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Alexander Balanescu: The Aggressive Lyricism


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There seems to exist the opinion that if it is good music, it has to be complicated and you have to suffer for it. I think that it has to be complex in the sense that it has to be rich in emotion. For me music is connected to movement, to rhythm, to dance
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.

AAJ: When did you know that you were a born musician?

AB: I fell in love with the violin right away. My father brought me a violin from one of his travels, I think from Russia, and I took to it immediately. I always took the study very seriously, so at that time it was already very clear to me that I was going to make music and nothing else. I didn't really have a normal childhood, because it was dedicated to music, but I enjoyed it very much.

AAJ: When did you make your debut?

AB: I was nine when I had my first recital in a concert hall and I have been working ever since.

AAJ: Your musical background is classical. Can you identify the moments when you became permeated by other influences? Which one had the greatest impact on you?

AB: The musical education in Romania was at a very high level but it wasn't very diversified. So I got in touch with chamber music, for instance, only later, in my twenties. I used to study stupid things based mainly on virtuosity, and I didn't get to hear some of the great music until later on, music from other fields, which interest me a lot these days. A big change happened when I went to study at the Juilliard Music School in New York. It was quite a traumatic experience in a way, because before that I was already a star. When we left Romania I could only take with me a 7/8 violin, which was OK, but it wasn't really a good instrument. So, I lacked a good instrument.

The Trinity College in London lent me very good instruments, but in Julliard I was one of the hundreds of talented young people and I became anonymous. The administration at Julliard was very impersonal. I had one of the greatest teachers there, Ms. Dorothy DeLay, with whom I had a great relationship but the school system was quite tense.

AAJ: What were the non-classical influences that made an impact on you?

AB: In my time in New York I have realized that it did not fulfill me to have a career as a classical soloist, and I needed to do something else as well. So I started to become interested in composition in order to be more of an all-round musician, not only a performer. I also got involved in the avant-garde world, which was quite different from the uptown music. I came across Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass. I met John Cage and John Lurie became a friend of mine.

I did quite a few jobs in order to survive; one of them was to play James Brown's "Sex Machine" on viola for fifty dollars in an avant-garde theater on 22nd street. John Lurie was also in this show and we used to hang around in a bar where I also met [film director] Jim Jarmush. So, I gradually got involved in a completely different world. I became friends with the violin improviser Malcom Goldstein. It was a very open circle of people and you could interact a lot. We used to have concerts in lofts, which was a bit weird because it was completely opposite to my "day job" in Julliard. It was like having a secret life.

AAJ: What would you define as the main source?

AB: I had a lot of influence from other musical areas, like traditional music, electronic music, pop music and, of course, jazz. I am interested in music from many parts of the world and in the way it connects and interacts, and on its impact on classical music. On the other hand, I play Bach very often these days because he was a great improviser. He was the jazz man of his days. It is only now that I have started to understand him and am trying and approach his music, because now I don't get stuck with the technical part anymore.

AAJ: What is your affiliation to jazz?

AB: I love the freedom and the power of expression you can find in jazz. Also the sensuality. I used to be very passionate about jazz when I was young but at some point I got disillusioned. After free jazz, after [saxophonists] John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler and [pianist] Cecil Taylor, there seemed to be nowhere to go, a bit like in the classical field after serial music. There seemed to be a dead end there. Of course this is a generalization and there are still people working on this field who are wonderful. Cecil Taylor is still there, [saxophonist] Evan Parker is there, [guitarist] Bob Brozman is there, but mainstream jazz has become very conservative. It is music that is very well played but is not exciting anymore. What was exciting for me in jazz was the sense of revolution, of looking for things, of changing things.

What is more interesting now is another area of jazz, which is not blues-based, but is a kind of combination of more influences. The Scandinavian jazz, for instance, has a lot of classical in it, and has the history of jazz, but comes from a different direction—which, to me, is leading forward. After all these years I think Europe has become more important than America in what we call jazz these days. Or let's call it improvisation. Take musicians like [pianist] Misha Alperin, for instance, who succeeded a lot better to fulfill the marriage between composition and improvisation. I find this exciting and I work quite a lot in this field myself.

AAJ: In what kind of jazz projects are you involved?

