Toby Deller

Artist of the month: Mayah Kadish

10:04, 3rd January 2020

Toby Deller speaks to Mayah Kadish, a violinist exploring early music through a prism of contemporary ideas

‘I stopped playing the violin when I was 18,’ says Mayah Kadish when asked about any unusual aspects of her musical training. ‘I stopped totally for five years and studied philosophy. I was about to continue with philosophy and then I saw myself being alone in a room for most of my life… and freaked out.’

The thought prompted her to study for a master’s at the Royal Academy of Music. ‘I was just scared by that prospect because I think I’m a very social person and I missed the immediacy of the communicative power of playing an instrument in front of other people or with other people.’ She is now a musician playing ‘early music, new music and many musics in between’, as her website puts it, in her freelance work and in her association with international groups such as s t a r g a z e, Ensemble x.y and Baroque ensemble La Vaghezza.

‘There’s not much that I wouldn’t do as a violinist. I tend towards the early music front and the contemporary music front but any setting, working with anyone interesting and on any interesting music is enough for me so I wouldn’t exclude anything. The reason that I was drawn to Baroque repertoire was mainly the approach that people seemed to have and the soundworld. The approach seemed to be much broader: people felt more at liberty to follow their own road.’

Far from obliging musicians to follow a particular school of thought, she argues, the variety of treatises from the period reveals many musical aesthetics and soundworlds to explore and connect with. ‘There’s also freedom in another sense, which is that there is so much that is not written into the score. So much of the music is not only the interpretation of what’s written, it’s actually creating the score: you have to improvise, you have to fill in. Often less than half of the information is there, which is probably why I like working with earlier Baroque music because there’s more freedom. The further on you get, the more is written in the score, and that continues until now: with hypercomplexity, everything is written.’

Expressive freedom is, she hastens to add, also a question of attitude: ‘If you’re looking for it, you can probably bring it into whatever music world you go into. You can find it in Romantic music, you can find it anywhere.’ But it follows that in the new music branches of her work, she particularly enjoys being involved in the creation of material. She mentions a recent piece with Richard Hames and Elischa Kaminer of Ensemble x.y for a concert entitled European Extremes.

“Baroque music-making has brought the idea more into the mainstream that there are different temperaments you can use, different scales you can use”

‘The three of us wrote it together and we made it very organically. It was like some long, collaborative, digestive process: first we talked about it a lot together and then one of us would go and make some material and send it to the others. They would elaborate on that and send it on. Of course you can only do this with people you totally trust and admire. Then I remember the first rehearsal was the most incredible feeling because we were all so involved and cared so much that we were working on it as a team but none of us felt ownership of it, so there was a really heightened sense of community.’

She features in MÁM, a dance project, which comes to Sadler’s Wells in early February, working in a similarly inclusive way with choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan and his company Teac Damsa alongside members of s t a r g a z e. ‘That has been a life-giver for me in the last months. The way that he has worked on this project has hugely fulfilled me and given me hope because what he makes comes directly from how he makes it. The process is fundamental: everyone who’s involved in the work is responsible for making it. It’s a collaborative project that could only happen through him; his work is unmistakeably his and yet there is no force ever involved in what he does.’

Before then, Kadish is in London with two dates at Cafe OTO at the end of January and a solo performance at Baroque at the Edge earlier in the month. The festival, with its aim of reimagining early music in contemporary musical settings, has seemingly been designed with a performer like her in mind and she has responded with a concert exploring the Baroque’s, and her own, fascination with the voice – she talks about playing the violin as if singing. ‘That’s not just a mental activity, it’s also a physical thing: when I play I often try and have the sensation that the sound will come out my mouth.’

The programme is partly inspired by her involvement with s t a r g a z e, who work a lot with pop songs and musicians, and includes pop-influenced pieces by Cassandra Miller and Jocelyn Campbell as well as an arrangement by drummer Greg Saunier of a song by rock band Fugazi. She will also be using looping techniques to perform an entire madrigal, rather than the diminutions she usually enjoys. ‘It is possibly quite risky,’ she admits, ‘but exhilarating as well.’

It was only relatively late in her musical development that Kadish found this kind of musical freedom. Indeed, its absence contributed to her earlier decision to stop playing. ‘I didn’t come from a musical background and I didn’t know people in any experimental music worlds. What I knew was the conservatoire system and classical training, which I loved, deeply. But I didn’t feel like it was a world I could survive happily in. So I think that’s why I stopped – I never intended to be a professional musician, and I always thought it would kill my joy. But coming back to it after a long time I realised that you could do anything you wanted to in music, and actually there need not be any strict division between music-making and other artistic forms.’

Mayah Kadish performs in the Baroque at the Edge Festival at St James, Clerkenwell on 11 January, 1pm.



Sound bites

On quitting music

I think I was very influenced by a few things that people I respected who were in the profession had told me. They were wonderful musicians, and people, and I saw them struggling. They told me about how difficult their lives were and how much they wished they weren’t a musician, and if I could be something else then I should do something else. But I think that’s actually only half the answer. I wasn’t very good at having to do anything as a child or as a teenager – it’s different if you’re the person choosing to do it, if it’s something you’re dying to do. As a teenager, if the music education system had been very different and there had been more creative approaches to working, to practising or to developing projects and concerts, then I would have possibly had a very different attitude.

On tuning

Something that disturbs me a huge amount in, let’s call it mainstream music-making, is being caged in by temperament. People tend to work with equal temperament and for me that cuts the possibilities of music-making so hugely. Baroque music-making has brought the idea more into the mainstream that there are different temperaments you can use, different scales you can use. It comes in from a lot of world music as well. Something that I’m very pleased with is how much in contemporary music and, let’s call it pop, there is a change in approach to what notes in a scale you are allowed to use or what scale you are allowed to use. It’s not about tonality or atonality but an openness to making sounds and using intonation expressively.

On complexity

What I look for in Baroque music, or it what I looked for when I started to do it that I wasn’t finding so much at the time, was the sort of simple complexity, natural complexity, that you find if you look at patterns of ripples in water or a falling leaf. If you look at natural phenomena, of course you’re mesmerised by the beauty of a pattern but somehow it looks very free. They are following the rules of nature but it’s nevertheless a feeling of freedom when you look at it.

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