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Mari Kimura




The following interview appeared in 20th-Century Music in January, 1999:

Mari Kimura is a violinist and composer who has taught at New York University and teaches a graduate class in computer music interactive performance at the Juilliard School. She studied violin in her native Japan, where her father is a professor of architecture and her mother a professor of law. She continued her violin studies at Boston University (1985-88). There, she first came into contact with electronic music, and from 1988, she continued her violin and computer study at the Juilliard School, earning a doctorate in violin performance. She has studied composition with Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University and computer music at Stanford. While at Juilliard, she discovered a novel bowing technique called Ďsubharmonics,í which extends the range of the violin down to one octave below the lowest fundamental note (open G string) without retuning the instrument. She has incorporated this technique in her own works for violin, and she has a growing list of technical publications on acoustics and violin and computer performance practice. She has just been awarded a grant from the American Composers Forum to complete a Violin Concerto, which will be premiered next year in Mexico.I spoke with Mari Kimura on September 26, 1998 (for no particular reason, George Gershwinís hundredth birthday).


DB: How does a violinist who has studied things like the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos get into contemporary violin-playing and composing?

MK: When I was in Japan at the Toho School, I was very much attuned to learning my traditional skills -- my Tchaikovsky, Brahms concertos and so on. But at the same time, many of my friends and fellow students were composers and as a result, I played their music and I enjoyed it a lot. Also I took more theory and composition classes and orchestration classes that normally, a violinist would not be required to take. So I enjoyed them very much. But then once I came to the States as a violinist and meeting with all the people around me, little by little bit I was opened to other things besides being an interpreter.

DB: Were you interested in becoming a composer? Was that part of your motivation?

MK: Not at all. I was not even thinking of it. Composing didnít occur to me until one day, a man by the name of Marvin Minsky, who is a professor at MIT in artificial intelligence, who is the co-founder of Media Lab at MIT, who lived two doors away from me - we became friends since we were neighbors - one day, he and I were talking in his kitchen and he said, ďWell, Mari, why donít you start composing? What are you going to do if you lose your hand?Ē That was a joke, but that one instance of conversation - together with everything that was going on at Boston University - in a weird way opened my mind. All of a sudden, I thought, ďOkay, well. I donít have to be just a violinist. I can do other things.Ē

DB: How did you happen to come to Boston University to study from Japan?

MK: When I was in Japan, I studied with a violinist, very well known in Japan, named Toshiya Eto. He studied at Curtis under Efrem Zimbalist and made a Carnegie Hall debut when he was very young. Anyway, he was friends with Roman Totenberg who still teaches at Boston University. So I was sent there with his recommendation. So I went there as a straight violinist playing Tchaikovsky and Romantics. Thatís how I got to Boston.

DB: Was it before you got to know Marvin Minsky that you got into computers and electronics?

MK: Well, at Boston University, I was getting my Masterís in Music as violinist. And as a foreign student - I donít know if you are aware - you have to have a certain number of credits to qualify to have a student visa. The last semester at BU, I needed one more credit or something like this, and I had already fulfilled all of my requirements. I needed to take something, so I decided to take something that I had never done before, which was electronic music. I didnít know anything. I just stepped into this classroom and first of all, everybody was all men. There were no women - I was the only one. And second of all, they were all composers or communication majors - radio persons or engineers. I was the only performer, musician, but the teacher took me very kindly. And thatís when I learned everything about voltage control, tape splicing, synthesizers - and Iíd never seen one before. At the same time, I met Marvin Minsky.

DB: Did that impress you enough to go and buy a home electronic studio?

MK: Well, what happened in that class was that they played a lot of music from the past, music concrete, Ď50s and Ď60s music by composers like Stockhausen to Varese. And in that class, I heard a piece of music by Mario Davidovsky, who composed a series of Synchronisms, at least ten of them, for solo instrument with tape. Thereís one particular piece of music that our professor played, which was Synchronisms No. 6 - he wrote the piece for piano and tape. And when I heard this piece, I felt like I was sliding down from the chair, I was so struck by the kind of beauty that I had never heard before. And I decided, ďWell, I need to do this with the violin. I really need to meet this guy.Ē It just happened that, this was in 1988, and he was teaching at Columbia University but on sabbatical and had a commission to write Synchronisms for violin by Media Lab, the place that Marvin started. So he was actually involved in and had a premiere done at MIT. Of course, I went to the premiere, and I saw the man. You know, heís very big and he looks like a man of stature, and I couldnít dare to go up to him and introduce myself. But I thought, ďThere he is and heís at Columbia, so maybe one day Iíll meet him.Ē That was my motivation to start.

