Extended interview: Roman Kim

Composer and violinist on his influences and playing the violin with his teeth

Ahead of his violin recital at Beijing Concert Hall, the multi-talented Roman Kim talks about his heroes and creative process. (Translation from German by Kara Jenkinson)

I know you started playing at age five, but how did you come to play the violin at all?

One day my mother brought home a tiny violin. Music wasn’t new to me — both my parents are musicians — and so I also began to make music. My mother taught me the first steps with the violin, and then when I was eight, the whole family decided to send me to the Central School of Music in Moscow. [I started studying] with the famous violin teacher Galina Turchaninova. That’s when I really took being a violinist seriously.

When did you start to love your instrument — was there a moment you can remember?
It was a long process. Galina Turchaninova gave me the first professional introduction to the violin. As a child, I hadn’t felt a special love for the violin. It was only because of her efforts and patience that I began to develop a great love for the violin as an instrument. Apart from that, from age eight until 16, I really only loved performing on stage. Then I went to Cologne and started studying with Victor Tretjakov. All of my teachers motivated and influenced me. But, mainly I searched for inspiration and challenges myself. When I was 18, I’d become a real violin fanatic, and I began to see myself as a violinist, musician and artist.

What about the Romantic-era composers appeals to you so much?
For me, the first and most important Romantic is very obvious — Paganini. He embodies an upheaval of style in music history, and led a revolution in instrumental music. There is this view that Paganini’s music is superficial and lacks content, but the content and the depth of his music isn’t apparent until you can play it in an interesting way. You should actually play all music in that way — Chopin, Brahms and many others, not just the Romantics. For me, Paganini’s musical spirit and his artistic appearance are unique in the whole world of music. Paganini himself said that his music couldn’t be played by anyone else as well as he could play it himself. And I believe it remains so to this day.

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How early did your technique show itself? Was this something that you were always experimenting with, or did this come later? What were your teachers’ reactions through the years?
These experiments started in Cologne. I was 18, and could already do quite a lot on the violin. As I said, Tretjakov had a very strong influence on me, and I [also] practiced a lot and was searching on my own. Then came the first composition and transcription ideas. And as I went through the process of searching for technical solutions, suddenly a whole raft of tricks emerged. And my teachers always [reacted] positively to all the technical innovations I developed.

It seems you take Paganini as your role model, would you agree with that? If so, what about him inspires you? Is that the same with Jimi Hendrix?
They are, in fact, my heroes — Paganini and Hendrix. Both of them have an incredible charisma. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. I think the two of them were truly pioneers in art, politics and many other areas that we then further developed. They are very similar to each other. At the time, you could say Paganini was — like Jimi — a star. He created musical language innovations. He was technically perfect. He had many ideas for new sound colours. He suggested many new instrumental solutions. His energy was tremendous! With all of these things you can say he showed people: Here is the new world! And most people were in awe of them both.

No one knows if they improved our world, or changed its direction — but they changed many things and inspired a generation. And they did that in a way that put their art — not themselves personally — in the foreground. Unfortunately we can’t ask anyone today how Paganini looked on stage, but I imagine he was just as connected to his instrument as Jimi Hendrix was to his instrument. His voice and his performance were like a single organism. Everything was correct… Fascinating…

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Why do you like doing your own transcriptions? What is the biggest challenge? Do you ever have to worry about venturing too far from the original? Not far enough?
I always try to retain all the original harmonies. The music is the most important thing to me, so I strive to change the original as little as possible. I only transcribe some piece that I can’t get out of my head, or when I’m fascinated by a recording. And when it’s not for the violin, but polyphonic (has several voices or melodies at once) then I will live with the music through my instrument and afterwards begin [doing experiments]. This is a very interesting activity. It’s creative. It has nothing to do with technical difficulties; it somehow comes automatically. I don't plan it. Instead, it’s as if searching for solutions to overcome these difficulties, I learn something new about the instrument and [expand] the possibilities of the violin.

You mentioned that for your transcription of Bach’s Badinere, you invented your own harmonics so the instrument can sound more like a flute — can you explain what that means?
Oh, man! Even the professionals can’t explain this easily. Even though basically it is very simple. Again I was searching for solutions, because I had this idea in my head to play Badinerie. The main melody is played by a flute, so then the violin had to sound like a flute. When you play harmonics (an overtone, over the fundamental note) on the violin, it does sounds like a flute, so, I tried to play using normal harmonics. But the melody is much too fast for this technique and it was impossible to play other strings or pluck at the same time. Then I fiddled about, and surprised myself when these sounds came out. They sounded like a flute, and also naturally like harmonics, only much sharper, louder and more stable. And then everything was possible: scales, chromatics, and arpeggios (open chords).

It's really not complicated at all. You just have to wash your hands well before you play. Since then, I use this trick wherever difficulties with harmonics hinder the flow of the music. I’m even convinced that Paganini himself mastered this exact technique. Without this solution, many passages from Paganini’s music just can’t be understood musically. Even in his manuscripts he doesn’t describe how the harmonics should be played. He writes only one word: 'harmonics'.

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You also mentioned that you are composing your own violin concerto — can you tell us about that? Is it in the Romantic style, or more contemporary? What do you like about composing?
Composing is my second passion. I’ve even begun studying composition. As to the violin concerto, I’m still working on it. The work is constantly being interrupted by other inspirations, ideas, projects, concert trips, and so on. But I am already quite far along. It’s not modern music in the sense of having harmonic complexities, dissonances and strange sounds; it’s simply music for violins. I wouldn’t want to define the style or give it a firm description. It could be that I have been inspired by Prokofiev, Sibelius, Bach, Rahmaninov and Chopin. You’ll be reminded of the Romantics when you listen to this music.

Some of the many Youtube and other websites’ comments talk about the length of your fingers giving you an advantage — would you agree with that? Why or why not? What is the secret of your technique?
I don’t have especially long fingers. Many people’s fingers are even longer and more flexible than mine are. It also doesn’t have anything to do with psychology. The secret is in working; practice is most important. So is a lot of reflection.

When you played your transcription of La Traviata’s I Brindisi, you played with your teeth — why did you make that choice? What was the general reaction? And did it hurt?
No, it didn’t hurt. I try not to think about that. It was Jimi Hendrix who — again — gave me that idea. For this show piece I needed something quite extraordinary. At this point in the music, you can get away with playing a simple pizzicato. But firstly it’s not nearly as loud and bombastic as the piano and secondly this musical moment deserves to have a real show element. The audience likes it, I think. Sometimes people start clapping while the music is still playing. That is fun!

Can you say something about your Beijing programme?
The program is structured as a kind of reflection. There will be works by Paganini, my own compositions, and Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata (Violin Sonata in G Minor) — Paganini’s own favourite piece. In addition to that, I’ll play the piece for solo violin Sonata Ballad by Eugene Ysaÿe, as well as my new composition, Ballad Dies Irae for solo violin. I’m looking forward to getting to know my Chinese accompanist, Zhang Weicong. We’ll meet in Shanghai and prepare the program, but the concerts will take place in the Beijing Concert Hall, the Suzhou Arts Centre and the Shenzhen Star Theatre. I’m looking forward to it!

Roman Kim Violin Recital is at Beijing Concert Hall on Friday 20 November. See full event details.

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