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Viktoria Mullova on inspiration, rules and coughing

The Russian violinist is forthright about Baroque rules, the narrow-mindedness of only listening to classical music, and allowing audiences to cough

Violinist Viktoria Mullova

In my latest interview over at Cozio I talk to violinist Viktoria Mullova about her ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivarius and her Guadagnini, which she uses for Baroque music. Mullova has an eminently sensible approach to Strads: while she believes that some of them have a very special sound, she also acknowledges that not all of them do, and that the individual player’s sound is more important than that of the violin. She explains how her sound is a result of the way she learnt to play – she was taught by her father back in Russia, where she grew up, on an unremarkable locally made instrument. But her sound is also part of her unique musical personality, which she discovered for herself and which is present whichever instrument she plays. These are wise words indeed, especially for young players who break their hearts finding an expensive instrument, when they could be focusing their energies on finding their own musical voice first, regardless of their instrument.

Mullova is a fascinating player who made her name with competition wins at the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky competitions in the early 1980s. She subsequently defected to the West and built a career as one of the finest virtuosos in Europe. Her playing has always been powerful and disciplined, but in recent years she has relaxed into different styles of music, including Baroque, jazz and Brazilian, with recent CD releases including ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘The Peasant Girl’. As well as asking her questions about her instruments for Cozio I was able to bring up more general topics and here are some of her thoughts and insights – as you'll see, she's probably one of the most frank players I've ever interviewed.

On memorising music

‘In classical music now I sometimes take the score on stage because it relaxes me. I don’t have the pressure of nerves, of trying just to remember the piece and of being absolutely terrified of forgetting. If you’re always terrified you can’t make great music.’

On improvisation

‘It was difficult at the beginning but the more we do it on stage the more fun it is. I started by studying some improvisation by Miles Davis and tried to play it in different keys to learn the language. It was terrifying at first. I couldn’t understand it or believe how people who improvise, especially on the violin, can play all these notes so fast. It seemed impossible. Then you realise there are patterns and it’s a language you can learn. But you have to have the time and inclination. You can’t just pick it up and start improvising. It’s a skill.’

On inspiration

‘All the different styles help each other – even Baroque. Each time I come back to a piece I used to play, having played some other music, things are easier.

I listen to different kinds of music and to different instruments, not necessarily violinists. You become richer when you have all these other sounds and things in your life. People say they only listen to classical music and it’s so narrow-minded. They don’t have a variety of sounds they can learn from. I listen on iPhone shuffle to whatever comes – Indian, Japanese, African, pop. Recently I’ve been listening to the latest album by Annie Lennox, which is unbelievably beautiful. It’s a record of blues covers, and she interprets them in such an extraordinary way.

All the sounds that touch me are imprinted on my system, in my cells, and come out in what I play. It’s all unconscious, though. I have this sound in my head, which I try to achieve on the violin. Everything helps. I read a book or meet a person and that also helps. Seeing paintings also enriches you and opens your eyes. One famous actor said that it’s all about stealing: we all steal things from each other, whenever we listen to or see something. I’m sure unconsciously it goes in and you recycle it somehow, making it your own.’

On following rules

‘I hate laws and rules. In Baroque music there are so many rules and I don’t like that. I follow my intuition. I learn the style, but I also use my own judgment and intuition and follow the way I want to sound. Some people study and read books, but I don’t believe in it. You have to make your own rules. The Baroque police say you can’t play with a modern bridge, you have to use a Baroque bridge, but I don’t care. I like the set-up I use – my Baroque bow and gut strings.’

On technique

‘I’m very glad that I have a good basic technique because with that I can do many things. Some people can’t play four notes evenly so how can they make a phrase? They can’t control the notes. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn a good basic technique. You shouldn’t struggle to play in tune. If tennis players have bad habits it’s difficult to get out of them and to relearn good ones. You often see instrumentalists who learnt bad habits and now they’re stuck with them. The best thing is if they have a good basic training at the beginning and then they open their ears and are open to everything, not only in music, but in life.’

On great players

‘I’ve heard a few young players who sound the same because they don’t develop their own voice, their own style. There are good violinists around but not many great ones.’

On coughing

‘The atmosphere in concerts is so stiff. It’s not like when you listen to jazz or pop music. The audience is becoming older and older. People are scared to cough. It’s terrible. What if you want to cough? You don’t do it on purpose. What can you do? I don’t consider myself so important that people can’t even cough. If you can magically provide the kind of sound that fascinates everyone so they start not even breathing then that’s great, but you can’t demand that.'

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