So, haven't you heard, Lara St. John's new Bach recording is making waves on iTunes. Lucky for the Shallot that she decided to chat with us last week via Gmail IM (thank Google for the ability to archive chats). Anyway, Lara needs very little introduction (although here's some). It would be good if you knew that she plays Bach like a rockstar and historically important soloist at once. And that she's fiercely independent. And thoughtful. And it would probably be good if you knew that you will like this music even if you've never listened to anything so-called "classical." With that, the most recent (and extremely bloggy) Shallot Q&A with Lara St. John.
Me: So have you ever spoken to someone over the Internet as he's playing your recording on the same machine he's using to chat with you?
Lara: Nope - this is a first.
me: Sort of a bizarre conflation of technologies, no? But you're, what, number 3 on the iTunes classical charts now? It shouldn't seem too foreign...
Lara: Well, it was # 2 till about yesterday - now it's sort of yo-yoing (no pun intended - since he's there too)
me: So Yo-Yo Ma and Luciano Pavarotti are your competition? Kind of nice company to be in, I would think.
Lara: Well, I think no one is going to knock Mr. Luciano out of # 1, likely for a bit. But I can't say I mind at all - an honour, in fact. Not so sure about the Most Relaxing Classical Music one, though...
me: Who calls himself the "most relaxing" classical musician?
Lara: I don't know, it's some sort of compilation...Somehow I didn't check it out.
me: Ah. Well, speaking purely from my own experience, classical music always stressed me out. Got me thinking, worrying about my own technique as a violinist, etc. One definitely doesn't play to relax, but some of these Bach movements really induce another state of consciousness. As a player. Would you agree?
Lara: I sort of go into a weird trance-like state, which I suppose could be termed a different state of consciousness. Normally with these pieces, unlike just about everything else, if someone asks me after, how I felt about a performance, I only have an aura idea - nothing specific...
me: You mean a feeling you can't articulate but still know very intimately as yours only?
Lara: Well, more like a good feeling. Because if I can be specific about what I wanted to do differently after a Bach performance, then I wasn't in the right state. As opposed to, say, a Tchaikovsky, where I can always remember where the orchestra was late, or if I messed something up, etc. It probably has to do with the aloneness of it - evidently, in playing anything else, one has to be aware of one's surroundings.
me: I'll get back to surroundings in a few minutes if you don't mind. I
was just thinking about this as you were typing: It might have been
this time last year, or two or three years ago, but the last time I
spoke to someone about Bach works like this, it was with the violinist Gidon
Kremer, who had just also put out his second collection of these works.
You two approach these pieces differently but there's something similar
about the results if you don't mind me saying so. I notice that like
Gidon you seem--and I'm just positing aloud--to really want these to
sound like a sonic map of who you are. The performances are very
personal. They don't sound like you're following any sort of
controlling, Ivan Galamian-like attitude about how to pull them off.
(Galamian being a famous pedagogue from the 20th century who modernized
violin technique and produced a lot of mimicry in his assistants.)
Lara: Hmm. Well, shame on me, but I actually have not heard Gidon's Bach, or for that matter, anyone else's for decades. To me, the pieces just make a lot of sense, and at the time that I recorded them, I could not have done them any other way. So yah, it's pretty personal! I SO know what you mean about that Galamian thing though - so often I teach these in master classes and the like -- and am astonished that young folks don't seem to want to come up with their own ideas and really advance their own interpretations. Usually I try to get the idea across that there is no wrong - only things that don't work because they are not convincing. It's hard to make something convincing if it's not innate and one's own, though.
me: And is there something about these works that just begs a musician to get closer to his or her own true nature than other music? (As for all those young musicians that sounds like each other, I weep for them. I had a teacher who came straight out of Galamian's workshop, and the best thing I ever did was leave her little factory…Not that some of the G students in their own right weren't true artists.)
Lara: Hahaha. Well, I call them conveyor-belt players. The factory ones, that is.
But there are thousands of different ways of playing the Bach 6 - since one is alone, and very rarely are there dynamics written, one has complete freedom of choice - for tempo, articulation, phrasing, etc. More than any other music written for violin. That's why I think it's sort of uncool that they are practically used as etudes in some schools - and ideas of doing anything differently tend to be shot down. For the past many years, folks have been saying 'oooh you sound much different than, (say), Gidon', or whomever else they may be familiar with. And in these pieces, vive la différence - I always take that as a compliment, no matter how great the other's performance may be.
me: Oh, that's how I meant it. I mean, if you don't sound like yourself on Bach, then you're not truly playing it, you're letting it play you.
Lara: No, if it plays you, you should be fine. If you let someone else in there, that is where the problem starts.
me: HAHA. Well put. So, about, the recording: It sounds very...clean and live at the same time. As if you're in the room with the listener. Was there a technical way to achieve that? I also know that you chose to record full takes of the multi-movement works. Can you explain what that means and what the other options would have been?
