On yet another boringly beautiful, crisply sunny day in California, Gilles Apap is taking a break from his typical morning ritual of practice. In preparation for a tour that will take him to Europe for concerto appearances and for concerts with the renowned Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, he is reading through the Berg Concerto and Bartok Second - five minutes at a stretch while also watching Danny Kaye in The Court Jester on the television. Apap is at home on a yawning property in the rustic Arroyo Grande, not far from favorite beach spots where he plies his latest non-musical passion, surfing.
It's a typical day in the life, in other words, for one of the violin scene's virtuosic iconoclasts. There's no question that Apap is a highly and naturally skilled contemporary practitioner of the violin - or fiddle, as he prefers to call it.
That much is really apparent on the luminous new album Music for Solo Violin on Apapaziz (pronounced 'Apap as is'), an independent label he and some supporters formed in 1999. Fortified by generous, deeply felt portions of Bach, including a moving take on the D minor Chaconne to close the programme - the disc also includes works of Ysaÿe and a few detours into Irish and American folk tunes. It is a Gilles Apap album, after all.
Explaining his latest recording, Apap casually refers to the folkish 'detours' as 'just little things here and there to release the tension from all this godly music. I do a lot of gigs nowadays with just solo fiddle, because first of all this is the music I play every day. I will play a few numbers that will put my mind on a good track, and then I will take coffee and the play some more. This new album is about an hour of solo music that I would play everywhere. I found a good way to interest people in music. I've been doing this for the past two years, just going on the road with my fiddle.
I do things with a better understanding of people now. I pretty much know where to draw the line. Before I didn't know that, so that's why people treated me as a rebel. You push it so much that you shock them. But you have to shock in order to do something. So now I can balance things better, even when I play solo. I realize that you can make people feel good with music. If only the president could play the fiddle, that would be beautiful, he laughs. If all the presidents at the summit meeting could play the fiddle, and whip them out to jam, that would be great. But dream on.
So it was as if Menuhin gave him permission to experiment, in a way? "Yes" he laughs, "like God reaching down" "It is cool" Yehudi was looking at me and saying "this is the way I would like to play the violin." I remember the most beautiful time with this old man, just talking about the fiddle. It's not just the fiddle. It's the people.'
In a completely different neighborhood, literally and musically, Apap looks back fondly on a ten-day tour he took with gypsy musicians in Bulagaria. A go-between had approached Apap after being impressed with him in the Apap Masala documentary. 'These guys live in the ghetto, neighborhoods where you don't even want to step inside. I don't speak their language, and they didn't speak English or French, but we hung out together.
They play this music that even the Bulgarians don't usually play. They play in the ghettos, for weddings. Some of them don't even have a mother or a passport. When we traveled, we had to invent a mother and give them a new name, because they don't even know their last names. We're talking wild characters. So if you hang around people like that, you know what the real thing is. Now I'm going with Kevin [Burke], another thing in my life, which is going to bring me to a better place.'
Hi secret? I just do everything naturally. There's a surf side to life. He pauses, and, for emphasis, adds the mantra, "Surf's up!" He breaks into his infectious laugh, cutting the image of a very serious musician who understands the lightness of being and the healing power of a wink.
--Interview by Josef Woodard - The Strad