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Laurie Niles

On Billy-Goat Vibrato and Art

December 15, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Is continuous billy-goat vibrato the new wave of the future?


So you may be wondering, what is going on with this Anna Karkowska business? For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a few months ago a Polish violinist named Anna Karkowska released a recording called “Virtuosity,” with the London Symphony, with works by Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski and a new composer named Robin Hoffmann, in which she plies every piece with extreme-amplitude vibrato, what my college professor would have called “hysterical vibrato” – before he threw his cigarette at me and told me to leave.

The hyperbolic promotional video, in which a parade of legitimate-seeming violinists rave about her unique sound and put Karkowska on a pedestal next to violinists such as Oistrakh, Milstein, Accardo and Szeryng, went viral immediately, zipping across Facebook pages with comments like, “This is a joke, right?”

The recording was no joke, and strange as it seems, the promotional video seems to be genuine. The recording was done with the London Symphony, which does occasionally hire itself out for special projects. Karkowska even seems to have some legitimate training, having done a stint at Juilliard.

The videos that have followed are tongue-in-cheek: The Vibrato Showdown, in which the speed of her vibrato is statistically compared to that of Oistrakh and Heifetz; and Lord of the Vibrato - The Fellowship of Anna Karkowska, in which a group of vamped-out violinists gather as their leader dangles a cigar from his lips, describing “esoteric homeopathic vibrato technique,” and debuting the “Vibration Chamber Soloists” in which everyone plays with extreme vibrato.

Why is everyone so ruffled by all of this? Are we a bunch of uptight violin police, intent on squeezing everyone into our stuffy little box of proper violin-playing?

No. Certainly, we all have some specific ideas about how we play repertoire, but this is not what offends people about the Anne Karkowska stunt, however it was funded, and why-ever the persistent publicity.

Violinists tend to take music seriously. You have to be pretty serious, to put in the kind of hours that it takes to produce a beautiful tone on the violin, to get the fingers to fall precisely on the right pitches, to acquire the manual dexterity, to learn the repertoire, etc.

Music is a form of expression: gesture, line, puts all the elements together in order to say something meaningful to another human being. A long, quiet line may sound like an elegy; music punctuated with rhythm may feel like a dance; a tremolo can be a shiver; a lift in the bow might be a breath suspended. We use every hard-won bit of technique to express something.

Extreme vibrato is a technique, for sure. Jazz musicians and rock musicians use it for a number of effects, for example, to imitate the distortion on an electric guitar. It's just one of many techniques.

So what happens when you lay one technique on everything? Music becomes static. Karkowska's playing in this recording is like static on a television, turned up full-volume, in the middle of the night, when everyone is trying to sleep. Jangled nerves. Paganini, Sarasate – are these pieces about hysterical, jangled nerves? No. The music generated here can not be considered art on any level.

But the theater of it all, now that's art! I liked the comparison to Spinal Tap, or Waiting for Guffman. Look at all the publicity she's generated – could she have done so any other way? People are making videos, sending videos of her playing, writing columns and blogs and having discussions. Whether this was just the runaway result of an orchestra hiring itself out to someone they didn't really know and waking up after the publicity reel came out, or it was some kind of intentional play to get publicity, it's been an entertaining ride.

From Don Roth
Posted on December 15, 2010 at 7:53 PM

It seems very unfair to attempt to characterize Anna K. based on one CD.  Her technique is wonderful ( sans vibrato ) and her next CD may be a welcome surprise.  ( Despite the racket I think she is also wonderful at expressing emotion.)

Maybe the jury should just recess until there are more releases to judge ?


From Alexis Thorne
Posted on December 15, 2010 at 8:35 PM

 Her vibrato is different, but her other techniques are good and she plays otherwise with scary accurate precision. I will say that after having watched the Youtube videos Virtuosity (parts 1 and 2 of 4), her cantabile is "sentimental" like in the late 18th early 19th century sentimental. I like sentimentality in certain pieces but the ones she uses it in breaks character (but then there's no right or wrong interpretation). 