Lara: Well, first of all, it's in SACD (high-fi SuperAudio CD format), which really gets every aspect of the sound. It doesn't hurt to have a massive room where one needs no artificial reverb, as well (Skywalker Sound, where the works were recorded). I think we had some 13 mikes placed all over (I am not a techie so can't go into it in extreme detail) but when we sound checked, I was amazed - it's close and yet not close. Alive as though one is right next, and yet also an audience member.
me: Yes, I hear the unique timbre of your E string the way I would in a practice room, but it's also richly textured as if I was listening to you practice from the 10th row of Carnegie. (Which actually isn't that close.)
Lara: As for the complete take thing - I just have this notion, that if for example, I did a take of the Chaconne (movement from the D minor partita) starting from the last section, I would not be at the right state, and the arc would be lost. This goes for each movement in its own right. In a microcosm of that one can hear, in the E major preludio, for example, that the end is more euphoric, less fresh and sparkly than the beginning, yet that is because it's live. I don't know if anyone else would ever hear that, but I would know, and it would make it sound fake to me. Also, at the end of both sessions, I invited folks up to Skywalker and did a full performance of all 3 each time, beginning to end. Those actually ended up being a very large portion of the disc. So, in a way, it is a real concert.
me: I was going to say that I agreed with you about it sounding like a real trollop through the works. I just heard your transition between the sarabande and gigue movements of the D minor partita (I'll call it extremely vocal even if that isn't the best description), and that transition could never have happened if someone had stopped between each movement and had, say, a sandwich. Were you drained from playing them all so often, though? Not to go back to Gidon, but once he performed all six at Columbia University, and he said to me that after that concert he felt empty and dead tired. For days.
Lara: Ahhh yes I was very happy about that transition - I can't remember which, but one of them has no edits, and the other has like, one. I have never done all 6 at once - I would imagine I would go and pass out. And yes, I was very drained after both sessions - nearly catatonic, in fact. I remember being informed at one point that I wasn't making much sense.
me: That's probably a good sign. I'd be scared of someone who could boast coherence following even three of these played in a row. Lara, you're selling this on iTunes, though. Do you realize that we all may be hearing one of these movements after a Bob Dylan song and before the new Beastie Boys funk jam? The Chaconne (the final movement from the D minor partita) is pretty much punk rock to me anyway, so it's not a big deal for these ears. Then again, I spent most of my childhood affixing that ear to a chinrest.
Lara: Actually, I think the G Minor allegro was on a sort of 'best of the store' compilation, between Trisha Yearwood and Feist. That's cool with me - although I am sure some folks must have been really surprised (ideally pleasantly so).
me: Do you have an iPod?
Lara: Of course! The 80 gig one. And a Nano. I am a Mac girl from the very beginning. I even have an iPhone, although I have some issues with AT&T.
me: Well, Verizon here. Don't get me started on that. My question's more germane to the shuffling and such. Do you like to shuffle through so-called "classical" (or what I like to call "concert" music) -- or do you feel like the Bach and Mozart deserves a different sort of treatment. I have a smart-playlist on my iPod that says Non-Classical. The term annoys me, but sometimes I just don't want the genre--I know it's not one but 6,530--invading my workout. Or my commute. Maybe it's having been brought up as a classical musician. I listen to so much other stuff but only rarely am I loving the shuffle between everything on the 80 gigger. I mean, Radiohead and Stravinsky and Miles and then Steve Reich seems to work. But few other combos do. Especially when you've got whole operas and masses and oratorios on the hard drive. Although, I do believe that one movement of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach B Minor mass recording sounds like the Beach Boys...
Lara: Haha! Well, I wonder which movement that is. And you might want to turn that sentence around, since JS did it first.
me: What: California Girls?
Lara: He would have liked that! (and, probably, them). I usually don't do shuffle. And I must say, that I tend to keep Classical off the workout menu, although I did used to run the reservoir to Bach's organ Fantasy and Fugue in G minor. Classical is normally too subtle for the gym, and not consistent enough in beat. Rock (and its ilk) is so very easy for anyone to understand, because not one of us was born without hearing a beat. Classical is more trying to convey the infinite
variety concealed within a beat. But it's not the best while pounding pavement - I'll give you that. although the Rite of Spring can really get you to a second, third, and fourth wind...
me: Ok, so running a record company: This album, which you created the way you want, arrives on your own label. Why? And how hard is it to do?
Lara: Well, that is a loaded question
me: You don't have to answer it.
Lara: No, it'll just take me a while..is that OK?
me: It is.
