Galina Juritz is an accomplished violinist and composer. Her latest composition, Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair, makes its return to The Baxter after an acclaimed one night only performance last year. Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair, brings mental illness and psychotic experiences into the spotlight using a combination of music, song and imagery in an attempt to portray the complexities and also the wonder of these strange and ultimately unknowable worlds. We sat down with Galina at The Baxter to chat about the show and her hopes for the future of her career.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I come from a family of musicians, so I wouldn’t say its a foregone conclusion but it was a very natural thing to do. My mother was an actress and my dad was a musician and they met when they were in a production together. My uncle is a violinist and my grandpa was a bassoonist. It was just quite a natural thing to do and it progressed quite naturally. I always imagined I could have done other artistic things. I always loved the idea of writing as well and languages and I studied some English, but that was always encouraged that when you are going to do an instrument, because it is a muscular thing, that you should start with that and then I just couldn’t shake it after that.
As a musician, I’m sure there is some element of being able to learn but you either have a natural intonation towards it or you don’t. Do you remember the first time you picked up the violin?
Yes. It sounded terrible. I think when you are brought up in that environment, it just comes across as being another part of life. It’s just something that you do, you are practicing your violin and eating breakfast and playing in the mud. I do believe that a lot more people would have musical skill than realise it because obviously, the (lack of) funding for arts and education and so it’s an absolute privilege to have music as part of your early development. That is something that I am really grateful for. I think a lot more people would find out that they are extremely musical but just never had the chance to find out.
How did you shift over into composing?
I think performing is about execution of a preexisting thing and there is a whole emotional breadth and scope in how much you can make something your own. I think I always wanted to go one step beyond that and make something that was literally my own and express the world that I saw around me the way that I saw it. One of my earlier cellphones had this composing software. I was studying violin so I was practicing and I was focused on execution but I was always trying to make ringtones and I would get a guitar and start playing songs. My avenue into writing music came, I think, more contemporary, not pop music but more in songs. I started writing songs and I think that’s how I found the confidence. I had things in my head but I wouldn’t really know how to get them out. I was studying classical music, classical harmony, Shostakovich, Wagner and all those things. Through writing songs and starting from a more simple place, I started to get the confidence. I started playing with bands and then I started improvising. Improvisation became something that I became more and more interested in. After that I started finding the confidence to actually score in the way that I had always learned music. It was something that maybe I found quite intimidating and didn’t quite know how to begin. It was a matter of gradually developing the confidence to do it which also came about through many conversations with friends and being friends with other composers and other very creative people. The conversations that we would have about wanting to make new music rather than just play what was already out there. The music that I was listening to was a lot of things being made now that reflect the times, reflect the politics and reflect the cultural landscape. It is very important to me that what I am doing is rooted in today and reflects the world that I see around me. The only way to do that is to respond to that by writing.
When I received the press release about the show, it mentioned that a lot of people who are involved in the production are very young. Is it quite a rare thing to have so many young people involved in such authoritative creative positions in such a big production?
I feel like for me, the opportunity for me to write a work on this scale and for Chad (Hendricks), the conductor who is also so young, he recently won the Len Van Zyl Conducting Competition. I think he is only turning 26 this year but he is so wise beyond his age. He has so much to give and so much energy. I think it’s a youthful energy and I think it’s one that he will carry throughout his whole career. I think often performers are young, maybe for the people writing the music or conductors, it is quite a rare opportunity for us to be given this opportunity at this early stage. I think it definitely gives the performance a very different feeling. We feel like we are making something very new and creating something new.
It is also quite an intense subject matter that is being dealt with. It is almost very interesting that there are so many young people involved who are able to grasp something that is almost beyond a lot of people’s understanding.
It’s interesting because the gentleman who wrote the libretto, Dr. Sean Baumann, is a psychiatrist and has been practicing psychiatry for over 20 years. He’s been at Valkenberg and he is coming from a very different perspective. So on the other end of that there is absolute experience. The interesting thing about psychotic episodes is that they are usually detected quite early. As far as I know, if someone is schizophrenic, it is quite likely that it comes out at an age younger than me. I think the emotional response to what that might mean can definitely be accessed at a young age whereas he would have the experience to see the overarching patterns of mental illness and obviously the medical perspective as well. The way I write the music is that I have had to find my own relationship to the episodes described and what that entails, the fear, the displacement, the uncertainty. While I was writing it I was actually in Zürich and I was incredibly homesick and I was feeling very displaced, very anxious and kind of lonely. For my inspiration, at one stage in the process, I was actually looking at other musicians throughout history. Bheki Mseleku who actually did have a struggle with mental illness and was exiled from South Africa. He had Bipolar disorder. I was listening to him describe his struggle and then I was listening to Julie Andrews talk about the feeling of losing her voice. It was that thing of losing the sense of who you remember yourself to be. I found looking at other musicians helped me find my own way of relating to what that could mean.
It’s incredible to grasp that. Without getting too personal, I have a relative who suffers from mental illness…
It’s in my family as well.
It’s almost like you think you understand it but then there are times when you realise that we never really will to a full extent.
