Virtuosic “techno-violinist” unites tradition with technical innovation in Colby concert and lecture

This weekend, the internationally acclaimed violinist Mari Kimura came to Colby, demonstrating her unique brand of avant-garde music with skill and showmanship. Kimura’s visit to Colby was an exciting opportunity for the community to see a new take on classical music from a notable source at the forefront of the subject. One of the world’s leading innovators in music technology and the creator of a new violin technique, she has been called “a virtuoso playing at the edge” by The New York Times and “a plugged-in Paganini for the digital age” by All Music Guide. Kimura has received recognition in her fields for composition, technological innovations in music, and violin performance.

She proved the range of her abilities throughout the weekend at Colby, spending Friday teaching a violin masterclass followed by a demonstration of her techniques, then playing a concert featuring a wide range of repertoire Saturday night. From Bach partitas to “subharmonic” partitas, Kimura’s playing shined through a concert of technical wonder and acoustic innovation.

Kimura has a strong background in violin performance, with her degrees culminating in a DMA from The Juilliard School. She also has an education in composition and architectural acoustics, which contributes an unusual awareness of the violin’s capabilities to her compositions. Kimura studied with renown violinist Joseph Fuchs while at Juilliard, and has also studied violin with Toshiya Eto, Roman Totenberg and composition with Mario Davidovsky. Now a teacher at Juilliard herself since 1998, Kimura focuses on the composition and performance of music technology, in which she has a lengthy and impressive resume.

The event on Friday started out with a traditional violin masterclass, where Kimura instructed a few students on their playing of Bruch, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, offering technical advice interspersed with helpful or amusing stories about her experiences.

She then moved on to the lecture portion, where she explained some of the techniques she would be using in her concert the next day. This included her “subharmonics,” the new method she invented to produce notes on the violin below its normal range. In it, Kimura uses a calculated extra force on the bow to effectively skip some of a string’s normal vibrations, creating a lower pitch than it should have been capable of sounding. Over the years, she has been able to get several intervals below the base note to sound, although it took her years of effort to manage the finicky fifth, which she demonstrated successfully during the lecture. As the first person to create this technique, Kimura has received significant acclaim. It even, she joked, earned her a Green Card, after her discovery was featured in The New York Times.

Kimura also covered the motion sensor technology she would incorporate in her concert, showing us how her prototype motion-sensor glove tracks the movement of her bow hand and sends that information to be processed in a computer. From there, she used programs written in the visual programming platform Max to coordinate the inputs with the computer’s sound output. With the computer able to translate her movement into something meaningful, Kimura was able to manipulate the computer’s output solely through playing the violin. This allowed her to perform while the computer accompanied her based on tempo, changed its sound based on her output, or produced a visual image corresponding to her movements.

Kimura demonstrated all of these features and more in her Saturday night concert, where she took over Ostrove Auditorium for a diverse and virtuosic performance. She started off the night with the program’s only non-contemporary work, the famous prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin Partita No. 3. Here, she demonstrated her technical brilliancy and sound interpretation of baroque tradition in a very typical piece for a violin recital. Following the Bach partita, Kimura introduced the audience to a wildly contrasting world with her own “Subharmonic Partita.” Kimura’s composition is dedicated to Bach’s partita, and it incorporates her subharmonics technique and signature acoustic experiments into some recognizable material from the Bach.

The concert featured other works by Kimura, each using her technology to a different effect. Her “Canon elastique” used the computer as the second voice in a canon, a phenomena in music where one or more voices follow the first voice in the same material after some time has passed. With Kimura’s motion sensor glove, she was able to control the speed and duration of notes in the computer’s part as it follows her with the movement of her bow arm while she plays the later section. She also played a piece with a video projected onto a large screen, where the graphics being displayed changed in real time to match her playing, creating an incredible synesthetic experience for the audience.

The concert also featured works by other notable contemporary composers. Computer sound pioneer Jean-Claude Risset’s “Variants for violin and signal processing” is a piece he dedicated to Kimura, where the violin’s sound output is altered and then played by the computer. The signal processing creates an eerie addition to the violin’s sound, with reverberations and other digital effects adding to the acoustic layer. Kimura also played a work written for her to premiere at the 2002 ISCM World Music Days festival by the groundbreaking black, female Cuban composer Tania Leon. This work combined an interactive computer component with avant-garde musical style for a virtuosic showpiece. On a more tame note, Kimura showed off the computer’s ability to automatically accompany her as she improvised to her arrangement of Hermeto Pascoal’s “BeBe.”

After an impressive concert over a wide range of repertoire, Kimura finished the night with an encore piece to the sweetly lyrical “Eu Te Amo,” accompanied by an interactive computer.