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Catherine Manoukian

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Fun Facts

cmanoukian 57
Who are your favourite violinists?
I don't so much have favourite violinists as favourite executions of specific pieces. For example, I think Heifetz plays an incredible Chausson Poème. Anne-Sophie Mutter's Debussy Sonata is absolutely brilliant. I'm quite fond of Hilary Hahn's Bach D minor Partita. Oistrakh's Tchaikovsky Concerto blows me away. It tends also to depend on my mood - sometimes I want a cerebral violinist, other times I want one who plays with emotional abandon. I don't have very rigid tastes.

How do you see violin as an instrument? Are you interested in violinmakers and violinmaking?
For me, the violin has always been a means to the end of making music. Actually, it's an accident altogether that I came to play the violin specifically - mostly because my parents taught it at home and it was the first instrument to which I was exposed. I thought everyone played the violin and I didn't want to be left out. In retrospect it's a good thing, because my hands don't seem to be suited for anything else. I've had disastrous tries at the cello and the oboe, both instruments that I deeply love. I regret that I don't know a great deal about violins as objects or artefacts, but I do know what kind of sound I like. I tend to prefer “darker” tones. I like Guarneris better than Strads.

How many languages can you speak other than music?
English, French, and Armenian fluently (though my French is rusty through lack of use). I have smatterings of Japanese and German, but would seriously have to take them up again to regain proper understanding. I did one course of Spanish in high school, so I'm not completely lost there. I know a few words of Klingon.

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Do you feel anything special while playing Ysaÿe sonatas on your ex-Ysaÿe Vuillaume?
I don't think I do, mainly because I've been playing the Vuillaume since before I learned those sonatas. I do, however, generally have a strong sense of the historical - I enjoy visiting places where pieces I like were written, and I enjoy reading about the contexts of their composition. Ysaÿe is special to me, actually, in a different way: his Poème Élégiaque is the first piece I ever recorded.

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What is your favorite food?
Sushi. It's the Japanese coming out in me. My mother weaned me on Japanese food. My dad ate sweets, my mother and I ate dried cuttlefish.

Do you find sushi in Japan much better than in Canada?
Sushi is incomparably better in Japan…no offense to Canada.

Do you play any sports?
I like boats. Does that count as sports? I like watching soccer, but I haven't played since I was about eleven. Most of my physical activity is made up of walking and occasional trips to the gym. I can walk for hours. It's very relaxing. I also enjoy watching gymnastics, because I don't understand how it's humanly possible to do those things.

What do you have on your iPod?
Right now: Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Berg, Berlioz, Boccherini, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorăk, Elgar, Franck, Gluck, Grieg, Handel, Ligeti, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Penderecki, Pergolesi, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Rosenmüller, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Schubert, Schumann, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Stockhausen, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Telemann, Varèse, Wagner, Walton, Weber, and Webern.

No pop?
No - I don't mind it when it's present (I may even enjoy it), but I don't really listen to it of my own accord. I like the Boston Legal theme song, though. It's catchy.

Do you listen to your own recordings?
Not often. I will if I have to play a piece I've recorded again, to get a sense of what I'd like to do differently. I record my practicing sometimes for the same reason.

Any interesting encounters with fans?
Yikes, yes. One guy showed up at a CD signing in Japan and basically asked me if I'd consider posing in period costumes for him. My record producer promptly escorted him away. But fans are generally fantastic. I enjoy talking to them and finding out how they relate to music. I'm always interested in personal stories, people's personal relationships with music.

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cmanoukian 57
How do you deal with jetlag?
Jetlag doesn't bother me at all. I must have an excellent melatonin production adjuster. But I get terribly airsick. It's the only thing I absolutely loathe about my job - flying.

Favorite movies?
400 Blows, Being John Malkovich, Das Leben der Anderen, Dr. Strangelove, Eyes Wide Shut, Galaxy Quest, Klavierspielerin, La Reine Margot, Lost in Translation, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Star Trek: First Contact, Vertigo.

Are your siblings musicians also?
No. My eldest brother is a molecular geneticist - he does research on cancer, Parkinson's, and bipolar disorder. My other brother works in computer-based business.

