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Laurie Niles Interview with Rachel Barton Pine: Bargemusic and Works for Unaccompanied Violin

November 30, 2010 at 11:21 PM

Rachel Barton Pine has a passion for unaccompanied violin works: not only has she commissioned such works from living composers, but she also has trekked across the globe to procure a collection of more than 1,000 works for unaccompanied violin.

On Thursday Rachel will play an entire concert of works for unaccompanied violin at Bargemusic in Brooklyn. (By the way, if you are in New York and want to go, readers will receive a $5 discount off the ticket price to Rachel’s Bargemusic concert by using the code "" when they reserve tickets.)


Rachel Barton Pine
Photo courtesy the artist

The first half of the program will feature traditional fare, with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor and Ysaye’s Sonata No. 4, and the second half will include all pieces written for Rachel.

"I had kind of a backlog of pieces written for me that I'd been wanting to share in concert, on the radio and on the Internet," Rachel said. "The fact that they are so stylistically different makes it all the more fun, there's a composer from Africa, a composer writing in klezmer style, two composers from Latin America, an avante-garde composer, all these different composers with their own voices, connected by the fact that somehow, in each of these works, there's something of my personality as well because they composed these pieces with me in mind."

If you can't make it to Bargemusic, you can hear those pieces as a podcast (Episode 54) on Rachel's website taken from a concert on Chicago WFMT radio in October.

"Unaccompanied repertoire has been a passion of mine, for most of my life," Rachel said. "It started when I was a kid, and my family's finances were so tight that our phone and electricity were always getting cut off . We sometimes didn't know how we were going to find gas money to get to our lessons. So occasionally when my teachers would want me to do a sonata, I would find an unaccompanied sonata, like the Bartok or the Prokofiev, and beg to do that instead, with the thought in the back of my mind that I would not have to pay a piano accompanist if I learned that piece."

"Luckily, by the time I was a teenager and earning money on my own, I was able to catch up and learn all the sonatas I should have learned," Rachel said. "But in those early years, I always tried to do unaccompanied repertoire. The same went for showpieces: doing Paganini's 'Nel Cor' and Ernst's 'Last Rose' instead of 'Il Palpiti,' because again, I wouldn't have to pay the accompanist."

Though it started as a money-saving measure, "in the course of doing this, I found a real love for music for violin alone."

"Of course there's nothing more satisfying than playing with other musicians," Rachel said, "but music for violin alone is fascinating, just see what a violin can do all by itself , to see different composers' approaches to this conundrum.

"Music for solo violin is so flexible, in terms of what you can do with it," Rachel said. For example, it can work well when playing in an alternative venue. "When a symphony sends me to a jazz club or a local cafe, and there's not even an old clunky upright piano there, no keyboard instrument whatsoever, I would rather just play unaccompanied music than lug in some icky electronic keyboard and try to find a pianist to play with me. I can play these great unaccompanied works that I don't have to rehearse with anybody; it's just good to go. Going into schools, going on radio stations, all those places.

"The unaccompanied violin repertoire extends so far beyond Bach and Paganini and Ysaye; it's absolutely vast – more than people realize," Rachel said. Her own library of solo violin music grew exponentially with the discovery of a book entitled Music for Solo Violin Unaccompanied, by a man in Sweden named Harry Edlund.

"It's one of those wonderful reference books whose title is exactly what it is," Rachel said. "I found this book in the library a number of years ago, and for me it was like the Rosetta Stone. I'd been trying to compile as much unaccompanied violin music as I could, but Harry Edlund got there ahead of me. His book was organized both alphabetically as well as by country and by time period. It was exactly what I had been dreaming of – a few thousand pieces!"

"I was so thrilled to find his book, and he was so thrilled somebody had read his book, we became friends," Rachel said. Unfortunately, Edlund died shortly thereafter. His widow allowed Rachel to come to Sweden and look at his collection. "His collection was extraordinary," Rachel said, more than 1,000 pieces for unaccompanied violin. "There's no library on the planet that has nearly that number of unaccompanied pieces in a single institution."

"This was his life's project," Rachel said, and his widow – who died shortly thereafter – turned the entire collection over to Rachel. "So I now own the world's largest collection of unaccompanied music for violin," Rachel said. "This is going to be my next big project." She plans to create an online, searchable database, with sound clips so artists can use it to decide what to perform, and so composers will have access to this music.

