Interview with Julius Kircher, Clarinettist (En)

(27. 06. 2020 Interview made by Ellen Moysan in Heidelberg, Germany, transcribed and edited by Joel and Dana Boyer)


Interviewer: Ellen Moysan

Interviewee: Julius Kircher, clarinetist, member of Acelga Quintet, clarinet teacher at the Hochschule for Music, Karlsruhe, and former deputy principal clarinet of the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate in Ludwigshafen.


EM: I usually start the interview with the same question. I have a few things I want to talk about but otherwise it is just free. My first question is about what you understand by the expression inner song, and if you have ever heard it before.

JK: I haven’t heard it before, and I have thought about that expression for only maybe ten minutes, but I think I have an idea of what it could be, which is something like a motivation, something like the inner motor or energy that keeps me expressing my thoughts or that really makes me play the way that I think the piece or line or whatever should be played, and play with a certain energy or density in the sound.

EM: One thing I am always wondering is, first, how it is made—how we start having this thing in our mind—and then, how it feels, because each instrument is different. Would you say that this energy is just energy or is it a certain way of singing? Does it have the sound of the clarinet for you because you’re a clarinet player, or is it more your voice?

JK: It’s somehow physical. It’s as if the sound is relevant. It’s just the intensity of the sound. It’s somehow how the song comes from singing, but singing is actually the central word in teaching. Some people say you always have to sing no matter what you do. Other teachers say it has nothing to do with singing. But I think really, you always have to sing, whatever you do. And I teach the clarinet the way others teach singing. I say ‘just sing. What happens with your voice is nothing; sing as if you’re alone.’

EM: You mean sing with your clarinet?

JK: No, just sing. Show me that you can sing that note. And they say ‘Why? Should I really sing?’ And I say ‘Yes, of course, I sing all the time for you.’ And it’s ugly, it’s too high or too low.

EM: Do you sing out loud?

JK: Yes, it’s really loud. I really miss it in these corona days because in the online lesson you cannot sing while they play because they would not hear it. Either you play or speak or else you listen. So while they play I can comment, but they wouldn’t hear it. So I always tell them to please sing. Sing it with your voice and with your clarinet. It has to come from your center, from your core, from your breast.

EM: The center which is in your body?

JK: It’s your physical center somewhere here. It has to do with the way you should play the clarinet with your breathing. You have the bottom around here [gestures] which should be free and relaxed.

EM: Like the same as the singer then?

JK: Yes, of course. That’s the ground you stand on. It should be solid but flexible. It should have a good flexible and free feeling. You have the wind that comes out and you have to focus and you have to form it. But the most important thing is the center which really gives it the intensity of the sound.

EM: Do you play sitting or standing?

JK: Standing, most of the time.

EM: Do you think it changes anything?

JK: Yes, of course.

EM: What do you think it changes?

JK: The range somehow. You can cast your sound into the hall, because when you sit you only have half your body in motion. You’re stuck on your behind.

EM: So when you stand you are more grounded?

JK: When I stand there is no more tension in my body. I have the choice of freeing my ankles.

EM: Do you learn how to stand like singers do with your feet parallel?

JK: I sometimes think of it to be free in my knees and ankles and everything.

EM: So in some way you’re saying that you’re freeing the body. I do classical ballet dance a little bit as well and I think it’s the same. It teaches you how the sound goes through your body, even when you imagine it.

JK: Yes. You should open all those blocks. Everything is locked when you have your ankles stretched that way. I had a student whom I asked why the high note didn’t come. And she said she didn’t know; she didn’t get it. And I asked her to stand up and open up her chest and unlock her body. ‘In your knees, your knees are stiff, just stand on your toes and unlock your knees.’ Then it was actually no problem at all.

EM: So you ask them to stand on their toes?

JK: Just only once. I did it once and it worked immediately. She had the right kind of tension in her body—flexible but strong. This is somehow the secret.

EM: I’m wondering how it works with the cello then because we are sitting. But maybe it’s because you have to free the “column of air” as we say in French. And the head also, do you need to free your head?

JK: They always play with their heads down. And I know that in concerts I always play with my head down. It’s not natural. It sometimes feels more like fighting with the instrument than playing with it. With your head down you close yourself. So I try to remind myself to lift up my head and open up my chest.

EM: And do you walk as well when you play?

JK: Yes, I walk a lot. I move.

