Marketing Director for the Flynn Center
Born in Israel in 1970, Matt Haimovitz is now based in the United States and Canada, where he is a professor of music at McGill University in Montreal. Haimovitz is known worldwide not only for his outstanding technical and musical skill, but also for his highly unusual concert career and repertoire choices. He is as likely to be found playing Bach at a coffee house, jazz or rock club throughout North America as he is in one of the world's most prestigious concert halls. He is also as likely to be playing a piece by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or Frank Zappa as he is to be playing Bach or Bartók.
This celebrated cello virtuoso and innovator brings his eight-cello ensemble U-Cello and turntablist DJ Olive to FlynnSpace for a special matinee performance on Sunday, March 18 at 4 pm. (The evening show at 7 pm previously announced by the Flynn is sold out.) We recently spoke with Matt Haimovitz about his career, his repertoire, and the music he, U-Cello, and DJ Olive will be sharing with FlynnSpace audiences in March. The transcript of our interview follows.
MATT HAIMOVITZ: I discovered the cello as a solo instrument when I was about seven years old and my family was living in California. I had been exposed to a lot of classical music, particularly piano because my mother was a pianist. At 12, I took up studies with the great artist and teacher, Leonard Rose, at Julliard and that led to my being a soloist performing with the Israel Philharmonic in 1985. I toured America with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in 1986.
FLYNN CENTER: In recent years, you’ve gained renown for taking the cello into some fairly unconventional venues, including the solo tour of rock clubs that you first did a number of years ago. What led you to take your music into those unconventional realms? Did you tailor your repertoire any in the process?
HAIMOVITZ: It was two-fold for me. One, I wasn’t seeing my generation come to the concert hall and they weren’t coming to hear me. I was feeling somewhat restricted by the repertoire parameters of what was acceptable in the traditional classical canon. By taking some things out of the concert hall—I started with Bach, playing coffee houses with Bach solos—and then the Anthem CD, playing contemporary American composers, I was taking a kind of fringe-of-the-fringe approach. Classical music is already such a fringe part of our culture and contemporary classical music is even further removed in a way. My hypothesis is that this was music that has as much raw energy and visceral appeal as anything in the rock-and-roll world and I just had to go and take it to people and make it accessible and sell it.
And that’s what I did: I just went on the road rock-and-roll-style, playing every night, in all 50 states—and it proved to be very rewarding and confirmed my belief that this music does have a life in today’s world. It’s very much about keeping the tradition of classical music alive and relevant to today’s society.
FLYNN CENTER: How would you characterize the audiences for your performances in those venues? Were they respectful and attentive and did they get what you were trying to accomplish?
HAIMOVITZ: Yes, for the most part they were very respectful. It was so great to see younger and younger audiences as I went out there. There was a mix: there were shows in Seattle, Minneapolis, Boise, Idaho, and of course New York, where it felt like a rock-and-roll concert. Here I was as a solo cellist playing some of the most abstract, serial music you could imagine, and people were really into all of the different sounds and characters that the cello could take on, and how it could sustain an evening like that.
The pieces themselves were very short, five- to seven-minute rock-and-roll length, and so it gave people exposure to a wide variety of what is going on in classical music in America today. Of course, this was during the election period, so I ended the shows playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” in the year of the blue states and the red states to celebrate the living musical tradition that we have and the diversity and power of it. It was a way of saying, “With everything else that is going on in the world, just take a few moments to focus in on this art.” You saw 60-somethings sitting next to 20-somethings and not being told how to sit or when to clap or what to wear, but just to go directly to the music and experience an art form directly.
FLYNN CENTER: Once you came back from this foray into unconventional venues for your music, how did that have an impact when you returned to more traditional concert settings? How did this rock-and-roll experience change your relationship to your instrument and to the more traditional concert performances?
HAIMOVITZ: It definitely honed my performance skills. I felt ready for anything! When I go into a rock-and-roll club, I always try to uphold the standards of a concert hall. I don’t play any differently at CBGB than I do at Carnegie Hall, but when I go back to Carnegie Hall I feel like what I have acquired is a sense of connection with my audience and also a community that I’ve built since I’ve been doing this the past seven years. I see how loyal some of my audience has been. They are following me wherever I may go. The project after “Anthem” was “Goulash,” going into Transylvanian folk music, Bartók, Ligeti and some of the new generation of composers. And now this project that I am bringing to the Flynn is heading in another kind of direction, bridging the '60s to the future, to the 21st century, through the lens of many cellos. (Laughs.) I’m bringing eight celli with me and DJ Olive. With each of these projects, it’s not like I am creating one sound and going with that and giving my audience the same thing for the next 20 years—I feel really fortunate that the kind of audience I’ve built is ready for the next musical adventure. We go on it together and it just keeps everything really fresh.
