Beyond Classical: Ann Marie Calhoun Stretches Boundaries

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Ann Marie

Ann Marie Calhoun has been touring and sharing the stage with music legends Ian Anderson, Steve Vai, and Ringo Starr, as well as composing and recording material for the recently-released Sherlock Holmes’ movie. Soft spoken and thoughtful in person, she’s a different personality on stage with a fiery presence and a knack for sizzling violin solos.

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Do you use a computer when you’re composing?
I use an Apple. Actually, one of my obsessions is imagining what the perfect composition software would be, because I feel like I’ve looked at all the software out there and there’s a very big gap for tactile composers, like myself. I love writing directly on a piece of paper. I’m a lot faster – I can hear the music in my head, and then if I have manuscript paper in front of me, I can write the notes out a lot faster than I can input them with a computer. When I compose using the computer, it’s just so that I can have editing properties later, and so I can have it saved in a digital format, not because it’s faster.

So, ideally you’d like a tablet with a staff so you could just add notes directly?
I would love that. I know a lot of composers who still write on manuscript before they translate into their computer. So, I would love to have a tablet system.

You’re working on a composition now with Hans Zimmer?
Yes, I’m working on a big project with him for the new Sherlock Holmes movie (released December 25, 2009). So I go to the studio every day in Santa Monica – we’re still in the early phases. We’re still talking about getting theme songs for some of the main characters. It’s a really exciting experience, especially for me as a violinist, because Sherlock was also a violinist.

In the movie, he holds a violin and he kind of contemplates while he’s holding his violin and it’s like a window into my own mind, because I know how I view the world musically. And when I’m perplexed or excited or afraid, soundtracks come into my head that are uniquely violinistic. So, it’s so cool to actually have an outlet for that, like what am I feeling and how would I express this on my violin?

So the style of music will be somewhat classical?
No. It will kind of be a surprise. But it’s definitely going to draw on my experiences playing fiddle more than it will my experience being a classical player.

It sounds like your background is extremely eclectic, to say the least. You draw from every form of music there has ever been. Your family is full of musicians as well, right?
Yes. People always ask me when I started playing music and if I remember learning how to play the violin. But I started so young that I feel like I’ve always been able to play the violin. It’s like: I don’t remember learning how to speak, and I don’t remember learning how to play the violin.

You are one of the most self confident and assured performers I’ve ever seen. You seem totally engaged and totally enjoying every minute of being onstage. Did you ever have stage fright at any point?
When I was younger, and especially when I was playing classical music in competitions and recitals, I’d get a little flutter in the tummy. But whenever I’m performing, it’s all about being in the moment and enjoying the moment. And, as I matured as a musician and felt confident in my technique, it just became so easy to let go of all inhibition and just live in the moment. It’s like when you’re on a playground, you don’t plan everything that you’re going to do and you’re not worried that at the bottom of the slide you’re going to hurt yourself. You just go for it.

That’s a nice analogy. You seem to have a really good chemistry too, with Steve Vai, when you two are playing together on stage.
I really love that my music career has always been about stretching myself and doing the gig nobody expects me to do. And what you were saying about connecting with the musician: that’s the thing that has to be there. I have played with musicians before where I feel like I’m on stage with them and there’s no connection, where there’s no eye contact, where there’s no interplay back and forth, and that’s very unrewarding.

With Steve Vai, what I love about him is how he’s so expressive. You can just look at his eyebrows and you know something about the music. And his intent is always so clear when he’s playing, more than almost any musician that I’ve ever worked with – from his toe to his hair blowing in the wind, everything is telling a story and talking to you.

So it’s just a joy to play with him because so much dialogue is transferred without any words and sometimes without any notes even being played. If you watch me play with musicians, I’m always looking at them, there’s always an eye contact. I wink way too many times on stage, I do, just that connection between the artist and looking into their eyes every once in a while to just make sure that you’re connected and in the moment is very important to me.

