Between Berlin and the Black Sea: An interview with Biliana Voutchkova

Biliana Voutchkova is an interdisciplinary artist, composer-performer, violinist, improvisor and curator. Through the prism of listening, her early training as a classical violinist, and years of development as a contemporary artist-performer, she explores the states of spontaneity and intuitive resonance embodied in her multifaceted activities. Her work includes regular concert performances of original/site-specific work, new music by contemporary composers, often written for her, long durational and multidisciplinary performances, improvisations, compositions, and installations with a focus on the interconnection of the inner world and sound space.

You started with music very early. You began with the violin at the age of 4, followed by an orchestra debut at the age of 9, and a first release at the age of 16. Were you encouraged by your environment to do so?

Yes, my environment was very encouraging and reassuring. Both my parents are musicians, and already in preschool, I was studying at a specialised music school where everyone was playing an instrument and being prepared for a professional music career. I had an amazing teacher, Petar Arnaoudov, and the most fruitful learning atmosphere with lots of opportunities for public presentations. 

Looking back in retrospect, how do you view your journey to becoming a professional musician?

It’s the most fascinating path that I have been going on, and it’s never-ending :). I was somehow pre-destined to become a professional musician because of attending the school I mentioned above – the National Music School Liubomir Pipkov in Sofia. When I was going into the high school years, I had to make a more conscious decision about whether I wanted to continue. I consider it to be the time when I really chose that path. The following years of development characterise the aesthetic I was looking for, the one most truthful for me.  

At some point, as is so often the case, you broke away from classical music, and embraced improvisation and experimentation. Do you remember the point when this happened?

Yes, I remember very well the longing for further discovery and growth during my last year of high school, when I was on the threshold of becoming an independent artist. In my native Bulgaria, still a communist country with closed borders back then, I didn’t know what possibilities I had, besides the obvious choice of being a classical violin soloist or an orchestra musician. None of it seemed to be meeting my inner necessities, so I decided to continue my studies in the USA. Strong will and hardly imaginable, very lucky circumstances made this wish come true. My artistic voice slowly emerged in the years after I moved there, first to Los Angeles in 1991, and then to New York where this voice really flourished. Upon moving to Berlin in 2008 it entered its maturity. 

Besides music training, listening has also been of importance to your work. How did listening affect how you approach sound?

Hmm, strange question. For me, “music training” and “listening” are merged in one another. I can’t see how I could be developing as a musician without deepening my listening skills. I play the way I do because I listen. I want to like what I hear, so I have to produce the sound which will satisfy my ear, my whole being, really. It is a physical and intuitive phenomenon for me, but the listening and responding to the moment are in the foreground. 

What would you say was the most significant moment in your career?

There is no such moment. There has been a most significant chain of key points in my career, such as moving to New York in the mid-90s and discovering the vibrant avant-garde music scene there, realising the immense influence of nature, silence, and the sense of liberation during many amazing trips to wild places in the mountains, coasts, deserts and woods worldwide, connecting to my essence there, the move to Berlin and the most fruitful learning from and exchange with the so-called “echtzeitmusik” scene, which tremendously helped me to define my artistic identity, to stay connected and truthful to my essence, and to continuously search for challenges and ways of evolving. 

You are based between Berlin and the Black Sea; one could say two polar opposites. The bustling artistic and cultural life of Berlin, and the calm, beautiful coast of the Black Sea. How does this influence your work?

I need a healthy balance between city and nature, and also a comfortable base. Berlin is wonderful, with its immense artistic wealth, always busy with lots of rehearsals, meetings, concerts to attend and play, lots of ideas to shape and propose. My Black Sea coast residency is in a totally natural and wild environment; it’s quiet, no planning and no schedule is needed. I can be spontaneous, free up my mind, I can spend hours just watching the sea, I can allow things to emerge in their own time. So, in short – Berlin is for doing and it has a fast speed; the coast is for reflecting, rethinking, recharging and allowing in slowness. Both are needed for my work, which is never in a static state. And for my overall well-being :)) 

You’re the founder and curator of the DARA String Festival. Can you talk about this event?

I started the DARA String Festival as a single event in 2019. My wish was to connect the still-divided music scenes and to transcend genre boundaries by inviting artists from various musical backgrounds, presenting a wide variety of innovative acoustic and electro-acoustic multi-genre music. The first year of the festival was a huge success. All my colleagues and the enthusiastic audience encouraged me to continue, so we are now planning the fifth edition in 2023. Everyone plays a solo set and is present on both festival evenings. We always premiere a number of new works alongside improvised sets, often with musicians who meet for the first time. I only invite five to six guests per year. It’s important for me to use the festival days as a meeting point for us, as a kind of residency, besides presenting our work to the audience. 

What has been occupying your mind lately – creatively and intellectually?

Ok, let’s see… I am at a six-month residency at Cité des Arts in Paris until the end of March 2023. Exploring the city, meeting a lot of new people, diving into the creative world of Paris has been occupying quite some space in my mind. It is inspiring, enriching and, most important – new! Besides that, I have been quite engaged with my year-long project DUOS2022, curating/playing seven concerts in Berlin and producing/releasing seven digital albums in cooperation with Relative Pitch Records. The last two releases will be out in the world by the end of the year. All albums are available on my Bandcamp page and the streaming platforms. More details can be found here.

I am also engaged in researching and creating new work. I have travelled quite a bit this year, working more and more with field recording, voice descriptions, performing with my mini speaker installation and a new amplified setup including devices and objects, creating more audio-visual work… I am preparing my next long-durational exhibition/performance which will happen at the Petite Gallery at the Cité des Arts in Paris, as well as new releases and live concerts with Sarah Davachi, Angelica Castelló, Svetlana Maraš, Susana Santos Silva, Charmaine Lee, William Parker, Judith Hamann, and my two groups – Jane in Ether and the duo with Michael Thieke… A lot is happening, really; I feel that this is a very potent time for me. 

Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Boryana Pandova

© 2022 SHAPE | All rights reserved.
Webdesign GoodShape