EXCLUSIVE: Monica Germino on New England Conservatory, ‘RACHE’ Murder Premiere and Why She’s Finally Ready to Play Michael Gordon’s ‘INDUSTRY‘
-May 27, 2015 | Lisa Helfer Elghazi
News, Commentary on Classical Music, Jazz, Theater, Dance & More
A violinist with a sensitivity to sound will perform ‘Muted,’ a special, quieter piece for audiences in Brooklyn
By Charles Passy. Oct. 6, 2018
In her decadeslong career, the violinist and contemporary-music specialist Monica Germino has worked alongside major composers, co-founded an international ensemble and performed at venues world-wide.
But in recent years, her life has been derailed by a disorder that connects in the most direct way to her profession: Ms. Germino has hyperacusis, a sensitivity to sound.
The violinist’s solution? She is going the quiet route, performing music specifically written for her with the auditory condition in mind, and asking audiences to join her on the journey.
On Monday and Tuesday, Ms. Germino, who is based in Amsterdam, will offer the U.S. premiere of “Muted,” a piece co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic with four other musical organizations, at National Sawdust, the Brooklyn venue that specializes in innovative work.
“It’s borne out of necessity,” said Ms. Germino of the piece. But at the same time, “something incredible can happen” musically from such circumstances, she said.
The connection to the Philharmonic stems from the fact that it is currently honoring the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who is a fellow countryman of Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s newly installed music director. Mr. Andriessen, who is married to Ms. Germino, is one of four composers who contributed to “Muted.”
But it is another contributing composer, New York-based Michael Gordon, who came up with the idea for the work. When he learned in 2016 that Ms. Germino had stopped performing altogether because of her disorder, “I said, ‘You can play quiet music. We’ll write you the quietest piece ever written,’” Mr. Gordon recalled.
Ms. Germino helped the process along by using special violins that are designed to play at a softer level or adapting a traditional violin with the use of mutes – essentially, a device that causes the strings to vibrate less. She has also had a new instrument, dubbed a whisperviolin, made for her.
The composers involved explain that “Muted” isn’t necessarily difficult for audiences to hear. Mr. Gordon said concertgoers just need to pay closer attention. He likens it to stepping into a dimly lit room and adjusting your eyes until you can see clearly once again.
While Ms. Germino may have found a way to adapt to her situation, she is far from the only musician to contend with hyperacusis, which is often associated with exposure to loud sound. Indeed, musicians are “fundamentally at higher risk” for the condition, said Bryan Pollard, founder and president of Hyperacusis Research, a U.S. nonprofit organization.
At its most extreme, the condition can cause those who suffer from it to experience pain when they hear noise or certain sounds, say experts. Ms. Germino said in her case, she is just “very sensitive” to loudness.
But she had been advised by auditory professionals to quit playing or wear earplugs, lest she risk damaging her hearing. Neither of those options proved suitable, so that led to her current solution.
Regardless of her condition, Ms. Germino thinks there may be a broader benefit to turning down the volume and seeing the value in the quiet.
“We are so swamped with sound and overstimulated,” she said.
She has known for a long time that she is ‘sensitive to sound,’ which means that sound enters her ears at a higher level than it would to others hearing the exact same sound. That is why her ears are more prone to damage. The loudest violinist in the country can now only play very softly.
‘It’s like a runner who hears that if he keeps running at high speeds, he is likely to have knee injuries in the future. He can still do a fast walk,’ says Germino. ’80 decibels is my fast walk.’
Quite a blow for someone who cherishes volume. Even her acoustic violin is too loud. Germino’s first reaction is to stop everything. ‘I didn’t want to have the violin next to my ears.’ She arranges replacements for her projects and concerts. She can hardly talk about her condition with others. ‘Playing the violin is my identity. What was I supposed to say now? Hi, I’m Monica and I’m …’
She also calls Michael Gordon, the world-famous American composer, to cancel a project. ‘Then everything changed. For Michael, stopping was not an option. He said, “I am going to write you a very soft piece. And I want to be the first to do this for you.”
Two colleagues from the New York collective Bang on a Can, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, join forces. They have been working with the theme of silence for some time; for example, Lang wrote a ‘whisper opera’. Wolfe had written a piece for Germino before. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who composed several pieces for Germino, is asked to be artistic leader. The result, MUTED, will premiere tomorrow at the Oranjewoud Festival. Germino can play again. ‘The composers saved me,’ says the violinist.
