Part 1

Name: Vassilena Serafimova
Nationality: Bulgarian
Occupation: Percussionist, marimba player
Current release: Vassilena Serafimova's new album Bach Mirror, a collaboration with pianist and composer Thomas Enhco, is out now on Sony Classical.
Recommendations: In addition to the ‘Letters of Rilke’ that Thomas mentioned in his 15 Questions interview, I would add also Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’.
I recently discovered an amazing Bulgarian painter Boris Georgiev who has met and painted amazingly sensible portraits of some of the greatest spiritual leaders of the 20th century such as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Peter Dunov.  
Piece of music – There are so many of them, it is impossible to pick the most inspiring. I can just say that I am particularly sensible to the folklore music as we can feel somehow the soul of the humanity through it.  

If you enjoyed this interview with Vassilena Serafimova, visit her homepage for more information. We also have a Thomas Enhco interview, to complement Vassilena's views in this feature.

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 born into a family of musicians, so music was always a part of my life since childhood.

I first started to sing in a childrens choir when I was three, and then I took up violin and solfège. My father is a great percussion teacher and I have always loved listening to his classes - it looks so fun; always full of passion. My sister was also playing percussion in her early years, and during this time I had started to play my violin pieces on the xylophone at home without telling anybody. Once I felt confident enough to show my mini performance to my dad,  I would ask him to listen to my xylophone pieces. He was delighted and said I could be part of his class if I wanted to. I started at the age of seven with percussion and here I am, still in love with all those interesting and countless colours and possibilities …  

My first influences were classical composers (a lot of Chopin’s Concerto No.1 and my parents often put this vinyl on at bedtimes, it was my lullaby) as well as The Beatles and Queen.

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 always tried to express my thoughts and emotions through music as well as improve my musical skills through a variety of expressive ways. It is how I improved my sound on marimba - I am moving a lot while playing behind the instrument, but I never think about those movements. I concentrate only on the different colours of sound, so movements come naturally, as a dance.

Listening to other musicians is always interesting and sometimes very, very inspiring, but one can never be somebody else. So, I have always tried to find my own voice and my personal story through music.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Identity is all about roots, origins, and feeling the soul of a nation. I was born in Bulgaria and grew up there. At 18, I emigrated for my studies and worked in France. Even if both, Bulgaria and France, are European countries, the cultures and pace of life in each are just crazy different.

In Bulgaria, the folklore music and traditions are quite present in everyday life; this is something that has always influenced me and has helped develop my identity over the years. It is funny, but I play a lot more traditional music or use traditional music motifs when I am abroad.

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

One of the most challenging things for me in the beginning was to prove to people that marimba and percussion can be used as soloist instruments and can make “real” music. It was difficult to convince people that a solo percussion recital can also be as important as a solo violin recital …

Afterwards, I found it challenging to stay different (I always follow my own crazy ideas for projects with actors, dancers, jazz or electronic music musicians) and try not to respond people’s expectations. There is something fun in that, like a hide-and-seek game - you always appear when they do not expect you.

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?

Like many classical musicians, I started simply by learning my percussion instruments, improving my technical and musical skills at my school in Bulgaria. Little by little, I searched for different ways of expressing myself, alone or with the artists I met.

A musician’s lifestyle nowadays is vastly different to the lifestyle of a musician in the 20th century. I love the movie ‘The Enigma’ with Sviatoslav Richter, where he tells the story of his life as a musician. I remember his story about his recital in Odessa – a once in a lifetime opportunity where preparation for the event took several months. At that time, people could not access information as freely as we do via the internet. So, when audiences were listening to Richter it was a unique, once-in-lifetime experience. As a result, one of the most important choices I have since made, is to try to be more spontaneous and discover things in the moment.

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 have accumulated a variety of instruments as I have played all classical percussions since the age of seven. I love the trance-like feel and the dance that a rhythm can bring to people, the power of those instruments going directly to the heart of each individual. When we think, breathe or listen to our heart beating, we all have percussions and rhythm inside ourselves.

But maybe, the most special instrument from the percussion family for me is the marimba. I can only describe it like a huge xylophone; usually marimbas have 5 octaves, and the sound is deep, profound, very resonant and warm in the bass register and the medium. It can be more percussive and direct in the highest register, but that all depends on how we decide to play the marimba. Mallets are important for the quality of the sound (by the way I had the chance to develop my own series of mallets with Vibrawell Mallets France) but for me the most important element is the musical phrases and the “touché”, like on the piano, for example.

The interesting thing is that the marimba is very popular, and it is a traditional instrument in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico. However, the marimba we are learning in schools and conservatoires is something different - the structure is more elaborated, the wood of the keyboard is better tuned and prepared, but the most important thing is that the repertoire is not at all the same. So, we have two versions of this instrument which are pretty different - the traditional and the contemporary -  I am actually dreaming about finding bridges and work with some traditional marimbists one day!

One of the most important qualities of the marimba is that it can be at the same time percussive, melodic and harmonic - we can go from extremely tender to very aggressive and wild sounds. This gives one a lot of range to explore and helps to find your own sound or style of playing.

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 love reading and interpreting new pieces.

Usually, if it is a piece which is already part of the repertoire, I do not listen to other interpretations and really try to feel what the music says to me. It helps me to deliver something authentic and filled with my identity, not just a copy of what ‘we should do.’ I am trying a lot of different ideas and I am always changing, even during a concert. I believe that we should not play one piece twice in the same way, as it depends on so many things - our mood, the audience, the atmosphere, the acoustic, the phrase building and so on. This is actually pretty interesting and challenging as sometimes we can be surprised and we are always obliged to stay aware.

I am not a musician who is always working on a table looking at the scores. I advise my students to do this, (laughs) but I cannot work like that. I need to feel, to touch, to experience, not just follow the concept I have developed by analysing before touching the instrument. Yet, I am very attached to the musical form and the analysis of the piece (my mother is teaching this actually), because I am always analysing while playing.

Successful interpretations for me are always fulfilled by experimenting with new and fresh ideas, as we rediscover a piece and are trying to tell an interesting story to ourselves, to the composer, and to the audience. I understood while working on my pedagogical master memory that other performers do not really “hear” what they play. So, I think that a good interpretation is connected with very detailed hearing and listening to the music you play. Also, I think that improvising on a piece can considerably improve the interpretation. Actually, the piece should almost sound as you are creating it now, in the same moment.

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