Name: Valentina Bellanova
Occupation: Musician, performer, ney-player, teacher
Nationality: Italian
Current event: Valentina Bellanova is one of the artists performing ctrl.xx.tension, an audiovisual work by Turkish producer and sound artist RUSNAM at Oyoun, Berlin on 1st October. A critique and deconstruction of female stereotypes in pop music, it will feature Nora Amin,  Azin Zahedi, Lynda Menoueri, and Syrtha.

[Read our RUSNAM interview]
[Read our Azin Zahedi interview]

Recommendations: Piece of music:
“Gesti” by Luciano Berio, because in order to play this piece I had to deconstruct everything I learned in the previous 20 years. Re-thinking your beliefs, de-constructing your securities .... is it not something everyone should do every now and then?
Book: a wonderful novel called “The 13 and half lives of captain bluebear” by Walter Moers, in order to remember your inner child. Artists and children are the ones living with a foot in the world of madness. I mean, the folly, the positive insanity, the power of creativity are wonderful qualities every kid has … it is important to not forget your inner child, in order to be a good artist (and in my opinion generally a good person).
Painting: it’s a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, called “il ratto di Proserpina”  If you want to see how a piece of marble can express warmth, erotic, hate, attraction, beauty and ugliness, eternal movement and desperate love … and be absolutely perfect … well, just go and see it.

If you enjoyed this interview with Valentina Bellanova and would like to know more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.

Valentina Bellanova · Ilahi

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 was 12 when I first started playing the recorder.

Since I was a kid I was always attracted by uncommon sounds, sounds that smell like wood, nature, early forgotten times. I have always loved melodies that are not typical in Western classical music. This is why I was strongly attracted by music from the Middle Age and later – when I started learning the Ney Flute - why I fell in love with Middle Eastern music.

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 of course emulated some artists I particularly liked and especially with the ney I learned by listening to the old Turkish and Arabic masters. I wanted to sound “othoman”, then I wanted to sound “Egyptian“ (like the old Egyptian ney player you can still find on YouTube).

At some point I understood that my sound is the result of my different backgrounds (early European music, traditional Italian music, traditional music from Greece or Turkey, baroque, classic Arabic, free radical improvisation I practiced in Berlin, noise and so on) and of my own personality. So I started to appreciate the uniqueness of my sound instead of struggling to be more “Arabic” or more “Northern European” (this is related to my recorder playing).

But this was a long process of learning and diving deep in the different styles and at the same time of getting to know myself as a person and as a musician.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I’m a woman, living in our society. My gender and my story do influence my creativity. I have the feeling of being a sort of “sponge” sometimes. I absorb everything but in my artistic work I keep mostly what I feel more close and significant to me.

At the same time I have a very intense inner world that is quite disconnected from modern times and their many sides, from the outside world, from my gender, my story and so on. This is my world of freedom and I couldn’t imagine my creative processes happening without it.

What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

My main challenge was to reach the point where I like myself and believe in myself. The rest is just about practicing the instrument and booking the concerts. Believing in what I do, also accepting my weaknesses, these are and remain the most important challenges in my musician life. Sometimes it still doesn’t work!

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 play one of the oldest instruments on earth. The way of expression with my instrument is not to be taken for granted. You should tune every single note the moment you play it. The instrument “feels” the change of weather and reacts in terms of sound and intonation. You need to find alternative ways of playing the dynamics in order to keep the intonation. Those are just a few examples.

But from the moment I felt more stable and secure about my instrumental technique I started opening up towards other kind of tools like pedals, loops, and computers. I found in these tools fantastic support for my work and my way of performing. In fact, using them gave me more possibilities and confidence to express my creativity. I started composing and performing my own music, which is something I wasn’t completely able to do before using all these technological resources.

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?

Both my flutes (recorder and ney) belong to the most ancient instruments on earth. I have always loved them for this and many other reasons.

Speaking about the ney, I love its connection with the earth and nature. But at the same time this instrument represents, for people that do believe in it, the connection with God or with the all. It’s very beloved in the mystical sufi world since its sound symbolizes the crying of the human soul after being separated from God, as well as the striving of the Divine in us to reconnect with the all. Those of course are already many reasons to love the ney. But they came pretty late, once I entered the sufi philosophy world.

The reasons I started playing ney as also the reasons I keep playing the recorder are simple: I love their sound, I love their breakable, fragile beauty. In particular I see the ney as an extension of myself. Sometimes I even feel myself as an extension of something bigger that sounds and vibrates into this world through my breath, my body, my skin, my heart, my instrument. This is a feeling I experienced sometimes while playing the ney. I’m not a spiritual person but playing the ney made me become one, or at least made me feel closer to the source.

