Name: Jack Liebeck
Current Release: Jack Liebeck's renditions of the Schoenberg and Brahms Violin Concertos are out now on Orchid Classics
Book: Brian Keenan - An evil cradling
Film: The Wife (2017)
If you enjoyed this interview with Jack Liebeck, visit his excellent website for more in-depth information and a comprehensive discography.
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 started playing when I was eight years old. I was a talented singer before that, and I think that greatly impacted my violin playing. The singing qualities of the violin is probably what drew me to the instrument, also, I kind of thought “I can do that” when I saw it being played.
My earliest memory of hearing the violin live was a concert given by the young Maxim Vengerov who was about 6 years older than me, playing at the Royal Academy of Music in Zakhar Bron’s class. From then on, I was a huge fan of his, going to all his London concerts.
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?
I had a very natural affinity to singing which I think informed my playing. My wonderful violin teacher, Mateja Marinkovic, refused to play during my early lessons as he wanted me to understand rather than copy. Sometimes this was the long way around learning something and somewhat infuriating for him and me. Still, it meant that I had to think through and assimilate what I was doing rather than imitating him.
I never like to copy other performers and was rather pushed, against my will, by my teacher into listening to other players interpretations. I was quite sure that my way suited me the best. I am, as a result, quite against listening to other musicians for ideas and feel that the general lack of individuality that afflicts modern musicians is as a result of a lack of natural instinct and too much “polluting” your ears with external voices. I practically never listen to another violinist play something that I am learning, perhaps I will at the end of the learning process, just to see what is going on in the texture, but I will not steal ideas.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
I started playing the violin aged eight; this would be considered quite late by some. Most people in my position started aged four or five, so in some ways, I was a little behind my peers. However, I had quite a mature artistic voice. I had played the instrument for six years before my first professional engagements with renowned orchestras. Because of that, I didn’t yet have the technical stability to compliment my musical voice and had to “fight through” some of my early concerts, the pressure to be “bulletproof”, as one of my early agents used to say, was quite considerable.
I am lucky to have survived this period. Once my confidence grew and my technical security developed, I was able to flourish.
The more you perform and learn new repertoire, the more you are sure of what you are doing. It’s a wonderful snowball effect.
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?
A few years ago, I built myself a large rehearsal studio at the back of my garden. The main requirement was plenty of natural light and enough height in the room for a tall person (not me therefore!) to be able to use a bow safely without hitting the ceiling. I have purposely kept technology out of the room, (until now as I am doing so much online teaching with my class at the Royal Academy of Music) as it is a constant distraction. As a freelance musician, we have a never-ending stream of administration, even with a manager, the emails never stop, so it is important to get some headspace. I also cannot practice if my house is messy!
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?
I cannot remember my first instrument although I do remember it’s musty smell. Violins do have a smell! My first good instrument was a Grancino violin that I started playing aged 13.
I got my current violin when I was 17, so I have been playing it for 23 years. It is a wonderful JB Guadagnini from 1785, one of the finest Guadagnini’s ever made, from his best period in Turin. It has a name, the “ex-Wilhemji” as it was played by the wonderful violinist Augustine Wilhelmji who led Wagner’s orchestra.
My violin has a wonderful deep sonorous sound, quite unusual. It has developed my sound, and my sound has developed it. It is not an easy violin to play, but it can do anything in the right hands. It would not be everyone’s first choice as, on its own, the sound is very raw and rough, so it needs a player that wants to create the sound and really knead the string into doing something. This is different from a great Strad which often just sound beautiful without much effort. I do feel however, that this makes my violin more versatile as it doesn’t have any particular “sound”. It is up to the player to make it.
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?
My life has changed a lot in the last few years. I didn’t used to have much of a routine; I would generally get up about 8 am, drink coffee, deal with emails, start practice about 11 am and see what happens. But more recently, I have married a non-musician with a proper job. I now have a routine, and I am much more productive and happier with my work.
I get up about 7 am and exercise, then walk my dog. By 9 am I am ready to work, I get some practice done or start teaching. I try and get my work done so I can have my evening free. I am also more precious about keeping weekends (when I’m not performing) free for family time. Of course, this is totally different when I’m on the road, routine is whatever the job entails!
