'Diagnosis sends violin star Monica Germino in search of softer sounds at PuSh fest'

Challenged by the onset of an ear condition that creates extreme sensitivity to sound, violinist Monica Germino has discovered that playing at very low volume has opened up expressive possibilities. photo ©Anne Reinke
 

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.

PDF: Georgia Straight.com-Diagnosis sends violin star Monica Germino in search of softer sounds at PuSh fest

PUSH FESTIVAL

De Volkskrant: "Violinist Monica Germino can..."

De Volkskrant (NL) 
Excerpts translated from Dutch. Read complete article here (Dutch) 
 
INTERVIEW MONICA GERMINO
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.
Monica Germino. Photo Sharon Mor Yosef

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.

NRC: Red Sofa, pop-up artist, & quiet playing

NRC Handelsblad
21 March, 2018.  Excerpts translated from Dutch
 
Red Sofa celebrates 10 years, opens 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

Photo: Marco Borggreve