Rhinegold Photo credit: Lars Borges

Toby Deller

Hand on heart

8:35, 22nd October 2019

With a UK tour underway and a new album, Sound of Silence, recently released, guitarist MILOŠ’s career is on a high. But until recently, things weren’t looking so positive. He reflects on a devastating hand injury and the road to recovery. Toby Deller interviews

A cautionary vision of an uncommunicative society that shrinks from self-expression and avoids confronting uncomfortable realities, ‘The Sound of Silence’ may well have a resonant message for MILOŠ. The guitarist has chosen Simon and Garfunkel’s hushed prophecy as the title track for a new album intended in part as a personal reflection on recovering from a career-interrupting hand injury.

Now a few dates in to a UK tour, he is able to look positively on an episode that lasted over a year. But the experience was traumatic because of both the length of time he was out of action and the frustrations in finding a route back. The problems began after the release of his Beatles album, Blackbird. It was a time when he was touring internationally, playing Rodrigo with major orchestras and recital programmes in big venues. ‘What I always found very mysterious about what happened,’ he says, ‘was that just before my hands became very tight and very difficult to manage I was actually playing the best concerts of my life.’

His instinct, when the symptoms started to take hold, was to press on, perhaps for that very reason. ‘My body reacted in this way where my hands started to hurt because I was overusing my muscles, and tendonitis was starting to develop. Yet I had this tremendous will and determination to just proceed and to continue and everything would be alright, while inside, on a psychological level, I was feeling so incredibly weak. It felt as if someone was every day, little by little by little, turning off the tap of oxygen.’

He reached a point where, Blackbird finished, he decided to take a couple of weeks off, imagining that he would soon be able to resume, only to find that he could not. Then the frustration began. ‘I went into this whole loop of doctors and treatments and opinions and advice. And for the first time ever, I gave my physical pain and my existence into the hands of someone else. That was a mistake, but I had to learn the hard way that in the end no one knows you better than you know yourself. And I think I didn’t know myself, and I think all the physical issues that I have had, and this sort of inability to play, were just a manifestation of me not really knowing what I wanted to do.’

Adding to the difficulty in overcoming the injury was a certain stigma in having succumbed in the first place and a lack of colleagues in whom to confide. ‘In the music world, there is this feeling that if something goes wrong then you’ve done something wrong and it is your fault because maybe your technique is wrong or maybe you are too greedy and play too many concerts and all that sort of stuff. And it’s really unfair.’

“It felt as if someone was every day, little by little by little, turning off the tap of oxygen”

The key to his recovery was part realising that medicine was not where the answers lay and part reassessment of his priorities. ‘When something’s burnt and then rebuilt from the ground up, the foundations of it are much stronger. And while before I, on reflection, always felt a bit insecure and worried, and concerned about what can go wrong and whether it’s going to be good enough – almost surviving instead of living through that sort of pressure and career that I’m so lucky to have – now it feels as if nothing can ever go wrong. Because at this point, after what I’ve been through, there’s really nothing that can surprise me.’

The break had an influence on his approach to repertoire as well as his self-awareness. ‘One of the first things I wanted to change when I started doing concerts again, which is a year and a half ago now, was to diversify my concert programmes. Obviously if I’m doing a recital in a very prestigious classical venue with an amazing acoustic and amazing history, that’s one thing. But if you are on tour, you never know who’s going to be there.’ Hence also the non-classical origin of many of the pieces he chose for Sound of Silence: it includes songs by Radiohead, the Moody Blues and Portishead as well as the Simon and Garfunkel and original guitar pieces. Its gentle introspection is helped on its way by string arrangements featuring the 12 Ensemble and guest appearances by Jess Gillam and hang player Manu Delago.

One of the striking things about MILOŠ’s attitude to the break is not just that he has used the experience positively but also that he did not at the time feel resentful towards music or envious of fellow musicians. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘When you take away the music – when you are unable to express yourself through the language of music, and that’s all you ever knew – then the only way forward is to open yourself up to everything else. In that process you start feeling and hearing things in a different way. When I was not able to play for weeks I would still go to recitals and performances and concerts, and the difference of how I heard things was massive. Because everything felt enhanced and more intense and as if suddenly the world was suddenly in the most amazing exotic colours.’

His chief regret, apart from the time it took him to understand that his return to playing lay more in his own mind than the hands of medical specialists, is that there were so few other musicians to confide and in. So he certainly does not intend avoiding the subject now.

‘If it’s appropriate I will always talk about it. If it is going to make a listener understand my process with a particular work on a deeper level then I will always talk about it because I think it’s an equal part of who I am. I’m a very open person, I don’t like to hide behind smoke and mirrors and I think that’s probably the reason I’m the artist I am: when I play I like to communicate what happens inside me.’ And he adds, with perhaps a nod to the neon gods of the original ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘I think talking about your life’s experiences is just very, very important because a lot of people can relate to your experience. We live in a sort of increasingly solitary world where technology becomes our main companion. And that’s really dangerous.’

Sound of Silence is out now on Decca Classics. MILOŠ continues his UK tour throughout October and November, with extra dates added in January 2020.

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