EM: It’s so fascinating. I was recently trying to walk a different rhythm than what I was hearing. I was singing a melody in my head and I was trying to walk differently to see if the melody is connected with the body or not. And I don’t think we can really separate the two. So I would say that when you walk you have to adjust what you do or what you’re hearing in your head. The two are connected in some way. Would you say that this inner music is embodied? You wouldn’t say that your imagination is just abstract.

JK: Is it abstract? I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it.

EM: One thing I practiced when I was relearning cello was to dance from one foot to the other. I was not very good at it because I was sitting, so my teacher told me to stand up and we were playing a bourrée by Bach, something like this.

It’s dance music, so it’s easier to move to it, but he told me that I had to feel the circle of the music with my body. It’s even more obvious when you speak with folk musicians because they play for dancers. So when you teach, you ask your students to sing and to move also?

JK: Yes, to move, sometimes. They try to play an accent for example, or a really loud note and they don’t move at all and there is no impulse from their bodies. There is some music that has to be played without any impulse or any motions.

EM: Really?

JK: There is only a little. Maybe in modern music or new music where it is explicitly written “no expression, no motion, no change of time, no dynamics.

EM: Who for example?

JK: Wolfgang Rihm.

Luciano Berio maybe.

Sometimes he writes “without expression” or “without sound.”

EM: Berio?

JK: Maybe not Berio. But there is music without sound.

EM: This looks counterintuitive.

JK: Where? Maybe in classical music. It’s sometimes French composers. I don’t remember the particular parts. But they want the pale sound. They want some kind of pale sound.

EM: Maybe impressionist music.

JK: What I wanted to say was that there are so few moments where you don’t really have to do anything or where the one thing you do is not doing anything. It’s still something you do, but there’s actually no music, no sound, nothing without emotion without some body movement. So that’s why I think you have to tell them to move while playing. Many of the movements happen because they try to hide problems.

EM: Or sometimes you’re afraid of your instrument. Yesterday I had this lesson with my Greek Pontian lyra teacher, and he was telling me “You are too tense.” I said to myself “well, let’s try to relax.” This instrument is new to me so I don’t know exactly how to hold it, and this folk instrument you play like this [gesturing]. It’s an old instrument so it’s different. And I think when you don’t know how it works you get blocked with your instrument. That’s what happened to me when I was a kid. I was blocked with my instrument and it took me years to actually learn to relax. But I think this connection with the instrument can block you.

JK: When you don’t really know how it works, you have no solution for some particular part. What do you do then?

EM: So with the clarinet, what would you say would be the difficult part that can create those blocks? I think when you are blocked physically, you cannot express things.

JK: That’s true. Every student is different and every situation is special, and, in general, I cannot tell what I’d do to unblock them.

EM: What are the main points of your teaching, for example?

JK: I try to help them know where their sounds start. The beginning in the pianissimo from only air, I tell them ‘just play the air. And then start playing the sound so it comes out of nothing. This is the point you have to find. So you will know where every note is and how you can create and form it.’

EM: So you don’t have this sound right away?

JK: I think the most important thing is that the air is the energy. It is your friend. It helps you and makes everything easy. It helps you not play with too much force and power. You have to use the air like the string for those who play with a bow. Not playing with weight in their hand for a fast bow. If you want to have a real legato, you have to be free in your movements. So you have to really have straight and free air flow. That’s what I keep telling them: “Just always play on the air stream and then on top you play a note.” And you have to know where the music and the notes start. The problem, most of the time, the problem is technically that they really don’t know where their notes start. And they compensate so much. They play with too much power or too little power or not focused enough. These are technical things, but its really just because they don’t know how to play at that certain note. Every note is singular.

EM: So what would you say would be the equivalent of what I do on the cello? I used to start with the bow like this [gestures]. And then my professor was like “think about and listen to the note before playing it.” It’s not really focusing, but how would you describe this moment?

JK: The music begins with the breathing or the impulse before. I still don’t know whether the impulse should come out of the breathing—the natural process of breathing, like breathing in and then starting immediately playing—or if it is just a matter of keeping the tension for this tiny moment, and then I play. I keep the tension for this moment. I really have to be ready early: breathe early and be in time, and be ready to cast the sound. It would be more natural to just breathe in and breathe out without anything in between.

EM: Yes, I’m interested in this thing in between because I think something is happening.

JK: I know. That’s why I don’t know. I think this would be the natural way. But what do you do when you’re in a dark room and the door opens and you’re completely terrified and you do like this [sharply inhales]. And this is how it feels when I play.

EM: Really?