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?
I recently recorded the Schoenberg and Brahms Violin Concertos with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Gourlay conducting.
The Schoenberg was totally new to me. I admit that I did, on this occasion, listen to a recording or two before I started to work on the piece to see which direction I wanted to take my interpretation. I felt that the other performances celebrated the disjointed and angular nature of it too much for my liking, so I looked for ways to really sing and find melody within the often, on the surface, obtuse material. There is glue and texture between in the material that felt, to me, to be unexplored.
I generally think music should not be difficult to listen to and believe that Schoenberg wanted people to be able to enjoy his compositions! In this case, it meant that I took the concerto at a more leisurely pace in order to be able to allow the “music” to escape and give myself a chance to sing, rather than flying through it at the artificially fast tempo markings that were only indicatively placed in the score (Schoenberg himself suggested that they could be ignored).
I do trust my musical instincts. In the past, when I have been encouraged to ignore them; I have not liked the results. Luckily, most of the reviews have been extremely complimentary about my more spacious account of both works. The odd reviewer has commented about the slower tempos in the Brahms and Schoenberg. However, I feel that sheer velocity does not describe musical content; it is what is inside the notes that counts and that is what I tried to bring out. I want to extract the maximum I can from each note, in great music every note has a purpose that should be made clear.
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 find that social media has a few good aspects but can also be very corrosive, and it can really affect one’s mental health if we take it too seriously or get hooked. As a child I was encouraged not to show off, how has that attitude been turned on its head? Nowadays, it is the norm to show everything off for other people to see! How weird.
The world is incredibly noisy, and sometimes you need to ignore it in order to be creative. To be really free and creative you also need to have faith in your own voice, a little arrogance is important. In order to maintain a healthy state of mind I try not to worry about what I can’t control.
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?
Technology is just a tool to make life easier. It can be fun and exciting, but it doesn’t feature very much in my musical process. I don’t think technology is always used for the best purposes. For instance, reading scores from an iPad hasn’t been a happy experience for me, I love my paper scores!
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?
I am primarily a collaborative musician; I don’t really enjoy playing on my own. Music, for me, is all about dialogue and interaction. In rehearsal, the less words the better. If a musical idea cannot be articulated with the instrument, it is probably unnatural.
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?
Performing and recording are very different disciplines and it is easy to lose the feeling of performance during the recording process. Through having performed for years, I really know the feeling so try to keep it turned on, for every moment behind the microphone to be as spontaneous and alive as possible.
I try and play for the producer who is sitting in a nearby room who is listening closely, that is why the producer/performer relationship is so important.
My recent recordings have been with the legendary producer Andrew Keener, I love getting him to react during the process, keeping him on his toes as a listener!
I cannot improvise! However, I can improvise with the material given to me by composers, that is what being a non-improvisatory musician is all about, being totally free yet playing something with set parameters.
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?
As a reproductive musician we have to play the music as if we are inventing it on the spot! There is no right or wrong if you are reading the score and seeing what it asks you to do, that is what makes us artists. I feel that my sound must evolve and change continuously, AT ALL TIMES! For instance, a long note must have three colours on it because, as humans, our thoughts evolve as time passes, so in order to bring a long note to life it must be alive like a thought.
The notes on the page are an inconvenience to a composer, the music is much more than the info on the page and we need to create that thought process to bring it to life.
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 find the combination of music and film to be incredibly inspiring. I often set a scene in my head, and explore it when I am playing, work out what the air smells like in the piece of music, what the temperature is, what the atmosphere in the room is like. I want to be able to transmit that image in my head to the listener; it means that my characters and colour have to be palpable.
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?
Music can take on many roles; it is a product of its time. Our job as reproductive artists is to bring the piece we are playing to life. To explain to the listener was happening to the composer at the time and why it was written. The music doesn’t live without us as performers and by bringing to life something that was written in a different era, it somehow reminds us that there are many important ideas that are timeless and still resonate today even 2 or 3 hundred years later.
As a violinist, I am making a stand, and my playing is my manifesto. It’s what I believe in.
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?
No, I think we need to hark back, simplify and become less uniform. Today’s music world has become sterile and too driven by fashion and marketability; there is a lack of individuality.