The European: You often play music by lesser known composers. How do you choose your pieces?
Charlie Siem: If I’m not invited to play something, I decide the program myself and then I choose pieces that are going to help me to develop as an artist.
Did you choose to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s work for your concert with The North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in March, or did they?
They invited me to play it, and I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to finally learn this great piece that I hadn’t played yet. And to play with such an orchestra is just a great opportunity.
You have been playing for 24 years now, since you were three years old. Are there still many pieces left that you would like to play?
There are! There are actually lots of pieces I haven’t touched yet. There’s even a lot of standard repertoire that I can explore. And quite honestly, the pieces that I have already played still need attention. There’s so much more I can get out of them.
Is it very hard for you to find sufficient time for practice?
I practice as much as I have time to practice. This week, for example, I was very fortune because I had quite a bit of it. I could practice around five hours a day. But when I travel a lot, I don’t have very much time during the day to practice. So it’s a challenge to find moments where you can just play.
Do you still need a teacher?
I do, I still have my old teacher who lives only about five minutes from my house and I still see him quite regularly. It’s good to have different pair of ears listening to what you’re playing to tell you things you might not notice.
But your teacher does not correct technical mistakes anymore?
Oh yes, some pieces that I have been performing since I was a child, I still can find moments I struggle with, a bit like a tongue-twister. It’s like a knot in your brain. Sometimes it’s harder with pieces I’ve known forever. But that’s the great thing about music, the feeling of “Oh Christ, here it comes” and you give up even before it has happened. That is the wonderful challenge of performance: to learn how to deal with these kinds of situations.
And how do you handle them?
You have to let go of any self-doubt because your mind ruins every opportunity by telling you “You’re not going to make it, it’s too difficult for you”. Your mind is just telling you these things but they’re not real. You can learn how to turn off your mind. Just feel the moment and get the very best out of it.
Most of the time, while practicing, you are playing alone. What does that mean to you?
It’s a great privilege to have these moments of solitude, especially with such a marvellous instrument.
You play the Guarneri del Gesu 1735, which was also played by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Do you have a special relation to him?
I never met Yehudi Menuhin, actually. But he is a great inspiration of mine although I never had a personal connection to him. But do you need to meet someone to have a personal connection?
There’s a Hebrew inscription inside your violin case. Does this also come from Mr. Menuhin’s days, or is it yours?
This is mine. It is one of the names of God from the Kabbala tradition. It means “unconditional love.”
Do you have a special relation to religion?
At the end of the day, all religions and all spiritual practices come from the same place. The problem with many religions and their institutions is that they lost the original theme. Religions miss the whole point.
And what is the point?
We only believe in something like religion so strongly if we doubt our own identity, if we doubt who we really are. At the end of the day, it’s the ego which convinces us to believe. People are clinging on to religion because they feel that it is something which gives their life a meaning. But if I haven’t gone deeper than my mind, if I am wrong, everything falls apart. And that’s the story of religion: a few guys running around trying to make others believe what they believe.
You can’t see any positive things in religion?
There are a lot of good and interesting things about religion: the rituals, the ceremony, all these important parts of being a human. They help us get over certain things. Problems only occur if you take religion so literally that you start to alienate other people. On a deep spiritual level, there’s nothing outside of yourself that’s going to give you fulfilment and inner peace.
What do you mean?
Nothing you can get, no person who could help you, no book you can read is outside of you. Everything you access which is deep and meaningful is deep within yourself. Just feeling that you are part of everything, and that everything is part of you. That’s my take on religion.
In the 21st century, the importance of religion has arguably decreased significantly…
But in a way, that has led to more problems. People are so lost without religion. In the past, religion used to be very simplistic but often damaging. If you take it literally, what is written in the bible, for example, you don’t have to question anything. That makes life very simple. Nowadays people don’t have this sort of structure to fall back on.
To what problems does this lead?
People are even more lost and it’s very hard to realize what it is that gives you the special connection, that feeling of something sacred. Something beyond yourself that is very much within yourself. But we all carry a seed of enlightenment within us. That is just a physical fact: we all have perfection within us. We have the chance to elevate ourselves if enough people elevate their consciousness beyond selfish instant gratification and judgment.
That sounds very utopian.
Well, maybe it’s true. A lot more people have been led into spirituality and led into realizing there is something more and ways of accenting it.
But it’s still an elite approach.
Every mind creates negative attitudes. Religion is just used as an excuse to make it official. It’s always there, anyway.
Does music have a religious meaning to you?
It’s a wonderful opportunity to really meditate and go deep within myself. The key to life is to challenge yourself, to get to the next level. To take the path of most resistance because that is the path that will help you step up. I am challenged in music.
A lot of this is possible – as you say – because of your privileged position. For people who haven’t found their place in life so far, it’s harder to stay calm.
If I let myself go, nobody will hesitate to take my place. Everybody seems to have something to lose in physical and mental terms. But if you are honest to yourself, you realize that you actually have nothing to lose.
Is music your way to connect to people?
When I play the violin it’s just one expression of trying to be connected, trying to be totally present. In doing that, I remove myself from the equation. I really connect with people when I am meeting them, beyond having just a conversation which doesn’t mean anything. I think those connections are what adds value to your life. That’s also what friends are for, isn’t it?
Did your social life suffer because of your career?
I don’t think I missed out on something because of my career. I’m surrounded by people all the time. You can always massage your ego with certain friends that tell you what you want to hear. That’s easy but also quite predictable. I try to avoid the negative sides of social interaction.
You do a lot of commercials and photo shootings. Do musicians in our day have to look good? Or is that a just way to spread you music?
I am what I am and I look the way I look! I don’t see anything negative in getting exposure, whether it’s Vogue or GQ or L’Officiel Hommes. They are giving me publicity as a violinist. I don’t see any negative in it particularly.
So this is the way they get people interested in classical music?
It can. But as an artist you should never think how you get the audience. You got to be who you are, otherwise at some point you will be unhappy. I can just say for myself that in every decision I made for myself I’ve got the feeling that I am who I am.
You started as visiting professor at Leeds College. What does that mean to you?
It’s really about getting in touch with young musicians. When you help somebody improve by using your own experience, that really helps you understand things. You become more aware of what you are doing through the process of teaching.
What are your plans for the near future?
Go out and play.