JK: Not frightened; it’s the kind of tension you have inside; it’s open but it’s a tension.

EM: And do you listen to the sounds?

JK: Yes, you have to hear the notes before you play. For example, if you have a very high and piano solo on the clarinet in the orchestra, you really have to know what note you’re going to play, how it is going to sound. Sometimes it’s hard.

EM: With the cello it’s my fingers, but with the clarinet, the way you breathe inside changes how high it is, so that’s why it’s so important to hear it, right?

JK: Yes, of course. In a conscious way, you can really analyze how it works and you can change the mouth, the embouchure. You can try to fix it here or fix it there, with the support and everything, but actually in the end you should rely on what you expect to hear.

EM: Yes, so it’s the inner song.

JK: So that’s the inner song?

EM: Yes, I think so. That’s what I describe.

JK: The way I really want to play.

EM: Yes, not just the pitch, but all the other parameters: how it feels, the emotion that you want to bring out. Do you hear the name of the note as well? I was surprised yesterday when I was playing this thing because I was lost because I couldn’t place the note. With the cello I know if I place my second finger here it’s do, or if it’s like this, it’s re. So I associate the name of the note with the fingering. But this instrument is new. Plus, he teaches me with A, B, C, D, which is not something I know. So I could not really place this stuff together. And I was thinking that for me the name of the note is important. Do you hear the name of the note?

JK: No, I just have the mix of the sound and the body feeling. I don’t care about the name.

EM: You don’t have perfect pitch?

JK: No, I don’t

EM: I don’t think it’s necessary.

JK: No. I could sing a Si for you if you want.

EM: So you say it’s body feeling and pitch?

JK: The sound, the color, the pitch, the character. The color is so important.

EM: Do you think the clarinet changes something? The clarinet is so fascinating for me because you have to transpose. So what does it change? Do you think it changes anything?

JK: We play so many times in a C key so we have to transpose and we read it as a certain key. This is no problem, but it’s strange. [Whistling] This is a C. I can remember because I can remember the beginning of the fourth movement of Brahms first Sonata. [Whistling] This is the first note I play in that movement, I don’t know why, but it’s only this particular movement. This is a C. That’s why I know that. It’s a memory job.

EM: So this song is associated with the expressive pieces?

JK: I don’t know. Do you know when you listen to a rock or pop album, the Beatles, whatever you like best. And one song ends and you know exactly what is going to come next. You could sing along before it comes. This is somehow the same thing. Just think of expanding the silence between the songs. It’s just a matter of memory. You just have to remember. This is the same thing. When you know how to play that note, you don’t really have to know the name of that note. The experience you have every day with that certain note—you play it loud, you play it piano.

EM: Do you sing in your head when you’re not playing as well? I have friends who were telling me ‘I always have something playing in my head.’ And are they actual pieces that you play, like memory things? Or is it random?

JK: Sometimes it’s random. When I have rehearsals, most of the time it’s some motifs of the music I play. Actually, I’m a music junkie. I listen to music all day, but not classical music.

EM: Really? What do you listen to? Rock music?

JK: Sometimes, yes.

EM: Or folk music?

JK: I like folk music. Real folk music, but the folk music of… What is folk music? Bob Dylan. I like Bob Dylan.

This is the other folk music. Not the world music folk music. I like it as well. But I don’t have too much of it.

EM: I will send you Kinan Azmeh because he’s a really good clarinetist.

JK: Maybe most of the time or maybe all of the time there’s something running inside my head or outside my head. But as I get older, I don’t turn on the radio or put on a CD when I’m in the car.

EM: Is it related to emotions as well?

JK: Yes, I’m fed up sometimes. But not with music; it’s with other things. I just have the feeling that I would damage the music with my inner feelings because I would connect it with this memory. I would create some kind of relation between the music and this feeling I have at this moment.

EM: So when you play some piece you have to feel the music, right? Many musicians I interviewed in France use this Stanislavski method.

JK: I don’t know it.

EM: It’s a Russian guy who did theater and his whole teaching is that you need to be the role instead of just reciting it. So it’s very interesting that many musicians in Paris learn music this way. Instead of just learning how to play the music, you learn how to enter into the feeling that the music is conveying. To feel it. So even if you come and you’re depressed but you have to play something very joyful, then you have to feel what the music conveys. So the thing for me is that if you’re not in the mood…

JK: Then I’m not in the mood. I don’t want to spoil it.

EM: So when you have to play something very explosive and you are depressed, how would you play it?

