Jennifer Stumm is known around the world as a violist. But when she talks about the instrument and its music, she turns again and again to the character of its different voices.
“I’m so inspired by the voice when I perform,” she says, and explains that she spent years singing in choirs before taking up the viola. “I’m from Atlanta, but my extended family is from Appalachia, where choral culture is incredibly important.”
So when Music Network approached her about creating a solo viola program based on her 2011 Tedx Talk, An Imperfect Instrument, she began brainstorming “pieces that I thought might represent a true spectrum of this that the alto voice can do. And also pay a little tribute to my own culture.
“It’s quite fun to play in Ireland where there are such direct links between Appalachian music which was very important in my family and in the life of my grandparents. And so I wove together a narrative of pieces to give people a true spectrum of the alto and the soulful aspects of its voice.
The viola, she says, “is like a character actor in that for each viola player, I think, their job is to put on all these different musical masks, to become a character.”
I ask about the differences she sees between her instrument and the smaller but much more familiar violin. “I could talk about it all day. I think it’s our relationship with sound. From a fundamental point of view, a viola comes in several different sizes and a violin in only one size. So something that comes in one size at the end focuses on a kind of singular sonic world.
The viola, she says, “is like a character actor in that for each viola player, I think, their job is to put on all these different musical masks, to become a character. And the nature of the instrument, that they are so variable, makes this work really natural. Most people have never heard of a viola. People ask me what’s in the airport. I always say the violin is Beyoncé and the viola is Adele.One is the pop singer.The other is the soul singer.
She says she finds it “really revealing that so many composers are writing for the instrument at the end of their lives. They write really deep pieces for the instrument. Because there’s something in that voice. It’s not the loudest voice, but they use it to tell their secrets. And that’s something that I’ve always loved about playing the viola.
“Like Speed Dating”
His instrument is a Gasparo da Salò viola, which dates from around 1590. His research “was like speed dating for two years, where I was trying out all these violas. I wanted something that had a lot of depth and could really sing, but also had incredible focus. I wanted to make it sound extremely direct, or like a laser.
That, she said, was really hard to find. “At the end of the day, it was a 430-year-old instrument that had all of those qualities together. It’s something that still blows my mind. Of course, there are people who like a very, very dark sounding viola. I guess what I was always looking for was the tool that could express anything, so that it wasn’t just a sound, but something that with me we could make all the sounds.
Stumm says the alto “expresses a certain range of emotions better than almost anything, which are those true, calm emotions, sadness – I think there’s a deep soul to a alto’s voice. I think it’s kind of a quiet little voice concept. If I play a phrase that expresses what it was like for a composer walking alone who really felt that the world had nothing left for him…it’s a kind of alto phrase. Or someone sitting alone in the bar wondering if someone is going to talk to them. What is such a part of human existence, isn’t it? Viola does it extremely well.
“It’s not a brilliant instrument. Viola is a jazz singer in a smoky club’
Where it cannot compete with the violin is in its ability to project. “The viola is an acoustic challenge. It was an instrument of compromise in time. The viola, if we go back to the Renaissance, was a much, much bigger instrument. I don’t think the instrument was ever designed to hit the virtuoso, brilliant back seat of a 5,000-seat concert auditorium. It is not a brilliant instrument. Viola is a jazz singer in a smoky club.
She also sees the viola as suffering from the kind of categorization that has favored the violin and piano, and to a lesser extent the cello, as central instruments of the concerto repertoire. “Actually what we should have been looking for, and now I think it’s getting better, are amazing voices. People who have something to say in a way that will touch an audience. I’m an artist and the viola is my tool.
Its program ranges from the brand new (Granular Dusk “extremely atmospheric but also very demanding” by Jonathan Nangle), through dances to emphasize the Appalachian bond, to arrangements by Bach (the Chromatic Fantasy and the Second Suite for cello alone) and his own arrangement of Sting and You Will Be My Ain True Love by Alison Krauss.
And, with so much of her life devoted to music, what would she have become if what she once called an “outsider instrument” hadn’t taken over her life?
“I’m so convinced that so many problems in the world are based on people just not having the chance to use the talents they have”
“My family always bets on the avocado,” she says, “because I was an argumentative, loud-mouthed only child. Right now, what seems really clear is that I spend a tremendous amount of time work in the field of social equity.I lead an international project based in Brazil that aims to give young musicians with incredible talents an equal chance to enter the international world of elite training.
Through these experiences, she says, “I’m so convinced that so many problems in the world are based on people just not having the chance to use the talents they have. So that’s probably an equal calling for me. So tomorrow, if I couldn’t play the viola anymore, that’s probably what I would do, go around the world, work with partners to see what we can do to make the world a fairer place.
Jennifer Stumm’s An Imperfect Instrument tour takes place in Bray, Dublin, Roscommon, Clifden, Listowel and Waterford from Tuesday 29th March to Wednesday 6th April. To see musicnetwork.ie