Profile of Shira Kammen by Elizabeth Dobbs
Interviewing Shira Kammen was fascinating. I’d been hearing about Shira for many years as one of the best vielle players and all around musicians anywhere. She sings in a voice infused with complex, dark colorings of sound, and when she plays the vielle, the music that emerges has power, clarity, and life.
Shira Kammen was born in 1961 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the daughter of a professional violinist, and a singer who is also a scientist. After receiving her music degree from UC Berkeley, Shira studied vielle with Margriet Tindemans, a specialist in early music who has been Shira’s greatest musical influence.
Over the years, Shira has been a member of Ensembles Alcatraz, and Project Ars Nova, and Medieval Strings, and has performed with Sequentia, Hesperion XX, the Boston Camerata, and The King’s Noyse. Recently she founded Class V Music, an ensemble that performs on river rafting trips.
Among other interesting projects, Shira’s playing has been included on television and independent soundtracks, and she has played the medieval fiddle in the soundtrack for the motion picture O, a version of Othello.
Shira’s tiny Bay Area cottage is stuffed with music, instruments, music stands, and photos. During my visit, she played an experimental violin she calls a violin d’amore, which she commissioned from instrument builder Jim Wimmer. Beneath the standard four strings of the violin is another set of reverberation strings. As Shira drew her bow across violin d’amore’s playing strings, the reverberation strings took up the sound and sang the notes back in an after-shading. Mozart has described the sound of the viola d’amore as sweet. The experimental violin’s voice has that sweetness with a sad, lovelorn inflection.
Shira put the violin d’amore aside and took a vielle from its case. Rather than tucking the instrument under her chin, she rests it lower, just below the collarbone.
Liz: Why do you hold your vielle low on your chest?
Shira: There are different ways to hold the vielle. The position will depend on the size and shape of the instrument, and the background of the performer. Margriet Tindemans usually holds hers gamba-style (between the knees), but being incredibly versatile, will also turn it and play it violin-style as well. I play the vielle most often in a very relaxed violin style. It is easier to hear my own sound with the instrument a bit farther from my ear. There is always surface noise, the sound of the hair on the strings, or the fingers moving on the fingerboard, that an audience does not hear that can distract the musician.
Liz: What is your earliest music memory?
Shira: Probably listening to chamber music on the record player with my folks. My mom is a professional violinist and my dad sang in choruses, so there was music around all the time. I remember the Schumann piano quintet made a big impression on me. It was so heartfelt and dramatic, and happy and sad all at once.
Liz: What made you choose music as a career?
Shira: I think of music as one of the elements, or one of the senses. Though I don’t think I ever really chose music, that is, I didn’t set out to make something happen. I don’t think of myself as particularly ambitious, I was just doing what I enjoyed and was lucky enough to get work doing it. As I like to say, it sure beats working for a living!
Liz: When you first felt the desire to play music, what instrument did you select and why? How did you make your way to the vielle?
Shira: Sometimes I think of myself as a professional dilettante. I like so many things. I played first piano, then cello, violin, viola, viola da gamba, and then found the vielle. My musical preferences kept getting earlier and earlier and I still like playing lots of different instruments and singing. Some musicians really fall in love with an instrument and want to live in the sound of it, but I am more the kind of musician who loves a type of music and will shamelessly bang away on whatever will get me to that kind of music.
Liz: What kinds of music projects excite you the most?
Shira: I love doing music for theatre or in collaboration with other kinds of arts. Medieval storytelling and music is a great combination. I’d love to do a series of recordings in national parks. Doing straight concerts is fine, but I feel really excited by projects that dissolve the lines between performer and audience.
Liz: You specialize in early music and folk/ethnic music. What do you like about these forms?
Shira: There is something very direct and powerful about these forms. Of course those terms cover a lot – many hundreds of years of music and styles as varied as North Indian ragas to Irish step-dancing music. The musical language of the medieval style is something I find very poignant. In terms of nuts and bolts, it is a play of consonance and dissonance, always a tension and a resolution. All music is that to some extent, but with medieval and other modal music, it happens in a remarkably clear, and almost physical way.