JK: This somehow always works. Always.

EM: There are no conflicting feelings?

JK: My personal thing is that I have never had the feeling that I am really talented with the instrument. I play the flute, the piano—I have practiced for years—I played the drums. I taught myself but as you can imagine, I didn’t come too far without lessons. I could play in bands and I could play whatever I wanted but technically I was so limited. And I played the guitar and the clarinet. But I’m not really quick. Maybe I have a good feeling for material, for swinging material. I have a feeling for what I have to do to free my system, the instrument, my fingers, the breathing, but it always comes with the brains. I analyze myself and I just watch myself and see that this is not open. But this has nothing to do with music. And I think ‘Wow, what if I had the skills or talents like other instrumentalists? Some of them are born with some kind talent and they get the instrument and it’s a perfect match from the first moment.

EM: Do you think so?

JK: Of course they have to practice. Every big musician has to practice ten or twenty thousand hours. But still, I’m nearly forty and I really have to practice every day just to be in shape and to realize all the things I want to do because the music is always there and so strong.

EM: Inside of you?

JK: Inside. And I just find a way to carnalize it just to let it out. And there are so many obstacles: I have to form the sound, I have to play a good legato and there are always cracks in the sound.

EM: So you’re saying that you had to learn the connection with the instrument because it was not obvious for you, but you always had music to channel?

JK: Yes. The instrument is the medium.

EM: Why did you choose the clarinet?

JK: I don’t know. My parents keep telling me that I am like The Cat in Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.

EM: It’s a beautiful piece actually.

JK: Yes, it’s really beautiful. My daughter listens to it now. We went to Bornholm, the island, which is in Denmark, and there was a big band and the clarinetist was amazing. I thought, ‘I want to play that way.’ He was just freaking out all the time. Dixie clarinet.

EM: So did you like the person or you liked the sound?

JK: I liked the sound. It was totally crazy what he did there.

EM: I think the clarinet really sounds like the human voice. People say that about the cello, but especially the klezmer clarinet, the klezmer clarinet for me is like somebody laughing. Every time I hear that, it sounds like somebody is laughing.

JK: Of course. Yes. Or crying.

EM: Or crying, yes. Physically, do you think it was easier for you to play the clarinet? For me, when I tried the wind instruments, I just couldn’t play them. It doesn’t work with my mouth.

JK: It depends on the material. You need help and you need someone to tell you what you need to take and how you need to do it.

EM: Did you have moments when you were learning and you wanted to stop because you could not express anything?

JK: Totally, yeah.

EM: So what solved the problem?

JK: There are so many situations. When you play a wind instrument, when you want to articulate or you want to play accents, you really need your tongue. This is how you use it. And there is a rule, if you want to play in an orchestra, if you really want to be a professional, you really have to find a way to play staccato in a really fast way. The same with the piano, you have to play these octaves all the time. And I was too slow.

EM: With the piano?

JK: Yeah. And you have to play it for one whole page of sixteens. And my muscles didn’t do it. It’s the same with my tongue. I’m not so fast with repeating. So every time I got to this point, I had to find a technical solution, so I learned or tried to learn how you play with the double tongue, which some people say is impossible for the clarinet. But it is definitely not. But we always have to find ways to overcome. Sometimes I think I should play the flute because there are no obstacles or blockades.

EM: So, in the clarinet, you said that there is the obstacle of articulation, and what else that you have to overcome?

JK: Articulation is hard. Intonation is hard.

EM: Intonation is mostly, you say, hearing it beforehand?

JK: Yes, hearing it and somehow knowing before what is needed so that the music is going to reveal.

EM: So if you have students who don’t have a good sense of intonation, how do you help them?

JK: I ask them, what do you think and they try to hear. I just try to provoke their sensitivity.

EM: Make them sing or something?

JK: Maybe, yes.

EM: I used to think that you could not improve on that, and then, when I was a kid, I was part of a children’s choir in the cathedral. And there was one kid who had no sense of intonation at all. And after three years he was able to sing correctly.

JK: Really?

EM: And it was amazing to me because I thought you cannot improve. But somehow there is a way to improve.

JK: Maybe you could say, either you hear it or you don’t. But this is not true. You have to care about it.

EM: So it’s a matter of attention mostly?

JK: Yes, I think so.

EM: And for rhythm?

JK: Rhythm. Oh this is so interesting. There are so many criteria in the music, the techniques and fingerings, the pitch, rhythm, color, musicality, like the way you play it, the flexibility. But, I think the most important in everyday playing are rhythm and intonation because it really sucks when you don’t know how to do these. And it messes with everybody, professional or not.

