Composer, arranger, violist Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin, has composed music for four feature films and more than a dozen short films. He has released four albums, and arranged music for artists ranging from Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet to Jay-Z.
He has recorded as a violist with Yo-Yo Ma, The Andalucian Dogs, The Knights and with his own ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband, featuring his wife, Inna Barmash, on vocals.
But I know Lev before all that: as childhood friends, we used to play music together. Even as a kid, Lev was interested in a wide variety of music, and I was always impressed by how much he knew about every music genre and every obscure composer.
These days, our kids play together and Lev is still introducing me to new music, including his own.
During a recent conversation, Lev spoke to me about why the film E.T. started him on his musical journey, and how he dreams of eating fresh bagels along the Malecón in Cuba.
Ying Zhu: Please tell us about your music. How would you describe your style?
Ljova: What I do is pretty varied, and what I've done is pretty varied. I started off as a classical violist and then I branched off into composing for serious ensembles, and then for films, and then for my own band, and then for other people's bands.
Ljova and the Kontraband
At first I was writing classical concert music, and then 20th century experimental music, or whatever you want to call it. Then later, while I was doing film and other things. I started writing in many different styles and I thought, "This is really the ticket." You need to do things in many different styles, and be very diverse and open. Lately, I've been trying to consolidate and do something in a more personal language--that's not really in any particular style--that just sounds like an honest expression of what I've been trying to achieve.
(Ljova's "Plume" in video for La Perla)
YZ: When and how did you start composing?
LZ: My mom would probably say that I started composing in the back of the car when I was a little kid. We used to drive down Moscow's streets, and I'd sit in the back and start humming things along like a little one-man orchestra, and I would be like, [hums].
And then I would do the drums like, [drumming noises] and the trombones would go, [trombone noises]. I was probably five or six, and this was very natural to me. I'd make up songs while my mom was driving down the street. There would be lampposts and then I'd be like "I'll make a song about lampposts," like 'Hey lamppost, hey lamppost, you're very very bright, blah blah blah.' Obviously it was in Russian, but you know, that kind of thing. Our son Benjy does something eerily similar now.
YZ: What was your first written composition?
LZ: I think the first thing I ever wrote down, composition-wise was alternative music for the film E.T.
LZ: I grew up in Russia and I came to the States when I was eleven. But before that, we had a couple of American friends who brought us VHS tapes of American movies. I had very few; I had one episode of DuckTales, and I had E.T., Mary Poppins, Commando, and Predator. I watched those every day after school for a year and a half, probably. They were dubbed in Russian, I think. Those were the films I watched over and over.
I loved E.T.; it's so bittersweet--it's so sweet, mostly. And I wanted to write a suite of alternative music to it, so I got a notepad out and I started writing things down and played it on my dad's piano. I remember that we had a little portable tape recorder and I recorded it. I couldn't play piano for anything, but I tried to play it as best as I could. And after that five-minute suite, the rest of the tape was filled with piano improvisations.
I must have been seven at the latest. That was my first foray into writing things.
YZ: That's wonderful! Do you look at music differently since your time at Juilliard?
LZ: Things keep changing. When I was at Juilliard, there were classical composers, there were pop composers, and there were film composers. There were performers, and then there were composers.
In the twelve years since I've graduated, everything's become very much a melting pot of all of those things. There are fewer gradations between classical music and pop music. All the classical musicians want to play pop music, and all the pop guys want their music to be played by orchestras. All the performers are trying to compose and all the composers are trying to play an instrument.
There's so much cross-pollination between all of these things, and fewer borders between genres and occupations. It makes for a very interesting life, and for interesting conversations, because we're all just trying to achieve communication with the audience.
YZ: What do you think is responsible for this change?
LZ: Of course, the Internet. Maybe also the compression of the record business. There are no more record sales, and people want to do things that are exciting so they go out of their normal territory, and they listen to more music that is a fusion of various things.
So much of what's going on now, is about collaboration across genres, or collaboration between friends who come from different backgrounds. Music is really becoming more about friendships and love than it is about a certain style. It's a very beautiful time to be making music.
Photo credit: Anna Rozenblat
YZ: It's nice to hear so much optimism! Please tell us about your creative process when you compose a new piece.
LZ: I try to write as little music as possible before I actually finish the piece. I went to a lecture at Juilliard with Milton Babbitt, who died in 2011. He was a composer of very serious music, but he was extremely lighthearted about it all. One thing I took away from his lecture is that he didn't write the piece until he knew the whole piece in his mind. For me, that was really inspiring and helpful. The moment I start writing things down, that's the moment they become solid. I try to keep as much of the piece in my head as possible because that's when it has the greatest possibility to change.
