Following up on my interviews with Mary Bellamy and Liza Lim, the composers she worked with on solo pieces for ELISION’s transference CD, I spoke with Séverine Ballon about collaboration, improvisation, and how she goes about finding new sounds on the cello.
How did you begin looking for these new sounds? Was it an accident, or curiosity, or a study, or some combination? What is your motivation in continuing to seek them out?
Even when I was young, I always had a personal way of playing the cello. I was never the typical classical player who wants to have one beautiful bright sound (although I think it is very important to be able to play like that). I always felt attracted to some sounds more than others—the fragile, unstable, breakable sounds are much richer to me. Sounds are colors and materials. Playing music is like cooking, or creating a sculpture with your hands. You feel how strong the vibration is, like earth, metal… Also, in playing a lot of new music, there is the influence of composers and also of the time we are living in, what we hear, see… When you play pieces, you discover sounds, you like them and you start getting them into your palette. Of course I am influenced by the literature I am playing.
As an interpreter and as an improviser, it was important for me to go into sounds and to discover where they take you, and also discover by them new materials. In the last two years I started working for myself on multiphonic and air sounds, really breakable sounds—also sounds really at the edge of sounds, mixing with air, or delicate. I am also working on split sounds on the cello, that can be with preparation on the instrument or with special bow techniques and fingerings. Right now, I’m planning to do a research project on these sounds. I try to improvise every day. It is very important in my practicing. I collect them in a notebook: I write all my sketches, almost like a diary. This work is not something I want to show in front of an audience. It is more a personal research. To be an improviser makes you look at the music in a different way. You focus more, not on the notation, but on what the composer wanted to write behind the notation, or the first idea. Improvising also changes the way of looking at musical structures in written music. My improvisation work helps me as an interpreter. But of course this work doesn’t mean that you “improvise” while you play written music. It is of course very important to be as exact as possible with the text.
What do you look for in a sound? What kinds of things have been surprising?
I’m looking for the vibration in a sound. I’m interested to find sounds which have inner life in them. You become aware of all these broken rhythms and noises and harmonics which are in a sound, almost like making things visible you would get in a microscope. Parallel to my interpretive work, I’m working as an improviser with a few artists, like Alexander Schellow, who draws. His work is really about vibration and density. It’s very interesting to compare the way he has to find a structure with vibrations, and the way I’m just organizing sounds and leaving them to create their own life. Sometimes improvisation is not about playing. It can be about leaving things to exist. I am also working with the photographer Evi Keller, who captures the vibrations of lights and creates a rich and poetic world with them.
What is important for you in your improvisation?
When I’m improvising, it’s very important for me to have a structure. It’s the thing I’m focusing on the most. The structure appears quite often very spontaneously, with the material I use. Because I improvise every day, I’m sometimes trying to give myself some directions, to start with materials I would not use instinctively—today take this sound to try to do something with it.
Can you talk a little bit about your collaborations?
When I’m working with composers, I like to show them what I found, also because quite often composers have no idea about how a cello could sound and how rich it is. Also, I like to have this open collaboration, in which the interpreter really gives ideas and some inspirations and a path. I love when composers get inspired by things you show them, and get ideas with them that I would never have had. I am now working with Rebecca Saunders on a solo. She likes to meet every few months to try sketches, to hear me play and improvise. It is a wonderful collaboration.
Included below are videos of three different performances of Liza Lim’s Invisibility. It’s fascinating to see and hear the differences between the performances. There is another chance to hear Ballon play the Invisibility live, coming up at the City of London Festival on July 15th. I’ll be there.