Two historical ‘frame violins’ are featured in MUTED. A frame violin is a violin without a sound box. Just like an electric violin, but acoustic and unamplified. A violin without a sound box produces very little sound. Such an instrument is usually used to practice (to spare the neighbors). The renowned industrial designer Marcel Wanders, former amateur violinist, has also built a spectacular whisperviolin with luthier Bas Maas. Instead of the traditional scroll found on normal violins, the whisperviolin has a finger, as if to say: shhh.
But the music in MUTED music is not necessarily extremely soft. ‘It is mainly about the perception of sound and about the contrast. For example, I can start out playing with a sordino, a mute, on the violin. When I take it off the audience suddenly experiences the music as loud, but it is really not at all loud. Sound works just like light, you adapt to it.’
Can’t you just play with earplugs, other musicians sometimes ask. Germino has tried it for a year before she finally quit her orchestral job at the end of the ’90s, already diagnosed with sound sensitivity. ‘I never got used to it, earplugs are deadening. They take away too many subtle details, such as the sound of bow hairs gliding on a string. ‘
Many colleagues did not understand why she quit her job. Hearing damage is a sensitive issue for (classical) musicians, almost a taboo. Those who play in a Wagner opera in an orchestra pit are exposed to sound levels up to ca. 130 decibels. Germino: ‘When I left the orchestra, a colleague said: “Well, aren’t we all deaf?’
However Germino is not deaf, perhaps to the contrary. By playing softer, her experience of music has changed. ‘I am now much more aware of sound. It sounds ironic, but I now hear a hundred times as much as before.’
Muted. 7 (try-out), 8 (premiere) and 9/6 2018, Oranjewoud Festival. Next season (international) tour.
WHISPERVIOLIN, FRAME VIOLIN, SORDINO
The whisperviolin, made for Monica Germino by designer Marcel Wanders together with luthier Bas Maas, is a violin that produces fewer decibels than the normal, acoustic violin. It is inspired by the seventeenth-century ‘pocket violin:’ a violin with a narrower sound box, then used by dance masters.
She also plays on two frame violins, violins without a sound box, with only ‘ribs’. They were made from leftovers of violins. The sound is softer and rich in overtones, which are high tones that vibrate sympathetically with the sounding tone.
An ordinary violin can also sound softer when using a so-called sourdine, sordino or mute. This is a clip made of wood, plastic, metal or leather, which is placed on the bridge, limiting or altering the vibrations. Germino now has a collection of hundreds of sourdines.
21 March, 2018. Excerpts translated from Dutch
Contemporary music has a reputation for being difficult. The tired cliche of dry, impenetrable music played to empty halls still exists. But De Doelen in Rotterdam is overthrowing the stereotype with a lively and accessible new music series. It’s called Red Sofa, and celebrates its tenth anniversary this week with the six-day Spring Loaded festival. A film concert, a bicycle ride to secret concert venues, a ‘pop-up artist,’ world premieres, and of course the red three-seater sofa as the center for informal talks before and after the concerts. “I put everything into this festival that makes Red Sofa into Red Sofa,” says Programme Director Neil Wallace.
The pop-up artist is the adventurous violinist Monica Germino. She will open the festival and perform a number of interventions. Germino is a fervent admirer of the Red Sofa series: “Neil Wallace has achieved something you also see in modern art museums: people aren’t apprehensive, they’re curious and open to new discoveries.”
The Red Sofa formula revolves around this curiosity, says Wallace (1953). “We have built a community of interested people who are not afraid of new notes. I’m probably the only new music programmer in the Netherlands who has no worries about what I present – people will come anyway.”
As the pop-up artist, Monica Germino will decide what she will actually play in the moment. It will certainly be soft, because a few years ago Germino was diagnosed as ‘sensitive to sound,’ which means that her ears are more prone to damage [from high decibel levels]. She had to say goodbye to the high-octane soundtracks and louder works for electric violin, giving up many pieces she had often performed.
She is now “more curious than sad,” says Germino. Playing quietly opens up a whole new dimension; and apart from a reflection on silence and listening it can also be “an antidote to the relentless noise of our world.” She has amassed a huge collection of mutes (sourdines) and plays a rare ‘frame violin’ from ca. 1870, an instrument without a sound box which therefore plays at a very low volume. Germino: “Neil wants me to play the frame violin in the Main Hall without any amplification; for me that’s a thrill, an adventure.” Wallace: “You will hear a pin drop.”
