I spoke with violinist Mari Samuelsen, over Zoom, from her home in the Norwegian countryside. Out of the generous windows behind her I could see a valley descend into a blue lake, with a mountain range in the distance. Somehow the sunroom in my small inner-Sydney apartment suddenly felt a little less – impressive? (Queue the rubbish collection outside my window).
Clearly Mari’s spacious Nordic upbringing has paid dividends. She is a uniquely virtuoso violinist, a champion of new music, and a thoroughly down-to-earth person. We discussed her love of minimalist music and her relationship with late composer and Hollywood legend James Horner.
CHICKENS AND A HORSE
You grew up on a farm in rural Norway. Is this near where you live today?
Well, it was not really a working farm. We had chickens, a horse, as well as cats and dogs. It’s more of a beautiful place with a fantastic view and close contact with nature.
My mom had a gallery – more of an art factory – and my father was doing everything. They were self-made people.
One of the things often associated with classical music is the high pressure to succeed from a young age. Did you feel that, or was your development nurtured by a more relaxed environment?
I think there’s a lot of pressure in my world – there is this urge to be perfect. Actually, I hate the word perfect. What is perfect, really? It’s not about playing every note like this or like that. It’s about giving the people that are in the room some sort of an experience. You have to communicate something that’s more than just a perfect note…
The violin is not an easy instrument, and it takes a lot of practice. Discipline was important, of course, but I think the way that I was invited into the world of music was very free. I remember finding pots and pans around the house and banging them and making noise!
Maybe that’s also why I’ve always felt an urge to keep that freedom in me. To not follow what everybody expects from me as a classical violinist. I will always search for different ways, different people to work with, and just try out new things.
Why do you think it’s important to perform music by contemporary composers?
Because we live in a world that goes forward. I want to be a part of that world.
That’s a very blunt and simple answer. But I don’t choose contemporary music just because it is contemporary. I choose music that I like, and that allows me to communicate my personality.
One of the threads running through music that you like to perform is minimalism. When minimalism first came around in the 1960s it was regarded by many people as kind of a joke. And yet here we are in 2020 and you can see the DNA of minimalist music everywhere. Why do you think minimalism has stood the test of time?
It’s simple, but still very complex. To memorize minimalistic, repetitive progressive music is a challenge for my brain. I love challenges!
I think minimalism also reflects the time we’re living in. We are bombarded with so much information. There is so much news, so much technology, Everything is going so quick. We can’t even read the newspaper before it’s old news, right…? Which can be fantastic, but it’s also inhuman. I’m not sure if we are meant to live this fast.
I think with so much information we have the need for having a clean open space – both for eyes and ears. It works as a medicine or a meditation for many people.
Do you have a technique for memorising minimalist music?
It’s numbers basically. When I know the piece well I can just listen to chord-changes, I kind-of feel where I am – but I am safer with the numbers. You just go into some sort of world.
Like entering a trance?
Exactly. Yes, you have to be on the same plane of existence as the music. You cannot fall off, because then you’re out.
How did you come to meet James Horner?
My brother [cellist Håkon Samuelsen] and I were invited to Los Angeles. We were there for the Grammys, not because we were nominated, but we had some friends who were nominated and we had a chance to come to the party!
The Norwegian film director Harold Schwartz and his wife had a lovely house in Hollywood, and they invited us to do a little house concert. James Horner came to that concert. He was two hours delayed because he was out flying himself and there was fog, so he couldn’t land.
We kept playing, because we knew that he was coming and we wanted him to hear us. After the concert, I just went up to James and I think I just asked him straight up, “Mr. James Horner, would you ever imagine yourself writing a piece for cello, violin and orchestra?” He said, “Yes” immediately, and I was like, “Whoa, I did not expect that at all!”
Then he said, “Well, I just have to finish a couple of movies.” (Spiderman and Avatar.) And I was like, “Sure, sure. Take your time!”
The next day we were having a meeting that lasted for hours. He became a very close and dear friend for the last five years of his life. For James – having worked so many years in the Hollywood system always writing music to picture and working with directors – to be completely free and write only for stage was freeing for him, I think.
You were invited by the LA Philharmonic to perform the piece as a tribute to James after he passed away in 2015. That must have been a very emotional experience.
That was definitely a very special experience. It was the first time my brother and I had performed with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. And it got fantastic reviews. James never cared about critics, but I am so happy that this one piece got really fantastic reviews in the LA Times. And the atmosphere was amazing. I don’t remember how many thousands of people were there but it was … I wish James could have been there.
Follow Mari Samuelsen at marisamuelsen.com