EM: Yes, my second professor was obsessed with that and I remember one time when we spent an hour on one measure. I used to just hear what I had in my head, I think, and I didn’t care enough about what I was actually producing, and so it was not as good as what I was hearing here [in my head]. So my intonation was always kind of okay, but not fully. And so we spent one hour on one measure with maybe four notes. She was like ‘It has to be clean.’

JK: And you told me you were blocked for a moment.

EM: Yes, that was before. She helped me to unblock actually, because I think she showed me that if I was not able to express anything, it wasn’t because I was not good, or not musical, but because I had some blockage with the instrument. My shoulders were tense, I was totally tense.

JK: You have to slow it down as a teacher and reduce, reduce, reduce until you get to the point.

EM: I think I needed first to relax. When you’re stressed out, your professor can have a real impact on you because if you start getting stressed out, you can mess up completely, even if you are a sensitive kid who feels music. And I think for me, learning how to move my body with the music was important.

JK: Yes, of course, yes. Sometimes I shout at them and I shout at myself just to “come on, play!” This is hard music, this is dark music, this is oppressive music. You have to behave that way. It has to do with the intuition. Maybe you have it or maybe you have to learn it, but you really have to feel it. You have the information of the text, the notes, the descriptions and everything, but you really have to find the feeling of what is needed—which character, which color, which expression, and so on. And I always think it concerns me what I am doing there. I don’t have so many talents, but I really think this is one of my strengths, I think I can really play authentically or get to the core of it. That’s what people tell me: ‘Oh, what you played really touched me.’ That’s what they say and that’s my intention. I really want to say something that is maybe not my message, or maybe it is because I project it. I play it, and of course it’s me, but it’s there before me.

EM: I remember one time I sang a solo. And people told me it was very moving. But I could feel this time that it was moving me. The vibrato for example was not artificial. I was just feeling it so strongly that my voice was vibrating by itself.

JK: Somehow you can feel it when you get to the center of it. You really can feel it. You are no longer stressed and you don’t care about technical difficulties.

EM: I think it needs to touch you. If I remember this particular time, I think I was touched by the music.

JK: But how can you do it? You practice it so many times before you play it. Does it have to touch you every time? Or only in that precise moment? How can you make it come in that moment?

EM: How do you play something if it doesn’t touch you?

JK: Well, yeah, when I practice my part, there are so many things that are missing in that moment. What I want to say is that I don’t know how to make it come every time I want it to come. But this is the secret or the mystery of music: it’s there and it’s gone, and you play it and it’s gone, and you get the moment or you don’t get it. And you have a good concert, a wonderful concert, a messy concert. Why is it so difficult?

EM: Maybe it’s there, when you are present to the music, not somewhere else because you have other things on your mind.

JK: Yes, this could happen. It depends on the music you play. There is some music, for me it’s Brahms and Mozart, that never leaves me alone or in the distance. They always get me. There’s no chance of escaping.

EM: Yes, even Mozart. The clarinet concerto is just amazing.

JK: Do you know the quintet?

EM: I don’t know. Maybe yes.

JK: You need to hear the quintet. He wrote it only shortly before he wrote the concerto. Everybody talks about Mozart as if he is the genius of being so easy and being so light and delicate. No, it’s the deepest. It’s somehow for me the sense of music.

EM: And if your students don’t really get the music, how do you help them? You cannot tell them  ‘I’m sorry, you’re not gifted.’

JK: I ask them ‘Come on, what do you want to say with your music?’ This is what I ask myself also. Again, there’s hardly any note without any sense or direction or expression or any meaning. So how can you play any note? Only if it’s written you don’t have to play with any meaning or any sense, or any development, or any direction. Maybe this is the idea. There is no note without a meaning. You would just waste your time if you just play the note without thinking of how you want to play it. Mostly it’s connected with other notes and it’s part of a line, a phrase, and part of a bigger context, part of a characteristic color or atmosphere. So I don’t give them the chance to just play it. ‘How do you want to play it?’ Then, if they say ‘I don’t know, it’s that way and that way.’ Then I say ‘let’s have a look.’ Then, you get the message.

EM: That’s why you say to sing, because singing helps you to understand how you want to do it, right?

JK: Yes. I make them sing to free their bodies, actually.

EM: Not to catch how they want to do it?

