Monica Germino was once, by her own admission, “probably one of the loudest violinists” in classical music, known for her huge tone, but also for playing fire-breathing electric violin. Now she’s likely the quietest musician in the field, and for good reason. Germino was recently diagnosed with hyperacusis, or extreme sensitivity to sound, and advised that if she continued to perform she ran the risk of irreparably damaging her ears.
On the line from her Amsterdam home, the violinist reports that the first physician she consulted told her to stop playing entirely. “And all the rest said, ‘No, no… Keep playing, but just use a lot of ear protection,’” she says with an audible shudder. “And I just couldn’t do that; that wasn’t going to work.…The idea of wearing ear protectors was like sensory deprivation.”
Then, as she says, “the composers saved me.” Having resigned herself to the idea of abandoning her performing career, Germino was in the process of bowing out of prior commitments when her frequent collaborator Michael Gordon, of the Bang On a Can composers’ collective, offered an alternative.
“I said, ‘So this is what’s going on,’ and he didn’t really want to talk about our other project at all,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Okay, I’m going to write you a really soft piece. I don’t care if anyone can hear it; I’m going to write it, and I want to be the first.’
“I just said, ‘I don’t know, Michael.’ But my mind kept circling around that idea, and I went and started looking at mutes, and got lost in this fantastic world of crazy mute-makers who are working in all sorts of innovative ways to change the colour of the instrument but also cut the volume down.”
Much to her surprise, she discovered that playing at extremely low volume opened up expressive possibilities and tonal options she’d previously overlooked. Equally surprising was that Gordon’s Bang On a Can colleagues Julia Wolfe and David Lang wanted to contribute, and soon their mentor, the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, was onboard, too. The result is MUTED, a suite of low-volume works that Germino will bring to Music on Main next week, playing on a variety of quiet instruments—muted violin, frame violin, and a new “whisperviolin” made especially for her—in an intimate space.
She’ll also sing while she plays—and one of the texts that Andriessen has set for her might just offer a few clues to her character. It’s taken from American humorist Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel stories, based on the friendship between a poetic cockroach and a cat.
“I remember saying to Louis that I relate to Mehitabel, because she’s got such a desperate life,” Germino says, laughing. “She’s actually an alley cat, but the whole time she’s pretending she’s this reincarnation of Cleopatra, and she’s had all these past lives of glamorous characters.…And in the meantime she’s homeless, and she’s falling in love with all these horrible cats who betray her all the time. But I like the way she can put on this amazing act, like ‘Life is fabulous, Archy. I may be old and dancing on three feet, but I’m a grand old dame.’
“I like that combination of desperation and faking and… perseverance,” she continues. “I hope I can be that—maybe not so much the faking part, but forging ahead no matter what. I really did not think I was going to forge ahead the way I am right now, but I’m just so curious about what’s going to happen next and where this is going to go.”
Monica Germino and Music on Main present MUTED at the Orpheum Annex from Monday to Wednesday (January 28 to 30), as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
The Wall Street Journal: Philharmonic Dials Down Music to a ‘Whisper’
A violinist with a sensitivity to sound will perform ‘Muted,’ a special, quieter piece for audiences in Brooklyn click for WSJ video excerpt
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.
Volkskrant article: "Violinist Monica Germino can play again, despite..."
Violinist Monica Germino can play again, despite hearing problems, thanks to quiet pieces written especially for her
The American-Dutch violinist Monica Germino, known for her electronically amplified performances of music by contemporary composers, is given the worst conceivable news three years ago: she has to stop making music or take drastic measures to protect her hearing.
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.
Classicalite interviews Monica Germino
News, Commentary on Classical Music, Jazz, Theater, Dance & More
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?
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?
[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.
NRC Handelsblad article: Red Sofa, pop-up artist, and quiet playing
21 March, 2018. Excerpts translated from Dutch
Red Sofa celebrates 10 years, opens 6-day festival with Monica Germino’s quiet violin (excerpts)
Adventurous violinist Monica Germino enthusiastic about Red Sofa’s new music program in Rotterdam’s De Doelen Read complete article here (in Dutch)
-by Joep Stapel
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
“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
“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
The New York Times
“Monica Germino Puts Electronics and Violin Together, and Myriad Sounds Ensue”
– by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
16 June 2013
New England Conservatory Alumni Profiles: an in-depth look at a few of NEC alumni and their paths beyond NEC.
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
• 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).
• Hewett, Ivan (November 19, 2007). “Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music: Music Lives in Everything” – The Telegraph (UK).
• CGNY (May 29, 2013). “Violinist Monica Germino & sound engineer Frank van der Weij perform as part of the Bang on a Can Marathon” – Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York, Dutch Performing Arts Events.
• Deemer, R (June 16, 2013). “Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog” – NEW MUSIC USA, NEW MUSIC BOX.
• 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.