“kind of”

The composer Nico Muhly has recently written a blog post broadly discussing genre, which prompted me to respond by asking —

“What kind of music do you make?”

This is a question that composers and performers get asked all the time, and, if you’re anything like me, the ideal answer is a diversion. “Well — at our last show, everyone was given complimentary ice cream, and everyone lost five pounds just by listening!” That’ll pique some interest.  It’s just as dishonest as saying that what I make is a mix of “classical, jazz and world music” — it’s none of those, yet borrows from all.

For years, I’ve avoided verbalizing the answer to the genre question, hoping that at some point, a great writer will come up with something I can use. For example, the very first review of my debut album, Vjola: World on Four Strings, was by Steve Smith in Time Out, who declared that “Ljova mixes rustic dances and evocative soundscapes, all crafted from little more than the gorgeously grainy purr of his fiddle.”

Exactly that, Sir, thank you! – but can you imagine me saying that much?  “The kind of music I make is a mix of rustic dances and evocative landscapes, which I craft from little more than the gorgeously grainy purr of my fiddle….” If I had to say this myself, I would surely redact all adjectives, and end up with the bland “I create dances and landscapes on a fiddle.”

In recent years, I’ve began to answer this “kind of” question with another diversion, by alluding to the fact that I’ve written pieces for Yo-Yo Ma and arrangements for Jay-Z, among others. Both musicians have funny names, are universally well known, as well as very open-minded and courageous in the kind of sound they explore, in their choices of collaborators. I am so humbled to have had a chance to work with them both. Mentioning Ma and Z gives me instant street cred in classical and hiphop worlds, but it also makes me somewhat uncomfortable — these are huge shoes to fill.

The truth is that my biggest influences have been my parents (my dad is a composer; my mom a writer/singer/poet), my wife (a singer), and brilliant violinists like Mark Feldman, Carla Kihlstedt, Charlie Burnham, Culai Neacsu, Johnny Gandelsman, and Iva Bittova.  These are equally brilliant but less familiar names. I’m influenced by music from a variety of musical cultures and how they communicate love through sound, and my personal obsession is the suspension of groove.   I notate, but wish I didn’t have to; I can fake proficiency in several styles, but my specialty is a semi-studied brew of leanings that I claim as my own.  At least, that’s where I am today.

“My name is Ljova, and I play fiddles. The music I write is very personal, and keeps evolving — I really hope it will connect with you, too. Come to our next show!” That would be my ideal line, my elevator pitch. Would you come?

Speaking of which — on July 7 (raindate: July 8), my group Ljova and the Kontraband is performing on Governors Island at 1 and 3pm. The shows are free! Bring your own ice cream — or hula-hoop — whatever works. Here is the info: https://Ljova.com/schedule

Read a newer post on the topic of genres, “Stop Calling it Classical – get a Genrectomy

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