An Interview with Alina Ibragimova
I met the violinist Alina Ibragimova one sunny day in the courtyard of the Atlantik hotel in Bremen, Germany. She wore no makeup. Her presence is generally free of artificial glamor; she speaks with a Russian accent and rarely utters a superfluous word. Instead she can sound abrupt at times. Her speech resembles her vibrato when she plays: it’s used to emphasize an extraordinary moment, not to hide a lack of something interesting to say. She’s an artist with a kind of steely, magnetic purity. Speaking of steel…
VAN: Since its founding 12 years ago, the Chiaroscuro Quartet has played on gut strings. What do you they give you, sonically, that steel strings can’t?
Alina Ibragimova: More sensitivity. They answer you. With steel strings, I always have the feeling that there’s a kind of gauze over them, an extra layer of something sticky that makes them sound better. Gut strings give you a rawer, more pure sound, even if they are harder to play and you lose a certain softness. But the color is earthier, you get more resonance, you need less pressure and gain more variety of timbre. Of course they’re sometimes frustrating, because they go out of tune easily and get scratchy.
Do you think that scratchiness, or even a certain ugliness, is an important part of a beautiful sound?
I don’t think we should strive for beauty. We don’t need to make ugliness beautiful. It should stay the way it is [laughs]! There’s nothing wrong with it. Of course, I love beauty, but only in contrast to something else. Besides, if we only made beautiful things, that would be unfair to ugliness.
What has to happen to create a moment in the concert hall that is either beautiful, ugly, or something else entirely?
It has to do with the things that we discover or that we conquer while playing. There are different levels of interaction going on. Special moments take a kind of mutual understanding between everyone: the audience, the stage, the molecules of air, whatever. The reactions between me and the other performers, my instrument, the space…
Does it ever happen that a concert has no special moments at all?
Yes, sometimes nothing happens at all. Or something different happens. Of course there are concerts where I feel exhausted. If I don’t feel good, I tend to fall into a kind of autopilot mode. That’s always depressing when it happens—not often, but it does come up.
Are there external circumstances that make you more likely to feel that way?
When it’s just one concert after the other, you start to feel empty. You need time to gather up your energy. Or if you think too much, get paranoid. It’s always your brain that plays tricks on you. In music, you strive for a balance between thinking and acting. That’s the real artistry, fighting off the resistance in your own brain. It has a way of twisting things.
Playing with the quartet, where you know the people so well—does that make it easier or harder to overcome those thoughts?
The quartet is like a family. We’re extremely close. We have an intense connection. We’re quite direct in our criticisms of each other. We don’t beat around the bush. There are no social graces. You’re completely naked. Which is a wonderful thing, because it allows you to learn so much. We know each other really well, we can play everyone else’s parts, we rehearse all the time and get really deep into the pieces. Whatever happens, we’re there for each other.
Of course it’s hard sometimes. The intonation is very transparent in a quartet, and the repertoire is difficult. It’s not easy to feel comfortable and relaxed while you’re playing. Then again, that’s probably not the point.
The quartet has members from Russia, Spain, France, and Sweden. Does this have an effect on your daily music-making?
Yes, we’re all from very different musical backgrounds and cultures. It enriches the whole process—different mindsets mean we have to think harder. To put it very simply, with my Russian, or rather Tatar background, I feel like I’m strongly attracted to darkness. I look for depth and strength, rather than good vibes. I think that has a lot to do with what I’ve seen and what my grandparents have seen. To a certain extent, it’s also a question of musical education and the different schools. I have the technique and habits that I’ve learned, but in the end what matters is what’s inside you. The way your life has shaped you—that has nothing to do with music, but with your soul, your humanity, or whatever you want to call it.
When you were 10 you moved to London with your parents, who were also musicians. What’s the first thing you think of when you remember your first home in Tatar?
The little village that my grandparents were from; the house my grandfather built, on the edge of the forest. And the food!
Do you keep up with politics in Russia?
