Violinist Jennifer Choi, player of an extensive repertoire for the instrument, and interpreter of composers as diverse as Mozart, John Zorn, and Rogers/Hammerstein (I neglected to ask her about her stint as concertmaster for the touring company of South Pacific; next time!) was recently given a boost of profile in the online classical media when she joined the esteemed quartet ETHEL, with whom she plans on giving her strongest efforts as a musician. On a beautiful late summer afternoon in NY, we hung out on an outdoor restaurant patio and had this wonderful interview.
CM: How is your take on your classical and your new music repertoires?
JC: I was trained classically and it was pretty rigorous–hardcore teachers who wanted a certain standard repertoire to be in your fingers and in a certain way, and I was always listening to the great violinists and to great musicians…Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng, that old school…Michael Rabin, Perlman, I listened to Perlman when I was growing up ’cause my mom had these records in the house, and she had symphonies playing all the time. But then, when I started playing new music, I guess I was using the same approach that I had learned with classical music, and you’re using your technique–it is music after all, and there’s a thing called execution, you have to execute it well…It still has to be clean and has to be fiery. the approach is similar, although the music can be so completely different.
CM: What was it that got you started on the violin and classical music?
JC: I think it was a combination of things. My parents were very big classical music lovers, and my mother wanted to play instruments so badly in Korea when she was young, but they didn’t have the opportunity to do that. When she saw that she could have her kid do that–I have 2 sisters so we were all playing music at a very young age. But then I was also involved with the youth symphony–The Portland Youth Philharmonic, and so I saw my friends. I had a lot of friends in that group and they were all doing great things. You know Kenji Bunch? He was in that same orchestra as a violist. And people were taking it seriously, so, it was very encouraging and inspiring that people my age were thinking it was really cool, and it was cool, it was fun! We toured Europe together in this van–My first taste was probably more orchestral music, and that’s how it started.
CM: Where did your contemporary taste formulate?
JC: The Oregon Symphony was already programming modern works, and we’d go to the symphony quite often, actually, and that’s where I heard percussion sounds, brass sounds that kind of blow me away. Actually, my teachers–actually the conductor in our youth orchestra, Jacob Avshalomov, he was a composer himself. We would play his works, and he had friends in Europe and what not, and they’d give us pieces, so we were already playing a lot of new music from the time I was 14 in a professional setting, and we’d perform it in a big hall, make a big deal out of it, and it was a big deal. In fact the year that I soloed with the orchestra on Wienawski concertos, we played a piece by [John] Van Buren.
CM: No relation to the ex-president, right? [both laughing] Martin Van Buren!
Have you ever programmed music from both the old and new worlds of classical music together in one concert?
JC: Oh, yeah, yeah…Actually, I started doing that maybe from the beginning when I started playing a lot of new music. My recital at Carnegie Hall, I won this competition, and I just [programmed] it with a Schumann sonata, a John Corligliano sonata, John Zorn, Gershwin, I mean what a program, a little wild that way, and Prokofiev!
CM: And I love Prokofiev! The thing is, for me, there was a lot of later music that was hard for me to appreciate because I was so used to, like, [speaking in a posh tone] “Everything sounds like the 1700’s!”, you know, you wanted everything to be that inviting, and when I heard music from the 20th century, I was like “Wait a minute, this is a whole ‘nother feeling, this is a whole ‘nother flavor, I need more time to prepare to really kind of get into it”, and, the more you hear it, though, I mean Prokofiev is kind of melodious, he’s just got so much! I love the piano works, and of course the Violin Concertos too!
JC: In his time, though, it took a while for people in those days to get–It was new sounds, new harmonies. And now we’ve just sort of gotten used to it. I feel like it’s just how Mozart was to them, or Beethoven, people got used to that. That’s how I felt programming Zorn ten years ago, I was like “Wow, this is so out there!”, but now when I listen back, I’m like, “Oh, well what he was doing 10 years ago is not so out from music I’m hearing today!”. So, I think it just goes through cycles and the great thing is that people continue–composers, musicians–continue to come up with new material. Isn’t that amazing? That’s like amazing to me, that’s genius, that people can come up with that and then audiences get used to it eventually.
Jacob TV: Capriccio (Cafe Concert clip courtesy of WQXR)
CM: There’s a lot of things you’re doing right now: ETHEL Quartet, which Todd Reynolds is a former member of, the Either/Or Ensemble, the Anti-Depressant Duo…
JC: With Kathleen Supove!
CM: Kathleen Supove! And Classical Jam, Shoko Nagai and The Ephermeral…
JC: All of these groups are great! Right now, primarily I’m doing ETHEL, just because I just got the job in June.
