Violist Kim Kashkashian on Her Latest Album ‘Arcanum’ and the Relationship Between Performer, Audience, and Composer

By David Templeton

Live performance is like a triangle.” Violist Kim Kashkashian—a gentle murmur of laughter frequently underscoring her sometimes intricate wordplay—has named her favorite three-sided geometrical construct as the perfect metaphor for the complex system she sees at work whenever a group of musicians take the stage to perform a piece of music live for an audience.

“Performance is often described as a dialogue between the performers and the audience, and I agree with that, but it’s much more complicated and ever changing than a simple dialogue,” she says. “It really is a triangle, actually. It’s a three-way relationship between the performer, the audience, and the composer.”

Kashkashian, who resides in Boston, is a Grammy-winning violist (2012’s Kurtag/Ligeti: Music for Viola) and recent inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of the nation’s oldest champions of scholarship and knowledge, the Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams with the motto, “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

On October 8, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kashkashian was inducted along with more than 200 new fellows, including pianist Jeremy Denk, author-poet Diane Ackerman, saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter, photographer Lorna Simpson, and livestock expert Temple Grandin.

“It was an intense weekend, and the wonderful Temple Grandin was absolutely inspiring,” Kashkashian says. “Getting to listen to so many brilliant people talking about possibilities and progress, it was overwhelming, and gave me a strong feeling of hope for the future.”

That experience follows the release of Kashkashian’s new album, Arcanum, from ECM Records, created with pianist-composer Lera Auerbach. The gorgeously haunting and somewhat addictive recording begins with Auerbach’s 2010 transcriptions, for piano and viola, of Dmitri Shostakovich’s piano preludes, and concludes with her own composition, the remarkably maze-like four-movement “Arcanum,” the musical equivalent of wandering through a hall of mirrors. “I wrote ‘Arcanum’ with Kim in mind,” says Auerbach. “When I write for a specific performer, I always try to listen to their playing as much as possible. In the case of Kim, I was already familiar with her recordings. When I met her for the first time, I felt like we’d known each other for many years—and in a way, we had.”


The piece originally premiered in 2013, at the Municipal Theater of Vevey, in Switzerland. The composition was immediately described—by music aficionados and critics alike—as one of the most important and significant new compositions for piano and viola to come along in years.

“With ‘Arcanum,’” Auerbach explains, “since I know Kim to be a performer who never stops growing and searching, who is not afraid of intensity and deep emotion, I wanted to write a piece that would connect Kim’s passion and intensity to my own examination of the tension between the powers of darkness and the powers of light. I think that’s what is so special about this piece—and why it affects people so deeply.”

Asked what took so long for the piece to be recorded, Kashkashian describes a long process of performing the piece in public several times, before feeling ready to record and release it on CD.

“I prefer to work that way,” she says, “to let a piece of music—whether it is brand new or just new to me—to let it mature through the understanding and self-feedback one gets from performance.”

This brings her back to the notion of dialogues and relationships.

“The relationship between musician and audience, that’s part of the unique magic that comes from performance, but does not come when you listen to a CD,” she says. “Recording is a different kind of relationship. The energy is flowing a different way. When you are in a live-performance space, there is that three-way dialogue going on, that triangle. It begins, of course, as a different kind of triangle, a conversation between the composer’s intentions, the piece of paper you are looking at—which supposedly expresses the composer’s intentions—and you, the musician, trying to execute all of that. That triangle always exists.”


Then there’s the other triangle.

The one that makes live performance exciting.

“The ‘triangle’ I’m talking about is the person performing—the one making the sound, expressing something—and the space itself, which is filled with people who are giving you feedback. The people are the third side of the triangle. They all give you energy and feedback. It’s what I experience as a three-way triangle of energy, similar to the other triangle, overlapping this one in amazing ways.

“Am I making any sense?” she says with a laugh.


Complex geometric philosophies aside, Kashkashian adds that—simply put—she really does enjoy the lengthy process of public performance, primarily because she learns so much from it.

“As a performer, each time you play a composition,” she says, “you gain a little more understanding as to what that piece is, and what it can mean—to you as a musician, to the audience giving you their emotions, and to the world, a world that is now a little different when all of those people walk back out into it.”

Kashkashian laughs again.

“That’s another triangle, isn’t it?”