Chamberfest: Indie rocker Kishi Bashi explores his classical side

Kishi Bashi. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Kishi Bashi (aka Kaoru Ishibashi) is known for his skill as an indie rock violinist and as a songwriter. He’s carved out a pretty decent career doing both.

But he’s not a closed musical book and a couple of years ago Kishi Bashi extended his thinking into what might seem to be a surprising area … chamber music.

“I arranged most of my most popular songs for string quartet and I did a tour (of this music) around the U.S.” He also released an album of these arrangements called String Quartet Live.

All this was done, he said, “with the idea of promoting the string quartet medium … because it is a great sound and it is kind of unusual.

“It is hard to write for, but the rewards are there. It’s aesthetically beautiful with a beautiful texture.”

Once he had the arrangements written down, the music then became very portable.

“I can go to local classical musicians, rehearse once and do a concert.”

It means he can now play at festivals such as Chamberfest, where he’ll be on Friday July 28 playing with the Rolston String Quartet, one of Canada’s best young ensembles having recently won the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. The festival played matchmaker between the quartet and Kishi Bashi. They met last week for the first time for rehearsal.

“The level of professionalism varies obviously but when you get to the point where the quartet is playing for a living, it’s going to be OK. Classical musicians spend all that time in the practice room to be able to read music quickly and play at a high level.”

The show will feature Bashi conducting, playing and singing while the quartet plays. He may even beatbox a bit, he says.

Bashi, who studied composition, as well as violin at the Berklee College of Music, has become quite specific in his string quartet arrangements.

“At first I wasn’t, I was lazy. I have definitely evolved the charts that the quartets read. I know the places where the pieces can fall apart.” So to avoid bumps along the way, he has added more direction.

He’s also doing more writing including a commission with the Nu Deco Ensemble out of Miami, a group he has performed with. The piece will mark the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

His interest in chamber quartet started early.

“I was a Suzuki Kid. In fact I’m at a Suzuki camp right now. My wife and daughter are both students at the centre in Ithaca, New York. In high school I was pretty serious. I played a ton of string quartet then.

While his performing career initially went in another direction, Bashi never forgot his violin training.

“As a songwriter, you are always looking for new stuff that sets you apart. It wasn’t until I started to focus on the violin and forced string music into my songs that I started to get some traction. It takes a lot of effort. Now the violin is my main instrument.”

As you might expect, these days there are no walls in Kishi Bashi’s music. He’s always chasing a sound especially “when I make my studio albums. I jump on anything. I don’t discriminate, but it does tend to end up featuring strings. I also like a lot of synthesizers.”

He is not fond of atonality.

“I’m a songwriter; I like beautiful music. Tonality is a big part of what I am about musically,” making him fan of minimalists such as Terry Reilly and Steve Reich.

This is Kishi Bashi’s first appearance in Ottawa.

“I’m really excited because I am changing my musical focus. My tours are rock and roll. I have confetti cannons and other crazy things. Indie rock is my genre, but I want to get into the crossover category. I’m doing my best to bridge the gap between indie pop music and chamber music.”

He says he believes what he is doing can demonstrate to younger musicians that this kind of music is possible.

“You can listen to rock on the radio and play Bach on the side.

“Kids are awesome that way. They just pick things up. They don’t discriminate. They will be rapping and then singing and then playing the cello. They don’t see a difference.”

Kishi Bashi and the Rolston String Quartet
Chamberfest 2017
When: Friday July 28 at 10 p.m.
Where: La Nouvelle Scene, 333 King Edward Ave.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.