- Philip Womack meets the 25-year-old violinist who’s reinvigorating the classical music scene..
.Words Philip Womack
Photography Sean Frank
Charlie Siem is practising the violin when I arrive at his parents’ house in Knightsbridge, West London, on a steamy summer afternoon. I stand in the cool, darkened hallway – through a large, gleaming kitchen I can see a swimming pool, and a white drawing room opens to my left. The notes float up the circular stairwell, stopping abruptly when the housekeeper (who let me in) calls out; and then Siem himself gallops up into the hallway to greet me. There is something a little puckish about him.
The 25-year-old virtuouso is all compressed energy and smiles. Dressed casually in a white shirt, jeans, and tasselled loafers, Siem speaks in a voice that quickens when he gets excited about something – which is often. He has much to smile about. At his young age (“God, you’re younger than me!” I can’t help blurting out when he tells me) he has been steadily building a reputation as one of the world’s greatest violinists, both technically and in terms of his popularity. He’s crossing into a wider context – he’s headlined with Boy George, with whom he played Karma Chameleon; he’s played with Grace Jones and Cliff Richard; Bryan Adams is “a real supporter of mine”, he says, his light-green eyes alight. He’s also been a model in an Alfred Dunhill campaign, and played a concert in the Apple store.
- Siem (pronounced “C-M”), first came to the violin when he was three years old, and heard the Beethoven violin concerto played by Yehudi Menuhin on the radio. Inspired, he started having lessons (after a period with a “little toy violin”) when he was five. His parents – his father is Norwegian and works in shipping; his mother was born in South Africa – were not musical, but they supported him through his music scholarship to Eton, then Girton College, Cambridge, where he unsurprisingly read Music, and into his burgeoning international career. A clue to his musical nature (and personality) lies in his family history. One of his grandmothers was an actress: when Siem plays, “every piece … is a different character and you have to assume that character when you’re on stage.” But perhaps more importantly, somewhere in his lineage is the imposing figure of Ole Bull, a nineteenth-century Norwegian violinist. Siem fizzes with excitement when he talks of Bull: he was “the personification of the Romantic hero” he enthuses; Bull duelled, gambled, “made fortunes, lost fortunes,” took part in the 1848 revolution in France, was “a bit of a dandy” (as Siem himself is)..
“Every piece … is a different character and you have to assume that character when you’re on stage.”
- Ole Bull would buy hundreds of bottles of champagne, “thousands and thousands of francs worth” – but would never drink it. He became very famous, and even sold soap with his signature on it. When I ask Siem if he would do the same, he laughs, and says, “I dunno, soap, I mean maybe the equivalent of something, I don’t know what it would be today.” Shower gel? “Yeah why not?” he laughs. Siem isn’t blind to the commercial realities of what he does. He practises seriously (however much a day depends on what he’s doing), and wants to “get better at the violin, keep mastering it on a personal level, and to build my career in terms of reaching out to more people.”.
He plays with the likes of Boy George in front of audiences of 25,000, because it’s totally in the spirit of Paganini – “if he had the opportunity to play his caprices, you know, in front of that kind of audience with a massive spotlight in the middle of the stadium you know that’s what he would have done. You know it’s all about the theatre.”
But Ole Bull has a more serious influence. His gigantic personality is also infused with a sense of magic that seems to possess Siem.His distant relative lived “in a fairy tale castle,” surrounded by “white paths” illuminated by moonlight. His life was “enchanted” – Hans Christian Andersen even wrote a story about him. That enchantment seems to have passed down to Siem. And as he plays for me, standing in the garden, leaves rustling around him, his face takes on a transported quality. His thumbnail gleams golden in the light. I can almost see him as Orpheus with his lyre, making lions calm and stones walk.
I ask him about music’s magnetic effect on people. “I mean it’s on many different levels as well, positive and negative.” What fascinated him about the violin as a child was how the instrument “developed this … almost dark, demonic, mystical culture.” When musicians like Paganini started displaying new techniques, “people couldn’t believe they could do this without some sort of satanic influence, you know, this black magic associated with violin players … this dark sinewy violinist playing in a graveyard.” Paganini used to practise in cemeteries – though Siem himself prefers churches.
That wildness is part of being a violinist. It has to be balanced against the intense control that practise demands. For Siem, a piece is like a palace through which there are many potential routes: “I see these sets of rooms, little rooms, and suddenly you might not know where the door is.” Finding his way through the palace is like a psychological game that he plays with himself: the structure that bears upon not only his practising, but upon his life. The room where he practises is underground: a toy white tiger sits across some chairs, and a large piano takes up most of the space. When I visit him later to observe a session, I am amazed by the intensity of what he does. I listen to him for about an hour, and he never once breaks. The music emanates from the violin like something tangible and living, as if the sound waves are actually building a solid structure. I can feel the trembles in the air. His movements are firm; fingers flickering like strobe lights, the bow is slippery and alive, an extension of his own body. Bent over sometimes, at other times sitting with his leg crossed, he seems both fragile and powerful – as music itself is, rippling and changeable, reflecting humanity in its entire emotional nuance.
- The pressure of performing is immense. He deals with it by walking a tightrope between Apollonian control and Dionysiac ecstasy. “There’s a balance between letting yourself go and letting your instincts take over, but also retaining control … it’s negotiating a middle ground between instinctive playing and also conscious controlled playing.” When Siem shows me round the house afterwards, I notice a photograph of him where he looks like an Afghan tribesman plucked from the wilds of the desert. It suits that balance entirely.
- Siem feels strongly about the power of music to change lives: “we developed the way we did because of art and culture.” He believes passionately in making people challenge themselves: “I don’t like calling it ‘high culture’ because then that makes it sound elitist.” But if you get people making “an effort with something that’s really meaningful rather than listening to Lady Gaga or something like that,” that’s what makes it worthwhile, he says. Music is what makes us human; culture makes “life worth living.” For Siem, “art is basically questioning humanity… the complexities of what it is to be a human being and it’s only through that that we develop.” He feels there’s a change for the positive, as people get bored with the shallowness of the Internet and seek “something real.”
- There is more to him than the violin: he does love hip-hop, and he has a passion for reading – his current obsession being the Romantics, for the background that they give to Ole Bull. He wasn’t very impressed with Harry Potter, though – it was “imaginative in a TV sense, but not in a really fairy tale” way. He loves watching films, indeed is going to see Terence Malick’s Tree of Lifethe night I interview him.When I jokingly ask him whether, like whales, he thought humans could ever evolve into communicating through singing, he laughs and says: “The problem is that not everyone can sing. I can’t sing. My violin’s my voice.” The violin has been part of him for so long that he feels it’s “really sculpted” his personality. I notice a bruise on his neck, from where the violin rests. It seems an apposite symbol of the effort that one puts in to things to achieve perfection. When I ask if he ever feels controlled by the violin, he smiles. “I feel so connected to it, I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Philip Womack is the author of The Liberators and The Other Book
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