nuances, those little things that make it characteristic. So
a trill or ornament in klezmer music would be different
if it’s Bulgarian klezmer or Romanian klezmer or Russian
klezmer. The accent is different. And to try and imitate
the accent of a spoken language in music — because folk
music is driven a lot by the language of its origin. That
was a layer I really wanted to put into it. I remember in
the Spanish folk songs, it was really about imitating the
human voice and a Spanish cadence, a Spanish accent — a
Spanish melody of singing and speaking as well.
So sometimes speaking Mandolin with a Russian-klezmer
[Laughs.] Pretty much.
Does your instrument have a voice if you take all these
accents away and you’re not looking to get into character
for a piece: do you have a natural voice as a player?
Absolutely. In all those pieces, it’s my voice. It’s not about
imitating accents: it’s about embedding nuances. It’s like
a painter who has two colors or thirty-two colors and he
can mix them. An artist, an actor, a dancer — all his life he
collects more tools of expression, experiences, metaphors,
and what have you, but of course it’s all embedded in his
You’ve commissioned some works for mandolin, perhaps
in a desire to increase the bedrock repertoire. What do
you look for in a composer, in a project, when you’re giving
I give carte blanche to composers. I like a lot of streams
within modern, contemporary composition. I tend to
commission composers who have markedly different
approaches to music: some are very avant-garde, some are
very folkloristic. I enjoy seeing what associations come to
their creative mind when they think ‘mandolin’ without
my conditioning them.
After getting a new piece from a composer, do you encounter
the difficulty of ‘Oh, this part isn’t technically playable!’
What happens then?
[Laughs.] It’s a funny question. The reason I took on this
life mission to expand the repertoire of the mandolin,
which was on hold for so many years, is because through
repertoire — and the history of music teaches us this —
the instrument develops.
There are so many times when I get a PDF from a
composer and I look at the first page and say to myself
‘Come on, this impossible to play! I have to phone him
back.’ Then I say ‘Come on, give it twenty minutes,’ and
then I can often find a technique to make it work. I have
to remember: ‘You don’t know everything about the
mandolin.’ Sometimes a composer who doesn’t know
anything about the mandolin can be very creative and
reveal some of the surprises that the instrument still holds
for you — and that’s a great satisfaction.
† cf. Jorge Louis Borges’s epilogue to Dreamtigers: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples
a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars,
horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the
lineaments of his own face.”
‘it’s not About imitAting Accents: it’s About
embeDDing nuAnces. it’s like A pAinter who hAs two
colors or thirty-two colors AnD cAn mix them.’
Visit our facebook page (Listen: Life with Classical Music) to see Avi Avital in an
abridged video of this interview — with a bit of off-the-cuff performance.