Among the most highly respected artists working in classical music, the violinist Jennifer Koh earned her stellar reputation not only for her commanding artistry across a vast stylistic spectrum – from Bach to Zorn and all points in between – but also for her ceaseless drive to reinvent and revitalize the concert experience. Named Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America in 2016, Koh has also expanded the repertoire noticeably through projects like “Bach and Beyond,” “Bridge to Beethoven,” and “New American Concerto” – the last of which produced a wildly successful concerto by Vijay Iyer at the Ojai Music Festival last June, and will see Koh introducing a new work by Christopher Cerrone with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in late May.
Between rehearsals for the new project, Koh talked with National Sawdust Log about what prompted this new undertaking, and what she hopes to achieve with it.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Why don’t we just dive right at the deep end, and talk about where the concept for “Limitless” came from?
JENNIFER KOH: We’ve lived in the world that we seem to live in right now for the last couple years… I mean, I feel like it’s been something that’s always been on my mind, since I am female and I am a minority. And I feel that there needs to be more equality in programming. Obviously I enjoy engaging with music of the past, but that has a life because of new music. Classical music can be a living and breathing art form only through new music. And the only way it also will reflect the communities that we serve is if we actually engage with what our communities look like, and what our cities look like.
So in one sense, the name of the series, “Limitless,” is about breaking free of limitations imposed upon a performer in the classical music world itself?
Yeah, and I didn’t actually put anything in the program notes, and didn’t write about what the makeup of the composers was. I just wanted people to have a great musical experience in a concert hall, and then, only as an afterthought… I’m glad these things are coming to light now. I feel like they’re rather systemic, so I don’t know how much it will actually… I think it might take a bit longer to actually implement change.
Sometimes I feel very ambivalent about the word diversity, because I feel like it has negative connotations. I think what we’re really looking for is equality – I mean, women are 50 percent of the population. They have stories that deserve to be heard.And we kind of see this tipping point in society now, where people are finally listening to women in terms of the #MeToo movement. I think that will take a lot more systemic change – a lot more. That’s because I actually think that’s much more about power than it is even about sexual harassment.
So I wanted to create with “Limitless” a project that reflects the world that I live in. The nice thing about National Sawdust is they gave me the space to do that, because when you’re given an opportunity to curate, you’re able to make the programs that you believe in. So I am grateful to them for giving me the space to have these two shows, and also to give curating to a woman.This is the first time I’ve been asked to curate on my own.
I’m looking at the array of composers you’ve assembled for “Limitless,” and I keep thinking about a work that came to my mind last summer when talking to Vijay Iyer about the programs he’d put together for Ojai: utopian. But it’s not really utopian; it’s really just a reflection of who makes up the world. I liked what Alex Ross wrote on his blog last month…
It was partly in response to the Shadle article, when all the orchestra season announcements were being made. He wrote, “If an orchestra is programming few female composers, it is almost certainly playing little new music, since any serious consideration of the music of our time would have to include a large number of women.”
But then look at the interviews and look at the pieces and who’s been covered, as well, throughout the history of The New Yorker. So I think this movement, or this societal tipping point that’s happening, is very good, because it’s making us think about the direction we believe music should be going. Really, for me it’s always about thinking about how I’m serving this community that I live in and the cities I visit or play in. How do I serve my artistic community? How do I serve my art form? How will classical music move forward, if it only becomes a museum of older works?
Exactly. It turns into this quaint sort of Downton Abbey dress-up period-piece ritual enactment.
And, you know, when these works that we do consider quote-unquote the canon were written, everything was new. We seem to forget that we actually have to create an environment in which classical music can live and breathe. And what are we leaving for our next generation? I know everybody thinks about audiences, and the aging of audiences, but are we really reflecting our communities? Are we making space for them on our stages? With our conductors? Everybody’s talking about implicit bias, but I think it’s more than that; I think it’s just a simple thing which nobody talked about. And then Charlottesville happened, and most of us were like, “I knew it!”
Yeah. And then you start dwelling on the political environment in which we’re trying to create…
Well, we can’t not engage with it, and artists have always engaged with that: both personal journeys or personal experiences as well as, you know, Beethoven was totally engaged with politics.
So when did this line of thinking start to transform into an idea about programming? When did the idea first hatch?
I don’t know… things just sit in my head for a long time. I had kind of started moving along those lines for the New American Concerto project, anyhow. I think National Sawdust might have gotten back to me in March or April , and I think I reached out to people pretty quickly. It just felt natural. The hardest thing was coming up with a title quickly – for me, coming up with titles is hard.
“Limitless” is kind of beautiful and poetic and open-ended in its way.
I mean, I named the concerto project The New American Concerto, but usually my titles don’t engage directly, like, “This is what America is.” But I do feel that as a musician, I have a responsibility to advocate for… I also care about my art form. It’s not about just me, you know? It’s what you leave for the future, and it’s how you serve your fellow artists, and how you can advocate for them. This is the only power I have. I don’t have control over programming. I have no control over many things. But here I do, and I do feel that in this time period, especially because it is so embroiled… most music is actually not literal, there’s no words. But you could advocate.