I think of medieval music as extremely local. I imagine a world where, in order to communicate with the closest ensemble, you couldn’t phone, fax, email, or talk in any quick way. You would tailor-make the music work for what you have at hand. It is not prescribed music, like classical music is – the page in classical music tells you all the measurements for the recipe – get louder here, softer here – play this line on such-and-such an instrument, etc. Medieval music is so much more like cooking without a recipe. It’ll be tastier if you use what you happen to have with skill and wit.
Liz: What do you look for in a vielle bow?
Shira: I like a bow that has direction in its shape and feel, a bow that has character. The very curved bow I have has a dance-like feel in the wood. I don’t do well with weighty bows, and when I play with a modern bow I always hold it up on the stick, above the frog, like many traditional fiddlers. I’d never be allowed into a symphony orchestra any longer.
Liz: I love the sound you get from your vielle and fiddle. It’s very strong, clear and powerful. How did you go about developing your sound?
Shira: Thanks for saying that! The tone that a musician makes is so much like the sound a singer makes when singing. I want my sound to be like a voice, with all the nuances and colors of language. It is an ongoing process, trying to discover one’s musical voice. Most days I think ‘Oh how scratchy, oh shouldn’t it be clear by now.’ – I think with making music if you can imagine the sound you want, the sound you desire to hear, you have more of a chance of making it. I’ve never been particularly disciplined at practicing – I love to play, and I think the more one listens to other musicians and other sounds, the sounds of water or birds or car horns, for example, the more of a palette you have in your imagination.
Liz: What is the most challenging and difficult type of music for you to play, and why? How do you overcome some of the difficulties?
Shira: Music is challenging in so many different ways. The music I am most technically removed from would be something like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. That would take a lot of re-focusing and exercise! But playing a contra-dance tune twenty times really fast is difficult in a very different way – it requires a different kind of stamina, and a complete commitment to rhythm, and a completely relaxed, un-stressed technique. Or playing an esoteric troubadour song, starting with no musical notes at all, with a poem that is heady and contextually hard to understand- that poses great difficulty, but more one of making decisions and composing a part. I think playing jazz would be very challenging.
Overcoming the difficulties – I’m not sure if one ever does – but the more you immerse yourself in a style the more of it you will understand. It is so much like language. If you go live in the country, you will learn a language more fluently, with its idioms and flavor. You can learn it at home, too, but the context is very different. You can get as far as asking where the central bus station is or you can make beautiful poetry – depends on your relationship and affinity for the language, your enthusiasm for the culture,and how cheeky you are – you can make poetry with only a few basic words if you dare…
Liz: You have a lovely voice. Have you spent much effort developing it?
Shira: Thanks again! I think one of the hardest tests of self-acceptance is being able to really hear one’s own voice. I haven’t achieved that ability yet. It is such a joy to sing, and also being able to play with poetry and languages. I’ve taken lessons at times, and that is really useful, if you find a good teacher. Listening to different kinds of singers and hearing what they do is a great way to learn, as is letting yourself pretend, say, that you are an opera singer, or an English ballad singer, or a musical comedy singer. It can be revealing as well as humorous. Trying on different personas makes your voice sound different.
Liz: Tell me what a typical month of playing/performing is like for you.
Shira: Well, I am probably the world’s worst businessperson. There are so many things one is expected to do that we are completely untrained to do, for example, things an agent would do, like negotiating a fee and scheduling and being a travel agent and writing blurbs and little articles. I am lucky to have a lot of different interests musically, so my musical life is quite varied. A month might include a tour or two, maybe somewhere exotic or maybe somewhere everyday, with concerts and maybe kids’ shows or workshops, or some kind of recording, while the time at home would have all sorts of activities, from teaching a rounds singing class to teaching private lessons, to playing parties, or at serious or casual concerts, recording, perhaps playing in a play or some kind of theatrical setting. It really changes from month to month. Recently I’ve been interested in producing my own CDs, with lots of other musicians. That is a great challenge, and very absorbing, of course, the problem is raising the capital in order to do it at all!
Liz: You travel quite a bit. Now that airport security is so tight, do you have any interesting travel/musical instrument anecdotes?
Shira: Oh, yowsa. Well, it is stressful, and I don’t carry as many instruments with me as I used to. I occasionally travel with a little medieval harp, which my friend and colleague, John Fleagle made, [using tools and techniques consistent with its historical period]. After he made it, he realized it didn’t fit in an overhead bin, so he had to cut down one of the curves on the harp to make it fit. I’ve encountered airline personnel who are angry and won’t let you on with the instrument, in which case I usually cry, and not even on purpose. I’ve also encountered airline personnel who are so kind and helpful and find a closet to put them in.
