In advance of Karen Kim’s big debut as the newest member of Talea’s roster, we sat down to chat about her background, her preparations for the Nono, and her approach to such a mysterious and beguiling work….
Zach Sheets: Let’s see: first, to get to know you a little better, I’m wondering if you could tell us more about yourself! Where you’re from, where you studied, etc?
Karen Kim: I grew up in LaCrosse Wisconsin, and I lived there until I went to college. I did one year of school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I was studying with Donald Weilerstein. But, when he transferred to teach at New England Conservatory I went with him. I studied at NEC for 6 years, and I completed my undergrad as well as a masters in violin performance and in chamber music. While I was there, I was part of the Parker String quartet and I stayed with them out of school—about 10 years. We lived in St. Paul for 5 years, and for part of that time we had a residency with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. But, I decided it was time to move on, so I moved to NYC about 5 years ago.
ZS: Were you playing a lot of new music when you were at NEC, or not more until you moved to New York? Certainly with the Parkers there’s a great tradition of playing pieces by living composers. Is that how you got in to playing more work from recent years?
KK: Yeah, you know, I started dipping my toes into it when I was in college, and I realized I had a proclivity for the music, and I found it very interesting. Then, when I came to New York, there’s just so much new music here that it was kind of a natural fit to go down that path.
ZS: Have you played this Nono before? Did you know the piece well before we approached you about it?
KK: No, it’s new to me!
ZS: What has it been like to learn it? It’s such a massive piece, and so mysterious.
KK: It’s this way for a lot of pieces, but especially in this piece: the hardest thing was just that first step into it, because when I first glanced at the score it seemed so overwhelming. Largely, in part, because it’s a hand-written score, and it’s a little bit hard to read if you’ve never looked at any of Nono’s handwritten scores before. So, that was a challenge. And then, taking the first dive in to translate all this Italian for myself, figure out exactly what he wants me to do, what is supposed to be happening, etc. It just took a lot to get there. But, after that first step everything starts falling into place.
ZS: Had you played a lot of Nono’s other music before? Either with the quartet or in other contexts?
KK: I haven’t! This is my first piece by him.
ZS: Yeah, it’s funny, it’s the same for me. I’ve never played a piece by Nono. He’s such towering figure in new music, but his works are performed relatively rarely.
I’m curious: when you’re approaching something that has such a theatrical presentation (we’re going to do it with special lighting, largely in the dark)—and especially now that we have this amazing essay by Paul Griffiths, it feels like this big production. When it’s just you on stage, how do you prepare for that? The way you present yourself and deal with the theater of the whole thing?
KK: You know, he gives a lot of instructions in the score. You walk back and forth between different music stands when you’re playing the different sections of the piece. He gives instructions in the score for the manner of walking. And, it’s kind of interesting, because it’s very consistent with the mindset you have to have to play the piece, anyway. It’s as though you tell yourself: “I’m going to be there, feeling a certain way.”
With any music you play, you get into the zone, and you’re trying to embody the feeling of the music, and I think this just happens to involve also some choreography. But, it’s very natural. So, although I’ve never done anything quite like this before, I also don’t feel like I need to practice “acting” or anything like that.
ZS: You know, I’ve never actually gotten my hands on a copy of the score—there are actually specific instructions about the manner in which you walk? And your countenance as you move between the stations?
KK: Yeah; for example, he says “walk very slowly” or “walk uncertainly”, or “pause a lot”. And then, there’s one transition in particular where it says that you’re supposed to look very uncertain and then walk one direction and then turn back around.
ZS: I imagine for a lot of performers that might come across very hokey…
KK: I guess it could… I’ve never seen the piece done live, so I don’t know. I think we all just have to “be there”.
ZS: Well, I’m sure you’ll do an incredible job! I’m curious: I know it’s always a bit strange for me when I’m playing a flute and electronics work (some of the Saariaho music, for instance), when there are pre-recorded tracks of the same instrument, in some cases mimicking you. What has it been like to think of “blending” with these recordings of Gidon Kremer? I find it’s a funny thing to have to think about.
KK: Yeah! It’s so interesting because the electronics are pre-recorded, but there’s a specific way that Nono wants them to be manipulated…. Do you know about what David [Adamcyk] is going to be doing?
ZS: Well, I do… But you should tell everyone else who’s reading about it!
KK: (laughs) Ok! Well, the electronics are 8 different channels, and they’re in pairs. So, there are 4 different types of material, and then during the performance David will be fading up and down the different channels. So, he brings them in and out as he sees fit with what’s happening in my part. And, the only restriction is that it should never be all 8 at once. So, it’s this very interesting combination: his part is also improvised and reacting and in dialogue with the violin part, but in a way it’s also set in stone. The track just plays.
We’ve come across some instances in rehearsal where we get to a certain part, and David realizes that a certain type of material would be great to have—but there’s just not very much happening in the track! So, it’s very controlled and very free at the same time. It’s unique that way.
ZS: So, how do you stay synchronized with the track?
KK: Oh, it’s not supposed to be synchronized.
KK: Nono talks in the score about how the relationship between the electronics and the violin is supposed to be autonomous but in dialogue. So, in my part there are a lot of fermatas and pauses and rests, and those are moments to really react to the electronics and shape the pacing of the piece. And then, of course depending on what’s happening in the electronics affects the gesture as well.
