Lavinia Meijer is a harpist and composer who was born in South Korea and has spent most of her life in the Netherlands. As a child she wanted to play an instrument that was different, mysterious, and not something that was a standard for everyone to play. When she heard a fellow student play the harp in school, she knew it was the instrument for her. From that point on, she has studied the instrument with world class instructors and has made it her mission to bring the harp to the forefront as a solo instrument. She loves to take chances and push the boundaries of the instrument to bring out its deep dark overtones. In her young career, Lavinia has already performed in the most prestigious halls in Europe and has appeared at Carnegie hall on many occasions. Although she is classically trained, she has achieved success in a variety of genre's. Her album "Metamorphosis" peaked very high in the Dutch Rock charts. Another aspect of her diverse range of creativity is the composers that she has collaborated with. The list includes: Philip Glass, Jacob TV, Ludwig Ellis-Leone, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly, and many others. Lavinia is currently a Sony Classical International recording artist. I recently talked with Lavinia about her exciting career.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career so far. It seems that you've accomplished a lot already - even at this early stage. How do you feel about it so far?
L.M. - It's great to see that the path is very long to walk on as a musician. Even though I have already accomplished and achieved a lot at a young age, for me it's really part of my whole development. I feel that I have matured with the projects that I have been doing. I'm doing what I really like and what I want to achieve with my music... having the freedom to shape it - is wonderful. Not a lot of artists have this privilege.
R.V.B. - It seems that you like to take chances and go out of the lines - so to speak. You seem to play with a lot of passion. I learned about you through Jacob TV.
L.M. - Oh yes. He is one of the composers I have worked with who has contributed to opening up a wider perspective for me. I have always wanted to keep orientating myself in a wide spectrum. I remember once when I did a course, I had a coach who would say to me, "If you want to make it, you have to specialize yourself in one thing... otherwise you will not stand out." I heard that and I said "No... that is not what I want. I want to feel free to go in any direction that I want." When I met Jacob TV, I asked him if he wanted to write something that has never been done before. It was definitely a shock when I saw the piece. He had used drug addicted women from New York... in this case... who were shouting, screaming, and cursing. At first I Thought "I could not play this piece", but at the same time it really triggered my curiosity. As I was practicing, I got so caught up in their reality. It felt as if I was drawn into a movie but it was real. I told Jacob "This is perfect. It's really what I was searching for." We worked on it together and came upon the idea of me screaming and cursing together with those women. This would bring the musician closer to the piece and interweave it together. It's working together with other artists and composers like this - that is my main inspiration.
L.M. - Thank you. It's was very controversial because it premiered at the World Harp Congress - which was held in Amsterdam. There were a lot of harpists in the hall. As soon as they heard "Lying piece of shit!"... in about 10 seconds a lot of the harpists stood up and left the room. It surprised me that that piece was so shocking. It was also in a way - a compliment. The composer - Jacob - told me that he was also surprised with the reaction. He said "It's wonderful to see that there's so much movement in the arts these days... there are so many things that are happening. It's interesting that it did shock people in the way that it did." It started a very big discussion on line about the arts... what is art and what is not art. The topic of the conversation was called "Musical Terrorism". There were people who saw this piece this way. It was a very interesting topic and it also applies to the general arts. In our time, what do we value as art?
R.V.B. - It seems that now art has become a free-for-all. Art will always be in the eye of the beholder. Being that you got the response that you did - that says a lot. I would think that 80 percent of the harpists that were there, probably didn't get any response.
L.M. - Right... yes. I think it contributed in my development as an artist. I am very open to work with artists who challenge me... who might make me nervous or anxious. That can often be a very good trigger for wonderful things to happen. I notice that when I meet an artist, there is so much respect for one another. It may be because you are not completely in the other persons world and that goes for the other person as well. You have full respect for each other and you start with zero... nothing. That's how beautiful music is created. Philip Glass is one of my biggest examples of a composer who achieves that. He is open to work with other artists and keeps them in their own strength.
