Musician Avi Avital on everything you need to know about the mandolin, and his latest album, Art of the Mandolin
Reader's Digest: What's the most fascinating fact about the mandolin?
Avi Avital: The mandolin is the one instrument I know that you can find in an incredible variety of forms and genres of music. If you take an instrument like the flute for example, or cello or piano, it will look more or less the same, and have more or less the same sound aesthetics whether you are in Japan, Brazil or North America.
With the mandolin though, it’s different. In North America, the mandolin is mainly a Bluegrass instrument with a flat-back and f-holes. In Brazil, it’s a Choro instrument, also with a flat-back but slightly wider in shape and with an oval sound-hole. In Italy, you mostly find the traditional Neapolitan style mandolins which are pear-shaped with bowled backs.
Even today’s mandolin makers, including the one who makes my mandolins, still take a lot of creative freedom when crafting their instruments. I find it an extremely fascinating phenomenon which perhaps is only true of the mandolin and highlights how adaptable it is as an instrument.
RD: How would you describe the sound of the mandolin? Is there anything you would compare it to?
AA: The sound of the mandolin is like the Mediterranean sun: warm, tingly and piercing; and the colour of it is definitely gold.
RD: How hard is it to learn to play it?
AA: Not hard at all! At least to reach a good amateur level. It’s a very intuitive and user-friendly instrument. It doesn’t take long from the moment you hold a mandolin for the first time to the point you are able to play something that sounds decent. Definitely much quicker than the violin for example. That’s why throughout history, it was always more popular as an amateur instrument.
Now, from amateur level upwards, it does actually become a very demanding instrument. Technical precision can be merciless depending on the repertoire: your left-hand fingers must hit exactly the right tiny spot between two frets for the note to even make a sound, and when playing a fast passage this can be difficult. You definitely can’t cheat! Also, regarding expression, making the mandolin "sing" is a real art as the sounds don’t last. There are ways to do it of course but that requires a whole different level of dedication.
RD: You refer to it as an instrument “both familiar and unknown”—could you expand on that?
AA: Most people you speak with will be aware of the mandolin but won’t know how, be able to name a piece featuring the mandolin nor be able to recall a concert in which they heard it being played. As I mentioned before, the mandolin represents something different depending on time and place. So, when I tour North America for example, I know that most people in the audience would have probably heard the mandolin in the context of Bluegrass music but not necessarily in the context of classical music, so I assume that, for them, the experience of hearing me play would be at once familiar and new.
When I play in Russia, it’s similar: people relate to the sounds because they are familiar with the sounds of their folk instruments like the Domra or the Balalaika but again, for most people, though I’m making a sweeping statement, it would be the first time they would have heard classical music being played on a mandolin.
I love it when people come to speak with me after concerts as I learn a lot about where the mandolin sits in different cultural collective memories. In Israel, for example, I’m often told “my grandmother played the mandolin”, to which I always ask, “from which Kibbutz [an Israeli collective settlement], was she?”; as for a lot of that generation, mandolin orchestras were popular amongst Kibbutzim.
RD: You’ve mentioned the similarities between the violin and the mandolin before, and you were in fact taught how to play the mandolin by a violin teacher—how similar are the two instruments in reality?
AA: The only similarity between the instruments, though this is quite significant, is the tuning and, therefore, also the range. Both the violin and the mandolin have open strings: E, A, D and G. The mandolin has double strings but this just influences the nature of the sounds it makes. What it means for the two instruments to be tuned the same is that theoretically whatever is composed for the violin can also be played on the mandolin (at least when it comes to range and the position of the left hand).
In fact, most of my life I have played, and continue to play, pieces written originally for the violin from original violin scores. What is needed is to work out how to adapt what is expressed musically on the violin for the mandolin. For example: how to play a long note on the mandolin without a bow used in violin playing. You could "tremolo" it or the let the string ring with vibrato, or no vibrato etc.
RD: What do you think is the best way to inspire more people to take up the mandolin?
AA: If social media is anything to go by and the number of people writing to me, I know that lots more people are picking up the mandolin. It’s a very satisfying instrument for amateur players—sweet and unthreatening. I also think it’s because people are becoming more aware of it: they hear it in concerts, in recordings, in different musical genres etc. It’s always been there but just never had the chance to take the spotlight until now.
RD: How do you think we can make younger generations more interested in classical music in general?
AA: I think playing classical music is the best way to experience its magic in full. But I also remember myself as a kid: the challenge was to overcome the frustrating first phase of learning an instrument which requires developing some complex coordination skills, amongst many others, before it becomes a satisfying experience.
Again, I know I’m biased but in this case, I must praise the mandolin. In fact, it was thanks to playing in the mandolin youth orchestra in my hometown in Israel that I fell in love with classical music. It was a lot of fun to socialise in rehearsals and from the first day I arrived, the music sounded great: not thanks to me, of course, but because the more advanced students got to play the more challenging melodic parts, and beginners like me got very easy parts to play but together it sounded beautiful and satisfying.
RD: Tell us a bit about your latest album
AA: When deciding which music to include in Art of the Mandolin, I had one main question: What is the best existing repertoire in the classical music canon written for the mandolin? Of course, the answer to that was very personal, and in the end, I had to make all the pieces work together as one coherent listening experience, but the essence of it was presenting my all-time favourite pieces for the mandolin.
An even more interesting question which arose whilst curating the new album was: What did each of the composers writing these works see in the mandolin? Through their music, you can see how each composer used the mandolin as a symbol or a metaphor, each bringing their own individual take on the collective and personal associations with the instrument and its unique characteristics.
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