EXCLUSIVE: Monica Germino on New England Conservatory, ‘RACHE’ Murder Premiere and Why She’s Finally Ready to Play Michael Gordon’s ‘INDUSTRY’
CLASSICALITE: Right off the bat, why did you, Monica Germino, choose music, especially contemporary music, as a profession? You grew up in Virginia, studied at Yale and finished up there on Huntington Avenue at Boston’s New England Conservatory. What was it about NEC that most appealed to you?
MONICA GERMINO: I don’t remember actually making a choice to become a musician. For me, it was a given. As for where I would study, I craved full immersion at a conservatory but encountered a lot of resistance from my parents. They were both professors and were adamant that I apply to universities. I remember passionately arguing my case and finally winning them over.
New England Conservatory’s faculty was the deciding factor for me: James Buswell, Eugene Lehner, John Heiss, Laurence Lesser and many more. And let’s not forget the visiting composers. I worked with John Cage twice at NEC and it was unforgettable, literally a life-changing experience.
C-LITE: At a time when American conservatories are being chided for their lack of emphasis on entrepreneurship, how, specifically, did New England prepared you for your career in music now?
MG: I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today without having gone through such a rigorous conservatory training at NEC. I was pushed to the limit in every lesson, a kind of blessing in a strict disguise. The benefits were immeasurable–literally a gift for life. At the same time, I was exposed to a dizzying amount of influences, ranging from the third stream department (now called contemporary improvisation) to Steve Drury’s coaching to Larry Lesser’s “aural heritage” class. I learned to consider all the elements that went into a performance. Number one will always be the music; without great music, most experiments are likely to fail. I worked with many student and faculty composers at NEC, and this became an essential part of my work. I work on music by living composers almost every day.
C-LITE: Suffice it to say you’d recommend NEC’s approach, then?
MG: Unequivocally! The faculty is amazing, and the level [of playing] is very high.
C-LITE: Influences. Who, or what, are yours?
MG: This changes all the time. There are a few constants. Composers such as Bach; I play Bach every day. And Stravinsky. My past teachers: Vera Beths, James Buswell, Mark Rush. I always find inspiration in my work with living composers. I admire artists who keep learning and trying new things. When I started singing and playing simultaneously, I looked to Carla Kihlstedt and Iva Bittová for inspiration.
C-LITE. OK, let’s talk your many, many collaborations. More specifically, can you talk about your experiments in and with collaboration?
MG: To me, experimentation means having an open mind, always being open to learning and trying new things. One of the highest compliments I ever received was from a colleague, who said to me, “You’ve never stopped studying.” For me, that is part of being open: never feeling finished with anything, always experimenting, always growing.
A prime example of experimentation in my collaborative work is my duo with sound designer Frank van der Weij. We create composer-driven programs for violinist and a sound designer. We throw a lot into the mix when creating a new show: violin and electric violin, modified violin, singing and playing, kick drums, electronics, installations, images, the list goes on. Each new piece catapults us into the next round of discoveries. Any additional element has to have a purpose, such as supporting the composer’s intentions or allowing us to experiment with transforming sound and exploiting new technologies.
We also look for ways to bring the audience closer to the composer and increase awareness of the thrilling, three-way collaboration of composer-performer-sound designer. We document and share the working process with the audience through pre-recorded audio/video composer introductions preceding each piece. This additional layer unites the past with the present, and brings the composers into the forefront alongside the performers.
Another important collaboration is with my group ELECTRA, an international four-member ensemble that commissions composers from all over the world. The players are simply phenomenal musicians, and we’ve had wonderful opportunities to explore different paths and experiment with a variety of disciplines. Right now, we’re working on a new show, RACHE (REVENGE).
C-LITE: Of your many instruments, do you play favorites? And since so many of them are electro-acoustic, what’s that balance like–both timbrally and maybe even conceptually?
MG: I have quite a few instruments: a Joannes Baptista Ceruti violin from 1802 (on permanent loan from the Elise Mathilde Foundation); my custom-made electric violin, Violectra; a modified violin created for performances of Michael Gordon’s INDUSTRY; a bright blue violin; even a BACH bow that’s able to play four strings simultaneously. At the end of the day, I always turn back to the Ceruti. It is a gorgeous instrument, capable of subtlety and power. It’s a tactile joy to play. The Violectra is a thrill in other ways. It is beautifully crafted, has enormous power and flexibility and a slew of composers have been inspired to write pieces for the instrument.
