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Adam Cadell

“Thinking, talking and listening is more beneficial than hours spent in a practice room”

Adam Cadell is an Australian fiddle player, writer and educator with a bristling mistrust of all established norms and a desire to kick against any oppression, resulting in questioning the whole Europian notion of the “avant-garde” that puts newness above quality and tradition. 

Do you remember what originally attracted you in the violin? And at what point did you think: the violin is my kind of instrument? And at what point did you decide you wanted to do something else with the violin than what it’s traditionally made for? 

I wasn’t attracted at all to the violin. I remember when I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6, I was interested in music and wanted to play the saxophone but my parents got me a violin instead. Turned out that was a good idea. I’ve still not really decided whether the violin is my kind of instrument haha but I’d say when I was getting toward the end of High School and thinking about going to university I realised the violin was very important to me and that I wanted to study it further at the local conservatory. Which I then did for many years. I was for a long time very much into playing the great works in the violin repertoire, particularly Beethoven’s violin concerto and his duo sonatas for piano and violin (which I still think are amazing), and that was both imposed on me by my teacher at the time but also good for my playing and I loved it so it worked. But ever since I was quite young I’ve loved underground music, metal, hardcore, industrial, improv stuff, punk and so on, and that was and still is music that draws me in in a profound way, so when it came time to finish my formal studies on the violin I had a kind of crossroads I guess, and I chose the one towards the non-traditional stuff as that’s where my true passion lies. There were a few experiences during my early studies that gave me a strong impression that the violin could be used in an underground/non-conventional context as well such as studying improvisation briefly with people like John Rodgers (a Brisbane legend who hasn’t been recorded enough but his “A Rose is a Rose” album is fantastic) and Hollis Taylor. From there through various avenues I came across the Velvet Underground and John Cale, which led to Tony Conrad (Sunn o))) proselytising for Conrad helped too), which led to Henry Flynt and so on. Particularly after hearing the John Cale Table of the Elements releases that showcased his drone experiments in the 60s, and Conrad’s “Early Minimalism” series, the lo-fi sound and the dark nature of much of it resonated with all the crusty Black Metal I was (and still am, I’m listening to some bedroom BM while I write this) into at the time, and everything just clicked. I realised that was my thing and then decided for some reason doing a PhD on that stuff was worth my effort. Anyway I was converted by that and have trawled the underground looking for exciting outsider approaches to the violin ever since. I think it’s important to note though that I don’t have a problem with tradition, or the violin’s traditional place, indeed Conrad for instance was trying to re-connect with pre-modern notions of string playing and was really hooked on 17th century stuff like Biber that really represents a direction in violin playing that was sadly swallowed up by the more popular styles of the time. Same old story really. That’s another thing I should mention that resonated with me in deciding to go down the less well-trodden path. I had been playing this 17th century stuff with some people in Brisbane, then Conrad comes into my life, and it all just seemed to click. Alternate tunings, polytonality, innovative uses of drones and folk tunes, distortion and improvisation, that’s the recipe right there.

You call your instrument ‘a fiddle’, so not: a violin. Does this mean you see yourself more in the tradition of folk than in the classical tradition? And why does your website has the subtitle ‘dissident fiddles’? Why the ‘dissident’?

My use of the term fiddle has many meanings. At least in Australia violinists use the term regardless of what style of music they play to describe their instrument (unless they’re a dickhead) so that’s one’s just slang. There is an element of hierarchy inherent in the use of violin and fiddle in the English language at least. But our culture in Australia is in many ways unique in the lack of hierarchy in our interactions with eachother - it’s there, but people don’t make it obvious. But I did make a conscious decision to use the term fiddle when describing my own practice yes. No I definitely see myself in the classical tradition - otherwise I’d just be lying to myself - but I use “fiddle” in order to be more inclusive, and in order to make a statement against the false hierarchy that exists between classical, bourgeois “violin” and rough, peasant, working class “fiddle”, like somehow the two never shall mix. I, under the influence of Henry Flynt and his ideas around the beauty and magic of street-level, autodidactic music-making, like the term fiddle because it reflects a notion of the instrument as an expression of real life experience, it evokes something that is removed from institutional control, and as I say it is inclusive in that it can be applied to non-violin bowed string instruments. So that leads to the importance of certain experiences I had living in West Africa where in Ghana I studied the Gondze, and in Senegal I studied the Riti, both of which are one-stringed bowed fiddles that are both very similar and very different from the Western violin in many ways. West African fiddles are, as far as records can show, also descended from the fiddles of Middle Eastern and Central Asian musicians who also spread fiddles into Europe during the crusades and whatnot. The only reason these incredible instruments and their playing traditions dating back to the 10th century, don’t get mentioned in the same breath as violins is because the history books are largely written by white, upper-class men. As more or less one of those, I see it as my duty to dispel that bullshit, so by using the term “fiddle” I can include all bowed string traditions and hopefully aid in showing that we all have more in common than we do in difference, but that those differences and that diversity too is a beautiful thing that should be preserved at all costs. I think all of this explains why I chose the word “dissident”. That may change though, it started as “Radical” but I decided the misuse of that word in the media makes it hard for people to relate to it. Radicalism also suggests dogma which I have absolutely no interest in. Dissidence suggests a bristling mistrust of all established norms, and a desire to kick against any oppression whether that comes from the right, centre or left. I should mention too that I use fiddle and violin interchangeably with a strong preference for the use of fiddle for all the reasons above. They are terms that for me at least, delineate a social hierarchy that should be challenged, and a simple way we can do that is to take the meaning out of the words.