The ney is not a “nice” instrument. You need to play long notes (at the beginning they are more noises then sounds) for years before being able to play any song. It doesn’t allow you to be hurried, arrogant, overachiever, egoic. In fact you need to re-think your ego. You need to empty yourself in order to vibrate. Like the reed the ney is coming from. Nothing is taken for granted but every single note is a gift and a source of joy. This gratitude I feel is present in my playing, I think. But also the struggle, the difficulties of playing an instrument that “lives” and changes everyday and has a lot of technical limits.

Well, in the end I fell in love with those limits. Probably the ney also taught me some important facts about true love.

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?

First, I need to know the story. The origin of the piece, the language, the culture, the background, its musical system. The historical and social context. After becoming aware of all these things, I “forget” them and follow my instinct, my feelings and my belly.

Awareness and freedom, respect and openness. Those are important components of my approach to interpretation.

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?

Listen, listen and listen again. Observe. Feel. Not being afraid of having different opinions. Always being honest and loving. My instrument, the ney, represents a sort of "key" to other worlds and to different cultures. Having my ney in the hands has always been a direct way for connection and communication.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?

Music and life are most of the time completely blended in my life, at least at the moment. My routine is different every week depending on what kind of projects I’m working on. Sometimes I go to rehearsals or travel to concerts. I actually love spending some time at home.

The favorite morning routine is breakfast, yoga, breathing exercises with ney, practice of the repertoire I’m currently playing or working or recording for other projects or for my own album (which is finished right now). And also I need to walk in nature, I need silence, I need to let things flow, in order to be creative.

But sometimes I also accept the fact that I’m not always able to be creative and to go with the flow, and that's ok.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

I would like to mention 2 of them.

The first was a theater performance in Berlin, in 2019. I had to face many difficulties, I struggled to find my role in the whole concept but eventually, after some important and life changing moment of anger, I found it. And I found out that playing my role just means being myself without showing out or trying hard.

Another very important and touching moment was when I stopped caring about the fact that I was the only woman in the group, starting considering us as a company of human fellows without any gender at all … well, I finally felt really connected to my colleagues and didn’t care anymore about our genders. Genders were never really important to me, especially when I was a kid. I forgot it for many years but thanks to this project I reconnected with my "humanist inner child" and also learned to be more secure and thought about myself and my own way of being on stage.

The second event I’d like to mention has been working on my first solo album. It changed my life in many ways since I discovered that I do have my own music, music coming from myself, which is beautiful to me and represents my world. I never thought about it before. This gave me so much courage to keep continuing doing my music and enjoying it and - most importantly- to trust my ideas and my personal taste.

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?

As I mentioned before, I need to be relaxed, I need to flow, in order to be creative. And I need to connect with my inner child, which is a big part of myself, the most real and true I would say.

The strategy consists in just letting it be. There are a lot of distractions. The main ones are the internet, whatsapp or fb or whatever - messages of people who expect an immediate answer, emails, bureaucracy, daily life issues etc.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Yes, music has an unbelievable healing power. I experienced it many times in many different situations. But healing is also a very painful process. This is what healing is. It can be hurtful. If you want to get rid of your pain you need to feel it first. Music is a universal medium for this purpose.

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?

It is in my nature to listen also through my other senses. Sometimes I feel the music before I hear it. I can hear through my skin, sensing a lot of different vibrations that have a specific effect on my body. Sometimes I feel a deep physical pleasure which is not connected to my intellectual or emotional brain. I’m totally happy about this “reptilian” part of myself that allows me to experience deep pleasure through sounds.

In my opinion sounds, noises, music .... they are all connected to the other senses, especially touch, since they are vibrations in the first place. Music is also connected to our sense of seeing. If I close my eyes, the music I’m hearing is not exactly the same as the music I’m hearing while looking / watching. I can sense the music in a stronger and more physical way with my closed eyes and sometimes I can even "see" it.

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?

Connecting art and politics was never my first goal but I also understood that this is quite inevitable and it will always be. So yes, it’s important for me to know about the political approach of the people I’m working with and I also like the idea of being a medium to express specific topics. My view of the world is coming out through my music but also through my way of approaching music.

I experienced it with my oldest students, especially some years ago when I was teaching more than now. I noticed that some of my students kind of started thinking like me. Using my words and way of thinking and applying them to daily life. I was really proud, I'll admit, since what I was always trying to teach them was being open, independent, curious, critical, compassionate. Never being afraid to ask. Being always able to listen. Thinking on their own.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Basically everything. Because music can affect every single person in a different way, according to that person’s life story. Music can be very personal and universal at the same time. You can find life in every piece of music. Music repeats itself, like life does. Repeating itself, never staying the same.

I find it more difficult to find death in music. Death is silence. Is silence just another type of music or doesn't it have anything to do with it? My relationship with death is not peaceful, it is not clear. Ask me again in 20 years.