By Gregory Walker | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Violinists have been experimenting with everything from electrifying their instruments to finding new acoustic environments for decades, if not longer, in their search for new sounds.
Once you go off the beaten path of music, there’s no telling where the journey will lead. French violinist Agathe Max ended up in cave.
“A job I had in Lyon, besides music, was to cast bones of prehistoric animals for museums or private collectors,” she remembers. “I did cast the cave bear skeleton and because I had to be as close to the real [thing] as possible, I had the chance to visit Chauvet Cave three times. It’s a privilege as only a small group of scientists is allowed to go inside the cave.”
Her forays into this UNESCO World Heritage site, home to Paleolithic figurative cave paintings around 30,000 years old, made her a perfect choice to create a soundtrack for Les génies de la Grotte Chauvet (“The Geniuses of Chauvet Cave”), Christian Tran’s 2015 film about the efforts to preserve the cave by creating a near-perfect replica a mile away that would admit visitors. “It was a very good experience,” she says. “I used lots of electro-acoustic concrete sounds alongside recordings of water concretions as percussion with the natural reverb of another cave close by.”
Not every musician can make a cave bear skeleton. But the possibility of connecting music with the rest of your talents using technology is there for all— and a dazzling array of electronic stompboxes, multieffects, and software may be the missing link.
In fact, there have always been string players using cutting-edge technology to take their music in as many directions as their creativity allows. Performance artist Laurie Anderson drew from her background in conceptual art when she poured water into a “prepared” violin for 1974’s “As:If,” eventually developing the tape-bow violin, which uses recorded magnetic tape instead of horsehair on the bow, with a magnetic tapehead in the bridge, allowing her to play prerecorded sounds. The tape-bow violin in turn inspired the Max Mathews Synclavier, an instrument that played back vocal samples and animal sounds for Anderson’s Home of the Brave tour in 1986. Jazz-rock legend Jean-Luc Ponty grew up playing clarinet and tenor sax before introducing a new Zeta MIDI violin capable of imitating them on the 1987 Columbia Records release The Gift of Time.
Today, adventurous violinists continue to unlearn the narrow definitions of what playing the violin is supposed to be. Multi-instrumentalist Kaoru Ishibashi, aka Kishi Bashi, was born in Seattle, studied film scoring at Berklee, and began to perform as a solo artist in 2011.
“Look,” Ishibashi says, “I’m playing the violin, a European instrument, you know, and I’m playing jazz, a major African American contribution to American music, and where am I as an Asian American? And then that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, it doesn’t even matter!’”
Listen to his 2012 Tiny Desk concert with eyes closed and you’re immersed in percolating pizzicatos and artificial harmonics. The crystalline counter-tenor voice that emerges is not your imagination, nor is the beat-box groove that follows. Open your eyes and it’s just Kishi Bashi bobbing on a stool, a pitch-shifting whammy pedal and Line 6 DL4 double- and half-timing loops at his feet. Close them again and you’re back in his cinematic sound world.
His new Emigrant EP is a companion piece for Omoiyari, a feature-length documentary about minority identity and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II that he co-directed. Ishibashi layered vocal harmonies on tunes like Dolly Parton’s “Early Morning Breeze” with banjoist Mike Savino and a rotating ensemble of chamber pop musicians.
Agathe Max’s soundtrack for The Geniuses of Chauvet Cave is darker. Starkly isolated melodic fragments accompanied by piano figurations represent a more primal impulse. Her more recent Rêves Perdus album (2019) revisits the same inspiration with ostinatos in and out of phase with themselves amongst ghostly voices. Her love of electronic effects like reverb, delay, distortion, the octaver, and loopers evolved over years, and can be traced back to one fateful night when the young conservatoire-trained violinist and her friends were slated to open for the Japanese noise band Melt Banana. Which never showed up.
“I really, really wanted to perform that night. So I decided to just do something and I took the violin and I thought, ‘I’m gonna plug the violin through all of these effects and I’m gonna improvise and whatever happens happens!’”
Some players, like Max, leap right into the realms of experimentation. Others, like classically trained, now-avant-violin diva Mari Kimura need a little push to break free.
“Charles was pushing my back: ‘Go, go, go!’” she remembers KPFA Radio host Charles Amirkhanian insisting after an interview. “You saw me last,” she whispered as she warily followed the stranger Amirkhanian had introduced her to out to his old Volvo, barely managing to squeeze her violin case in. There wasn’t much room due to the enormous, fluffy Malamute in the seat beside her.
When they arrived at the stranger’s secluded Oakland, California, home, he said, “Let’s go to my garage.”
The walls were covered with guitars and a collection of vinyl from all over the world. This stranger was none other than Bay Area experimental guitar god Henry Kaiser. They spent the next half hour listening to selections from his collection until he picked up one of the guitars and started to improvise. Kimura remembers just standing there holding her violin until she felt silly. Then she tried adding a note here, a lick there. One lick led to another. After two hours, even Kaiser’s fingers were too sore to go on.
Now a University of California Irvine professor well-known for her musical applications of the Max/MSP/Jitter programming language and pioneering work with string subharmonics, Kimura started out playing Beethoven and Brahms like everybody else.
“I went to the Juilliard of Japan, the Toho School in Tokyo,” she says with a grimace. “It was so stressful that when I got to Juilliard I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is relaxing!’”
Eventually she moved to Boston and started dating a student of one of her next-door neighbors. That neighbor, M.I.T.’s Marvin Minsky, is now considered one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence. Her interest in the subject flourished, culminating in a 2004 concert at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York performing “GuitarBotana” with a guitar-playing robot. The GuitarBot responded to Kimura’s violin with an “intelligent” accompaniment that sounded like eerie, sympathetically vibrating strings one moment and hand-to-hand combat with an enormous cyborg the next. The GuitarBot was built by LEMUR, the League of Electronic Music Urban Robots. Which is a real thing.
Agathe Max completed her own degree in Electroacoustic Composition at the École Nationale de Musique, Danse, et Art Dramatique de Villeurbanne in 2015. “I discovered other people doing something so different very inspiring,” she says. “I don’t use lots of effects because I think the less you have, sometimes the better, because if you end up having too many things then it becomes a bit blurry or something you can’t really control.”
From personal experience at London’s Raw Power Festival and the Netherlands Roadburn Festival, not to mention her head-banging Black Sabbath cover at last year’s virtual Supersonic Festival, Max knows technology is not always predictable. “Technical problems may occur, but it’s a question of not freaking out, being able to jump on the occasion, to do something different. Because it has happened to me sometimes that I try to trigger something and it doesn’t happen. But then it makes the piece different and I kind of improvise with this mistake and then it creates something different,” she says. “There are lucky accidents.”
“Hey, it’s just me with my violin and my pedalboard, you know, give me a break! And people understand that,” Ishibashi reiterates. From appearances at SXSW and Austin City Limits, he’ll tell you live shows aren’t perfect. “If you want real perfection, go home and, like, listen to the album.”
But all the challenges that come with using technology to explore other instrumental idioms, composition, improvisation, conceptual art, film scoring, and even the physical gestures of performance can be worth it. “The properties, the purity, the quality of the sound of the instrument, and the huge panel of possibilities of electricity, circuits, and amplification—it’s magic!” Max says. “Even a simple set up of effects on the instrument opens up the field of creativity. It is a very playful way of approaching composition, and to develop a different way of playing.”
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.