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We Are an Instrument

Ben Ratliff

July 30, 2019

ECM Records

I have an idea about music that keeps returning to me, which is this: Music expresses the sensibility and context and desires of its time and place and creator, and so you might figure that the only respectful way to really understand it is to draw close, specialize in it and honor it as a set of rules. But—at least for the listener—the closer you think you’re getting, the further away you might really be.

When it came out in October 2018, the violist Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s Cello Suites seemed to be the best record I had heard that year. It has improved with time. Okay: What is there to lose? The most uninformed description of Six Suites for Viola Solo, a little more than two hours and twenty minutes long, might be that it is a great work played on the wrong instrument. Yet it seems to be the best record I’ve heard in my life.

What I would prefer that phrase to mean is that more than any record I can think of it makes a listener consider what life actually feels like. I’ve heard it a lot, but I’ll try to remember the first time I put it on. After the chasteningly long silence that begins the first track of any ECM record, I didn’t hear what I usually register as the sound of an even temper—the rhythmic ticking which begins the prelude of the first suite, in G major—but instead the dark and sobering D, F, and A, played individually, all kind of forte, of the Prelude to Suite no. 2 in D minor. (The first three notes of that motive come back several more times in that prelude, transposed into other keys: in measures 13, 40, 42—a big moment of reckoning in measure 42.) So with the first three notes—an entirely different starting place—the record suggested that I start thinking of the suites as a live organism, not as a venerable form.

By the time I finally heard the downbeat and bright momentum of the first suite’s prelude—track seven—I was in tune with a few things about Kashkashian’s playing, and the viola-ness of the viola, which I might have understood a little bit before, but never so clearly.

One is right in her sound: a sense of texture or propulsion or tactility. There are slight rumbles of bow against string, and slight dropouts or boosts in various frequencies. The viscosity and granularity and color of her lines keeps varying—thin and thick, piled and scant, emulsified and dry. Less or more signal, but more to the point, less or more noise.

Another is more contextual: by Kashkashian’s own will, and/or her instrument’s, she is not riding the suites as a moving sidewalk. With probity and something like a sense of ethics, she allows them to be as difficult to reduce as they are. I am thinking of her relative refusal to let the first prelude’s climb toward its highest note achieve a narrative of triumph and then dissolve into a puddle of magnificence: she runs through it as if it were an admirable problem of logic and then spends less than two seconds on the final chord.

I am thinking of the sarabande movements, which often sound like challenges in what to do with the concept of sorrow in music: do you shine it up, stretch it out and play it for expression, or do what most people do in life, which is put on a brave face and struggle to keep it down? She tends to keep the sorrow down. I am also thinking of the way she pauses before restating the opening phrase in the sixth suite’s prelude, a full articulated stop, very definite, but not long enough to signal there is meaning here. I have never heard it done quite that way.

Meanwhile I am hearing her breathe through her nose. Her breathing is not what you will buy the record for, but it is not beside the point. Sometimes it marks off modular units of music—four-measure segments, say—or appears when a motive is restated through paraphrase. But more often she is following her own map of accents, and the really impressive breathing happens during emphatic climbs or peaks, before a downbeat. The best one in the second prelude happens in measure 42, amid three big steps upward. In her inhaling she is giving herself energy to keep playing the music, and marking gestures she finds valuable. She is also gathering the listener closer into the music, whether or not she intends to.

Through unexpected circumstances I met Kim Kashkashian in the fall of 2017. She mentioned that she’d just recorded Bach’s Cello Suites. I asked her how she felt about it in retrospect, and she said something like this: “no one can ever play that music adequately, and also no one can play it badly.”

For about six months I wondered about that sentence. Finally I was sent a finished sound-file of the record, and experienced the reaction to it that I have been describing. I asked Kashkashian if she wouldn’t mind picking the thought up where we left it. She agreed, and I drove to her house in Massachusetts.

Bach, she first explained, is different from everyone else, because his structures are perfect. She was talking about patterning. Of course you wouldn’t want to change the order of the notes, she reasoned, but you can perceive the patterning of them in many different ways, and no matter what kind of pattern you perceive in one place you can find it echoed elsewhere, in a part or in a whole.

Then you can render whatever pattern you perceive, and the notes on the page won’t mind. To demonstrate, she picked up the edition that she constructed for her version of the suites, which is built from various different sources, and sang a short section: seventeen notes long. She sang it five different times, with different pauses and emphases, according to different ways of perceiving the patterns in it. “You can’t mess it up,” she said. “It is so alive in its balance that no matter how you pattern it, it works.” But to realize that it works is not the same as cracking a code or reaching the end of something. “I feel every evening that I’ve gotten a better understanding,” she said, “and I wake up the next morning feeling, oh, no, that actually wasn’t the whole picture.”


