By Thomas May | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Exile from live contact with audiences has motivated many artists to make the most of quarantine by focusing on a recording project or tackling new repertoire. Vijay Gupta opted for both with his debut solo album, When the Violin, a digital self-release that appeared in June—meant to coincide with the scheduled date for California’s official reopening.
But for the Pasadena-based violinist, these efforts do not represent items to be added to a list of accomplishments. Instead, they are part of an ongoing process of questioning fundamental assumptions about how we interact with music. “What would it be like for us to shed the veneer and facade of performance as a product? To think about performance as something far more powerful, which is an invitation to inquiry?” he asks during a Zoom conversation shortly after recording Bach’s Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001.
By then, California was already making its extraordinary rebound from alarmingly high COVID-19 infection rates thanks to a successful vaccine rollout. But Gupta did not speak of a return to “normal” conditions. Indeed, the past year’s pandemic isolation only intensified a longstanding urge to rethink the core narrative of what it means to be a performer.
“I’ve always lived in somebody else’s story: the story of being a ‘child prodigy,’ a conservatory trained violinist, a Los Angeles film musician, winner of a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship—and all of these labels felt like they didn’t represent my authentic voice,” Gupta explains. Born in 1987 to parents who immigrated from India, he grew up in upstate New York and, at the age of seven, was already studying in Juilliard’s pre-college program; at 19, Gupta became the youngest violinist in the orchestra’s history to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he remained for a dozen years, until the end of 2018.
But it is through his work with such social justice–inspired endeavors as the Los Angeles–based organization Street Symphony that Gupta says he developed the voice he believes is most authentic. In 2011, he founded Street Symphony, joining with colleagues from the L.A. Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale to engage with local communities suffering from homelessness, incarceration, and poverty.
Being “in dialogue with an audience that otherwise would never have access to that music” opens up what Gupta calls “a mutual space of listening.” This is the space where his voice is able to emerge, because “it’s always something that exists in relationship to another person. I play differently when I play for people I love. I play differently when I play for people who are listening to me with love.”
Music Making as Dialogue
In the case of When the Violin, Gupta says his interpretations were deeply informed by his exchanges with Duane Garcia, “a beautiful guitarist and singer and painter, and a lover of music,” who spent 31 years incarcerated at a prison and is currently undergoing reentry in Skid Row. “Over the last two years, he’s become one of my closest mentors and friends,” Gupta remarks.
During lockdown, the violinist would play for his friend via Zoom. He even had Garcia as an audience of one when he went on to record the album at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. “I was taught to play figures very confidently, as a stentorian exercise in unassailable rightness,” Gupta says. “But Bach writes the fugue in the G minor Sonata in cut time, which makes it more flighty, almost like the uncontrollable, elemental feeling of weather. These ideas were very much inspired by my conversations with Duane. Many of our audiences in Skid Row are so attuned to the emotional content of the music.”
Part of the problem with “normal” classical performance life, according to Gupta, is that it fails to train musicians for this kind of dialogue. “We’re trained to be bulletproof, to do things the way our teacher told us or the way that helps us win auditions. It’s within a very narrow window of perfection. I wanted to turn that narrative of perfection on its head. Perfection for the sake of what?”
Like so many fellow performers over the past year, Gupta has been playing most of his events virtually. His music making has been primarily for two unique audiences, for whom he would perform on a weekly basis: the Downtown Women’s Center in L.A.’s Skid Row (a shelter for women fleeing abuse and domestic violence) and the Weingart Center, an agency dedicated to helping homeless individuals stabilize their lives.
“I’ve played all the pieces on this album for these audiences. And whenever I do so, my voice develops with them.” In this way, Gupta liberated himself from his obsession with perfection, turning his focus to “craft for the sake of connection.” But that intention extends to “connection with something we can’t see. Every one of the pieces on this album is about connection with something transcendent.”
Finding New Narratives
Bach’s G minor Sonata, an essential of the violin literature, serves as the album’s center. The autograph manuscript of the sonatas and partitas dates from 1720, a year of unimaginable pain for the composer—in the midst of an unusually happy period of harmony with his employer and satisfaction in his work, Bach faced the shock of his beloved first wife Maria Barbara’s death, compounded by learning about it only after she had been buried.
“I think Bach wrote the Sonata in G minor in particular in response to his wife’s death,” Gupta suggests. “It’s the transcendence of the other side of grief. This was the soundtrack of my quarantine. Playing this music is a way of feeling the feelings I’m trying to push down, like seeing myself in the mirror.” But just as important is the lens Bach provides as a way for others to perceive their experience. “When I play for my colleagues in Skid Row, they teach me a new way of contextualizing this music, spiritually and metaphorically,” he says.
With this album Gupta initiates a new project he has planned for the next six years: to record all six of the sonatas and partitas alongside a newly commissioned work.
The album also contains Gupta’s account of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt and the world-premiere recording of his arrangement of the title track, Reena Esmail’s “When the Violin.” All three works, in the violinist’s concept, reflect on the vulnerability and brokenness of our humanity—a condition, he points out, that the pandemic mercilessly brought to the fore: “There has been so much in this quarantine that feels like a denial of humanity, a denial that is so easy to numb oneself to.”
Yet, Gupta explains, When the Violin is also about “choosing not to take the entirety of our identity from the worst thing or things that happened to us.” Hence the references to forgiveness that frame the album in its presentation of the title work. Los Angeles–based Esmail, who was composer-in-residence for Street Symphony in 2016–18, initially wrote “When the Violin”in 2018 for choir and obligato violin or cello, setting the poem of the same name attributed to the 14th-century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz (in Daniel Ladinsky’s translation/adaptation).