You played Henry Flynt violin pieces. What did you learn from playing Flynt? Flynt said folk is his avant-garde. Do you feel the same way?

Yes I have played Henry Flynt pieces and studied with him and it’s been a great privilege to have such access to Henry’s violin works. I’ve learned a lot. The recordings on YouTube I suspect you’re referring to were actually made at WNYU studios in Manhattan with Henry there with me in the studio directing everything during an intensive period I spent in NY, just studying with Henry and playing with various musicians around the place. I actually still learn a lot from him since we met for the first time back in 2015 (although I had been deeply into his music since many years prior to that). I learned that Henry Flynt is a singular artist who is quite misunderstood. He’s still alive and well thankfully so I’d rather leave him to speak for his work, but I would say that he would argue the whole notion of avant-garde is irrelevant. He sees folk and popular idioms such as Country and Western music as being as sophisticated and relevant as any classical or so-called avant-garde music. And yes I definitely feel the same way although my personal tastes are a bit different from his. I'm generally very tired of the influence of American culture on the world so I don’t get as excited by Country & Western and so on but that is where Henry comes from, and is why I have approached Australian bush ballads in recent years as a site to explore my music of place in a very Flynty fashion. And by “the same way” there I don’t mean that I see folk as my avant-garde, but that I don’t see any great difference between the two. Let me use the example of a story told to me by Thomas Woernle, a German-Ghanaian violinist who’s lived and worked as a professional violinist in Accra, Ghana (where I once lived for a time) for the last 35 years or so. Thomas had listened to a CD of my duo with guitarist Ryan Potter, The Scrapes, and heard some similarities between the minimalism of that, and the Highlife (Ghanaian dance band music that is in its own way quite minimalist to Western ears and indeed influenced people like Steve Reich and David Byrne) music he has played for years now. He said that when he first moved to Ghana and started playing Highlife, there was a particular piece the band he was in at the time would play, where the drummers would just lock into this groove, motorik, like the Krautrock Thomas was aware of from home and which perhaps more explicitly informs the whole Scrapes aesthetic, but then one day, one of the drummers changed one beat, and it blew Thomas’ mind, the difference it made shifting his perception of the piece altogether. To him, that was avant-garde! I couldn’t agree more. The whole notion of the “avant-garde” is a bourgie European thing that puts newness above quality and tradition. It is not applicable to anything other than that tiny window in which that music was relevant and its use now is just a catch-all phrase for anything weird or different, from advertising to fucking landscape gardening. We Europeans destroy endless cultures and then have the gall to stand up and say “I declare tradition and culture meaningless, all that matters is newness!”. Fuck that.

You amplify your violin at times. One could say that every music instrument is made to be heard, so in way, every music instrument is a kind of an amplifier. So is amplifying a violin kind of amplifying an amplifier? And is playing an amplified violin ‘an extended techinique’ in a way, for you? Is your amplified violin playing influenced by Warren Ellis? 