Portrait of Kashkashian by Petra Goldman.

A great work played on the wrong instrument. A great work? The Cello Suites might be less and more than that. They were composed around 1720, before our current idea of a musical work of art took hold. (In her 1992 book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, the philosopher Lydia Goehr argued provocatively that “prior to 1800, musical activity was not structured by the work-concept.”) But for many people the Cello Suites are more than great: They are steadying and clarifying through their mysterious patterning and proportionality. Because they have no separate bass accompaniment, much of their harmony is implied by the soloist as she moves along. They need your memory of what has just occurred to construct their full picture.

“If all other works of Bach had disappeared,” wrote Peter Williams in his biography of the composer, “one would recognize in the Cello Suites alone a mastery of harmonic movement created within the minimum number of notes.” That minimum number leaves room for the listener to think and live and, in some way, regenerate. In a few cases involving friends of mine—a bandleader just off the road from a punishing tour, a writer who’d received bad health news—the Cello Suites have been the only thing they could stand hearing.

The wrong instrument? If so, the viola, an instrument long considered a recessive member of the European classical-music ensemble, might be the right wrong instrument. But that is all aside from what Kashkashian does on it.

Six Suites does not make you feel that the suites are, above any other attribute, venerable. Kashkashian’s version suggests she is holding them at a slight critical distance. She doesn’t use romantic affect or a lot of vibrato or dynamics. She renders the music with clarity and visceral appreciation, as if it is revealing something new and curious to her in almost every measure. In the dance movements especially—the five movements after the prelude of each suite—she creates hundreds of charged mini-hesitations and elongations of notes. Technically this might be called rubato, which means altering tempo at will; moving in closer, a music theorist might call these moments “agogics”—little adjustments of note lengths and silences which would not necessarily alter the larger arrangement of tempo. But I don’t hear it as a technique. I hear it as the player putting herself in the music, physically, and figuring out where and how to respond and breathe. It is absolutely, manifestly, a kind of improvising. These moments might thwart the idea of an even, rhythmic drive, but still they are dancerly. (Some fans of baroque music do not like musicians to disobey the dance rhythms, and there are some good reasons not to; Kashkashian plays as if the binary choice of obey/disobey doesn’t occur to her.) The thing about this record is that it doesn’t turn the suites into anything like a story. It doesn’t need a story. It doesn’t really emotionally resolve, ever. And that could partly be Kashkashian’s positive response to the viola’s vexed historical and physical context, as if the suites had invited her to define what is human through the machine on her shoulder.


The Cello Suites were written by Bach during the years he was capellmeister for Prince Leopold of Cöthen. His own manuscript for them has not survived, but his second wife, Anna Magdalena, prepared a version. It says “for violoncello solo,” but what that may have meant to Bach remains in debate. The cello in its current shape and size wasn’t standardized until decades after Bach wrote this music. There were many different instruments between the size of the violin and the modern cello, and the sixth suite in particular raises questions: the Anna Magdalena manuscript instructs “pour cinq cordes”—for five strings. Modern cellists play it on a normal four-stringed cello, but because of its writing in high registers, the sixth suite does seem better suited to a five-stringed instrument. Bach is thought to have played a five-stringed instrument called the violoncello piccolo—a kind of viola, bigger than the alto-range viola we generally see now, but played on the shoulder and, at the time, normally used as the middle voice of a group, between the melody lines and the basso continuo.

Leopold was a Calvinist, and Calvinists worshiped for the most part with text alone. So Bach wrote lots of secular music during that time, including the Brandenburg Concertos and the first book of the solo-keyboard Well-Tempered Clavier. There had been nearly 50 years of writing for solo violin, since Biber’s passacaglia in his Rosary Sonatas, but it is less clear how established a tradition there was for solo cello: some ricercars (a type of étude or technical study) by Domenico Gabrielli and Giovanni Batista Degli Antoni from the second half of the 17th century, and beyond that, not much we know about. The solo-cello format failed to thrive for two hundred years thereafter.

