Kim Kashkashian: An Explorer’s Mind
How Hungarian composer György Kurtág helped shape this string player into the most prominent viola soloist in America
In the early ’90s, when violist Kim Kashkashian lived in Freiburg, Germany, she worked on a solo-viola piece called Jelek by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. “And I thought, as one always does, given the opportunity to play for the composer, you take it,” she says.
So she got in touch with Kurtág, hopped on a train to Budapest, and the two started to work. Kurtág picked apart every phrase, every gesture, and every sound. “He’d stop you every two seconds,” Kashkashian says. “He’d say millions of things: ‘It’s not convincing, I don’t understand, it’s not convincing, it’s not convincing.’”
She counts off Kurtág’s criticisms on her fingers.
“In my case, almost always, ‘If you stand still, you’ll have a better chance. Stop waving around, you’re trying the wrong way.’”
She demonstrates, playing air-viola, waving her left arm from side to side.
Read Edith Eisler's 2000 interview with Kim Kashkashian.
We’re in Kashkashian’s home outside of Boston, in what she calls her “music room.” She’s sitting cross-legged in a wooden chair, wearing a three-quarter sleeve blue shirt and loose black pants, her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun. She’s barefoot, and wears no makeup. Kashkashian frequently sits in unconventional ways, with her legs curled up, and often an elbow on her knee, but she always looks extremely balanced, as if a string attached to the ceiling is holding up her spine.
Kashkashian walks over to one of the many neat stacks of sheet music on the floor, and picks up a tattered copy of Jelek. She points out where Kurtág had penciled “stand still,” and then “don’t stop the bow” and “release the sound.”
She still prefers to play off this copy, she says.
That day in Budapest, Kashkashian and Kurtág pored over the first three lines of Jelek’s first movement, which itself is less than a minute, for the next four hours. “At the end of which, I realized that I’d met my midlife-crisis teacher,” Kashkashian says. “He was asking me to hear, understand, and materialize things that I’d never dreamt of.”
Last September, two decades after the two first met, the Grammy-nominated Kashkashian released her new album Kurtág/Ligeti: Music for Viola (ECM), with Kurtág’s Signs, Games, and Messages and György Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola Solo. It’s the latest for a violist who has forged a unique solo career, performing and recording the standards of the viola literature—and elevating the status of the viola as a solo instrument—while actively working with composers, commissioning and promoting new repertoire.
Kashkashian, who recently turned 60, is arguably the most prominent viola soloist in America today. Her relationship with Kurtág, which has spanned several decades and continues to this day, has shaped who she is as a musician and made an indelible impact on her career.