Violinist Arlan Vriens sheds light on adapting classical music to the modern world

This is the first article in a four-part series on the winners of Edmonton’s 2022 LGAAA Emerging Artist Award.

Using a modern understanding of music, violinist Arlan Vriens marries traditional classical music with revitalized modern music components for a holistic understanding of the music of our time.

Vriens is a classical violinist who specializes in both contemporary music by significant musical voices of the past two decades and historically informed performance. Historically informed performance means approaching historical music by considering how musicians and instruments of the past might have sounded differently than they do in modern performance.

Reinventing a play for modern production involves understanding the historical contexts surrounding it. Vriens explained that while the musicians may want to make the pieces a “delightful, beautiful, romantic extravaganza,” historical music was sometimes used to present an argument, or something more like a speech. Although the notes of the music have not changed, the style in which it is played has, and the attributes of Vriens that shift over time.

“In [the] in the meantime, we’ve had all these social and artistic movements that have really changed the kinds of sounds that we prioritize.

Why do historically informed performances? For Vriens, music must remain dynamic to adapt to the times.

“I fell in love with the violin hearing these great players play stuff,” Vriens said. “If I only tried to copy them, then I’m really not adding anything new to the world.”

“If we reimagine [classical music]so I widen the circle of what can happen in a classical interpretation… [and] we actually find ways to keep it fresh and exciting today.

Vriens’ latest book is titled Sounds of a shoebox, and this series was his response to the pandemic. Without the connection of a live audience at a concert, Vriens began to look at technology with a new lens – how could this technology help him deliver a concert-level performance without the concert itself? Although he is not a videographer, Vriens used “hilarious [do-it-yourself] (DIY)” technological supports to understand what is possible in such a small space for an invisible public.

He added that Sounds of a shoebox not only helped him explore digital content, but allowed him to reach an audience that might not have been open to hearing these sounds in a concert hall. However, doing this series allowed Vriens to understand the intimacy of his work, to connect with his audience, and vice versa.

“If you have all these people in a small space, it becomes something really special,” he said. “It’s something I’d like to start exploring a bit more, and hopefully it becomes a bit more prevalent among other artists as well.”

Vriens said the call informing him that he had won the Emerging Artist Award from the Lieutenant Governor of the Arts of Alberta (LGAAA) was unexpected, but “incredible.” With the money he received from the prize, Vriens plans to order a new violin, which he says will “really suit whoever [he] is as an artist”, because he had borrowed violins for about five years before.

Vriens currently lives in Toronto, but grew up in Edmonton and is an alumnus of the University of Alberta. He noted that Edmonton’s art scene is “active and vibrant”, but there weren’t many groups doing historically informed performance work due to the city’s small size. With Toronto, Vriens noticed that there are more ” [and] small groups” which allowed him to lead a more multidisciplinary life.

“There is a place for both things,” he said. “Edmonton being a bit smaller, I had a lot more opportunities in college. I gotta do a lot of really cool things where[as] in a bigger center I wouldn’t have because there would have been so much more competition. “

“It was a very important experience for me. I think the best of both worlds is to have experiences in big places, medium-sized places like Edmonton, and if you can – even in very small places [to] really understand what art means to people on all these scales.

CORRECTION: The article was updated July 22 at 3:08 PM to reflect that story-based performances consider historical sound. The article previously stated that historically informed music adapts music to modern instruments.