“Hi, my name is Flora and I am an instrument.” With these words, Flora Marlene Geißelbrecht introduced her program, titled “Viola and Voice, Sybils and Songs,” for the Berlin Prize for Young Artists. But it wasn’t just a welcome—it was also a description and a summary, in typically laconic Viennese fashion. The young Austrian was playing her body: Her voice and her hands were the tools she used to fashion the musical experience.
Soprano, violist, and composer, Geißelbrecht took inspiration from the sybil of Greek mythology for her program. Works ranged from her own engaging “Im Schatten verweilen,” with its combination of spoken word, contemporary sounds, and catchy grooves to duets for one by Arlene Sierra, Sally Beamish, Giacinto Scelsi, and Rudolf Jungwirth (the latter composed specifically for Geißelbrecht). But it was mostly her own compositions—a setting of Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist “Ursonate” and “Scots&Ire”—that convinced the audience, showing that Geißelbrecht is more than a multifaceted instrumentalist. At her young age, she is also an outstanding composer and an impressively mature artist.
Geißelbrecht studied composition and viola in Graz and Vienna in Austria and took part in the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt last year. Besides her classical and contemporary music projects, she composes incidental music for theater, improvises, and performs with the duo Milleflör, alongside her sister Camilla. With “Viola and Voice, Sybils and Songs,” she was one of two winners of the second Berlin Prize for Young Artists, alongside bassoonist Joy Guidry.
VAN: Singing violists are rare, compositions for singing violist even more so. What made you decide to combine the two, and how did you go about finding repertoire to perform?
Flora Marlene Geißelbrecht: I’ve been playing in a folk trio for a few years, and I always sang the third vocal part while playing viola. Of course, what I was singing was mostly simple accompaniment patterns, but it was still the first step toward decoupling the two instruments. While I was doing my master’s in viola, I wrote a few of my own pieces for viola and voice, just because I wanted to show that I was a composer too, and the combination seemed like an obvious choice.
During the very first lockdown I started “talking to myself” in the musical sense, playing duets with myself. I composed more pieces for viola and voice. But I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut either, so I wanted to figure out: What other things can I do? Performing viola and voice at the same time is like learning a completely new instrument. There are new techniques you have to learn, like keeping the dynamics independent, so that you don’t always crescendo with the voice when you crescendo with the viola. So many things happen automatically that you have to learn to control. If you keep doing those automatic things and writing your own pieces, you get lazy quickly. Playing pieces by other composers, I was able to develop my abilities, because I had to play what was in the score. Then I saw the Berlin Prize for Young Artists application, and I thought, “This is a good excuse to put something together.” I chose pieces that had as little textual basis as possible, that was the main idea. I didn’t want to play “songs,” meaning I didn’t want to sing and just have the viola accompany the vocals.
Is that why your program references the sybil of Greek mythology?
Mysticism wasn’t an important part of the program. But I made the connection between speaking in tongues—in Scelsi’s “Manto,” you speak as if in a trance—and the nonsense language of [Dadaist poet Kurt] Schwitters, where the approach is purely playful but the final result is similar. I started with the text in my piece, “Im Schatten verweilen” (“Lingering in the Shadows”), which, funnily enough, I wrote years ago for the liner notes for a friend’s album, and which is easy to understand. From there the program developed away from “normal” language. In Sally Beamish’s “Buzz,” for example, the vocal part is based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, but, as is typical in contemporary music, the words are stretched out, the vowels elided or emphasized so that you don’t really understand it anymore—nor do you need to.
Personally, I have a bit of an issue with sung text in a contemporary aesthetic. It often feels mannered, and that’s not helpful, neither for the text nor for the music. In “Im Schatten verweilen,” I treat text and music as separate and then combine them. The text serves as a carrier or a catalyst for sound, not something that conveys meaning.
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Are there singing violists you look up to?
I have a few role models. There’s the English performer Katherine Clark, who I discovered on YouTube, funnily enough through TwoSet Violin, who are always making viola jokes. I was inspired by Clark’s repertoire, because she has given out some commissions for viola and voice. That’s where I got “Buzz” by Sally Beamish. It’s actually a “real” duet for soprano and viola, and Katherine had the idea of doing both parts alone. There’s also the American Wendy Richman, who recorded an album of commissioned works; that’s how I discovered “Cricket Viol” [by Arlene Sierra]. In Vienna, there’s also the singing violist and composer Jelena Popržan, who is a role model for me in her entire being.
It wasn’t until pretty late that I discovered Scelsi’s “Manto” and thought, What?! There’s a Scelsi piece for viola and voice? I was happy to be able to put a “big name” on the program. When you’re looking for repertoire, your voice type and range is an extra limitation, but Scelsi’s piece is for high voice, he even writes that it’s “necessarily for female performer” in the score. That probably has to do with the image of the sybil, but of course men also perform the piece now.
Do you think there’s anything different about your stage presence when you’re not just playing the viola, but singing too?
I’ve performed as a soloist often and played lots of contemporary music on the viola, and I’ve been singing since I was a kid. It’s true that I don’t have “real” classical vocal training; but I was in choir, and when I was ten I sang one of the boys in “Die Zauberflöte.” Both my parents love music and my piano teacher back then recognized a certain talent in me and encouraged me to go on. Then, as I said, I have my folk trio. When I combined both worlds, I often heard words like “fascinating” and “spellbinding.” It’s as if the door to a new space has opened up when you add the voice to the viola. You get a different impression of the person who is standing there on stage.
