With over 25 years of playing the violin, it’s safe to say that Andrew Mcintosh has far surpassed Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Yet as any expert in any craft will tell you, mastery is a continuous circle of practice, learning and evolving. So it’s no surprise that the multi-dimensional Los Angeles-based composer’s ‘to-do’ list keeps growing, with no signs of slowing down.
In addition to three degrees under his belt in Violin, Composition and Early Music Performance, Andrew teaches several courses at CalArts, one of the highest ranking art schools in the United States. In this case, those who teach also do. When time allows, Andrew travels the world recording and performing as both a solo artist and chamber musician–including with the Formalist Quartet, a strings ensemble of which he’s a founder. What we can learn from this imaginative and prolific musician is that–in practice and performance–music can be seen as a sort of evolving language; something to develop and to design.
When did you first cross over from playing music to composition? Was there a particular event or experience that first spoke to you as a composer?
My relationship with music has always been one of curiosity and creation for as long as I can remember. I started studying the violin when I was five years old, and somewhere in a box is a scrap of paper with a song I came up with shortly thereafter. I was lucky to have a lot of time in which to explore the world on my own terms as a child, and I spent much of that time improvising on the violin. There were a couple compositions that mentors helped me write down along the way, but mostly I would just improvise for hours on end. I grew up in rural Nevada, and while there were a few wonderful violin teachers in the area to whom I am immensely grateful, there weren’t many opportunities to actually have music performed that I composed, so I mostly didn’t bother writing it down. There is one particular moment I remember from age 12, when my parents took me to see a touring string quartet that performed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7. It was unlike anything I had heard before – imaginative, gritty, direct and to the point, strange, at times violent or sinister, at times serene, deeply honest and emotional, and it used a harmonic language I had never heard before. I credit that experience with setting in motion a lifelong love of modern and avant-garde music and art. It wasn’t until I went to college that I became more serious about actually composing, instead of just improvising. In undergrad I learned some of the more basic tools of how to work with various instruments and voices, but it wasn’t until grad school that I started to find a musical vocabulary for the work I wanted to explore. Since then I have been juggling a rotating list of priorities, generally prioritizing my work as a composer above everything else creative, but sometimes having to put it on the back burner and focus on performing or teaching, and occasionally putting it all on a back burner in order to go spend time climbing and hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
How did you practice and evolve your technique over the years? Did you ever have a mentor or formal training that pushed you in a certain direction?
In the 26 years that I’ve been playing violin there were many mentors who helped me immensely. I also have three music degrees, so a great deal of formal training was involved. In particular, my primary mentor at my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno was a violinist by the name of Philip Ruder. He had been concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony for many years, but he loved to golf and gamble so he moved to Reno and taught at the university when he retired from his symphony job. I was incredibly lucky to spend four years studying with him – he was one of those rare individuals who made me feel that he could see exactly where I was headed and what I needed on the way. He was exacting and meticulous with the details of violin technique, but somehow managed to also have a spectacular sense of humor and endless patience at the same time. He also never protested or discouraged me when I brought outrageously difficult and unusual modern repertoire into lessons. I feel my technique is still in a constant state of evolution. If that changes then I will probably quit and do something else. I think the process of growth is a crucial element for an artist. The growth now is of a different kind than it was when I was a student, but I still concentrate on developing my technique for every performance and try to build on things I’ve learned from recent compositions in every new piece.
What risks have you taken to get to the level where you are today?
