Interview with Composition Today (2009)

Ljova’s interview with David Bruce of Composition:Today, published July 14 2009
Re-published here with permission.

Tell us something about your background.

Born in Moscow; moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at age 11, and can’t seem to leave.

My father, Alexander Zhurbin, is a classically-trained composer, who studied with Shostakovich and Khachaturian and others at the Saint Petersburg (then “Leningrad”) Conservatory. In 1975, my dad wrote Russia’s first rock-opera (called “zong-opera” in those days, because “rock” was widely banned), and became an overnight sensation. That opera, “Orpheus and Eurydice”, went on to sell millions of LP records, and is still being performed in the same theater, almost 35 years later. Since then, my father has written several symphonies, concerti, as well as dozens of musicals and film scores, pop songs and art songs, as well as three books of articles and commentary. He is still composing at a frenetic pace, and his music is performed all over Russia.

My mother, Irena Ginzburg, is a writer, poet, and translator. She also has a powerful voice for singing Russian romances. Like her father, Lev Ginzburg, she has translated volumes of German poetry into Russian, and vice versa. She has published two precious books of memoirs, recalling the era of Moscow life in the 70s-90s, most of which I spent either yet-unborn or practicing fiddle. Together with my dad, they have co-written many memorable songs, which they sing together at concerts & parties, and just about everywhere there’s a piano, to everyone’s immense delight.

I started playing violin at age 4, quitting at age eleven to become a screenwriter, at which point my dad secretly traded my violin for a viola — it was a sly but ultimately winning move. For college, I attended Juilliard as a classical violist, learning Bach & Bartok during the week, studying with Samuel Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard String Quartet. On weekends, I played countless and occasionally eccentric weddings, in a string quartet of intrepid Russian immigrants, all of them at least a decade older than myself. I began making arrangements for the wedding quartet, and eventually writing original pieces to play at cocktail hours. At the same time, I played lots of contemporary music with the New Juilliard Ensemble, and the Absolute Ensemble. Due to these and other opportunities, I began improvising on the viola, and arranging music for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, and later for the Kronos Quartet, Bond, Jay-Z, and others.

At some point during college, I scored my first student short film, directed by Andrew Koenig, whose father, Walter, played Chekhov on the original Star Trek. Since then, I’ve scored probably 20 short films, four features, and two animations.

Four years ago, I heard the wildly popular New York-based Gypsy band, Romashka. After an initial summer of attending their every show and substituting for their fiddler while he was away, I joined the band as a violist, and married their co-founder and vocalist, Inna Barmash. In addition to performing with Romashka, we’ve started a new ensemble together, Ljova and the Kontraband, focusing on original music … and just last week, our son was born!

That, my friends, is the short version. Should I go on?!

How did you start composing?

As a kid, I used to sit in the back of my parents’ car, humming tunes – but they weren’t *just* tunes – they were orchestrated to the point where I’d try to sing both the melody, harmony, and the bass, and keep a drum beat, all at the same time. Sometime when I was 6 or 7, I wrote down my first piano pieces, and later on, I wrote a suite of “alternate music” for the film “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial”, which I used to watch day after day, pressing “mute” on the TV at appropriate moments and banging out my themes on the piano nearby.

Later, during school years, instead of taking notes, I would spend most classes composing or sketching pieces for girls that I admired. Homework suffered, but the melodies got sweeter.

Eventually, some of the pieces got performed, and I became more serious about composition, studying scores & paying attention to music around me, being open minded and not too critical.

Tell us about the connections between your playing and your composing – do you always compose at the viola?

Actually, the opposite – I mostly use the viola as a vehicle for improvisation, and very rarely will I try anything out on it while composing.

When I improvise on the viola, it’s a very tactile act, influenced very much by which position my hand is in, how tired I am physically, how concentrated I am mentally, and how much time I want to spend getting something correctly. It’s a very momentary way of finding a solution – you play, and it is there.

I do most of my sketching on trains, in the park, anywhere there is quiet. From my father, I picked up the practice of composing in silence – just pen (not pencil!) & paper, on the dining table. I savor the time it takes to get ideas out on paper, and especially the silences between ideas, when nothing new is written down.

When it comes to orchestration, I almost always do it directly in Sibelius (the notation program), as, most of the time, the piece is nearly finished in my mind, and it’s just a matter of getting it into a score & parts format.

When I write film music, I tend to do a bit of everything – sketching on paper, sketching in Sibelius, and making improvised demos on the viola.