YZ: That's very interesting.
LZ: It changes so much and you can have dreams about a piece. I try to spend time with the piece but I don't actually try to write it down. I'll write down ideas. I'll write down maybe two bars of something, but I won't write the connecting tissue that goes between. I don't write out and develop sections until I'm really pressed for a deadline. [laughs]
I really try to give the piece as much time as I can to change within itself. The moment that I write it down is the moment that I'm already starting to give it away. That's the moment I'm preparing to send it out the door, and I want to spend as much time with it as possible.
YZ: I really like that.
LZ: In terms of the process, aside from that, I start writing things onto a little moleskin notebook or a sketchpad, and then eventually transfer it into Sibelius and print it out.
YZ: How have modern tools helped you in this process?
LZ: So much of what I do come from playing, or from being in a certain space: a room that has a certain ambience, a certain state of mind, or an open field. Tape recorders, and the ability to call your voicemail to leave yourself a message with a very immediate sketch of what you're working on, are very powerful things. So I've done that from time to time: I've called myself and left myself a voicemail.
So definitely, modern technology plays a part. It certainly changes things in the delivery portion. I've worked for the past few years as an arranger with orchestras, and you can send PDF files of scores back and forth. If you need to change something, it's so easy.
When I worked with Yo-Yo Ma or with Osvaldo Golijov's scores for Francis Ford Coppola-- projects where I did an orchestra arrangement, I'd just bring my laptop and ask for a laser printer to be standing there at the rehearsal desk. I'd just set it up, and I was able to address changes within a minute. I'd just need to make sure it was a fast enough laser printer, and have all the latest changes printed up and passed out in two minutes.
YZ: That's pretty amazing.
LZ: So technology has really changed the delivery and publishing of music, but in terms of writing, not so much.
YZ: How did you get involved in writing music for films?
LZ: When I got to Juilliard, I couldn't write anything for a year. I had to live in the dorm and I didn't want to be. I had lived on the Upper West Side for ten years before that, and I'd gone to high school across the street from Juilliard, but Juilliard has this policy that all first-year students must live in the dorm.
I think that stifled me somehow. I couldn't write- it was a tiny room, about the size of this table, which I was sharing with a roommate. I didn't feel at home there, and I couldn't write for a year.
Then at some point after my first year at Juilliard, I went to Long Island with my parents and we were staying at a small beach shack near Riverhead. I was finally outdoors, and I wrote my first C major chord in a long time. [Laughs]
I was commissioned to write a piece for a viola chamber orchestra that I would perform. I wrote some piece that was in C major, and then immediately, people commented, "Oh wow! You should write film music!"
At that point there was still a stigma about film composers, that, "Oh, film composers are second-rate composers." I thought: Why would I want to do this to myself? I hate all the films, I don't really watch anything. This was a summer when there were lots of blockbusters, one after another. I thought: I don't want to watch any of this and I don't want to write for any of this.
Eventually I went to see a couple of indie films- I don't remember what they were now- but they had really experimental-sounding scores and I thought, "Maybe I should give this a try." This was during the dot-com boom, so there were tons of little movie websites that were popping up, and increasingly people were finding each other online. I answered an ad on something called "Hollywood Creative Directory," which was just some site that probably lasted a year. I answered an ad by a director who was looking for someone to score his film. He had no money and he was really carefree about it all. It was his first film- a short film,
YZ: What was it called?
LZ: The film was called "This Modern Love." I don't know if you could ever find it now. It was directed by Andrew Koenig, the son of Water Koenig. Walter was Chekov on Star Trek, and Andrew was Boner on Growing Pains.
So the first film I scored was for Andrew Koenig, and that was kind of fun. It was also kind of strange because I thought: Okay, I'm going to score films so I can write really beautiful melodies, and win an Oscar, and then my mom will be happy.
YZ: [Laughs] So what happened after that first film?
LZ: I wrote this really advanced, juicy love theme, and I wrote a really fancy action scene for this movie, but it was just too fussy. And the director said, "No, this is not going to work" and my heart was shattered. [smiles] "Wait, you mean I can't get my Oscar now?" I ended up scoring a couple of other short films where I was also trying to write a big Oscar-winning melody.
You go through this in the beginning. You think, Okay great. I'm scoring films. This is awesome, this is 16 mm film, and this is fancy stuff. I better start winning my Oscar now. Look, I'm pushing 30. I better start winning an Oscar, for my mom. Not for me, I don't care. This is all show and tell, for my mom and dad.
