The following interview was conducted for the occasion of Music & Literature No. 4, which includes some 80 pages of new interviews, graphic scores, poems, appreciations, and other writings on and by the musical duo Maya Homburger and Barry Guy.
When you first began to learn the violin, were you playing the romantic repertoire?
Like all young children (I started at the age of seven), I played baroque sonatas, etc., first, and then the classic and romantic repertoire.
At what stage did you begin to be attracted to the idea of historically informed performance?
This happened in 1979 on the occasion of a master class with Professor Eduard Melkus, who came to Bern to introduce us to the baroque violin. It was love at first sight with this instrument, and the class resulted in my studying with him in Vienna at the same time as finishing my studies in Bern.
If you were asked to play a Brahms violin sonata for some prestigious festival, what would you say?
I could not do that anymore, since I have not touched a modern violin or modern bow since 1986, when I moved to England. I could not even cope with the weight of the modern bow anymore.
How have attitudes to playing baroque music changed since you began to concentrate on playing it?
A lot of so-called modern players are now much better informed about the historical way of performing baroque music. So, in general, I think there is more awareness of the special stylistic requirements of baroque music. Having said that . . . of course you can still hear the most famous violinists playing a Bach solo sonata or concerto as if it were a romantic piece to be played in a huge concert hall. And what you also get (sadly!) is a totally distorted vision of speed when it comes to, for example, Bach violin concertos, or even fast movements within the solo sonatas and partitas: some modern players tend to favor extremely fast speeds that in my opinion reduce Bach’s music to lightweight entertainment.
What technical difficulties arise when playing one of Barry Guy’s compositions for baroque violin?
Barry composes in a way that is very idiomatic for my baroque violin and its potential. So there are not that many specific difficulties for the baroque violin. But, the pieces are in themselves very hard and virtuosic, so it takes me a long time—in the case of Lysandra and Aglais, for example, even several years—to feel really on top of it. Having said that, he has also devised a few techniques that go totally against all the ingrained instincts, which have been built in for many years—one example being a passage in Inachis in which one plays very fast virtuosic scales but is not allowed to fully depress the string onto the fingerboard. So the fingers only lightly touch the string, but in the correct position. This took me many months to learn, but it has had a wonderfully freeing effect on the overall left-hand technique.
How easy or difficult do you find it to improvise when you are required to do so?
I am still not a real improviser, so I only feel comfortable when I am led into an improvised passage via fully notated sections.
Barry is a master at this. He can free me up by giving me for example a note row, or pitches to be played in any order within a box of possibilities. In the case of Amphi for the BGNO and baroque violin, he wrote passages in which I play fully notated material but at the same time can react to the glorious improvisations of Evan Parker, Agustí Fernández, Johannes Bauer, etc. This gives me the chance to change the written material, extend and vary it, and feel as if I am improvising. A fantastic feeling.
Would you play a solo improvised piece?
No, I consider myself as a primarily interpretive artist. I do not feel the need to create/compose a piece.
Is there a mental difference between the process of improvising and that of playing a composition?
This question could be answered by writing a whole book. And of course it would have to be written by Barry or one of his improvising colleagues. What goes on in the human brain, in the ear, in the whole body while improvising is very different from playing and reading a composition. There are a multitude, in fact millions, of motor decisions to be made while playing, and these are controlled in different areas of the brain, depending on whether you are re-producing or creating music. And of course all of these processes are again different depending on whether you are playing solo or reacting to other musicians. In my case of reproducing music from written scores, I also react to the image on paper: for example, I play the Bach solos only from Bach’s handwriting (facsimile edition), which gives me countless indications of the musical direction. I also much prefer to read Barry’s pieces from his handwritten pages than from computer-produced editions. Then, of course, we have the mental process, while playing a fully written piece, of imagining the composer’s intentions, deciphering (in the case of ancient and old music) the structure and overall architecture of the composition, etc.
If you do this with colleagues within a trio or quartet or with a conductor, there is yet another level of communication going on, since each player and the conductor has his or her own preconceived vision, wishes, and intentions.
As I said, one could write a book about all this. And I have certainly witnessed many, many improvised concerts played by the world’s most amazing musicians where I could not stop marveling at the ingenious and intricate communication going on between these players at the speed of light!
When you are playing a composition by, say, Bach or Telemann, is it possible to be aware of anything other than the notes you need to play?
Of course! One is always aware of many other things: the audience, the acoustics, the atmospheric conditions (so incredibly important for the gut strings!), outside noises, one’s own posture, the way the violin responds to every move, and so on. I believe that this is even more so with the baroque violin than with a modern instrument, since the baroque violin sits very loosely on the shoulder with no real security or firm grip. There is always a mixture of balance and movement—almost dancelike, which can be very pleasing, but also disturbing, when there is the slightest tension in the body.
How complete is your concentration?
Again, this depends so much on the outside circumstances… When conditions are perfect—good acoustics, nice audience, happy violin (in other words, well-tuned strings and no unwanted squeaks), and my favorite piece of either Bach, Biber, or Guy, then my concentration can be complete and perfect.
