Attend one of faculty member and alumna Mari Kimura’s violin performances and you’re likely to see a lot more cables, computer monitors, or even robots than you’d expect at your typical recital. Conservatory-trained to preserve the hallowed violin repertoire of the last three centuries, Kimura also embraces the possibilities offered by advances in motion capture, computer processing, and other audio/visual technologies. Through the use of electronics and extended techniques, she hopes to keep the violin ripe for invention throughout the 21st century, a tradition she says is just as vital to the instrument’s history as any urtext from the Baroque.
“Most of the violin’s history has been a history of innovation and revolution—but unfortunately in the past century a lot of that innovation and revolution has stopped,” Kimura (D.M.A. ’93, violin) said in a recent interview with The Journal. By way of example Kimura, who has taught a graduate course in interactive computer music performance at Juilliard since 1998, cites the division of labor between those who write music and those who interpret it, with that division especially prominent in Europe, as evidenced by the French word for performer, interprète. To Kimura, the performer’s paradigm of sticking to playing others’ original work without venturing to compose represents the limited view of what it means to be an instrumentalist that has taken hold in many conservatories. “The conservatory by definition is supposed to conserve, but what are you conserving?” she asks. “Are you conserving the 1890s through 1945? Or are you conserving the tradition of revolution? Being a violinist means a whole creative self that brings a new life to your instrument, and that is not conflicting with anything that you did before.”
Kimura’s own compositions and performances involve a variety of technological elements, including interactive computer programs, 3D visualizations, motion-sensing garments, even instrument-wielding robots. To promote musicians’ explorations in technology, she directs and teaches at an annual four-week fellowship program called the Future Music Lab, a collaboration with the storied French electronic music research institute IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). She says this is a way to pay forward the encouragement she received when she became interested in the then-budding field of computer-enhanced music.
Kimura has also extended the range of the violin itself—without electronics—using special bowing techniques that allow her to play notes a full octave below the instrument’s lowest tuned note. This technique, which she calls subharmonics, caught the attention of researchers. It helped Kimura, who was born and raised in Japan, where she attended Toho School, a traditional conservatory, to get her green card and settle permanently in the U.S. And that in turn afforded her the time to explore the world of human-electronic interfaces that blossomed in the ’80s and ’90s.
During her graduate studies in violin at Boston University, Kimura took an electronic music course to fulfill a unit requirement for her student visa. “I didn’t know anything about electronic music,” she recalls. “I was the only girl and the only musician” in a class of engineers, computer scientists, and a few composers (though not performers).
Despite feeling out of her element, Kimura was soon hooked; she created her first electronic composition using reel-to-reel tape that she edited using a razor blade. A piece by Mario Davidovsky called Synchronisms No. 6 cemented her passion for this new mode of music-making in the pre-desktop computing era. “What he did was to combine a real instrument and a tape and make it sound as if it’s interactive,” she says. “I heard that piece and I almost fell off my chair. I thought, ‘I have to do this.’”
Kimura ended up pursuing her doctorate at Juilliard with Joseph Fuchs (Diploma ’20, violin; faculty 1946-97), who supported her interest in electronic music as did Hubert Howe (faculty 1974-94), who encouraged her to go to Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where she eventually became a visiting scholar..
Technology has advanced since those days, and Kimura’s technical palette has expanded as well. She is perhaps best known for an IRCAM-designed glove, worn on her bowing hand, that transmits information about her motions to a computer. Using three-axis accelerometers and a gyroscope, it measures the velocity and angle of her hand’s motion, translating it into digital information that is read by special software and then translated into instructions for accompaniment. For example, it can tell the piano what dynamics or tempos to use or it can inform digital visualizations that appear to respond and react dynamically and in real time to her performance. This makes for a more organic and fluid sounding accompaniment, rather a step-based, “on or off” sequencer that require performers to keep up with its pace. She wrote several of her compositions to incorporate these technological augmentations to her “wooden box and strings,” as she describes the violin.
Technology can be used to forge new avenues of creativity, but it can also be used to simplify. While traditional musicianship is not generally seen as a skill parallel to the mastery of technology, Kimura maintains that the two identities are closely related—and she’s interested in bringing the highly trained performer’s discipline and skills of artistic expression into the realm of electronic music so that they will carry their instruments forward in an authentic way.