LZ: So I kept getting my dreams shattered, [laughs] because increasingly, film directors wanted the score to be about the movie, not about me getting the Oscar. They care about the music fitting the scene.
These days, I score films ever so often because people find me, or they find my music online. Or they hear my pieces in concerts and they say, "Oh this would be great to use in a film," or "It sounds very film-y," or "It doesn't sound very film-y."
I've become much more relaxed about doing film work and winning an Oscar. It's really shifted from trying to get a career as a film composer, or a violist, or a composer. I just want to, as much as possible, do something that has a certain honesty, and collaborative spirit, and reflects the nature of what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to reflect the performers I'm writing for, or reflect the film, rather than get the award.
YZ: How did you get involved in that Silk Road project?
LZ: My cousin, Jonathan Gandelsman is the violinist of The Silk Road Project and he's an amazing fiddle player. He's also in the Brooklyn Rider quartet. Johnny knew that I was arranging Gypsy music for weddings and I was playing in a wedding quartet to make a living. Johnny asked me if I would consider arranging some Gypsy music for Silk Road.
So I did some arrangements and they loved them. I ended up doing a lot more, and that also started a friendship with Osvaldo Golijov, which in turn started a relationship with the Kronos Quartet, which led to lots of other wonderful things.
YZ: Who has been the biggest influence in your music and your ideas?
LZ: I am deeply in debt to my father, who is a composer and a performer, and a jack-of-all-trades. He's a composer and a pianist and a journalist and a writer. He's written so much music, and touched so many hearts in Russia and beyond.
I'm deeply indebted to him for instilling in me a willingness to be open- in terms of genres, in terms of collaborators, in terms of venues, in terms of everything. I'm deeply indebted to him for all of that.
And to my mother, for instilling in me a love of everything else: a love of people, a love for expression, a love of family. That's really the main thing, I think I get it all from my family. I've had teachers, but the core of what I've been trying to do, I learned from them.
YZ: That's very sweet. Can you please tell us about the places that inspire you?
LZ: A memorable place for me is an open field where there is nothing going on. [Laughs]
The most important place for a composer is where there's nothing going on. The trouble with writing music is that you can't be listening to it at the same time.
Any time I'm in an open field is memorable, or any time I'm by the seashore and there's nothing going on. And clearly, nothing really means that everything is going on, but there's no show and tell, or crazy gypsies dancing around you.
YZ: What open fields do you find near here?
LZ: Just drive ten miles, or an hour out of the city, and you'll find things. On my debut album, there is a piece, "Spring Valley Sunset," that I recorded in an open field in Spring Valley, New York, somewhere in Rockland County.
It's a beautiful thing when you can have a moment- ten minutes, even five minutes, when there's nobody, just to be with yourself, and to be with nature. It's the most inspiring thing.
YZ: The music business is a really difficult business. So many musicians just give up, and do something completely different. What do you think is the secret to your success and how do you have so much fun doing everything you do, whether it's playing with your band, playing weddings, or writing music?
LZ: The key to surviving the music business for me has been to be very diversified in what I do, and to be open-minded in the kinds of things I get involved in. I like to play little jazz gigs, and rehearse a lot for a gig that maybe fifty people will see. I like to play in orchestras and feel the power of an orchestra and sit in the middle of it. I love arranging for orchestras because whatever I write on the page, that's what's going to happen.
At the same time I like to write for more jazz-trained players because you write very little, and they make it magical. They build something on top of it that you would never have imagined. I like being open to all sorts of experiences, and working with musicians whose traditions are different from mine, who can only play one or two scales, who do not read music but are musical.
I like working with filmmakers who do not know how to talk about music, or who talk about music the way we talk about space travel. You know, people find their own way of expressing themselves. It's being open-minded to all these experiences and different pay scales; coming in with no rehearsal or coming in on ten rehearsals; being humble and open-minded to all these experiences, really helped me stay alive in the music business.
Some weeks it'll be a lot of writing, or arranging, or performing. Every week is completely different in terms of hours, and in terms of the kind of music that I get a chance to work with. Whether it's playing, or arranging, or writing, or the people I get a chance to work with, they are all wonderful experiences! It sure beats waiting on tables.
YZ: Tell us about what it's like to work with your lovely wife Inna, who is also the singer in your band.
LZ: Any story with me is a story about family.
YZ: How sweet!
LZ: It's how it should be.