But you rarely have this for the whole duration of a concert.
When you play Bach, how much of what we hear is from Maya Homburger and how much is from Bach?
That question cannot be answered, since I cannot tell how close my interpretation is to Bach’s intentions. I have constantly searched for more and more enlightenment as to how he might want his music to sound. And during a lifetime of practicing, and perhaps especially during the Bach year (2000), when I played fifty-two cantatas during John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, I think I got much closer to the real Bach. But who knows…this might be an illusion. I am told that he often played the violin solos on the clavichord, and he apparently said that this instrument gave him the most expressive solutions. So I think I am on the right track by attempting to play these solo sonatas and partitas in a very soft—rounded and intimate, but at the same time highly emotional—way, rather than with lots of pressure and impetus, which is so often done by high-powered soloists.
Are conductors necessary?
Often, but not always. It depends entirely on the size of the ensemble and the concept. Of course you would not want to attempt a major symphony or complex modern composition without the guidance of a conductor. And throughout history, famous conductors have had magical powers to change and transform an already well-known composition into an even more engaging work.
With our ensemble Camerata Kilkenny, we can certainly play a lot of Bach cantatas, concertos, etc. without a conductor.
Having said this, I recently performed Bach’s Double Concerto, which is often performed without a conductor, with John Eliot Gardiner, which was a very special experience since he was totally supportive and in an almost dancelike communication with us soloists.
Is there a male/female sensibility in music?
I could not answer this without uttering some clichéd statements.
It is a fact, though, that worldwide there are still many more male improvisers than female, which is a puzzle to me. On the other hand, there are lots of ladies in the baroque orchestras. Which is a great development, since, until very recently, in the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, for example, there were no women!
How much does the venue influence the way you play?
I touched on this already earlier: the acoustics have an enormous effect on the performance. For example, I like to practice in very dry and almost brutal acoustics in order to learn to cope with a room in which not the slightest little noise can be hidden.
If one then has the privilege to perform in a beautifully warm and resonant space, then the violin almost plays itself and suddenly comes to life with all its countless colors and dynamic ranges.
Are there particular venues or spaces you would like to play in?
My favorite spaces are medium-sized or small churches with lots of wood and plaster, which help to produce a very warm sound.
Are there ways in which you would like to change the relationship that exists at concerts between the musicians and the audience?
I personally love to be very close to the audience, which is the reason that we start all our Guy/Homburger Duo concerts with the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” which I play while walking through the audience.
As far as change goes . . . I have a plan to organize what I want to call “Bach Marathons,” when I will play for four hours (almost nonstop), say from two to six P.M., in a beautiful small church and invite the audience to come in and out as they wish, to witness either an hour or two or more, or much less. I also envisage that they will put in requests for a movement to be played again, for instance the famous “Chaconne,” or one of the very beautiful slow movements.
This would create a different way of playing for me, without this moment of start and end, which I sometimes find quite difficult when it comes to the Bach solo sonatas and partitas.
I envisage that I could play them in a freer way, almost as if I was improvising them on the spot, in a situation like this.
You took part in many of the concerts organized by John Eliot Gardiner for his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, a yearlong tour around the world in which the cantatas were played according to the church calendar, about which you have said, “The pilgrimage year was one of the happiest of my life.” Can you say why those concerts were so special?
Not easy to put in a nutshell . . . but a few main reasons: first of all, Bach is my favorite composer, and I find his music not only challenging in every way but also totally spiritual. It gets right to the core of one’s being. In addition to this, the fact that we played the cantatas according to the church calendar and had the privilege to perform them in the most beautiful cathedrals and churches all over Europe to a devoted audience, transformed the performances into a real ritual in the best sense. And last but not least, the year also provided an enormous job satisfaction, since we all managed to play great concerts with extremely limited rehearsal times and sometimes under difficult conditions. So the sense of achievement at the end of the year was fantastic.
Can music change anything?
In my humble opinion, music could change the world if it were allowed to. But sadly, the world is mostly ruled by totally different forces, and at the moment we musicians (especially in our scene of ancient, new, and improvised music) have to fight more than ever to prove how important music and listening are for the survival of humanity.
If you hadn't become a violinist, what do you think you would be doing now?
Hard to say . . . I had started to study theology, history and art history before I realized that it had to be music college. I suppose the aspiration was to study history and somehow “save the world,” so to speak. An ambition that so many young students have. Perhaps I would be a counselor if not a musician? Or work in the field of charity or similar? I certainly have a huge admiration for all the charity workers who risk their lives and health working for people in need all over the world.
Maya Homburger, born and educated in Switzerland, moved to England in 1986 to join John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists and other period instrument groups. Since meeting the composer and bassist Barry Guy, she has devoted her time to managing his various ensembles, running their CD label, Maya Recordings, and specializing in chamber music and solo performance.
Declan O'Driscoll has written about music for a number of publication including the Irish Times, Cadence, and The Journal of Music in Ireland.