ZS: Well, I guess I was wrong—I didn’t quite know how it works. I know now! One thing that is very curious to me in the electronics is some of the speaking and the non-violin sounds in the electronics, like some of the resonant “rumbling”, or little fragments of spoken quotations. What do you make of that as someone who now knows the piece inside and out?
KK: I mean, it’s definitely a bit strange, because you wonder why he chose these different sounds, and what he’s trying to say. But, at the same time, I feel like he has created a space where the sound of the violin and the electronics exist. It all consistently sounds like it’s in the same space.
ZS: Do you find that the moments of coordination in the electronics are more—I don’t know if “complicated” is the right word—but, at least, maybe a little more difficult to shape, when it’s non-violin sounds? As opposed to passages where you’re bouncing off a pre-recording of a violin? In other words, something that’s closer in the nature of what you’re doing?
KK: Mmm, no. Because, I feel like the environmental sounds are still very gestural and they punctuate what’s going on in a certain way, and I feel like that energy is something that you can still be in dialogue with.
ZS: So, speaking of energy, one thing that I imagine is very difficult about playing “La Lontananza…” is the number of times where you have almost Romantic sounding little fragments. They almost sound like something out of Mahler or a very strange Puccini—but then very quickly afterwards you can change to very loud, brittle ways of playing, which I imagine put a lot of pressure into the instrument.
How do you keep the bow nice and light and free, and the left hand doing what it needs to do, in these more lyrical passages? But, then, at the same time, be able to turn the corner back to something really brash? Is that a question of headspace or is that a question of practicing the back and forth?
KK: Hm. Both. (laughs)
KK: Yeah, I mean, practice it, try to do it… The nice thing about the piece is that the pacing has this very timeless quality. I think it’s meant to feel organic for yourself. There are definitely surprises, but you’re not playing with an ensemble, where somebody else is playing in time and you just have to be able to do it. If I can change emotionally, quickly enough, then I know I can do it with my violin.
ZS: That’s a very beautiful way to say that, I think.
Do you find, ever, that you stretch the pacing or the proportion a little bit to make it a little bit easier to jump from one character to another? Or did you decide first what you wanted as a framework for the overall pacing and then decide from there, like, ok, I really need to make this change in this amount of time?
ZS: Hang on, you know, maybe that’s not a very good question.
KK: (laughs) No, it’s a good question! The pacing is definitely something we’ve been working on in the rehearsal process. It has become very clear to me that having a vision of the architecture of the piece is so important. And, it’s important for any work of music that you play, but I think especially so for a work like this, that’s so long and feels so improvised. If you don’t have a picture in mind it can just feel like you’re doing random stuff for a really long time—And then you’re definitely going to lose the audience. So, I’ve been focusing a lot on bigger-picture organization of the piece.
ZS: Could you give a couple examples of ways that you really try to put up some signposts or connect specific touchpoints to be able to tell a story?
KK: I don’t know if this is too technical, but there are definitely certain passages where you feel like it’s in one harmonic world. And, within that passage there will be a lot of back and forth between energetic outbursts and very long sustained notes, and then long pauses. And, I think it’s easy, especially in the pauses, to lose the shape of what’s going on. But, you know, as I keep working on the piece and getting to know it better, I’m seeing more and more “oh, this is really a corollary to something that happened before.”
ZS: I imagine in a lot of ways, compositionally, that’s very difficult to pull off. You don’t have a lot of information about a bass voice or a fundamental, since so much of it is treble register.
ZS: I imagine, then, that that touches as much on the color of the sound you choose as the specific harmonic palette?
KK: I think so!
ZS: One of the last things that was really striking to me as I was listening again this morning were these moments where the violin falls back on iconic sounds, like open strings or a very Romantic, violin-esque mode of playing. It’s not something I would usually associate with this music. I think, for instance, of Nono’s student Lachenmann, where that kind of thing would almost never happen. But, they’re very arresting moments, here, and I wonder how you think about them in the framework—as you put it—of the entire thing? Are they special moments, for you? How do you approach them musically?
KK: You know, the whole piece is written in a very expressive manner. There are long sections of music that are just soft held notes. But, Nono gives the instruction that the sound should always be searching, and there should always be a very slight fluctuation of pitch. The sound should always feel like it’s traveling. He just sets up this very mysterious, introspective kind of a feeling within the piece. Then, I think those moments of “oh, I’m actually playing a short melody” come, and it does have more of a traditional sound, and it’s kind of a relief. I get to play something that’s contained within 5 seconds, as opposed to an entire movement as suspended and light as possible.
But there’s also a moment that quite frankly I’ve been struggling with, which is one that is very motivic, traditional writing. It sounds so weird! I was asking David about it in rehearsals—I feel strange every time I get to this part—and we were working on it. I don’t know; I’m not sure what else to say.
ZS: Yeah. It’s a very beguiling piece of music, I think. Have you had a chance yet to read Paul Griffiths essay about the work?
KK: I did, soon after Rick sent it out. The general feeling of it really sets the stage for the experience of the piece very well, I think!
ZS: I’m looking forward to going back and reading it again, myself, but I agree it’s a great way to set the stage. Is there anything else you’d like people to know? Any ways of listening or things you think will help bring people more insight as they experience this amazing performance and amazing work?
KK: This is not necessarily something that’s particular to this work—it’s just something that I hope people do when they listen to music, anyway—but I think it’s important to be very open. I always find it helpful, especially hearing music you’ve never heard before, not to have a pre-conceived notion of what’s going to happen. Just be there and be open to the experience…