Alexander Balanescu: The Aggressive Lyricism
Alexander Balanescu, the London-based violinist of Romanian origin, leads the avant- garde string quartet Alexander Balanescu, formed in 1987. Before that, Balanescu was part of the Michael Nyman Ensemble and Arditti Quartet. Ever since he has worked closely with artists of various musical orientations such as saxophonist John Lurie, singer David Byrne, pianists Keith Tippett and Carla Bley, oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil, Spiritualised and the Pet Shop Boys.
Balanescu has been involved both as a performer and as a composer in many cross- genre collaborations with film, theater, dance and art productions, such as films directed by Peter Greenaway and dance projects directed by Pina Bausch. During the last two decades, a strong link to his Romanian music heritage has resulted in a number of projects which include the albums Luminitza (Mute, 1994), Maria T. (Mute, 2005) and his most recent collaboration with the Romanian singer Ada Milea, The Island (A&A, 2011).
His music draws its singularity from finely distilled influences that go beyond geographical borders and genre limits. The musician's classical background has been continuously enhanced by an active interest in traditional music, as well as in a large array of musical styles ranging from contemporary music to pop, and from sound processing to post-modern jazz.
The uniqueness of Balanescu's performance resides in its deep emotional resonance and powerful manner of expression, characterized by the violinist's strong rhythmical impact on his strings, as well as other non-specific sonorities. The tension thus created has resulted in a style of interpretation defined by the artist as Aggressive Lyricism.
All About Jazz: What what is the significance of your composition, "Still with Me"?
Alexander Balanescu: I wrote that piece when I first returned to Romania 23 years after I left in 1969, and I realized that all the ties to my land of birth were intact.
AAJ: What was your first conscious musical experience?
AB: I have quite a few musical memories from my early childhood, but what I recall very well is meeting classic violinist David Oistrakh. I was about nine. I went to the rehearsal in the morning, in a concert hall in Bucharest, where he was rehearsing for a Brahms concerto. He was trying two violins: one was a Vournelli, and the other a Stradivarius, and he was asking the people which one sounded better. Most people chose the Vournelli, and I thought that it was better for Brahms, too. Because I did not have a ticket, after the rehearsal I hid in the toilet and I only came out in the evening when the concert began. I also remember that after the concert he signed the program for me. I was very impressed because he seemed to have time for everybody. He exuded much warmth and was never in a hurry.
AAJ: Did he become your role model?
AB: Yes, Oistrakh became one of my gods. The other one was Yehudi Menuhin. They represent quite opposite ends of the scale. Oistrakh was the perfect technician, whereas Menuhin was all about expression. They became my hearing poles. I believe that the really great artists are also great, generous persons. Menuhin helped me a lot, and not only musically. He also had great political courage and was quite vocal about his views. I admire him for that too, even if I didn't share all of his views. When we first emigrated to Israel I did not want to join the army there, as I did not want to join any army at all. I was studying in London at that time and I needed some recommendations in order to stay there and continue my study. I got those recommendations from Yehudi Mehuhin, from Placido Domingo, The Chicago Symphony Orchesta and Chorus, Daniel Barenboim and from Isaac Stern. Menuhin helped me with quite a few other things as well.
AAJ: How did you come to study the violin?
AB: I started playing the violin when I was about six, and I had a terrible teacher at first. After a few months I stood for an exam at the school of music in Bucharest but I wasn't accepted. They said I was quite expressive but not very technical. The school was called 11th June, due to some historical event, which was exactly my birthday. Quite a coincidence, isn't it? Afterwards, I had an extraordinary teacher. I remember that somebody was moving out from an apartment in our building, and they sold a big pile of musical scores. My mother went to see if she could get some classical scores for my future instruction and there was this young lady with a violin case. So she asked her for advice. She told her what to buy; then came to listen to me playing and became my teacher. Her name is Miriam Koritzer. She was a prodigy, who had graduated from the musical academy at 15, and was playing in the film studio orchestra at that time.
AAJ: What kind of impact did she have on you?
AB: She still has an incredible impact on me. She lives in America now, but we are still in touch. She is a mentor, a muse, a lover and a mother to me. Miriam became very passionate about my musical development. We used to work from six to seven in the morning, in the kitchen, so as not to wake up my family. When she finished work, she would come back to see what I had done during the day. Her family did not understand this very well because she did not get paid for my tuition. The only thing my mother could do to compensate for her teaching was to buy her bread. In those days, she had to queue for bread at the bakery downstairs. In this way we won another half an hour of practicing.
Her methods were very revolutionary. First of all, she never separated technique from musicality. So, I never had to practice technique for technique's sake. It was always connected to some kind of expression. Then she had a very interesting conception about the left hand, the fingerboard. Usually you study the violin in positions. She had the conception that the fingerboard is like a piano keyboard, so you play in intervals, all over it. I still haven't heard of anybody else who shares this unique conception.
This gave me a lot of freedom on the violin, and that's probably why I find it easy to play contemporary music and to improvise. In order to enhance my power of expression she would ask me to play the same piece again and again, each time in a different mood. She would say, now you play like a king, now you play like a tramp and so on.
This time, I passed the entrance exam for the music school with the highest mark. She also resolved the problem on hearing, by associating pitch with an image. Now I have perfect pitch. She would also record the lessons on videotape, so that I could analyze my playing after a while.
She left Romania a few years after us and went to America. When I went to study in New York I reconnected with her. She was in Philadelphia and every two or three weeks I would go and visit. We also worked a lot over the phone.