R.V.B. - I watched your "Metamorphosis" video. You played with a lot of passion on that piece. I understand that that album that it was on received airplay in the rock and Roll genre?
L.M. - Yes It went very high in the charts. It was doing really well when it came out. It was very eye opening for a lot of people to hear his music on the harp... for me as well. When I was asked by Philip to transcribe a few pieces, it was the first time that I actually touched his music and felt it. With the harp, you have very rich sounds to work with. The harp has a very wide pallet of colors and when you play music with minimal color changes, it almost gets amplified - the overtones keep ringing. I often hear from people that they hear a complete orchestra. I think that a lot of people who already knew Philip Glass' music started hearing a new world of sound. Philip Glass told me that as well - when I first played it for him. It gave him new insight on his own compositions. That was a great compliment to hear from him.
R.V.B. - On that particular song, you're holding a midrange rhythm and when you hit that low bass note - it really grabs you.
L.M. - Maybe it's become a little bit of my signature. I really want to get into the dark tones of the harp. The deep tones can really vibrate and shake everything in your body and at the same time it's a very pure sound... it connects. That's what is so wonderful in playing his music... you can get all of those wonderful layers in the music he writes.
R.V.B. - Was it difficult to transcribe his music to the harp?
L.M. - Metamorphosis was particularly difficult because he uses three different lines of voicing... the bass, the midrange, and the top. The middle one is normally played only with the left hand by pianists. You play the top and the bass with the right hand and you swing your hand over the left to go from top to bottom. With the harp, there's a big instrument in-between. I was not able to reach with my right hand that far into the bass so I had to figure out a way to play the middle section with both hands. The art was not to make it sound like I was changing them.
R.V.B. - I noticed in the video, how seamlessly you switched hands and you didn't miss a beat.
L.M. - It had taken me a lot of time to practice that technique and not to lose focus where I was in the music. In the beginning I was so mesmerized with the music that I forgot where I was. I had to keep my concentration from start to finish. It was a challenge for me at first because he has less material to work with. I had just recently spoke to someone who had paintings in his house, which were minimal style. He told me that he asked the painter "What is easier to paint, Rembrandt paintings or minimal paintings?". He said "The minimal paintings - because you have to think so well with each minimal thing that you put down." With the music of Philip Glass, you can make a maximum effect using minimal material. You really have to make everything fit perfectly in the context while keeping your concentration from start to end... not losing it for one second.
R.V.B. - You executed it perfectly, it was very pretty to watch. Did you try other instruments first? Why did you wind up choosing the harp?
L.M. - The harp was my first instrument of choice. I wanted a unique instrument. That was my first thought when I decided to play an instrument... not knowing which one it was. I was sure that it wouldn't be the standard instrument that everyone played. I'm from South Korea and I was adopted into a Dutch family. I always felt that I was different. I wasn't a standard Dutch looking person. It's possible that I heard this instrument at a young age in Korea. I didn't think that the standard instruments that everyone played was mysterious enough for me. I was searching and searching, and then I met a girl at my elementary school who played the harp. When I heard the instrument I immediately knew that was the mysterious instrument that I was looking for. It has so many strings and I was very creative with my fingers. I was painting and drawing at a young age. I saw this perfect challenge in all of these strengths. The sound was the most purest sounds that I have ever heard... purer than the human voice. It went directly into my heart. I did play piano for one year but I really wanted to feel what I was doing - directly with my bare fingertips. With the harp, you shade the color with your fingertips and you play every string... you can dampen the strings for dynamics. It's a direct instrument and that is what I really like about it. Of course choosing an instrument that is not very common brought the problems of having the unusual instrument, for example: I was told for certain performances to bring along another instrumentalist, such as a violin player because the harp by itself can be pretty boring. I remember when I was 15, trying to convince the programmer that I should be on the program by myself... he finally agreed and afterwards he told me that I was totally right. He was really delighted by the sound. That became kind of my personal goal when I was struggling to get performances. I thought "If the stage isn't there, I want to create it." I want to get people to realize that the harp can be a solo instrument. In orchestra's, the harp doesn't have its potential to really touch you and show the diversity of it. So because it became my goal - I was to create a lot of different projects and it got me to where I am today.
