Joseph Puglia: “I want to turn the idea of virtuosity on its head”

At Festival Dag in de Branding on February 26 the always curious and inquisitive Ensemble Oerknal presents a programme together with the award-winning violinist Joseph Puglia (former artist-in-residence of Dag in de Branding). We talked to Joseph about the pieces they will be performing, the collaboration with Oerknal and asked him for some advice for the three new artists-in-residence of the festival.

An important question at this edition of the festival is how we perceive the world around us in times of a global pandemic.
How have you experienced the past two years and has it changed you as an artist?
The past two years have been alternately wonderful, stressful, inspiring, annoying…more than anything else it’s been a time of change, a time of ups, downs, and uncertainty.  There was a lot of upheaval in the music world as we all struggled to figure out how to keep doing what we do.  But I’ve also had time these years to be able to step back and question why, what is it about live performance that makes it such a necessary part of my life? The last two years showed me that a real collaboration between performer and audience is needed to make music.  What each person brings to the concert hall, and the trust we build when we are there, together, is one of the most powerful things about music. It is what can make a concert a truly moving experience.

For the concert you are collaborating with Ensemble Oerknal. How did this collaboration come about and what is it like to work with them?
When Oerknal invited me to be a curator in residence for 2020, I was very happy.  I had known and respected many of the musicians in the ensemble for many years (and also like them very much as people too!)  Their conductor, Gregory Charette, suggested that we develop a programme based on “virtuosity”. The idea was something I had to think long and hard about. I’ve found myself being a promoter of “virtuosic” pieces in the past, such as Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII, or Gyorgy Ligeti’s violin concerto. But the idea of moving one’s fingers very quickly just for the sake of showing off actually doesn’t interest me much as a musician. Virtuosity can be very exciting, but only if there is a musical reason – a desire to express and communicate something – behind it.

On February 26 you will play Swell Piece No. 2 by composer James Tenney. The frequency A440 Hertz is central here. What does this tone mean to you, does it evoke something in you or is it a tone like any other?
That’s a very good question, and one that I’m not sure I can answer yet!  Often pieces only seem to find their true meaning after a performance, and with Swell Piece No. 2 I think this might be the case.  A440 is of course our “square one” for pitch, in some sense our modern concept of the scale is built around that tone.  So, psychologically, there is of course this idea of purity, of going back to the beginning, built into the piece.  But the piece also lends itself to a wide variety of interpretation, an incredible amount of freedom, and how this will manifest in the concert on February 26th still remains to be seen.

Richard Ayres composed No. 53 (Trödelmarkt): NONcerto for violin which will premiere at our festival. What is this piece about?
I wanted to turn the idea of virtuosity on its head, and show that there can be other types of virtuosity than just an athletic command of one’s instrument. To show that even the act of listening can ask for a virtuosic approach.  We decided to approach Richard Ayres about the possibility of writing a “NONcerto” for violin.  Richard created the term “NONcerto” (and wrote a series of “NONcerti”). The concept is almost a concerto, but the soloist is a “virtuosic anti-hero”. In other words, Richard also tries to put virtuosity on its head.  Like much of Richard’s music, this “NONcerto” still manages to be quite difficult, but he writes with a sense of humor and clarity which is very unique and fun to approach.

The term Trödelmarkt (junk market) comes from the sounds which he collected and recorded to make the electronics track for this piece. I often work with composers, and have been lucky to have seen the hidden side of their creative processes over the years.  But this piece has a very personal touch and connection with me: one of the “collected sounds” that Richard uses in the piece is from a recording I made in 2019 on my phone.  I was at the Spui tram stop in Den Haag with my wife and my then-six-month-old daughter Lena, who was starting to discover her voice.  While we were waiting for the tram, Lena started to sing a series of sounds, enjoying and learning what her vocal chords were all about. I made a recording of Lena’s voice which I sent to Richard, in the hopes that he could use it for the piece. The recording has been cut up, edited and manipulated to a point where I can’t recognize where it is anymore, but Richard has assured me that he used it in the electronics track!

This year Dag in de Branding gives three young artists the opportunity to create new work and show it to the public. You yourself have also been artist-in-residence at this festival. Do you have any advice for these three artists?
I’m sure that these three young artists will give us very interesting and very different ideas of what music can be!  One of the great things about giving young people a platform such as Festival Dag in de Branding, is that it allows everyone involved to search for new and different forms of communication.

The things that I love about Dag in de Branding and its audience is a willingness to experiment, to think along with performers, and to be present in service of the music.  I’ve sought strange paths as a musician more than once in my career.  I’m very grateful to Dag in de Branding to have given me so many opportunities to present myself over the years, and to the audience for being such an enthusiastic contributor of these performances. Many of those concerts will stay in my memory for years to come.

When young artists can take risks while still staying true to themselves, it can lead to a wonderful future for music, where we question and re-evaluate what it means for us to come together and communicate through sounds. I hope that all of the young artists contributing to Dag in de Branding this year will find it as stimulating and enriching experience as I have.

Joseph Puglia and Oerknal will play in the Paleiskerk on February 26 at 3 pm
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