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Gilles Apap: ‘Don’t listen to nobody’

Violinist Gilles Apap has one of the most original voices today, crossing easily between classical and folk styles, often in the same piece. But he found this voice himself – despite his teachers, rather than because of them – and recommends that young players do the same

It’s not easy being original in the world of classical music. Most of the music you play was composed hundreds of years ago and has been performed millions of times by other – better – players. You’ll have spent much of your youth listening to teachers explaining ‘the way’ to do things, and hundreds of hours in practice rooms trying to do what they say. When you make it into the profession, you find that classical music lovers are used to hearing things a certain way, whether that’s informed by academic research, taste or tradition, and aren’t always open to divergence. So to go your own way takes imagination, an unconventional bent, a certain sense of whimsy, a hint of wilfulness and even a touch of provocativeness.

Meet Gilles Apap. I first came across the Algeria-born, French-bred and California-living violinist in 2006, when a YouTube of him performing Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto went viral. It showed him improvising his own cadenza to the last movement, complete with a variety of jazz and folk themes, whistling and blues singing. It was fresh and wonderful, and the fact that it was going viral indicated that he had created something truly original. It even became the subject of some academic research. His quirky, entrancing folk playing didn’t undermine what was elegant, personal Mozart playing.

Ten years later, for all this internet fame, Apap is still rather a hidden gem of the classical music world. Surprisingly, he had never performed in London before May, when he came to Cadogan Hall with the Bristol Ensemble. I wasn’t able to make the concert but I sat in on the rehearsal. Apap is one of the most free players I can think of – physically, as well as mentally – seemingly with no extraneous tension in his lanky body, his head often raised from the chin rest, cocked both to hear what his colleagues are doing and as if he is about to speak.

His playing certainly speaks. His Mozart has old-school charm – meaningful with inflection and nuance; always spontaneous and charming; nothing ever dull, repetitive, ugly or aggressive. Other recordings of Bach, Ravel and Vivaldi online also demonstrate his beautiful sense of expressive phrasing and rich use of colour, even on his no-name violin, although they probably don‘t satisfy the historically informed or the technical pedants.

Then there is his folk playing. For the Cadogan Hall concert he was playing his new cadenza for Mozart’s Fifth Concerto, which is even broader in the styles he covers, and includes a brilliant skit on one of Mozart’s themes in Swedish fiddle style. There are gypsy and Indian sections, each seemingly in perfect idiom, as if he were born to the languages. At the end of the rehearsal, he led the orchestra’s players into an improvised jam session, the looks of embarrassment on some of the players’ faces reminding one how unusual this is for classical musicians.

I was able to have a short chat with Apap the day after the Cadogan Hall concert. These days, his main commitment is with the Nordic Chamber Orchestra, with which he tours twice a year, while his home base is Santa Barbara, California. With the Nordic Chamber Orchestra, he has just finished a documentary about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which, surprisingly, he has just learnt and performed for the first time. He’s not going to get too folky with it, though, he says: ‘I’m doing it as pure as I can. I didn’t feel like I should be doing my own thing because the concerto is an old-fashioned thing that I’ve loved since I was a kid, with the Kreisler cadenza.’

The Beethoven is close to his heart, as his mother used to play him Menuhin’s recording, which made him determined to meet the great violinist, and which ultimately set him on the road to being a violinist. ‘My mother used to put on the vinyl of Menuhin playing the Beethoven the whole time when I was little. That’s what got me into the violin. When I was 21 I started practising the Bartók Solo Violin Sonata because I wanted to go to the Menuhin Competition to meet him. I’d never done a competition in my life, but he gave me a prize.’ (Apap won the Contemporary Music prize in the 1985 edition of the contest.)

‘I put my hand in a heavy door and slammed it. I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to be on stage‘

This turn of events is surprising given that Apap hadn’t played the violin for three years at that point, revealing the conflict he felt around performing: ‘When I was 18, I hated being on stage, so I put my hand in a heavy door and slammed it. I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to be on stage. The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to play the violin again, but when I was 21, I played again. Life goes on.’ He also had record contracts with Sony and EMI, but not for long: ‘I cancelled all of that. It was too much weirdness. I came home and forgot about it.’

His Mozart cadenza wasn’t always well received: ‘Doing what I do takes a lot of guts. I’ve been booed a couple of times. Oh my god. It was a full house. They weren’t expecting it. Me too!’ So he stopped playing his cadenza, until Menuhin himself encouraged him to start again.

Nor is it just the classical music world where his boundary-crossing has been questioned. He tells me of a gig he did with the celebrated gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos, taking the guest spot in the Monti Czardas: ‘After we played, his musicians were laughing, and I was curious, so I said, “Roby, what’s going on?” He said, “We’re not supposed to play like that. At gypsy school, we learn to play to a certain standard. You play like an old gypsy and they teach you not to play like an old gypsy.”’