The Cello Suites were first published in 1825. The cellist Pablo Casals, as the story goes, found a score of it in 1890, in Barcelona, at age 13. He began practicing them daily. Before he was 20 he was considered by some to be the greatest musician in Spain. By the early years of the new century, when he had gathered the courage to play entire cello suites in public, he was performing for heads of state and developing a new species: the solo cellist who performs in a concert hall. (“He ‘created’ the suites, the way a singer in a new opera is said to create a role,” wrote Paul Elie in Reinventing Bach, “and invented them as modern concert music.”) The rise of the player encoiled the rise of the work which encoiled the rise of the format.

When Casals finally recorded the Bach Cello Suites, in London in the late 1930s, they were full of pathos, drama, dynamics. They were his magic texts; perhaps he felt he had to make a case for the music and himself at the same time. During the short history of the Bach cello suites as common repertoire there has been established a tradition of a single musician revisiting them publicly through life, perhaps as a kind of evolving self-portrait, or a dual portrait. (The liner notes to the new versions by both Kashkashian and Yo-Yo Ma, in a strikingly similar way, reference the notion of Bach as a companion through life, bringing comfort to those who play his music.) Ma has recorded them three times. Pieter Wispelwey, too. János Starker has done five.

Most recordings of the suites order them 1/2/3/4/5/6, which moves—roughly speaking—in the direction of complexity. (That was the order in which Anna Magdalena transcribed them, as well as the other transcriber from Bach’s time, the organist Johann Kellner.) Or, at least, they begin with the first and end with the sixth. Kashkashian and her producer, Manfred Eicher, constructed an order which starts with the second: 2/1/5/4/3/6. They did this, she told me, in search of “a viable and organic emotional arc” throughout the set of suites, and “flowing key relationships” among them. There must be a difference between that and telling a story.

Around 250 versions of the Cello Suites live, for now, on Spotify. If you type “Bach Cello Suites” into the Spotify search engine, among the first ten albums will be two of Ma’s three versions—the first one from 1983, and the new one, released two months before Kashkashian’s. (Because the phrase “Bach Cello Suites” does not appear in the title of Kashkashian’s recording of them, you won’t find hers at all on Spotify that way—you will have to use her name. Also, there’s no question that Ma’s new version, and his six-continent tour to support it, limited the possibilities for more attention toward Kashkashian’s.) You will see several versions played on viola, including one from the 1950s by Lillian Fuchs and one from 2004 by Nobuko Imai; and versions played on guitar and double-bass and trumpet and marimba and Cretan lyra and baritone saxophone. It isn’t unusual for a non-cellist to record the Cello Suites. But almost all recorded versions have been played, of course, on the cello, and most people who know the Suites would consider the rounded and resonant sound of the cello to be the best transmitter of what ancient Greeks would call their morphe—their inner essence, outwardly expressed.


Kashkashian, 66, born in Detroit and raised in an Armenian family there, is one of the greatest living violists. Her biography connects her to some other musicians associated with integrity and conscience and a kind of struggle in their playing or their professional lives: they include the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the violinist Felix Galimir, with whom she studied and performed at the Marlboro Music Festival in the 1970s; the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, with whom she worked in the 1980s; and more recently the American vocalist and composer Ken Ueno, whose music often dramatizes the limits of the voice. Kashkashian has also taught for more than forty years—since 2000 at New England Conservatory—and her teaching, she reckons, has gone increasingly in the direction of “psychology and therapy.”

She is the only violist to have won a Grammy in the Best Classical Solo Instrumental category, for her record Kurtág & Ligeti: Music for Viola. Twentieth-century viola music—there isn’t much of it any earlier—can be spiritual, inward, slightly difficult, and she rises to its challenges. In Kurtag’s feral miniatures, for instance, or in her recording of Hindemith’s Sonatas for Viola. Forthright, awkward when necessary, her sound rustles and shouts through the wood. The music is on.

Every violist knows the Bach cello suites, or many of them, by heart, as basic training. It is exemplary string music that does not have be transcribed in a special way, because the viola is tuned like a cello, just one octave higher. (The Bach cello suites for viola isn’t quite a transcription—at most, an adaptation.) In fact, it could be argued that the violist’s relationship to the Bach cello suites is a special one, a gift in both directions. The violist is naturally near the music and historically not of it. Close enough to interrogate it, not close enough to own it.

The viola has been written into the mainline of western classical music as an accompanying instrument, an “inner voice” in a string quartet. The repertoire for the instrument as a leading role pretty much starts in the early 20th century, when composers started to write music for four musicians as equal members. According to Kashkashian, the viola still has only three major concertos that students learn in school: Bartók, Hindemith, William Walton. The first line of Playing the Viola, the book of reflections on the instrument by William Primrose—probably the most famous violist in history—is this: “We are an instrument without a tradition.” (Not “we play,” but “we are.”)

