The British violinist presents new album Between the Clouds, gathering classical pieces from his 20-years music repertoire: «There is a lightness to them like a cloud»
Charlie Siem discovered classical music at the age of three when he listened to the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Seeking to gain access to the world of classic, he went to Cambridge University, where he studied for an academic undergraduate degree, concentrating on music from a historical aspect. «My parents encouraged me to keep a breadth in my education, so I studied music from this different perspective. This angle taught me to go beyond playing the violin. It made me ask the question of why. Why do I want to play the violin?». The Beethoven play, a piece of music history, accompanied Siem as «a symbol» throughout the years of his career. Understanding the composer’s works as melodies captivating through simplicity yet joyfulness, Siem feels connected to the pieces’ motions and interpretations. «Beethoven is a master of expressions, using so little in terms of techniques and symbols. He cuts right into the heart of human experience, which is why he created music that is timeless, almost eternal. It awakened in me my capacity to express something universal – It sparked the quest for meaning in my life».
The compulsion to discipline and self-improvement marbled Siem’s childhood. Born to a Norwegian father and a British mother, a non-musical household, his insights into music had been formed by an objection – scrutinized but appraised. Recalling this period, he emphasizes the focus this doctrine has elicited in him. « Your character gets molded by that adrenalin and the nerve-steal you need to deliver to the highest level. Growing up, the discipline of playing the violin, this ritual of self-improvement and learning through failure shaped my character in terms of the way I see things. The techniques and hurdles of the violin, the instrument distinguished by its demanding character and time exposure, could only be reached and overcome when the foundation of control would be given». Freedom, the idea of allowing oneself to get into a state of flow, would draw from the application and understanding of how to achieve it. «It is a transition you can make on stage. I would be lying if I would say that I would always reach this state. My psychological and emotional make-up differs from every time I perform. You first have to gather your balance on stage and awareness of your position in the room».
After Siem, the art of making music stands juxtaposed to spirituality as «one plays music beyond the notes and the challenge to deliver at that moment on stage. It is not based on knowing the character or theme. It is about knowing yourself to transmit that to the audience, to make them aware of that in themselves. If music is played well, people can taste their own limited time on earth: the presence and the irrelevance of existence». Siem performs with orchestras and chamber assemblies, such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony, or the Camerata Salzburg, supported his international recognition. Tours around Asia, America, and Europe. The performances together with musical acts from Bryan Adams in 2009, over Jamie Cullum or Grace Jones, enabled him to explore the modernity and intricacy classical music holds. «Bryan and I met at the beginning of my career. He was photographing me for L’Uomo Vogue and asked me afterward whether I would like to play with him and figure out the violin part of his song. I saw the challenge, as, at the time, I focused on my violin repertoire, from Vitali to Paganini. All these nineteenth-century violinists took a melody everybody recognized, and they would make virtuosos variations on the piece so that they became sensations. I thought to follow that principle and make variations while taking my hat off to tradition and those virtuous violinists of the past», he explains. Siem recognizes the importance of a network in the music industry and acknowledges that it has opened the doors to its upper echelon. «I have been somebody who has said ‘yes’ more than ‘no’ in my career. I wanted to gain as much experience as possible across the board, yet remain my substance. These connections ended up forming my career».
A recurring role in Siem’s life plays the long-time friend and duo partner Itamar Golan, the Lithuanian pianist whom Siem had met during his time at college and reencountered in 2012. Their union was consummated by their debut at Wigmore Hall in London. «What started from a coaching perspective turned to a friendship. Now we are duo partners and have performed various times. It was a natural choice when I had the opportunity to start recording again, that I would record with him». Over recent years, the musician built up his classical repertoire and established an image as one of the young violinists preceding his generation’s players. By his side for fifteen years, the 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin or ‘D’Egville’. «At the age of thirteen, I played an Italian violin made in Turin in 1831 by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda. If you get access to a Stradivari or Guarneri, you hang on to it».
Charlie Siem’s album Between the Clouds, released on November 20th, comprises pieces from his repertory of the past twenty years. What commenced in December 2019 with the offer to realize an album with the company Signum records resulted in the recording in January. «It took us three days to record the album» states Siem. It spans an eclectic selection from Polonaise No.1 in D major, Op.4 by Henryk Wieniawski, over Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No.2 by Edward Elgar, to Cantabile, MS 109 Op.17 by Niccolò Paganini. «It is a repertoire that a majority of people have access to in terms of what they listen to». The album cover, planned to be graced by a photograph of Siem in Tuscany, was changed to a picture of him in front of a terracotta-colored wall. «The initial picture showed this sky, looking like candyfloss clouds scattered behind me. I thought about the completion of pieces that were on the one hand unrelated to each other but on the other hand part of the same sky. There is a lightness to them like a cloud – The name makes sense. I also like using elements. The last album was called ‘Underneath the stars’. Maybe the next one is going to be called ‘Over the moon’» he jokes.
What Siem recognizes is the access social media gave to the music industry and classical niche. «A generation that did not necessarily grow up with an understanding for the branch now got access to this art form, as they were introduced to it through social media» he explains. «It makes classical music more relatable». For Covid-19, the violinist remained in his house in Florence, where he is based. While he understands the uncertainty and insecurity the time holds, he sees the opportunities that bring. «I am privileged. Some musicians live from day-to-day performances and now have to look for something they can support themselves with. What everyone has to recognize is that it is never going to be like before this crisis. We have to adapt and regenerate the existent».
The musician works on two projects, playing with the innovations of this period. «One project serves as the re-invention of the virtual sphere. I will produce short films, introducing and investigating the lives and histories of Italian performers I admire. We will set up and film concerts, featuring their musical works and will transmit a three-dimensional form of intimacy to the viewer». The second project, Arts of the Arts, raises money to help the unemployed musicians and people working and assisting in the music field. «The time made me reflect on how I can engage with my community and audience. Life is about evolution and change – We have to be creative about how we can perform and help each other». The main focus of making music would lay in touching people, from a sense of humanity. «Music is not grounded in an actor or character looking a certain way. A picture or painting you look at has rigidity and stillness to it. Every time you play a piece, even if it is the same, it never comes out identically. Music is defined by abstraction because there is the aspect of time one has to inhabit». He continues, «You absorb it with your body and interpret it in your mind. If you read a book or watch a piece of theatre, the allegories and visual metaphors help you to understand the characters. Music is the feeling itself».
Charlie Siem, born in 1986 in London.
Between the Clouds was released on November 20th, 2020 by Signum Records.