“I’m always looking for pieces that give me chills” – Valerie Fritz

Photo of Valerie Fritz (c) Josef Haller
Valerie Fritz (c) Josef Haller

Tyrolean cellist Valerie Fritz hasn’t even finished studying with Clemens Hagen at Salzburg’s Mozerteum, but she’s already riding high. She recently premiered Georg Friedrich Haas“Hochwald”, and she’s been named a “Rising Star” by the European Concert Hall Organization. Meanwhile, back home in Innsbruck, she leads the Interest Group for Contemporary Music and co-curates the concert series “noiz//elektrorauschen”. Fritz recently spoke to Michael Franz Woels about her approach to music, when silence is better than applause, and the inner life of her instrument.

Your mother composed a performative cello piece for you when you were only eight. Was that the beginning of your path to contemporary music?

Valerie Fritz: The youth competition Prima la Musica requires a contemporary piece, so my mother wrote performative pieces for my sister and I. Back then, I didn’t feel the divide between classical and contemporary music so strongly. I notice it much more strongly with people today, particularly at universities. I was always curious about all kinds of music; I’m not interested in being an expert or a specialist in one area. Classical is seen as the norm, the center, but I always approach pieces the same way, whether they’re new or old.

My interest in contemporary music began to grow when I went to the university. I was looking for more space for my ideas and my thoughts, so I stretched out my feelers and looked for a community that I felt comfortable with. The composers at the Mozarteum turned out to be that for me. I went to the Darmstadt Summer Course in my early twenties out of personal interest. I was constantly questioning myself, my views, and my convictions. I was – and am – always looking for kindred souls to explore with.

“I try to let the music pass through my body”

Photo of Valerie Fritz's hand (c) Florian Scheible
Valerie Fritz (c) Florian Scheible

One term that gets overused when talking about performing artists is “authenticity”. Is it something you think about?

Valerie Fritz: I think more about what actually makes someone inauthentic. What gives someone in the audience the feeling “this artist is inauthentic”? I can’t answer that yet. Fortunately, no one has ever accused me of it – on the contrary: even as a child, people often said I had a strong stage presence. I just try to be – how can I say this? – permeable. I try to let the music pass through my body to the audience so listeners can feel the musical experience I’m having. Of course, the issue of authenticity extends well beyond the stage: social media presence is a similar subject. I’ve started consciously avoiding doing too much of it – I concentrate mainly on my website, which I view as a portfolio. I don’t think people need to see me backstage, nervous and excited about the performance. Also, I think that kind of publicity rarely reaches people outside of your own bubble. In the end, it’s mostly musicians you know – and that leads to even greater pressure to perform.

You’ve dealt extensively with “contemporary concert design” as a musician – what have you discovered?

Valerie Fritz: I’m not a fan of concert formats that distract from the musical content. For example, when someone performs a piece out in the woods that can’t be acoustically realized in that setting, I wish I were back in the concert hall, where I could sit and concentrate on the piece. When it comes to concert programming, I think people should consider the framework, the space a piece needs to have its full effect.

I don’t necessarily need an extramusical context for concerts – like sociopolitical themes, for instance. It often makes me feel as if the music were no longer enough in itself. You also have to be careful, as a performer, not to go on stage and try to represent something that you don’t really understand. But together with partners who specialize in extramusical subjects, you can build an interesting concert program around them.

You curate the concert series noiz//elektrorauschen in Tyrol with Josef Haller and Andreas Trenkwalder. How do you develop the events?

Valerie Fritz: We wanted to create a year-round program, a new format, dedicated to contemporary music but different from festivals that are limited to a specific time frame. At the beginning, we contacted locations like climbing gyms and swimming pools, but they unfortunately had no interest in anything besides sports and entertainment. We’ve since made connections with locations like the Verein Vogelweide, a volunteer group that organizes an consumption-free space in a park. We’ll be offering a musical niche program there this summer.

Did you have any female role models as a musician?

Valerie Fritz: I never really had idols as a child, nor did I have that great “awakening” at a concert by some famous performer, the way a lot of musicians do. But I loved the energy and joy in the European Union Youth Orchestra, with whom I played a number of summer tours, and I try to keep that alive. I’m always on the lookout for pieces that give me chills, that I burn for. I’ve got a list of pieces like that that I really want to learn. You have to search for music that keeps feeding that fire.

“Doesn’t that hurt the cello?”

Video: Valerie Fritz: “Study for Cello and Video” (Simon Steen-Andersen)

Let’s come back to that “permeability” of the body while playing that you spoke about.

Valerie Fritz: To me, playing cello is something very physical. Every piece has its own haptics. A lot of modern pieces work with gross motor functions, treat the cello with brutality – I love that. I often get asked by worried audience members after the concert: “Doesn’t that hurt the cello?” And I’m always amazed, because I worry about my instrument most of all – I’m not going to destroy my musical capital. But I also love pieces with a lot of subtlety, with very fine nuances in timbre. I love the whole spectrum; I’m fascinated by the many possibilities of the cello. Performative elements – when I get to sing or act – are an additional tickle.

A few weeks ago, I premiered a new work by Georg Friedrich Haas, a 40-minute solo piece in which I also sing and speak a lot. At the climax of the piece, I scream. After the performance, I was so affected by the physicality and the intensity of the music that I wanted to leave the stage without taking a bow, to be by myself. What did that piece do to me? Some pieces have such depths. A few days earlier, I had played Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”. At the end of the piece, the violin plays this detached melody, and under the last bar of the score, it says: “Completed 1941 at Görlitz Concentration Camp”. After those fifty minutes, it just feels wrong to stand up, take a bow, and be applauded. I have too much respect for the conditions under which the piece was created.

When you scroll down to the bottom of the landing page of your website, there’s a special space…

Valerie Fritz: I sent that photo to a friend, and he asked if it was the next location for my concert series [laughs]. I love that photo. My cello maker took it while the instrument was in for repairs and sent it to me to ask if he should adjust the sound post. When I saw the space inside my cello, I knew I wanted to have a photo like that on my homepage. So he unscrewed the endpin, lit the inside through the F-holes, and took it. By the way, stringed instruments always have a little ball of dust and dirt inside them. The remnants of my work are a soft little living thing inside the instrument – and that’s where it stays.

Photo of Valerie Fritz (c) Oskar Neubauer
Valerie Fritz (c) Oskar Neubauer

Interview by Michael Franz Woels, translated and adapted from the German original by Philip Yaeger.