Name: Parker Quartet
Members: Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao, Jessica Bodner, Kee-Hyun Kim, cello
Occupation: Violinist (Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao), violist (Jessica Bodner), cellist (Kee-Hyun Kim)
Interviewee: Jessica Bodner
Current release: The Parker Quartet's new album, co-featuring Kim Kashkashian on viola, is out now and features works by György Kurtág/Antonin Dvořák. It is available via ECM.
Recommendations: Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovich; John Berger: Esays
If you enjoyed this interview with the Parker Quartet and would like to know more about ensemble, we highly recommend their excellent homepage as a point of departure. They're also on Instagram, twitter, Soundcloud, and Facebook.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing violin when I was two years old after seeing Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street - it must have been 1985 or 1986. Because I was so young, I cannot remember exactly how I felt, but I must have had a magnetic pull to the idea of playing and creating sound, and that magnetic pull has never left.
When I was around 11 years old, I was drawn to practicing all of the rich and velvety melodies on the violin’s lower strings much more than virtuosic passages that utilized the higher register of the instrument. I luckily had a teacher that recognized this tendency, and suggested I try viola. This thought had never crossed my mind, but I’m so thankful that this teacher suggested this! I practiced both violin and viola for about a year, and then I knew that the viola was the instrument for me.
It has always been the exploration of sound, the connection of one note to the next or even the development of a single note, that has drawn me to this life of music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I was growing up, I remember singing a lot after lessons - I believe this was a natural inclination to internalize the music I was studying, and to allow my natural voice to lead my musical intentions. That being said, the doors to a greater realm of possibility were completely blown open when I went to college to study with Kim Kashkashian for my undergraduate and then Martha Strongin Katz for my graduate studies.
I can distinctly remember my “trial” lesson with Kim when she was showing me the possibility for connecting two notes - it was so deeply linked to her entire being that it, in the most natural of ways, produced a smile on her face. At that moment, I was completely hooked, and spent the next four years emulating and internalizing her approach.
The transition to my own voice was a natural evolution of using all of the inspiration and tools from Kim to enable the singing voice in my head to fnd more depth and sophistication. Studying with Martha was the frst step towards letting this inner voice find it’s freedom, as was studying with chamber musicians such as Don Weilerstein, Roger Tapping, and Rainer Schmidt, but it was ultimately just playing many concerts, recording, studying music, and always searching for vivid expression that has led to the evolution of my voice as a musician.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I can be quite a detail-oriented and patient person, and the root of an intention is quite important to me, which I’m sure are qualities that can drive my students crazy! At the same time, I love the idea of freedom within structure, so I fnd that my personality drives me to constantly understand musical structure and then work in a detailed way to enable the inner workings of that structure to come alive.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
It has often been difficult to balance industry expectations with actual identity. However, in the quartet, as we’re nearing our 20th anniversary year (2022-23), we’re passionate about being a force of change, particularly with the representation of historically under-represented composers in western classical music, more than ever while still being true to our voice as a quartet.
This is because we believe more than ever that the world created on stage can be a representation of the world in which we want to live, and we want to live in a world where we are all connected and every voice has the chance for honest representation.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your frst instrument?
I was always lucky that my parents knew it was important for me to have the best instrument within their budget from the time I started, so even when I was two years old, I had a beautiful tiny violin. The realities of the expense of incredible instruments became an issue when I was in college, but we always have to do the best with what we have!
I was fortunate enough to have a loaned Tecchler viola for many of my most formative years - for fve years after the quartet won Concert Artists Guild in 2005. Through the experience of playing that instrument and others such as the Stradivarius in the Library of Congress collection, I have learned how an instrument can communicate to the person playing it to become a real partner, and I try to look for this even if I cannot always have access to one of these special old instruments.
Tell me about your instrument. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
I feel lucky to have a viola made by Peter Greiner and a bow made by Benoit Rolland. Both feel like my partners every day.
I ask my viola for depth, clarity, vibrancy, and as many colors as I can imagine, and it usually will respond. It has a wonderful sense of backbone and a solid depth, so I feel it’s a wonderful instrument for my role in the quartet and also for other outside solo or chamber music settings.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
Balancing large structure with details is one of the most important aspects.
I usually start by simply seeing what draws my interest and allowing myself to enjoy those aspects. I then turn towards trying to understand the phrase structure and how that plays into the overall structure of the movement or piece. Once I have that solid foundation, I can go back to working on the details while always having in my mind the overall structure those details are serving.
I like to live with pieces for a long time both before putting them on stage and within the context of having many performance experiences so that the piece can develop on stage as well as in the practice room. Elements of a successful interpretation include reaching a deep understanding of the structure, identifying the motives and motivic development, understanding the sense of conversation between motivic ideas, finding vivid sound and color ideas while deeply understanding the dynamic range the composer has given, and then using all of these tools to create a musical narrative.
The ultimate success is when all of this structure provides a framework from which an improvisational freedom can emerge in performance.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I naturally live everyday with three collaborators because of the quartet, but it can be incredibly inspiring to have other collaborators join us or for me to play in collaborative settings outside of the quartet altogether. Each person, because of their own history, brings a unique perspective to a collaboration. It is so much fun to experience different perspectives - I always feel nourished and that I have grown in a three-dimensional way after having a positive collaborative experience.