Mari Kimura

March 4, 2009
Suzanne Thorpe

The dynamically talented violinist/composer Mari Kimura has brought together an extraordinary group of Japanese composers for the event Tradition/E-novation, taking place on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at Merkin Hall in New York City. The compositions are new works commissioned by Music From Japan, to be performed by Mari Kimura (violin), Mojibei Tokiwazu V (shamisen) and Tomomi Adachi (computer). The program is a reflection of Kimura's demanding appetite for new and challenging methods of inserting traditional instruments into the electronic realm, and an opportunity to hear a sampling of exploratory music from Japan. Following is an interview with Kimura that lends some insight into the multi-dimensional ideas of the virtuoso violinist and composer.

AE:  Mari, you are well known for your prowess on the violin in the classical realm, as well as for your groundbreaking experimental techniques and challenging electronic compositions. Can you tell us a bit about how you evolved from a traditional violinist into a contemporary performer?

MK:  Well, I went to the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Japan, a well-known school of music for classical violin. There I learned Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bach, you know the classical repertoire. But I wanted to go mountain climbing, no, camping, with a group of girls at the school. They were composers, and I really wanted to go camping with them, but they wouldn't let me unless I promised to play their pieces. Of course I agreed, I was curious anyway. The other students were happy performing the same material, but I wanted to do more, so I began playing my fellow students' compositions. I also took a few courses in composition at that time.

Then I went to Boston University, where I continued my studies. While there I took an electronic music class, and it was all men who were composers or communication majors. I was the only performer. There I was introduced to music concrète, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri, voltage control, and tape splicing. And I thought, now this is so interesting. At the same time, Mario Davidovsky was working at MIT on his Synchronisms No. 9. I was really devouring his work, but I was too afraid to approach him. So I went to the concert, which was really wonderful. Coincidently, my next-door neighbor was Marvin Minsky, co-founder of Media Lab at MIT. He told me I should be a composer, and, well, once that suggestion was made, it opened a path for me. It took my coming to America to do that, mind you. In Japan, it is determined at an early age what you are good at, and you get on the escalator and ride your way to the top. Here, if you are a good mathematician and a good cook, you can be a professional at both.

Following BU I attended Julliard where I got my doctorate in performance. While there, two encounters helped to expand my thinking. First, I took a class called Acoustics in Architecture with Cyril Harris. I had no idea how famous he was, and I called him at home to see if I could sit in on his class. He was very nice and allowed this. When I told my father, who is an architect, and who had studied Harris, he was appalled at my brashness! But the class still serves me well. I walk into a space and I think, hmmm, I can do this, I can do that. I was really glad I took it. And then I was finally able to study with Davidovsky. I called him, and told him I was a fan and that I wanted to do an interview with him! After that I discovered that Julliard had an exchange program with Columbia, so I was able to study composition with him as well.

From there I went to Stanford, and spent some time at CCRMA. My first computer was a Next computer. Do you remember them? They were before the Macs. I didn't even know how to turn it on. I asked this guy in a t-shirt, how do you turn this thing on? He showed me it was one of the keys, and it turns out he was one of its developers. My time at CCRMA was so important. I really found it inspiring, and found it to be my birthplace with electronic music, premiering my first piece there using a quadraphonic system.

AE:  I know of your work with LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) in which you perform with an ensemble of robotic instruments. It seems that you have a philosophy behind combining traditional instruments with non-traditional instruments. Can you talk about that?

MK:  I don’t know that it's a philosophy. My thought is that artists in any time, at any given period of history, use the tools that are around them. The violin is my instrument, I know it, and there isn't any reason to change that. But we live in an electronic age and I'm also interested in electronic instruments.

AE:  As a performer and composer how do you interact with software programmers?

MK:  I'm dealing with a 200-year-old instrument. And like working with the violin, I would like to allow myself to grow and mature with software that was developed for me. But it's not easy. I'll be using something that was given to me by a programmer, and I try it, and I have questions, and by the time I get good at it, they tell me that they aren't using it anymore because they're developing new software! So the technology never has time to mature into a valid tool for expression. Right now I’m sticking to software that's only a year old. Artistry is experience. It's empirical. You have to have a tool and practice with it, and that often isn't easy in today's fast-changing technological culture.

AE:  What inspired the upcoming program, Tradition/E-novation?

MK:  It was a really a great prospect for me to be able to select composers from my native Japan. I found very unique people who represent their culture in a distinct way. If you're a composer from an Eastern culture, it is expected that you'll incorporate that historical culture, or an element of it, into your work. Well, if that's your voice, then fine, but if it's just a marketing thing, it seems very fake to me. The composers I chose are of Japanese nationality but they represent the modern Japan. They express themselves not only from being Japanese, but from what they have to say musically about their lives today.

AE:  And the pieces that you are performing? Can you talk about them?

MK:  The shamisen master Mojibei Tokiwazu V is a fifth-generation shamisen performer. He plays for the orchestra of Kabuki theater. He is a thoroughbred of traditional Japanese music. But he is very open-minded. He can improvise. He created the Elvis Shamisen Band. He is really wild. Japanese traditional artists are looking for ways to expand outside of their traditional milieu, and for this performance, he is basically going to improvise. My computer system will take him to places with real-time sampling, and I have an IRCAM bowing system that allows me to play a virtual shamisen, and I will track him. He can also play a virtual violin. I'm really looking forward to it.

AE:  Thanks Mari. We're looking forward to the program as well.

For more information about Mari Kimura and the Tradition/E-novation program, visit the EMF Productions website.

EMF Productions