Interview with Violinist Tessa Lark: Love and Invention

November 22, 2019, 11:53 AM · "I didn't know I was going to sing!" violinist Tessa Lark laughed as she exited the stage after her encore at the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra in October - I heard her comment from my perch in the second fiddles.


Lark had just played her second performance of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, eliciting enormous applause and standing ovations. At the first performance, her encore had been a folk improvisation on a theme from the last movement of the concerto she'd just played. This time she started playing, then broke into singing the old-timey fiddle tune, "Do Round My Lindy"!

It's hard for a classical violinist like me to imagine spontaneously breaking into song, in front of a huge audience, while simultaneously improvising an elaborate fiddle-virtuoso accompaniment to said song. For one, I can't sing. And two, I can't improvise!

But Lark has a background for both, and she doesn't shy from it. In fact, it may be her secret weapon.

Just this week, Lark was nominated for a Grammy for her recording of Sky, Concerto for Violin, written for her by Michael Torke, who said his inspiration came from Lark, "a unique artist, in that not only is she deeply immersed in the classical field but comes from Kentucky, with a father who is a veteran Bluegrass musician, and has this style in her blood." The result is a composition that draws on both classical and bluegrass music, and satisfyingly so.

And last week, Lark received another major honor, an Emerging Artist Award from New York City's Lincoln Center. Her Facebook reaction illustrated both the frustrations and triumphs of a young artist who aims to keep her integrity:

"I determined only days ago that this Kentucky girl wasn’t equipped to make much of a musical splash in NYC," Lark wrote. "My ambition is a kind that is creatively and internally driven and is therefore quiet - and it is also a kind that is stubbornly honest to a fault. I cannot pursue a thing unless it feels natural to me, no matter how enticing the carrot may be. But I also MUST pursue a thing if it is honest to me, and that has made my journey quite musically eclectic and confusing to many an institution....which makes receiving this Emerging Artist Award from the most powerful arts institution in New York City, Lincoln Center, such an incredible surprise."

In early December Lark will give a master class at Chicago's Bein and Fushi for the Stradivari Society, the organization that lent her the violin she plays, a c. 1600 G.P. Maggini. And in May, Lark will make her Lincoln Center recital debut on the Great Performers Series.

Besides the Grammy-nominated recording, Lark also released two additional albums this fall: Fantasy, which includes all kinds of fantasies written for violin, including her own "Appalachian Fantasy"; and Invention, featuring Bach Two-Part Inventions as well as inventions by Lark and bassist/composer Michael Thurber, who also happens to be her boyfriend.

Michael Thurber and Tessa Lark
Violinist Tessa Lark and bassist/composer Michael Thurber.

Thurber -- and the idea of "invention" in music -- were some of the topics that Lark and I talked about over a couple of pumpkin lattes, when she was in Pasadena last month for her performances here.

Laurie: I was listening to your new album Invention - you've combined Bluegrass with Bach and basso continuo - how did you guys come up with that?

Tessa: Michael and I met through the radio show From the Top. We're both alumni from that program, and we met at -- of all things -- a board meeting. Through that, he told me he was writing piece, The Three Musketeers, for a From the Top broadcast. I later heard the piece on the radio, while I was driving to a gig, in Maine, from Boston -- it was a long drive. I loved it so much that I pulled over to a rest area and called him right away and asked him if he would write me a violin concerto.

Laurie: That's so extreme!

Tessa: But I loved it so much, and I love him as a person too. I was just itching to find ways to collaborate with him. He said, "Cool," and then he called Jerry Slavet, who was at the time the co-CEO of From the Top, and he said, "Tessa asked me to write a concerto and I said yes," and (Slavet) said, "I'll pay for it." So it was all extreme, right away!

So we started working on that concerto (which Thurber ultimately called "Love Letter" and Lark premiered in 2018 with with Indiana’s Carmel Symphony Orchestra). He asked me to make a playlist of my favorite music and I asked him to do the same, and we realized that we had really similar musical tastes. We're both very musically open.

Laurie: What was on that list?

Tessa: Edgar Meyer is a big influence for both of us. So this Newgrass sort of sound was really there. Certain soulful and poignant classical music happened to be on both of our lists. Michael also loves pop, R & B and some more upbeat music. So we discovered that we had this deeper connection with music, and so in working on that concerto together, we decided to do some musical collaborations, too. Then we starting dating...and that made collaborating easier, because we were in the same location!