What astounds me more is her bow hold. I have no Idea how she plays resonantly with it tilted all the time. Perhaps, the magic of sound engineering =)

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on December 15, 2010 at 9:03 PM

I'm not saying I think the vibrato sounds great, but I also agree that this single aspect does not doom her as a "bad" player.  And I find it pretty hilarious to listen to people lament about the lack of personality and individuality in the violin superstar world today as opposed to the Golden Age of Heifetz and Oistrakh, knowing full well they'd recoil at Karkowska, even though she undeniably has a most unique and unmistakeable sound.  I guess they'd say it was for all the wrong reasons. :)  I've been told that my vibrato sounds different with each finger, with the heavy implication that this is undesirable.  The devil's advocate in me wonders, if every violinist is supposed to have a distinctive sound, why not every finger? 

Musical fashions come and go.  Perhaps she is out of step with the current fashions.  But hey, Kreisler's Mendelssohn sounds really old-fashioned to me although then it was competely appropriate.  I wonder if she'll be wildly popular in 100 years?

From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 15, 2010 at 10:00 PM

 I wouldn't say that her technique (ex-vibrato) is anything to write home about. She definitely has dexterity of an non-standard sort which is one of the reasons that the whole phenomenon can even get an ounce of attention. 

The antidote is to go to Youtube and listen to Fritz Kreisler. When you're done you'll think that most modern players are closer to Anna K. than they are to Fritz.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 16, 2010 at 1:57 AM

 Nicole, I think the reason for a teacher criticizing a vibrato that is different in every finger is this: the goal for a teacher is to give you control over your technique. If you vibrated at a different rate per finger on purpose, for musical reasons, that's one thing; if it's because you don't have control enough to do it any other way, that is another.

From Beth Blackerby
Posted on December 16, 2010 at 2:54 AM

Interesting publicity stunt. However, as a teacher I'd like to point out that on her "Virtuosity 3/4" video there is a close up where you can see in detail that she accomplishes this "vibrato" by using only partial finger pressure, just enough to get a focused pitch. This is the step of vibrato development that I have my students do on purpose! After they have learned the basic motion, I have them begin integrating it into the context of playing by selecting certain pitches, usually longer held note values, lightening finger pressure, an making a vibrato similiar to Karkowsk's, although not nearly that fast. Thank you Anna for providing a "teachable moment".

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on December 16, 2010 at 5:06 AM

I really like her about her tone, musicality, intonation, etc. Just that the vibrato is so distracting that I couldn't even hear the melody clearly, sounds like a keyboardist accidently had the "modulation" wheel all the way up during the entire performance.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that kind of vibrato, but she really need to know when to use it, instead of doing it all the time.

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on December 16, 2010 at 5:26 AM

The supremacy of choice seems to be the prevailing wisdom, but I routinely observe that with some  teachers (not all, and not necessarily the one from my first example), when certain 'rules' are in play -- for example, the one that dictates that we do not slide downward for expression, with few exceptions -- it makes no difference; they will implicitly suggest that the student needs to make a different choice!  In other words, somehow I am not convinced it would have a material impact on the aesthetic value in question, that of uniformity, which is what I have the issue with.  If I'm half-consciously reluctant to prioritize making my first finger sound like it occupies a completely different position on my hand than it actually does, is my nonaction then a form of choice and a statement about my musical values in general? 

Maybe I'm being contrarian for its own sake, but this is interesting philosophical territory to me.

From Michael Pijoan
Posted on December 16, 2010 at 7:57 AM

Well, I can't take her playing seriously at all but she seems like a nice person.

From Jim Dorans
Posted on December 19, 2010 at 8:38 PM

From watching her playing I think it's just so obvious that she is a highly skilled violinist (with an arsenal of highly advanced techniques), who simply uses a horrendous-sounding vibrato, which more often than not spoils the piece she is playing.

I'm convinced she could play the major violin works "properly" if she was asked / paid to do so. An unusual event in the world of classical violin, but not something I'd lose sleep over :)

From Anna Vrankar
Posted on December 21, 2010 at 5:16 PM

My seven year old son says that if he uses enough vibrato, it doesn't matter if the the note starts out-of-tune. Eventually he'll get the right intonation somewhere in there. Maybe he should release an album!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 21, 2010 at 8:06 PM

Pretty entertaining subject. Laurie, I'm glad you blogged about it, as I'd missed the threads about her over the past weeks in the discussion forums.

I see a career for her in jazz violin. Or "experimental" violin. Can't say I'd be buying any CDs though. Ah, but what entertainment to watch for a few minutes. And listen to the responses fly about afterward.

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