Listening to contemporary music concerts, especially when they have performative elements, I often think there’s a danger of the performer getting sealed off from the audience. Are there other ways for the performer and the audience to connect?
I like to talk in between pieces, to connect with the audience and create a relaxed atmosphere. That’s fairly rare in classical concerts, but when you’re performing alone, you have these awkward moments: I don’t like the breaks between the pieces. I used to just play the whole time, either improvising transitions or going attaca from one piece to the next. But that’s hard physically. Besides, it’s good to give the audience something to grab on to, especially with contemporary music. Maybe it’s also a way of building understanding. But “creating a dialogue” would be an exaggeration, because that’s not what happens in the asymmetrical concert situation.
What’s hard about playing a duet with yourself?
Intuitively, each part wants to follow the other. It’s very easy to play the same thing as you’re singing. Jazz musicians do that a lot: They sing during their solos, as an additional expressive element or as a way of keeping the structure in mind. So you can start by trying to separate the two parts step by step. For example, in parallel intervals, or with different rhythms in each part. What helps for example is if you make the same motion with your body each time an [instrumental] pattern repeats, and then sing independently of that.
The thing is, I can get feedback on these aspects of my performance, but it’s not like I can get lessons for it. I have to figure out the combination aspect myself. Still, when you’ve learned how to practice, then it’s doable. Mostly you’re finding ways of tricking your brain and constantly looking for new solutions to problems.
Every singer-songwriter plays guitar or piano while they sing. How is your performance different?
They press the keys or pluck the strings, and besides that they can concentrate on singing. On a string instrument, you have to shape the tone at every moment, you can’t alternate between pressing a key and singing. For me, it’s always truly simultaneous. Of course, you still shift your focus to one part or the other, depending on the difficulties in the piece. And the intonation! It’s really hard. At the beginning, you feel like you can’t sing and you can’t play anymore. “Where the hell is the note?! I thought I could play a scale?!” Right now I’m practicing overtone singing, which adds another layer of polyphony. So those frustrations feel very present right now. [Laughs.]
You’ve studied composition and viola, done the Contemporary Music Master at the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt, and are now studying jazz viola. Was it always important for you to be doing so many different things?
In a sense, but it keeps getting broader. For other people it’s often the other way around: After a while, they concentrate on something specific. At least, I’ve always improvised and experimented, and because of that I started composing and playing new music early, as well as getting the normal classical music background. From improvisation I learned to play folk music and to write songs, now I’m working on a singer-songwriter project too. I’m always searching, thinking, “What else can I bring along with me?” I don’t see myself as a jazz violist. I want to be able to get by in all kinds of areas, but specialize in some and do them really well. I want to stick my nose into everything and discover new stuff. All these different areas fertilize each other with new ideas, just as my voice and viola program originated from my folk trio.
When I started studying, I wasn’t really thinking, “I want to be a composer.” It was because I won a few competitions, so I thought, “OK, this is something I can do. I should continue and see what I can learn.” Competitions were often important for me, they pushed me. Without that, I have trouble practicing a lot. Having goals helps me practice, and success is important for your self-image. I think it’s time for me to accept that I’m a pretty good soloist.
When I first got to conservatory, I was pretty shocked. All of a sudden there were these expectations of what contemporary music meant, and what it didn’t and shouldn’t mean. Luckily I didn’t have teachers who rejected things out of hand, but I still had to deal with those prejudices, especially since Graz is known for its contemporary music scene. That shut me down after my undergrad. For a while, I didn’t feel like composing, because I didn’t know what I wanted to write or where I belonged aesthetically. I’d had a few projects since then, but it was really when I started doing viola and voice that I felt like I found my roots, where my need to make music comes from. From there, there are lots of different places I can go. I can write songs and contemporary pieces, because I know what my foundation is.
Without trying to make sibyl-like predictions, what’s next for you?
I have another year in my jazz viola program. I have lots of plans after that, but not a single, concrete path I want to follow. I got a scholarship from the Austrian Foreign Ministry. I’ll try to use that to travel with my program as much as possible, and I’d like to record an album. I’ll also try to convince more composers to write for my voila and my voice. But I’m not in a rush, there will always be plenty of work to do.
For my next project, in Ried, Upper Austria, I’m be cooking alongside a musical program. It’s not that I have synesthesia and perceive direct overlaps between music and tastes or aromas, but it’s really fun to try to find connections there. Between musical genres and dishes, ingredients, smells—sounds and spices. The project is part of the Hörsturm festival, which a friend of mine curates and which focuses on exactly that kind of sensual connection. It’s my first time performing anything like it. I’ve invited performers to play solo works, and then I figured out what the culinary equivalent would be—not a complicated menu, but little things like summer rolls or stuffed pastries. I cook them in advance, and the audience is supposed to eat with pleasure, with attention, and in quiet. I feel like these kinds of programs are pretty common by now and are popular with audiences, but they often feel a little commercial, which I want to avoid. In this case the music is contemporary. Even if people come who just want to eat, they’ll have to listen to the music. [Laughs.] Fittingly, the food will be bitter, spicy, and a little crazy. It’s not a mellow kind of pleasure. ¶
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