My question is, why aren’t we doing more – or what can I do more, as an artist – to counteract what I see? What do we do within the industry, in terms of programming? I think finally people are now saying, “Hey, there’s no women on these programs,” whereas five years ago it was the same thing, except nobody was actually doing research. So the reason I created “Limitless” was because oftentimes people are just not seen, and not acknowledged. “Limitless” was about imagining a future in which people are seen, bringing us together and getting rid of the boundary between composer and performer, and really advocating for this new movement of community.
Was composer-slash-performer a prerequisite for this particular project?
Yes.All the projects have a musical basis. I’ve been thinking about how to break down that wall between composers and performers, because it didn’t exist before in classical music. And I think it’s also a way for us to categorize musicians now, like, “oh, that’s just a jazz musician,” “oh, this is crossover.” I wanted to break down that idea that composers who perform only belong in that other category over there. That was kind of the musical basis.
But in terms of the kinds of legacy that you’re talking about, are all of these pieces scored in some way, shape, or form?
They’re all scored, yes.
Even the ones where the composers are participating as improvisers?
I have to improvise, as well. That’s present in a couple of the works. But yeah, it’s scored in the sense that there is a written score.
So these literally are things that some other aspiring violinist could come up and say, here’s a piece I want to add to my repertoire.
Oh, yeah, absolutely.The parameters are clear, as well, in the score. Anyhow, I’m obsessed with notation, and I always work with composers on notation, because it’s just a form of communication. My belief is that the more clarity you put in the written score, the more free performers will be in the future. It’s not like you have to be Mahler and write a million things in, but it should be so naturally clear on the page for a musician that they’ll feel more freedom. I don’t want anybody to ever copy a recording of the premiere… it needs to be clear on the page. So, in the same way that we engage with works by people that are long gone, future generations will be able to do the same with these.
Let’s just run down the list of collaborators and talk about how everybody is approaching their piece and the work process. You’ve just come from meeting with Vijay Iyer, so why don’t we start there? You’d worked with him previously, even before Ojai, on your Beethoven project, right?
Yeah, I had asked him to write for “Bridge to Beethoven,” and also the violin concerto from last year, and now this piece. I thought it would be interesting to play together. The same with Tyshawn. Actually, with everybody. [Laughs] He’s basing it on this sutra that he forwarded to me, called the Diamond Sutra.I think in general, it’s actually quite a beautiful piece. There’s a lot of intricacy underneath that will inform it.
Actually, what I asked each composer to engage with was this idea of rebirth and evolution.So, for example, Zosha wrote “Sprung Testament,” which is the idea of spring and rebirth. That was basically every conversation: “How do we go through struggle, and come out on the other end?”So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one is like a Buddhist sutra, and it’s not a coincidence that Zosha’s is about spring.
[Tyshawn’s] is just violin and glockenspiel. He does dedicate it to Muhal [Richard Abrams] and Geri [Allen], but in its own way, a dedication to to people that have passed is also a celebration of what they’ve left us, and what we do in the future with that. And then Lisa Bielawa’s “Sanctuary”… so everybody is along the same theme, in a sense. The idea of transformation, maybe struggle, and the other place we can reach – that’s what every piece is about, and every composer is engaging with it in a different way.
What should we know about the pieces by Wang Lu and Nina C. Young?
They are so awesome. Lu is electronics and violin. I think it’s going to be a really good balance. Qasim is also electronics, but it comes from a different [approach].Lu has been working hard on the electronics ; I think she said she was basing it on different bells and different gongs, so she’s transforming acoustic sound and using that as the basis for the electronics of the piece. Qasim, I think, is coming from the idea of what analog sounds like, added to the electronics. So it will be an interesting contrast on the first show, because the electronics elements are coming from very different places. And then with Missy [Mazzoli]’s pieces, one’s with synthesizer and one’s with piano.
And then Zosha is using prepared piano – she’s using that sticky stuff that you use for hanging stuff on a wall, and it creates this very, very cool sound, actually. So all of the acoustic elements, I suppose, are kind of manipulated; even when you’re dealing with that purely acoustic instrument, the piano, in the piece it is prepared, so there is is a kind of manipulation – or transformation. So maybe what we should say is that it’s all about transformation.
And then Du Yun is on the second program?
Yeah. She said she was going to add film. I basically let everybody do whatever they want – except when it comes to the notation, and then I’m like, “This would be much better if you beamed it like this, and then the barring should be more like that.” [Laughs]
So you actually get to do a little bit of digging around, a little bit of hands-on intervention to make sure everybody was writing something that you’re comfortable doing?
It’s not really about my comfort… it’s what do we leave people when we’re all dead? If this is about serving classical music in the future, then the notation has to be pretty legible, so that, again, when we’re all dead, somebody else will be able to look at the score and come up with their own very individual interpretation, beyond just the improvisation parts in some of the works. That’s what I appreciate as a performer when I play Bach: granted, there are almost no dynamics, but it’s very clear. Or Beethoven, or Schubert – their notational language is very clear.
Jennifer Koh presents “Limitless” at National Sawdust on March 15 and 31 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
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