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Tim Fain: Music, Stories, Film

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Wed Sep 5th, 2018

Tim Fain playing a Stradivarius. Photo by Michael Weintrob.

What attracted me to violinist Tim Fain was a natural ability to play a large spectrum of musical styles within the particular idiom of those styles, whether folk, jazz, classical, or contemporary explorations in music. Not only does Fain have a clear intellectual grasp of music but an emotional empathy that is fresh, startling, and immediate. An extended interview with Fain recently appeared on the Meera Ghandi Show. (Depending on your browser, you may have to right-click to follow hyperlinks.) A YouTube video of Fain playing appears below.—KM

KM: You have an interest in folk music: Celtic, African-American, Far-Eastern music. You have a real ear for various styles of folk music. How did that happen?

TF: I grew up in Los Angeles, Santa Monica actually, where there are all kinds of music: pop, classical, jazz, Latin, rock, church music. This was all around me. So I developed a love of all kinds of music. What I realized when I was young was that music was telling a story. Whatever differences we have, we have similar stories to tell about life. In music these differences fall to the side because music is a universal expression of empathy. This is true whether this is about Bach playing church music or his commentating on various dances. Music tells a story, yet often that story has no words, and because of that, music becomes more universal. It is in our nature to communicate and share our stories. We have a compulsion to do this over and over, and this is especially strong in a group of people when they gather to hear music. There is something really deep in that experience.

KM: When did you first start playing a musical instrument?

TF: As a baby. I loved to sing. I suppose my voice was my first instrument. I sang in church choir. There was a piano in the house and I was always playing the keys as soon as I could stand. At the age of six I began improvising on piano and I even began composing on piano at six. I didn’t take up the violin until I was eight. At first, I played pop songs on the violin. Then I went on to get violin lessons. As a kid, I was surrounded by classical, pop, rock, jazz, film and contemporary concert music—finding a balance of old and new music is still very important to me. Many of the works on my First Loves album are the ones that drew me in as a child.

KM: There’s a rare social, ethical consciousness behind your work that is refreshing and attractive. How did this come about?

TF: As a result of some relationships with groups that I was in, especially Peace Music movement. I’m interested in communicating the power of music to inspire freedom in others. As a persuader, music has a light touch that can have an intense influence on people. I’m interested in Justin Dillon’s Made in a Free World movement that tries to end slavery, abductions, child labor, forced labor, and prostitution. I recently wrote a one-minute composition entitled Freedom for that group. I was especially pleased that a drawing by my seven-year-old daughter became the album slip cover.

I don’t think most Americans are aware that so many products they consume are actually the result of slavery. The footprints of slavery are all around us. This is really shocking. Most Americans think slavery has been abolished, but in fact there are more slaves today than ever. You can find out more about modern slavery if you take the slavery footprint survey.

KM: How did your musical role in 12 Years a Slave (2013) come about?

TF: Through my collaboration with pianist Nicholas Britell. We did collaborations at his Santa Monica home in a multimedia work entitled Portals: A Multi-Media Exploration of Longing and Connection in the Digital Age. We worked together again for the film Moonlight (2016). While working on 12 Years a Slave, I was struck by the similarities between Scots-Irish and American music. In the film we brought the sound onto a more traditional Americana style of music. I was perhaps influenced by Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun where there is an exciting intersection of different sounds. In a similar way, the Hindu structure of Philip Glass’ music with its serial 2-and-3 rhythmic patterns bends toward an American sound. The boundaries of folk and classical converge as in Baroque music. I’m interested in that kind of bending and blending. I still work with Britell.

KM: Who are some of your favorite violinists?

TF: Nathan Milstein who was a great Bach violinist. The jazz violinist Joe Venuti comes to mind. Gidon Kremer, to name a contemporary violinist, who has performed such a variety of contemporary composers from Alfred Schnittke to Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Leonid Desyatnikov, and Astor Piazzolla. He recorded the first violin concerto by Glass. (Ed. note: On December 8, 2017, Fain performed Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2, “The American Four Seasons" with the American Composers Orchestra at their 40th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall.

KM: What mentors have influenced you the most?

TF: Edward Schneider when I was growing up. Victor Danchenko whom I studied under at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; Danchenko reconnected me back to how I naturally bow. And Robert Mann at The Juilliard School. There were a number of summers I spent with Richard Goode at Marlboro in Vermont, especially when we did Brahms’ A Major Piano Quartet.

KM: What kind of a violin do you play?

TF: A Stradivarius that had not been played for a long time. It was re-discovered about thirty years ago. I’ve played it for about these last twelve years. It’s on loan from the Stradivarius Society in Chicago. There’s nothing I can’t do with this instrument that I’d like to do.

KM: You have a great deal of variety in your repertoire. How do you go about choosing a program?

TF: Works of music that I love the most and how they fit together.

KM: What do you think is special about your upcoming concert at Hudson Hall on September 15?

TF: This musical selection really revolves around Bach’s pieces. Missy Mazolli describes her piece as a failed chaconne inspired by Bach’s choral music. And Bach is also present in Nico Muhly’s piece and Lev Zhurbin’s “Sicilienne,” which will be accompanied by some pre-recorded music and film. This will give an orchestral texture with violin and some electronic music that I felt compelled to explore. The Bryce Dressner piece, influenced by Bach, is solo violin, as is four “Interludes,” a kind of suite excerpted from Philip Glass’ Concerto No. 2, which has some similarities to Bach’s Partitas. These are stories that kind of circle around each other.

KM: That sounds fabulous! I’m very much looking forward to hearing you at Hudson Hall.