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Out of the Box: Art of the Mandolin

Image of Israel mandolinist Avi Avital strumming his mandolin with his pick
Mandolinist Avi Avital

When I asked Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital about his newest album and how it differed from his previous mandolin albums, he answered me with a wry, winking smile: “I don’t have other mandolin albums.”

Which is true enough.

Avi Avital
Credit Christoph Kostlin
Avi Avital

Avital’s past albums - like the 2012 Bach album or the 2015 Vivaldi album - have mostly included pieces composed for other instruments, like the keyboard, violin, or guitar, in arrangements for mandolin. The mandolin was not the focus. As he puts it, those albums featured works that he enjoys playing “because it’s beautiful music.” To this day, that he plays the mandolin is simply “is a technical fact.” 

But with Art of the Mandolin, music written for his instrument takes center stage.

In our discussion we explore the ins and outs of the instrument, talk about how composers's social perception of the mandolin shaped how they wrote for it, hear a work that was assumed to be for keyboard but simply makes more sense played on mandolin, and chat about Avital’s passion for expanding the repertoire for his instrument through frequent commissioned works.

Hear my interview with Avi Avital (transcript below):

Listen to Avi Avital's newest album, Art of the Mandolin  

For more information on Avi Avital, his music, and his newest album, visit his website.


Chris Voss [00:00:03] I'm Chris Voss, and welcome to another segment of Out of the Box. This time around, I'm joined by Grammy nominated virtuoso mandolinist Avi Avital, whose newest album, The Art of the Mandolin, is out now. Avi Avital, thanks so much for taking the time.

Avi Avital [00:00:46] Thank you. And always with pleasure.

CV [00:00:48] All right. So have a lot of questions about this album. It is very, very, very cool. But before we get to anything on the album, would you mind just elaborating a little bit about what the mandolin is?

AA [00:01:00] Well, the mandolin, as we recognize it today, is an instrument, normally, we would say for double strings, so eight strings with the origins of Italy and more specifically Naples, Napoli, in the 18th century. This is the short answer. The mandolin has a fascinating history, and it's always developed, according to some, some kind of shifts in socio-economic movements or demographic changes and so on.

[00:01:36] But it started as a salon instrument. When you think of this, its measurement, its acoustic qualities, it's not an instrument you would take outside to play in the piazza or in a big village because you wouldn't be heard.

[00:01:53] It's more of a salon instrument, really, delicate, sweet. So it was adopted really by these noble people. It was the instrument of the the young maiden from a rich family would play, a little bit like the harp or the spinet, the little harpsichord, as a sign of good education.

[00:02:18] Then in the 19th century, it became more of a popular instrument. Through the beginning of the 20th century, we find a lot of mandolin orchestras, or some of them were called mandolin clubs. And after work, you gather with friends from work or from other social circles and you play together music. And that was the way to enjoy music back in the beginning of the 20th century.

[00:02:41] And the mandolin, for many reasons, was a great instrument, for it was inexpensive. The entry point is quite low, so, like, to be able to play something on a mandolin is pretty quick. That's the ukulele of today. I mean, you see ukulele in every household nowadays. And I think that was the mandolin back in the days.

CV [00:03:02] Well, I love how you put that. But, you know, you say that the barrier to entry on the mandolin is quite low and perhaps that's true. But I imagine it does present some challenges for people like like me and like you who have bigger hands. It must be kind of hard on such a small instrument to play it incredibly precisely.

AA [00:03:24] That is true. The thing with the mandolin is that it's very cruel in terms of precision, my goodness. Because when you think of it, first of all, you have a metal string which is quite dense. You have a piece of plastic, which is a plectrum. So already the sound is made from a hard piece of plastic and a hard piece of metal. So the attack is there. You cannot fake it. I mean, you know when the sound starts.

[00:03:49] And as for the left hand, you have the frets. So again, the frets are pieces of metal that define where the sound starts, right? So stringed instruments like the violin and viola, the cello, they don't have frets. That means that sound will come. Well, there is an intonation problem there, but you can fix it in the millisecond, you realize. With the mandolin, if you missed by a millimeter or less than that, the sound would not come out. So it is very, it's kind of a high precision instrument, technically speaking. And my big hands are really a problem, you know? [laughs]

CV [00:04:31] I love this about your story: When you were first learning to play the mandolin, you didn't learn from a mandolin teacher, but from from a violinist.