Where do you usually get inspirations for your music? How do you come up with an interpretation?
It's not really a conscious process. At first, I try to learn pieces as "coldly" as possible - totally off paper, not listening to other recordings, just trying to get the mechanics right. Once I start actually practising on the violin, though, I'll do it without looking at the music, so I can develop an "organic" interpretation, something that emerges as a coherent whole, not a compilation of unrelated elements. I guess inspiration starts creeping in somewhere here.

Once this stage is completed, I'll go back to the score and think things through, to make sure I'm not violating the composer's domain - not distorting anything that would destroy the integrity and coherence of what the composer has done. At this point I'll also consult other recordings - but only in order to put things into perspective. Obviously, I'm opposed to "lifting" ideas from other performers, as I'm sure is the case with everyone. Part of being a professional performer is trying to put forward something personal, to put something of your own stamp on the piece. It's a tricky balance: being original without overstepping any boundaries.

Let me try a metaphor. (Bear with me, metaphors aren't my strong suit.) You might think that when you witness the performance of a piece you apprehend a picture of some sort. The way I see it, the final product (the picture, the performance) issues from a joint effort on the parts of the composer and the performer: the picture is initiated by the composer and completed by the performer.

Let's take a simple example - say, a picture of a person. The composer puts down a head, a torso, arms, legs, etc. The performer comes along. A lot of options are open to them – they can give the picture-person a particular complexion, particular clothes, a nose job, makeup, jewelry, a frown – a huge variety of attributes. And each performer will add attributes in an idiosyncratic way. Notice, though, that the performer can't place a completely unrelated picture on top of the composer's without losing coherence (say, a picture of a tree on top of the picture of a person). But: this doesn't mean that the performer is restricted to just tracing the composer's picture - we're talking both freedoms and constraints.

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Why did you study philosophy? Do you think it hindered your soloist career for a few precious years?
I get asked a lot why I stayed in school for so long, given that my career has always been music, and why I've suddenly decided, now, to suspend my schooling. I think I stayed as long as I did because I used to find something jarring about the flexibility and freedom the life of a soloist brings. There's a part of me that likes and craves structure. I was (and am) attracted to philosophy because it's careful, rigorous, analytic, and forces you to slow down and look at things dispassionately. Music - at least how I do it - is the opposite. You need to think fast, be spontaneous and, ideally, give free reign to your emotions. I felt I needed balance. It's not that I don't want the balance anymore, but, at a certain age, you have to weigh your priorities. I broke my hand a while back and couldn't play for six months. It was hell. I realized that, as much as I may like the structure doing philosophy allows, I never get up in the morning and think, “wow, I really hope I get to read some Kant today”. I do get up and think, “I really hope I get to play some Brahms today”. I enjoy reading philosophy very much, but I won't be devastated if I never do it again. When I broke my hand, though, I was absolutely devastated. It doesn't feel right not to play.

I don't think philosophy hindered my career, though it did keep it a bit under radar for those few years. I think that was ultimately beneficial. (1) I got some demons, like my ambivalence about lack of structure in my life, out of the way. I'm down with freedom now. (2) I got to think about music out of the limelight after already having been in it. That's a rare opportunity. When we're kids, we have to prepare for the stage going in blind, because we don't know what to expect. I was no exception in this regard. This time, however, I knew exactly what to expect, and made my changes and (what I hope are) improvements with those expectations in mind. (3) I don't have any “what if”s to deal with. I know my options and I've chosen one carefully, with the certainty that I'm doing what's best for me. I consider myself very lucky in this sense.

What are your favourite books and CDs?
I have favourite authors rather than favourite books. They include: Moliere, Zola, Musil, Schnitzler, Mann (both Heinrich and Thomas), Hamsun, Wedekind, Kundera, Havel, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, A.M. Homes, and David Sedaris. I have a special love for Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I periodically flip through the DSM-IV. That's a bit weird, I admit, but I tend to find classification systems in general captivating. Yay Linnaeus.

CDs. Hmm…there are too many to list. Though I can always listen to Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven or Schubert. I love Jacqueline du Pré's 1968 Schumann Concerto.

I'm not saying this is the right/correct/only way to look at the question - there are, of course, both anarchists and interpretative purists out there. (The antique instruments movement is a good example of the latter.) Quite frankly, I'm absolutely fascinated by their work, there's something very intoxicating about both iconoclasm and strict disciplinarianism. But, that being said, I do find myself more attracted to a golden mean - as a matter of personal practice.

updated: 4 years ago