Courtesy of Jennifer Koh

Courtesy of Jennifer Koh

October 21, 2018

Interview with Violinist Jennifer Koh on Her “Musical Alchemy”

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Innovative, energetic violinist Jennifer Koh will perform at Bailey Hall today. Ahead of her concert, I was able to speak briefly with her, discussing her musical influences and philosophy, and exploring a few memories that inform the scope of her musical journey.

Koh’s concert will feature her latest project, Limitless: On Stage Together, in which she collaborates with close friends and colleagues to compose and perform their personal stories. Koh recalled from her musical upbringing that she mostly played music by composers with whom she had few personal connections. She and the great composers of Western music did not share race, sex or age. While she revered the legacy of classical music, she knew there were more stories that must be told. Limitless is part of that effort to bring forward the compositional voices of those who have not been heard.

In pursuit of this goal, Koh often draws from her experiences growing up as an Asian American woman. She described two incidents that deeply affected her: the murders of Vincent Chin in 1982 and Yoshihiro Hattori in 1992.

Chin was a Chinese-American automotive engineer who was beaten to death by two recently-fired auto workers. They lost their jobs due to the movement of American auto manufacturing jobs to Japan and the two lashed out at Chin, blaming him for their misfortune as they beat him with baseball bats. Hattori was a Japanese exchange student who was shot to death after mistakenly trespassing on a couple’s property. Dressed as John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever, he was en route to a Halloween party when he knocked on the wrong door. The owner shot and killed Hattori, claiming self-defense. On both occasions, little legal action was taken against the killers. Koh cited these incidents as having unified and galvanized the Asian American community. While she was born of Korean parents, the murder of the Chinese Vincent Chin or Japanese Hattori could easily have happened to a Korean man or woman. It was clear to her that Asian Americans of various heritages were becoming a pan-ethnic group and should unify to address the challenges of being a person of color in the United States.

For Koh’s recent project, The New American Concerto, each composer engaged with a personal social justice concern, interweaving the pieces with emotion and a uniquely American essence. When composers and performers deeply commit to those moments, they discover a “magical alchemy,” as Koh fondly described. Accomplished pianist Vijay Iyer, who will play alongside Koh today, has assisted her in finding this creative spirit, allowing her to transcend the limits of conventional composing methods.

Today, Sunday, at 3pm at Bailey Hall, Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer will share their stories with Cornell, performing a work with the Cornell University Chamber Orchestra, a solo performance apiece and “The Diamond,” a collaborative composition between the two. Make sure to buy tickets for the Cornell Concert Series here because you will not want to miss this duo’s magical alchemy.

James Robertson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jar524@cornell.edu