So I guess you totally enjoy the touring part of things.
Oh, absolutely. Yes. And just trying to tie things in, between making music and technology. Because it’s all about communication at the end of the day. It’s all about having a connection that feels genuine. And I love to think about how technology has transformed the way that I am able to communicate with musicians.

There’s a new company called Bojam that’s getting ready – I guess it’s in the beta testing phase. It’s being started by the cofounders of Metacafe, where they’re linking musicians up in new ways so that they can communicate in a very personal way, in real time, over the Internet.

In cruising around on the web, I also found “iLike”, which had several original songs of yours? One was called “Escape,” another was “Race.”
Oh yes, that was something I did a really long time ago with my brother.

It’s very different music that what I’ve heard you do more recently. I mean it was almost traditional, basic kind of country-flavored type songs. And it was, I thought, pretty clean and refreshing sounding.
Thank you. Well, that’s kind of what I grew up with. I live in Virginia, and I look more exotic than I am. I’m really the daughter of a hillbilly, I learned how to play banjo when I was a kid and my brother plays guitar, my little sister plays fiddle, and my littlest brother plays bass, and we had a family bluegrass band growing up. We played festivals and churches, and that’s my background.

How did you go from being the science teacher to going on tour? What was the event that triggered that?
There was a series of small events that all culminated in the decision to leave teaching. The first one was a call out of the blue to be a session musician for a Dave Matthews album. They had a quartet from Paris that was supposed to come in and record that had visa issues or something, so they needed a temp quartet put together really quickly. The studio was local to my town that I was living, so they called me to put together a temporary quartet, and they ended up using the temp quartet and not having the Paris musicians.

So it was a big break, kind of out of the blue for me. And then even more out of the blue, I had a violin student whose father was a doctor who treated Ian Anderson for his deep vein thrombosis. He came up to me and he was like, ‘yeah, you know Ian has been touring with Jethro Tull, and I think he’s been touring with a violinist before, you’d be a perfect fit. I’ll give Ian a call and put in a good word for you.’ I was just thinking, this is just a wild goose chase, that’s never going to happen.

What a coincidence – that’s wild.
Yes, the more I think about it: of course you’re going to take a call from the doctor who saved your life. Ian took the call and humored him and accepted a resume and a demo CD that I made in my living room that week for him. And I was just shocked when he asked me to do a world tour with him.

Did your family caution you at that point? Giving up a stable teaching career to go off in the unstable world of music?
They were totally behind it. I was the one cautioning myself. When I did my Jethro Tull tour, I didn’t quit my job, I actually asked for a leave of absence for a year so that I could really test things out.

My dad, ever since I was a little girl, always told me I was going to be a country music star, whether I wanted to or not. I would just laugh at him, I would be like, I don’t want to be a country music star. So he’s very proud of the things that I’ve done and he’s very supportive, both he and my mother.

Are you looking towards directing your musical career in one specific direction? Or just letting things unfold as they do?
Yes, I guess, it’s been really exciting to me. The arc of my career has been completely unpredictable. And I guess as far as kind of having a future vision for myself, I think the five-year business plan, it just doesn’t apply anymore. You just have to have a five-second business plan and see what happens your way and what makes sense at the moment.

So right now, I feel like I am reinventing myself in some ways more as a writer and a composer. The Hans Zimmer project that I’m working on has led to some other work scoring a documentary for the energy drink company, Red Bull. This Friday I had done an orchestration for Joss Stone. She’s singing for a James Bond piece, either movie or a video game. So scoring that has been an adventure.

And it seems like more writing projects now are coming across the table to me. And I feel like that’s a new way to kind of reinvent myself and experience music in a different way.

You seem to have a very nice sense of improvisation as well as being well versed in music theory and classical modes of music. Do you think musicians tend to fall in one category or the other? Is it kind of a unique gift to have both of those capabilities?
Yes, I guess my teleological technique is that I feel like being able to play by ear is very, very important. And I also feel like there has to be a connection between the performer and the music that’s genuine. I think it’s very important to connect to the music that you love and then find out how you can connect to other styles of music, but have a genuine kind of connection. Create music that excites you and then expand from that.