"Adding to this repertoire is very close to my heart," Rachel said, and to that end, she continues to commission works for solo violin.

"I tend to commission unaccompanied works because I know that I will get to perform them a lot more frequently" When she has to work with a pianist and quickly work up a recital, she can do the piano-violin works that are more familiar, then play a new unaccompanied work.

Rachel got to know American composer Augusta Read Thomas when learning her first unaccompanied piece for violin, Incantation. Thomas wrote Rush for Rachel to perform on the St. Paul Sunday radio show in April 2005. "The title refers to an adrenaline rush," Rachel said. People often have music on in their cars, on the radio, and "she wanted a piece that would jump out of the airwaves, grab your attention and not let go. The beginning just hits you in the face, it just makes you sit up and take notice. It's the perfect opener because it just grabs your attention."

Rachel also will play two Latin American pieces. Rachel commissioned Uruguayan composer José Serebrier to write "Aires de Tango," – a tango-flavored unaccompanied piece – for an album, Capricho Latino, to be released Cinco de Mayo 2011 of unaccompanied virtuoso pieces from Spain and Latin America. "It was actually Harry Edlund's collection that inspired that album," Rachel said. "I found so many cool Spanish-flavored works in his collection."

The other tango-flavored piece, "Epitalamio Tanguero," was written as a surprise wedding gift to Rachel and Greg Pine for their 2004 wedding by Argentinian composer Luis Jorge González of Boulder, Colorado. "He had written another unaccompanied piece with no particular violinist in mind that I ended up giving the world premiere, then I performed it a few times and loved it," Rachel said. "What's fascinating is that these two pieces that are both inspired by the tango, they're both totally different pieces."

The Klezmer composer Yale Strom "is one of the world's greatest Klezmer violinists and ethnomusicological researchers into the music of Jewish people from Europe and the Middle East, an amazing scholar and performer," Rachel said. "He's been on the faculty of Mark O'Connor's fiddle camps for years and years," as has Rachel, who has enjoyed sitting in on his classes when she could. "I was about to make my third tour of Israel, and I said to him, 'I'd love to do one of the kinds of pieces you play, for an encore when I do my concertos and recitals in Israel, but I'm never going to be able to attend enough of your classes to get good at it. Could you possibly write something down for me?' He wrote her a piece called Vaynshl No. 1. "What he ended up doing was not a written-down version of a traditional Klezmer piece, but he created a piece for me that is sort of a classical version of a Klezmer piece," Rachel said. "It's not the kind of dance, party music that we normally think of with Klezmer music; it's actually based on the kind of unaccompanied cadenza that a Klezmer violinist would play for the guests of honor on a special occasion. It's much more of a virtuoso cadenza, a serious piece, that has a lot of ebb and flow with the rubato."

"Fred Onovwerosuoke is a wonderful composer from Nigeria by way of St. Louis, whom I got to know during my first trip to Africa a few years ago," Rachel said. "I went to Ghana for a couple of weeks and played a terrific piano trio he had written. He subsequently wrote a piece for violin and piano for me, but there were enough bits of it where the violin played alone, or the piano played alone, or they played in unison, where it seemed to lend itself to a version for violin alone. So what I'm playing, 'Six and a Half Variations,' is my transcription of his violin and piano piece, which I put together with his blessing. It's a set of variations on a traditional-sounding tune. "

"African music, in my opinion, is really the next frontier for classical music," Rachel said. "It's cliché to say that African music is about rhythm, because that's not the whole story. But definitely rhythm is a very interesting component. If you play enough art music by African composers, playing in seven becomes completely natural. In this piece, there are bits and movements in seven, and it's just normal! An especially fun variation, which imitates a spoken word style, is based on an elder telling a child to be careful going in the river, to watch out for the hippos."

Then there are the pieces that stem from Rachel's longtime interest in heavy metal music. She plays in a metal band called Earthen Grave.

Both pieces are written by violinists: Philip Pan, concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, wrote "Thrash," and violinist Edgar Gabriel, a free-lance violinist in Chicago, wrote "Theme and Variations."