“When the violin can forgive the past/it starts singing,” the text begins. Esmail writes that her piece, which draws on a Hindustani raag known as Charukeshi, is “about that first moment of trust, of softening. About the most inward moments of the human experience, of realizing that ‘breakthroughs’ often don’t have the hard edge, the burst of energy that the word implies, but that they can be about finding tender, warm, deeply resonant spaces within ourselves as well.”
Esmail and Gupta got married last year, and Gupta made an arrangement of the score for solo violin (which he introduced as the keynote speaker for the Americans for the Arts annual convention in 2020). The album begins with his recitation of the poem by Hafiz, interspersed with bits of Esmail’s composition, and ends with his deeply engaging interpretation of the complete piece.
“At a rather broken time of my life, when forgiveness felt totally impossible to me, this metaphor that we are the instrument we play struck me so deeply,” Gupta recalls. “Because I think that’s what an instrument is: the manifestation of that most tender, most vulnerable, most broken part of ourselves. What is the sound of my heart singing joy and grief? That’s really what this album is about.”
The image of forgiveness, he further elaborates, is connected to the impulse to rewrite our narratives by refusing to let the worst we have experience define us: “For me, it’s also about living a new narrative. If we only take our narrative from what’s broken and from what hurts, then we’re living fragmented lives.” As a result, Gupta sees his new album as “the beginning of a voice—the beginning of something where I find my voice in dialogue with the people who take the time to listen. I’m really looking forward to what that dialogue will look like and to continuing that conversation.”
Between Speech and Song
In his presentations of late, Gupta is fond of weaving back and forth between speaking and playing. He resorts to a metaphorical image to describe this method: the Japanese art of kintsugi, which involves repairing broken pottery using a glue infused with gold. Instead of hiding the breakage, explains Gupta, “you illuminate the fracture.” Gupta’s talks will include musical sections as he shares stories about his work in Skid Row and reflects on contemporary life. His playing doesn’t provide mere “interludes”—rather, it binds the whole presentation together with a “golden glue.” A formal device, then, but also a mode of healing—for so many of the stories recount incidents of human brokenness, much as the works chosen for his new album comment on the darkness our society has endured over the past year.
When the Violin underscores this new pathway in Gupta’s ongoing mission to foster alliances between creative expression and social commitment. His remarkable gifts as a speaker started gaining widespread acclaim over a decade ago thanks to the reception of his TED Talk “Music Is Medicine, Music Is Sanity.” The interplay of words and music has increasingly come to fascinate the violinist. During the pandemic, Gupta invested more time in his own writing, and When the Violin shows him exploring the power of rhetoric—not as a tool for manipulation but an intensifier of emotions that might otherwise remain inchoate, unarticulated.
“I find the nuance and play between what is spoken and what is sung, what is rhetoric and what is melodic, to be really exciting,” he says, referring to the opening track’s blend of poetic recitation and musical performance. This aspect inspired Gupta’s choice to play the entire album using a Baroque bow—the contemporary pieces as well as the Bach. “I wanted to illuminate the speaking nature of articulation.”
Another borderline situation between speech and playing is implied in Salonen’s Lachen verlernt. The title (“laughing unlearnt”) is a phrase from the ninth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (Gebet an Pierrot or “Prayer to Pierrot”). Salonen, who wrote this chaconne for solo violin in 2002, refers not to the musical source but to the phrase—and its implicit situation, in which the song cycle’s narrator, singing in Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, begs the clown Pierrot to restore to her the ability to laugh, which she has “unlearnt.”
Gupta’s album leaps from his opening combination recitation/violin playing to the fiercely difficult Salonen chaconne. “The plain truth is that I thought it was impossible,” he recalls, “but I took it on as a kind of spiritual labor of the quarantine, even though I had no sort of intentions of conquering the piece. In a sense, just like Bach, it changed my idea of the role of the performer: not to conquer the work but to be in dialogue with it and live with it for a time.”
When Gupta posted a YouTube clip of his performance in January, Salonen tweeted “Very beautiful, intense reading of my Lachen verlernt by @guptaviolin on a Baroque bow.” The conductor says he was especially struck “by how intense and almost violent his expression is. The whole identity of the piece has shifted many times because people have treated it as a narrative, as a virtuoso vehicle, and everything in between. I thought Vijay found a different, new angle—almost like a commentary on the pandemic year and on the horrendous social problems we have been witnessing in this country. He tells a very serious story, full of angst and pain and sacrifice and still somehow managing to keep the cathartic elements in place.”
Salonen adds that the use of a Baroque bow caught him by surprise. “It had never occurred to me that this would give any kind of advantage, because we are so used to steel strings and a big sound, effortless sound. Vijay squeezes out every expression without losing clarity and purity of intonation. What he is doing is beautifully articulated and such a rich expression of many different facets.”
Gupta sees his new recording as itself a fragment of “much, much longer ideas—ideas that don’t have to be given a convenient period at the end of the sentence. Maybe it’s a question mark.” The sense of being in a time of questioning keeps coming back, whether in his musical vision or Gupta’s ongoing goals as an artist committed to social-justice issues: “This recording is an offering of my grief and my brokenness to the world as a way of saying, you know, we don’t have to have it all figured out. And when we talk about criminal justice, social justice, racism—these massive issues—it’s easy to lose sight of the humanity, of the fact that this is really about people. I believe that we are all in reentry, we’re all going to be continuing to be in reentry coming out of this time of COVID.”
What, then, can the artist offer? “I believe that artists have a critical role to play to remind people of that central tenet of humanity in all of these issues. Maybe we are the golden glue. We can’t necessarily fix the fracture, but we can show that there’s a new possibility, there’s a new way to put the pieces back together.”