DB: So you didnít go up and introduce yourself to him that day.

MK: Not that day, but eventually I did.

DB: So what happened after Boston University?

MK: While I was at Boston University, I took a summer music position in Blue Hill, Maine. It was organized by my teacher Totenberg. And that summer, Joseph Fuchs, who was teaching at Juilliard, came to give a master class. I played for him, and he invited me to study with him in Juilliard. That was the year I was finishing BU, so I thought, ďOkay, the choice is whether to go to New York or go back to Japan. What should I do?Ē So of course, I decided to come to New York, though I thought I might get killed or something like that. I thought, well, itís worth it. I decided to come to Juilliard for one year and study with Joseph Fuchs, and Iíve stayed ever since.

DB: What happened at Juilliard?

MK: When I came here, I learned that Juilliard had just made a relationship with Yamaha Corporation to have a lot of synthesizers and MIDI equipment. When I learned that, I thought that, well, maybe I can hang around there. I went there and introduced myself and told the teacher that I had one year of electronic music at BU. Actually, it was half a year, but I didnít say that. He said, ďOh! Would you like to become an assistant?Ē I said, ďSure!Ē At that time, I didnít know anything about MIDI, but since I was going to be an assistant, I had to learn before the class. I had to teach myself. Thatís how I learned MIDI. Then I taught the students.

DB: Did any of your students go on to any repute as composers in their own right?

MK: There were some composers. There were some performers who wanted to learn whatís available. As a matter of fact, I donít want to jump ahead too much, but right now I teach a class at Juilliard in interactive computer music where I teach both composers and performers. Compared to back in my days, theyíre much more sophisticated than I was. Weíre talking about maybe seven or eight years in the interval.

DB: The equipment is always changing, always evolving. Do you have a problem keeping up (a) budgetwise and (b) technologywise, learningwise?

MK: That is the one main problem about electronic music in general. I talk about it very frequently because as a performer, a traditionally trained performer, by nature you are very tight with the craft and art of your instrument, right? Like the violin, which is practically 300 years old. Whereas when the electronic music equipment comes along, they may be developed right now or has been for a few years or has to be updated next year, and therefore, you donít have the time and effort that you put into a normal instrument. You have to learn every other year, so there is no maturity, there is no sophistication that normally goes into classical training. That is one aspect that is an advantage for electronic music, that one tends to go for something new and something better, equipmentwise.

DB: Thatís why some of those early works by Stockhausen and others are dated, because itís tied to some antiquated machine that may not be available anymore.

MK: Exactly. But then the composers also feel -- for instance, Davidovsky. He has mastered his craft as a composer, so he knows his stuff. But itís very hard for him to venture out into something new. Therefore, good electronic composers are left behind in the technology sense. Itís very difficult.

DB: Youíve gotten as much into physics and engineering as music, it seems. How else did you augment your study as musician, composer, or even engineer?

MK: Well, Iím not really an engineer. Iím self-taught in every aspect except for music. But while I was at Juilliard (for the one year that I thought I was going to be there), Juilliard and Columbia had established an exchange program that year that I came, so I of course decided to take advantage of it. What I was thinking at the time was that after a semester of learning about electronic music, I became interested in how my sound played on the violin would transmit to the audience. Of course, you canít hear it when youíre playing on the stage. But that has a lot to do with the room you are playing in, the auditorium or concert hall, and I wanted to know how the sound of the violin reached the audience. In order to learn that, I needed to learn about architectural acoustics, and of course, nothing like that was available at Juilliard. So what I did was go through the Columbia catalogue and this course in the School of Architecture called Architectural Acoustics. It was a graduate course offered there and was taught by a professor named Cyril Harris.

DB: The grand old man of acoustics.

MK: Yeah, but at that time, I didnít know who he was. I didnít even know how famous he was. But what I did was I called him and asked if I could sit in class. I didnít need anything, I just wanted to sit in. He was very kind and admitted me into the class. So I took his class, and I learned about architectural acoustics. And the first year at Juilliard, therefore, I ended up drawing a section and plan of the auditorium. And I had to design my own room with a correct calculation of reverberation time with materials and sound absorbency coefficients and all that, so it was a pretty strange year at Juilliard for me.

