Yael Barolsky, one of the foremost musicians in Israel, a maverick violinist with a knack for all things contemporary (but in no way exclusively), Barolsky might sound like yet another one of those technical wiz-kids, which she is, but that doesn’t even come close to describing her. Coming from a well-rooted classical tradition, Barolsky, as befitting that same tradition, became one with her instrument. Hearing her play repertoire pieces hammers in the fact that she is deeply embedded in 20th century contemporary performance practice. Her debut CD, Meanderings, is yet another manifestation of this fact – a collection of challenging and relevant violin music, with one of the best performances of the Berio violin Sequenza this writer has ever heard! But I actually came to know Yael Barolsky as a fantastic improviser, who, had I not been told otherwise, seemed to negate her entire classical training when putting on her improviser’s hat.
Barolsky, like our former guests, Maya Dunietz, and Kiki Keren-Huss, argues she has always had a side requiring, and actively seeking freedom; quite a departure from what we know of classical musicians, who usually treat moments of freedom with absolute terror. However, Barolsky claims that it was exactly the constricting confines of classical violin training that prompted this search for freedom. Her first foray into free improvisation was with the late Israeli composer, Andre Hajdu, who used to hold master classes for young musicians at The Jerusalem Music Centre. At each one of these seminars he would choose one of the young musicians and improvise with him/her in a duo formation. Barolsky recalls this experience with starry eyes and claims to have found there an outlet she had never experienced before. And indeed, for Barolsky, improv is first and foremost an outlet – more than a research tool it is a recreational tool, and a means to partake in a visceral musical activity where things do not need to be analysed, or adhered to as supposed truths. Improv is a thaw, repose, a means to communicate with others on a gut level, knowing that no matter what is said, it cannot be wrong.
Moving at a fairly young age to London in continuation of her violin studies, Barolsky discovers contemporary music practice when playing the scores of fellow composition students. Not realising yet where her future trajectory might take her, she finds herself dabbling in improv during these years mainly as a means to balance out the rigorous classical training. More so, it was at this point Barolsky started realising how improv informs her classical practice, and mainly defined the boundaries of what she refers to as a “cage”: “I just wanted to find a way to exit the cage, and relax. In fact, everyone I knew was trying to find a way to exit the cage.” I’m assuming that the logical conclusion of that statement would be: everyone was trying to find a way to exit the cage, but not everyone could. Continuing her studies in Koeln, Barolsky attended the Aleatoric Music Class of the composer-pianist Paulo Alvares, where she banded-up with several other members of the class in creation of the Phantasmophonica. This ensemble, made up of students from various musical disciplines and even some amateurs, signified a shift for Barolsky, as it is around this time she began to discover herself as a contemporary creature. More so, by discovering like-minded and reckless souls who did not shy from experimentation, she was strengthened in her own resolve to pursue an activity placing freedom at the forefront. Barolsky allows us a glimpse into her world at the time, and exemplifies how necessary it was for her to find a parallel musical practice to the classical one that was, according to her, “so confined to the rules”: Looking into the Berio Sequenza at the time, she had to receive lessons regarding the work from Paulo Alvares, as her own violin teacher regarded the 1976 warhorse as inappropriately modern.
Returning to Israel, Barolsky truly finds her improvisatory voice. Her return coincides almost to the day with the formation of the original and mythical Zimmer, a venue put up, amongst others, by our former guests Guy Dubious, as a meeting place for experimenters of all practices. Barolsky, and not only she, regards the first (out of 3 and counting) iterations of The Zimmer as a venue that managed to gather all generations of improvisers, experimenters and off-key musicians in Israel. She recalls feeling as if she had fallen into a vast pool of talented practitioners, and was immediately set unto what would become a massive learning curve. Barolsky then becomes a member of an improviser ensemble including the aforementioned Dubious, Ron Katzir, Shmil Frankel and herself – The Zimmer Orchestra. Barolsky refers to this as her blooming period, as she found herself on stage on a monthly basis accompanied by musicians coming from a similarly attuned stance: “Everybody knew freedom, accepted equality and that everything goes, and searched for democracy. I realised that the classical world views a personal voice as essential, but never strove for equality in music.” Suddenly, with free improv, Barolsky found a remedy for the incessant analysis and verbosity surrounding the classical music practice: ”There was no ego involved – it was clean. The fact that no one person knew the plan immediately obliterated the “I” and brought out a lot of listening, a spirit of collective, and an excitement of knowing you are performing something only once. In certain constellations, such as the Zimmer orchestra, you also knew things would always work, and always excite, but you never really knew why. Mainly, it was for fun, for those who really wanted to play!”
However, due to her classical upbringing, Barolsky couldn’t help but question herself and her love for this newly found refuge. And more so, whereas she realised that she required the proximity of the improv world and its openness towards exploration, she also recognized her need for the opposite as well. A telling example of how Barolsky manages to juggle these two worlds is in her answer to my question whether improv has made her more relaxed about score interpretation, or has perhaps prompted her to take wider freedoms with scored music? Her immediate response is a resonating no! In classical music Barolsky goes back to the strict practice, adheres to the written gospel and sumps is all up thus: “here (in classical music O.I.) I don’t dare.” However, some years down the line, having gained a better understanding of the improv practices, Barolsky felt the need to take a step back: “a 50 minute improv session is like going to a therapist; it is truly draining. You find yourself spitting out whatever’s inside at that moment, and by doing so you also discover what it is you have to say.” Disocvering a bit more of that voice and its inner calling, Barolsky felt the need for a rest. This did not mean quitting improvisation by any chance, but simply taking a step back and making some room for other things. I ask Barolsky if she would find similar comfort or perhaps an added value at listening to past recordings of her improv sessions, to which she replies: “I almost never listen to recordings, as it fulfils no purpose. I truly respect those who analyse their own recordings and use this as training, but those aspects are reserved for different practices as far as I’m concerned – improv is an escape.”
The same evening we conducted our interview, Barolsky was scheduled to perform The Zimmer aided by Sharon Gal, Shmil Frankel and Ilan Green. It is always extremely informative to see a performance of someone you had just interviewed about their art, as so many new things come to light. And indeed, as I basked in the awesome and diverse sounds made by the ensemble that night, I couldn’t help but notice how truly playful Barolsky was. Yes, she was making beautiful sounds, listening, reacting, taking heed of her surroundings, being respectful and yet letting her voice be heard; but none of this seemed to be coming out of her conscious mind, rather more as an artefact of that which she had come there to do: relax and have fun.