Outsider Looking In

Aisha Orazbayeva in West London, June 2016. Photograph: Dimitri Djuric
Aisha Orazbayeva in West London, June 2016. Photograph: Dimitri Djuric
"I used to have my heroes and I would listen to them thinking, how can I be like this? Instead of thinking, what can I be as a violinist?"

Even dwarfed by the hulking form of Richard Serra’s weatherproof steel sculpture, Aisha Orazbayeva cuts a striking figure. Dressed all in black, her hair cropped short and shoulders slightly hunched, she arches her back and prepares to put horsehair to catgut. Morton Feldman’s For Aaron Copland – as statuesque and elliptical as Serra’s metal curves – is followed by Bach’s Partita in B Minor, interleaved, movement by movement, with Salvatore Sciarrino’s Caprices for solo violin.

Serra’s NJ-2, here filling the London Gagosian Gallery’s largest room, has typically been praised by critics for its gravity and physical density. But as Orazbayeva tells me, what her musical accompaniment contributes is a certain ‘time dimension’.[wcm_nonmember]..

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‘It’s hard to just sit and stare at it’, she says of the sculpture. ‘When you have music, you give it time.’

The pieces are carefully selected – for their attentiveness to the peccadilloes of the temporal, as well as for certain personal resonances. Serra knew Feldman well, having been taught by him at Yale, and is a known fan of Bach. But the oscillation between the stately classicism of the Leipzig Kapellmeister and Sciarrino’s hyper-modern astringency is a typical turn of the violinist herself, who – over the course of the last decade – has developed a reputation as one of the most adventurous virtuosi on the London scene.

With three remarkable solo albums under her belt and having participated in celebrated recordings of works by Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi and Bryn Harrison, she has also premiered new works by Christian Wolff and Peter Zinovieff, played with ensembles from the London Sinfonietta to Ensemble Modern, along the way garnering praise from critics at The Guardian and The Telegraph. Since 2013, Orazbayeva has also been one of the prime movers behind the persistently innovative London Contemporary Music Festival. Not bad for a musician who has spent most of her life studying something that she claims hardly constitutes music at all.

When we meet at a coffee shop off Marylebone High Street, about a week after the Gagosian concert, Orazbayeva is still bristling from some of the lukewarm reviews of her November 2016 album of Telemann Fantasias (PRAH). ‘People want to hear what they are familiar with’, she shrugs. Her interpretation of the Baroque composer’s 12 pieces for solo violin are anything but familiar. Orazbayeva treats these canonical works of 1735 as if they were written yesterday, applying to them all the extended violin techniques she learnt from her study of more contemporary works by Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Sciarrino. ‘And the only one they liked was meant more as a piss-take of the Russian school of playing. That’s the one that gets a mention as a heartfelt, emotional performance.’

But Orazbayeva’s approach is the very opposite of anti-musical protest. ‘I was thinking about how pieces in old repertoire become solid, because we have the recordings’, she explains. ‘So you always think about the output rather than the process.’ The paucity, in Baroque scores, of specific instructions regarding dynamics, bowing and so forth, is typically regarded as a lack to be filled in by scrupulous reference to the 300-year-old game of Chinese Whispers that constitutes standard Western performance practice. But what if it were seen instead as an opportunity, a gift of freedom? ‘In theory’, Orazbayeva argues, ‘everyone approaching it should have wildly different interpretations of the same pieces. I think the process got lost a little bit in Western classical music training.’

What, I ask, do you think Telemann himself would have made of your interpretations?

‘I don’t think he would have minded’, she replies. ‘If you read about what people used to do at the time, they were quite experimental.’ She references the work of early music specialists such as the conductor and viol player Jordi Savall and the violinist Rachel Podger. ‘I think they’re a lot more experimental with what they’re doing with the articulation, the phrasing – they make it sound like it’s still music, and it’s not some sacred thing that we’re not allowed to touch.’