DB: Letís take the jump to subharmonics. First of all, what is a subharmonic?

MK: Okay. It is a very complicated phenomenon that happens on the string. The result is that I can now play the notes on the violin -- Normally, the open G string is the lowest note on the violin. But then with this technique, which is an extended bowing technique, I can play the notes below the open G without changing the tuning.

DB: Whatís the lowest note that you can achieve?

MK: Well, the notes that I can play with a good amount of control as a musical element would be one octave below the open G, which resides in the cello range.

DB: Do you have to play near the bridge to do that?

MK: Itís a very good question. It really depends on what note you are playing, actually. This production of subharmonics has a lot to do with changing the bow pressure and speed combined with precise placement of the bow on the string. And when youíre playing harmonics, like natural harmonics on the string, the left finger is just slightly touching the string instead of pressing down.

DB: Right. Creating intermediate nodes in the string.

MK: Right. Instead of pressing down against the fingerboard. But playing subharmonics, unlike harmonics, the left finger should be pressed down to the fingerboard normally like youíre playing normal notes. The bow arm creates subharmonics by applying a little extra pressure on the string.

DB: So you can pretty much create any degree between, say, the open G and an octave below. Is that right?

MK: Yes, I have lots of different ways. It gets very complicated, but since I have found that I can play subharmonics, which are one octave below. So when I play open G, I get the G below. So when I play middle C on the G string, then you get the viola open C.

DB: But you can also use the open G string to create degrees there like the minor second and major second, right?

MK: Right. When I was developing my skills to stabilize my octave subharmonics, in the course of that, I started to hear other intervals. So I thought maybe I could stabilize them, and as a result, I started getting minor seconds, minor thirds. On a good day, a perfect fifth and so on.

DB: Since you have the distinction of being the inventor or discoverer of subharmonics, how did you come upon the technique?

MK: When I was a teen-ager, I had a teacher who was trained in Russia named Armand Weisbord. And he had taught me lots of techniques to enhance my violin playing in a very, letís say, in an unconventional way. And one of those tricks - it was like a trick to achieve something that normally, you wonít get by just studiously practicing. And one of those things would be like touch the, letís say, the A-flat on the G string in the first position with the first finger, and then the next thing is touch your nose while you are holding the violin. You know what I mean?

DB: Yeah.

MK: You have your violin on your chin, but youíre touching your nose while playing. And then what it does is make your arpeggios faster. Anyway, one of these tricks was taught to me. When you play something like a Romantic concerto such as Tchaikovsky and Brahms, you have in a climax, some very high notes you have to sustain on the E string fortissimo. And when those notes are not notes such as E or G or D which can resonate on an open string - Iím talking about notes like B-flat or F-sharp or something that doesnít resonate very well - you need to sustain your bow in a very controlled manner that you can have a very loud and forceful sound. Sometimes you have trouble with that. And one of his tricks was that you draw the bow on the E string with that note very slowly and with a little bit more pressure from the bottom to the tip of the bow. And so you get this kh-kh-kh-kh like, very scratchy noise. But then, you have to sustain that for the whole stroke while trying to listen to some faint note that sounds like itís maybe one octave below that note and try to listen for the whole stroke. So I was doing that for many years to improve on my strokes. And now I think back on it. What it does is to make your strokes smoother and contribute to making an equal distribution of your speed and pressure for the whole stroke. Therefore, when you play normally after that exercise, your sound is louder. It was magic. It was something that I couldnít explain but just followed his advice. But anyway, I was doing this for my whole life. And at Juilliard while I was practicing my repertoire in the winter of 1990-91 or Ď91-Ď92, I canít remember, I was practicing my Ravel Tzigane in the winter and I was playing one of those first phrases on the solo part before the harp or piano comes in. And there were some high notes up on the G string, and I had to get a very strong but forceful sound on these notes. So I thought, ďOkay, Iíll do the same thing as I do on the E string.Ē I did the scratchy thing and tried to hear an octave below. And of course, the sound became better and louder. But then at that point, I thought, ďHmm. Iím hearing this low note. Lower than an open G, and my goodness, if I eliminate all the transient noise that comes in, do I end up with the octave below?!Ē I was doing it for fun, basically, and started practicing trying to sustain this note where I can sustain this lower sound. Little by little, I was able to speak for maybe five seconds or maybe not even that. Maybe half a second to start with. And then made it longer and longer. It was just about two weeks. My poor neighbors! But one of them was deaf.

