10 Questions for Keir GoGwilt

Keir GoGwilt was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in New York City. Recent performances include the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Bowdoin International Music Festival Orchestra, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with the Bach Society Orchestra of Harvard, the Berg Concerto and Aucoin’s “This Same Light” with the Encounters Ensemble at the Peabody Essex Museum, recitals at the Century Club and Miller Theatre, and a collaboration with Robert Levin on the world premiere of Levin’s completion of a Mozart piano trio at the Sarasota Opera House.  He is currently recording some of Tobias Picker’s violin and chamber music for Tzadik records, to be released in 2013.

Upcoming engagements include recitals with Aucoin at the Spoleto Festival and the Scottish Poetry Library.

Keir graduated from Harvard University in 2013 and was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. Devoted to showing the manner in which the practice of music performance has relevance in an inter-disciplinary discourse, his undergraduate thesis considers the implications of the study of music performance for literary theory. Next year he will begin working with Benjamín Ramírez, developing the philosophical implications of Ramírez’s “Instrumentalwissenschaft” (instrumental science), an exciting new project that studies the dynamic system of musicians’ technique in a scientific manner.

Keir is collaborating with Matthew Aucoin and Victoria Crutchfield on a concert series at the Peabody Essex Museum, which brings together drama, lyric and visual art in the space of musical performance. Keir has attended music festivals including Taos and Sarasota, and has studied with Lewis Kaplan, Christian Tetzlaff, Ute Hasenauer, Helen Vendler, Jorie Graham, and John Hamilton among others.

This Tuesday June 4th at noon GoGwilt joins pianist Matthew Aucoin in a program titled “Wordless Dreams” at the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium at the Four Seasons Centre. The eclectic program features the Canadian premiere of GoGwilt’s own paraphrase of Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume”.   In anticipation, I ask GoWilt ten questions: five about him, and five more related to “Wordless Dreams”.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Violinist Keir GoGwilt

Violinist Keir GoGwilt

I’m probably more like my father in most ways. Most immediately, our interests are very similar. He is a comparative literature professor at Fordham University; I just completed my undergraduate degree in literature. We certainly think in the same strange and impractical ways. Another similarity: we both need to be kept on course by my mother.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a violinist?

The best thing about being a violinist is maintaining a craft. It is so rare to have a skill that you practice on a daily basis, and to be so close to your work. There’s nothing quite like using your hands to create something. I’ve learned so much from my relationship with the instrument: familiar movements, familiar physical feelings. I think a greater awareness of the complexities of the body’s interactions with the instrument make us read and listen to music better.

Recently I did a physics experiment with two friends of mine in an acoustics class at school, taught by Eric Heller. We made a neat discovery about the phase alignment of partial modes of vibration of the string in response to subtle differences in bowing techniques. Phase is not something that the human ear is not normally thought to be sensitive to—but not only did we hear the differences, we felt them as we pulled the string with the bow. As a violinist, you get to explore all these amazing things about what the human body is sensitive to; it is like being a scientist and an artist at the same time.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

As far as violinists go, Christian Tetzlaff and Augustin Hadelich probably come up most frequently on my Youtube searches. I also love listening to Steven Isserlis, Jessye Norman, Bob Dylan, Animal Collective, Thomas Ades…and so many others.

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of videos of Chris Hadfield doing everyday things in outer space.

[Maybe this isn’t quite what GoGwilt meant…but i’m glad to have an excuse to post it]

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I have the wonderful opportunity to teach a short violin course near Paris in October—but I have to learn some French! I think learning to speak and read French and German are at the top of my list, but I’m also interested in learning a bit of computer programming.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I like swimming, going for walks, playing basketball, reading, and writing. I love doing things that set a certain pace for your mind to freely wander. It’s great to get into a rhythm, and to think about things in an expanded way as you’re falling asleep.


Five more about Keir GoGwilt’s upcoming concert at the RBA

1) Talk about the challenges you face in reconciling so many disparate aspects of your life, from violin recitals, original transcriptions, poetry & literary studies at Harvard.  

I don’t see playing music and reading or writing about literature as fundamentally different things. A poem asks you to engage as much with your senses and your imagination as much as a musical score—both forms of writing seek the body. Recently I took a poetry-writing seminar with Jorie Graham; the way she describes the body and the “instrument” of the poet or reader is very musical. Drama, poetry and music all have a performative aspect—you have to do things with your body to engage with them properly. Even listening and reading involve an active and physical engagement.

The difficulties and the challenges of reconciling literary and musical studies are a resource rather than a problem. It is so difficult to talk or write about music, which in its most immediate form seems beyond words. I remember the first time I read Nietzsche’s description of Bizet’s music in “The Case of Wagner.” It was like he was performing Bizet, and not merely writing about him. Such an active, intense musical criticism is so rare—I think performers would benefit a great deal from having more of it. Nietzsche was such a musician, despite being a failed composer.

