‘I always say the violin is Beyoncé and the viola is Adele’

One is the pop singer, the other is the soul singer, says violist Jennifer Stumm

Jennifer Stumm is known to the world as a viola player. But when she's talking about the instrument and its music she turns again and again to the character of its different voices.

“I’m so inspired by voice when I play,” she says, and explains that she spent years singing in choirs before before she ever took up the viola. “I’m from Atlanta but my wider family is from the Appalachian Mountains, where choir culture is just unbelievably important.”

So, when Music Network approached her about creating a solo viola programme based on her 2011 Tedx Talk, An Imperfect Instrument, she started thinking “about pieces that I thought could represent a real spectrum of what the voice of the viola can do. And also pay homage a little bit to my own culture.

“It is quite fun to play in Ireland where there are such direct links between the Appalachian music that was very important in my family and in my grandparents’ lives. And so I wove together a narrative of pieces to give people a real spectrum of the viola and the soulful aspects of its voice.”

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The viola, she says, 'is like a character actor in that for every single violist, I think, their job is to put on all these different musical masks, to become a character'

I ask about the differences she sees between her instrument and the smaller but much more familiar violin. “I could go on about that all day. I think it’s our relationship with sound. From a fundamental perspective, a viola comes in many different sizes, and a violin comes in one size. So, something that comes in one size in the end is focusing towards a kind of singular world of sound.”

The viola, she says, “is like a character actor in that for every single violist, I think, their job is to put on all these different musical masks, to become a character. And the nature of the instrument, that they are so variable, makes that job a really natural one. Most people have never heard of a viola. People ask me what it is in the airport. I always say the violin is Beyoncé and the viola is Adele. One is the pop singer. The other is the soul singer.”

She says that she finds it “really telling that so many composers write for the instrument at the end of their life. They write really deep pieces for the instrument. Because there’s something about that voice. It’s not the loudest voice, but they use it to tell their secrets. And that’s something that I’ve always just loved about playing viola.”

‘Like speed dating’

Her instrument is a Gasparo da Salò viola, which dates from around 1590. The search for it “was like speed dating for two years, where I was trying all these violas. I wanted something that had a lot of depth and could really sing, but also had incredible focus. I wanted to make a sound that was extremely direct, or like a laser.”

That, she says, was really hard to find. “At the end of the day it was a 430-year-old instrument that had those qualities all together. It’s something that still blows my mind. For sure, there are people who like a very, very dark-sounding viola. I guess what I was always looking for was the tool that could express anything. So that it wasn’t just one sound, but something that, together with me, we could make all of the sounds.”

Stumm says that the viola “expresses a certain range of emotions better than almost anything, which is these true, quiet emotions, sadness – I think there’s deep soul in the voice of a viola. I think it’s the still, small voice kind of concept. If I play a phrase that’s expressing what it was like for a composer walking alone who was really feeling that the world had nothing left for him... that’s a viola kind of phrase. Or someone who’s sitting alone in the bar and wondering if anyone will talk to them. Which is something so part of the human existence, right? Viola does that exceedingly well.”

'It's not a brilliant instrument. The viola is a jazz singer in a smoky club'

Where it can’t rival the violin is in the ability to project. “The viola is acoustically challenged. It was an instrument of compromise over time. The viola, if we go back into the Renaissance, was a much, much bigger instrument. I don’t think the instrument was ever made to hit the back seat in virtuoso brilliant fashion of a 5,000-seat concert auditorium. It’s not a brilliant instrument. The viola is a jazz singer in a smoky club.”

She also sees the viola as suffering from the kind of categorisation that has favoured the violin and the piano, and to a lesser extent the cello, as the instruments at the core of the concerto repertoire. “Actually, what we should have been looking for, and now I think it’s getting better, is amazing voices. People who have something to say in a way that will touch an audience. I am an artist and the viola is my tool.”

Her programme ranges from the brand new (Jonathan Nangle’s “extremely atmospheric but also very demanding” Granular Dusk), through dances to highlight the Appalachian connection, to arrangements of Bach (the Chromatic Fantasy and the Second Suite for solo cello) and her own arrangement of Sting and Alison Krauss’s You Will Be My Ain True Love.

And, with so much of her life devoted to music, what might she have become if what at one point she calls an “underdog instrument” hadn’t taken over her life?

'I feel so convinced that so many of the world's problems are based on the fact that people just don't get the chance to use the talents that they have'

“My family always bets on lawyer,” she says, “because I was such a loudmouth, argumentative, only child. Right now, what seems really clear is that I spend an enormous amount of time working in the social equity sphere. I direct an international project based in Brazil that’s about giving young musicians who have incredible talents an equal opportunity to access the international world of elite training.”

Through those experiences, she says, “I feel so convinced that so many of the world’s problems are based on the fact that people just don’t get the chance to use the talents that they have. So, probably that is an equal calling for me. So, tomorrow, if I couldn’t play the viola again that’s probably what I would be doing, going around the world, working with partners to see what we can do to make the world more fair.”

Jennifer Stumm's An Imperfect Instrument tour plays in Bray, Dublin, Roscommon, Clifden, Listowel and Waterford from Tuesday, March 29th, to Wednesday, April 6th. See musicnetwork.ie