Name: Michael Barenboim
Nationality: Born in France to a Russian mother and an Argentinian/Israeli father.
Current Release: Sciarrino – Tartini – Berio – Paganini on Accentus
Recommendations: Some pieces of music are not very famous, but nevertheless of utmost importance. Here is one I would recommend anyone to listen to: Schönberg second string quartet op. 10. This piece is a journey from tonality to free tonality. The last movement is the first time Schönberg wrote without key signature. Basically one of the biggest shifts in the history of music happens in this piece. It's worth at least two pieces of art!
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Michael Barenboim, visit his excellent website, which offers biographical information, music and up to date tour dates.
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 violin when I was 7, when my family moved to Berlin. Almost all of my family members may be pianists, but my grandmother (mother's side) was a violinist! She helped me practice.
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?
Nothing can replace the effort one puts in in terms of studying the score and practice. Of course we all have the sound of great violinists in our ear, and this can inspire anyone, at any level, to want to recreate this. Ultimately what will come out will, however, always be a personal sound.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The main challenge, for any musician, is to perform the pieces we play to the best of our ability so as to give the audience an understanding of the music we play. While the subjective voice of the performer is necessary, the principal voice should be the composer's voice. This is true on any level of playing.
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?
The room is relatively small and quite bare. All you really need is a music stand and a small space to play in front of it. In terms of other factors, I used to have much more time to practice, which didn't help. Now, with two small children, every half hour counts, and I've become extremely efficient. When you only have very little time, you use it, no matter the mood.
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've had different instruments over the years, but not as many as others. I tend to try to get the best out of whatever I have before going around looking for a change. This is also why I rarely go to the maker to make sound adjustments, unless something is really wrong and there is no alternative.
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?
Besides being a soloist, I am also head of chamber music at the Barenboim-Said Academy, as well as also teaching violin there. This means I spend a lot of time there, and have to squeeze in the odd hour or so of practice between the lessons. My schedule is not fixed, I adapt to the needs of the students. Some groups need me more than others.
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?
The creative process comes from studying the score in as much detail as possible. Then one begins to ask questions, why is this modulation here, why does this melody take a different turn when it comes back, etc. This is the moment where we begin to understand in more depth what the idea is. The deeper the knowledge, the better the performance will be. Obviously, a lot of practice comes into it, too.
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?
The most important thing is sleep!
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 sometimes use a tablet instead of sheet music. This is especially convenient when playing chamber music, because you can play from the full score and just turn the pages with a Bluetooth pedal. Other than that, the instrument itself hasn't changed much in a couple of hundred years.
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?
Any contact with fellow musicians is potentially rewarding. Chamber music in this sense is essential, because we learn to find a common language. We don't only play together in the sense that each note begins at the same time, but we play together having the same idea of the music. This demands a lot of rehearsal, but it's worth it.
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?
I tend to try to take as much from one experience as possible, and this will feed into the next one. Spending days attempting to record a number of pieces can be beneficial for an upcoming concert of the same repertoire. It can also be beneficial for that same recording to have played the pieces in concert before.
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 violinist, sound is essential. It's the reason most people are attracted to the instrument. However, it's important for me to treat the music as more than just a collection of beautiful sounds. There is an intellectual dimension to music which transcends mere sound.
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?
At the centre of hearing is memory: we can process the information we just heard because it is in some way recognizable to us, because we compare it to all the other things we have heard. If it is a completely novel experience, we're still constantly comparing it to what we already know. This is why recapitulations can be very powerful.
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?
Art is a purpose in its own right. The fact that it can be used for other purposes only shows how powerful it is.
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?
I think we are seeing a change in how people approach music, because of its availability. The concert is maybe not the unique event it once was, because I can hear the same music at home. Furthermore, with the internet I can even sometimes watch the same concert from the comfort of my home. But obviously nothing can replace the real live thing.