With a rough scratch, the young cellist Valerie Fritz drenches the hair of her bow in sticky rosin. The vibrations of this ritualistic rubbing motion are amplified for the listener via contact microphones. So begins Fritz’s own work, “Additional Value” for cello bows and electronics.  

Three weeks ago, the 24-year-old Fritz won the Berlin Prize for Young Artists, performing “Additional Value” along with four other works on a program she calls “Cello 360º.” With the same focus she trained on the bow, Fritz systematically breaks down all facets of the cello, opening up entirely new perspectives on a familiar instrument. 

When she was just eight years old, Valerie’s mother wrote a piece for her called “Geisterstunde” (The Witching Hour), which was the young musician’s first experience with contemporary music. Several years later, she joined the European Union Youth Orchestra, then the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra. At the Darmstadt Summer Courses, she gained artistic experience beyond the traditional orchestral bubble. Currently, she’s in her final semester for her BA in Cello, studying with Giovanni Gnocchi at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (she’ll return there to begin her master’s this spring). With Györgi Ligeti’s Sonata, Helmut Lachenmann’s “Pression,” Simon Steen-Andersen’s Study for String Instrument No. 3 for Cello and Video, her own “Additional Value,” and Arturo Fuentes’s “Mood” for bowless cello, her performance at the Berlin Prize for Young Artists exemplified Fritz’s love of exploration and discovery. 

A week after the #BPFYA2020 Finale, I met Fritz on a Zoom call where we spoke about her artistic vision, her approach to her instrument, and her search for a fruitful relationship between musician and audience. 

VAN: Where are you right now? 

Valerie Fritz: I’m back at home for the rest of the semester. I’m just finishing my bachelor’s degree. I hand in my thesis this week and give my final concert in January. 

Will that feature anything from your competition program? 

Unfortunately, for my graduation concert there’s a very strict program of works that have to be played: Haydn’s Cello Concerto, Bach, a sonata, a Romantic cello concerto… At least I can play Thomas Larcher’s “Mumien” for my sonata, that’s good! [Laughs.] But it’s a shame that I can only feature a little bit of my main area of focus. 

How well does studying the core repertoire and your work as a new music soloist go together? 

It can be tough sometimes, for sure: How much time do I put into my studies, and how many projects do I need to let fall by the wayside—even if they’re exactly the sort of projects I’m training to do? Fortunately, musicians don’t have to wait until graduation to work, but my studies come first. I’m still learning an incredible amount, and I often find what I need in the Mozarteum’s wide range of electives. A lot of people overlook those and use every free minute they have for practicing, but I have no regrets. Still, it’s hard to find the balance between my studies and my career, even more so if I get more attention for my solo work after this competition. I’m lucky that my teacher is very open-minded and can help me with all of my repertoire. 

Has that always been the case? 

A few years ago, in my third semester, I brought something new to my lesson for the first time and explained to my teacher that I wanted to get out of this cycle of eternal reproduction. “Yes, I know,” he said. “It’s a phase, it’ll pass.” I think about that a lot. It wasn’t a phase; it expanded more and more and has become the core of my artistic work. But my teacher is incredibly open to everything, and his off-the-wall approach to the works, regardless of which works they are, is inspiring. The standard repertoire is important to have as a foundation, but you can’t sell your own creativity short. 

Is there room for creativity in the craft of playing the cello? 

In the standard repertoire, I often don’t have the room to play around creatively, as I define it. Of course, playing the cello means more than just having technique and being able to interpret the music. But I’ve always wanted to play the music that I feel within me, that no one can take away from me. Or I want to find music that’s important to me and where I can communicate with others. 

With whom, for example? 