AB: I have a trio, which I love very much. With Javier Girotto on saxophone and Zlatko Kaućić on percussion. I suppose you would call it jazz. It is not blues-based; it is totally free, totally improvised. It is funny that sometimes people don't believe us because it sounds quite structured. We made a point of not writing anything down, no tunes. I enjoy working with these people a lot. These collaborations are very mysterious. You never know why some work and some don't. And it is very difficult to control this. To me the personal relations play a great role here. When the musicians get along well together it translates into their music.

AAJ: What is your tone made of?

AB: This is a very good question. My tone is a combination of the technique of sound production—which concentrates on the balance between the chords, and the bow that allows you to get the maximum number of harmonics for that frequency. I would call it a centered sound, which reaches the core of the notes.

AAJ: Your sound has a very specific quality, at the nexus of lyricism and drama.

AB: That's exactly what it is. I call it "Aggressive Lyricism." Beyond the technical thing, it is very important to bring in imagination for the sound and put into it what you want to express. The other thing I am looking for in the sound is color. I try to have an orchestral conception about the sound. Which is great fun. I also try to think of the human voice when I play the violin I try to speak through it. Which means that it doesn't always have to be something "beautiful." It can be quite aggressive or brutal but what is important for me is to have a strong expression.

AAJ: How do lyricism and drama coexist in your manner of interpretation?

AB: It is very difficult for me to analyze this myself, but I have a suspicion based on my life experience. My music is quite connected to my personal history and music is what my life is all about. I have few experiences, which are not connected to music in one way or another. All my personal relations are also related to music. So when I play solo I always tell a story about my life. My life is lyricism and drama. It is, in fact, the story of an exile.

AAJ: Your sound has a certain sequential nature and minimalistic curtness, a firm touch—almost like a percussion impact. Are you emulating other instruments, like trumpet or percussion, for instance?

AB: I certainly do. Both instruments you mentioned are there. It was very much part of the process of freeing myself of the straightjacket of the classical interpretation. A new repertoire was calling for new sounds.

AAJ: Could you describe the distillation process through which you integrate Romanian folk themes into a contemporary soundscape?

AB: What attracts me to Romanian music is its atmosphere, which is sad and happy at the same time. There is a lot of melancholy there, a lot of space and rhythm. The irregular rhythms are very interesting and that relates again to jazz, because there you also have mixed bars, which are very natural to the musicians and so complex that are almost impossible to write down. In folk music you also have that kind of swing. Let's say the Romanian influence comes in more at the morphological level, the level of the basic material. The way I develop it afterwards is based on other influences, like minimalism, and beyond that. Minimalism, in general, shies away from expression, whereas I always want to tell a story with my music.

AAJ: What is the story of Maria T.?

AB: After the album Luminitza, which acknowledged my reconnection to the Romanian culture, I tried to look for another source of inspiration and I remembered how impressed I was as a child by the music of the Romanian singer Maria Tanase. I even remember the pictures on the record jackets. So I started to study her life and her recorded legacy, and I started making compositions inspired by her songs. It was a long process; it took five or six years to bring it to fruition.

AAJ: There is a large variety of musical registers you have approached along your career. Do they correspond to certain developmental phases?

AB: Somehow it has to do with work phases and how different collaborations have come about. First of all, when I finished my studies, I wanted to concentrate on composition, and at some point I wanted to stop playing altogether. I got quite interested in multimedia projects and I developed a kind of conceptual ideas about composition. I was thinking a lot about how to present music and how to connect music with video, visual arts, and with dance. Then I was convinced by friends to continue playing and I started to work a lot in the area of contemporary music.

I was approached by the Arditti Quartet to join them and so I had the chance to meet amazing composers like György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis and Gyorgy Kurtag. By the way, quite a few of them are born in Romania. After that I got very interested in the music of Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. It seemed to me like a breath of fresh air in the context of new music, because I had started feeling somehow encapsulated at that time, and I needed to expand. It was vital and exciting, because it was using tonality and very strong rhythm. When I formed my quartet in 1987 we worked very closely with these composers. They wrote a lot of music for us. And then I got interested in working with non-classical musicians like David Byrne, John Lurie, [saxophonist/clarinetist/keyboardist] John Surman and [drummer] Jack DeJohnette. We also had a chance to work with [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman. We learned a lot from them, because non-classical musicians have no inhibitions. A string quartet can be very daunting through its rigors and traditions. You have the greatest things written for string quartets by Beethoven, by 'Laddy' Alan Haydn Busby or by Bartók. Byrne or Lurie have quite a different kind of imagination. And then we started to play original music, mostly my music. I was the pivot in the quartet, so to say. We had some changes over the years, but now we have had the same personnel for 12 years.

