Violinist Jennifer Koh sometimes closes her eyes while performing, depending on what she's playing. But she doesn't "see" the music in the darkness behind her eyelids.
This week, her sound will have a visual incarnation as she performs with a video by filmmaker Tal Rosner. Koh, an Oberlin College Conservatory of Music alumna (class of '97) who's gone on to an international career as a soloist and recitalist, commissioned Rosner to create the video to accompany her performance of former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen's solo for violin, Lachen Verlernt. She's debuting it this week at her alma mater.
Koh met Salonen in 2002 and was immediately taken with his music. "I believe the music written today creates a kind of thread to the past and reflects a whole range of who we've become as human beings — the ugliest sides of us as well as the most beautiful sides," she says. "It helps us experience that when we are together."
She says Lachen Verlernt ("forgotten laughter") is based on a song from Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, about a narrator begging a clown to teach her how to laugh again. "In a larger metaphorical sense," she says, "it's about reconnecting with emotions people forgot that they had."
After discussing the idea with Salonen, she searched for a video collaborator, "trolling YouTube, looking at a lot of techno videos." Eventually she found Rosner, whose work she not only appreciated, but who also had experience with classical music performances.
The Schoenberg song had a story, but stripped of its words and recast by Salonen, it is completely abstract. And that's how Rosner deals with it.
"I am very interested in abstraction," he says. "It is difficult to approach a piece of music in visual terms. You don't want to impose too much of a narrative. There is something maybe personal about how I do it. It is not about giving something finite that says this is the way to see the piece."
He found inspiration in looking at power lines criss-crossing the blue Los Angeles sky. "They create these amazing compositions, junctions, and layers," he says. "There is something about the lines that is evocative of strings and the movement of a bow and string."
Koh and Rosner both see parallels between how video and dance interact with music. They move with the music's rhythm, but unlike a music video, Rosner's is not meant to be the visual representation of the piece. For both, artistic expression is about connecting with people, and any response is valid.
Koh sees it that way for contemporary music like the Salonen piece, as well as works like Bach's famous sonatas and partitas, two of which bookend her Oberlin recital. "New music is a thread to the past," she says. "Every day that passes we're farther from Bach's time, 325 years ago. I still find that music to be incredibly profound. We are always in conversation with what has come before. It is about creating a tie to the past, and in a way it shows us a glimpse of the future."
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29
90 N. Professor St, Oberlin