Who or what inspired you to take up the bandoneon, and pursue a career in music?
I recall at the age of about five jumping up and down on my bed playing a kazoo, while simultaneously waving my arms around like a conductor. I think that is pretty much where I have been ever since – addicted to the jouissance of music without a hugely coherent plan as to how I should pursue it! The bandoneon came a lot later. I studied violin and piano, and also viola, and read music at university. My parents weren’t particularly in favour of me pursuing a career in music so university was a bit of a compromise, being an academic rather than a performance course. I also couldn’t make my mind up whether I wanted to be a string player or a pianist – I liked the constant expressive control of a bowed instrument but also the polyphonic capability of keyboards. When I became aware of the existence of the bandoneon I realised I could have both those things at the same time. Bandoneon was the instrument I had been looking for all along but it didn’t exist in the UK when I was growing up.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Hugo Victor Villena was the person who showed me what the bandoneon could do and inspired me to take it up, not just because of his exquisite playing but also because of a generosity of spirit that permeates his musicianship and his teaching. I didn’t have any doubt as to whom I would approach for lessons when I decided to seriously study the instrument.
I didn’t have much idea what I was doing when I was at university but in hindsight the emphasis on developing theoretical skills through stylistic composition was an invaluable basis for a career where a lot of my work has involved transcription and arrangement to create my repertoire. I am also one of those musicians who uses analysis as a tool to support interpretation and I think the composer Eric Graebner had a big influence on me with his approach to analysis that brought a wonderfully naïve lack of preconceptions and a freedom of thought.
I think I learn from all of the wonderful musicians I work with; as the psalms say, “Mikol melamdai hiskalti” – I have gained understanding from all my teachers. I also believe we can learn an immense amount from musicians of the past now that we have unprecedented access to archive recordings and especially film. A few days ago, during a rehearsal, we playing the great tango Chique, in a version from the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese. Afterwards the band and the dancers we were working with asked me what I was doing – I had played the piece completely differently to what we usually do. I realised that a few days before I had watched a youtube video of Aníbal Troilo – the mentor of Piazzolla – playing the piece. At the time I had thought “this is a great version, but we already have a version that we play” and I forgot about it. But then in the rehearsal it had subconsciously taken over my playing – I had inadvertently channelled “Pichuco” Troilo! I had to snap out of it for the gig. At other times I have more consciously used this technique of channeling – imagining oneself into the state of mind of an admired musician, and I think it is a great way to transcend ones own habits and move into a different plane of performance. But “Pichuco” was described as playing his solos as if he was falling asleep, the opposite of the energy that was required for that particular performance!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think the biggest challenge has been finding techniques and strategies to deal with the mental pressure of performing in a professional schedule. There are certainly other challenges, such as the physical problems – strains and injuries – that most musicians have from time to time, and the challenge of approaching the preparation of passages that initially seem impossible to play. But behind all this is the necessity to develop a higher level of concentration, which means an ability to negotiate distraction, and ways to cope with non-optimal outcomes – the sort of mortifying failures that can sometimes trip us up because we are human and fallible. My experience is that mindfulness meditation has been very beneficial in mitigating stress and improving brain function in performance situations, and there is some research that backs it up, which I think is very important. Nowadays I would always choose to go with evidence based practices because that guarantees a better probability that I am devoting time and energy to something that will work. I also think that the more we can learn about the psychology of performance, the better able we are to manage ourselves. Noa Kageyama’s Bulletproof Musician blog is a great resource for information on the latest research. But there’s always a certain mystery about the whole business, no matter how scientific we are.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m not sure pride is a huge part of what I feel about my work. It’s great to get external recognition from other musicians and from good reviews, and there’s definitely a huge buzz in doing a high profile performance. But what gives me the most satisfaction is having what I would call a “good gig”, by which I mean a performance where everything flowed and I was just in the music and listening to my colleagues. It’s a quiet satisfaction and quite personal, but getting there is always the goal.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Some of Piazzolla’s music. This is repertoire that one should respect like a mountaineer respects a mountain. I think it takes a lot of time to get inside it, especially because it is not simply a matter of interpreting a text, but of listening to his recordings, understanding how they work, and understanding the trajectory of his interpretations as they developed. And in my opinion you can’t really understand Piazzolla qua Piazzolla unless you have a deep knowledge of the tango music that came before and its performance practises. Playing Milonga del Angel is always a journey that takes me to places that I can’t anticipate. It’s an extraordinary piece. I’ve played it hundreds of times in a way that’s very close to how Piazzolla did it. I think I may have reached the point where I can take a much freer approach to it, but I wouldn’t want to rush that. Playing my own compositions is also always a special experience and something that I am now doing more of.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Quite a lot of repertoire is determined in collaboration with dancers with whom I work. Then I will also choose some pieces from the tango repertoire that fascinate me, and I also try to introduce some new compositions by myself. And colleagues also bring works that they want to do.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Some halls are like a dream, you just put your notes out there and the space does all the work. The Sheldonian Theatre is one such special place – they don’t build ’em like that any more! And Snape Maltings, Wigmore Hall … St Georges Bristol has a particularly good sound on stage.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It’s not a specific concert, but more the memory that I cultivate of when it has gone right, flow has been achieved, and everyone is happy on stage an in the auditorium.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Doing the thing in the previous question! But getting paid is also important!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Love your process. It may be good to have career goals or at least intentions, but life has a way of completely changing what we do at random. As they say in Yiddish, “a mentsh tracht un Got Lacht” – “when a man makes plans, God laughs”. So please love what you are doing now and do now what you love.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still playing, with more of my own music out there.
What is your most treasured possession?
I recently acquired an instrument by the factory of Alfred Arnold – the Stradivarius of the bandoneon – that was produced after the outbreak of the Second World War. At this time the factory in Germany was no longer able to export these instruments to Argentina because of the British blockade. This instrument is virtually unplayed since it was made; I’m still playing it in.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m doing a concert later today with some amazing musicians, so eager anticipation!
Julian Rowlands is a bandoneonist, composer and arranger specialising in tango, classical and contemporary music. The bandoneon is a free reed instrument that is renowned for the beauty of its sound, and for its remarkable expressive range and flexibility. Its playing techniques and repertoire were developed in Argentina, where it is the essential voice of the tango. Julian received his degree in music from Southampton University and studied bandoneon with the leading Argentinian player Victor Villena.
(original interview date 1 November 2017)