I was very excited, a few days ago, to speak over the phone with Simone Baron, artist in-residence at the Washington Jewish Music Festival (WJMF), which just ended this past Sunday. Simone had a very busy Washingtonian week, with a concert every night, including three shows during the WJMF. Nevertheless, she found the time to talk with me about her life and her love for music and performance. My excitement grew after we exchanged a few greetings and Simone asked me – with a perfect accent – “Ma…sei italiana?” [Wait, are you Italian?] and explained me that her mother is Italian too! We made a promise to find time to meet and grab a coffee – an espresso, of course – together soon!
I know you want to read about Simone, so I’ll stop writing so you can get to a slightly modified version of our phone interview.
Daniela: What are your current musical influences and how did you arrive at this point in your career?
Simone: I grew up listening to classical chamber music. I started playing piano seriously at age sixteen, and was given my first accordion for my bat mitzvah when I was 12. When I was finishing my degree in classical piano at Oberlin, I was in a musical rut and feeling tension in my body, so I started playing some phrases accordion and it opened up my world a lot – I was able to sing on the instrument. I listened to great accordion players who were creating all sorts of interesting things with the instrument.
My musical influences? People who inspire me and totally immerse themselves as deeply as possible. Esperanza Spalding, is someone who goes deeply into everything she does and moves freely between musical genres, yet stays true to her musical DNA. Another current influence is Tyshawn Sorey. I met him this past summer in Canada at Banff. He is a brilliant, beautiful composer, multi-instrumentalist, and conductor, and listens with every pore in his body. Making music with him was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I arrived at this point in my career through a combination of hard work, jumping into many things without thinking too much, and staying true to my constantly growing appetite and inner weirdness.
Daniela: Do you view the accordion as a contemporary instrument, or something in need of a revival?
Simone: There is an amazing quote by Pauline Oliveros:
“The accordion is my primary instrument. It’s an old friend – comfortable and expressive. Symbolically it is aligned with *the people* – working people. It is also a challenge to play an instrument that grew up after the period of classical music. The piano is centered in that period. The accordion has a life of its own.”
By the time I became interested in the accordion, the stigma tied to it has been largely washed away, replaced by a vague admiration for this eclectic thing. At the same time, due to the efforts of a few excellent musicians, there is a lot of very interesting contemporary music written – and being written 1– for the accordion: it is an instrument with infinite possibilities, the beautiful visual mechanism of breathing, and it is still evolving.
Daniela: We heard your just had your “World Premiere” concert with David Buchbinder at the WJMF. What was most exciting for you about this collaboration?
Simone: David is a Toronto based trumpeter, and as I’ve just started my masters there, so the WJMF organizer had the idea for us to collaborate on a performance together. David has assembled a fantastic band including Drew Jurecka – an amazing violinist/saxophonist, and Justin Gray, a fantastic bassist– it’s wonderful to hear our music interpreted by all of them! We were joined by DC based Lucas Ashby, a frequent collaborator of mine and a beautiful drummer.
Daniela: Let’s talk about the Bina Project, which I know is very important for you. You mixed chamber music works from women composers, madrigals from Italian–Jewish composers and multimedia effects. What is this project about and how did you managed to include all these elements?
Simone: The Bina Project (which took place this past Sunday at the WJMF) grew out of an ongoing inquiry into what the concert form can be. I’m coming from a world in which the standard model of a concert pianist is one who sits down at the piano and plays a well balanced, slightly boring repertoire, without really interacting with the audience.
Humans seek communication and direction. The concert focused on Bina, which means “understanding, knowledge” in Hebrew. It has the same root as livnot (to build) so it’s a creative concept. People in the audience created their own story out of the different disparate elements presented on stage – poems by Gertrude Stein, dance, the dialogue between spectralism and Scriabin.
Daniela: With so many active projects (the Arco Belo Ensemble, the Contra Ponte Project, and now the collaboration with Buchbinder) how do you
manage to keep them all going while pursuing your masters?
Simone: The Contra Ponte Project, which took place this past weekend, featured regular trio of mine with Lucas Ashby and Leo Lucini on bass, as well as guests such as Rogerio Souza, a famous seven-string guitarist, and a wonderful saxophonist from Brazil. I’ve been playing a lot of concerts with these musicians over the last year. Playing with them always gives me so much energy and joy. Arco Belo is also an ensemble that I formed during my residency last year at the Strathmore. It’s a mix of chamber music with contemporary influences, and jazz with global roots.
For the last two months, I have been having concerts every weekend here, and I go back to Toronto to study during the week. It’s very rewarding and enriching: all these projects are actually related to each other and to what I am studying—they cross pollinate in fascinating ways.
Daniela: What is the role of a female Jewish musician in today’s music world?
Simone: Being Jewish means having access to an incredible wellspring of musical tradition, and is a way of being and thinking. I studied Mishnah and Talmud before becoming a musician, and I’m convinced that that culture of inquiry and philosophy translated directly into my approach as a musician. The fact that I studied with my mother, a Roman Jew, instilled a strong sense of a cultural identity as well as pride in being a Jewish woman that I try to carry in my artistic voice.
Listening for me is a very feminine characteristic and for me the most important part of being a musician. In today’s world we are struggling with regression – we’re still battling sexism among others, and often we fail to listen to each other. Ultimately, there is quite a lot of work to be done since there are not many women musicians, composers, and conductors in the world, and as one of the composers on the Bina concert, Kaija Saariaho, puts it, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”
About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group