JK: Maybe yes. Sometimes. But most of the time I just make them sing to feel the energy, the free air and free energy in the body. Because they do so many things just to not let their sound go out and just to stop it.

EM: Maybe they are shy as well.

JK: Yes, they want to form it, they want to do something special. And I say ‘No, just bring it out. This is you.’

EM: It’s difficult. Do you think there’s an age thing as well? I remember one musician I interviewed and she was the first one that brought this up. She was saying that when kids are adolescents, then they start having issues with themselves and with their bodies, and it becomes hard to get them to sing something because they are changing inside.

JK: My students decided to do this as professionals so I don’t leave the decision to them.

EM: Okay, so all of them are going to be professionals.

JK: Yes, they try to. It’s a hochschule.

EM: I don’t know the system in Germany.

JK: A hochschule is like a conservatory.

EM: Okay, so then how old are they? You don’t have kids?

JK: They’re twenty to thirty. I don’t have many kids.

EM: If they choose to do that, then they are passionate as well, right?

JK: The students are passionate, yes.

EM: I think you have to connect with the instrument. You have to have this attraction, almost affection for the instrument, that you really like this thing.

JK: Yes, not because somebody tells you to do it.

EM: And not because there is one spot that is free in this conservatory. Sometimes it happens that this class is full but you can do this other instrument. And I think that if you want to succeed or to be happy with your instrument you have to choose it because you like it. I had friends asking me sometimes which instrument their daughter should start with. And I was like, ‘Get her listening to Peter and the Wolf and all those pieces and see which sounds she likes.’ I think this is the way you connect with your instrument.

JK: Of course you have to try to make them find out what they like, but it should always be there. I would never make my daughter play an instrument if she doesn’t want it. Even if she was the most talented girl in the world. I wouldn’t make her play if she didn’t want it.

EM: I think at some point you have to force your kids a little bit.

JK: Yeah, maybe, to find out. Or maybe just…

EM: …to propose.

JK: Yeah, to propose and to give them some ideas and to activate them.

EM: So do you ask them to listen to music? It doesn’t look like it’s as important for interpretation as it is for composition or improvisation, but I do think that culture is important. So do you ask your students if they listen to a lot of music or ask what is their cultural world? Or does it not really matter?

JK: I care about it. Yes. One of my students is into programming beats and everything. He loves electronic music. And I like it too and I find it quite interesting. But then I ask him ‘So, why is it that you don’t care about rhythm when you play the clarinet?

EM: Somehow it’s not connected maybe?

JK: Because of course this is the theme of studying and finding out what is needed to make music. We need consciousness of time, sound, color, and if you want to say something. For example, if I read a book for my daughter, it would be totally boring if I read it in this way [in a monotone, mumbling voice]. You have to tell the story and really create some kind of tension. It’s the same with music, you always have to tell the story. You have to know what is needed to make the story understandable for the audience.

EM: To drive the music maybe.

JK: And so I ask ‘What do you think you have to do to make everybody understand what you want to say?’ And ‘What do you have to do to touch people, to make everybody become personally involved and to grab them?’

EM: Do they tell you an actual story? I had two musicians who told me actual stories.[1] Do you ask your students to imagine a story? Or is it mostly practical feelings like ‘Do you feel happy? Do you feel like this or that?’

JK: I leave it in a little more abstract region. What is the atmosphere? What is the color? What is the message? It’s like emotions, it’s not connected to words.

EM: I don’t think I could explain. I could sing it probably.

JK:  The way we talk and the way we sing, we shout, we whistle, we whisper, we yell. There are so many millions of ways of talking. So why shouldn’t there be millions of ways of playing? Turning sounds, playing it louder, saying something again and again like in a Mozart concerto. He always says things three times. He says things three times and when he gets to the third time it always opens up. It’s like a solution to a problem or a complication. There are always three steps, three crosses, A major.

EM: Did you do any eurhythmics classes or workshops or anything like that? I think it’s connected to the Dalcroze technique. I can send you that. I did a workshop last year on walking with the music. It’s very interesting because you learn how to move your body with what you hear. You have somebody playing and they ask you to walk slowly and then accelerate and do two steps instead of one. For me it was really interesting because I could see how there is a way to walk the music and drive it.

JK: Eurhythmics? That’s what they do in my daughter’s Waldorf kindergarten.

EM: Steiner?

JK: Rudolf Steiner; he did this eurhythmics thing. My daughter has to do it.

EM: Does she do music for kids?

JK: They dance and they move their body and speak with their body.