My debut album, “Vjola: World on Four Strings” ( ), is predominantly a collection of demos I had made for my film cues or character studies. Not having access to a high-quality sampler or chamber ensemble, I would improvise & record all the parts on my viola – melodies, harmonies, counterlines.. for a bass, I’d play the viola and pitch-shift it down an octave. It worked extremely well, not only as a convenient way of sketching, but as a way to preserve the fragility of rough sketches, unrehearsed phrasing, and a unique sonority.

After the release of the album, several chamber groups approached me about performing some of the material – and so, the “Vjola Suite” was born. It is a suite of arrangements I had made after the original recordings, available both for string quartet and string trio. It’s probably the only time where music I had written exclusively on the viola had later appeared on paper.

Tell us about your experiences promoting and distributing a CD. Do you have any advice to composers thinking of doing the same with their work?

At this point, I’ve released two CDs on my own label, Kapustnik Records, and I couldn’t be more excited for their success. The first album, Vjola: World on Four Strings, was reviewed in the New York Times, Billboard, Time Out, Gramophone, and others, as well as being featured on many great radio shows in the US and abroad. More important than the critical acclaim, though, was that the music found attention with many performers, filmmakers, choreographers and of course likeminded listeners. The CD was released without a publicist or a promoter, and even without physical distribution — though you could special-order it through some stores via CDBaby’s distributor, and quite a few people did just that. I co-wrote the press-release with my good friend, and began sending it out, then made followups. It’s now sold out of its initial run, and I’m looking into a re-issue this year or next, with a bonus track or two. (You can still buy it on iTunes.) Our second CD, “Mnemosyne”,featuring my ensemble Ljova and the Kontraband, is also selling well, and is bringing really wonderful opportunities to the Kontraband for touring, licensing, recording and film projects.

At this point, there is really no excuse for any composer or performer not to have a MySpace page, a Facebook music page, and some tracks on iTunes. You must try to put your music everywhere online, and try to promote it as only you can.

It’s hard to say what is effective in online promotion, because every website brings some sort of result. Even if it’s really small — say, 2 people listened to your piece on some crazy new website — well, that’s 2 more people than yesterday, so it’s having an effect. The key, again, is that these are real people, and anyone interested in listening to your music is bound to be a pretty good person.

I would also encourage you to collaborate as much as possible, whether it be with performers or non-musicians such as filmmakers or playwrights or other artists. Collaborations are not only incredible learning spurts, they also breed co-promoters, who may recommend your work to others.

You come at the world of ‘contemporary classical music’ from an usual angle. Tell us your feelings about that world from your perspective, the health of the art form, where you think its heading, its problems.

I must delegate to critics like Alex Ross, Norman Lebrecht and Greg Sandow, to duke it out for the health of “contemporary classical music”. They have all the data, and possibly the solutions. I’m fairly certain that the longevity of classical music is principally a matter of early childhood music education, affordable concert tickets, and making wider selections of repertoire available for listening and perusing online… I grew up listening to Mahler symphonies since I was 8 or 9, and exploring huge scores like Messiaen’s “Turangalila” or Schoenberg’s “Gurre Lieder”. I wonder how many school libraries have access to those recordings, let alone the beautiful paintings that are the scores of these pieces, or the ones of George Crumb. Surely it’s one thing to hear these pieces as an mp3 download on your iPod, but it’s simply a sensory overload to look at these painstakingly written, beautiful, almost mural-like scores on paper or on-screen.

In New York, right now there is an amazing renaissance for contemporary music, with many wonderful groups and collectives — Alarm Will Sound, Brooklyn Rider, Wet Ink, Signal, and the roster of New Amsterdam Records, among others — all open-minded musicians exploring the connections between what they’ve learned in college, what they hear on MySpace and what’s on their iPods. We have a very healthy and very supportive list of venues that program and promote new music — among them, the Issue Project Room, Barbes, Galapagos, Merkin Concert Hall, Cornelia Street Cafe, The Stone, Le Poisson Rouge, and others.

My own connections to “contemporary classical music” are a bit suspect, as I never formally studied composition, and came into writing music through the back door of film music, wedding music, working with world music musicians with Kronos and the Silk Road Ensemble. I also come into the composing world as a performer, having actively performed in chamber groups and orchestras for over 15 years. Between all of these influences, I think this steers me toward being a composer that feels very responsible that the audience enjoy the music, that they find it entertaining, that they want to hear it again.