Yes I really enjoy using amplifiers from time to time. I like what you’re saying there. Exactly, and that’s why I use an acoustic violin and amplify it, as yes it’s like amplifying an amplifier, and what does that create? Noise and feedback. Perfect. No I don’t care for “extended technique” and everything that suggests, but what I do is often what people would call “extended technique” stuff so I see where you’re coming from. “Extended techniques” is just pompous arts grant speak for making the sorts of noises that say a Ghanaian gondze player might see as beautiful and normal, once again reflecting the cultural dominance of the West. Just because something doesn’t fit the norm from a Western classical perspective doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done before in another context. So many so-called extended techniques have been used by say Romany musicians or African musicians, or Indian musicians, for centuries. It’s arrogant the whole concept. Anyway I see the addition of the amplifier increasingly as another instrument rather than an extension - which is something I believe Bruce Russell has said about his own playing since you bring him up next. But I digress. I think amps bring a whole new dimension to the sound that can be really great - like a magnifying glass up against the very grain of the instrument, something Tony Conrad once told me he really dug. That’s where I come from on that but yes absolutely Warren Ellis is a huge influence on me, not just on the amplified playing but also with the acoustic stuff. Someone once said to me “you sound like Warren Ellis, only more in tune” hahaha. The more in tune bit was disappointing. “In tune” is just another imposition anyway if you feel me. Anyway as you might imagine as a violinist who plays amplified and in a sort of rock context in Australia, I can never escape the comparison to him. Actually even with The Scrapes we’ve supported Mick Turner, the guitarist from the Dirty Three, on a couple of occasions at concerts in Melbourne and Sydney. For what it’s worth I have to say Warren Ellis wasn't a big part of my shift away from conventional classical playing as I didn’t really get into the Dirty Three til after I started going down that route, but his playing, and what he’s done with it perhaps more importantly, truly inspired me to take the left-hand path at the crossroads shall we say. As for the violin as amplifier, through amplifier by the way, I’ve just finished a collaboration with American guitarist and noise artist Carter Thornton (well known for his part in Gnaw with Alan Dubin), for which my contribution involved a speaker, the violin, and an amp, generally delving into the notion of the violin itself as an amplifier so you’ve freaked me out with this question...

Bruce Russell said he thinks and talks more about music than he actually plays music. Does this count for you too? And if so: does this benefit your music, you think? 

Haha have you been reading my mind of late?? Absolutely. I wish I had the time just to play music all the time, and even when I do, I often find myself listening, thinking, and writing about music more than actually picking up my fiddles. I think when you make the choice to reject the established notions of what music “should be” and make yourself wide open, then thinking, talking and listening is more beneficial than hours spent in a practice room. It greatly benefits my music yes. I don’t really write scores for instance, despite being fluent in music notation, instead I just think and maybe write a few notes, and let the natural filter of my brain retain or dispose of ideas. If there’s something that keeps bugging me in my thoughts, eventually I’ll pick up the violin and my zoom recorder and record it. Then that might turn into a piece. So yeah Bruce and I should probably be mates. I mean he’s just in New Zealand so it’s just a short trip over - and yet I’ve never been there. Anyway, if all you do is practice your instrument and become virtuosic (I know I’ve been there) then you don’t listen or think, and you become the musical equivalent of a person who doesn’t listen or think. We all know at least 100 of those.

Do you see the way you play the violin as ‘radical’? And if so: in which way? What would be your definition of ‘radical’ in relation to your violin playing? My favourite album from last year was a re-issue: Bruce Nauman’s “Soundtrack From First Violin Film”. Could this be the best radical violin record? Or is this not a violin record, but a recorded fluxus performance with a violin?

I have thought of my approach as being radical. I wrote a manifesto for my approach to music called “The Manifesto of the Radical Violinist” a few years back. This was for my PhD thesis, since then I have changed tack somewhat as reflected in my answers above, and realised that explicit radicalism isn’t really for me. In said Manifesto I state that my practice relates to all of the standard definitions of the term radical: 
1. of or relating to the root: proceeding directly from the root...
2. of or relating to the root or origin...
3. marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional
Make of that what you will but to simplify it I would say my radicalism is based in the notion that the only way to truly create a critique of the modern world, is to know something deeply of the traditions that have shaped it, and that I derive more from the Jamaican reggae notion of a “roots radical” then I do from the avant-gardist’s idea of a complete and total departure from tradition which is really what Nauman attempted to achieve with his works for violin. But yeah Nauman’s violin pieces are about as radical as you can get when looking at departures from tradition. Well that and Nam June Paik’s violin pieces such as “One for Solo Violin” where you smash the violin, or the one where you just clean the violin in front of everyone, I mean this is that Cageian thing that everything is art which is cool but also not really my thing personally as a player. So to answer your final question there, yes I think Nauman’s stuff is definitely recorded performance piece more than any attempt to radicalise the actual practices and traditions of the violin, the violin is secondary. The result is brilliant, and I love it, but it’s not my radicalism. One of these days I will finally get my Manifesto out there for all to read and all will become clear if you could be bothered to read it that is.

- Joeri Bruyninckx
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