I do keep up with what’s going on, but I’m not a political person. I feel like I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion. I think we all know how much people are suffering right now. But nothing in life is simple, and you can see everything from multiple perspectives. At the end of the day we’re all human and we all act impulsively and make mistakes sometimes. So I find it difficult to say, “This is how we should act.” After all, who am I?
I do think we should be open minded and try to put ourselves in others’ shoes as much as possible. That’s the goal. When I’m playing, it’s the same—I look for something that I can feel along with the others. Part of that is being aware of the depressing things that are happening in our world. I try to emphasize with those things and express them while I play.
You’ve played with top orchestras and are listed on Spotify as one of the “great Russian violinists.” It looks to me like you have a good shot at reaching the top of the industry: not just convincing the critics, but appealing to people who care about glamor, too. Is it important for you to leave your mark on the classical music world in some way?
Leaving your mark has to do with the past, and I think it’s worth trying to live in the now. Glamor in classical music is superficial in many ways, so I’m not particularly interested in that. I like playing with excellent, friendly musicians. That’s what it’s about for me at the end of the day. Conquering the world is not one of my priorities [laughs].
How do you decide whether or not to do a project?
The further along you are in your career, the more you want to do every project that comes your way. Which makes things complicated. It’s hard to choose one outstanding orchestra over another. At this point, I take care to give myself enough free time. My parents used to help me a lot with that, and I had a great agent from the very beginning. They were always making sure that I didn’t take on anything that I wasn’t ready for. That things didn’t go too fast. And now I do the things that feel right to me. It’s rarely about what’s good for my career. I just think about what music I want to play, and with whom.
Cédric Tiberghien is one of the people enjoy playing with. You’ve been his duo partner for 12 years. You just finished recording the complete Mozart Sonatas…
Yes, that was great. We did five double-CD sets of the Mozart Sonatas, and the fourth box is coming out in September. We loved playing them all, from the very early Sonatas, which hardly anyone plays, to the late ones. We discovered so many little details and feel like we really know Mozart’s language, from when he was an eight-year-old boy onwards. The language is creative and playful in detail and texture. And what’s great with Cédric is that we trust each other implicitly. There are no mistakes. We don’t try to be together anymore—instead, we play in parallel, go apart and find our way back to each other.
Do you ever feel like language fails when talking about music?
All the time. In general, it’s so hard to talk about music. When someone asks me to describe a piece, I can usually find a few superficial words, but they don’t really have that much to do with the piece.
Does music influence the way you think?
Yes. I think music has a lot in common with meditation. The spiritual state you find yourself in when making music or listening to music can be like a kind of trance. It’s like there’s this thought bubble above your head, and your brain goes places that you might never be able to understand otherwise. Like with meditation, though, you can’t force it—it has to happen on its own.
What do you find strange in classical music?
The strangest thing, I think, is that we still have this condescending attitude towards contemporary music, or rather, anything that wasn’t written before the 20th century. I can’t understand it when a presenter rejects a Bartók program because they think the audience won’t show. That’s the strangest thing of all for me. My little new season resolution will be to be less flexible with that kind of thing. The next time I want to play Bartók and someone asks me, “Oh, could you suggest an alternative?” I’ll say, “No.”
Of course there are plenty of fantastic new music festivals, but they stay in a separate bubble of their own. In the average concert hall, it’s very difficult to play the program that you want to play. Every time I suggest a contemporary work, I expect a negative reaction. By the way, that holds true for lesser-known earlier works as well. I think we all need to work on that. Either we need to find a different audience for that music, or we need to invite the audiences we have to love it—which they will once they hear it!
If you could commission a work from any composer, who would it be?
Oh, there are so many options. If it could be a dead composer, it would be Mahler. Otherwise, I’m excited to play the [Jörg] Widmann Violin Concerto, which was written for my teacher Christian Tetzlaff. In general it’s important to play contemporary works again after the premiere, so that they don’t disappear into the closet. That’s another strange thing about classical music.
Besides your resolution not to give in on playing Bartók, any other things you want to change?
No, not really. 12 years ago a lot of wonderful things happened. I found my violin, started the quartet, met Cédric. I’m very happy with the way things are. I just want to keep going. Playing, making music. ¶