AA [00:04:39] Yes, that's right. I mean, it's crazy to think about it, but every kind of step in my education was unorthodox in terms of what a mandolin player would have normally had as an education. So the story is that my teacher was this Russian violinist, really, and he came up in the 70s to Israel. It was way before I was born, I was one of these last students. But when he came, he was searching for a job as a violin professor, and he couldn't find one. I mean, he came to my hometown, Be'er Sheva. They already had a violin professor. And so they really didn't have a job to give him. But they told him that they had mandolins in the cellar. They don't know what to do with them. And if you want, he could start the mandolin class. And he said, OK, the mandolin and the violin are tuned the same. I just have to figure out the right hand, the other things, but I'll do that. And he taught himself the mandolin - wrongly, by the way! You can see videos of him is completely off, how he plays and how he taught us. So it's very funny, when you look at the cover of my album, I chose this picture on purpose because you clearly see that I hold the pick in a very weird way. I mean, no one holds the pick like that, but that's how I learned.

CV [00:06:02] Still? Still today?

AA [00:06:04] Yeah, yeah, oh yeah.

CV [00:06:05] I was wondering this from reading your liner notes, whether or not you've changed your playing once to you started to learn from mandolin players.

AA [00:06:13] I did not. I acquired things, because afterwards, in my twenties, I went to Italy. I studied with a real mandolin professor. I practiced the traditional way of playing the technique, the way you hold the mandolin, the way you hold the pick. But it was only to discover that it was actually good, the wrong way. You could actually have some really advantages over the pick. And I think it's because that, well, for him, he needed to translate the bow concept into a plectrum concept.

[00:06:45] So I think this is why he was intuitively picking up the pick, the plectrum, the piece of plastic, the way he did, so he would have the range of changing those angles over the string, which you don't have in the traditional way that you hold the pick. Usually it's just parallel to the string. It's parallel to the string. That's how people play it. So really this quote, quote, wrong way to hold the pick was, and still for me - I'm not here advocating for a new system - but for me it was really full of advantages. So from that Italian teacher, I took some concepts. I took some wisdom - because there is the wisdom of tradition so long - and I installed it, I kind of embedded it into how I was used to playing it already.

CV [00:07:38] Well, I think this dovetails nicely into the "art" part of your album, The Art of the Mandolin. What did you set out to achieve with this album? And how is it different from your other mandolin albums?

CV [00:07:53] Great. So I don't have other mandolin albums and this is the big change and it's all connected.

[00:08:01] You know, for me this album is really big, personally, because, you know, as you can assume, the way I approach to the mandolin was not of a mandolin player. So I never saw myself as a mandolin player before I am a musician. And still, until today, I see myself first off as a musician and then as a mandolin player. I learned first how to play a melody before I had to learn how to play the mandolin, per se. So that's kind of conducted my artistic life.

[00:08:35] All my albums were, until now, were pieces by Bach or by all the other composers that did not write for the mandolin or not necessarily for the mandolin, just because it's beautiful music and I happen to play the mandolin. And that's a technical fact.

CV [00:08:50] So when you say you don't have other mandolin albums, you're not saying that you don't have other albums, but that all your other albums feature primarily arrangements for the mandolin.

AA [00:09:03] Mainly. Absolutely. Mainly the mandolin was not the focus of my playing.

[00:09:06] And in fact I has a lack of repertoire. I mean, the big name composers did not write for the mandolin, most of them. But in this album I wanted really to... I had two questions. You know, with every album, we try to to put a canvas to limit yourself. So you will have a listening experience of like 60 minutes that has a theme, that is under some kind of a topic, right?

[00:09:33] So the first limitation that I put for myself is, is the question, what are the best pieces written originally for the mandolin? In my opinion. And this is like this is the setlist. This is the playlist that I would say, like, these are my favorite mandolin pieces in the classical, of course, the classical music tradition. And the second thing that I kind of thought of afterwards is really, how did these composers see the mandolin, really? Because if I say most of the composers didn't bother to write for the mandolin, because the mandolin was not a serious mainstage instrument, it was more amateur, it symbolized different things in different places and different times. It was aristocrat instrument, then it was more kind of a popular instrument in America as bluegrass. So, of course, the composers that wrote for the mandolin, when they did write for the mandolin, it is for a reason. It is because they use the mandolin to symbolize, as a metaphor, to reference to something. And this is why I call it Art of the Mandolin.

[00:10:43] So for Vivaldi, it's this cute instrument, it's not so serious. And it comes across from the two concerti that he had. Beethoven had a different motivation to write for the mandolin. He was in love with a young lady who played the mandolin. He kind of wrote for her this little love song, really, with a beautiful dedication, by the way.

