Interview with Bălănescu: I found gold in the violin

Interview with Bălănescu: I found gold in the violin

January 30, 2014

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Dragoș Rusu

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Diary of a Madman

Alexander Bălănescu is one of the few musicians that I recently saw that has blown me away not only with his music, but also with a mesmerizing attitude while on stage. But I first saw him a few months before I got the chance to interview him, when he acted in a play inspired by Nikolai Gogol's short story "Diary of a Madman". The work tells the story of a man imprisoned in his own mind, whose delirium flows through a monologue that he develops, from the beginning until the end. The play stars a Romanian actor playing the mad man, and Balanescu who has a few interventions with his violin, acting as another voice from Poprischin's head.
I feel like the violin is a continuation of my body. I grew up with violin and one of the things that make me glad is that I'm still learning. The instruments on chords are the closest to the voice, and the possibilities to express with violin are endless, unlimited.

From David Byrne to Philip Glass

We were having fun at a Balkanik festival that took place in summer in Bucharest, and Balanescu performed, together with his quartet, his own compositions based on the work of the famous Romanian singer Maria Tanase. In 2005, he released an album called ''Maria T'', on Mute Records, where Alexander and his quartet adapted songs from the archive of the beloved singer. 100 years had past since the birth of Maria Tanase and also 50 years since her death.

Alexander Balanescu has been on stage long enough to gain so much experience that can intimidate (almost) any honest musician from all over the world. He worked with famous English composer Michael Nyman and toured with his Ensemble around the world, for 15 years. He collaborated, amongst others, with John Lurie, David Byrne, Keith Tippett, Carla Bley, Rabih Abou Khalil, recorded with Spiritualized and also recorded and toured with Pet Shop Boys. He even had a tour in the UK with one of the most important composers in minimalism, Philip Glass.

I wait until the end of his concert and I am going straight to him. I've asked him previously about an interview and he suggested we do it after the show. We're sitting on a bench on a terrace; the weather is nice and the beer is cold.

Maria Tănase, the inner heart of traditional music

''For me, traditional music is the most important source of inspiration. After a few years since the work on a record called 'Luminita', which was inspired by traditional music, I was looking for another source of inspiration. I suddenly remembered from my childhood how strong was the impression of Maria Tanase's songs was. Also her personality was very powerful... It was interesting that she succeeded to communicate with a large part of people, and not only niches. She had a great power of communicating with masses, through music and she never compromised herself. She remained faithful to her own art, her beliefs and her friends, even if she was living under different political regimes. And this is what touched me; I think this is why she is still so loved in Romania.'' Maria Tanase lived between 1913 and 1963, during some very troubled times, just to mention the World War II.

We are not Fiddlers - which are genius

"I wanted to filter the material through my own personal and musical experience and to get closer to this material, on a very personal scale. For me... My music heroes are Bartok, Enescu and Stravinski. These composers studied the traditional music from their own countries and assimilated this language and transformed it into a very personal language. This is what I'm trying to do. We are not fiddlers; we don't want to compete with fiddlers, who are genius. We can't compete with them; we have different attributes. But it's a source of inspiration nourishing our spirit."

Between joy and sadness

Even if Romania is not necessary present in the Balkanik space (at least not geographically) there's a Balkan scent around here that reflects in some of the music. Balanescu admits so, pointing out that "the Balkan music gathers a combination of joy and sadness at the same time, and it's very interesting from the rhythm point of view. It uses structures with irregular measures. It's like in jazz music, when you say mean the swing concept, which is very hard to be transcribed. It's something that you feel it, you can't really write it. Really slow, then really fast. It has a lot of freedom. This combination is somehow linked to my own music, which has a powerful rhythmicity and a powerful lyricism, at the same time."

Theatre and violin

In the last few years, Alexander Balanescu worked more ardent in the theatre world and he continuously develops new theatre projects. ''I realized that being a musician also involves acting. You need a physical presence when you are on stage. This is a very important thing for me, as well as how do you communicate this presence to the audience. I'm trying to develop this. On the other hand, I am very interested in combining music and text together. And right now this is what I do, this autumn I want to develop a new project with Ada Milea'' (n.r. Ada Milea is a Romanian contemporary artist).

I finally ask Alexander what does the violin mean to him. Meanwhile, I wonder myself what this question mean. ''It is a part of me. I feel like the violin is a continuation of my body. I grew up with violin and one of the things that make me glad is that I'm still learning. The string instruments are the closest to the voice, and the possibilities of expression with violin are endless, unlimited. Even electronic music can be expressed through string instruments. I am always learning, always developing new aspects inside and outside my quartet.''
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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