Interview with Jennifer Koh: Bringing Music into the Present

May 2, 2014, 10:15 PM · For Jennifer Koh, seeking out 21st century composers is an ongoing process.

"I actually will fly out for premieres because it's important to me to hear premieres live," Jennifer said when she spoke with me over the phone last month. We talked about new music, her approach to commissioning new works, her latest recording with Jaime Laredo called Two x Four, her stint as Albert Einstein in "Einstein on the Beach," and her new set of videos about life backstage called "Off Stage on Record."

"I listen to a lot of new works, and I also spend a lot of time researching new works," said Jennifer. "As musicians, what makes our art form vital is new works. Every day that passes that we're away from the time of Brahms, away from the time of Beethoven, is a day further from that society, a day further from that time. The real umbilical cord that connects us to that music is music of today. It's much easier to connect through contemporary music because music is an art, and it's always a reflection of our time and our society, even though it's very much a personal form of expression. These composers are alive now, in this time period."

Jennifer, who is on the string faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, last spoke with us in 2010, when she had just released her recording, Rhapsodic Musings, with late-20th and 21st century works by Elliott Carter, John Zorn, Augusta Read Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Since then she has also released The Singing Rooms in 2010; Bach & Beyond, Part 1 in 2012; and Signs, Games + Messages in 2013. Many of those recordings also included new works; in fact, it's pretty hard to get a handle on how many new works she's commissioned and premiered, not to mention the existing new works that she has championed by playing.

Is she very involved in the composition process?

"I think I do tend to get more involved when I collaborate with composers, at least they tell me I'm much more involved in the process than other performers are," Jennifer said. "I'm quite interested in things like notation and composition in general. But no, in terms of the actual material, it definitely comes from them and from them alone."

Once there is a score, she tends to get involved in matters of orchestration and notation. For example, she might see that that particular theme is important but question whether the orchestration will sufficiently highlight it. Though she did not study composition in school, she has played many premieres and worked with many composers. And when it comes to the whole process, "I find very interesting," she said.

Her current recording with Jaime Laredo is kind of an extension of Bach and Beyond, her series of three recitals that relate Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas to works by modern-day composers. In the case of Two x Four, she is relating Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (which we lovingly call the Bach Double) to three modern works by living composers David Ludwig, Anna Clyne and Philip Glass.

As a Suzuki student Jennifer surely studied the Bach Double, though she doesn't remember playing it as a child. "I remember the first time I played the Bach Double as an adult, and that was with Jaime," Jennifer said. By then she was in her early 20s and was Jaime Laredo's student at the Curtis Institute. They performed the piece together several times while she was still a student: with the St. Louis Symphony, the Curtis Chamber Orchestra and the Vermont Symphony. "It was such a great pleasure," she said, and what's more: even then, he was pointing her toward independent musical thinking. "One of the signs of a great teacher is that he always allows his students to be themselves -- he would never say here's the fingering, here's the phrasing, here's the bowing. One of the greatest gifts he gave me, as a teacher and a mentor, is that he believed in me before I believed in myself."

How did the student-teacher relationship develop into a more professional partnership? "It's absolutely all due to Jaime," Jennifer said. "Making that transition into being colleagues was something that he was very insistent upon, so I credit him with that ease of transition." That doesn't mean he no longer mentors her, though; "I definitely still ask him for his advice and for guidance, even today!"

Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo
Photo by Juergen Frank, courtesy the artist

For their joint project, Jennifer paired the Bach Double with like works: Philip Glass's existing work for two solo violins and string orchestra, Echorus; and two commissioned works, which she asked composers Ludwig and Clyne write in the tradition of the Bach Double. The results: David Ludwig's four-movement Seasons Lost, inspired by the idea of climate change and the unraveling of our familiar seasons; and Anna Clyne's rhythmically amorphous and high-in-the-sky Prince of Clouds, inspired by the idea of musical lineage.

The name, "The Prince of Clouds" comes from a Baudelaire poem, "The Albatross." "(Anna Clyne) and I also bonded because I was an English major in college, at Oberlin, and I particularly loved French symbolist poetry," Jennifer said. "'The Albatross' comes from French symbolism, and it's all about the struggle to reach transcendence, and to reach beyond our human-ness. Albatrosses are so incredibly beautiful when they're in the sky, so elegant. But when they're on the ground, they're quite clumsy creatures. Their wings are very large. So the poem is about reaching that point of transcendence, where you can truly soar. She did take the title from it, but I don't know how much of the music is actually related to it."

