Women's History Month: Ariana Kim Champions Women's Compositions for Violin

March 7, 2016, 11:55 PM · Wouldn't it be great to just send a quick e-mail to Mozart about a bowing, or ask Bach what exactly he meant?

When you work with a living composer, you actually get to do that. For violinist Ariana Kim, that was one of the most rewarding things about creating her debut album, Routes of Evanescence. The album features works by women composers, and all but one are living composers.

For example, the album features two works by Grammy-winning composer Augusta Read Thomas. Kim has come to know the composer well enough to call her by her nickname, "Gusty."

"I was able to go her house and play the two pieces on the disc for her in person, to get her feedback and her ideas, and to listen to her speak about her inspirations," Kim said, speaking to me over Skype from Milan, where she's on sabbatical from teaching at Cornell University. "That was worth more than anyone could ever ask; it's a dream! We wish we could call up Beethoven and ask him what he meant. But to be able shoot an e-mail and get a response the next day is such a luxury, and then to be able to play something for a composer in the flesh is an even greater luxury."

Today Kim premieres her video of Thomas's 1995 work for solo violin, "Incantation," which appears on the album, in honor of Women's History Month. Have a listen:

Augusta Read Thomas's "Incantation" is "a beautiful homage to a friend of hers, Catherine Tait, a wonderful violinist who, at the time, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer," Kim said. Tait premiered the piece just a few weeks before her untimely death at age 44. "I hear so much: the gamut of emotions that one might experience, when faced with such a diagnosis," said Kim, who has played the piece for many years. "For me it ranges from fear, disbelief, anger, resentment, questioning -- to almost a sense of peaceful resignation and farewell, of love, admiration and partnership for those around her. You hear, through Gusty's voice, all these different angles of the human emotions that one might experience." (Here is the link for the sheet music to that piece, for those who might want to learn it.)

Kim developed a taste for new music early on, from her father, Young-Nam Kim, who teaches violin at the University of Minnesota and is founder and director of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota. Kim's parents, both violinists, also served as her first teachers. Her mother, Ellen Kim, who specializes in teaching young students, ushered Ariana through all the Suzuki books, then turned her over to her father. She went on to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Juilliard, studying violin with Robert Mann. Kim also is a member of a number of chamber groups, including The Knights, Ne(x)tworks, and as of last month, the Aizuri Quartet, which is in residence at the Curtis Institute.

The seed for Kim's entire album of women's compositions was probably the one piece on the album that was not written by a living composer: the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) (mother to folk musician Pete Seeger). Kim came to know that piece while she was a student at Juilliard, and "I was captivated by the fact it was written in 1926," Kim said. "It is quite pioneering. Women had just secured the right to vote, and here was a woman who was just blazing a trail, leaving her tracks, leaving dust behind her as a really prominent figure in the composition world. It was pretty rare at that time, for women to be active in the performance world, let alone the composition world. That was inspiring to me, and as I got to know her pieces, I thought, 'I bet there are a lot of other great pieces by women composers that we don't necessarily know about or aren't often performed.'"

Nonetheless, "this project never stood out to me as a sort of soap box project or a feminist agenda," Kim said. "I just found this collection of great pieces written by American women that aren't so often championed, and my hope is that I'm able to bring more awareness and more love to these great pieces."

The newest piece on the album, "Still Life Crumbles," was written in 2012 by Tonia Ko, who is currently a doctoral candidate at Cornell. "It's an interesting pairing of violin and harpsichord in the 21st century," said Kim, who performed the work and the other sonatas on the album with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute. "We think of that pairing in the 17th or 18th century, but she brings it into the 21st century with a 21st century language and a post-tonal style of writing."

She also includes Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's 1973-74 "Sonata in Three Movements" for violin and piano, as well as several bluegrass-inspired pieces, including "The Moon in the Sand," composed in 2007 by Jennifer Curtis, who plays mandolin with Kim for the piece. Curtis and Kim discovered their mutual interest in bluegrass by chance, while they were graduate students together at Juilliard.

"Jen and I are classically trained, but we both grew up going to bluegrass fiddle camp," Kim said. While Kim's father was teaching at Gunther Schuller's Festival at Sandpoint, her mother, in an attempt to keep three children busy in northern Idaho, enrolled them in a fiddle camp called the Fiddler's Hatchery. "It was a great place," Kim said. "It wasn't just fiddling, we had experience with blue grass tunes, line dancing, contradancing, calling, string trick class, juggling, basket weaving and jazz improv -- it was an American folk camp, essentially. I hold that very dear." Likewise, "Jen grew up in Appalachia; she has memories of jamming with her family and friends on her front porch in North Carolina," Kim said. As a bonus piece on the album, the two of them made a two-fiddle arrangement of "Wheel Hoss," a Bill Monroe tune.

Kim borrowed the album's title from a poem by Emily Dickinson called, A Route of Evanescence. "Emily Dickinson is another fantastic American woman, and the concept of those two words 'route' and 'evanescence' really spoke to me," Kim said. "In the idea of a route: a composer or musician finding their own path, finding their route, their language, whether it be in composition or whether it be as a performer. And then the idea of evanescence: music exists only in that one experience, at a live performance. The flip side of that is when you're under a microphone, that evanescent experience is then captured on tape."

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March 11, 2016 at 09:10 PM · What may be the EARLIEST work by a woman composer to survive is easily arranged for violin and piano. In fact the arrangement could be played off the cuff from the original vocal version, without bothering to write out a violin part.


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