This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Violinist and composer Pauline Kim Harris joins me to discuss her album Heroine, Bach, her studies with Jacha Heifetz, working with electronics and more.
HEROINE: DEO I
Pauline Kim Harris on "Deo": Deo is an acoustic-electronic transcription of Johannes Ockeghem’s stunning Deo Gratias devised as a complement to Ambient Chaconne. Notable as a 36-part canon, Ockeghem evokes singing of angels in heaven via an innovation on a traditional canon, using this ancient musical device as a kind of acoustic feedback delay. In essence, our Deo expands this idea of delays to a canon of thousands, in an ever expanding and infinite soundscape, where the melodies eventually dissolve into resonance.
STUDYING WITH HEIFETZ
Anna Heflin: How has your relationship with Bach changed over the years? Can you talk specifically about studying Bach with Jascha Heifetz?
PKH: My relationship with Bach can be best described as spiritual, layered with emotional history and intellectual searching. Healing. Cleansing. Grounding. Fortifying. Humbling. These are all words that come to mind when I think of Bach. It’s sort of what you might imagine a relationship with God to be like. Personal. A source of guidance most in time of need or absolute joy. Omnipresent. Alive. A sense of mutual understanding that grows deeper with time. I guess you can say Bach is part of my life, like air.
My vivid memories of studying with Jascha Heifetz are rooted in the stress that was put on the importance of scales. Three octave scales. Arpeggios. Double stops. Octaves. Fingered Octaves. 10ths. 5ths, 4ths… then the same on the piano and viola! Yes, we all had to learn alto clef and sight-reading was a fun activity. Once he was satisfied with that, we were allowed to bring Paganini Caprices and Bach. No concertos yet. And, showpieces! You had to earn that privilege. He was a mad speller of long words, too. I’d test him with the bonus points word from that week’s spelling test. This is all coming from what I remember as a 10 year old.
The E Major “Preludio” from Partita No.3 was a staple, with and without piano accompaniment.
THE ROLE OF BACH
AH: What role does Bach play in your compositional practice? What does reinterpreting Bach in this day and age mean to you?
PKH: If Bach has a role in my compositional practice, it is subconscious. His music is so ingrained in me. Not just the solo works, but his cantatas, oratorios, all of it. I learned counterpoint in junior high. We had the most incredible music theory teacher at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences who insisted on it. This was right before I moved to NYC to go to Juilliard.
One of the most fascinating things about Bach is that every time you play a piece, you discover something new in that same piece. It’s almost as if he is revealing a new secret. It’s like a gift. This is why I don’t believe there is one way to play Bach and why his music is played not only by early music specialists, but has also been used in hip hop. Not only that, his music can be adapted in many ways. One recent example is violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s recording of the Cello Suites. Bach himself quoted his own music over and over again. It’s like a treasure hunt. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I think Bach would be pleased by the reinterpretations. It testifies to its currency. Living music. Just a side note that I find it pretty amazing that Felix Mendelssohn is the one to put Bach on the map…
AH: How did the integration of electronics and video in Ambient Chaconne help you reach the sense of timelessness that you were looking for? When creating works with mystical elements, do you tend to incorporate electronics?
PKH: Now that you ask, what the electronics and video do in the Ambient Chaconne are curiously similar. It helps create a sense of physical expansiveness beyond a mere cerebral experience. Especially in a work like the Bach Chaconne, there’s something about slowing it way down and getting into the very essence of each chord. Almost like every note is floating in space, held together in our minds by gravity. By manipulating the predictable flow of a familiar thing, it disrupts natural timing. Hence, the timelessness. There was a lot more to the process of creating Ambient Chaconne than merely stretching it out. But, that was one of the rudimentary elements in creating the electronic track.
Ambient Chaconne was a collaboration with sound artist/composer Spencer Topel. This piece came about in an accidental way. Winter of 2012 was when I began developing my Chaconne Project. In the company of John King, Yoon-Ji Lee, Elizabeth Hoffman and Annie Gosfield, Spencer was one of the first composers to be a part of it — I recorded his piece Violine for Violin and Interactive Electronics. He also helped me record the actual Bach Chaconne with no intention of releasing it. In search of a companion piece to Violine, the idea of an ambient version of the Chaconne came to me. And so, began the process of 3+ years working together in making what is the recorded and concert version of Ambient Chaconne for Violin and Electronics.
All of this is to say that I am deeply committed to this sound world and the time consuming challenges of integrating acoustic with the electronic world. It is for sure a place I live in when composing new works. It will be interesting to see what comes next. I’ve been writing a lot for strings lately: Crushed Coal To Dust for Double Bass + String Quartet (2019), Mine Alone for String Quartet (2019), A Fragile State for 5 Violins (2019), Moon Units for Violin/Viola (2020) to name some. It can be said that I am currently experimenting with writing music for acoustic instruments emulating the feeling of electroacoustic music. This time of social distancing may lend itself to some new discoveries! However, I am wary to say that incorporating electronics necessarily evokes mystical elements.
AH: What is your favorite standard recording of Bach? What is your favorite untraditional (this can be interpreted in any way) recording of Bach?
PKH: I was always warned to name favorites of anything! Do want to share the Hilliard Ensemble recording of the Bach Chaconne, though.
AH: Can you talk about your experiences as a performer/composer? How does the experience of performing your own works differ from writing for other musicians?
PKH: In a way, composing has freed me up as a performer. On the flip side, it has taken up a lot of my already limited practice time on the violin. It’s definitely been a transition. It’s a sort of awakening, though. I highly recommended it!
It was this super influential composer that said to me once working closely with them on a new work I was recording, “You have to think like a composer!” How that stuck with me. In learning to look at music from a composer’s perspective, a new calling emerged. I have so many of my colleagues to thank for the jump start, too. Writing music for your friends is the best thing ever!
It’s funny though, I have found that playing my own music is kind of nerve wracking. I absolutely adore working with other musicians playing my music. But, I have yet to find that balance between performer/composer of my own music. Performing Ambient Chaconne is different than some of the other pieces such as Sugar for Two Violins, Crushed Coal To Dust, Dong Mae… It’s maybe not the type of dynamic I’m into being the composer AND performer in an ensemble type setting. Solo, different thing. That may evolve. We’ll see.
When I am writing a new piece for a specific commission, I can’t help thinking about who I am writing for. I never thought of it this way until just now, but I guess by knowing who you are writing for gives it purpose. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with during this pandemic crisis. How essential what we do as musicians, performers, composers, artists, teachers, really is. My album Heroine was dedicated to caregivers… little did I know how timely it would resonate.
PAULINE KIM HARRIS
Pauline Kim Harris is a Grammy-nominated violinist and composer. The youngest student to have ever been accepted into the studio of legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, she has since appeared throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia as soloist, collaborator and music director. Currently known for her work with classical avant-punk violin duo String Noise with her husband, Conrad Harris of the FLUX Quartet, she has toured extensively with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and has been a guest artist with leading new music ensembles such as Talea, ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Argento, TRANSIT, Object Collection, Glass Farm Ensemble, Ensemble LPR, Wordless Music and Ensemble Signal in New York City.