Spring Loaded Festival: 10 years of Red Sofa. 21-26 / 3 De Doelen Rotterdam. Inl . www.dedoelen.nl
Monica Germino featured in September 2014 edition of Strings magazine
by Laurence Vittes
“Whether she was playing the violin, electric violin, adapted violin, whispering, talking, or singing, Germino conveyed her passion with tour de force virtuosity and burning vulnerability. …Armed with a Joannes Baptista Ceruti (Cremona, 1802), on permanent loan from the Elise Mathilde Foundation, and a custom-made electric “violectra,” the Amsterdam-based American/Dutch musician played a major role…read more
“Germino and La Giro” : interview about La Girò
“La Girò is a dramatic piece with many elements at play – storytelling, a nightmare, singing and playing, even shrieking and whispering. The piece took certain twists and turns as a direct result of a long and treasured collaboration….” click here to read more about La Girò
“Monica Germino Puts Electronics and Violin Together, and Myriad Sounds Ensue”
– by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
16 June 2013
by Bruce Hodges
27 August 2012
by John Fleming
23 February 2010
by Thomas May
the soloist’s role expands into a kind of performance art: along with playing the violin, she uses her voice, which is enlisted to sing and narrate.
NEC Alumni Profile Interview with Monica Germino, February 2015
NEC: “…and what’s next on your schedule?”
MG: “Next up: together with Marcel Wierckx and Frank van der Weij I’m finishing up a music video of my version for adapted violin of Michael Gordon’s ‘Industry’, to be released in April by Cantaloupe Music. AMERICAN WIZARDRY, a new show with my duo with sound engineer Frank van der Weij with new pieces for violin and sound design by American composers/wizards Molly Joyce, David Dramm, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Julia Wolfe. I’m also developing a show with my group ELECTRA called RACHE (‘Revenge’), featuring the stories of four women who murdered for revenge, that will premiere in the Dutch Opera Days in Rotterdam….” Continue reading
Issue Nr. 12, Fall 2012
by Didi de Pooter
Violectra Concerto with ensemble De Ereprijs, 10 November 2012: “Soloist for the violin concerto ‘Violectra Concerto’ by Renske Vrolijk is the sensational violinist Monica Germino…”
Volume 23, Nr. 2, 2001
“Monica Germino: wereldster op Provadja-podium, dan New York”
“Monica Germino: international star on stage at Provadja, then New York”
• Hodges, Bruce. (September 2013) “Sophistication and showmanship” – The Strad magazine.
• Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna. (June 16, 2013) “Monica Germino Puts Electronics and Violin Together, and Myriad Sounds Ensue” – New York Times.
• Fleming, John (February 23, 2010). “Get ready to get wild … at a violin recital” – Tampa Bay Times (formerly published in the St. Petersburg Times).
• Holden, Anthony (November 25, 2007). “Nowt like a good tune” – The Observer (London, UK).
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• Deneuville, Thomas (June 26, 2013). “Bang on a Can Marathon 2013” – I CARE IF YOU LISTEN magazine.
• Swed, Mark (February 29, 2012). “Two Louis Andriessen premieres at Green Umbrella” – LA Times.
• Hughes, Roisin (November 23, 2010). “Deviation” – website article, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
• Eichler, Jeremy (July 19, 2009). “Spinning local, a batch of new CDs from the BSO and Boston artists” – The Boston Globe.
• Matthews, Peter (November 14, 2008). “String Singers” – Feast of Music.
• Redactie (October 18, 2008). “Monica Germino: wereldster op Provadja-podium, dan New York (Monica Germino: international star on stage at Provadja, then New York)” – Noord Hollands Dagblad.
• Kozinn, Allan (May 17, 2004). “What Do You Get When You Combine Minimalism With Complexity?” – The New York Times.
• Bouma, Anne and Kurvers, Joséphine and Wolsink, Ennio (March 13, 2011). “Grand Theatre over de Vloer” – 3voor12VPRO.nl.
• Adlington, Robert (August 2004). De Staat – Ashgate Pub Ltd.
• Trochimczyk, Maja (August 2002). Music of Louis Andriessen – Routledge.
• Davidson, Robert A. (July 27, 2001). “Louis Andriessen & Orkest de Volharding: seeing is hearing” – RealTime Arts magazine (AU).
• Duffy, Rosemary (Fall 2001). “PROFILE: Monica Germino” – Stringendo Magazine, Australia.