Pulling Strings: A Conversation with Mimi Rabson

Pulling Strings: A Conversation with Mimi Rabson

Professional violinist Mimi Rabson is at the forefront of musical innovation, by providing an outlet for classically trained performers to express creative freedom.

Rabson’s improvisational violin and cello group, Strings Theory Trio, released a CD in late January that contains fixed versions of the dynamic pieces the group performs.

The catch is that anyone who attends a live performance will hear the songs almost entirely different, because the musical features are left up to the individual players during each set. This project is just one of the many steps Rabson has taken to modernize instruments that are typically associated with classical compositions.

“I’d like to see instrumental music have a bigger profile,” said Rabson, who also serves as an associate professor of strings at Berklee College of Music.

Artistry’s Julia Guilardi joined Rabson in her lesson room to discuss her achievements as a renowned musician, her work as an academic, and her hopes for the future of instrumental music.

What kind of music influenced you when you were young?

I had different influences: Brazilian music as a child, I was a teen in the seventies so I listened to rock music, renaissance and baroque from my folks, and blues from my sister.

Why did you choose the violin?

When I was in third grade, as many schools still do, they herded us all into the cafeteria and told us we were old enough to play a string instrument. Violin was a second choice [to viola], but the parts are better.

Who are your musical inspirations?

I’m inspired by charismatic performances. What interests me is artists who take the music we’re all familiar with and create something we’ve never heard before. If I did have to give you names, I’ve whittled it down to three, although this is by no means a complete list: Bartok, James Brown, Butch Morris.

What inspired you to form Strings Theory Trio?

Butch Morris invented this idea called conduction, which is short for conducted improvisation. The idea is that he’s a conductor and the orchestra is his instrument. In his words, he provides the structure and the players provide the content. Whatever music you can play on your instrument, you can improvise with, and that appealed to me.

The pieces on your newly released CD are fixed versions of the improvised pieces that the group performs. What can listeners expect to differ from listening to the CD and seeing Strings Theory Trio perform live?

Maybe it’s easier to say what would be the same. The structure will be the same, but that’s probably it. I guess the emotional content would be similar.

You’ve performed on “Late Night with David Letterman” and had your music highlighted on Saturday Night Live. How did it feel to have your work featured on such commercial platforms?

It’s fantastic. It was a thrill. It’s great to be appreciated. It’s very cold on the David Letterman set.

How do you think instrumental music can be made more appealing to a commercial audience?

One way to make this happen is for a very charismatic player to create something that is hugely famous. Another is for media outlets to spend more time promoting instrumental music rather than great lyricists. I want to point out that video game music is doing this beautifully. Orchestras regularly sell out concerts of video game music and they are reaching people who normally would not be at an orchestra concert. Maybe that is the way forward.

What drew you to teaching?

I had been teaching, not full-time, but I always had students because I love teaching. I love the moment when the light goes on. Then I got the call and it seemed like a natural progression.

You’ve composed pieces within many different musical genres. What is your favorite style of music to compose and/or perform?

I don’t have a favorite. The fun challenge is to make something great out of whatever is on your plate.

What would you consider to be the highlight of your career?

I don’t think I can pick one. “David Letterman” was great…I played with Stevie Wonder at the Garden. Those were very exciting. When I played with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, most of the concerts ended with the crowd standing on its feet, which was a thrill. Every day a student has another light bulb moment, and I love that. I cherish that, that there are all these kinds of different highlights.

Do you have any idea what your next musical venture will be or what path your career will take next?

I want to continue playing with String Theory Trio and Triarky (a trio that consists of Rabson on violin as well as a drummer and an electric tubaist). I’m working on the idea of creating a student orchestra that plays music that people listen to for fun.

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