Liz: What is your absolute, favorite music to play and why?
Shira: This is a great question. There are a few. I love playing medieval music, almost all kinds of medieval music, I love singing early Renaissance music in a small ensemble, I love playing Breton folk music for dancers, I love playing Celtic tunes and singing ballads. Oh and playing Eastern European tunes in weird meters.
Liz: You recently auditioned for Cirque du Soleil. What was that like?
Shira: I played the vielle and harp and sang, and I improvised on the violin to tracks from their shows. Then it got really scary because they had me doing theatre games and movement. All my parody interpretive dances came back to me in an instant (Shira has been the life of quite a few parties by performing hilarious parodies of such dances). It was hard to not be self-conscious. I had to put all of that out of my mind and become the exuberant seven-year-old transported by music I’d been as a child. I’m not sure I pulled it off completely, but I felt stretched and challenged in a really good way.
Liz: Tell me about Class V, the music group you founded to play on river rafting trips. The term, Class V, refers to the degree of danger and difficulty of a white water rapid.
Shira: Oh, it is so fun! Every summer for anywhere from 1-4 trips I organize the musicians for a 4-5 day river trip on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. Usually there are two violins and cello, sometimes violin, flute or recorder and cello. The rafting company (James Henry River Journeys) had a special rubber waterproof cello-bag made for the occasions. Those river days are so blissful, with music and good wine and fine company, outrageous characters on a sparkling river running through lush green canyons where we see otters and eagles and herons – pretty great.
Liz: You produced Music of Waters, a CD recorded in the Grand Canyon. What is involved in producing your own CD?
Shira: I have since produced a couple of CDs in the more predictable environment of a recording studio as opposed to the very unpredictable canyon. I really enjoy the process of conceiving of a program, of some mood or idea that binds the project together. It’s very absorbing, like a musical playground in a way. I also like the acceptance it requires, acceptance that where you are that day musically is where you are. Also I enjoy playing and recording music that isn’t meant to be frozen, music, which by its nature changes each time you play it. Producing a CD in an uncontrollable environment like the Grand Canyon was a great adventure. It held all sorts of obstacles and challenges, like wind and weather and sand blowing and trying and finding just the right acoustics and hoping that my colleagues and friends and myself wouldn’t fall off any cliffs while climbing around with medieval and other instruments down these dry washes. It was a blast!
Liz: What method do you prefer when editing a CD?
Shira: So far when I am in charge of the editing process, which has only been on a few of the many recording projects, I like to go for some kind of balance. I am not as likely to go for perfection and meticulous. I want more of a snapshot of a good and souful performance. Obviously one doesn’t want big mistakes or cursing (I had a bad dream about that the other night in which thousands of copies of a CD I’d made which contained false starts and people swearing). Most important is the spark and spirit in a performance, and coherency, and of course, having pitch and rhythm solid and good.
Liz: You’ve performed all over the world. What is your favorite place to perform?
Shira: I’ve loved playing in Romanesque Churches and Gothic Cathedrals in Europe, in the stairwell of Kroeber Hall at UC Berkeley, above Granite Rapid on the Colorado River, in the bridge of a ferry at night between Juneau and Haines in Alaska, under some really big boulders up a side creek on the Rogue River, and in the High Sierras and the High Desert.
The strangest place I’ve played is in the elephant enclosure of the Jerusalem zoo. A television news show asked my ensemble to play music to celebrate the birth of a baby elephant. The news announcer was a stylish woman. The mother elephant kept rearranging the news announcer’s clothes, while the she tried to remove the elephant’s trunk from her person. We played a love song with the baby elephant’s name in the lyrics. The little elephant was very cute, though not much interested in the music.
Liz: What is your ultimate goal as a musician?
Shira: I don’t know if that is clear to me yet. Of course it would be very, very good to feel that any musical contribution made some kind of difference to the good of the world. I would like to be able to inspire a binding together of community. I’d love to inspire some kind of environmental feeling.
Music really can be a language – I guess I’d like to explore that. Also I want to have a really good time – promote bliss and joy and feeling and all that. I’d like to have more confidence about it all.
Copyright 2003, by E. Dobbs