What is it like? It's great, she's extremely open-minded, she grasps things very fast, and she makes things her own very fast. She really owns the songs. She'll never say "This is a song that comes from this tradition, and this is the way it's done." She always gets to a point with a song or a project where she really makes it her own.
YZ: Is it fun working with her? Do you hide anything?
LZ: [Dryly] No, it's not fun at all. [Laughs] It's super fun and very informal; it's at home between putting the kids to bed, or doing laundry, or cooking, or whatever. It's very intimate and casual and playful. It's great.
YZ: How has becoming a dad changed you?
LZ: I look forward to spending much more time at home and much more time at the playground. I look forward to spending as much time as possible with the kids. At the same time, the moment they fall asleep is the moment I crawl into my computer and start writing things, or go outside and start writing things.
We've probably seen two films a year since Benjy was born, and that's just fine. I'd rather be spending that time on the playground with the kids, and it's a miracle to watch them grow. Every time I go into the kids' bedroom in the morning when they wake up, it's a miracle. I think to myself, Really, did I have a part in making this miracle?
YZ: Can you please tell us about the inspiration for the piece "The Bagel on the Malecón"?
LZ: There was a recording of the Gypsy national anthem by the violinst Roby Lakatos, which was the Gypsy song with a Latin vibe and that was the direct inspiration. Afterwards I tried to write something that was my own with slightly mixed meter-y and slightly complicated. I wrote this tune and I didn't know what to call it.
YZ: Have you ever been to Havana?
LZ: No, but I had always wanted to go there. I started listening to Cuban music because of a film I was working on that was based on the Lower East Side. I ended up not getting the film but I bought myself a five-CD box-set of Latin music, back in the day when you couldn't download things. I started listening to it and became completely obsessed with it because there's no downbeat.
The bass is always in it's own land, and that appealed to me very much, and I loved the progressive quality of the music. I could tell that it was coming from a sort of classical background, so I fell in love with Cuban music and I was trying to emulate it.
But at the same time I couldn't shake off this New York Gypsy Jewish eastern-European thing, so it kind of become this, as I say, this utopian dream of eating a bagel on the Malecón. I still hope it'll happen one day. If I ever go to Cuba I'll bring a skillet on a particularly warm day to bake a bagel.
One day if I go to Havana, I dream of opening a bagel shop there. A bagel shop with a recording studio in the back, I dream of that. I think that would be ridiculous. If I can't go to Cuba in my lifetime, maybe at least we could open it in West New York.
YZ: Can you tell us about your new CD?
I've recently released a new album called "Melting River," which is a collection of music written on commission from choreographer Aszure Barton, for her new piece "Awáa." The music I created for "Awáa" was recorded in a little practice hut at Canada's fabulous Banff Centre, using just my viola, as well as a 6-string "fadolin", an acoustic hybrid between a violin, viola and a cello. It's a very intimate sound, a very personal album [ you can hear it at http://Ljova.bandcamp.com/album/melting-river ]. Only half of the music in "Awáa" is mine – the rest is by the wonderful young Canadian composer Curtis MacDonald, who wrote music from a completely different universe than mine, his being full of percussion, water sounds and gongs. It is a phenomenal contrast.
YZ: What was your experience like working with choreographer and dancers?
It was wonderful. Dancers are incredibly dedicated people, willingly in motion ten-plus hours a day, and grateful to be so busy. Also, working with a choreographer like Aszure, in particular, was a real blessing, in that I felt completely liberated to do my best work. Every day I would see an hour or two of dance rehearsal, watching in awe how dancers learned their steps; It was magic.
YZ: Which tracks were especially inspired by the majesty of the Canadian Rockies?
I'd say "Melting River" is probably the closest, though all were inspired by Banff, by the freedom, by the "oxygen poisoning,"as we say in Russian, by the beauty of nature.
Bonus Video: Little Lev Sings and Plays, 1988
Lev: Stop what you're doing -- if you're busy, head to 5:10 of this video. What you'll see is a rarity beyond rarities. Thank you, YouTube, for preserving this! And if you're not too busy -- this video has three songs -- my dad wrote the 2nd one, and I'm the violin soloist and singer on the 3rd. This is from a 1988 USSR holiday TV special. You can tell I was nervous, and the fake holiday atmosphere and wardrobe didn't help! Thank you, parents, for making me miserable at a young age -- in retrospect, it's adorable!
For more music and concert dates, please visit Ljova at www.ljova.com
Cover photo: Ying Zhu
Lev in Central Park: Ying Zhu
Ljova and Inna: Amy Whitehouse
Canadian Rockies: Kevin McNeal