AAJ: What fuels the synergy of Balanescu Quartet?

AB: A quartet is like a marriage. You must really love each other in order to work together for such a long time. We are very harmonious on the personal level. It is a dynamics, which is quite mysterious. We are different personalities and we do different things. James Shenton, the second violin does a lot of traditional music, Irish and Scottish; he is a very good composer and a gardener, too. The cello player, Nick Holland, a very fine musician, is freelancing. The viola player is my wife, Katie Wilkinson. She is fantastic. It so happened that we needed a replacement quickly and I asked her if she could help us out because she knew the music. Immediately after Katie joined, the whole atmosphere changed—for the better. So, she stayed.

Sometimes I have the feeling that I have created a monster [laughs]. We've been going for 25 years and somehow it is better-known than myself. Now it has a life of its own. Sometimes people ask me if I've got anything to do with it.

AAJ: Do you have an ideal audience?

AB: I am happy to say that we can communicate to any kind of audience. The only context, which is somehow restrictive, is the classical one, because people are more defensive and conservative there. On one hand, they challenge us, on why we amplify the strings, which I find completely normal; on the other hand there is also a kind of suspicion about people actually enjoying the new music. There seems to exist the opinion that if it is good music, it has to be complicated and you have to suffer for it. I think that it has to be complex in the sense that it has to be rich in emotion. For me music is connected to movement, to rhythm, to dance.

As far as the environment goes, what I like very much is to play in a context that is surprising, like an art gallery or a factory or a church, where the setting is not predetermined and you can make your own atmosphere. I also like a challenge, like a rock festival. We had the opportunity to tour with the Pet Shop Boys as a support group, for instance and we had a good reaction. The theater is also known to have a somewhat conservative audience and it is very satisfying to have a good communication in these environments.

AAJ: Where do you see yourself on your own development trajectory? What are your targets?

AB: In the last two-to-three years I have been working a lot in the theater. I am very interested in combining music with text in a dramatic situation. It really started with the album Luminitza. This album has a very deep emotional significance for me, and while I was working on it I had the feeling that I had to have some kind of vocal output, like speaking to the audience. Then the communication becomes really more direct. I had quite a few interesting projects in the theater, for instance with the Romanian singer Ada Milea. I am very interested in opera, on how to do modern opera that is convincing. I am also interested in working with image, film or video.

AAJ: What are you working on presently? Future plans?

AB: I have an enormous amount of projects both in the theater and recording projects. There's a lot of music that inspires me, like for example the music of [pianist] Duke Ellington, one of the great composers of the 20th century. I am also very passionate about the Romanian composer George Enescu, who was an amazing all-'round genius. I have a project that is inspired by Enescu that may become an opera about him. A huge personality and quite mysterious in his private life. I don't think that he is known enough worldwide.

Selected Discography

Alexander Balanescu/Ada Milea/Balanescu Quartet,The Island (Saphrane, 2011)

Massimo Barbiero/Maurizio Brunod/Alexander Balanescu/Claudio Cojaniz, Marmaduke (Splash Records, 2007)

Evelyn Petrova/Alexander Balanescu, Upside Down (Leo Records, 2007)

Balanescu Quartet, Maria T. (Mute, 2005)

Alexander Balanescu/Isabella Bordoni/Rupert Huber/Sergio Messina/Siegfried Ganhör/to rococo rot, Lume Lume (Staubgold, 2000)

Alexander Balanescu, Music For Il Partigiano Johnny, Virgin Music, 2000)

Muzsikás/Sebestyén Márta/Alexander Balanescu, Bartók Album (Muzsikás, 1998)

Alexander Balanescu/Balanescu Quartet, Angels & Insects (Mute Records Ltd, 1996)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Alexander Balanescu

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