Another difficulty is the boundary constructed between theory and practice, or between music and literature. I think it is important to remember that these boundaries are in the first place constructed, and that they do not have a natural existence. In ancient Greece, poetry and music were unified in the space of lyric performance. I’m very interested in exploring this space between sound and language, between the temporal movement of a performing body and the lasting effect of a musical or verbal impression. Something as seemingly mundane as practicing a shift or scale on the violin ties into theories of difference and repetition explored by literary theorists like Saussure, Derrida, and Deleuze. We learn and understand language—musical or verbal—with the body. To actually experience and identify the different circular and repetitive movements of the body as it articulates on the instrument is to inhabit those philosophies in a way that is productive for both literary theory and for the practice of music performance.

In addition to writing about these sites of intersection, I try to integrate them into my performances—both the programming and composition of concerts and the actual detail work of playing the pieces. My pianist for the recital is a close friend and collaborator, Matt Aucoin.

pianist /conductor Matthew Aucoin and violinist Keir GoGwilt

pianist /conductor Matthew Aucoin and violinist Keir GoGwilt

Together with Victoria Crutchfield, we designed and performed the first program of a concert series offered at the Peabody Essex Museum called “Encounters.” The program weaves together music, poetry, and drama in a continuous narrative, following Ahle’s original chorale melody in its re-writings by Bach, Berg, and Aucoin. Playing the Berg Concerto and Matt’s new piece, “This Same Light,” with the newly formed Encounters Ensemble was such an amazing experience. We also had an amazing lighting designer, Mary Ellen Stebbins, and an unfaltering administrative director, Jennifer Chen. This was only the first of many such program-works based at the PEM.

2) What do you love about creating a transcription?

For this program, I’ve included two of Berg’s “Seven Early Songs,” which I transcribed for violin. Part of my motivation was that I really felt that there needed to be more violin repertoire by Alban Berg—it was a bit of a selfish indulgence. But actually I find that losing the words of the songs, which are so closely followed by Berg’s writing, becomes very expressive. In his book, Listen, Peter Szendy writes about the “double-listening” that always accompanies a transcription—we hear both the transcription and the absence of the original. In the case of the Berg songs, we also hear the absent motivation of the poetry.

The transcriptions actually change very little of Berg’s writing. Most of the work that went into “transcribing” was done on the instrument—that is, I had to find a way to convincingly adapt the aural experience of these songs from all the richness and articulation of a human voice to the expressive capabilities of the violin. I think the idea of “transcription” can be thought of in a more general way. Performance is in a sense always already transcription in that it adapts a composition for the particular body of the performer. Transcription takes place not only on the page but on the body—it involves a topological study of shifting readings and hearings.

3) Do you have a favourite moment in the program?

I don’t know that I have a favorite moment—all the pieces are wonderful to play. The piece I wrote is probably the most adventurous thing on the program—it was written in response to Beckett’s television play, “Nacht und Träume.” In his play, Beckett quotes from Schubert’s song by the same name. I played with the idea of a minimally staged musical event that performs Beckett’s process. There are two pianists, never on “stage” at the same time, trying to recall the fragmented melody of “Nacht und Träume,” but it always falls into the same strange and wordless re-harmonization.

4) How do you relate to this kind of recital and this kind of rep, as a modern musician?

I think the music on this program is actually all immediately accessible. Berg’s songs are firmly in the Romantic tradition, and the Bach and Mozart sonatas we are playing are such gems to re-discover. I love putting new and old works together—they make you look at the old works with a new perspective…as if the ink is still wet on the page. You can get a better appreciation for how the piece is put together—it seems somehow more composed, somehow more removed from popular memory.

5) Is there a teacher, singer, actor or an influence that you especially admire?

Ute Hasenauer, Künstlerin und Leiterin des Pre-College Cologne an der Hochschule für Musik

There are too many…many of my music and literature professors including but not limited to Christopher Hasty, Federico Cortese, Helen Vendler, Robert Levin, Lewis Kaplan, John Hamilton, and Jorie Graham.

For the past two summers I studied with a violin teacher in Köln, Ute Hasenauer. She teaches a technical method discovered by her husband, Ben Ramírez. He does painstaking and methodical slow motion analyses of film footage of the great violinists, finding common features between them. He also integrates principles from sports science research into his method.

In the process, they have discovered a lost art of holding and engaging the instrument.
It is a really amazing example of the meeting between science and art—I’m in awe of their research and teaching. Not only does it make playing the violin much easier and more comfortable, it also implies a philosophical outlook on music performance as a method of scientific and artistic discovery.


“Wordless Dreams” is a free concert Tuesday June 4th, 2013, part of the noon-hour series at the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium at the Four Seasons Centre, with Keir GoGwilt, violin and Matthew Aucoin, piano.

NB: this video features both Aucoin & GoGwilt

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1 Response to 10 Questions for Keir GoGwilt

  1. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

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