Collaborating was natural; we started playing duo shows together just for the fun of it. When he started writing some tunes with other duo collaborators, I really loved the tunes and I asked if we could arrange them for our duo. That's how we started writing music together -- we realized that we worked really well together, collaborating musically. It doesn't always work with composers. I'm lucky also with the composer Michael Torke, too - he was very open and welcome to having me collaborate with him during the process (of writing "Sky, Concerto for Violin.")

Laurie: Was composing something that you had done before?

Tessa: I had written little songs when I was younger. My dad told me that he had a dream once when I was still in my early teens. In the dream I was performing, and I was in my 40s or so. All these young kids came up to me afterwards, and they knew me for composing, and not actually for playing the violin. That dream has really stuck with him, and ever since he told me about that dream I've always sort of wondered. It stuck with me, for whatever reason!

My first journey with composition was with the "Appalachian Fantasy" that is on my Fantasy CD.

BELOW: Tessa Lark performs Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 5, G major, "L’Aurore," and her own composition, "Appalachian Fantasy" (4:50).

That was about a year after meeting Michael. He had been really encouraging toward me, when it came to writing something. My compositions so far have been in the folk realm: writing songs, as opposed to classical works. I am a closet classical composer - I have a bunch of through-composed music that is sitting there, and I'm not quite confident in it enough yet to put it out into the world. So I do some writing on my own.

With Michael and I, he usually comes with the melodies or the ideas. He has a wealth of ideas to bring to the table, and I almost always love them to death. Then I sort of go with that and figure out a structure or a form for the piece. So he often brings the melodies, the harmonic structure, and the bass. He plays the bass - so he knows what sounds good and what works well. For instance, in "Cedar and Sage" (from their album "Invention"), the bass line is actually a common guitar line, and he just transferred it to the bass. It's just so unique to how he plays. I probably never would have come up with that, but he just knew by feel that it would sound good.

BELOW: Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber perform "Cedar & Sage," their own composition.

So when we composed "Cedar and Sage," he was just pizz-ing (plucking) that bassline, and he said, 'Okay and you go..." and he sang me an idea. I would play the melody he hummed, then I would sort of elaborate on it as he was telling me it, and he'd say "Yeah, yeah, that's good!" So in that way, he comes with the ideas, but then I sort of add an extra element to it. And then he says, "...and then I don't know what to do..." and I say, "well let's try this and this..." And so that's how it's a collaboration.

Laurie: It sounds like a very live, in-the-moment collaboration. I mean, you're not doing it from paper.

Tessa: Yes. It's been interesting. The tunes "Weather Vane" and "Tumble Time" (from "Invention") are more from-paper, those are more written-out compositions. But even so, there are still aspects of it where we say, "Well, what if we try this?" We try to get outside the paper element because we are so heavily influenced by folk music, which is almost never written down.

Laurie: Does he compose at a computer, or write stuff down? I'm curious because I see so many different ways of going about the composing process these days.

Tessa: It's so individual, the process. He uses one program where he just inputs the sounds. He's working by ear, and he inputs it that way. Then through that, he actually transcribes what he's written into Sibelius. So at first it's strictly by ear and he's working at a keyboard and inputting the sounds, or if it's guitar or bass he can input it with his own instrument.

Laurie: So the computer is almost functioning as a recorder for his ideas.

Tessa: Exactly. So the "midi file" comes first, and then he'll put it into Sibelius. But then for us as a duo, oftentimes he'll put an idea, maybe if it's complicated, onto paper, into Sibelius, and then he'll print it out and we'll go from there. But with Cedar and Sage, it was just nothing, nothing was written.

Laurie: So he started with a bassline, and you played something, he sang it back -- that's so organic!

Tessa: Yes. The duo is really an outlet for both of us to expand ourselves -- in different ways for each of us.

For Michael, he's done a lot of jazz and improvising and composing, but not as much with classical bass. So he just feels that he's a better bass player in general now, because I'm bringing this extreme classical-training component to his life and to the duo. So he feels challenged in that way.

For me, I'm feeling challenged to be a more flexible musician: to improvise more, to bring a compositional element to my life. It's also challenged me to be more open-minded in a rehearsal setting, which has taught me a lot about how I operate. Through all the competitions I've done, and knowing how competitive the scene often feels in classical music, I feel like a person's capacity to be present and flexible can become diminished because there is this perfectionism involved. It limits what you're able to do. So for me, it's been amazing for my life in general, to be forced to get to that open head space, when we're working to create something for an album. It can be daunting because you're still thinking about precision and all those things at the same time, but it's been really incredible for both of us. We both feel we have grown in different ways, and continue to do so.