The tricky thing about electric violin is the lack of an acoustic reference under my ear. I didn’t realize how much I depended on the responsiveness of an acoustic violin until it wasn’t there. The left hand on the strings of an acoustic violin produces a sound imperceptible to an audience, but clear to one’s ear. It resonates, and whereas with the Violectra there’s a bit of a response, it’s almost nothing in comparison with an acoustic violin. That’s also why I had the Violectra custom-made as a twin to the Ceruti, copying exactly the same measurements, so I would have a fighting chance at accuracy.
C-LITE: And where is your favorite place to perform. Why?
MG: Usually, it’s the last hall I’ve played in. Although I love the thrill of large halls, I tend to prefer smaller halls or theaters where there is less distance between the performer and the audience. In shows that I curate, I make sure the audience knows they are welcome to come up to the stage afterward to ask questions. This really works–especially when there are effects and sounds whose execution can be mysterious to an audience. I remember the audience staying around for an hour or so after a show in Canada, peppering us with question after question. It became a wonderful, impromptu, extended discussion.
C-LITE: You mentioned that modified instrument created for Michael Gordon and INDUSTRY. Can you speak a bit about your history with that piece?
Just a few days ago, Cantaloupe Music released a new video clip of Michael Gordon’s INDUSTRY, where I play a modified, amplified, extreme scordatura acoustic violin. Frank van der Weij does sound design and recording. The video is by Marcel Wierckx.
This clip represents one of the best examples of an ideal collaboration between violinist and sound engineer and one of my longest-running projects: figuring out how to make the definitive violin version of this modern-day classic work.
C-LITE: And Gordon’s INDUSTRY is featured, too, on your newest concert of program with Mr. van der Weij, entitled “AMERICAN WIZARDRY.”
MG: Yes, INDUSTRY is the final work on the program, which is the latest in a string of programs with my duo with Frank. The show explores the wizardry of transformation. A little fun fact: The title is derived from a New York Times review of a show we did where the reviewer credited Frank with “digital wizardry.” It’s rare that a sound engineer gets mentioned in the press alongside the performer onstage. I was very pleased that Frank was given the double billing he deserves. I couldn’t do any of this without him.
“AMERICAN WIZARDRY” features American composers as the wizards, with new works for violin and sound design by David Dramm, Julia Wolfe, Missy Mazzoli, Molly Joyce, Annie Gosfield, and Michael Gordon. What I love about this show is not only the fantastic new pieces but also the surprise factor for the audience. At one point, I play violin and two kick drums simultaneously. Quite a challenge! In some pieces, the sound is manipulated so cleverly that it’s impossible to tell where certain sounds come from, or what is causing which sound. One of my favorite parts of the collaboration with Frank centers on trust. In certain pieces, I can relinquish control over what comes out of my instrument. Not always knowing what sound will come out when I put my bow to the string is extremely liberating.
People don’t always understand what I’m doing right away, and often ask me if I have a duo with a pianist. They ask, “You play in a duo with a…sound engineer?” But once they hear the results, it’s clear. It just works.
C-LITE: We opened with a discussion about your time at New England Conservatory, but you’ve got serious European bona fides, as well. Having worked extensively with Dutch titan Louis Andriessen, you very recently played one of his major works, no?
MG: Yes, I just performed La Passione, a double concerto by Louis Andriessen for voice, violin, and large ensemble, in the Eight Bridges Festival in Cologne.
[La Passione] is a 32-minute piece from memory–a masterpiece and a thrill to play.
C-LITE: Finally, any parting words of advice for young musicians today? Perhaps this month’s graduating class at NEC?
MG: Seek out kindred spirits, dare to try new things. Find student and faculty composers, and play their music. Collaborate with as many different disciplines as possible. Support your colleagues. What I always try to remember, it’s not about me. It’s about the music. Stand behind what you do, and take on new projects that will help you grow as an artist.