L.M. - In the 10 years that I was studying, I had one main teacher who had taught me a great deal. I went abroad on a regular basis to study the harp from other teachers. I think in every lesson you follow, you will learn something. In general, I learned more from non harpists, than from harpists. The harp world can be pretty small. I began to do competitions at a very young age. I liked to compete but it also made me more insecure. There was a point where I was focusing on which harpist is in the jury and how does he or she play? "I want to play like them... maybe I will get a higher grade?" I noticed that it just didn't work! I wasn't myself anymore. I thought "There has to be more than just the harp world." I wanted to focus myself on the music world in general. When I took classes for the piano or the harpsichord... even a recorder player... they were talking in such musical terms with voicing and interpretation. That was not related to any technical difficulties of the harp but I had to translate it to the harp. I really felt it was a nice challenge. I do that with composers also, when they want it slightly different. They would explain it at first in a way when I would say "What exactly do you mean?" You keep searching and searching and you might end up with a new playing technique - for a new phrase or section that composer may of had in mind. I like to take chances. When I transcribe music, I try to loosing it up and throw it apart and build up the blocks for the harp. When I have the feeling that the composer could have written it for the harp, because of sounds so well on the harp, then I feel the transcription has been achieved.
R.V.B. - Was your teacher Erika Waardenburg? Was she the one that you studied with the most?
L.M. - Yes... she taught me for over 10 years. She is a very good teacher because all of her students have developed themselves in a different way. They are not clones of her. She looked at your strength and what you were good at. She had mentioned when I was quite young, that I had a lot of feeling for modern music. With atonal music and the more complex sounding music, I was always searching for the story in it. "What do you want to get across?" Trying to bring different layers into the music so it will communicate, which I think music should always do... communicate. I explain things at my concerts to try to get the people more aware of the instrument and the technical side of it. I also try to let them get to know me and why I choose this piece and not another piece. I'm driven to the point to where I started composing myself. That is where my developments are heading. I really like sharing with the audience why I make a specific piece.
R.V.B. - You have one of your own compositions on your latest album.
R.V.B. - When you finished your schooling, did you have a game plan? How did you transition into the professional world.
K.M. - I was lucky that I was not totally on loose ground. I had already built up quite a good reputation and name. I was performing on a pretty regular basis since I was around 15. There is a music prize given by the Dutch government to classical musicians. You have to go through an audition and then you can go into this 2 year period where you can develop yourself. At the end you do this concert and they decide whether you get this prize or not. I was very hesitant to do this. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do a competition but I was convinced by a good friend of mine. So I did it and I worked in those two years and accomplished quite a lot. It helped in shaping the rest of my career. I met my previous record company "Channel Classics" in that period. I did a tour with dancers - Modern Dance group Leine & Roebana. I learned how the choreography world works. You have a good sense in being in this space and using the space around you. I was invited for the "Rising Star" series, which brings you across Europe in big concert halls. It also brought me to Carnegie Hall. That was my debut recital at Carnegie Hall. It was a very fruitful period in which I got more well known. I did a show on National TV where I showed the audience in one minute that I could play 4 different styles on the harp. That really made a big impact. The general audience didn't know the harp in that context yet. That generated a lot of publicity and concerts for me. From that point on, the media was staying interested in what I was doing. I was doing projects and concerts with a variety of artists. It gave me great momentum to move forward. As I look back, I think I had a very smooth transition.
R.V.B. - You mentioned Carnegie Hall. You've played there a few times and you just performed there recently right?
