De Volkskrant: "Violinist Monica Germino can..."
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 is extremely quiet. 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 is not necessarily extremely soft. 'It is also about the perception of sound, and about contrast. For example, I can start out playing with a sourdine, a mute, on the violin. When I take it off the audience suddenly experiences the music as loud, but it is really not loud at all. 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 of the subtle details, such as the sound of bow hair gliding across 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 around 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, SOURDINE
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 two frame violins: violins without a sound box, only the 'ribs.' These instruments were made out of the leftover wood from making violins. The sound is softer and rich in overtones, which are higher tones that vibrate sympathetically with the sounding tone.
An ordinary violin can also be made to sound softer when using a sourdine, also known as a 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.
Decibels & Instruments & Mutes: the backstory
The specialists were unanimous: my ears are highly sensitive to sound. ‘Geluidsgevoelig,’ in Dutch. It sounded almost positive to me, ‘sensitive to sound.’ It’s also not uncommon. But a high sensitivity to sound means that my ears are more prone to damage. A person standing next to me could be exposed to exactly the same sounds, yet not be affected. The advice was clear: I needed to protect my hearing by significantly reducing my exposure to high decibel (dB) levels.
pictured here: the frame violin, also known as a mute violin, ca. 1870. It has a beautiful, intimate, overtone-rich sound. Surprisingly little is known about these striking instruments. One resource is the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, whose collection houses what could be this frame violin's sister...
Cue the new music community: resourceful, supportive and stubborn composers and colleagues who lifted me up and pulled me along this fascinating journey. Ups and downs and the unexpected began to feel like the status quo. Michael Gordon's response to what was drastic news to me —having to protect my hearing by stopping or adapting how I played the violin — was one of optimism and curiosity. I'll never forget his words: “I’m going to write you a piece so soft, I don’t care if no one can hear it.” Michael, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe decided to join forces to create MUTED, “the quietest violin piece ever written.” The three later invited Louis Andriessen to join in the experiment, fulfilling a long-held wish to collaborate.
Watch musical excerpt by Louis Andriessen here (Podium Witteman, live television broadcast)
There is an enormously talented and resourceful pool of people involved, including stage and light designer Floriaan Ganzevoort, executive producer Neil Wallace & De Doelen, numerous mute creators, filmmakers, audiologists, producers, commissioners, as well as a swath of venues and festivals. The list* is long and heartwarming.
Special thanks to luthier Bas Maas and designer Marcel Wanders, who are creating an entirely new, lower-decibel instrument, a ‘whisperviolin,’ inspired by and loosely modeled on the 17th-century ‘pochette’ violin, but made to explore the world of quieter sounds. Besides unmatched creativity and unparalleled skill, both bring a sense of adventure and a palpable excitement to the process.
It’s new territory for me, there’s an uncharted development process ahead, and a completely new sound world to figure out. My work has always been composer driven, and I am extremely grateful to and moved by the active role composers and colleagues are taking in this enforced, bewildering, and somehow increasingly exciting development in my creative path as a musician.
The mutes in MUTED
Central to Monica Germino’s work is her unusual family of instruments, as well as her ever-expanding collection of mutes. Germino’s ongoing search has resulted in over 400 vintage, modern, and newly commissioned mutes. A mute (a.k.a. sourdine, sordino, demper) can alter the sound of the violin in countless ways. From Canada to Spain, mute-makers are experimenting with new designs and all kinds of materials – leather, metal, cork, magnets, plexiglass, bone, rubber, paper, textiles, the list goes on. Special thanks to Stam Vioolbouw for their marvelous donation to the collection.
- A (muted) J. B. Ceruti violin from Cremona (1802) on permanent loan from the Elise Mathilde Foundation
- Two rare frame violins, also known as mute violins, with a delicate, surprisingly overtone-rich sound (ca. 1870 and 1970)
- A custom-made Violectra electric violin (2007)
- The new whisperviolin (2018), by Bas Maas and Marcel Wanders
- A ‘whisperbow,’ made of carbon fibre, produces a wispy, delicate sound
The whisperviolin (2018) (in progress)
To add to the instrumentarium, luthier Bas Maas and designer Marcel Wanders are creating an entirely new, lower-decibel instrument, a ‘whisperviolin,’ inspired by and loosely modeled on the 17th-century ‘pochette’ violin, but created to explore the world of quieter sounds. When Wanders took on this challenge, he spoke about decibels and sound and his fascination with “designing a violin for Monica, and how this could ultimately also help other violinists.” Marcel Wanders played the violin for 6 years and reveres its history, shape, and form. Bas Maas is on a quest for ways that unconventional ideas could possibly work. Besides unmatched creativity and unparalleled skill, both bring a sense of adventure and a palpable excitement to the process.
Marcel Wanders: “The hope also is that this new instrument will end up helping other violinists as well. Monica is not the only one going through this.”
I wholeheartedly agree. As interesting as this whole journey is, I hope going down this path can help other musicians. On that note...
Light design by Floriaan Ganzevoort
*Cast of credits, MUTED:
Oranjewoud Festival, Oranjewoud
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, New York
Music on Main, Vancouver
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Korzo, Den Haag
Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam
November Music, Den Bosch
MassMoCA, Massachusetts, USA
Kenny Savelson, Bang on a Can All-Stars
Phillipa Thompson, Bang on a Can Summer Festival
Vera Kuiper, Dutch Consulate, New York
Neil Wallace, Programme Director, de Doelen
Bas Maas, luthier
Marcel Wanders, designer
Niek Versfeld and Jaap Peter Kronemeijer, Audiologisch Centrum Hilversum
Stijn Hoogeboom, Oorwerk, Hilversum
Bas Andriessen, filmmaker
Live TV broadcast Podium Witteman -the MUTED segment starts at 6'55" (in Dutch). Music: 19'30"
Excerpt by Louis Andriessen here
"...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 [Wallace] 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. De Doelen Rotterdam.
photos: Anne Reinke