World-Renowned Violinist Talks Social Activism at UCSB

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Peter McMaster

World-renowned violinist Jennifer Koh came to UCSB to conduct a masterclass about chamber music in Geiringer Hall and present a talk about social justice and activism in the College of Creative Studies titled “Creative Inquiry, Intersection, and Intervention.”

Koh is a virtuosic violinist replete with both classical and contemporary repertoires. She is known for being “one of the most impressive and expressive violinists on the scene,” according to a Los Angele Times article. Koh was recently named the 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America. In 2013, Koh was presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures to perform the only Southern California presentation of her Bach and Beyond project.

Koh was brought again last Friday to debut the only West Coast performance of Shared Madness. This is a program involving select scores from a collection of 30 specially-commissioned contemporary pieces that explore the meaning of virtuosity in the twenty-first century.

On the preceding Thursday afternoon, a handful of faculty and staff sprinkled into the seats of the UCSB College of Creative Studies Gallery to share an evening with Koh.

Koh opened with a short prepared speech that outlined the story of her journey, the troubles she has encountered as an Asian-American female musician, and what her aim is as an artist. She grew up in Illinois, and she recalled children ostracizing her for her Asian descent and adults speaking slowly to her. Many people assumed that she was not fluent in English. Similar stereotypical assumptions carried forward throughout her professional career.

Koh identified a hidden coding in language and demonstrated how ethnic colloquialisms tend to be positive for non-Asian music and musicians (i.e. “Italian passion” and “Germanic soul.”) Asian stereotypes tend to be negative (i.e. “plays like a Korean pianist.”) The assumption that Asian musicians are superfluous in technique and deficient in emotion has been a repeated theme in her life, Koh explained. She said her experience with racism meant she felt neither seen nor heard.

Koh shared a preview of her new collaborative project titled “The 38th Parallel,” a multi-media work embodying a shared heritage between two artists, Koh and composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière. Both artists have witnessed the trials of assimilating into a new culture. Koh intends the work to express the experience of uprooting one’s livelihood and beginning anew with unstable footing to stabilize one’s self through cinematography, movement, and music.

In dealing with sexism, Koh shared that she has often had to pick her battles. She illustrated the difficulties that many, if not all, women encounter in their career goals. Some difficulties are constantly demanding equality and respect and remaining silent towards misogynistic microaggressions to succeed in one’s field.

The “MeToo” movement was identified as an effective catalyst for encouraging women to speak up about injustices.

An audience member asked Koh about how she bridges the gap between the privileged demographic of classical/contemporary high-art enthusiasts and the general public, which tends to not seek out such forms of entertainment.

Koh responded that the idea of bringing an elevated form of art to an underprivileged demographic to elevate that demographic is an inherently colonialistic notion. It’s not the kind of action she is striving for in her art.

Agency, or the lack thereof for certain artists, is what Koh intends to spread to musicians and composers who have talent but lack recognition. Her power to do so comes through how she programs her performances. Koh identified her process of creating art as first imagining the ideal world and then building projects reflecting those values. To encapsulate her ethos, she said, “I fight back as an artist by creating the world I want to live in.”