DB: I see. So youíre scratching and scratching.

MK: I was just scratching away. It was very cold and wintry, and I didnít have anything else better to do. So thatís how I developed it.

DB: Interesting. Now, I tried the same thing the other day on my violin, and I could only get flattening down to a minor second below G. So itís a matter of pressing down very hard?

MK: Well, itís a very tricky thing. Itís not that hard. Itís more like you click into some kind of a mode. So there is a certain amount of pressure, and the location of the bow on the string has a lot to do with what interval you achieve.

DB: Are you able to achieve them very easily? Thereís a piece you wrote called Six Caprices for Subharmonics. Are you able to play it repeatedly in the same way every time? Do you have that much control over subharmonics now?

MK: Thatís a very good question because in order to use it in music, as you said exactly, it has to be dependable. I have many friends in the scientific world who are amateur musicians, my husband included, who pick up their instruments and try it. And they can make the sound in a more arbitrary way. But what I have to do is make it very stable so I can play it on demand. And yes, I can now pretty much achieve whatever I want when I need to.

DB: You mention that you have scientist friends. Is there a scientific, technical, physical, rational explanation for subharmonics yet?

MK: There have been many scientists who have been writing papers about it, especially after I introduced it back in 1994. There have been many papers that came out. And I was actually invited to speak at the Acoustical Society of America and another conference in Tokyo, and there have been papers submitted this year at the ASA and also ISMA - I think itís related to ASA, itís another conference. So there have many papers that explain it. There are scientists who are making computer models, and those are probably very accurate in one sense. But the problem is that I found out that one of the scientists who explained the phenomenon, while I was talking to him about it, with his theory, some of the things that Iím able to do donít make sense to him. I consider it still pretty much up in the air, and there are more things to be discovered. I have been finding out more things that I can do.

DB: Do you have any students that youíre teaching this technique to? Or is it going to evaporate with you?

MK: Well, I have taught at NYU for a few years, and I made my students do it and they could do it. I have also taught via internet to a person who I never met. And I have been writing about it here and there, so I hope that it wonít evaporate with me.

DB: Of course, one of the things that keep it alive is music that uses the technique. Now, is the only thing you have the Six Caprices?

MK: First, I introduced the technique in my solo violin piece called ALT. It is three movements, and in the third movement I use this technique for the first time.

DB: What is the meaning of the name ALT?

MK: ALT? Well, I did this piece in 1992, and at that time, I was taking private lessons with Mario Davidovsky. And he thought the my writing on the violin was very unusual and that it had some Japanese influence or something like that. In New York, we have Manhattan Island, which is sort of divided into Uptown and Downtown in music. And in the Uptown sense, an appropriate explanation is to have an alternative way of writing. ALT as in alternative or alteration of the violin tradition. But then in reality, what happened was Mr. Davidovsky, you know, has a very strong Argentine accent. He said, ďOh! Iíve never heard anything like this before!Ē And he said ďAnything Like This,Ē which is actually A-L-T.

DB: Oh! Oh! Oh! Okay, I see. And he was talking specifically about subharmonics?

MK: No. He was talking specifically about this piece. Then after my subharmonics came along, it was more ďAnything Like This.Ē That was my first piece. Then I did another piece called Gemini, and it is a piece almost entirely on the G string but using subharmonics so extensively that I have a four-octave range on one string. So that is the piece where I use subharmonics.

DB: Youíre not playing Gemini at UC Irvine, right?

MK: I thought I might not.

DB: Now, these are works that are purely acoustic. Youíre not using any electronics with these works?

MK: No.

DB: But you also have electronic works for Zeta MIDI and so on?

MK: Right.

DB: Now a Zeta MIDI violin is a little box that you play or do you attach something to a normal violin?

MK: Itís a special violin made in Oakland, California. You can think of it as a mini electric guitar turned into a violin. Mine is blue. Itís made of fiberglass. And each string has a pickup which has a pitch-to-MIDI converter.

DB: How did you get introduced to the Zeta MIDI?