FLYNN CENTER: Talk a bit more about the project you are bringing here to the Flynn with U-Cello and DJ Olive, and the flavor of the music you are going to be performing.
HAIMOVITZ: Well, flavor-wise, few people have ever heard anything like it! (Laughs.) It’s a lot of brand new music. Montreal is a hotbed for emerging electro-acoustic composers. The '60s is very much alive here—it’s one of the few places in the world that is still like that. There are a few places that are doing some cutting-edge electronics with cello—the MIT Media Lab in Boston is one of them, Tod Machover for one, and the Center for Contemporary Music and Technology, which was set up in Paris by Pierre Boulez.
What I am doing (at the Flynn) is taking some of these three centers—Paris, Boston, and Montreal—and featuring some of the composers. Tod Machover is writing a brand new piece that is going to be premiered in Burlington and New York that weekend: its called “Vinyl Cello” and it’s a piece for cello and DJ with a whole new vinyl score that DJ Olive is going to use with some improvisations, but it is essentially a concerto for cello and DJ. One of the composed pieces on the program is going to be a masterpiece by Pierre Boulez for seven celli—solo cello and six celli, where the six celli sort of amplify what I’m doing and it sounds like all the sound is coming from one cello. It just surrounds you. It’s really rock-and-roll, very driving.
And we’re than going to do a piece by the Parisian composer Matalon that’s completely wild—eight cellos sounding like eight elephants going to Mars and let’s see what happens. (Laughs.) There will also be some new arrangements of avant-garde rock-and-rollers: Frank Zappa’s “Zombie Wolf” and my own arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” which I think is one of the great war songs ever. I’ve made an arrangement for eight cellos. There are a couple of solo electro-acoustic pieces, too, where my sound gets processed and it sounds like a whole symphony of cellos, but it’s just me playing. This will all weave itself through the program. It should really take people to another place—I suspect many will never have heard the cello quite like this. It’s very exciting.
FLYNN CENTER: How did the relationship with DJ Olive evolve? Is that specific to this tour or is that relationship one that has been developing for you over a period of time?
HAIMOVITZ: It has actually been developing for a couple of years now. He recorded with me on “Goulash.” On the title cut he uses some of Bartók’s archival material from the field to jam with me and uses other folkloric material, too.
I actually met DJ Olive on a rock-and-roll tour of the West Coast, where every night we were improvising with different musicians—Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte, a lot of jazz musicians and rockers—and I just felt very at home with him and the way he listens and contributes. It’s very much like playing chamber music when you’re improvising with him. He joined us last year in Montreal and New York for improvised shows and then the two of us went off for a tour through Texas together where every night we jammed on Bartók’s Romanian dances. It was just a revelation to me—coming from a classical tradition where you’re always playing to the score—to not have a score and every night was different, depending upon who the audience was and where the venue was. We just had a lot of wild experiences. It was a blast. This project that’s coming to the Flynn is another new project for us.
FLYNN CENTER: I’m curious about the current generation of students you are seeing and teaching at the university level. Are they showing a similar passion for the kind of eclecticism that you have embraced as your career has moved forward?
HAIMOVITZ: Each one of my students is so individual and they all have their individual strengths. Some love playing in an orchestra and I could see them going into a section with a major symphony orchestra. Others love chamber music. One thing for sure when you are in my studio: you are definitely exposed to current trends in music. The seven cellists that I’m bringing (in U-Cello) to the Flynn are my seven top students at McGill and it’s very exciting to see their talent and enthusiasm. I wasn’t doing what they’re doing at that age: I came to this music a lot later. Their ability to absorb such complex rhythms and microtones and extended technique on the cello just expands their whole range. For me it’s really important when you play Beethoven and Bach that you use your entire imagination and not put yourself in a straightjacket.
FLYNN CENTER: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share about your upcoming Vermont performances with U-Cello and DJ Olive?
HAIMOVITZ: I think it’s great to be coming there. We’re very excited and we’ll be working hard over the next month because it is difficult music to learn. (Laughs.) It’s all coming together and we are very excited to be bringing it to Burlington.
photograph of Matt Haimovitz by Bette Marshall