[00:11:07] Henze saw it differently. Sollima saw it differently. The contemporary composers, each of them had a different view, a different thing, that imagination that the mandolin evoked in their process.

CV [00:11:21] Well, and it's also... I feel like a very outside-in instead of inside-out concept, right? These aren't mandolin player composers. These are composers coming from the outside who maybe didn't play the instrument writing for it.

AA [00:11:37] Exactly. When I started to gather the music for this album, I still didn't think about the second thing that I was talking about, but I was just looking for mandolin pieces. And of course, there is a big repertoire of what I call mandolin composers. You see it also with the guitar, where mandolin players themselves, they wrote only for the mandolin, which are figures that are very important for the development of the mandolin, of course. But if you're not playing the mandolin, probably you never heard of them.

[00:12:08] And that's when I realized that I want the outsiders. I want have people that didn't look at the mandolin like a mandolin player. Imagine he has a violin or a cello or just  another instrument. But how do other people look at the mandolin? It also helped me to look at the mandolin through the perspective of different artists, different composers in different times, in different centuries.

CV [00:12:36] Well, so you mentioned Vivaldi and you also mentioned Beethoven. But I want to actually skip those two composers and talk about Scarlatti. You have a piece on the album by Scarlatti, mostly known for keyboard music, Scarlatti. But you and your teacher came to the conclusion that, after some research, that this particular piece might have been a mandolin piece.

AA [00:12:59] Yes. So Domenico Scarlatti's work is... He never writes the name of the instruments. But you clearly have two lines, right hand and left hand. Now some of these sonatas, five in particular, are very different. It's obviously not for keyboard, these specific sonatas. When you play it on a mandolin, you think that Domenico Scarlatti is a Neopolitan. And there are some idioms. There are some things that are very typical for mandolin. And if you play enough mandolin music, you can recognize these are idioms of the instrument, like some arpeggios. The second movement is all arpeggios, not natural for an instrument like the violin.

[00:13:59] [MUSIC]

[00:13:59] And to conclude that there was a copy of the manuscript, which is old but is not signed by Scarlatti, that indicated that it had the same music of this Sonata and the indication was for mandolin and basso continuo. So the theory is not, it's pretty solid for me, but I'm not a musicologist, so I don't have the proof. But for me it was just enough to play things, like, it's familiar on my hands, it is for mandolin.

[00:14:27] [MUSIC]

CV [00:14:42] Would you mind if we jump in and talk about some of the 20th and 21st century pieces on this album? Particularly David Bruce, because I think this is a very interesting piece. It's got a great collection of instruments on it: mandolin, harp, guitar, theorbo, and harpsichord, all plucked instruments and all of which frequently used in the 17th and 18th centuries, but which are used in this case in a 20th century work. Kind of unusual.

AA [00:15:11] Yes. So, with David Bruce, the task was very specific. I was putting a concert on a couple of years ago for the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, and it was all around plucked strings. So we wanted to take the five plucked strings of the classical Western tradition - the mandolin, the guitar, the harp, the harpsichord, and the theorbo. And for the grand finale of that concert, I asked David Bruce to compose, a commission for him to compose a new piece that will involve all of the five strings, plucked strings together. I think it's the first time, is the only piece that I know that is written for all of them. So it was quite a task. It was quite interesting. How do you compose for all these plucky plucky strings together? Most of the time I cannot recognize, like, who is playing what, is this the guitar, is this the harp? You know, they all blend together in a wonderful, it's unbelievably colorful.

[00:16:08] [MUSIC]

[00:16:27] And David did a great job. It's one of my favorite pieces, I have to say.

[00:16:33] I've been commissioning a lot in the last years. I mean, this is part of a mission that I feel is very important, is very important for me, because I realized, as we said before, not a lot of composers in a sort of classical music wrote for the mandolin. And it kind of stopped the evolution of the instrument. And I wish to kind of change that. I really want to to change it and to have in a hundred years time looking back, a great repertoire for the mandolin. So I'm working on that. I commission a lot of pieces every year. And every time I speak with a composer, the first question is, what does the mandolin mean to you? What does it symbolize? What do you think? The first associations. And it's unbelievable how each composer has a completely different answer.

[00:17:26] And then you hear it in the piece. So it's fascinating for me. I discover again, I discover my instrument over and over again, through these pieces and through these approaches.

CV [00:17:36] On that, I want to talk about the Paul Ben-Haim piece as well, because it's a piece I imagine is close to your heart with its mixing of classical and Israeli traditions.

