Violinist to premiere new short solo-violin works by 41 composers weekly on Instagram and Facebook
By Cristina Schreil
Violinist Jennifer Koh had a lightbulb moment. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she—like countless performing artists worldwide—feared for the future.
“I remember the first reaction was ‘Oh my god, how am I going to get through the next couple of months financially?” she says, reflecting industry-wide worries over cancelled performances and festivals—a primary income stream.
Then, her perspective shifted. “I realized, ‘There are a lot of people who are going to hurt more than you.’” She recalled her own early career and those who supported her growth. She wanted to pay it forward.
On March 31, Koh launched online commissioning project and performance series “Alone Together.” The project is designed to support emerging composers who might not have salaried positions or other forms of institutional support. Koh has invited 21 composers who are in supported positions to donate a new short work for solo violin. These composers will also recommend a freelancer, who will contribute a solo-violin piece to the project, but for a paid commission.
Koh’s nonprofit ARCO Collaborative will pay the freelancers’ commission fees, based on the standard rate of $1,000 per minute of music. Koh has pledged to perform the new works often, granting the freelance composers compensation in the form of royalties.
“Absolutely this is something we’ve all been talking about,” composer Jen Shyu says of freelance composers needing support. Shyu is one of the 21 composers donating a work. She recommended composer inti figgis-vizueta.
Shyu adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the power of this project. “I was just reflecting on how important it is for us to be creating,” she says. “This is what we need. For [Koh] to just say, “Okay, let’s make something now; we have the power to do it,’ is brilliant. I’m so inspired by her.”
Katherine Balch is one of the nominated composers, recommended by Andrew Norman. She lives in New York City, the flashpoint of the pandemic. “I feel sort of a desperation in my gut that is bubbling and active in a way I hadn’t a couple weeks ago,” says Balch, speaking a few days after the project launch, as New York City cases had reached a worldwide high. It’s made composing challenging, she says, and had sapped her energy to create due to cancelled premieres. “What’s the point of even writing music right now?” she recalls thinking.
But now, Balch describes a welcome “creative immediacy” that Koh’s Alone Together sparked. “In a positive way, it feels low stakes. You can do this. Just create something and [Koh’s] going to bring it to life. That feels really nice right now,” she says.
As composers create while sheltering in place, it seems many works draw inspiration from these uncertain times. Balch is exploring the potential of electronics to incorporate her “impressions of the online aural experience”—namely, how sounds filter through video-chatting technology like Zoom. Koh says another piece evokes the Doppler effect from a passing ambulance and another feels like a distorted spring sonata. “Spring is supposed to be about birth, renewal, life. Right now we’re dealing with the opposite,” Koh says.
The fruits of the online commissioning projects are already up on Koh’s Instagram and Facebook pages. The first week saw Koh performing world premieres from Wang Lu, Joungbum Lee, Vijay Iyer, and Morgan Guerin.
“I think what’s going to be musically interesting is that there are so many different perspectives of how we’re all coming to grips with this kind of crisis,” Koh says. “I think we’re all going through such a huge contrast of emotions, reactions, and feelings to this.” She adds that the project itself is a sign of solidarity. “I wanted to give people hope as well. It’s still possible to make beautiful things together and still be creative together.”
The composers involved in Alone Together are Katherine Balch, Andrew Norman, Hanna Benn, Rafiq Bhatia, Layale Chaker, Anjna Swaminathan, Caroline Davis, Qasim Naqvi, Adeliia Faizullina, Nina C. Young, inti figgis-vizueta, Jen Shyu, Tomás Gueglio-Saccone, Anthony Cheung, Morgan Guerin, Vijay Iyer, Tonia Ko, Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff, Joungbum Lee, Wang Lu, Angelica Négron, Tania León, Nina Shekhar, Ted Hearne, Lester St. Louis, George Lewis, Rajna Swaminathan, Ellen Reid, Darian Donovan Thomas, Ian Chang, Cassie Wieland, Missy Mazzoli, Elizabeth Younan, David Ludwig, Kati Agócs, Marcos Balter, Du Yun, and Augusta Gross, with more to be announced.
Jennifer Koh is no stranger to innovative projects, and has talked with Strings about her musical passions many times over the years. For more on this dynamic artist, read “Violinist Jennifer Koh Gears Up to Release Music by Kaija Saariaho,” “Violinist Jennifer Koh’s Innovative Projects Connect Masterworks from the Past with the Present,” and “See Koh Go” on StringsMagazine.com.