silent. It helps to not be hungry. I try to play in the morning or at night. I’m less creatively productive from 3:00-6:00 in the afternoon.

I know that there are days when I am staying in shape, and there days when I will be inspired and that is life. I’ve been doing this for a very long time (almost fifty years) and if things don’t come when I want them, I know they will come another day. I can be workmanlike all day, all night, but I have no expectation that I can summon inspiration.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

I spent seven years of Fridays working with wounded warriors at the old Walter Reed, the new Walter Reed, at Fort Belvoir, and with the Wounded Warrior Project. Music is such a powerful tool for healing. Healing of all kinds. There are places that music can reach that are unavailable otherwise. There are times when the only thing that will help, is music. There’s a lot of science about what music can do – what I know for sure, is that it can provide a place and space to heal the soul, and the mind, and the body.

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?

Overtones are very cool. Sound decay is just about as important as the sound itself. How we process what we see when we are busy hearing is fascinating. Silence makes sound more powerful.

When I was in sixth grade, I listened to Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” on the record player in my bedroom while I read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” over Christmas break. Even today, I cannot hear that music without feeling like I am traveling through space. I feel an incredible sense of wonder and adventure. Every time. The pictures I was creating in my mind while reading are absolutely tied to the music I was hearing. It is one of the reasons I so love multi-disciplinary works.

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 do intend to change the world every time I sit down to play in public.

There are very few places in life where it’s okay to deeply experience a range of emotions, and I see offering that to audiences as my job. It is the nature of my instrument, repertoire, and intention to create a safe place for people to remember what it’s like to be broken, and what it’s like to be joyful, and everything in between.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Everything. When we accompany someone out of this life, we are given the opportunity to remember all of the things that being alive can offer us. We get to revisit the joy and the broken hearts, the rage and the despair, the way that time contracts and expands. We get to hold tight to the person that is dying, and then let them go. This is how it feels.

If I cannot bring all of those feelings to my playing at a concert, I have not done my job. My work is to remind people. And our audiences are older. They know exactly what I am saying with my instrument. They get it.