Hat Trick: Carla Kihlstedt redefines the violinist’s role in modern music”
|strings magazine, hat trick!
Strings Magazine, San Rafael, California, April 2007
By Eliana Fiore, mit freundlicher Genehmigung. Danke!
“The seeds of unrest were planted!” says Carla Kihlstedt of
her musical upbringing. This Oakland, California-based violinist,
composer, and vocalist of staggeringly virtuosic proportions has
made an indelible imprint on the landscape of modern music during
the past decade. And, as she says, her interest in fusing her
classical training with a broader musical idiom started early. “
I remember that in ninth or tenth grade I found [performance artist
and violinist] Laurie Anderson, and my world changed. There was a
way that she dealt with ideas in the present that I just couldn’t
believe that you were allowed to do. Anderson, and several other
inspirations, like the Kronos Quartet, turned on its head my idea
of what music and art could be about.”
She is warm and articulate, with a quiet confidence earned from
years of pushing artistic boundaries.
Her four active collaborative ensembles—the chamber-jazz ensemble
Tin Hat (formerly the Tin Hat Trio), the art-song group 2 Foot Yard,
the art-goth metal band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and the industrial-
rock group Book of Knots—all enjoy widespread followings and are deeply
embedded in the unique arts communities of the San Francisco Bay Area
and New York. The focus is less about image and more about artistic
exploration, collaboration, and skill.
Kihlstedt’s music covers an astounding array of genres with innovation
and grace, but what is most striking about this violinist’s work is
her daring improvisational style. To see her perform is nothing short
of marvelous, her posture strong and courageous, with long draws of
harmonics over the strings, assured maneuvers through ridiculously
complex double-stop lines, with tinges of flamenco, jazz, rock,
Baroque, metal, and klezmer all rising to the surface.
These days, Kihlstedt’s schedule is a whirlwind of tours, recordings,
and rehearsals. Three out of four of her regular bands are releasing
new albums in the span of four months: Tin Hat’s The Sad Machinery
of Spring was released in January on the Hannibal/Rykodisc label;
Book of Knots’ Traineater arrived in March on Anti-; and an as-of-yet
untitled release by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is due in April on
The End label. She will embark on a European tour with the latter this
month, closely followed by another tour on the same continent with
Tin Hat in May. In addition, she is leading a part-music and part-theater
project, which at press time is scheduled to premiere in March in
Milwaukee, based on Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings
and funded by the National Performance Network and Alberto College.
She has written soundtracks, works for her bands, works for dance and
theater, and contributed to more than 25 recordings, including Tom Waits’
2002 album Alice. She counts such avant-garde musicians as John Zorn,
Fred Frith, Lisa Bielawa, Zeena Parkins, the Rova Saxophone Quartet,
Erik Friedlander,and Bob Ostertag among her list of collaborators.
After a childhood spent focusing on violin and piano lessons beginning
at age five in Pennsylvania, Kihlstedt enrolled in Ohio’s Oberlin
Conservatory of Music in the early 1990’s. It was “the only place
I applied, and the only place I really looked,” she says. At that point
she already knew that she wanted to explore music outside the boundaries
of traditional classical concert music. There she thrived by straddling
the classical and experimental worlds, hungrily exploring anything
and everything that came across her path.
“I took lots of [academic] classes, while being the concertmistress of
the orchestra; toeing the party line on one side and trying to stretch
it as much as I could [on the other],” she says. “At the time, the jazz
program was young, and so a few of the classical people and a few of the
jazz people put together an ensemble to specifically explore music with
improvisation built into it. It was a great setting to check out what the
parameters of music making could be.”
She also collaborated with dance choreographers to expand her work into
At Oberlin, she worked primarily with one pianist, who would conduct an
interesting experiment with her.
“He played the Crumb Nocturnes with me on my senior recital. When we took
breaks from working on this ridiculously rigorous and detailed music,” she
recalls, “we would turn out the lights in the practice room, put a scarf
in between the door and the doorjamb so the window would be covered over
and it’d be pitch black, and we’d just improvise.”
These days, she focused her improvisational style on texture. “I got
really interested in texture as opposed to melody at a certain point,
when I was fed up with being inexorably linked to the violin,” she says.
“I love the violin, but I needed to reinvent the kinds of sounds you could
make through it. I experimented with all kinds of sounds, and used its
more inherent qualities, like the vibrations of the strings, the way
to divide the sounds, the different harmonics and ways to use the bow.
“I tried all the things you were taught not to do when you were trying to
get the nice, juicy Brahms sound!”
More specifically, she’s known for using harmonics that give a floating,
dream-like quality to hersongs. “You can find the spaces where the voice
of the violin cracks,” she explains, “and that’s endlessly interesting to
She credits her loose bow arm for her harmonic facility.
“It’s the hardest thing to get, and I just happened to luck into an awesome
teacher when I was at a crucial age,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me play a
single note for six months. I only played long tones and worked on loosening
my bow arm—literally for six months at the age of ten until I wept!
Finally, there was one lesson when I drew the bow across the string, and he
said, ‘There! That was it! Did you hear that? Did you feel that?’
“I asked him on my way out, ‘How do I explain to my mom what we did today?’
He replied, ‘Well, all you have to do is ask her to describe the color blue
and see if she can,’ implying that, of course, there’s no way I could explain
It’s obvious that Kihlstedt learned not only to take full responsibility for
her training and the kinds of sounds that she still explores to this day,
but also the sorts of projects that she feels most comfortable composing
for and contributing to. “My first entry into composing is as a performer,”
she says. “I’m lucky enough to be involved in four collaborative groups,
so collaboration is at the base of everything I do musically.
I think it comes from playing in string quartets as a kid.
“It’s more intimate. You’re creating one unified voice out of four distinct
personalities, and all of those personalities affect the voice. I seek out
those kinds of musical relationships most. I’m drawn to composing for
projects that I’m involved in a personal way.”
Beyond the music, and yet intrinsically connected to it, is a woman of
determination, integrity, and focus, a player who sees an opportunity or
a new idea and says “yes” to it while others might hesitate. When asked
for her perspective on being an established female musical presence in a
world that is arguably still male-dominated, she asked that the question
be clarified, as if it had never occurred to her before.
“Often people reflect to me that a band like Sleepytime seems very
masculine and testosterone-laden,” she says. “I never thought of that!
There’s an element of that music that I totally relate to, that is really
satisfying and important. It’s not based on being male or female, but on
just letting your voice and body have certain reactions to the world and
letting yourself get physically all encompassed by a sound. I’m not
naïve enough to think that [sexism] doesn’t exist, but I have
the life where I get to play and have friendships with such beautiful
“It’s a luxury to not have to think about the world in those terms. I think
there were generations of women before us that paved the way for that. I owe
my luxury of obliviousness to them.”
Ultimately, Kihlstedt will continue to revolutionize the violinist’s role
in modern music using her imaginative and constantly evolving sense of
innovation. “My own ideas or preconceptions,” she says, “about who, what,
or how I am are much bigger hurdles to jump than what anyone else might think