For the 29-year-old violinist Emmanuel Vukovich, practicing Paganini for eight hours a day during his years at Juilliard wasn’t cutting it in the realm of inspiration. A native of Calgary, Alberta, Vukovich needed something to say with the musical language that he mastered under the guidance of Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki. In 2001, after two years in the Pre-College Division and two years in the College Division, Vukovich left New York City to pursue his other love: farming. Now, seven years later, the master of two trades combined his passions in a project called Music for Farms, an initiative that brings classical music concerts to small organic farms and venues around the United States and Canada. In a recent interview with fourth-year percussionist Molly Yeh, Vukovich discussed his work.
What is Music for Farms?
It’s an international project started between myself and composer/performer John McDowell, and now a third musician has joined us, [Juilliard alumna] Julia MacLaine. The goal of the project is to connect these seemingly unrelated activities—music and farming—with the belief that the farming can help ground the arts and that the arts can help inspire the farming.
How did you get your start playing music?
My sister wanted a violin for Christmas once and we both started playing. My first experience with the violin was dropping it.
What gave you this idea to use music to help farming?
I came to farming kind of out of an act of, you could say out of desperation. I felt very unbalanced and unhealthy and not sure what all of this was for where we’re in a city, we’re practicing however many hours a day. We’re playing concerts for people, for the converted.
And so you took up farming once you realized that you needed more of a connection?
Yeah, it’s been 10 years. Basically I came to Juilliard for Pre-College with a dream of being a concert violinist and a dream of going as far into music as I possibly could … but I was finishing high school outside of N.Y.C. in a place called Chestnut Ridge in Spring Valley [N.Y.] and there’s a small organic farm in this community where the school was. So even during high school I would come on the weekends to [Juilliard] and have my lessons with Miss DeLay and Mr. Kawasaki, and have this whole music world, and [then] saw this farm and how people were there, and the contrast between the rush of the city and this more peaceful farm life. And then I did a first year of college at Juilliard and then I took a leave of absence. I went “WWOOFing”—Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It’s an exchange travel program and you go and you spend from a week to six months traveling and living and working on small organic farms. I went around Europe and then I was in Africa. I was traveling for nine months … and I had my violin with me and during that trip, wherever I would go, I would play solo Bach for people and I realized, you’re in Africa in this small fishing village where you don’t speak the same [language] as anyone … and the one thing that can bridge that is music. After about nine months I came back for a second year at Juilliard, and I learned a lot but it was clear to me that that wasn’t my path.
How do the principals of sustainable farming relate to those of performing classical music?
What classical music does is it takes roots of folk culture and elevates them to a timeless or a boundary-less language or art form, and what you do in organic and biodynamic agriculture is you take nature in its raw folk tradition and you cultivate it. You bring culture to nature in a certain sense and you create something that all of the rest of culture can be built on. You’re cultivating an art form to cultivate yourself or your spirit. In music it’s inward cultivation and in farming you’re cultivating the earth. I came to this with the belief that I cannot play music without farming. I cannot pretend to say something meaningful to the world if I don’t know the world.
So Music for Farms is a way of bringing awareness to the relationship between music and farms?
The immediate goal of Music for Farms is to bring world-class culture to local agriculture, thereby creating an awareness of the importance of local agriculture and the interconnection between the two. My personal long-term goal for Music for Farms is reconnecting opposites. We’re breaking down these boundaries and barriers. We’re not trying to specialize anymore—the best violinist in the world, the best whatever in the world has been done. That’s not saying that we don’t strive for excellence, but I think the path in the future is not going to be to specialize, it’s going to be to reconnect things.
Do you think Miss DeLay would have approved of this?
Absolutely. She was a wonderful woman. More than teaching people how to play the violin, she showed people how to believe in themselves. You came out of her studio thinking you could fly. The violin playing was just a tool.