When making choices about education or about work to pursue, I generally have looked at those choices through the lens of questioning what will be the most artistically sustainable in the long term. An example of that would be that I never really pursued either a traditional classical career path or a freelance gigging career very seriously, even though I live in the city that is well known for its thriving freelance music scene. If I’m offered a nice gig and I’m free then chances are that I’ll say yes, but in general I’ve chosen to direct my time toward writing and performing music that I feel personally invested in. I have always made the space for writing and for performance projects I believe in, even though that has often come at the expense of pursuing freelance work or short-term career goals. For instance, I love baroque music and the earthy and articulate historical instruments from that time period. Six years ago, I was feeling like the random gigs and large amount of driving across Southern California that I was doing wasn’t sustainable for me anymore. So, I went back to school at USC and got another graduate degree in early music performance. Now, instead of driving all over California for random gigs, I drive all over California to play music I love on instruments I love with ensembles I love to play in, such as Bach Collegium San Diego. Another risk along similar lines is that ten years ago I started a string quartet (the Formalist Quartet) with some of my colleagues at CalArts (two fellow grad students at the time and a professor). I have always prioritized that quartet over other work, and we’ve gone on to have an incredibly rewarding career, traveling to places like Iceland and Italy, working directly with composers from all over the world, and making recordings. It has been difficult at times, since a lot of what we did early on was self-produced and self-promoted, but looking at the larger picture we’ve been able to follow through on projects that are only possible when people decide to invest their energy into working together consistently over a long period of time.
You’re fully immersed in the world of music as a teacher, composer and performer. Which facet are you most excited about when thinking of the future of your work?
The fact that I have no idea what it will look like. Also, I have about a dozen large-scale creative projects on my long-term “to-do” list. Following through on them will probably take me at least ten years, during which time I’m sure they will change shape dramatically or even be replaced by other projects. I look forward to seeing when and how those seeds grow.
The violin is considered one of the most difficult instruments to play; what drew you specifically to the violin?
I’m not sure, as I was five years old. What attracts me to it most right now is its ability to imitate the voice and its infinite possibilities for being articulate and nuanced. Each note can be shaped like a syllable in a word, with consonants and vowels – unlike, say, a guitar or piano where you don’t have much ability to shape the note after it has been struck. Also, the violin has amazing potential for both brightness and darkness (or clarity and warmth) in its tone production – giving it an immense range of expressive possibility.
As a professor at CalArts, you’re exposed to an evolving generation of musicians. What do you find to be the most rewarding about connecting with your students? What do you most want to convey to them?
CalArts’s greatest strength is its community. It attracts a vibrant and engaged student body of inspiring people and artists and brings a wealth of perspectives to the table. Teaching also challenges me to constantly clarify my observations, thoughts, and beliefs, and then to find a vocabulary for articulating them. That has helped me to crystallize certain core tenets of what I believe about musicianship and creativity. I often find myself implementing the same solutions in my own playing that I offer to my students in their lessons. Also, I love being a part of growth and development. Watching CalArts students’ creative ideas and abilities take shape and come to life is endlessly inspiring. The non-musical pursuits in my life all demonstrate this love as well: gardening, raising a puppy, making beer, hiking/climbing, etc. As for what I most want to convey, there are two concepts in particular that are integral to my teaching: imagination, and the problem with “the best”. In my experience, performing music is maybe 95% mental and 5% physical. The more clearly you can imagine and visualize every detail of the sound you want and the way it will feel to play it before you play it (or write it), the more vivid and emotional that sound will be when it is actualized. Of course, this skill takes a lot of practice and a great deal of work to develop, but it is worth it. The principle also applies to larger goals. The first step to becoming the musician you want to be is to imagine the musician you want to be. Every musician always wants to be their best, but the danger with “the best” lies in defining it. In traditional classical music education, it is very common for teachers to work with their students on developing a beautiful sound, labeling it their “best” sound, and then asking the student always to play with that sound. The problem is that it creates monochromatic one-dimensional music. I instead encourage my students to eradicate value judgments from their inner dialogue and instead use descriptive terms. Warm, cold, visceral, distant, intense, plain, dark, light, rich, hollow, articulate, suspended, colorful, plain, resonant, dry, nuanced, even, smooth, gritty, flat, and sharp are all much more helpful ways of thinking about sound than good, bad, better, or even “best”. Like the “imagination” idea above, this also applies to much more in life than just notes.
Andrew wears the Otto in Diamond
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