by ACF President/CEO and LM blog contributor Vanessa Rose
A violin prodigy making her symphony debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11, Jennifer Koh has somehow exceeded expectations that follow the title. As a champion of classical and new music, Koh bridges the divide between traditional performance practice and radical innovation with projects like Bridge to Beethoven and her nonprofit arco collaborative. Koh makes her Liquid Music debut alongside pianist Vijay Iyer and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey January 9 at Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul.
VR: What I appreciate about your advocacy for new music and composers is that you do not see it as an either/or choice with traditional, revered classical works, but rather embracing the and as well as the vibrancy and relevancy it brings to our current repertoire. Your projects include pairing all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with new works and inviting composers to reimagine the violin concerto. How do you approach this expansion of your repertoire and selecting the composers you work with?
JK: I’ve always seen contemporary music as a thread to the past. My experience with performing new music is that often audiences who have not experienced classical music can relate to contemporary music, which engages with contemporary sounds and creates a pathway to experiencing older music.
In selecting the composers, I do extensive research, which includes listening to composers online, asking for scores, and going to live performances of their work. This research requires a lot of traveling! I’ve found that I have to do more research to find women and composers of color because they aren’t given the same kinds of opportunities as others. Often I have to visit more alternative spaces to listen to their work because they aren’t presented by as many traditional spaces or orchestras.
Last summer, you gave a moving speech to the delegates of the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference in your hometown of Chicago. You make a call to action to the orchestra field to reflect on their programming choices and selection of artists. How would you expand that awareness and intention to concertgoers and other active participants in our field?
I believe in advocating for voices of the population, which include women and people of color, that have not been heard in classical music. Their stories are just as relevant as the history of classical music, and it would be our loss to not hear their voices. When we bring new voices into older forms of classical music, you are only enhancing those traditional forms.
Music has always been an essential form of expression for me, and at the same time I realize that I am often learning and performing music that has been written by white men in a different century. The gift of empathy that music can give us has led me to truly love this artform, and I believe that classical music can give all of us the space to understand experiences that are unlike our own.
You emphasize the importance of collaboration with composers, like commissioning composer-performers to write duets for you through your Limitless project – of which the pieces by and with Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer are the centerpiece of your Liquid Music program. How do you make the case for the value of this process to performers, to composers?
I always see classical music and music in general as a living and breathing artform. For older music, it’s a process that was begun by the composer centuries long ago, interpreted by the performer, and ultimately finished by the listener.
When we engage with collaborations onstage, we bring forward all of that process to our audiences for a much more rewarding experience.
Six years ago, you founded the non-profit, arco collaborative, “arco” being the combination of artist and composer, further illustrating this collaborative dialogue you believe in. They’ve commissioned many of the works we’ve discussed here, including Limitless. What was your motivation for creating this organization?
I believe in artist-led projects, which empower artists and composers to engage with the topics relevant to our contemporary culture. Topics often unheard in the form of classical music that bring together contemporary ideas and voices with older musical structures. Arco creates a platform for this dialogue and incubates projects for a larger audience.
Vanessa Rose will be assuming the President & CEO position at the American Composers Forum in January, succeeding John Nuechterlein, who is retiring. She has led artist collectives including The Knights and International Contemporary Ensemble and as a fundraiser worked at the Lark Play Development Center, The Metropolitan Opera, and the League of American Orchestras. A violinist, Vanessa’s recent work as a composer advocate has been as Emerging Composers Consultant with the American Composers Orchestra and EarShot Orchestra Network, and with Jennifer Koh’s non-profit commissioning and program development foundation, arco collaborative.
Visit this link to purchase tickets for Jennifer Koh: Limitless with Vijay Iyer, and Tyshawn Sorey at Amsterdam Bar & Hall January 9.