Alexander Balanescu: The Aggressive Lyricism
AB: I fell in love with the violin right away. My father brought me a violin from one of his travels, I think from Russia, and I took to it immediately. I always took the study very seriously, so at that time it was already very clear to me that I was going to make music and nothing else. I didn't really have a normal childhood, because it was dedicated to music, but I enjoyed it very much.
AAJ: When did you make your debut?
AB: I was nine when I had my first recital in a concert hall and I have been working ever since.
AAJ: Your musical background is classical. Can you identify the moments when you became permeated by other influences? Which one had the greatest impact on you?
AB: The musical education in Romania was at a very high level but it wasn't very diversified. So I got in touch with chamber music, for instance, only later, in my twenties. I used to study stupid things based mainly on virtuosity, and I didn't get to hear some of the great music until later on, music from other fields, which interest me a lot these days. A big change happened when I went to study at the Juilliard Music School in New York. It was quite a traumatic experience in a way, because before that I was already a star. When we left Romania I could only take with me a 7/8 violin, which was OK, but it wasn't really a good instrument. So, I lacked a good instrument.
The Trinity College in London lent me very good instruments, but in Julliard I was one of the hundreds of talented young people and I became anonymous. The administration at Julliard was very impersonal. I had one of the greatest teachers there, Ms. Dorothy DeLay, with whom I had a great relationship but the school system was quite tense.
AAJ: What were the non-classical influences that made an impact on you?
AB: In my time in New York I have realized that it did not fulfill me to have a career as a classical soloist, and I needed to do something else as well. So I started to become interested in composition in order to be more of an all-round musician, not only a performer. I also got involved in the avant-garde world, which was quite different from the uptown music. I came across Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass. I met John Cage and John Lurie became a friend of mine.
I did quite a few jobs in order to survive; one of them was to play James Brown's "Sex Machine" on viola for fifty dollars in an avant-garde theater on 22nd street. John Lurie was also in this show and we used to hang around in a bar where I also met [film director] Jim Jarmush. So, I gradually got involved in a completely different world. I became friends with the violin improviser Malcom Goldstein. It was a very open circle of people and you could interact a lot. We used to have concerts in lofts, which was a bit weird because it was completely opposite to my "day job" in Julliard. It was like having a secret life.
AAJ: What would you define as the main source?
AB: I had a lot of influence from other musical areas, like traditional music, electronic music, pop music and, of course, jazz. I am interested in music from many parts of the world and in the way it connects and interacts, and on its impact on classical music. On the other hand, I play Bach very often these days because he was a great improviser. He was the jazz man of his days. It is only now that I have started to understand him and am trying and approach his music, because now I don't get stuck with the technical part anymore.
AAJ: What is your affiliation to jazz?
AB: I love the freedom and the power of expression you can find in jazz. Also the sensuality. I used to be very passionate about jazz when I was young but at some point I got disillusioned. After free jazz, after [saxophonists] John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler and [pianist] Cecil Taylor, there seemed to be nowhere to go, a bit like in the classical field after serial music. There seemed to be a dead end there. Of course this is a generalization and there are still people working on this field who are wonderful. Cecil Taylor is still there, [saxophonist] Evan Parker is there, [guitarist] Bob Brozman is there, but mainstream jazz has become very conservative. It is music that is very well played but is not exciting anymore. What was exciting for me in jazz was the sense of revolution, of looking for things, of changing things.
What is more interesting now is another area of jazz, which is not blues-based, but is a kind of combination of more influences. The Scandinavian jazz, for instance, has a lot of classical in it, and has the history of jazz, but comes from a different directionwhich, to me, is leading forward. After all these years I think Europe has become more important than America in what we call jazz these days. Or let's call it improvisation. Take musicians like [pianist] Misha Alperin, for instance, who succeeded a lot better to fulfill the marriage between composition and improvisation. I find this exciting and I work quite a lot in this field myself.