A lot of people like to start with classical music as the foundation, and I feel like classical music does provide a lot of technique, but if a kid is really digging a hip hop beat, I’ll teach them the hip hop beat first, and then show them how that relates to something that Mozart wrote.

So it’s almost like you think that the ear training and the classical training kind of feed off of each other and they complement each other.
They absolutely do. Yes, it’s very important and I feel like my biggest asset that I’ve had as a musician over the years is my ability to improvise and to play by ear. There’s kind of a… I guess there’s a barrier in the classical music world where classical music is treated as the only academic form and the only valid form and the way that it’s studied is very precise and the canon is very narrow, so it leaves little room for improvisation and developing the ability to be fluent in other styles of music.

When you start concentrating on classical music and you go through the conservatory system, it almost puts you in a small box where you’re exceptionally skilled at playing one type of music and exceptionally trained to pursue one type of career, like the classical sense in your classical soloist career.

So, my advice to any music student and to musicians is find the music that you like and learn how to play along with it. And, if it is classical music, and that’s your path, it’s very noble and they should aspire to go along that traditional route. But don’t feel like violin is a traditional instrument, because it absolutely isn’t. You can play violin in any style of music that you can imagine.

I thought I saw you in one photo with a guitar in hand, do you play guitar too?
Yes, on Ringo Starr’s promotional tour I played guitar. But I didn’t play guitar in any of Steve’s work. That would just be so wrong, you know.

He makes me want to give up the instrument when I watch him solo, he’s just… well you do the same thing with a violin. It’s almost like you’re not even using the instrument, like the music is magically flowing straight from your brain out through the amplifiers.
Well, I can tell you that with Steve Vai’s music, it stretched me a lot. It was not a spontaneous process where I looked at his music and it was coming out of my fingers. I actually – I thought I was going to get fired because the first day, when I came into rehearsal, I came in a week late, I was coming out of another tour. And the first piece that we were working on was called “Now We Run”.

The music, it was Steve’s guitar tab transcribed for violin to double it. It was 11 pages long, like it couldn’t even fit on any music stand. And I remember just looking at it and thinking, first of all, the range – like the notes that are written here are physically impossible on the violin because we can’t go low enough. And so he was like, ‘well just play five-string violin, instead of the typical four strings.’

So suddenly I’m adding a string to my instrument. He originally asked if I would be comfortable playing a seven-string violin, which I just had to say, no, I have to draw a line somewhere. I want to stretch, but that will just rip me apart.

So I went five string for Steve. And I remember the first three days just like looking at the music and thinking, this really is impossible for me and spending four hours practicing one measure and barely being able to play it and thinking a whole piece of measures like this? What am I getting myself into? But Steve was so patient and such a good teacher. He had a philosophy that if you could play it slow, then you could play it fast, it was just a matter of time before you could play it fast.

So obviously you mastered it over time.
Yes, it took a lot of work, definitely, to master it. It wasn’t effortless mastery.

Do you still use a five-string violin?
I do actually.

Do you find that useful to add to the musical range?
It is, it’s very useful. Of course, I’m still more comfortable with the four-string violin, because it’s what I’ve been playing since I was an embryo, I think sometimes. But the five-string violin, I’m very comfortable with it now thanks to Steve and I do use it when the occasion calls for it.

You made me think of one other question… the idea that musicians, when they’re totally engaged in what they’re doing and playing music live, create – I don’t know what to call it exactly – an atmosphere where it seems like they build each other’s skills. The sense of energy that is generated by live music, do you think it helps you achieve things that you couldn’t do in a normal practice session?
Yes. Sometimes people will ask me to play something out of context – a riff that I play with Steve on stage, and they’ll say, why don’t you play that? And when I play it by myself, just in the room without the band behind me, it just seems so stale and ordinary. And it loses that magic. It’s the relationship that you have between the players and the way that everybody supports each other that makes the music say something.

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