Name: ARC Ensemble
Members: Kevin Ahfat, Piano; Marie Berard, Violin; Steven Dann, Viola; David Louie, Piano; Erika Raum, Violin; Joaquin Valdepenas, Clarinet; Dianne Werner, Piano; Thomas Wiebe, Cello
Interviewees: Marie Bérard, Thomas Wiebe
Current Release: Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann on Chandos
My two favourite novels about music are The Time of our Singing by Richard Powers and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. These two writes have a very profound understanding and love of music and take us on exceptionally fascinating musical journeys.
Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” an account of the 1967 Washington, D.C. march on the Pentagon. And the music of Walter Kaufmann, of course!
If you enjoyed this interview with the ARC ensemble, the website of the Royal Conservatory of Music has more information.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Tom Wiebe: I began playing cello when I was eight. My mother was a pianist and piano teacher, and my father has a sweet tenor voice. I suppose our home was a bit of a musical marinade.
I don’t know what drew me to music or sound; I’m afraid it might have had something to do with attracting attention—something that comes with performing.
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? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Tom Wiebe: When I first got serious about music, when I was sixteen, I just wanted to sound like Rostropovich. I probably wasn’t the first teenaged cellist to have that aspiration. But copying someone else’s interpretation is viewing a musical composition through a filter. The really rich relationship is between performer and score, not between performer and one’s performing predecessor.
I don’t know whether copying is a necessary portal leading to creativity. In our online world, there is more opportunity, and temptation, to copy than ever before. I wonder if someone coming from Neptune, with no earthly notion of how to perform, but somehow imbued with the fundamentals of rhythm, intonation and resonance, might make a fantastic, totally unprecedented interpretation of a standard work.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which ways have they changed over the years?
Tom Wiebe: I might sum it up this way: I used to be more consumed with doing (the present). Now I appreciate the importance of listening (after the fact)—to my colleagues and to myself, in addition to imagining (before the fact) and doing. It’s hard for me to imagine, do, and listen.
There’s a lot I can learn from my ARC colleagues about juggling all three.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Tom Wiebe: I usually practice at my university studio. During COVID, I’ve been practicing at home.
I haven’t done much to manage the setup of my studio—at home I had some soundproofing installed, to the great relief of my family! I don’t wan to rely on mood to practice. I’ve read that the novelist Mordecai Richler wrote every morning and early afternoon, each day of each year. I doubt he relied on mood to write. If only I could practice half as much as he wrote!
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
Marie Bérard: I’ve been playing on my Landolfi, made in Milan in 1763, for over 30 years now and we have formed quite a bond in which the sound of the instrument and my own sound have bonded together somehow.
Often during a performance, the violin seems to influence the colour quality I choose – a certain brilliance in the top register or a “chocolaty” one on the lower strings, but in essence we’re working closely together to achieve particular colours.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Marie Bérard: My days are never quite the same and the amount of time spent practicing varies greatly, depending on whether I have a performance or whether I’m mostly teaching, or both.
Musicians tend to be very social creatures so many strong friendships are formed with colleagues, probably due to the intensity of learning music together, and depending and relying on each other so absolutely. Other aspects of life tend to recede in the background as I play and rehearse music with my colleagues which is a blessed relief sometimes.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that’s particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Marie Bérard: The creative process of recording music, especially for repertoire that has never been recorded, is a very long one indeed. In the beginning it’s mostly detail-oriented work, making fingering and bowing choices and building the muscle-memory for passage-work, then the stitching together happens with colleagues, and we discover and discuss style and tempo issues and gradually form an interpretation of the piece we’re working on.
The process continues, it seems at times endlessly, as we add performance experience and we continue to revise details often right up to the day of the recording.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Tom Wiebe: To be in a creative frame of mind, I like to feel like I can try a lot of other things, and that I’m open to a lot of other things my collaborators are doing. So, open-mindedness without judgement.
I find in our ARC rehearsals we often don’t say a lot. The rehearsals process is more frequently about a non-verbal curiosity regarding what someone else is doing, and how we can make that work. That requires trust and open-mindedness.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Tom Wiebe: In my individual practice, I use metronome from time to time (I had a cello professor, Aldo Parisot, who used to proclaim he would like to burn all metronomes!), a drone (one reference pitch) for scales and arpeggios, and I like to record myself in advance of a solo performance. I’m always surprised by something in a playback.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
Marie Bérard: Talking about ideas is an important part of musical collaborations but there is a lot of non-verbal communication that happens as well. We always react to the sound and articulation our colleagues provide and often instinctively adjust and blend with each other. Most of the talking happens when there are too many ideas in play and we need to make choices.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Marie Bérard: Playing a live concert and recording are very different experiences. They both inform each other but the process for each is radically different.
In performance we have a certain freedom and the audience provides a mood that influences us greatly. In recording, one is constantly aware of the inflexibility of the final product so the stakes are higher in a way but on the other hand, we get a lot of chances to get it “right” whereas in performance, we get only one!
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
Marie Bérard: Sound for me is a far more elastic a proposition than composition.
When preparing a piece for performance, exploring the composer’s intentions and the piece’s construction are issues which seek cogent answers, and we spend a lot of time reflecting on these elements. Sound and performance depend so much on a venue’s acoustics, the health of the instrument and the quality of hair, bow and strings, not to mention the emotional and physiological state of the performer.
All musicians are apt to react to the smallest of changes.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Tom Wiebe: I think about the overlap between seeing and hearing, or, put another way, between space and time. For example, just as there is a logical beauty in the equidistance between the Parthenon’s pillars, there can be a logical beauty between steady quarter notes.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Tom Wiebe: I used to think that an artist should consider using art, in part, to spread some sort of political message. But I’m more inclined these days to allow music to speak for itself, instead of imposing an agenda on the listener.
With the music of Shostakovich, for instance, I wonder if, in the last forty years or so, we’ve limited its power by superimposing a social/political agenda on it. I suspect his motives, and any message he may have intended, were more complex than we’ve credited. If we just listened to his music, and let the pieces fall where they may, there might be yet more power and complexity in his “message,” however elusive.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
Marie Bérard: I hope everything can stay as it is. Music needs communication, passion, dedication and audiences to remain a human experience.