Lara: Ok. In the first recordings I did, I had some control over what happened - I did all my own editing, chose repertoire, etc. However, I started to realize that I was being..hmm..what's the term..somewhat "used" in order to finance other recordings for the label. As a rather silly young inexperienced person, it took me a while to come to that conclusion. I worked very hard on in-stores, and sales, and promotion, (I actually once did 34 in-stores in 30 days!) and in the end never actually received more than a few bucks for sales of about 35 000 records. I was very excited about those few bucks at first, and then slowly it dawned on me that things weren't making a whole lot of sense. So, I left, and promptly got sued. It makes me chuckle that folks think I am laughing all the way to the bank, because I have never, in the end, made money from any recording. And yes, having your own label is HARD and I make mistakes all the time, but after my short experience with a large behemoth-like company where I had no control, I decided it was the only way to go.
me: Yes. People hear the words "record deal" and they think you live like Aerosmith.
Not that you don't live like Aerosmith. In spirit.
Lara: Right…in spirit. And now, I am happy, and if the company does something wrong, I only have myself to blame (which I do a lot).
me: Did you do anything wrong with this record?
Lara: Well, I left a few things too late - like, I didn't send out the press mailings until iTunes was already up, and only a few weeks before the street release.
And, I sort of forgot to make posters. I am doing that now.
me: Oh well, the important thing is that people can click a button and buy your music. Do you take home more that you do it yourself and sell through iTunes? Is it more artist-friendly?
Lara: iTunes has been nothing but superb to me. I am not sure why, but I think they like the Little Guy (or gal) going it alone. As for taking home more - well, my weeny company is very in the red right now, not only from the production of this one (SACD and Skywalker ain't cheap), and still not yet released, but also I did one with the Royal Phil in June, of all new concertos, and that was a huge production.
me: Which concertos?
You mean new-new music?
Lara: Well, living composers, and not yet recorded. So, yah, new.
me: Is that coming out on your label too?
Lara: This kickass concerto by an Australian named Matthew Hindson, the Corigliano Red Violin Suite (not Chaconne, not concerto) and an arrangement by myself and Martin Kennedy of Liszt's Totentanz - now for violin and orchestra. Possibly the most eclectic disc ever made.
Yep - it's on Ancalagon Records!
me: Wow, that's pretty cool, that you got an entire orchestra to sign up.
Lara: Well, they got paid, obviously.
me: I should hope so. So what's your performance schedule looking like for the near future? Anyplace that people can catch you playing Bach in person?
Lara: Well, I myself check my own website to see what I am doing. So that's pretty much the best bet! Last season I did 19 different concertos, 3 recordings, and a bunch of recitals so this year I am trying to be slightly less bonkers. Hopefully that'll help the label - since I'll be home a bit more...Tell me, how did the violin sound to you this time? Do you think it's interesting? I mean, the Guad.
me: I actually think the violin sounds great. Is it yours? I mean, is it new? You're referring to the violinmaker Guadagnini, right? It sounds bright and warm at the same time, which seems kind of impossible.
Lara: It is not mine - it's on loan from an anonymous donor - it's also hardly new - it's from 1779, Turin, Italy, by J.B. Guadagnini. It's not even new to me! I have been playing on it for nearly 9 years now - I am so lucky to have it, it's preposterous. Bach may have died 29 years prior to its creation, but that doesn't mean that the maker never heard him! And, Beethoven was 9 when it was made. Sort of a real living link with the past.
me: Oh, I could tell it was old, meaning at least 19th century. I just wondered if it was new to you. Do you know anything about its pedigree (maybe one of those composers did hear it.) How did you go about getting it? There was the big piece in Conde Nast's new business magazine Portfolio last spring about how to sponsor a classical musician. I thought it was kind of funny. Especially because I can hardly afford to sponsor myself in all my endeavors these days. Nonetheless, there are those people...
Lara: Ah. Well, I was lucky enough to happen upon one...I did a competition some 10 years ago for the Canada Council, and won a Strad for 2 years. Since all the donor's instruments are taken care of by Heinl of Toronto, whenever I was there they asked me to try out new ones. This Guad came along, and I was immediately struck by just how much deeper and more powerful it was than the Strad I had at the time. So, when the donor said I could keep the Strad longer, I said "nope, I want the Guad", and there were literally 15 seconds of silence over the phone, where I was kicking myself to have been so bold and foot-in-mouthy, and yet he was just trying to understand why I wanted a violin that was worth a million dollars less.
me: What makes a Guad different from a Strad?
Lara: Well, I can only tell the difference between this Guad, and that Strad. They all differ a lot, even within the makers, but in my instance, I found the Strad to be sweet and beautiful, very nice for Mozart, but for Bartok or Shostakovitch the power was just not there. I don't know if it's just that it's a later instrument (my then Strad was 1702), but likely not, because Shostakovich and the full orchestra of today was not even dreamt of by 1779. All I really know is that the guy (Guadagnini) did a totally smashing job with this particular instrument - even the pianissimos carry for miles - and I have yet to be covered by an orchestra.
me: How long do you get to play it? All I can say to that is once I did a tennis racquet article--me and my serious journalism--and I got to mess around with a $300 Prince for a few weeks. The thing served for me while I drank a cocktail by the sidelines.