MK: Well, I was visiting CCRMA, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, at Stanford where John Chowning was. Heís the one who first invented the MIDI keyboard, so I spent a fair amount of time there. When I was visiting there in 1991, somebody came up to me and said, ďDo you know this?Ē Thatís where I first saw it.

DB: Is this a piece that you use to do interactive processing while you play?

MK: Right.

DB: But you never have a helper offstage or on-stage with you to do any processing.

MK: Right. I like to consider my electronic instrument like a signal processor or synthesizer as part of my instrument that I master. And in order to do that, I believe in being very self-contained. If you have a helper, I feel as if somebodyís doing my bow arm or doing a fingering. So in order to be self-contained, my computer is an extension of my brain, and my synthesizerís are extensions of my hands. I like to present my music and performance as a whole and not be assisted by someone else. I feel that will handicap me if I have to have somebody help me.

DB: And all of the processing you do with you with your bow arm or your fingering, not with the foot or with foot pedals?

MK: No. Iím a Society Against Foot Pedals. SAFP. I donít believe in foot pedals. There are other instruments such as percussion or piano where you have the pedal as part of your being. But as a violinist, by nature - this applies only to me, somebody else might feel comfortable with a foot pedal. But fore me, I need balance to stand up, and I need two feet. And when I have to step on foot pedals, I lose my balance and concentration for playing. So I like everything to happen by my playing. Thatís how I like it. Believe me, Iíve used foot pedals before, and it didnít work.

DB: Whatís next for you in terms of composing projects, teaching projects? Is your new job at Juilliard a permanent position?

MK: Well, not a permanent position. Itís a part time position teaching a graduate class in interactive performance. This is great because I know exactly what theyíre going through. They have to balance between their traditional lessons and new things that they want to do. So not only do I come from there, but I understand what theyíre going through, which is very helpful to me and as well, to them. So thatís my teaching project at the moment. As far as my creative projects, Iím working on this piece that Iím doing for UC Irvine right now. Thatís almost finished.

DB: Is this going to be a premiere?

MK: Well, this is sort of half a premiere because the real premiere has to be in Japan with a real MIDI piano, which I play from a Zeta violin. But at UCI, Iíll probably use a synthesizer. So this piece is for MIDI violin and MIDI piano in which I play a piano from the violin, basically. So it looks very strange. Not only the looks, but what Iím trying to do is develop kind of a duo in a different sense, coming from one brain but scrambled and improvised or created real time by the piano, getting some cues from the violin. Thatís one of the things I have going. And the more long-term project I have is a commission to write a violin concerto for myself, and this is from Mexico. And this will be premiered in June next year.

DB: And thatís in?

MK: Thatís in Guanajuato. And this will be using - my violin part will be obviously very virtuosic - using lots of my subharmonics. And also, Iím planning to have interactive signal processing or even synthesizer sound as part of it.

DB: So youíre using Zeta MIDI or a real violin?

MK: Well, it depends on the ultimate configuration for this. When youíre using an acoustical instrument and trying to track some pitch, it gets very tricky when you have other sounds going on. That is a constant problem when you have pitch-tracking with acoustic instruments because you are not only tracking your own sound, but also the microphone might be picking up sounds that are coming out of the speaker. And if you have an orchestra in the background, the pitch-tracking can get very complicated.

DB: Could you elaborate on pitch tracking?

MK: When you have an acoustic instrument and if you are connected to the MIDI converter, which converts the sound that you are playing into a number, it gets tracked into the computer. If you are using a MIDI instrument, it is very easy because there is no acoustic involved. Itís transmitted via a sensor on the string directly into the box, the MIDI converting box, so thereís no acoustic input. Just a line input. But if you have a microphone, you can get the violin sound as well as -- if you cough, for instance, it might track some pitch -- so if you have a microphone, it gets really complicated.

DB: So a pitch tracker measures the frequency of an acoustic sound.

MK: Right. So it all depends on what form of interaction I use. So for the concerto, in order to avoid any accidents, I might use the Zeta violin in the middle of the movement and go from one to another. Iím still thinking about it.

DB: Sounds like an innovation. We donít see many concertos where you switch from acoustic violin to Zeta. Any likelihood of this work having a life beyond Guanajuato?

MK: I hope so. You can help.

DB: Okay, weíll get the word out.





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