The way I understand it comes about, it is kind of on a spectrum. When I watched talks of people who were mentally ill talk about this subject, this one woman described it, she might have had some anxiety in her first years of university, unsure of herself and then that anxiety subtly grew into a voice which she realised wasn’t coming from somewhere else. First it was just narrating what was happening to her. “She’s walking down the passage. She’s picking up a cup of tea.” As the stigma grew of realising that she was different and when she actually spoke to a friend about it and the friend said “Oh my god there is really something wrong with you. That is not normal,” so the voices became more austere and more cynical. I think the brain is a dynamic organ. It’s not like a kind of host for a foreign illness so much as it will create horrific imagery around your own particular neurosis and the world that you see around you. You still can exert control over your brain. I would imagine it like a hallucinogenic drug and my experience with that is that it is not entirely outside you. It is also inside your ability and your influence over it is not as separate as say an illness like cancer. It is much harder to pin down.
Without knowing your process too much, did it have to change at all, given the subject
matter or the research that had to go into this?
The initial research happened before that when I was reading and I was lucky enough to visit the hospital as well and have conversations with Sean. For me, the emotional aspect was much more relevant to what I was doing than the clinician’s analysis. It was very much about me investigating, hearing accounts of people, watching videos of people and trying to, and again all I could do with that was go internally into remembering my most anxious states and my most fearful states. Everyone can relate to those emotions and I think they are just happening on an extreme scale but I think they are all things that we can imagine. It’s just the horror of that being a constant and a persistent reality. As a composer, you are always telling the story of another and the only medium with which to access that is your own self and your own palate of emotions and experiences. Those were the tools that I had at my disposal. Like I said, I have experienced, not necessarily schizophrenia but different forms of mental illness in my family. And even myself, maybe I have been through an extreme depression before that I think helped me to channel some of that. Many famous musicians and composers throughout history have been on a spectrum of diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness. I think what Sean also wanted to get across was an incredible sense of it’s not just the dark side of it. It is also the incredible sensitivity, the incredibly fanciful and elegant and complex and imaginative concepts that come out of that. There is a beautiful side of it as well where people become highly able, almost over-able. They have further reaches of intelligence and imagination and abstraction. I think musicians are naturally often much more sensitive, vulnerable people or they are used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves, sometimes to the chagrin of everyone else around them.
You are also playing in the orchestra for this piece. What was it like to go from composing to playing?
It was a relief for me to step into that. As a composer, it was a very internal process and one in isolation. I often wouldn’t speak to people for days, I’d be stuck in front of my computer. And then I had to find a more authoritative role in myself working on a production of this scale with so many people and also covering territory that was also quite new for me. I have never worked with such a big group of singers before. I was learning a lot in that process. Chad was conducting and I was kind of on the sidelines making notes and suggestions and fixing errors in my score and changing things around. When I could actually sit and just play and perform, I sank into a much more comfortable role for myself where I could just be part of it and not in a position of authority. I could allow things to happen around me and just make myself vulnerable. I also felt it would be quite special to be able to make myself vulnerable to the process by performing in it and giving something of myself on stage as well. I also probably would have been so nervous if I was just sitting in the audience. It was a good distraction.
When you are in rehearsals and now you’ve obviously had to relinquished the reigns to the conductor and director, is there ever a moment when you are playing in the orchestra and you hear something wrong? Do you turn around and say “actually it’s this cord.”
Sometimes I start singing along as the lone voice from the violin section. It’s a small ensemble, its more like a chamber ensemble than an orchestra. We have seven musicians and nine singers. It is still quite intimate which I like because you can hear every person. You can hear every personality.
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I think the rest of my career will be that constant process of finding and refining my own voice and responding to the world around me. I don’t think you will ever finish with that. This is part of the difficulty of doing a production, when it is over there is a kind of post-natal depression which is that it is over and now what is the next thing? You can’t just rinse and repeat. You actually have to find a new question and a new challenge. You have to make sure that every time you are doing something else you are challenging yourself more and you are growing more. You are working in a world that is changing all the time. If I think of how much the world has changed since Sean spoke to me about this in the beginning of last year to this point, is an unrecognisable world. I think if I were to start it now, I would have a completely different approach. I think it’s always being open and humble enough to be receptive to the world around you and responding to that in an authentic and diligent way.
Because you are the first composer that I have sat down with I wanted to ask you about your experience about the world of composing. Do you find it to be generally balanced or is it more male or female dominated?
It definitely is traditionally male dominated but I think definitely in the realms of classical music, when you are talking about music from 1600’s, 1700’s, 1800’s of course that is extremely skewed but I think nowadays I don’t just look for my inspiration in classical music. I listen to a schizophrenic group of genres actually. It’s genres from jazz to soul to electronic to folk music. I think in the modern world there are so many incredible composers who happen to be female. That for me is not even something that I think about. The female aspect maybe came into it in the realm of confidence and finding confidence to be authoritative and not to second guess too much. To be critical but not to second guess yourself. I can’t really speak for the purely classical work because I feel like I have diverged in my own way and that has given me confidence.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
My friend Cara Stacey who just released an album called Things that Grow. She plays uhadi and umrhubhe mouth-bow. She is doing her PhD in Swazi Bow Music. I love Siya Makuzeni. I loved watching her in the Prisoners of Strange. Thandi Ntuli, I think it’s wonderful that she is a jazz pianist in a very male dominated world. My violin teacher, Farida Bacharova. She was fiercely inspirational and she was a hard task-master but she always tried to milk you for everything. She really brought it all out of you in quite a militant way but she taught me a hell of a lot. My mom is an inspiration. She was an actress for many years. Also, Michelle Maxwell. I think she has incredible vulnerability as an actress and as an amazing composer and performer.