AA [00:17:48] This is also very unusual for Paul Ben-Haim. So for those who don't know Paul Ben-Haim, in Israel he is considered a forefather of classic art music, classical music. He was born in Germany, actually, and was studying in the Munich Conservatory, and started a pretty good career as a composer until 1933. He fled from Germany and came to Israel. He lost his job in Munich and came to Israel. And then he had an artistic identity crisis. He says, like, I cannot compose like Schoenberg, I cannot compose the way I compose in Germany anymore. This is a different cultural situation and the art needs to be reflected. He wasn't the only composer that was resonating with the style, creating the Israeli so-called classical music.

[00:18:46] And also everywhere. it was a common practice. Bartok did it with the Hungarian music. De Falla did it with Spanish music, Villa-Lobos with Brazilian, Piazzolla with Argentina. It was quite common to start to kind of reflect your culture into the art music, into the concert music. So Ben-Haim did it with Israel, only that Israel, what is Israel? There is a lot of cultures put up together.

[00:19:14] So he explored a lot of music from different traditions, from different Jewish traditions that you'll find in Israel, Jews from Yemen, from the Maghreb, from Eastern Europe. Of course, the local Arab music, the Bedouin music, really he went on research a little bit like Bartok and kind of embedded this in his music. Now for the mandolin he never wrote. I mean, actually, this piece was found in the archives in Israel by a good friend of mine, Yuval Vital, who's a guitarist. And he was dusting one of the shelves. And he sees this draft of a piece, it was kind of a finished draft, but never published piece by Paul Ben-Haim, years after Ben-Haim passed away, for mandolin, guitar, and harpsichord. And it was so shocking because no one wrote for this combination before. And it was very surprising to find even an unpublished piece by such a famous composer. Why did he write for this combination?

[00:20:20] The mandolin sometimes sounds like this ancient Middle Eastern instrument, like the Persian tar, the harpsichord sounds like a gambus, and the guitar sounds sometimes like oud. So he really imitated local Middle Eastern Arab instruments into this piece.

[00:20:42] [MUSIC]

[00:21:04] So we reconstructed it, we produced parts that are readable, his handwriting was tremendous. So it took us a lot of time to kind of decode that, and we played it for the first time in 2001. And that kind of gave me the cue to play a lot of Israeli contemporary music and a lot of contemporary music in general and to commission a lot. I think that was very important for me in this case.

[00:21:29] [MUSIC]

CV [00:21:41] Well, Avi Avital, it has been absolutely wonderful to talk to you. I have one closing question I want to ask you, and perhaps it's a similar question to one that you ask composers when writing for the mandolin, but, what do you hope people get from this album?

AA [00:21:58] Well, first of all, I hope they will enjoy beautiful music. Most of it is not very familiar. There is a big discovery factor when listening to this album, I believe. And that's what I wanted, first of all. And to present and to maybe give a key to the listener to experience the mandolin through the lenses of the composers, but also to have their own experience about the mandolin.

CV [00:22:31] Avi Avital is a Grammy nominated mandolinist and his newest album, The Art of the Mandolin, is out now. You can find out more at our website, Classical WCRB dot org slash Out of the Box. Avi Avital, thank you so much for taking a moment to talk to me.

AA [00:22:50] With pleasure. Thank you.

[00:22:51] [MUSIC]

CV [00:23:12] I wanted to ask something that has nothing to do with this album, but was like, how do you get the mandolin to be heard over an orchestra when you're playing?

AA [00:23:20] Oh, that's a valid question. This is not a normal mandolin. It's like, the mandolin I play is by an Israeli, Arik Kerman is his name. And he had also, he's like this crazy genius maker who had the same, kind of, at the same time, the same vision like me and my colleagues, which is to put the mandolin in the main stage. And so he developed a mandolin. He said, like, OK, the traditional mandolin is small, it's beautiful, it's sweet. How do we make it a stage instrument? So he started to modify the traditional way of doing it. And, you know, there is like two sound boards, for example, he did a lot of modification acoustically. And this instrument, like, I played in the Berlin Philharmonic with a big orchestra, no amplification. And it was, the sound was absolutely heard in every seat in the hall, I was told. And he also, just simply by using violin-making techniques into mandolin, because mandolins traditionally are mass manufactured. So he was, for example, buying the woods from the best dealer in Germany. So the best violin makers would buy wood from them. And for years - of course, he's 84 now, so he's doing this for 30 years or more - for years, he would lie to this vendor, to the dealer that he's making violas, just from the fear that if he would tell him that he makes mandolins, that would send him the cheap wood. You know, the not the best. So he was like selling himself as this genius viola maker just to get the better wood to build, actually, mandolins. And then he confessed to him and they are good friends, of course.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.