A rehearsal scene in Black Swan

I first saw Tim Fain on screen in Black Swan–he was the violinist playing during the rehearsal in the ballet studio. Lest you think he’s “only” a classical musician, just a cursory glance at the projects he’s involved with will tell you how prolific he is. I mean, when Philip Glass is writing you a piece, that’s legit. He’s also down to earth, humorous and truly passionate about the projects he’s involved with. Our conversation topics ranged from Natalie Portman to traveling in South America, to Richard Gere to Leonard Cohen. And as a Juilliard-trained cellist turned indie-rock musician myself, I could commiserate with him over the “beater” instruments we have to use for indie rock shows.

Michelle: The description of your new multi-media piece, “Portals,” says it’s an on-stage dialogue between live and multimedia works, addressing our electronic present and future”¦

Tim: What I’m trying to do is to take a look at how we communicate in the digital age. It’s going to be a hopeful piece on how we can find meaning through the various ways we all reach out to one another now and how we can embrace it not only as a way to check in with your friends on Facebook but also really find a way to use it for artistic collaboration. I’ll be performing live and other musicians will be filmed in such a way to give the vibe that they are signing on across cyberspace.

Michelle: And the piece involves a range of artistic forms, not just music, right?

Tim: The performance incorporates Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer for Black Swan and principal of the New York City ballet, pianist Nicholas Britell, composer from New York, I Love You and features composers Nico Muhly who wrote the soundtrack for “The Reader” with Kate Winslet, Puliltzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis and Kevin Puts, the poetry of Leonard Cohen and spoken word. But Philip [Glass]’s new music will really be the centerpiece of the evening.

Michelle: I just saw Black Swan in December and I remember seeing you and thinking, “They used a real violinist!” Often in films they have someone faking and it just bothers me beyond belief.

Tim: I don’t think you’re the only one. Darren [Aronofsky], the director, wanted as accurate a portrayal as possible of this all-consuming world of ballet, of a poor tortured soul of a ballerina. To use an actual musician who’s not only on screen but actually playing the music just really adds to the authenticity of what he’s trying to do. And he was really adamant about going as far as he could in that direction.

Michelle: You’ve played in other films before, but was this the first time you were on-screen?

Tim: Yeah this was the first time I was on screen–it was amazing, and with really, really dedicated people. Natalie really knew what she was doing–I mean she was as close to a ballerina as you can be without actually being one! She worked very hard for that and it shows. To do your own dancing, to be convincing and beautiful, it takes dedication and of course skill. Darren’s so personable and laidback but at the same time incredibly intense and a perfectionist. He always seemed so aware of everything that was happening on set–no detail escaped him.

Michelle: That’s fantastic because you have all these passionate musicians and dancers who have seen the movie and can tell the minute details”¦

Tim: Yeah, all these little details do add up…but it’s the passion and the creativity behind all of the details which really remains in my memory.

Michelle: Did you write any of the music in the film?

Tim: Clint Mansell was the composer on the film, but of course there was also a lot of music by Tchaikovsky from his ballet Swan Lake. We’d get on the set, and Jim Black, the music supervisor, would hand us a stack of sheet music and say, “What do you think about this?” Some of it was more or less in a state of completion and I’d take a look at it and think, “this would sound good up an octave,” or “why don’t we elongate this slightly.” And then we’d meet up with Benjamin [Millepied] and he’d also have ideas of how it would best flow with the dancers. We’d then rehearse it about 10 or 15 times–we’d be watching Natalie, and she’d be listening to us, and we would get something that worked. I wouldn’t say that I was composing any of the music but there was a lot of messing with it right on set in the moment, to get something that worked for Natalie and Benjamin and for the dancers, and that worked musically and went with the emotions. And of course then we’d do 10 or 20 takes of one scene!

Michelle: What were the hours like on set?

Tim: The way these guys work is pretty intense. They’d start on Monday first thing in the morning and inevitably work late, so by union rules, they can’t start too early the next day. By Friday they’re starting the day at 4pm and going all the way through the night. It’s intense, and pretty hardcore and it was great to be part of it.

Michelle: What other movies have you been involved with?

Tim: I played in the sound track for Bee Season with Richard Gere. I like to say that I made Richard Gere sound good, and he made me look good [laughs]. He practiced for months beforehand so he could look like a violinist and he did a really good job. There was a moment when we recorded a take for a scene where he’s playing on screen and I thought it sounded pretty good. After we finished, he said, “Well”¦it sounds great but I couldn’t help but notice at one spot, I’m using a little less vibrato” [shaking of the left hand to make the sound richer]. He was concerned because on screen he wasn’t doing as much vibrato as I had been. It was this ultra-technical fine point, which”¦I was very impressed with, he had a point!

Michelle: So you seem super busy, you also have a CD coming out”¦

Tim: Yeah, I have CD of music by living American composers on the Naxos label. The producer and engineer, Steven Epstein, got a Grammy last year as producer of the year. I’m really thrilled with the way the CD sounds! I also recently recorded a new piece by Philip Glass, a double concerto that we recorded in The Netherlands.

Michelle: What’s it like to work with Philip Glass?

Tim: Working with Philip is quite an experience–an endearing mix of child and sage. I’m crazy about the new directions he’s going in with his music, so dark and passionate. It still sounds like Philip Glass, but he’s taking these ultra-long-form minimalist building blocks and putting them back together in such a lyrical way–I’m really touched by the humanity in his later pieces. He just writes so darn much, one of the most prolific artists I know –he often complains of insomnia. Maybe that has something to do with it. The two of us will be touring together, in some duo concerts in the spring. About eight concerts in Europe and we’re looking at a tour in South America–very exciting!

Michelle: Do you have any good stories from your tours with Philip?

Tim: He loves telling stories about the old days–Einstein on the beach, driving a cab in New York City”¦he’s a lot of fun. A few years ago we worked together on this project called “Book of Longing,” which was a song cycle that Philip had written to the poetry of Leonard Cohen. We were on the road and had just played a concert in Stanford. I got off the bus at the hotel and there was Leonard standing right there. He’d just gotten off the bus himself and he offered to take my violin for me so I could grab my suitcase. So it was Leonard Cohen, carrying my violin for me–I just couldn’t believe it. He’d always been such an inspiration, and I was quite touched. Such a kind, unassuming soul with such a deep artistic vision.

Philip Glass performing “Book of Longing”

Michelle: What kind of instrument do you play?

Tim: I play on a beautiful old Italian violin from the year 1717 made by Francesco Gobetti which is on loan to me through the Stradivarius Society. I own my own equipment, but it’s nothing quite like this one. There was something in the air back then in Italy, really fantastic makers that invested a part of themselves in their work in a way that has stayed throughout time. It can be like communing with another soul.

I told Tim about the Dead Drops project, which also blurs the line between virtual and physical reality, and we finished the conversation returning to the first topic of communication.

Tim: In a way some of the vibe that I’m going for [in “Portals”], is going to aim to feel as if people are looking at their own computer, talking to their friends. This might just be something they are doing at home in their living room.

Michelle: Ah I see, so it’s even questioning the definition of what a concert is.

Tim: Exactly, that’s what I want to do. We have no choice, the ways that we communicate now are definitely not going away and my goal is to find meaning in all of that and to incorporate it into what a performance can be”¦drawing on all these elements and putting it into one evening.

“Portals” will debut along with the premiere of Philip Glass’ new piece for Tim  at Symphony Space in New York City in September. Check out Tim’s other work at www.timfain.com.

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.


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  1. […] previously interviewed both violinist Tim Fain, who was seen in the Natalie Portman film, Black Swan and composer Nicholas Britell. We also got a […]

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