You recently described yourself as someone who wants to “strive to be more of a folk musician” – are there any features of the classical world that you envy or miss?

I am humbled every day by musicians who know very little of the language of the Western classical tradition, many of whom cannot read sheet music, but music flows through them like a torrent, and you can feel the energy front and center. Unfortunately, my classical training gives me the tools to readily and instantly dissect everything, even the most inspired magical accidents, into harmonic centers, contrapuntal devices and form concepts. It’s the kind of education that scars you for life, and makes you a really sour concert date. Definitely not something you want to take with you onto a desert island. 🙂

And so I’ve decided that my education is essentially a crutch, and that I’m going to ignore it as much as I can, rebuke it, push it back in the deepest darkest corner, and try to act as if I grew up in a little village, and my whole musical vocabulary starts with the few tunes I learned in my village during childhood. When I encounter new music or new ideas, I filter them through
to find that which is the thing that hits the “home” button deepest, that connects with my inner nostalgia, my ever-shifting inner Golden Age.

To balance life out, I do have to power my education back on when I work on orchestration / arranging assignments, and some film projects… but for the majority of my original music, I now try to work from a fairly spare perspective and means.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

Publicly speaking, I try to write pretty difficult music that sounds easy. I get a real kick out of our fans humming the melody to “Bagel on the Malecon” or “Sicilienne”, for instance, because these melodies keep switching meters, yet the changes are almost imperceptible. I aspire to write dance music that makes you wish you had 3 or 5 or 7 feet, or just plain makes you think. In my film scores, I try to write music that dances with the visuals – or against the visuals – in a way that makes the total experience memorable and magnificent..

Privately, I’m happiest when I write a piece that’s not a success, when a piece transforms itself from inception to conception into something that I’m truly scared of. For a little while, I used to say that my happiest mode of collaboration is to “try to get fired as fast as possible” – but what I really meant by that is that I try not to pigeon-hole myself, or my collaborators, into some finite direction or sonority.

Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?

Without a doubt, these few:
1) my parents — who raised me on being open minded and open-hearted to all sorts of people, sounds, visuals, ideas and emotions;
2) my non-musical collaborators — who consistently expanded my sensitivity to all other perspectives and outlooks on a new work other than the musical one;
3) my wonderful performer friends, who have encouraged my music, performed and recorded it;
4) my wife, who encourages me more than anyone to dream big, even on the smallest of projects.

What’s the craziest idea for a piece you’ve ever had?

I’m still waiting for it — ask me in a year or two; then again – if you know someone curating the music program at the International Space Station, please let me know! 🙂

Which work are you most proud of and why?

I’m pretty critical of my own work, and am proud of happy accidents. In each piece, there is a place that wasn’t a compositional decision, but a flight of inspiration. I live for those moments, and try to make them happen on paper as often as I can.

In film scores, I’m proud to stand up for strong dramatic ideas, and of using predominantly acoustic instruments whenever possible.

Here’s a piece I love – it’s called “What Your Stomach Feels Like When You Eat School Food”. I wrote it in high school, while taking an extended bathroom break from a math class, slipping into the computer lab instead to notate and print this out. It’s very short, charming, and has been one of my favorite happy accidents of all time. I’d put it on my business card if I could — enjoy here:

What does the future hold for you?

At the present moment, I’m finishing up a commission for Kristjan Järvi and the Absolute Ensemble, a new piece for them and the tango sextet of Dutch bandoneon virtuoso Carel Kraayenhof. It’s scheduled to premiere this summer, all things remaining equal. I’m also almost finished on three film projects: a feature-length comedy filmed in Moscow, where I was born. The soundtrack features our Gypsy band, Romashka, as well as musicians from Ljova and the Kontraband. The film is coming out next year. The other film projects at the moment are a feature documentary, and a short animation. Later this summer, I’m likely to be working on several projects collaborating with dancers.

Best of all, just last week, our son Benjy was born! So there is lots of excitement in the pipeline.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

sure –
1) – my official site
2) – website of Ljova and the Kontraband
3) – my MySpace (edit 2021: Haha!)
4) – many videos from concerts & other projects
5) – our Gypsy party band, Romashka (check out the music video!)

Please list any useful resouces/links

1) my IMDb page with film credits:
2) my Wikipedia –>
3) my dad’s Wikipedia –>
4) my twitter –>

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2021

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