CM: Oh yeah, it was big news, I saw! [both chuckling]
JC: I know, seriously! And so, the other groups I’m still involved with as much as I can be, because it still gives me a variety of music to play, like ETHEL plays a certain kind of new music, and Either/Or does another kind of new music, which is great, and Classical Jam does a mix of lighter fare and classical, deep classical music mixed with lighter new music. So, it’s a variety…
CM: Everything’s a different dynamic and a different perspective…
JC: Everything’s a different dynamic, exactly! And ETHEL, it’s a band, it’s a string quartet you got to be a unit when you play. Classical Jam is a little more amorphous, it could be 5 of us, it could be 3, it could be 2, we play all different combinations of chamber music. And then Either/Or is a little bit the same way, which leads us into that recording…
CM: Oh yes, 2 by Keeril Makan. Let’s talk about 2 because it’s the lead-off of his record “Target”. What I like about it is that it’s a very sonata-like piece, ’cause it’s got all these different sections to it, and, I love the high part, the really fast high part is like my favorite part of it…[After the quiet part] it comes back, and there’s this gigantic explosion at the end which, it just sounds like…It was a lot of roaring and screeching–I think my description was it sounded like “a large building falling on top of a den of lions inside the Grand Canyon if the Grand Canyon were inside the Sistine Chapel!”
JC: Oh my God, that’s awesome! What else sounds like that??
CM: I don’t know! I wasn’t sure, I was convinced that it was electronics and he was saying “No, there’s no electronics on the recording. What that is is a bowed thundersheet”. And you were making that screeching sound…
JC: It was crazy! The set-up! ‘Cause we were in this big hall when we recorded it. I think it was SUNY Purchase. It needed to be because some of that equipment took up a lot of space for Dave [Shively] and then me right here on the violin!
CM: Usually when you record these pieces, is it done in one take?
JC: We were working with Silas Brown, he was our recording engineer, and he’s fantastic for all kinds of music, but he’s just great at picking out the spots that really need work during the day, and so it actually took 2 days just to record that piece. So we went in and did it section by section. And then we may have done a couple of run-throughs, the whole piece as well, to get the flow going on, we built it that way, and Silas did along with Keeril and Dave. The sound they got out of that piece was pretty phenomenal! It’s like striking and clear!
CM: Have you guys ever done it live?
JC: Oh yeah! We played it live a couple of times before we recorded it. We want to bring it back in our repertoire because it’s such a cool piece. Hopefully this year, this season.
CM: There’s another piece you’ve done, Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina. It’s very minimalist–I looked up the composer, and essentially they describe him as “musique concrete instrumentale”, which sounds like a very elegant way of saying he’s weird. [both laugh]
JC: Helmut Lachenmann is another genius of sorts. I think he’s become well known because of his originality, and I think that he actually works like how Beethoven may have worked, to that kind of detail, like, where you see the notebooks of Beethoven, there’s like little cels of motives that he used, and then he developed those, well–Lachenmann told me once that it takes him a very long time to build a composition, and I think it’s because he’s so meticulous about what what he’s hearing, and how it’s going to get on the paper so that the musician can do exactly what he wants and what he’s hearing. And those sounds are sometimes really strange–In the Toccatina piece, it’s supposed to be a study in pianissimo. That’s why it’s so quiet.
CM: It is! It’s very, very, very quiet, and yet it’s very punctual. It’s a little bit like that cello piece that Ashley [Bathgate] did [Parisot’s Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia], it’s like this very percussive–It’s like it’s almost straight percussion on a stringed instrument. Maybe yours is a little less percussive…
JC: Well, but then, I am using the screw of the bow–col legno, and–nothing normal about that piece, and it's the same with the string quartets too, like "Grido", and that was the same effect, it was all special effects, but somehow when you put it all together, it felt like you were playing Beethoven! That's how intense it is!
CM: In a way it’s almost like that same kind of strength…
JC: Yeah, and structure–detail…
CM: With that same kind of harmonic, except it’s…
JC: Except it’s not harmonic…
CM: It’s more inward than that…
JC: Harmony of sounds! [laughs]
CM: It’s harmony of disharmony!
JC: But now that I’ve played so much of his music and I’ve listened to it, when I listen to it, it doesn’t sound discordant to me at all, it actually sounds very beautiful!
Lachenmann: Toccatina (Live at the Tenri Cultural Institute, 5/23/09)
CM: Do you think that that’s the case with a lot of musicians, that after a while everything starts to sound more “musical”? Schoenberg is another thing, because when Hilary Hahn did Schoenberg there were probably a lot of people that were like “Why are you playing this? Why is this a release?”. Didn’t really make sense. It seems like maybe after a while if you’re a musician, everything is kind of “Where’s Waldo?” or it’s like a Rorschach test where you start to see something in there that other people can’t see.
JC: My take on that is…it’s part of history, and you live it through that music. So, whatever Schoenberg was going through at that time…
CM: It’s like there’s added appreciation once you’ve sort of gone through the history.
JC: Definitely, and language. Language has a big part of it too. I’m pretty sure Hilary Hahn has studied German and French. When you get into that, you’re getting into these cultures too, and it becomes fascinating, and the same with me and Zorn for instance–when he writes these pieces he’s got these stories in mind that have to do with, sometimes, mysticism, some religions but maybe are not so apparent in the here and now. And for me that’s interesting, to play this music that has meaning behind it. And then finding that meaning is interesting for a musician.
CM: In other words, he probably knows things that other people don’t, like in a supernatural way?
JC: Absolutely, not that he maybe believes in that, but like that he knows about it. And like Schoenberg probably knew about a lot of different things.