Mostly with composers. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Mozarteum’s electronic studio, and my friends there helped me a lot with “Additional Value.” I know the basics of programming, but it’s only when you’re working with someone who’s really good at it that you can create something that goes beyond the sum of its parts. I can also have a hand in the resulting compositions. It’s always really exciting to be included in the composer’s thought process, to try things out together. For example, I’ve noticed how many misunderstandings are caused by notation. Most of the time, the sound the composer is going for is totally intuitive and easy to make, but because they have to translate that, it can make the score incredibly hard to read and interpret. As an instrumentalist, I can help out with that.

But I also see these ambiguities as opportunities to exercise my freedom of interpretation. I’m not the sort to think in extremely technical terms—that all goes over my head. To me, the most important thing is how it should sound. From there, I explore the work on my instrument and figure out how to do it justice. I have to admit, sometimes too much artistic freedom can be overwhelming. For instance, I wrote to Arturo Fuentes to clarify some things in the score for “Mood,” but he was totally easygoing and left the decisions to me. So you need to have a certain amount of trust in your own intuition. 

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You also play orchestral cello, and your CV lists quite a few “great” conductors. Does orchestral playing conflict with your ideal of creative freedom? 

I don’t want to ignore a major aspect of music-making and say, “I only want to work independently, so I’ll never play in an orchestra.” Absolutely not. It’s not good to play in an orchestra with everyone talking like that, either. Back when I was in the European Union Youth Orchestra, orchestral playing was an incredibly important experience for me; it came at a time where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with music. There’s a lot of energy that comes with so many young people who are all enthusiastic about something, and I realized I wanted to pursue that. But, tastes change. I don’t want to play in another big symphony orchestra, but I also don’t want to discount it. It’s like my studies: New music doesn’t give me anything without classical music, and vice versa. I need versatility! If I could have one wish, it would be to never have to make a decision. 

For the Berlin Prize, you played your own piece, “Additional Value” for cello bow and electronics, before Arturo Fuentes’s “Mood.” In that, you drummed on the cello with both hands. Did you build your program around systematically exploring all the “components” of your instrument?

After the finals, a woman came up to me and said my program was like a “declaration of love” to my instrument. I thought that was so lovely. But my first thought with the program was what pieces I wanted to play. From there, I found the common thread between them. And, when I was selected as a finalist, my first thought was, “Now I have to actually learn all of these works. Help!” But it was the best thing that could have happened to me. When else can you take the time to learn the pieces you actually want to play? On the market, it’s usually other people who make the decisions. 

“Additional Value” is an older work that was created for an entirely different reason: When the electronic studio at my university went to exhibit at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, they asked if I wanted to come along and present a piece there as well. The catch was, we went there by FlixBus, so I couldn’t bring my cello, only the bow. Hence the idea for this piece. 

Where does your love of electronic music come from? 

I love electronics, but I can’t really say what about them fascinates me so much. Maybe it’s not knowing where the sound comes from, or because it’s so alien to my own background. I always find something new when I listen to this music, and I’m excited by the concepts behind it. My first encounter was with Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge,” and going to a concert with only loudspeakers and no one onstage was totally new to me. I actually had to keep myself from laughing the entire time, it was so strange. Even if that was a bit of a naive start, it was a really memorable moment. I’ve been to a lot of classical concerts that were incredibly well-played but completely forgettable. I much prefer something like that Stockhausen experience. I don’t want to say that a concert should “touch” me, that sounds too romantic, but I want to come out of it different from how I went in. 

You deal a lot with concert format and design. How does that impact your work? 

As a listener, I easily get distracted by small details: if the audience-stage format has been broken up, if the artist’s entrance is part of the staging, if the soloist engages the audience in a conversation, or even if there’s a simple lighting effect… There are so many ways to play with the classical concert setup and draw the listener’s attention inward. But it has to fit the piece. You can’t ignore the fact that many, many works were composed for specific situations. An aesthetic experience hinges on a receptive audience, and you can’t really control that. If I drag myself to a concert after a long, exhausting day and I don’t have an aesthetic experience, that’s not the fault of the organizer or the artists.

You played one-on-one house concerts this year as part of the Transient Impuls Festival. How do you get into performance mode in such an intimate setting? 

