Violinist Monica Germino plays MUTED: ‘I feel like the cat Mehitabel, on the threshold of a new career’

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

On Sunday 21 July Monica Germino will play MUTED in the festival Wonderfeel. This piece was composed for her by Louis Andriessen and the composers of Bang on a Can when she was diagnosed with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes her oversensitive to sound. In May Monica Germino also played MUTED in the festival dedicated to Louis Andriessen’s 80th birthday in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. I then interviewed her about her relationship with Andriessen and about her new ‘whisper violin’ for the Dutch music magazine Luister.

The first time Monica Germino played music by Louis Andriessen was in 1994, during the premiere of his opera Rosa in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. A year earlier she had met him personally when she came to the Netherlands with a scholarship. ‘But in the spirit I had met him before’, says the violinist in her living room with a view of the Amstel river. ‘This was during my master’s degree at Yale. He had been a guest lecturer there a few years earlier and the students couldn’t stop talking about it. One of them said: are you going to the Netherlands? Then you must visit Louis Andriessen! And gave me his phone number.’

Something like that seemed a trifle too cheeky to her, because Andriessen was an icon to her. ‘I had heard a performance of De Staat at Yale and was blown off my socks. I was a Stravinsky fanatic and had played almost all his works for violin, from the Violin Concerto to the string quartet and In memoriam Dylan Thomas, and suddenly I heard the sound that comes after Stravinsky. I thought: this is it! This is the music I’ve been looking for, this is necessary music.’

Once in the Netherlands to investigate study possibilities, it quickly started to itch: ‘I just needed to know more about modern music in this country. I called Louis and he immediately invited me to come to café De Jaren that same evening. There I also met some of his former students, including Calliope Tsoupaki, Ron Ford and David Dramm. They were very nice and gave a lot of tips. Louis advised me to study with Vera Beths at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’

She eagerly followed all advice and a year later she moved to Amsterdam. When she happened to meet Andriessen at a concert and greeted him enthusiastically he looked at her somewhat mystified. ‘He had no idea who I was, while making his acquaintance had been life changing for me.’ She heartily laughs about it now. ‘At our next meeting he proposed to play Bach Sonatas together.’

‘As a typical American, ambitious student I immediately bought all the scores, listened to authentic recordings and studied baroque embellishment. But when a month and a half later I announced that I was ready, he reacted with a bit of surprise.’ Rehearsing together turned out to be a hit: ‘Louis played the piano beautifully and in the meantime shouted instructions: here comes a beautiful bass note! I learned as much from this as from listening to those recordings of early music.’

When Andriessen worked on Passeggiata in America in 1998 in tram e ritorno for voice, violin and ensemble, however, he did not think of Germino. He asked Rosita Wouda of the Schönberg Ensemble for advice, in which I occasionally played. She replied: why don’t you ask Monica? – I had already developed a fanaticism to produce the typical Andriessen sound, which I describe as a super-legato. A pure, vibration-free sound, without swelling or letting go of the bow, as if there were glue on the strings. I was overjoyed when I received a phone call to premiere Passeggiata.’

This also introduces her to the Italian voice artist Cristina Zavalloni, for whom Andriessen had composed the vocal part. ‘We rehearsed in Louis’ attic and it clicked immediately. It was as if we were one person, we even used the same body language. Cristina became a dear friend, who many years later would be our witness when Louis and I married.’ The 1999 premiere was a success and inspired Andriessen to produce the large-scale double concerto La Passione, which was also performed in the festival dedicated to him.

Unfortunately no longer with a solo role for Germino, who now suffers from hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to sound. A personal drama, because Germino, who often works with electronics and was once known as the ‘loudest violinist in the Netherlands’, now has to drastically reduce the decibels.

When she was diagnosed at the end of 2015, she considered giving up playing entirely, but the composers of Bang on a Can put a stop to that. ‘No way’, Michael Gordon decided, ‘I’m going to write the softest piece ever for you.’ Julia Wolfe reacted dryly when Germino told her she had said goodbye to her violin: ‘Then say hello again!’ David Lang looked her piercingly in the eye: ‘I see this as a huge opportunity!’

The three of them proposed to make a joint composition with their mentor Louis Andriessen. Neil Wallace, then programmer at De Doelen, came to the rescue. He organised a composition assignment together with four other organisations, which led to the four-part MUTED. In a combination of mutes and four different instruments, the limits of audibility are explored. Germino premiered it to great acclaim in October 2018 as part of of the New York Philharmonic’s festival The Art of Andriessen,

One of the instruments is a ‘whisper violin’ that Marcel Wanders and Bas Maas specially designed and built for Germino. This is inspired by the so-called pochette violin by baroque dance masters. The neck has the shape of a raised finger: shush! The sound is naturally ultra-soft, but can be further muffled by placing stops in the sound box.

In this way, Germino turns her handicap into a virtue. ‘I am very grateful. So many people have helped me on this difficult road. I feel like the cat Mehitabel from the movement that Louis composed for MUTED. She had a bad life, always fell in love with the wrong males but still stayed afloat, like a Grande Dame. Thus I’m on the threshold of a new career myself.’

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About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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