As for "Four Seasons Lost," David Ludwig says in the program notes that it "is the story of the time before our winters and summers ran together; the time before warm rain where there should be snow, and deadly storms where there should be cool autumn days. I remember from my childhood growing up on the East Coast the four seasons that were once distinct, but that are now lost."

It's a piece that starts from a vantage beyond denial, acknowledging a changed world and exploring our emotional reaction to it.

"Artists can present ideas in a way that opens people, versus isolating people," Jennifer said. "That's the function of art. It opens experience, it doesn't close it." In this day of highly savvy online marketing that panders to each customer's pre-set, personal preferences, we could use a bit of opening up. "It used to be that you would go into a CD store or a book store and you had the possibility that you would find something that you had never seen before: a book on something you had never seen, or an artist you'd never heard of," she said. "Now, even when you do an Amazon search, it always finds topics or items that are like what you just looked at. It's never about finding something outside of your comfort zone."

"I find that very compelling, in terms of what it's doing to our society, how it stratifies society," Jennifer said. "Art is a place where you can open people to experiences outside of the every-day experience. Even if it's an emotional thing, it can help you reach an emotional point that you don't access on an everyday level, in your everyday experience."

And speaking of getting out of your comfort zone, Jennifer recently played Albert Einstein in a recent revival of the five-hour, 1976 stage creation Einstein on the Beach, by composer Philip Glass, director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs. The recent show started in 2012 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and ran through 2013. She played shows in a number of cities, including Berkeley (Calif.), Los Angeles, New York and Berlin. The role required her to undergo a serious physical transformation with a wig and an hour in make-up, not to mention getting comfortable with stage acting.

Jennifer Koh as Einstein
Jennifer Koh as Albert Einstein. Photo: Lucie Jansch

"It was incredible; I loved it," Jennifer said. "When I first went into the situation, I was scared. I've never acted before; I have no training whatsoever in that. And I was very intimidated when I first met Bob Wilson, but when we were in Ann Arbor, doing rehearsals, and I saw what kind of artist he is and what kind of perfectionist he is, I just felt like I had found a kindred spirit."

In fact, the two connected so strongly and on such a personal level, that they're looking at plans for more collaborations. "He's actually going to be staging all of Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin," Jennifer said. The preliminary name for the project is "The Life and Death of Johann Sebastian Bach." If the title sounds a little all-encompassing, it's meant to. Jennifer said she feels that the Sonatas and Partitas, played as a whole, constitute an all-encompassing cycle. "First of all, they were never commissioned works; they were works that Bach simply needed to write, out of a creative and personal need to write them," she said. "They were probably never played in public during his lifetime."

"Also, they were written over a 17-year span in his life," she said. "You can see how he develops as an artist, over the course of these works. The first Sonata and the first Partita are very much within the structures that had existed before him. For example, the first movement in the first sonata ends very clearly, back on the tonic. The fugue that follows is very fugue-y, with a theme that is very easy to layer. Already when you hear the second Sonata, the first movement does not end on the tonic, it ends on the dominant; and the fugue is 50 percent longer than the first Sonata's fugue, with a theme that is not very fugal. So you see already how he begins to break out of the mold. The subtext to this idea of 'The Life and Death of Johann Sebastian Bach' is also the birth and development of an artist, that also an underlying theme in (the sonatas and partitas) as well."

Jennifer has also recently started series of videos called "Off Stage on Record," and here's a sampling:

"I grew up in a non-musical family, so the idea of having a life in music was quite foreign," Jennifer said. "I remember I was very curious beforehand, what does this life actually entail? So everything I've learned about the field has been while I've been doing it. I wanted to share what I've learned with other people and with other students. So (this series of videos is) about things as fundamental -- but incredibly important -- as how you take care of your body, with the wear and tear of practicing, and also touring constantly. It's about collaborating with composers, how does that happen? How do you work towards the premiere, how you begin that process? It's also about behind-the-scenes things: all the people that it takes to get you on stage, from production to managers to publicists. One of the things I've been very aware of is that I could never show up on stage if it weren't for all of these people behind the scenes."

* * *

Jennifer Koh plays the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor (Jan 30, 2011 at 92nd Street Y):


May 3, 2014 at 07:52 AM · I liked the Chaconne very much. Very intimate, still very clear. But also very interesting how she holds her violin: it creeps up left and up left and up left, until her chinrest is basically an ear-rest! I found that fascinating because I have this tendency too. Very un-Milstein, whose violin is really incredibly to the right.

May 3, 2014 at 05:03 PM · It's a bit risky playing the violin with your tongue stuck out of your mouth. Didn't they fit her with an artificial tongue for playing Einstein?

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