Kim Kashkashian: In the studio he folded his arms and said: 'No questions, just play'

Italian composer Luciano Berio turned to American-Armenian violist Kim Kashkashian to bring his chamber works to life. Michael Church met her
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The Independent Culture

The veteran Italian composer Luciano Berio's latest recording affirms his belief that the key to Western music's regeneration lies beyond the confines of our exhausted classical modes.

His new CD features five Sicilian folk songs sandwiched between his chamber works "Voci" and "Naturale". Berio may be an arch-modernist, but he grew up in the Italian folk tradition, and these chamber works take their prompt from it.

The soloist accompanying Berio on this cultural raid is American-Armenian violist Kim Kashkashian, who began by consulting the oracle. "I met Berio in Florence, and said I had a few questions, so I took my viola into the studio, where he folded his arms and said, 'No questions, just play!' Every once in a while he'd gesture his disagreement until it became clear what I needed to do." And what was that? "To get away from the traditional classical style. He wanted me to work like a folk singer. He demonstrated everything through singing, which he said was the best tool we have."

The chamber works may refract the songs' folk elements, rather than simply reflect them, but part of Kashkashian's homework has been to discover the circumstances under which these rough-hewn gems were originally performed. "If you listen to 'Ninna Nanna' as a lullaby, that's one thing. But if somebody tells you the mother is singing 'Please take my child, God, because I have no way to feed it', then that's a very different thing." This runs directly counter to what she regards as the classical musician's goal. "Normally our aim is to let the music speak so vividly that verbalisation of the message is unnecessary."

Kashkashian's next ECM recording will be of works by her compatriot Tigran Mansuryan, some of them modernist, others based on Armenian folk material. And that disc too will contain musical wild cards consisting of impromptu folk songs which Manfred Eicher lured Mansuryan into singing in the studio.

Kim Kashkashian may sound all-American, but her poise and grace suggest a more exotic provenance. How Armenian is she? "A good question! On paper, by blood, 100 per cent. My father was a young boy when he came to the States, and my mother, though born in the States, had not heard a word of English by the time she was sent to school at the age of six. I was born in Detroit, but I have a deep connection to the Armenian people, to the land itself."

And how have these origins marked her music? "Hugely. My father used to sing all the time so I grew up with that. And every Sunday we would visit Grandma and Auntie Mary, and Auntie Mary and Daddy would sing, and Grandma would dance." Kashkashian's family didn't have anything to do with the Armenian church, but its music is so integral to the Armenian identity that she felt impelled to bone up on it later. "The language, the songs, the melodies, – all that goes back into my deep self. And it's all imbued with an underlying melancholy."

Yes, that figures, given the Armenians' endurance of a persecution so bloody that in the 1920s more fled into exile than dared to remain. She adds: "Even our happy songs are about sadness."

'Voci' by Luciano Berio is out on ECM