‘I don’t want anyone else to tell me how I’m going to play, and I don’t like telling people how to play’

But then Apap never had much time for what was taught at school. His biography lists violin teachers, but he claims to be mainly self-taught: ‘I never really studied with anyone. I did it by myself. I wanted to learn it. I wanted to feel it. I don’t want anyone else to tell me how I’m going to play, and I don’t like telling people how to play. I’m 53 – it’s getting there, you know. I let everything happen naturally – by musical instinct. I had a really brilliant teacher, but I never listened to her. Nothing she said made sense. It didn’t register. It’s like listening to your dad. I was with my dad the other day and he said, “Put some shoes on, you’re going to catch a cold.” I said, “Dad, how long have we known each other? I’m 53 years old. I just realised that I never listened to you once in my entire life.”’

His attitude is refreshing in an age where, within the string community, who you learn with is a vital element of your musical CV, with certain teachers acquiring a cult status, however well they actually teach. His approach places the musical responsibility squarely on the student, rather than the teacher. And while lip service is often paid by teachers about teaching students to teach themselves, and the best teachers indeed do this, the model of students doing what they’re told persists.

‘If you don’t hear the sound coming out, if you don’t cultivate that – articulation, phrasing, music and culture, and all that – no one is going to teach it to you’

Apap is insistent about this: ‘Who is going to help you but yourself? If you don’t hear the sound coming out, if you don’t cultivate that – articulation, phrasing, music and culture, and all of that – if you don’t teach that to yourself, no one is going to teach it to you. You have to hear it yourself.’

And maybe it‘s through these explorations that players can find their own distinctive mode of communication. He has some harsh words about the younger generation. ‘When I see these young guys playing nowadays I’m bored to tears. You can sound like everyone else if you work twelve hours a day and you have a little bit of talent, but every one is going to sound the same.’ It‘s a common refrain – Viktoria Mullova said the same thing here. But what advice does he give young players to avoid this boredom? ’I listen to all the great players who come to me for advice and it’s always hard to tell them, “Be yourself. Become yourself. Take charge.” There is a moment where you have to let it go – all the anxieties, all the things you learnt. There’s a moment where your self has to decompose. That’s why I’m doing what I do – because I never listened to my teachers.’

The same approach applies to the physicality of playing. I ask him how he has come to be so relaxed in his playing: ‘I don’t know. I had a big gig with the Munich Symphony and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Man, you’re so easy and relaxed when you play,” and I was thinking, “This is the hardest thing I have to do.” It’s just feeling the motion. It’s like painting, and like your arm is a brush. When you have this knowledge between your fingers, your body lets go. I teach myself and try a lot of physical things to feel things differently. It’s all in the legs. It’s just a matter of balancing. But the main thing is, don’t listen to nobody!’

Even if this sounds a little esoteric, there is a certain discipline to it: ‘You’ve got to focus your mind. Your brain has to be so free. It’s really hard to understand yourself, the motion, to make the violin easy.’

How does he practise? ‘I take one little segment and jam it, and then jam it into another segment. I visualise everything, and put in a little bit of this and a bit of that. At the moment I’m learning Bartók, Beethoven, Bach, and a Haydn symphony. Every week I have to memorise two hours of music, and I don’t have the time. The body and the mind have to be relaxed. You have to have a good surrounding – you can get energy from everything that goes on around, especially people, but then you have this time by yourself, and it has to be very efficient. That’s why I visualise. I take one little spot and I visualise it, without my instrument. It’s really hard to focus all the time, and to listen to yourself. Sometimes I listen to myself and think, “This is beautiful.” And then I go, “No, this is not, your mind is not on it.” It’s hard to get into a mode where you’re really free and in tune. That moment, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, is the most important part. There’s nothing else.’ There is another key to the expressivity of his playing: ‘I teach myself with my voice the whole time. If I do something by Bach, I always see it as a voice, rather than as a line.’

‘There is a moment where you have to let it go – all the anxieties, all the things you learnt’

There is a passion other than music in Apap’s life, one that may explain his laidback California dude style: ‘When I go home, I go surfing every day. A regular day would be like two hours in the water in the morning.’ It’s easy to see how he could relish the freedom of the waves, a world away from the personal demands of playing the violin, and the professional demands of conforming to certain musical and business models.

He is a sort of musical visionary, and deserves wider acclaim. Despite what the classical music establishment might consider being non-conformist or radical, and whatever one might think about him inserting his tunes into a Mozart concerto, his playing is as old-school as it comes. It’s what I would call ‘the Nigel Kennedy Paradox’: scratch the surface of players who are outwardly unconventional and progressive, and you often find deeply old-fashioned innocent musical souls who are able to communicate in a very direct, honest way.

Apap just doesn’t fit into any neat boxes, and maybe we’re still living in a world where that matters. There are some small signs of progress in the boundaries between classical music and other genres being broken down, but it‘s not happening quickly enough. Would a major London orchestras programme one of his Mozart concertos? I’d like to think so, but I‘m not sure.

In the meantime, Apap leads a fairly anonymous life for much of the year: ‘I live in a place where nobody knows what I do. They know I love to surf and play old time music and take care of my bees.’ And maybe that’s just how he likes it.

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