Also there's not much rep for violin and bass, so it's fun to put new things out there for the two instruments! I just love playing quietly, with the bass - it doesn't project that much. It's fun to enjoy the subtler nuances.

Laurie: The album you and Michael created together ("Invention") has your collaborative compositions, but interspersed are also Bach's Two-Part Inventions. What made you guys put these things together?

Tessa: Bach is an obvious through-line for almost any type of musician - you see it a lot on all kinds of crossover albums...

Laurie: Chris Thile: "I taught myself to read music so I could play the Partitas and Sonatas..."

Tessa: Exactly. And he sounds incredible playing them. So Chris Thile is the obvious example. (Banjoist) Bela Fleck will play Bach in his sets, and a lot of jazz players do, or (singer-songwriter-pianist) Bruce Hornsby -- it's really the obvious throughline. In jazz especially, what Bach does is basically what jazz is: there's a bass line and counterpoint, and from that, elaboration. That's what jazz is. In that way, it's nothing innovative, but the title "Invention" comes from the Bach Two-Part Inventions.

We actually started playing together as a duo by transcribing those inventions for violin and bass. It was easy to do: I played the right hand and Michael played the left hand. But we were inspired by their complexity through their simplicity. They were also written as sort of etudes or exercises for Bach's students, to learn about counterpoint. We took that to heart, and we were loosely inspired by Bach's Inventions, writing our own "inventions" of a different kind. In the ones that Michael started by hand, the counterpoint is really beautiful and perfect. For instance, in "Weather Vane," the counterpoint is quite amazing. So there is a lot of subtle Bach inspiration that's maybe not so outward.

Laurie: So Bach, bluegrass, newgrass, jazz...all of that, morphing together. I almost heard an Indian sound at the beginning of one of them...

Tessa: If you are thinking of a Native American sound, that was probably "Cedar and Sage." I do this sort of pan-flute-y sound at the intro to that one. Michael has some friends are in a Native American tribe, and he spent a week with them. We've done some sweat lodges together and it's an amazing, powerful experience. He had a week on one of those reservations and was really moved by that, so that was partly inspired by one of those. So that's a good ear.

Laurie: Actually, you can't give my ear that much credit. I was actually thinking of India!

Tessa: Of course that's what Indian fault!

Laurie: No, but it's interesting to me that it was actually inspired by Native American music.

Tessa: In this day and age, especially with the Internet, can you really ever pinpoint what inspires what any more? Because it's all just floating around our lives at all times.

Laurie: And do we need to draw a lot of lines around everything, really?

Tessa: At this point I try my best to avoid the term "genre" altogether. I just say "musical styles" -- "genre" is limiting, and it's a disservice to what music is. I mean we all know that "genre" is created for marketing purposes; that's really it, so people can say, "Oh, yes. Jazz. I like that," or "Classical, I like that." But "classical music," what does that mean any more? At this point, classical music is inspired by a lot of different styles. Michael and I are interested in the cultural and moral impetus behind music-making, which can involve all kinds of different styles.

So it's hard to know, oftentimes, where the influences come from, but then again, we try to be very judicious about honoring whatever culture and style that it is that we are imitating and emulating. And we think it's very important to know from what that stems and to really try to get to know it as much as possible.

Laurie: I don't know where that appropriation line is.

Tessa: For me, as a white person, I don't feel I...I can't really speak to that. But for me, as long as I'm approaching all this music with a deep respect for it, and honoring it and going to the sources to learn about it and getting a sort of "blessing" from the people who really know a thing or two. But then, it's a hard thing to navigate. But that's also why Michael and I have leaned on American influence, because that is what we know and what we've grown up around. So it is very sincere to us and to our upbringings. Bluegrass music -- it has all kinds of African roots, but it did come from Kentucky and that's where I grew up, my father plays banjo. It's a very honest part of my life and my upbringing, so I do feel comfortable leaning into those styles.

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November 22, 2019 at 11:12 PM · Wonderful interview, Laurie! Tessa is a remarkable talent and brings a unique perspective to the world of classical music. I first learned about her through an article you'd written on I then had the opportunity to hear her live and she completely captivated me. She has truly created a new definition of "concert violinist," and it's one I find utterly fascinating. I hope she wins the Grammy!

November 23, 2019 at 02:17 AM · Me too.

November 23, 2019 at 05:38 PM · Absolutely love her playing. Great interview!

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