EM: So part of the workshop was to watch a children’s class with the eurhythmics and you could see how some of them feel the music very well and some of them not. So I think that being musical is primarily feeling the music and being able to move with it and to fee it. I like The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun because the first note is really driven, it’s like [vocalizing], and you can feel not just how it goes, and I don’t know if you watch the ballet as well, but you can see the faun waking up and it’s a whole atmosphere. And for this kind of thing, I think that the inner song is not just a sound, it’s like a movement that is driving you somewhere. And it’s in a whole context of painting—at least for this one, the ballet has the background by Léon Bakst—the scene and costumes. So it’s a whole atmosphere. And culture helps to get it as well.

JK: What do you mean by culture? Education or something?

EM: Yes, it’s what you know: Bildung. It’s like the novels that are written in the same period, the paintings, the music. Do you think there is a difference between your students who have a lot of this and the ones who are not really cultured?

JK: Yes, mostly those who know a lot about culture and arts are a lot more open minded of course. And they want to find out about these abstract themes in music about the emotions and the things you cannot describe with only dynamics.

EM: Yes, because I think it feeds your imaginary. And even when you look at kids, you have a daughter, you can see her playing, and my conclusion now is that it starts with your inner world, your imaginary. I grew up without television and I think that’s why my inner world was big because I read a lot and I was playing a lot. And I think this is the whole atmosphere that, when the conductor does this [gesturing], or when you have to pause right before playing, you go back to this thing. Don’t you think? For me it’s not just catching the sound, but it’s being in a certain state of mind. It’ s like going back to this place, which I think is the same as the place where kids are when they play. They are not really here. If you look at your girl, maybe she has dolls so she is inventing stuff at the same time. And I think that when you do that, you’re in a special world. You are present here but, at the same time, there are more colors. Watching kids, I think it’s that musicians go back to this place.

JK: You play. That’s why we say that when we play the music we ‘play’ somehow. Yes, that’s true. And I don’t like playing it the same way every day. So I do it a little more that way, or leave a little more time here, or play that part a little softer, so I like playing with the playing.

EM: But at the same time you have to play consistently, right?

JK: Yes. It’s something you have to experience or just learn over the years. You have to have experience to know where your space is and where you have freedom, where you can move. When you play in a precise way, and of course when you play with others, you are not free in time and space. You can show them what you want and you can interact. You can announce what you are going to do next. So if you draw their attention and make a big movement and everybody will react to you. Maybe because it’s your solo, maybe because you feel it should be that way tonight. And maybe it works and you have a special moment.

EM: So for you there is a difference between when you play in the orchestra and when you play chamber music? Do you feel you have more space or that you communicate better with the other musicians?

JK: Of course. When I play with the orchestra I always try to play what I feel is right, but of course there is someone else who is responsible for the work.

EM: The conductor.

JK: Yes, the conductor. It’s his version. And once I have a solo, I can play whatever I want, but maybe he would yell at me after the concert if I did whatever I want.

EM: Well, the French horn player in Pittsburgh told me that they say that the rehearsal is his rehearsal and the concert is ours.

JK: Yes, that’s true. Finally, we can play as we want.

EM: The worst they can do is yell at you afterwards.

JK: Yes, of course, this is a different situation. Still, in chamber music, you have to find a way to play together. You have the parts where you play a solo and the parts where you play as an ensemble, as a group, and it has to be really connected and to be a unit.

EM: And do you think it matters to be friends, or not necessarily?

JK: [Laughs] Maybe not. It helps a lot, but maybe it’s not necessary.

EM: You play always with the same people, right?

JK: No.

EM: I thought you have a fixed ensemble.

JK: I have a fixed ensemble and we have concerts together, but all of us have other concerts and other projects. So you really get new ideas, new impulses, and new impressions. I think it helps to be friends, but we fight a lot sometimes. We fight and we shout, but we get together again and still we are totally sure that our common thing is a good thing and a big thing for us.

EM: You have to talk about who has the voice.

JK: We have to arrange. There are always different ideas about what has to happen next. It’s not always easy to find a solution all the time.

EM: But at the end do you come to a consensus? Do you decide together?

JK: Yes. Sometimes we ask who really wants to follow that idea or the other one.

EM: You vote?

