The Violin Channel recently caught up with American Baroque cellist, Juliana Soltis to gain some fascinating insight into her new recording project: ‘Going Off Script’.
The 3-disc set explores the long-lost practice of spontaneous improvisation and historical-informed ornamentation on Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
JULIANA SOLTIS | J. S. BACH SONATA NO. 1 IN G MAJOR | COURANTE | GOING OFF SCRIPT: THE ORNAMENTED SUITES FOR CELLO
Hi Juliana. Tell us about your new innovative ‘Going Off Script’ project?
''Going Off Script revives the long-lost tradition of spontaneous improvisation, or ornamentation, in Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
The album just released on September 10th, and I'm touring the project throughout the 2019-2020 season!
The entire project is built upon the idea that the Bach we know is only the beginning, and I'm excited to share and explore this concept with audiences over the next nine months''
What exactly is the idea of improvised ‘historical-informed ornamentation’ and how have you applied this to your project?
''As a concept, ornamentation is the act of completing the compositional process in the moment of performance.
Composers like Telemann, Bach, and Vivaldi left spaces in their works for each performer to add their own touches and essentially complete the piece in their own way.
What's wonderful about this practice is that it means the work is created anew every time it's played! When we describe ornamentation as "historically informed," it just means we've made performative choices based on research.
For this project, I spent months researching and experimenting at the cello. Ornaments are usually reserved for repeated material (think of the dance movements), but they add to the improvised quality of the preludes, as well''
Why do you feel this, in today’s environment, is important?
''Ornamentation is entirely about the power of the moment.
Bach is writing in a world crippled by existential anxiety following the 30 Years War, where recording technology isn't even a distant dream and the musical culture prizes this practice that ensures the music is never the same from one performance to the next.
Ornamentation makes the act of musicking so ephemeral as to root us in the moment (lest we miss it!), and I think that in the Age of FOMO and the 24-hour news cycle, that's something we all crave''
How have you acquired this historical knowledge?
''Research! Detractors of historically-informed performance love to point to the absence of recordings as a major stumbling block, but sources describing historical music and how it was performed abound!
There are treatises (method books), personal correspondence, diaries, official records – it's time-consuming, but there's a wealth of information out there to be had''
Who have been your main influences?
''Yo-Yo Ma's Inspired by Bach series was a watershed moment in my young life. Hearing Pieter Wispelwey play all six suites in one go at Lincoln Center was insane.
But non-classical influences have been just as important for me, especially in developing an improvisational mindset. Ella Fitzgerald's alternate takes are like a masterclass on ornamentation. Queen, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie – none of them ever let themselves be defined by a single "sound."
That kind of creativity can't help but be inspiring to a young performer''
What tips and advice do you have for violinists and cellists wanting to explore their own personal interpretations of Bach’s solo works?
''Know where you come from: we have the benefit of an incredible recorded tradition of Bach, and the differences between Casals, Fournier, and Rostropovich can be wildly inspiring.
Research, experiment, explore, and make informed choices: historical performance might not be your thing – and that's ok – but as performers we should always be making conscious choices when it comes to interpretation.
And don't be afraid to forge your own path.
If I had listened to everyone who ever told me "we don't ornament Bach," I would have missed out on the most challenging and rewarding experience of my career''
What do you hope listeners will take away with them from your project?
''Whether they're listening to the album or in the audience with me on tour, I hope listeners will come away with a sense of empowerment: that the Bach cello suites are not dusty museum pieces to be venerated from afar, but rather living works of art with which they can actively engage.
Reviving the practice of ornamentation in Bach restores the audience to a role of active participation in a singular moment, and I think that's a wonderful thing''
If readers want to learn more, what books and resources would you suggest?
''If you're new to historical performance, Bruce Haynes' book The End of Early Music is a great first read.
IMSLP is overflowing with a wealth of historical treatises that have recently been digitized, and it's also a great place to find music by historical composers you don't know (yet!).
If you're looking for some hands-on experience, there are a number of wonderful summer programs that offer opportunities to explore historical instruments and techniques, including the Baroque Performance Institute at my alma mater, Oberlin.''
Going off script
Juliana Soltis, Baroque Cello
J. S. Bach, Suites for solo cello
Label: King Street Records
Release Date: September 10, 2019