Exploring the Process of Music with Joshua Roman
World-renowned cellist, composer, and curator Joshua Roman is an alumnus of the Music Academy of the West (MAW) since 2002. He sent out letters of inquiry around the U.S. to secure a space undisturbed for composing a 16-minute piece for the Cleveland Orchestra. Scott Reed, President and CEO of MAW, reached out to Ashley Woods Hollister, Executive Director of The Squire Foundation, to inquire about having Joshua stay at its Via Maria Artist in Residence location from Christmas into January 2020. She quickly made the arrangements and said, “My vision as the Executive Director of the Squire Foundation was to support Joshua Roman’s cello commission, to extend to the artist Morris B. Squire’s legacy of creating space for the purpose of elevating community from the ground up. I am pleased Joshua has the space here at Via Maria to experiment with his art while the community has the pleasure of welcoming one of the great musicians of our time within our daily life.” Scott added, “Joshua is a prime example of a classically-trained musician creating their own destiny. Currently, he is immersing into a community as an artist-in-residence at the Squire Foundation, a natural fit for his personality and artistry. While there, he is doing pop-up performances for new people he meets and personally connecting with many of our local cultural icons and leaders. We hope he’ll continue to spend time in Santa Barbara.”
I met with Joshua to do an exclusive on music for the Montecito Journal. The interview was taped, and transcribed for our readers:
Q. Let’s start with your cello’s details and history
A. The cello I play is named Midge; she was made in 1899 in Venice by Guilo Degani, in his early 20s. He studied with his father, Eugenio Degani, whose cellos I have seen in orchestras around the country, but have only seen one other made by Guilo. It’s very beautiful, the size is more narrow in the ribs than standard cellos, so it’s halfway between a cello and violin; sounds range from very sweet to full. I do not own it, it is owned by a couple who are my sponsors. The original intent was to start with this cello and at some point go on to another cello. There are a few Stradivarius and Guarneri cellos that I love, so at some point moving on. I do own several bows; the one I am currently playing was made in the 1790s with Mother of Pearl. The bow is so important!
Tone woods of your cello?
The top is made of spruce and the back is made of maple. I compare the woods to one stationary plate of maple and one vibrating plate of spruce. The sound posts help carry that vibration of the air inside and it comes out the f-holes.
For strings I have spent years experimenting with different set ups. Currently I use Jargar Forte Strings for A and D, and on the bottom I use the Spirocore Tungsten Medium Cello Strings. It’s expensive, $250 per set.
Do you need to be careful of the gauge due to the age of the cello?
It’s not so much about damage to the cello, but its ability to produce the sound, and on this instrument, the lower strings at a higher gauge just bottom out compared to the top strings.
Your tuning choice, e.g. 440?
Left to my own devices I put Aat 441. But most of the time, I’m playing with orchestras. My trick is I stay backstage and tune to them playing the overture, which is not very long, and then I come out and play my concerto. I don’t ever take the oboe’s A because even if everyone on stage tunes to that A, things change once they start playing, the room, the temperature, we o in different directions. I wait four or five minutes into that first piece, and it doesn’t matter what key they are in, I quietly backstage tune to whatever they’re doing so that when I come out later, I’m already prepared. And THAT can be all over the place, in Russia as high as 447, which is really bad for the cello, and it’s never below 440 [laughs].
What if it doesn’t resonate for you?
I have an exercise where I go through that, I want to feel why it doesn’t resonate. If I can’t take it, then I stop, but I always want to understand the nature of the reality that I am living in that moment and at times that means sitting with something that is uncomfortable. There are pieces I refuse to play, I’ve turned down concerts because they want me to play those pieces, e.g., anything by Max Reger, people in Germany love him, it doesn’t resonate with me.
Who resonates with you?
Default is Bach, I play Bach for myself every day, I’ve played Bach since I was a kid, so it’s very strong inside. He just really figured out for most of the instruments, what is satisfying musically and physically, and tied them together, like you play a low open C string on cello at points where you can use them. It’s really fun to play an open C string, a natural freedom. My favorites are Bach’s “Six Solo Cello Suites,” all six of them.
Do you sing the notes to yourself when you play, practice, write?
Sometimes it comes out physically, but it is definitely there and a constant refinement and shifting; because there is so much to focus on, how am I going to hit the note, what color is the note, how does the note fit into the phrase, what should the phrase be, there’s what’s going on around me, how does it sound in the room, and you can go down any one of those paths for the rest of your life to the detriment of the others. A lot of these paths will have a similar approach, string players think ahead so they can play in tune, but if all you’re doing is making certain you’re accurate what are you communicating? If you just only think about color or emotions, are they detailed enough to produce the right note or in tune? You are always learning how to develop and refine technique and the point of it. That plays out in an obvious level, why am I thinking ahead? Is it because I’m afraid or I have something to share?
Your creative guru?
John Cleese!I read his book on creative process about 18 years ago and it is my whole go to thing.
On your upcoming foundation and legacy?
With the cello there is so much to explore and so many newcomers to the instrument as in the explosion of cello ensembles and in various genre bands. There is a very clear progression starting from Pablo Casals, Mstislav Leopoldovich “Slava” Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma, cellists putting themselves out there engaged in the world, larger than life energies that made things happen bringing people in. I want to take that further, to make that grow. It’s a tremendous legacy to create opportunities, open doors and push the envelope, I want to make music more accessible to people who don’t think they can get into classical music. I do not play music by Bach, Beethoven, and Dvořák because it exists, I have to have a personal connection and feel it. You also have to do what’s new, we have to be creating. Recently there is a lot of growth in new classical music; loving classical music is having more of it. I don’t want the energy to stop with me, I want it to flow through me, and I say that classical music should not be a canon, it’s a tradition of creativity.
After a breath and smile, he finishes the interview with a quote by Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”