JK: Yes, we vote. It happens because we want to take out the emotion in that moment. ‘You want that, I want it the other way’, and sometimes, if you’re in a good mood and everybody’s relaxed, everybody says, ‘Okay, I’m okay with whatever you want.’ It depends. I wouldn’t like to play with people I don’t like so much, but maybe they’re the best musicians and the most interesting musicians and they have so much to say, and they do so many things that I haven’t done so far, and so I have a feeling they really can show me something new, so I would always play with them. But maybe not regularly, because you cannot separate working and music from the people. If we only met on stage and just played and everybody knew what to do, you could just come together and split. But this is not the case. You have to find the way together.

EM: That’s why I think you feel it in the orchestra when the people are getting along together. That’s why I think the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is special, because I hang out with the musicians sometimes and they have a real relationship. They are real friends.

JK: Same with my orchestra. I loved it so much. I really felt at home, emotionally. And I left it and was really sad about it and I still miss it after nearly a year.

EM: Do you do soloist stuff?

JK: Sometimes, yes.

EM: And in the chamber music, are you the leader of the group?

JK: No, there’s no leader. Maybe the flute, because our name is Acelga Quintet. Acelga is the Spanish word for [Swiss] chard. The name of our flutist is Hanna Mangold, and mangold is the German word for [Swiss] chard. It’s her name and that’s why we took the Spanish version, because we have this half-Argentinian French horn player, and because sometimes the string quartets have the name of their first violinist. And somehow the flute has the function of the first violin. She shows us when to play. But there’s no boss.

EM: It’s democratic.

JK: Maybe, yes.

EM: I have just one last thing that I wanted to speak to you about. Do you play by memory mostly or not really?

JK: I like playing by memory. When I play solo stuff, I play by heart, but in chamber music, not at all, never.

EM: Because it’s too risky?

JK: It’s risky and there’s too much, it’s a really big repertoire that we have so it’s really hard to know every note.

EM: Do you think it brings something to the music to play by memory?

JK: Of course. You’re closer to the message and closer to yourself. Somehow I always remember it in a photographic way. I can read it.

EM: Yes, me too. You see where it is. I think you feel your body much more as well.

JK: Yes, you’re much closer to your sound, to your body, to the inner song. You came and spoke about movement, and I think there is movement in every note. You develop it. You increase it. You play a crescendo, you relax it, you leave it free. But you wouldn’t play it [vocalizing], not in classical music. Maybe there are the notes as written or something. Then that’s the message. Always, when I play, I read them and I try to cast the sounds and move. And what you said with the flute, the piece begins and you could play just [vocalizing], but nobody would care. You have to do something with your sound. You have to sing. You cast it. What do you want to show? It’s too hot maybe. It’s the feeling of sweating maybe.

EM: Yes, that’s why you need to bring something. It’s like the kids who are playing with whatever they have. I remember my cousin had a stick in his hand and he was hiding under the table and was saying that he was fighting against dragons and hiding in a cave. And he’s playing with real things, but they have another meaning and the whole atmosphere is different. So, from the outside, you are like, ‘It’s just this guy with his clarinet, but if inside you are somewhere else, you can see the whole atmosphere. That’s why I love this Prelude, because you can see it, especially with the dancer who is waking up and he’s on the top of a rock, and he’s stretching like a cat. And you can feel how the note is driving him somewhere. And there’s also this character of a little decadence [vocalizing].

JK: Yes, it’s teasing somehow.

EM: So I think when you play, you create an atmosphere. And with folk music it’s the same. When I listen to Balkan music, I can imagine the rocks and the language and the costumes and all this stuff.

JK: You can see people dancing and shouting, jumping and clapping.

EM: Yes, especially these “rythmes boiteux” you know how in Balkan music they have irregular rhythms.

JK: Oh, I know, yes. It’s crazy. We have a Balkan rhythm in the Bartok Contrasts. You know the piece for clarinet, violin and piano? That movement, there’s a Balkan rhythm [vocalizing].

EM: Yes, I was listening to something this morning, [vocalizing].

JK: Two and three, and then nine and seven. And they play it naturally like the way Germans dance to a 2/4 rhythm. It’s so complicated, but they feel it from the inside. They can really dance to it freely.

EM: But again, I think that if you want to catch it, you have to move your body with it. I was trying to sing this thing that has this rhythm [vocalizing]. And I was trying to walk differently, but it doesn’t work. You have to move your body with the music.

JK: Yes, that’s true. It doesn’t work.

EM: Good, I think I have everything I needed.

JK: No, I haven’t said anything.

EM: This is it. As I said, it’s about what it is to practice music.

[1] Cf Interview with Yan-Pascal and Maxime Tortelier (conductors)