CM: Like tennis? [both laughing]
CM: “Violectrica” is your solo project, and it’s a feast for the ears. It’s a little like a Todd Reynolds “Outerborough” kind of thing, sample elements, electronics, hip-hop elements here and there, particularly on the Randall Woolf piece. Any thoughts on this record?
JC: These are all composers that I have worked with really closely within the last–My gosh it’s almost 10 years, but within the last decade, and I wanted to document it because I have performed these pieces so many times in New York, and a little bit outside of New York as well. And I know that some of them are surprising to listen to a little bit, and “Oh, that’s different!”. I wouldn’t say it’s easy listening–I wanted to do an album with violin and electronics, so, ’cause I don’t think there’s too many out there, there’s a few right now but not a whole lot, and I just felt like these composers needed to be recorded, heard, and I thought this was a perfect opportunity. And the mix of composers is primarily New York-based–There’s Susie Ibarra, there’s Annie Gosfield, and Randall Woolf–Alexandra Gardiner is from DC, originally, and Padma Newsome is originally from Australia, but I had done a lot of work with him, and he is actually touring with The National now!
CM: Wow! Is there more than one composer in that band?
JC: There’s a lot, I think!
CM: ‘Cause Bryce Dessner is another one, right?
JC: Yeah, he’s great! Bryce is good! So, anyway, I thought it’d be neat to put all those together, because they’re all way different pieces too. It’s definitely an album of contrasts if you ask me. And how neat is that that you get to see so many aspects of what different composers can do?
Alexandra Gardner: Electric Blue Pantsuit
I want to explore more of that repertoire going forward, but right now I do have to focus on ETHEL.
CM: So ETHEL is your #1 priority. That’s kind of your main act.
JC: Yes, right now, exactly. I just learned 4 programs with them this summer, and I’m about to learn the 5th. They have a great amount of repertoire right now, seriously great, and I just want to give 100% to that at the moment. Our other violinist Cornelius Dufallo also does a lot of pieces with violin & electronics, and works with some really great composers in the area.
CM: So, pretty much everybody that works in ETHEL and everybody that works in all of your ensembles, they’re all very like-minded, there’s hardly anybody that goes “That’s a little over-the-top for me! I don’t know if I can handle that!”.
JC: You mean the music?
CM: Yeah, the music or anything you guys are going to play, everybody gets it, they get what’s happening?
JC: Actually, there’s a fair amount of pick and choose, though, ’cause we do get offers to play certain pieces, or pieces come in, and we have to decide “Can we really take this on?”, and sometimes there is over-the-top, too! [laughs]
Sometimes we’ll play pieces, and sometimes we’re like “You know what? This piece just isn’t doing anything for me anymore.” Then you know “Ok, it’s time to drop it!”. Or if it doesn’t affect us as performers, how is it supposed to affect the audience? We can’t deliver that. So there is a little bit of picking and choosing sometimes.
CM: Do you think that musicians or artists should share more of themselves? Like tell funny stories, have a journal, and talk about their life on the road, and would that be more helpful for the audience to chime in and possibly there would be more people plugging into it? Besides Hilary, there are probably more people that show this really funny or interesting side of themselves.
JC: That’s a big question, and I think a lot of people are trying to answer that right now…
CM: Because people are trying to find–“How can we market this? How can we do it in a different way?”. I don’t know other than I think that maybe what I’d like to see is more people sort of bringing out a part of their lives that you don’t really see very much.
JC: In the concert?
CM: In the concert, maybe, too, but not just in the concert, in any way that they can online, in the media.
JC: I think social media, and YouTube and Facebook, I think that’s actually probably helped, maybe you don’t see it right away–Personally I did see good results when I started posting that I’m going to play a concert here on Facebook or on YouTube, and people were coming out more, so I think social media definitely is a good thing. It’s not that hard for classical musicians to do that.
CM: The crossover thing works to some extent. It works to have people like Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt playing together. The fans of each one might not see the other one so much, but it’s another thing.
JC: I think people are definitely doing that. ETHEL is going to be playing with Todd Rundgren!
I think managers and agents definitely look at that as sort of the big sell for these groups, and you know, why not? Why not? We can do it! We can play with these people, it’s fun for us, and at the same time we’re getting our music across, too!
CM: The younger audiences are probably much, much easier with the idea of this than, say, the ones with the blue hair that people joke about, because they’re all “We don’t want to change anything!”, but I think younger people like the idea of everything sort of coming together.
JC: I think so, and people are used to playing their iPods in shuffle mode, so they’re used to going back from this genre to that genre, from this group to that group, so…
CM: So it’s not so cut-and-dry anymore, really, it’s sort of skirting the line.
JC: It’s a multi-tasking nation now, we’re kind of schizo that way, our generation! That’s all good! I just like to go with the flow. That’s what my career’s been about, mainly. I think it’s hard for anyone just to do classical these days. Like Hilary Hahn, you’d think she’d just do classical, but why should she?
CM: She knows that there’s other ways of doing it, there’s other dynamics, and I think that it’s nice that other classical musicians recognize that, too.
Kerry Muzzey: Architect of The Mind (Jennifer Choi, violin–I hope :))