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Interview with Izhar Elias 2

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, classical guitarist Izhar Elias points to the importance of influences outside of music for originality, as well as speaking about his genre-bending, border-breaking collaborations.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
A few hings have been very important for me.
First of all I have been lucky with my teachers. My first guitar teacher Ton Terra was very much focusing on the musical interpretation and creating your own story. Then I had a mentor who is still sometimes coaching me: Kees Hendrikse. Kees is a violinist. The fact that he is a violinist created the necessity to translate more general musical affects for the guitar. This is why already from an early age my view on music was not only focused on the small guitar world.

After winning the Princess Christina competition at the age of 13 I got offers to give concerts together with other prize winners. So that’s when and how I started to be really familiar with chamber music. At the age of 15 I met Carlo Barone and his to students Paolo Pugliese and Claudio Maccari, specialized in early 19th century music played on original instruments. That was a real eye opener for me. For the next years I tried to become like them.

When I came to the conservatory the most normal career path was participating in international competitions. So that’s what I did. But the result of these efforts was not satisfying. I constantly felt the discrepancy between my originality (based on the developments as described above) and the demands for being a “mainstream competition player” in order to make a chance to win the competition. In competitions where everybody is expected to play the same pieces (not the pieces I wanted to play) jury members expect a certain type of player. That wasn’t me. After finishing my masters I more and more started to realise that.

In 2007 I was chosen for the Dutch Music Prize, the highest state prize given to a classical musician. Before winning the prize you are being stimulated to work on your own originality, by taking  lessons from masters all over the world, not especially connected to your instrument. I got lessons from a story teller, theatre director, baroque dancer and a baroque guitarist. This really helped me to further develop my own voice.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
First of all I think that every musician is original. But only a few people get the chance to fully develop that. First I was unconscious of my own originality, but it had been constantly stimulated by my first teacher Ton Terra and violinist Kees Hendrikse (see above). As a teenager I started to think about life and about myself and originality. But the view on originality was still a bit twisted. I encountered my Italian heroes Carlo Barone, Paolo Pugliese and Claudio Maccari (see above) as true original personalities. By trying to copy them I thought I would become like them and therefore also original. In my conservatory period I discovered the limits of copying somebody else.
What was so different in the originality of Carlo, Paolo and Claudio was that they not only played the music, but the “were the music”: they really expressed their feelings in the music, intense, singing, breathing with the music. It didn’t have anything to do with “placing your fingers in the right position of the fingerboard”.

What's your own definition of originality?
Don’t “try” to be original. Follow your own inner voice, of how you want to make music in life. And don’t give up when others do or when others go another direction. At the same time be open to peoples different originality. Be curious and creative, dare to experiment, think out of the box (everything you imagine is possible). Every day you can learn something new and at the same time stay faithful to your own inner musical voice.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
I see so many uncertainties, like budget cuts, changing taste of the public etc. The only way to have a long lasting career and to keep being inspired is to be faithful to your own originality. Especially after not being a “young talent” anymore this becomes more and more important for me.
Other great aspects of quality in music are: enough technical skills, good communication skills to bring your ideas to programmers, your public and your colleagues, commercial skills, endurance and an “out of the box mind”.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Being original should never be a goal (see above). For instance there is too much conceptual art which has an original idea but not enough content and depth. I don’t think that should be the direction for originality in music. Just try to find your own style. The fact that today we have access to so many different styles and different art disciplines makes space for more and more people to find a way to express their own style.
I see for instance many possibilities in combining music with video, dance, theatre and with electronic music, folk music styles and pop genres. While mixing different genres one should be very careful not to lose their own identity: don’t try to be a rock star when you are a classical musician, but as a classical musician working together with a rock star can be a very interesting project.
Some inspiring examples:

At the same time there is still a lot to explore in for instance the early music field: many old pieces haven’t been played yet, haven’t got the right attention they deserve, in a historically informed way. There is also a lot of potential in finding new ways to present the same music: not only the same ritual of black cloths, applause, silence, bowing etc., but create a more open atmosphere in which there is interaction with the public.
Some examples of different ways of presenting:

Examples of my own projects:

What are areas of your creative process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
My project together with heavy metal guitarist/composer Florian Magnus Maier and the Dutch Radio Philharmonic has been extremely challenging. This was a very interesting mix of styles, in which it was important to create something new together without losing my own speciality (being classically trained). This is the documentary about Florian and the project broadcasted on Dutch national TV.
In September/October 2014 I did a project together with the Doelen String Quartet and Florian Maier in which I played a variety of newly written pieces for guitar and string quartet. The similarity in both projects: just because something hasn’t been done many times before, or is not common practice doesn’t mean it cannot work. Just create it when it’s not there.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
My mind is constantly producing ideas, on the weirdest moments on the weirdest places: like on the toilet, in bed, doing the dishes, during a walk in the forest. After some real brainstorming some of these ideas will survive. Then I start working them out on paper and talking to people about it. The whole process of selling the idea and working it our practically may take about two years. In this process sometimes the idea doesn’t work out, or might be changed/adopted due to new experiences.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I think that this is an issue which exists already for many centuries. I don’t think we should be too frightened for that. In the past many composers were copying from each other and making arrangements from each other’s work. Being copied can also be an honour. And while somebody is copying you, you are already busy developing a new idea. So originality will always have an advantage.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
One can recognize originality by the fact that something sounds different although it is made with the same tools. Having an original voice with conventional tools is a good starting point for finding new tools to create music. In the end the musical expressiveness is more important than the tools you are using to express yourself.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Live electronics I find very inspiring, same as (live) video techniques and light effects. Like I wrote before this gives endless possibilities for new original use.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
In the cultural landscape of today I think that lots of people are being forced to be entrepreneurs and to see their art as a product. The good thing of that is that it somehow forces you to think out of the box and communicate your art with the outside world. At the same time it may have the effect that there is not enough space anymore for experimentation, experiments are too much of a financial risk. That is an obstacle.
What is very conducive in my opinion is the globalisation, multiculturalism and access to technology. This gives so many possibilities for creating new mixes, styles and ideas.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
In November 2014 I will do a multimedia production together with film makers Paul and Menno de Nooijer, composer/sound artist Jorrit Tamminga and recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. We almost could not do this performance and we had to cancel 30 other performances because of the lack of budget. For the performance in November Jorrit, Paul and Menno decided to work on it even without budget. I hope this would not have to be repeated in the future. Another project I am working on at the moment is a programme with Latino American music for guitar and orchestra, which I will perform in February 2015 together with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and bandoneon player Carel Kraayenhof. We want to make live recordings for a new album. But right now we have serious budget problems.

Izhar Elias Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Marco Borggreve

Homepage: Izhar Elias