If you visit the section of New York University’s Bobst Library where the books on string instruments of the western classical tradition are found, you will find books on violin, cello, viola da gamba (a different entity: fretted, six strings, held between the legs), and nothing on the viola specifically. Groves Dictionary, the standard reference encyclopedia for music first published in 1879, varied through the first century of its editions between giving the viola a standalone entry and simply considering it as a member of the violin family. And so, of necessity, part of Kashkashian’s job involves expanding the literature for the viola, building a tradition to it, through commissions and adaptations. It’s a bit like restitution—Kashkashian is correcting a historical mistake.

Around the viola there are also complicated factors of physics. It is well known that the length of the viola’s strings are not right for the pitch of the instrument.  If the viola were longer, the strings would have to be longer too, and the situation would be solved, but then hardly anyone would have fingers long enough to play it. That disjunction helps create a sound that doesn’t glide and project with the ease of the violin or the cello. The recalcitrance of the instrument creates a lot of stuff around the note: color, tone, texture. If you want to call that stuff context, I think that is appropriate. If you want to call it history, I think that is okay too.

The viola’s sound is elusive, in-between. The violist Nadia Sirota told me that the instrument reminds her of “a man singing very high or a woman singing very low,” resulting in a metaphorical gender-ambiguity that appeals to her. (We are an instrument.) Here’s another way of putting it: the viola, and Kashkashian’s record as a good example of what a viola can do, does not represent a simplified ideal. Earlier I wrote that Six Suites for Viola Solo seems a record that describes what life feels like. I am not talking about what life means, and I am not talking about the specific events of anybody’s life, and I am not talking about my life, per se.  I am talking about the ongoingness of it, the repetitions and contrasts and echoes and imperfections and surprises, trial-and-error, management of expectations, pattern recognition, diminishing, surging, finding purpose, temporarily letting go, but only temporarily: the syntax and structure and tension of something that can’t be totally known.

I asked Kashkashian if a violist actually had to work harder in her relationship with her instrument than a violinist or a cellist. She inhaled sharply, in a second-Prelude, measure-42 sort of way. “That’s an interesting question,” she said.

She explained that the impression of the musician’s hard work is not desirable for the listener, but if you play a violin or a cello the hand is in charge and tells the string what to do. On the viola it’s the other way around. “You have to let go a little bit of your intention,” she said. “You have to have intention, but you don’t use desire”—because your desire may not be realized as easily as it would be on those other instruments. She added that the only way to make a desired result happen at a certain time—say, while performing—is “to make your body and the instrument one, so that your intention, and the viola’s intention, are the same.”


Recently I have been listening to performances and radio sets (on NTS, the British online station) by the German DJ Lena Willikens. Her local tradition, the time and place and style she’s steeped in, is European minimal techno from the early years of the 21st century. I have never really understood that music. Although I like its textures and open spaces, so much of it has sounded similar to me, and my memory mixes up the names of its makers. What Willikens does with her DJ sets—her performances, with DJ equipment as her instrument—is to work other sounds into that music: classical minimalism, gamelan ensembles, dialogues from Japanese puppet plays. For some reason, the connections don’t come off as particularly forced. In any case, she’s not patrolling her territory. She’s thoughtfully giving it away, or looking at it as an outsider, or somehow letting it speak for itself. She might be using intention to suggest rather than desire to assert. The paradoxical effect is that I have come to pay closer attention to the European techno that is often at the spiritual core of Willikens’ sets. I understand it better, because she is disinterested in recognizing the walls around it. Kashkashian, likewise, seems an insider by training and an outsider by temperament. So does the viola. (We are an instrument!)

Six Suites for Viola Solo brings to mind someone running attentively alongside the music, which is to say alongside Bach, but at a respectful distance. She is apart from the music from the start: she is reproducing it in a new register. She is checking in with it as close to constantly as possible, querying it, allowing the listener to hear separate articulations of notes, varying her force, proposing fresh ways to see what the music needs, while asserting her own organization, balance, and reflex. Its hesitations and pronounced notes are ways of recalibrating and moving forward. Bach is hard to know, if only because of the scale of his accomplishment. It seems to me that Kashkashian’s own accomplishment reinforces this fact in a useful way. She doesn’t nail the suites, or provide the last word on them. When she’s finished, they are still alive. They keep moving while you sleep. 

Info & Credits

Written by Ben Ratliff Images courtesy of ECM Records Published on July 30, 2019

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