The Los Angeles music scene has gained another powerful force in experimental music. Mari Kimura, a maverick performer, composer, and researcher, came to California this year as Professor of Music in the Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology (ICIT) program at UC Irvine. The position is fitting for Kimura, whose creative work fuses violin performance with research in extended techniques and performative technologies. As an introduction for our readers who may not be familiar with her work, I sat down with Kimura to talk about her past, current projects, and what she sees on the horizon for modern music.
Kimura is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking work in subharmonics—notes produced at fixed intervals below the fundamental of a violin string. She was the first to discover and master the procedure for producing these tones, but has also composed much of the core literature using the technique. One of her first such compositions, Gemini (1993), uses the distinct sound of both the subharmonic octave and the subharmonic minor third to expand not only the pitch range of the instrument, but also the timbral variety available on the violin.
The other significant contribution of Kimura’s work is in augmented performance practice. From electro-acoustic works, to intermedia performances, to playing alongside guitar robots, to motion-sensing gloves and bows, there is always an interest in tapping into the physicality of performance, rather than just the sounds. This strain of her work has received major interest from granting foundations and universities, including exhibitions at CCRMA Stanford, a teaching position the Interactive Computer Music Performance program at Juilliard (where Mari has taught since 1998), and a collaboration with IRCAM Paris that evolved into the Future Music Lab of the Atlantic Music Festival.
From all of this, you might be surprised to learn how Kimura first came to work with electronic music. As a graduate student coming to the United States to study at Boston University, she had tested out of theory and history and so needed additional classes to satisfy the full-time requirements of her student visa. She enrolled in the only class remaining, Electronic Music, in which she was the only woman, and the only musician. Soon she would be splicing a reel-to-reel project to manipulate a recording of violin pizzicato, and gaining familiarity with early studio synthesizers like the Buchla, ARP and Kurzweil. But until that credit-filling decision, she had no idea electronic music even existed.
Kimura says that it was while listening to the opening of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, No.6, that something came over her: “That famous G [the opening reversed piano-decay gesture at pitch G5] … I basically kind of fell out of the chair. Oh my god, I thought, I had to do that on the violin.” That last part—”on the violin”—turns out to be an especially important impulse for Kimura, who was not interested in abandoning tradition completely for rotary dials and faders. “I have the best synthesizer in my hands already—the violin—so why should I try to make something that is going to be inferior to that? I would rather process or combine it with something else.”
Beyond the new sounds and methods, her time in the United States was also introducing her to alternative career paths that she had not considered as a classical violinist. In her upbringing, as she puts it, “you are going up the escalator and you do not really look around.” So when Marvin Minsky (a longtime supporter of Kimura’s work and pioneer in artificial intelligence at MIT) suggested she should start composing, “it sort of took my blinders off, and from there my life got kind of mixed up!” Mixed-up turned out to take the form of continuing her studies at Juilliard, with composition lessons at Columbia with Davidovsky himself.
The composer-performer-researcher trifecta gives Kimura’s music a natural balance rare among contemporary composers. She likens her approach to cooking; sometimes you know exactly what you want and use the exact recipe, but other times “you go to the supermarket with the intention to get fish, so you just talk to the fish guy and ask ‘what is good today?’” Sometimes the fish of the day is an interesting technique, as was the case for her Canon Élastique, which was inspired by the ring modulation effect. And while putting techniques into practice is crucial to her work, Kimura points out that “ideas like that could not be born without the technology.”
As for the future of music, Kimura is still searching and experimenting—she was inspired by a recent visit to the Allosphere, an immersive audio-visual laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and maintains an active schedule of recitals, research, and collaborations. But perhaps most important for the future is Kimura’s dedication to encouraging and facilitating her colleagues and students through her programs at Future Music Lab, Juilliard, and now at UC Irvine:
I do something nobody else does, but I also notice that there’s no place for me. I found myself with a machete having to clear the road that I am walking, so I thought ‘with other people like myself following me, we can all take machetes and widen the path. And then the people behind us can go faster and further.’ So that’s my thought for doing all this teaching;
I am too late to get wherever we’re going, but I can make the street wider and faster.
See below for Mari’s upcoming events, or visit her website for more information, videos, and descriptions of her work.
- June 22: Masterclass & presentation at Festival Chigiana, Siena
- June 25-26: Masterclasses & recital, Conservatory of Salerno
- June 27-28: Masterclass & recital, Conservatory of Sassari, Sardinia
- June 30: Recital at the Accademia Reale di Spagna
- Opening ARTESCIENZA Festival, Rome
- July 1-29: Director of Future Music Lab, Atlantic Music Festival
- Aug 11-19: New Music for Strings Festival, Aarhus, Denmark
- Aug 20-25: New Music for Strings Festival , Reykjavik, Iceland
- September: Co-producing festival at Tenri Cultural Institute, New York with
- Harvestworks Media Arts Center