An Interview with Ilan Volkov

By · Photography NYPL (PD) · Date 04/14/2016

Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics Festival, in Reykjavik on April 14-15 and in Glasgow on May 7-8, conjures images of dramatic, continental upheaval. But plate motion is an incredibly slow process—land masses move at rates measured in millimeters per year. Listening to the names of the many avant-garde composers mentioned by the Israeli conductor in our Skype interview, I wondered if the festival itself is a sign of a gradual shift in the classical music landscape.  

Ilan Volkov · Photography © Simon Butterworth
Ilan Volkov · Photography © Simon Butterworth

VAN: In choosing the locations for the Tectonics Festival—Reykjavik, Glasgow, Oslo, Adelaide, Tel Aviv—is the geography and nature of the places important for you?

Ilan Volkov: Tectonics got its name from being in Iceland, and being very close to where the tectonic plates hit each other. It’s like a one-hour drive from Reykjavik. It’s around this idea of a conflict, between two or more elements, and in this case, new music in its variety of forms: composition, improvisation, electronic music, sound art. The festival is about the contrasts and the conflicts that occur within one piece of music and within the programming itself.

It’s not so much inspired by geography, but by locality. Each festival is very local, most of it is local musicians. There usually aren’t too many international guests, because I try to spend my budget and energy on what’s there, and what’s untapped. If you think about New York, where there’s so much, it’s interesting how the serious new music scene is not really connected to some of those other scenes in New York, or in the U.S. They tend to prefer more international things. Doing international repertoire is great, but is that really enough—and does it show what the city has to give?

I work with a lot of people who are, or used to be, based in New York, like Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, George Lewis. For me, not to see them being played on the big stage in New York is puzzling. Sometimes people don’t realize what they have right around the corner. That happens everywhere, really. I know that happens a lot in Israel, where I basically don’t work and many of the best composers and musicians are not really working.

An improvisation by Ilan Volkov and Maya Dunietz, from the Colour Out of Space festival, Brighton, 2013.

How do you see the phenomenon of most internationally known conductors working in three different places at once, in that context?

Everybody wants to work, and everybody wants to do as many things as possible, and everybody wants to work with the best people. Which is a great thing. But it has disadvantages. I’m working half the year, I’ve got two kids. I’ve got different priorities there. I’m only doing things that I really want to do at this stage.  

In Iceland, I was only music director there for three years, but I did about 25 pieces by Icelandic composers, mostly living composers. That’s a lot of pieces in three years. That speaks for itself, basically, the way I think one should go.

You program “composers’ composers,” people who are known and loved in the avant-garde music scene. I’ve noticed that you don’t program composers such as Jennifer Higdon or Christopher Rouse, who are often performed by the major American orchestras.

No. I love that stuff as well, I just feel, because there’s a lot of new music being played, I don’t always need to promote stuff that’s already being promoted. For example, I love George Benjamin, and I do his music, but I don’t do it a lot, mainly because I feel it’s presented enough. My choice of pieces doesn’t necessarily show what I like or not. I work in a way that, I’m also making sure people who never write for orchestra get a chance to—if it’s George Lewis, or Roscoe Mitchell—it’s people who I feel should have a much wider acclaim in the classical world, whom we need to listen to. And that doesn’t negate the fact that the stuff that’s happening is great. It’s not a criticism necessarily, it’s just an addition to what I feel the repertoire should be.

Lewis, Voyager Duo 4; George Lewis (Trombone), Roscoe Mitchell, (saxophones)

What kind of new music do you like?

I’m very open to many different kinds of music. I like super-hardcore stuff like Lachenmann—I mean, maybe that’s not super-hardcore anymore—but I like complicated things, the Darmstadt style. My taste has shifted a lot. My taste was much more mainstream new music 15 or 20 years ago. I keep changing my tastes, and now I’m more interested in more stuff.

Why do you think your taste has become less mainstream?

I started getting interested in new music with [Bruno] Maderna, and Boulez, and other things like that that were available to me. Gradually you just realize how much there is. You buy records, and you read. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. I’m not alone at this obviously, but I’m in a privileged position: if I want to actually do a piece by José Maceda, a composer from the Philippines whom nobody knows, I can probably pull it off. It’s still difficult to get it done. But it’s something that I can aspire to.

Maceda, Pagsamba: agnus

You’ve been conducting for 20 years. Did you ever feel burned out at any point?

Listen, I’ve been very privileged to work with amazing people, orchestras, and soloists, and in the best halls. To say that you’re burned out is silly. I’m always searching for new things for myself; I haven’t done my “Parsifal,” and I haven’t done my “Wozzeck” yet. There are things I want to do like playing myself, and improvising.

Traveling and working on the wrong project can be difficult. But that’s starting to be very rare now. Every project has something unique. Our last project in Paris, for example, was with a composer called [François-Bernard] Mâche, who is 80 and whom nobody knows in Paris. The ensemble hadn’t played him for around 30 years, because he had a split with Boulez. I’m always trying to make my work as interesting as possible for myself.

Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes I do a program and I think, Shit, why didn’t I just do Beethoven Three there? I do put myself in a situation where it’s lots of new repertoire all the time, including mainstream repertoire that I haven’t done. Pushing myself to learn more: that’s just the way I am, and it’s not something I can change.

Mâche, Terre de Feu for magnetic tape

You have an alternative music venue in Tel Aviv, Levontin Seven. What’s the difference between your audience there and your audience at Tectonics?

Levontin Seven is something that’s running without my involvement in it now. I was very involved in setting it up. The other two people are free jazz players, who run it full time, and now I’m just on the side. In the first five years I learned a lot. It’s influenced all my work on Tectonics. I learned about how to deal with and talk to the audience, how to help artists feel comfortable before they perform, about PAs, electronic music, amps, organizing gigs. The side of things that people think is not important, and actually it’s the most important.

It’s a super cheap place, but we still have to make sure we have two shows a day there, every day. For 10 years. So we’ve had 1000s of shows there. You have to keep it running. Big concert halls, because they’re so expensive, and it’s difficult to fill them, are usually empty. Most halls are empty for most of the year. That’s a problematic thing to deal with. Small venues are where most of the action is in terms of experimentation, audience, and vibe. You have to learn how to get that energy into a big venue.

A 2004 Guardian profile, when you were in Glasgow at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, quoted someone saying that you “hold [your] drink.” Is that still the case?

[Laughs] That’s funny. You know, I’m quite bad at drinking compared to the Scots. I have to learn quite a lot about that. I have a thin, weak stomach. So, well, I think that’s kind of bullshit. ¶