Francesconi: Das Ding singt. Interview with Jay Campbell

Francesconi: Das Ding singt. Interview with Jay Campbell

On September 2, the Lucerne Festival presents the world premiere of Luca Francesconi’s Das Ding singt, for cello and orchestra, featuring soloist Jay Campbell. The Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy will be conducted by Matthias Pintscher. The piece will be also performed in Köln on September 3 (Philharmonie).

Campbell is one of the star performers at this year’s festival, and we had the opportunity to interview him. 

Mr. Campbell, in your short but already intense career you’ve been especially praised for the way you approach music from both the early 20th century and contemporary compositions, which reveals the same level of interest, openness and involvement on your part. How do you reconcile the old with the new?
I really believe that they do inform each other. I don't mean to singularly lump "old" and "new" music to be monolithic areas of music -- there is so much gradation even within older, very codified styles of composition -- but I think that my experience working with living composers very much informs my approach to older music. It's incredible how two composers can write something that looks very similar, in terms of our standards of notation, yet want something so different aesthetically. So I've learned to meet each piece of music on it's own terms. In other words, I approach each composer (and each piece!), whether old or new, as a self-contained world that is a unique expression of perhaps the state of the composer's soul at that point in time. For me, I think that makes old music feel new.

Many composers have written for you. Pierre Boulez asked you to perform his Messagesquisse at the 2010 Lucerne Festival. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience, or other experiences you’ve had in contemporary music?
I still feel very lucky that Boulez gave me that opportunity.  At that point, I was very young and wasn't very "serious" about music yet, or about at least a career in music -- that was actually the first or second music festival I had ever been to in my life. So to be given that tremendous challenge was really important for me at that time in life and I grew a lot as a musician. I feel that I owe a lot, personally speaking, to Boulez and his generosity.

Getting back to the world premiere of Das Ding singt. Were you already familiar with Luca Francesconi’s music? 
Yes, I had known some orchestra scores and chamber music, also his latest violin concerto -- an incredible piece matched with an incredible performer.

Can you tell us about how you approached this new work? Were you able to talk to Francesconi, and discuss the technical aspects while he was writing the score? What kind of artistic relationship do the two of you have? Is there any particular part of Das Ding singt that really struck you as something special?
We actually didn't meet in real life, but we skyped a bit and talked about the general vibe of the piece, and also worked out some technical things. He has a really exciting and fresh way of speaking about music. It's very visceral and immediate, and this concerto feels that way. It's incredibly demanding but also has a totally unique beauty to it. It morphs into something special in the last movement, a kind of reference to one of the earliest cello pieces ever written, and the way it emerges from the build up of the previous movements is really cool.

Besides performing as a soloist, you also play in the Jack Quartet. How do you manage to juggle both interests? In terms of playing music, do the two different kinds of scenarios have any influence on your mood? If so, can you describe it?
I've never wanted to define myself by what other people have done, so my choices in my musical career were never informed by thinking something like "I want to be in an orchestra" or "I want to be a soloist", or whatever: I just want to be a musician. There's really few reasons to think we have to do just one single thing in music because all of those things can be informed by the other. 
Perhaps on the most basic level, I'm just artistically attracted to people who are really passionate about what they do, in the most earnest and genuine way. I want to be around those people and create things with those people. It excites me so much to work with three other people who have this sense of adventure and fearlessness about expanding what a string quartet can be. The intelligence and curiosity with which they approach new scores is really inspiring. I also play in a piano trio with Stefan Jackiw and Conrad Tao, in which we mainly play standard repertoire. I learn so much from them as well because their approach to old music is so fresh, and played with so much vulnerability. That's also inspiring, and I try to take it all in and learn as much as I can from all the incredible people that I get to meet and play with. That all informs my solo work because I don't see it as any different than the rest of my musical life.

What are your plans for the future?
I have a lot of crazy performance plans in the works, which of course is really exciting. But actually, I'm really looking forward to teaching more, which surprised me a little because I never really thought I was love it. I believe there's a real hunger for redefining what a musical education looks like right now. This summer, I was teaching at the Banff Center and there was a student who had a lightbulb moment: he was rehearsing an improvised piece and by the end had finally gotten into that space of real listening, interaction, and spontaneity...then went to the next rehearsal, which was a Beethoven quartet. When he said it had completely changed how he interacted in the quartet, that was like a hallelujah moment for me also. Working with other people towards discovering new paths into old or new music, and deepening one's relationship and understanding of music in general, is really inspiring for me when I'm teaching because that's exactly the reason why I play music with other people. For me, it's important to be a part of cultivating that in the next generation.

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan