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Music In Conversation

Kim Kashkashian with Alessandro Cassin

Kim Kashkashian has many voices. What makes this unique viola player stand out among contemporary musicians is her vocation as a substantial communicator. What she consistently communicates is melodic and emotional information of universal appeal.

The soundscapes she exacts from the viola, expanding its rhythmic, dynamic,

Kim Kashkashian. © Julien Jordes/ECM Records.
Kim Kashkashian. © Julien Jordes/ECM Records.
and coloristic range, are unfailingly visceral, moving, and thought-provoking.

Born in Detroit into a family of Armenian descent, Kashkashian—who studied with Walter Trampler at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore—has redefined the role of the viola, from the middle voice of string ensembles, to “instrument of opportunity.” “After premiering a work written for me, I always try to teach it, and open it up to others,” she says. She insists on including a “contemporary” piece (something written in the last two years) in each one of her concerts. The formidable list of composers who have written for her includes Arvo Pärt, Tigran Mansurian, Peter Eötvös, Krzysztof Penderecki, Paul Chihara, Sofiya Gubaidulina, Linda Bouchard, Giya Kancheli, and György Kurtág.

In her frequent collaborations with musicians from different musical traditions she never attempts to “cross over” but rather explores confrontations on the level of sound. Asturiana, a selection of Argentinean and Spanish art songs she interpreted with Robert Levin, won worldwide critical acclaim in 2008.

We spoke with Ms. Kashkashian after her latest performance in New York, in which she premiered Betty Olivero’s Neharo’t Neharo’t for viola, accordion, percussion, and two string ensembles, to be released later this year on ECM.

Alessandro Cassin (Rail): Recording technology is constantly improving, yet live music has a completely different impact. What would you say accounts for the differences between these two forms of presentation?

Kim Kashkashian: Obviously the emotional presence of the audience! When a musician works within a given space, the space itself begins to inform not only the sound, but the gesture of the music.

Rail: In the liner notes of one of your CDs you say that “songs are the most potent of all cures.” Can you elaborate?

Kashkashian: The voice comes out of the center of one’s being and is our deepest expression. If you can watch or respond to the deepest voice within you, then you know yourself on a level that you don’t necessarily have access to otherwise. By watching yourself express sound you see who you are, what you are in relation to the world around you. Then you gain a sense of balance and you can not only accommodate but adjust and heal yourself.

Rail: Some say the viola mirrors the human voice. What do you see as the relationship between the two?

Kashkashian: The pitch of the viola lies between the pitch of the violin and that of the cello. However, the difference between the violin and the viola is one fifth and the difference between the viola and cello is one octave. If we look at the difference in the string length, between viola and violin, it is only one or two inches whereas that between viola and cello is about a foot! What that means in terms of physics is that the length of the strings of the viola is not the right length for its pitch, it’s too short. On the viola the sound requires using additional body resonance to compensate. That sense of unreliability or vulnerability is why many people feel that the viola sound is more similar to the human voice.

Michael Levin, Kim Kashkashian. © Julien Jordes/ECM Records.
Michael Levin, Kim Kashkashian. © Julien Jordes/ECM Records.

Rail: How did the viola develop historically, with this incongruity between string length and pitch?

Kashkashian: This goes back to the original “da gamba” instruments. They were trying to bridge the gap between the arm and leg instruments by building the biggest possible instrument that would fit under the arm. Initially, the violas where quite a bit larger than those we play today. As the role of the middle voice in a musical ensemble got more complicated, let’s say with Brahms, the size of the instrument had to be cut down to allow greater closeness and control.

Rail: So, is the viola an instrument of compromise?

Kashkashian: Yes, it’s not perfect! Just like us human beings—that’s another similarity. Contemporary viola-makers are still experimenting with what is the best shape and size to generate the most reliable and focused sound, from something that, from its premise, is a compromise.

Rail: You worked closely with the late Luciano Berio. Can you describe your relationship?

Kashkashian: We worked together over a period of a few years for Voci and Naturale; he was present when we recorded. He was wonderful to work with, always very clear. He would show you exactly what he was looking for, and was also flexible. He had a wonderful ear, steeped in the vocal tradition.

Rail: In Voci your instrument has a folk-like sonority. How did you achieve that ?

Kashkashian: You have to let go of classical training, of any rigid notion of what a “beautiful string sound” is supposed to be: you want to try to make other sounds out of the instrument, to mold the sound. That’s why I always say there is no such a thing as a viola sound! The further along you get on that path, the more you realize that you are producing a sound out of your body center, not out of the instrument.

Rail: Betty Olivero’s Neharo’t Neharo’t is also related to Berio.

Kashkashian: Most certainly. Olivero worked with Berio for many years in Florence. That was a primary influence and inspiration for her. You can hear it in the instrumentation. Something about the texture of the cloth that she weaves reveals who her musical father is.

Rail: Can you discuss the treatment and approaches to folk material by composers such as Berio and Mansurian?

Kashkashian: Folk music for Berio and Mansurian represents their very deep roots. It comes out of the earth and into their blood. That is to say it is much more than simply part of the music they grew up hearing. To me it’s extraordinary that folk music, as a source, survives in such a contemporary form. It tells you how potent that voice must be.

Rail: What role does Armenia play in your choice of repertoire as cultural memory?

Kashkashian: I grew up hearing Armenian songs at home. If you grow up with one set of source material like that, you can also make the jump and feel connected to another. If I hear a Greek or a Byzantine melody as opposed to an Armenian Orthodox one, it is still going to feel like “home.” There are certain musical relationships, even as far afield as Hungary. As a matter of fact, I was recently given some source materials from Korean folk music and I swear there were times when I thought it could be Hungarian!

Rail: Though you excel as a soloist, for example in the Bartók concerto, you seem to view yourself more as an ensemble player. What makes you favor this role?

Kashkashian: I think it is the degree of intimacy afforded by a small group. Looking at a piece like the Olivero, it affords more chances for an intimate expression. I think this is closer to my own voice as opposed to the big voice, the heroic voice.

Rail: In your musical encounters with players trained in the jazz tradition you have avoided facile and fashionable crossover attempts.

Kashkashian: “Crossover” for me is not the only way to profit from musical confrontations. I think the value, for instance, of Jan Garbarek’s and my playing together is not that we are cross-referencing styles, but that we are instinctively learning from each other’s sonority, and ways of handling music-making. In fact I think you often learn more when you keep your own style and origin distinct rather that trying to meld it with someone else’s.

Rail: How is it to work with extra-large musical personalities like Yo-Yo Ma, the Tokyo String Quartet, Keith Jarrett, or Jan Garbarek?

Kashkashian: Each situation has been unique. I worked with Keith on the Bach sonatas for viola da gamba, and in that context he was incredibly flexible and quick. The same happened with Jan Garbarek. It was a real lesson in flexibility and quick response, from both of them.

Rail: Universities, conservatories, music schools, and master classes in the U.S. are producing the greatest number of professional musicians ever, many more than the field can employ. What should a young musician’s strategy be?

Kashkashian: This requires a flexible answer. Young musicians will need to know that they should not all be aiming for Lincoln Center, but rather looking to making music a part of their daily lives and of those of the people around them. That might mean working on a grassroots level, in smaller venues. Each should build up his or her own audience. Musicians who are classically trained must reassociate themselves with the average Joe. The question is really, how can one capture the imagination of a whole generation of people who grew up without this classical background, or find a connecting device to communicate the semantic structure and the beauty of this language that is classical music?

Rail: What is the biggest musical question you ask yourself?

Kashkashian: How to define that continuum that involves space, time, and sonority.


Alessandro Cassin

Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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