"Both of them play electric rock violin as well. I asked each of them to write something for me for acoustic violin, with a rock flavor," Rachel said. "I don't consider either of these pieces to be crossover or to be acoustic versions of rock songs, I consider them to be pure classical music that happens to use heavy metal as an influence. Bartok used rhythms, harmonies and melodies of Hungarian folk music; 20th-century American and French composers used jazz as a building block in creating their art music; so why not metal? It's actually a very sophisticated style, and of course there are certain approaches to tone color that come from metal. When it's plugged in, we have distortion, whammy bars, feedback...those are all effects that can be created on acoustic violin. In fact, in contemporary music we would call them 'extended technique.' But when it happens to be coupled with something of a rock flavor, then we call them things like 'distortion' and 'feedback'!"

Rachel will be giving a session at the next 2011 American String Teachers' Association Conference this spring on how to make all the electric violin effects on your unplugged, acoustic violin. "This is something I developed back in the mid-90s," Rachel said. "I was one of the first violinists to do this, to try to capture things like thrash metal on acoustic violin. It's weird to think that enough time has passed that my colleagues and I who were on the cutting edge, first doing rock violin, are now looked at as the mentors or pioneers!"

Rachel is finishing the program with her own version of Asturias by Albéniz. "It's one of the most iconic Spanish guitar pieces that exists – even if you don't know much about classical music you will have heard this tune," Rachel said. "What most people don't realize is that Albéniz originally wrote it for piano. It's much, much more frequently heard on guitar. But I thought: if it wasn't a guitar piece in the first place, then I can probably justify making it into a violin piece! And in creating my violin arrangement, I drew upon ideas from both the piano and the guitar versions, as well as inspiration from a piece in Harry Edlund's collection: a piece by Rodrigo."

Joaquín Rodrigo is most famous as the composer of Concierto de Aranjuez for classical guitar and orchestra. "Rodrigo also wrote an unaccompanied piece for violin, to the memory of Sarasate," Rachel said. "Any composer who was not a guitar-composer, would not have thought to do some of the things he does. It all works perfectly well on the violin, but it's figurations that I'd never seen before, that really evoke the feeling of a guitar. Something totally new and different! Obviously the violin can very effectively imitate some of these guitar figurations, and so that is what I tried to capture with my version of 'Asturias.'" (Which is published in her Rachel Barton Pine Collection.

Can other violinists play these works?

"Anybody who hears one of these pieces and wants to play them, or hears about them and wants to see the music, just e-mail me," Rachel said. "I'll either tell you where you can find it or how you can get in touch with the composer."

From Benjamin Eby
Posted on December 1, 2010 at 2:53 PM

I would like to thank the violinist for such an interesting and informative interview.

From bill platt
Posted on December 1, 2010 at 4:33 PM

I really enjoy what she is doing with her playing and the music she is exploring. And she gets airtime on our local classical station which is really great.

One thing to notice about her career is that she seems to go where her heart is, and it shows (hears?).

From Janis Cortese
Posted on December 1, 2010 at 6:20 PM

Very cool.  She's probably my favorite of all the tier 1 players.  You really know who she is by what she plays and how.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on December 1, 2010 at 8:31 PM

The contemporary section of this programme would definitely make a fabulous CD!   Wish I could be at the concert.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 2, 2010 at 1:40 AM

Bravo to hear for her playing and saving some music!  Truely honorable!


From Johnny Fang
Posted on December 3, 2010 at 6:14 AM    is an online database based on Mr. Edlund's book.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 4, 2010 at 11:47 PM

 Thanks for that link, Johnny!

From Hayne Kim
Posted on December 5, 2010 at 4:52 PM

I really admire Ms. Barton-Pine for pursuing such a unique career path. Her gift in versatility as a virtuoso violinist has opened up so many unique doors for her, as she encompasses traditions of violin playing that are both global and historical. The concept of applying modern genres into "classical" music is also really interesting - I liked the comparision she made about classical composers who were influenced by folk and jazz music, so why not rock music? But above everything I think it's really amazing that she has been so successful with making the violin a solo instrument. It's rather empowering to think that the violin doesn't necessarily need to rely on a chordal instrument for accompaniment, that it can be fully self-sufficient. I like the innovations she is making in our career possibilities. 

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