Leaving Room for Failure
On its fifth session, Experimental Israel meets one of the leading figures in the country’s contemporary music scene – the conductor, producer and improviser, Ilan Volkov.
Ilan Volkov’s career needs little introduction, as his work travels far beyond the boundaries of experimental or even contemporary music. The known story is that of the child prodigy leaving Israel at the age of 17 in pursuit of conducting studies in London. Soon, through a stint at the Northern Sinfonia and the London Philharonic Youth Orchestra, we find Volkov as assistant to Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and shortly after as chief conductor at the BBC SSO. However, in the past 10 years Volkov has become exceedingly identified with contemporary music and specifically experimental trends. As well as a huge promoter of contemporary music as conductor, he is active as free improviser, producer (amongst others of the Tectonics Festival, of which he is also musical director) and commissioner of dedicated pieces from living composers. In fact, Volkov has managed to become so identified with contemporary music, that to some it comes as complete surprise to see him in his traditional role vis-à-vis huge orchestras in, say, a Mahler symphony.
To the, by now, staple question regarding the identity of experimental music, Volkov is quick to reply with a brand new commission just aired in Cologne a couple of weeks ago. The commission was from English composer, Christopher Fox, featuring a set of improvisers playing in complete freedom to the backdrop of a fairly traditional orchestral score. The score, however, allows the conductor freedom of tempo between 25 and 75 BPM as well as a constant rubato within this spectrum. Listening together in the studio to an excerpt of Fox’s piece, Topophony[i], it became quite evident that the commission was a success. Fox writes a highly delicate piece with completely novel orchestral shadings, alongside his ability to leave ample space for the improvisers to add to the narrative and sound.
Further probing discloses that Volkov is as whole in his thought process as one would suspect. Fox’s piece, indeed experimental and allowing space for improvisation, is an example, but in no way sufficient as a definition. Volkov explains that as commissioner, he always seeks to challenge his commissioned composers. For instance, the idea presented to Fox, which finally came into fruition in Topophony, daunted Fox at first. This is understandable, as the process entails relinquishing freedom in favour of an ideal. However, Volkov’s resolve and of course a composer’s wish to have his work performed by such a master, allowed for this beautiful hybrid piece that would have otherwise never been conceived. Experimentalism, again, presents itself as an ideal that can easily fit any mould – even one’s work as commissioner, musical director, or producer of new music, reminds us Volkov, can easily be deemed experimental so long as the outcome is left unknown. Volkov continues and ties this supposed experimentalism to a negation of performance traditions, rooted in commercialism, which unfortunately do not allow too much leverage (although he does state that the situation is much better in Europe than it is in the US, for instance).
We seem to reach a mutual point of interest upon entering again the world of the late 50s and early 60s. Volkov exemplifies how the ideas of experimental art were already very much in play at these early stages, and suggests there was something about the artistic efforts of the time that were so much more pleasing, perhaps simply because they were the first. I wonder out loud whether there isn’t something to be said for the “fuck you” attitude of the first experimental trends, questioning the validity of anything that becomes to some extent standardized. Volkov unflinchingly replies that the fact we speak of something, and even to an extent regurgitate it or try to make it academic, does not necessarily mean we understand it. Perhaps we are failing all along – we must embrace this and leave room for failure if we truly want to understand this art. More so, we must leave room for the experience, as it is in experience that we finally receive answers to such questions and not necessarily in speaking of them.
Interestingly enough, it is through our short conversation regarding improvisation, leading to Volkov’s set in the studio, we come full circle in understanding what he meant by this last statement. Ilan volkov explains that it is actually through improv that he learned how to start using a new set of tools and judgements when listening to music. He suggests that notions such as good or bad, like and dislike, or technique should not be in the listener’s purview. One must try as much as possible to listen with naïve ears – searching for delicate shifts in sound, which, after all, is all around us. As with my former guest, Amnon Wolman, we are again confronted with this notion of experimentalism requiring a shift in subjective paradigms rather than the more objective ones, and again, Volkov too immediately ties this inner shift to a mysticism left unspoken of.
However, to me, the real conclusion of the interview was actually after we’d closed our session in the studio. Volkov explained to me in great detail how he produces the sounds we heard featured on his improv, as well as talked more about future plans for his setup, which currently include only traditional violin playing. Volkov mentioned that he was interested in attaching small amps to his violin in order to allow more freedom and richness of sound, yet this, without committing to a cumbersome setup. Suddenly I was confronted not with the world-renowned musician, but almost a child in a musical toyshop – caught up in excited thoughts and projections about future sounds, situations and scenarios – having no idea how they were actually going to sound.
[i] For a recording of the entire concert, please visit the WDR’s Soundcloud page. Fox’s “Topophony” is the first piece on the concert: https://soundcloud.com/wdr3konzert/live-musik-der-zeit-left-alone