You don't hear a lot of violin in contemporary American music. Sure, it pops up from time to time in the lush, orchestral pop of acts like The National and has a supporting role in bluegrass and Americana, but the violin is rarely the star of the show. Unless, of course, that show happens to be a performance by Kishi Bashi.
Violinist K. Ishibashi has performed with the likes of Regina Spektor and Sondre Lerche, though he's been best known in recent years for his work with the Athens, Ga., band Of Montreal. In April, he released his first solo full-length, 151a. Pulling together his classical influences (he studied violin at the Berklee College of Music), his studies of Eastern and Middle Eastern violin traditions and his experience working with Of Montreal, Ishibashi makes music with the violin as you've never heard it before.
"Traditionally, the problem I have is that I'm able to handle a bunch of different musical styles. It's a problem of squeezing too much in, because I do have a lot of influences," he says. "But I think with Kishi Bashi, I really tried to focus just on violin and voice-centric compositions. That means that I limited myself to just a couple of instruments, and that in turn challenged me to create as much diversity as I could between those two instruments. That's what you hear on the album and live."
Improvisation is a big part of Kishi Bashi's act. Alone on stage with nothing but his voice and his instrument, Ishibashi uses loops to create an intricate backdrop of sounds, drawing on influences from all over the world.
"A lot of what I studied, I did base myself in a lot of Eastern improvisation, so Middle Eastern violin forms, I did study that," he says. "And there's also a big Indian tradition, a southern Indian tradition of improv on violin, and I did study that. I also immersed myself in world music. I kind of have always been messing around with it."
From that messing around emerges Kishi Bashi's captivating live show, which may include everything from elegant violin swoops to beatboxing to singing that moves without warning from English to Japanese and back again, often including simple vocal tones. He's often joined by other musicians for parts of the show. For his upcoming performance at the Evening Muse on Nov. 4, Ishibashi will be joined for some songs by openers Tall Tall Trees.
All this is part of the performance ethic Ishibashi learned while playing with other artists — Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, in particular. But while that freaky glam-pop outfit makes its shows more dynamic through costumes, dance and visual element, Ishibashi does so by manipulating his music.
"Basically, what I do is I segment my own songs," he says. "Like, where a band would play a song straight through, I'll literally stop it and create a new arrangement for every part of the song. All I have is myself. I literally have the power to bring the show to a halt if I don't succeed."
His studies at Berklee and experience playing live prepared him well for such in-the-moment creativity onstage. A Kishi Bashi show is inherently unpredictable, because every night features different musical guests and different improvisational flourishes. And that unpredictability creates a kind of intimacy that makes each performance feel tailor-made for the folks in the crowd. Watching someone take those kinds of risks onstage is both rare and engrossing. But watching them take those risks and pull them off artfully — well, as a concertgoer, what more could you ask for?
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