Five (and a bit) Questions with… May Robertson
“It’s important to consciously acknowledge that one’s own tradition isn’t the only one that exists… The more we talk to each other the better, and artists can help with that!”
1.Who are you and what do you do?
My name is May Robertson and I am a musician – principally a violinist – but I also sing. I was educated in the Western classical tradition.
I’ve gradually acquired an array of technical tools, and there is great subtlety to the different interpretations possible of the same ‘piece of music’, and a sense of freedom within discipline. However, I found that this world can be pretty limiting as well, with stifling traditions that don’t always serve the music. So I was drawn towards the ‘historically-informed performance’ movement, or ‘early music’. This subsection of the classical music scene seeks to use historical knowledge to perform music of the past, and in this field, there is more scope for indeterminacy, for instance with improvisation and embellishment by the performer and spontaneous musician-led performance (rather than just obeying an interpreting conductor).
But even working in this field wasn’t letting my whole musical soul come out, so I’ve started collaborating and improvising with musicians from many different fields, finding an ‘authentic performance’ of my own that blends influences from many traditions. So as well as orchestral and chamber music in the Western classical world I do theatre, and medieval-folk in the wonderful group Joglaresa. I’ve also recently started playing Indian-style violin for dancing. And all these things are making me a better musician.
And whilst your art doesn’t have to have an overt message, simply giving people a chance to experience certain things together, be that joy or compassion or poignancy, can have a powerful effect and that’s worth thinking about and perhaps harnessing.
2. Do you think an artist has a particular role or responsibility in the world?
It’s up to the individual artist to judge, but I do think that it’s important to consciously acknowledge that one’s own tradition isn’t the only one that exists. Here in the UK, we have a diverse society. And operating on the basis that we can all do something on the level of our own hearts and our own relationships to aid harmony on a more global scale, I think artists especially, given that art is such a powerful force, would do well to reach out to others in some way. The more we talk to each other the better, and artists can help with that!
Another thought: I sometimes think about something that the wonderful singer Arieb Azhar, who I accompanied a few times this year, said: that music is subversive and can reach people’s hearts by moving them emotionally, thus conveying the message you want to get across very effectively. The writers of the baroque treatises agree that music is a rhetorical art that aims to move certain emotions in the listeners. And whilst your art doesn’t have to have an overt message, simply giving people a chance to experience certain things together, be that joy or compassion or poignancy, can have a powerful effect and that’s worth thinking about and perhaps harnessing.
3. How do you see your role?
I’ve gradually been inspired by certain people to not be content with playing beautiful and spiritual music for people to enjoy and be moved by, but also to stand for something definite myself. When I see terrible divisions, sadness and negativity in my own country I can get very despondent. But as a good baroque musician I believe in music’s rhetorical power, and I think I can help to make the case for an alternative by participating in projects that celebrate community and reaching out (the show ‘The Rose and the Bulbul’ is a good example of this). When I join in on beautiful and inspiring Sufi songs on my baroque violin, I am actively pointing out an alternative to the people who believe in ‘them and us’.
4. Does identity play a role in your creative craft, and if so how?
I think identity is fluid and it’s natural for people to own and express several identities. I don’t think about identity in my own work very often. When I say that songs by the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth with their modal harmonies gathered from English folksong can make me cry within the first few chords, people suggest that the deep roots of one’s country of heritage are closest to one’s heart. I sang in a college chapel choir and the round of Anglican Evensongs is quite central to me too. That is my English identity. But while we’re talking about a country’s identity, I believe passionately in the diversity that contributes to it; all the styles that have their roots in other parts of the world play an important and intrinsic role in this dear country, and I place my practice within this mix.
An initial sense of identity isn’t always bound up with my love for a musical genre. I can say, though, that many eastern parent scales share roots and features with the ancient modes that you find in Western early and folk music before classical music formalised them away. So perhaps there is a deep shared common identity. That’s a comforting thought, when I think of the work I have participated in recently that has aimed to show that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, to quote the late Jo Cox.
5. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your career?
My friend Ranjana Ghatak is a fount of wisdom and she recently said “It can be so easy to go down a hole of doubt when you’re in a creative process, but we know more than we think – and there’s a part of us that knows what feels and sounds good”. One negative effect of all my studying from masters, be they teachers or musicians from the past encased in books, has been doubting what I had to offer beyond being a meek receptacle. Now I am learning to own my own power and my own musical judgment.
Of course those teachers have given me a huge amount of knowledge and tools. Six words from Walter Reiter encapsulated what violin playing is about, although it takes a lot of study and exploring and analysis to get there… “let your body go and listen”.
A bit more…
Where’s your favourite place to see art?
Anywhere where artists are presenting heartfelt work of quality with freedom, in a space where audiences are able to give it attention without excessive formality and convention beyond what the art needs. Recent places include traditional and contemporary art galleries, recital halls, less formal music venues, and festival fields.
May was part of our Amal teaser video along with several other artists. You can find out more about them here:
Alia Al Zougbi – www.aliaalzougbi.com
George Butler – www.georgebutler.org
Batool Abbas – www.cargocollective.com/batoolabbas
Sanaa Hamid – www.ronakbahaar.com
Nasreen Raja – www.instagram.com/nasreenraja
Ruh Al Alam – www.ruhalalam.com
Mohammed Yahya – www.facebook.com/MohammedYahya
May Robertson – www.mayrobertson.co.uk
Salahuddin Mazhary – www.instagram.com/adventuresinfashionistan
Alton Letto – www.twitter.com/altonletto
Thahmina Haseen – www.goldentiffin.co
Maab Adams – www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK_G-h1uep8