JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?
JOSEPHINE VAN LIER: Cellist, baroque cellist, viola da gambist, founder and artistic director of Early Music Alberta. I am particularly passionate about the historically informed performance practice of early music and, aside to performing with my peers in that field, try to encourage “modern” instrumentalists, both professional and amateurs, to become involved in, and passionate about, this and bring it to our audiences.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
JVL: I find it of critical importance to always study the manuscripts of the music we play and learn as much as possible about the historical context: when and under what circumstances was the music written? For whom? And what did society look like at the time? Who were the musicians and what instruments, strings, reeds, and so on did they have at their disposal? I read treatises and study as much as possible the performance practice of the era of the music I am performing.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
JVL: I have a patron. Which is something many musicians had in the 17th century, and they still exist today, though we don’t hear that much about it anymore. He has bought the absolutely terrific baroque cello I currently play on. An investment for him, a life and career changing opportunity for me. I really admire him for doing this at a time that many people are very selfish with their money. He is very humble about it and does it for the love of music, of the arts. He truly believes that a selfless act like this not only serves me as an artist and will allow me to grow and develop creatively, but also serves the community which gets to hear this great instrument played.
The second person is my husband Erik. I know that sounds tacky, but I really couldn’t be the creative person that I am without his support. He used to be a mechanical engineer and hated it. He quit his job 14 years ago and now makes very little money but is happy. He is my most amazing behind-the-scenes man. He has become a graphic designer, photographer, videographer and painter. Both for me personally as well as for Early Music Alberta he does all of the graphic design, the photography, videography, all of the running errands, and he stands behind me in every step I take. Had he kept his day job and made loads of money, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do now. I am very grateful for that!
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
JVL: I don’t remember a time that I was not involved in creative work. I grew up with parents who were both professional classical guitarists. In my childhood home arts and creativity was a given. It has been there always, so it has shaped me and continues to shape me.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
JVL: I find that I am most creative when I have enough time to retreat into the mountains, or at the very least go for long walks in the outdoors. The biggest challenge is trying to fit that into a very busy schedule with long days that require me to wear so many different hats – from teacher and educator, to researcher, to performer, to artistic director and organizer of a concert season and festival – is difficult. I know I am not as creative when I don’t have that time in nature.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
JVL: Moving to Canada in 1995 from the Netherlands. My husband really wanted to move but I could not see myself move away from the arts and culture of Western Europe. We decided to give it a year’s trial period and…, well…, I am still here 23 years later and love it!
I live in Edmonton, where I really missed playing early music on period instrument, which was so common in the Netherlands. I performed a lot elsewhere, like in San Francisco and Europe, but missed having the opportunity playing historically informed early music in my own city. So, I founded Early Music Alberta in 2010, with the idea that I would invite specialists to perform alongside local musicians, thus training them. It worked (and continues to work!). We now have quite a thriving early music scene happening! I would say that was a major turning point!
Another big turning point was just a few months ago, so it really is almost too early to speak of a turning point, but I recently acquired a spectacular, 300-year-old English cello, that is much beyond what I have dared to dream about. I already feel my playing change, and it has only been a few months. I am so excited to continue on this journey with this cello and see where it will take me as a musician and artist!
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
JVL: People don’t understand the focus and enormous amount of hard work it takes to be able to perform at the level we do. For very little money. Many people tell me I am “lucky to have this gift”, but what they don’t realize is that it takes a tremendous amount of research and practice time to be successful. Not to mention the time and energy it takes to organize and promote concerts.
People also don’t realize the toll it takes on our body. At any sports event there will be a fully sponsored massage tent at the end of the day. I have yet to see that after a week of rehearsals and concerts!
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
JVL: I don’t know whether I can answer that, since being creative person isn’t something that happened to me; it just always was. Since both of my parents were creative people (and so is my brother Bas van Lier who is a very creative and innovative professional musician as well), there really never was any question about my future profession as a creative musician. I always had the calling, didn’t want to do anything else. Of course, the focus has much changed over time, and I really found my niche in early music. I keep reinventing myself as a creative person, and don’t think that will ever stop.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
JVL: With Early Music Alberta I try to keep doing challenging projects, taking huge risks because it is quite expensive! I really would like to stage a full baroque opera, but haven’t attempted that because, well frankly, I just can’t afford it!
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
JVL: Founding Early Music Alberta and seeing what a difference it has made in Alberta of the past 8 years. When I started it, there were very few professional period instrumentalists. Now we have dozens to choose from. It has inspired others to start professional period ensemble in other places in the province also! It has had a great impact into the amateur scene as well, with an ever-growing group of musicians dedicating their free time to playing period instruments and more private teachers feeling that they can teach early music with some authority now!