Lara: It's sort of an open ended loan. I just have to not do anything stupid, I guess, and keep playing it a lot. Oh. I have only played tennis once, and then couldn't play the violin for 4 days, or, even get a jacket on, I was so sore. I am sure even a racquet like that would not have improved my pathetic attempt.
me: Yes, the two are a little muscularly antithetical. But then again, so many musicians are tennis players. And foodies. And drunks. And mystery novel readers. So I guess there's really no correlation.
Lara: Or CSI aficionados.
me: I'll mourn the Sopranos, thank you very much.
Lara: I am not a foodie. I am an oenophile.
me: By the way, I don't know if you saw it, but Larry David's new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm included a recent episode about an anonymous donor. There was some hullabaloo that people who really want to help don't put their names on the donation. Then I wondered: What about the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Do you think people just do it these days so as not to get targeted by identity thieves or worse?
Lara: Well, in my case, I think this guy just wants to help musicians and does not feel the need to have his benevolent name plastered all over concert programs. However, both approaches are valid - it would be sort of weird if we went to the Anonymous museum, and not the Guggenheim. Or the Tate. Or the Frick. I guess it's how one wants to live on and how important that is to one.
me: Yes, and I hope you know I was kidding. Although, maybe I should get into branding violins. We could start a whole new line for the MTV generation's kids' kids.
Lara: Uh, no, I didn't. What, with a cattle iron?
me: Well, that's one way. But I am glad the word branding doesn't ring a hundred bells with you. It's a sign that commercialism hasn't taken over your brain the way it has so many.
Lara: Oh! You mean, like a Kraft or Cap'n Crunch violin! Well, that's maybe close - Yamaha is now making artificially aged ones...
me: Really? How do they artificially age them? Hopefully with more taste than Kraft parmesan.
Lara: I think they put them through 40 seasons in a month, or something. They had me over to try a few. They even put in scratches! They sound pretty good, but I also had my own which makes it hard to compare.
me: You're scaring me now. Are they expensive?
Lara: I am not sure. Somehow I didn't ask...
me: Alas. Well I don't know if I've tired you out yet, but I may have to go get catatonic now after a day of typing. We can just jump to the kicker of this bloggerview.
Lara: Oh, is that called kicker?
me: it can be
Lara: Yah - I never went to school, so my punctuation leaves a lot to be desired...
me: you never went to school?
Lara: Well, till Grade 7. In French.
me: oh that's right. you had told me that. The Curtis Institute didn't make you go to school-school while you were doing your Paganini Caprices?
Lara: They tried. I dropped out.
me: The quintessential rebel.
Lara: No - it was just smart. Under Ontario jurisdiction, one can drop out at 13 with parent's consent. My dad made me promise to read a lot of books. I have. Otherwise, I would have been at a disgusting inner-city high school from 8-1, college from 2-sometimes 9, and then working coat check from 9-1. Something had to give.
I was 13, after all.
me: Well, I think you turned out just fine, especially compared to some of the morons who took degrees from my sorry high school with all its suburban mobster offspring and just plain empty headed Long Islanders.
Not that they're not running all the eBay brokerage stores all over this great land.
Lara: Ahhh - again, it's all about taking your own initiative. I have no idea what a cell is; have never dissected a frog, and not been to a prom. And I am a crap typist. But I am not too sorry. Huh? I don't get the Ebay ref.
me: oh, just that they're meaningless cogs in a giant meaningless wheel. The prom sucked, btw.
Lara: Well, I think there is a lot of frustration in this country - both on the high end and the low, of the income scale. I like to think of myself as an objective observer, being, till 2 years ago, a foreigner... (I am a dual citizen now) But don't let us get into all that!
me: Well, welcome to greatest nation on the planet, then. (I'd be an asshole to call it hell considering how other people have to live; on the other hand, our government, well, why even say anything.)
Lara: Yah - one can't really say anything, because it would be too full of expletives...
But it is heartening to know that 78% of the country feel that way, so change must be in the air...
me: Oh, the smoggy air (of LA).
Lara: You are the one in smog, my dear..
me: And you watching a movie shoot from across the street in noisy NY.
Lara: I guess we're even.
Me: I guess we are. Hey, thanks for chatting on the Shallot. This was fun.
Lara: Anytime. I am amazed I've never done this IM-y thing before - it's very cool! Must try to get a little faster with my 2 fingered typing. Thanks for your patience, and byezo!