This, for Orazbayeva, is the very nub of the problem with the conservatoire tradition. ‘The moment you start training’, she points out, ‘you already have in mind who you’re going to be like, and what you’re going to sound like, which is a weird way of teaching someone to play.’ In the drive towards fulfilling a certain pre-defined ideal, somehow the music itself gets lost. ‘They don’t encourage you to establish your own relationship with the instrument. It’s really weird! I used to have my heroes and I would listen to them thinking, how can I be like this? Instead of thinking, what can I be as a violinist?’

Born in Kazakhstan in the mid-1980s, Orazbayeva grew up in an artistic family of actors, songwriters and instrument builders. But she insists that her parents never ushered her towards classical music. Instead, it was the chance sight of a violinist on TV that drew her in. ‘My parents tell me this story’, she recalls. ‘I was playing on my own and then I saw this woman on telly and I stopped doing whatever I was doing. I was mesmerised by her. I said, I really want to play whatever she is playing. And they were like, oh no!’

So what, I ask, were your own earliest memories to do with music?

‘It’s interesting’, she replies, ‘because I think people who train to be violinists from an early age actually have no relationship to music at all. It’s a thing that you do. And then you go and listen to a pop song and you don’t think it’s the same thing. That pop song and your time spent practising scales don’t have anything in common.’

In contrast to the standard cliché of pushy parents foisting lengthy practice sessions on a recalcitrant child, Orazbayeva’s discipline was largely self-imposed. ‘We would have a day out and suddenly in the middle, I would say, I think we should go back because I need to practise. I was’, she admits, ‘a bit boring’.

At the special music school in Almaty, where she grew up, Orazbayeva remembers fellow pupils reverently sharing videos and cassette tapes of the stars of the Russian school of playing, such as David Oistrakh and Jascha Heifetz. The obsessive study of the minutiae of the masters’ fingering was endemic at the school – even if ‘the boys’, as she says, ‘were a bit more into it.’ Still, for a long time, Orazbayeva regarded fiction as her true ‘passion’. ‘I liked the violin’, she tells me, ‘and I always liked to practise. It could be very addictive, because there’s always something to get right and there’s all these millions of wrongs. But in the summer, I would spend three months writing every day, thinking, that’s the real me: I’m a writer.’

At 15, she won Kazakhstan’s Young Writers’ Award for short fiction and was presented with a publishing contract. But in the same year she was also offered a scholarship to study music at Italy’s prestigious United World College of the Adriatic, near Trieste. The violin, finally, won out. For a long time, however, she suffered from crippling stage fright. It was only many years later, while studying for her Masters degree at London’s Royal Academy, that she learnt to overcome this. ‘I got a call to play this really difficult piece by Johannes Maria Staud’, she recalls, ‘but for some reason, because it was so hard, I was only concentrating on performing the piece, as opposed to thinking, am I going to make a mistake?’ Paradoxically, it was the very difficulty of the piece that forced her to stop thinking of Staud’s work as an agglomeration of potential pitfalls and start to play as if it were music. Suddenly, everything started to open up.

Orazbayeva has questioned and redefined the limits of the violin constantly ever since, whether sonically – as in the hallucinogenic digital transformations of her playing exhibited in her collaborations with electronic music pioneer Zinovieff – or conceptually – as in her equally beguiling work with British artist Tim Etchells. Sonic and conceptual concerns become inextricably linked in solo projects, as in her determination to take her recording of Sciarrino’s Caprices out of the studio and into ten different outdoor locations (‘because there are so many harmonics’, she explains, ‘you realise the property of the space much more quickly’) or her 2014 installation involving a trio of violins suspended from stands, their strings activated by records on spinning turntables. She laughs as she recounts a recent presentation of her Telemann Fantasias at the Royal Academy of Music that prompted one student to suggest, ‘I think you’ve just given up on playing the violin well.’

She finds this academic approach to performance ‘a bit of a religion’ – certainly it is one that is observed according to much the same rituals at the Kazakh conservatoire and the Royal Academy. ‘They don’t really study music’, she insists. ‘They’re trained really well and they can play their instruments, but I don’t think they have any curiosity about sound – or about music generally.’ That’s one accusation that could never be levelled at Orazbayeva herself.

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