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
JVL: DO IT!!
But be realistic about what it takes to be a musician, an artist. It is very, very hard work that never ever stops. In addition, you work in other people’s free time, so trying to schedule that dinner party with your non-musician friends is nearly impossible! And they must be willing to also teach, as that for many of us is the only “steady” part of our income. I see many young musicians wanting to be the next soloist touring the world, becoming famous and making your money performing, but the reality often turns out to be much different. Or they have their minds set on winning that audition in an orchestra. That is partly a weakness in the university system, which seem to want to train musicians to be soloists or orchestral musicians. That leaves many disappointed and disillusioned. Being a self-employed chamber musician is less financially secure, but if you go in with your eyes wide open, there is nothing more rewarding!
JS: Of what value are critics?
JVL: Oof… that is a tough one. We are our own worst critic already, and often we value (and dread) the critique of our peers most. The problem with many critics is that they really want to look for something negative to say, in the interest of their article. Live music is not a heavily edited CD, and critics sometimes lose sight of that. Having said that; they can certainly help a career tremendously (or break it). Plus, it really is good to hear the perspective from someone outside our own little bubble. How does our music really come across to the audience?
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
JVL: Be engaged! Connect with us. Enjoy the performance!
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
JVL: Arts funding! It is becoming increasingly difficult to get funding for the arts, and that is a discouraging trend. Governments all over the world are putting less and less subsidies into the arts, leaving organizations to rely more and more on private sponsorships and crowdfunding. While an organization might be successful one year, it might not be able to secure any funding for a next season. It becomes nearly impossible for an organization to make a solid 5-year plan because of the financial insecurity. In the long run that is not sustainable.
Among arts organizations, I strongly believe in actively promoting other organization’s events and mandates and encouraging audiences to experience their events. Too often do I see a kind of “protectionism” in arts organizations and in musicians. I feel strongly that we all should be one big community supporting each other, promoting each other, encouraging each other. Instead many organizations and individuals don’t want to engage with and promote others, and we all lose!
What would be better, for example, than inserting other organizations promotion, or announce your colleagues’ concert in your programs?! The more the better; it shows what a diverse community there is! And instead of seeing it as competition, and a threat to your organization, see it as an encouragement and an opportunity to the community at large to experience even more of what is going on in your area. It will create a much happier arts scene in the long run.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
JVL: I really treasure so many projects I have done and am always deeply saddened when that project is over and really often wish I could relive that again right then and there. But once that sadness is gone, I put closure to it and I start to immediately make plans for the next creative project. I love the creative process so much. Re-living a former experience would not be very creative, so therefore probably not be as satisfying as it was the first time around!
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
JVL: That is a tough one. I don’t think it has an effect on me. I am quite used to it and I don’t mind it.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
JVL: I think I have been to most places that I feel a strong urge to visit. Growing up in Europe gave me access to many great cultural places.
Having said that, I will be in Europe this summer and I will go back to Italy to visit the great cultural cities again.
I have not been in England much and it has been on my to-do list for years, especially to delve more into the history of the early music there. Now this summer I will go to England, and I will visit all the places around London that my cello has been when it was built in 1720. I am really looking forward to that!!
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
JVL: For my concerts, whether personal, for Early Music Alberta or for the terrific amateur string ensemble I lead, I am trying to create programs that feature music that is seldom performed. While the Four Seasons and the Brandenburg Concertos will guarantee a large audience, I find it a great challenge and inspiration to create different programs as well and expose the musicians and the community to new early music. (And of course, I will also program the great works such as the Four Seasons and the Brandenburg Concertos!)
One of my ongoing projects is Early Music Alberta. I continue to create performance and educational opportunities for Alberta musicians, as I am trying to inspire people to start learning to play period instruments, and offer resources and opportunities to learn and play. In return the audiences get exposed to it! It also entices young musicians who go elsewhere to study early music (since that is not offered at a university in Alberta), to come back to Alberta knowing that there is now growing and thriving early music scene and that I am there to help create performance opportunities for them.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
JVL: I think I have talked about this in earlier questions already. I do tend to see the positive in most things and personally just make things work whatever the circumstances, even if that means that I do not get paid for it.
But I find the state of government funding and the fact that we have to spend a lot of creative energy in finding alternative sources of funding discouraging. I also find the protectionism among arts organizations a sad trend.
But it is incredibly encouraging to see so that patronage is seeming to make a come-back, and that many artists continue to create really terrific art and so many have brilliant ideas.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
JVL: Hmmm, I don’t know that I can answer that: I think I know myself pretty well at this stage in my life!