L.M. - Yes... Philip Glass organized the concert. Every year he puts together a different group of artists and this year he invited me to come. Iggy Pop was there and it was great meeting him. We were doing kind of a David Bowie tribute. There were other artists there such as: Sharon Jones and Basia Bulat... from Canada. Another great thing about Philip is that he just would casually mention in the hallway "Maybe it's a great idea if you do a duet with Basia Bulat." I said "Sure, why not... let's try it." We tried it a day before the concert and it sounded great, so then we performed it at the concert.
R.V.B. - Did you do a David Bowie song?
L.M. - Yes. It was a full night. We did two songs with Iggy - that he made together with David. He's coming to the Netherlands in May. Maybe I can do a duet with him. A lot of times as a musician you can be stuck in your own doubt's... "I cannot do it... it's too much to ask." That is a side of a solo musician where you have to keep challenging yourself... knowing that you have a no and it can only become a yes. That is my motive... to keep trying and searching... being open and curious.
R.V.B. - Do you enjoy the recording process as much as playing a concert?
L.M. - Recording can be very stressful because I'm a perfectionist. As part of my preparation, I lock myself up a week before the recording and pretend that I'm already recording. I record myself and listen back... I analyze, and shape it the way I want it to be at the actual recording. That takes a lot of stress off of me. At the studio I feel that I've already been through the process.
R.V.B. - I see that you put a lot of passion into your visual aspect of your playing. Did you ever take any drama courses or does that come naturally?
L.M. - It's interesting that you say that because I still hear my teacher saying over and over to me "Please sit straight! Don't move that much." I cannot help myself from doing it. It just really happens. When I'm performing and getting into the music, I know what I want to get out of it. I communicate, and my body does things that I'm not aware of at that moment. I haven't had any drama lessons.
R.V.B. - It seems to work very well. You sure know how to swat mosquito's pretty good. (Haha)
L.M. - (Haha) That specific piece, I did ask help from my husband to see if my ideas are really coming across. That piece is very theatrical.
R.V.B. - Is your husband involved in music also?
L.M. - No. He's into IT but when he was very young he did some amateur acting - so he can give me feedback, in that case. I think it is a very healthy balance. I grew up in a family without musicians and I've never really felt attracted to other musicians. I do see that being a musician can be a very egocentric existence. One egocentric person in a relationship is enough.
R.V.B. - That's a good point. What projects do you have going on currently?
L.M. - I'm working on transcribing some new pieces by Philip Glass. I heard these etudes at a festival in California last year and I was just blown away by them. I'm trying to see if they work on the harp. I'm going over to see him shortly to work with him on the etudes. I'm also working on two projects that have come up after my visit of California. It was so inspiring in the setting with all different artists and poets and I want to do something with spoken word. I know a famous Dutch writer and I asked him if he wanted to do a project with me. His name is Abdelkader Benali. In his latest book he writes a letter to his newborn daughter, telling her all his expectations... his hopes... his anxiety... about what it is for a child to grow up in today's world. When I read his text, I hear music. I'm writing my own music and combining other peoples music to create a theatrical performance around him. I'm doing another project involves visual aspects. I met a great animator in Holland named Aimée de Jongh. I decided to write my own fictional story that has to do with politics and the discovery of life on Mars. I connected the two to show that maybe Mars could be a way out to build a new perfect life. It's really a creative process where you have to visualize and bring it together with animation. It's not going to be animation with music underneath. It will be interweaved where sometimes the animation is guiding the music and also where the music is guiding the animation. I will also be going into the animation so reality becomes part of the fiction also. Another project I'm working on is with Bryce Dessner. He is writing me a new solo piece, which I will premier in the Netherlands in November. All of these projects are very exciting for me.
R.V.B. - That all sounds exciting and fantastic. I'm looking forward to seeing the results of the projects. It sounds like you are on a very creative mission. I appreciate you spending this time with me.
L.M. - You're most welcome. I really enjoyed it.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Lavinia Meijer visit her website www.laviniameijer.com
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