It’s gotten to the point that I’m not really interested in big concert halls—you play to so many people, but you can’t talk with any of them. It’s more fun for me to play for a few people and get direct feedback. I don’t need a stage, or special lighting, I just need people who are open. That openness was there immediately with these concerts, because the audience sets the situation. They become the concert designer: Where do I want to put the artist? How should the lights be? Should there be something to eat? Should there be a speech beforehand? They’re extremely creative in organizing the concert, and in the end I’m “just” there for the musical exchange. 

I played my contemporary pieces for the competition at a lot of these house concerts, and the different settings also taught me to be more flexible in performance. The openness of the atmosphere helped with my nerves and allowed me to convey the music directly to the audience. 

When you’re conveying music in that context, especially new music, does that also become a bit of an educational act? 

It’s a shame that “music education” always sounds like the work of specially-trained pedagogues and not part of the job of every artist. It’s really essential to think about: What’s the context for this piece? What do I hear in this work? What should the audience take away from it? I see that as my main task as an interpreter. 

The people at the house concerts were really open, but if you go into that sort of setting, you naturally have to be ready for discussions and misunderstandings. One woman told me I couldn’t treat my instrument the way I did in performance, it was like beating a dog. It was a bit disappointing to hear that, but this reverence for the material always fascinates me. I enjoy breaking taboos, especially when there are string players in the audience. It can be uncomfortable, but that’s precisely why I enjoy it as much as I do. 

The only thing with new music that annoys me is the wear and tear. For the competition, I had my bow rehaired for “Additional Value,” and, during the performance, I was thinking “Oh, great, there goes 50 cents… there goes one Euro…” The further you go in either direction, the more picky it gets with the material. It’s no good if I then have to play classical music and my strings no longer have the right resistance, or they’re full of rosin, or everything is too greasy because I drummed the instrument with my hands. The solution is easy: buy a second cello. But I have to be able to afford it first. 

Image © Verena Brüning

Do you want to keep up with the house-concert format? 

I’m currently considering offering them at my home as well. At the previous house concerts I was mainly with people who were interested in culture. The next step would be to reach out to the people who won’t or can’t go to concerts—because they aren’t mobile or have a different social environment. In Innsbruck this year, Live Music Now launched an initiative to bring its artists to places like nursing homes, prisons, or assisted living facilities so that they also have access to music. That fits perfectly with what I’ve been thinking about and what I find most important. Of course, it’s great that the organizational work would be done for me. I learned how time-consuming and difficult all of that is when I organized the [nɔiz] // Elektrorauschen series in Tyrol with Josef Haller and Andreas Trenkwalder. But there’s an incredible return on that investment, especially in the connections between artists and audiences. I’d certainly want to keep that going over the next few years. 

In my research, I noticed that you do almost zero self-promotion. You’re a young solo artist, but you don’t have a website or use any of the usual social media platforms? 

[Laughs.] No, I don’t have any of that. Not yet. Thanks to the competition, I’m getting a website. 

So far, I’ve been able to make everything work without it. One thing leads to another: If you have a good work ethic and you do good work, word-of-mouth works very, very well. Promoting myself as a brand has always left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’d prefer to be cautious and not force myself to fit some marketing formula. I always wonder, what’s the right point of setting up a Facebook page or building a website? There are some people who do that very early on, but often there’s little behind the brand. I think that’s my greatest fear, that people would look at my website and say, “Who does she think she is?” 

What’s next for you? 

First is my bachelor’s thesis which, fittingly, I wrote on contemporary concert design. Researching that topic was really exciting for me. I found so many of my own thoughts that I’d cobbled together over the years so clearly articulated on paper in black-and-white. With [nɔiz] // Elektrorauschen, we’re hosting two more concerts in December. Otherwise, there’s a lot happening that I can’t talk about just yet, especially some opportunities that came up as a result of the competition that I’d really love to see play out. ¶

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