Name: Magdalena Hoffmann
Recent release: Magdalena Hoffmann's Nightscapes is out via Deutsche Grammophon.
Recommendations: John Eliot Gardiner’s great gift to us, the recordings of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage (and, connected with this, his book “Music in the Castle of Heaven”). Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”.
If you enjoyed this interview with Magdalena Hoffmann and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started literally on my sixth birthday. Influences included my parents’ self-made puppet theatre production of Mozart’s Magic Flute (what else …) and Rimsky-Korsakovs “Kashchey the Deathless”, my first harp CD with Britten’s Suite (which I love to this day); but also my godfather’s disks of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many others …
My biggest passion up to my teenage years wasn’t really a musical one though; I was in love with the theatre, spent many years acting in child roles in a Düsseldorf theatre and wanted to become a “theatre director”. I loved the magic of the (back-)stage, the stories, the smell … But in the end, music prevailed!
I couldn’t really put into words now what it was that drew me to music and/or sound then – I was simply fascinated by it, and by this wonderful instrument where it is so obvious and seemingly simple to create sound. Who doesn’t want to touch a harp when they see one? And how wonderful is it to really form the sound with your hands, to squeeze it and shape it, or sprinkle it like pearls.
For most artists, originality is 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?
I was lucky enough to have some marvelous teachers to emulate when I was young. I also had parents who offered a lot of diverse food for my imagination and creativity. I remember very well that when my brother and I were painting (we have an attic full of boxes filled with our early artworks ...) they deliberately didn’t give any sign of judgement, only general unchanging appreciation, so that we would develop freely.
To be honest – I feel like the process of developing my own voice is very much ongoing. I feel like every project (including the recording of CDs) is a step on the way. Even a recording is, after all, the capturing of a moment; a beautiful possibility we have nowadays which however should not let us forget that the full magic of music consists in that it is transient. It only really exists in the moment it is produced by someone and taken in by someone else.
So even when I'm recording CDs now I am always searching for what to say and how to say it.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I've never thought about this and I don’t feel very much like thinking about it. Identitiy is a very fluent concept, there are endless facets to one’s identity.
And I consider creativity a basic human faculty. If you talk to accountants and are willing to listen, you will realise the creative aspects of their work! So I would not like to discuss creativity as a quality that distiguishes artists.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
To keep breathing while plucking strings and pressing pedals. Now I have more strings to pluck and more pedals to press.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?
I think a very exciting part of this path I am only just entering into: in the past few years (shamefully late) I have gotten more and more fascinated by the history of my incredibly old instrument and I would absolutely love to get my hands on a baroque triple harp, but also a single-action harp (as used in the 18th century). There is so much music I would love to get to know better and try out on the harp, but so often the “fat” sound of my wonderful modern instrument just doesn’t fit or allow me to produce the necessary lightness.
My very first instrument was a rented little Irish harp that I was allowed to “uncover” on my sixth birthday – the beginning of the journey of my life! The following one was my first (used) pedal harp, which my parents literally exchanged against a used car when reselling it. Then things got serious: with financial help from my grandfather I got my first new, black Salvi, a beautiful instrument that accompanied me through my studies and only left me when I started my first full solo-harp job at the Tyrolean Symphony Orchestra and could afford to buy the magnificent instrument I play today.
But the search never ends, just like the work on one’s own possibilities.
Tell me about your instrument, please. 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?
My instrument is just that, my instrument. Neither less nor more. It is the tool with which I try to translate the music that I love and want to share, the “words” that great inventors have written down for me and other musicians to pronounce. Of course I love my harp, it took me a while to find it and I’m very happy I did. But I think I should be able to express what I want to say on another harp, too – or even on another instrument, if I had learnt another. Alas – it is the harp for me, so there is a lot of tuning involved …
But you asked me about qualities, not any flaws that might come with them. A strange and factually impossible quality I felt on my harp the very first time I tried it out and compared it with multiple others was the impression that it could sing. Which is of course exaggerated, harps probably have less legato than any other instruments – but nevertheless, that was what I felt. Its sound has the “wooden warmth” typical of this brand of harp (Salvi) but also the silvery brilliance in the higher registers.
The great curse of our instrument is that it decreases with time, not only in value, but also in quality. The problem is the enormous tension that constantly pulls on the sound board and the neck of the harp – with time, the angles and proportions change, the delicate and intricate mechanism of the pedals and the action disks that change the semitones of the strings can’t be properly regulated anymore. Which means, we are simply not in tune anymore and with time there are also more and more buzzes and other disturbances.
I think we must never fall in love too much with one single instrument, our music should not depend on it.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
I don’t think I have a particular “recipe”, it also depends very much on the piece.
The first step is definitely reading it, understanding the general structure and ... marking the pedal changes (if they’re not written yet). This is a tiring but very necessary part of being a harpist. Sightreading on our instrument is a challenge like most other instrumentalists can’t imagine; depending on the difficulty of a passage it is quite simply impossible to sightread because you need to figure out enharmonic solutions first (generally, the more chromatic a passage, the more clever pedal action is needed). But this is a detail that I mention only in order to maybe spare some harpist from the innocent “Could we just read this through quickly?” - dear musician colleagues, have pity on us!
However, the most important part of interpretation consists in trying to find the music behind those “kleine schwarze Knödel” - “little black dumplings”, as Harnoncourt called them. If the composer gives clear “instructions”, of course we should carry them out, but we also have to try to understand why he gave them. If there are less instructions (going back in music history), the process becomes more creative, maybe more exciting, because much more is left to the interpreter’s decision and taste. Naturally that means that in a way it also becomes more challenging to our musicianship: a much larger part of our interpretation is our responsibility.
As for my principles ... one should always practise on a tuned harp! Other than that I don’t have a lot of clearly formulated principles; things change and processes change, you learn and you develop. Maybe one thing that I consider essentially important is just that: to always stay curious.