05/20/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Kim Kashkashian's Grammy-Winning Album

Classical music and reality TV couldn't be further removed. But the confusion following Kim Kashkashian's recent Grammy award win made it clear that she's still mainly known for having a confusingly similar name to the reality TV star. Here at NEC and in much of the classical music world, Kashkashian is a celebrity in her own right. In addition to being a highly sought-after teacher and performer, she is a founding member of Music for Food, an initiative in collaboration with the Greater Boston Food Bank. She's also a big advocate of contemporary music. In her recent album, "Kurtág/Ligeti: Music for Viola," she performs Kurtág's 19 miniatures and Ligeti's sonata for solo viola.

This isn't an immediately accessible album; Kurtág and Ligeti aren't household names like Bach and Brahms. And an album of solo viola works by contemporary Hungarian composers doesn't scream "easy listening." But if we delve beneath the surface, this album opens up a fascinating world of sound and silence.

For Kurtág and Ligeti to write for solo viola is to situate themselves alongside a handful of composers who embrace the warmth, the earthiness, and yes, the peculiarities of the instrument. As any player can tell you, the viola is capable of a full range of sounds, from the sensual to the grotesque. Some would say this makes it unreliable or difficult, but these characteristics can be used to great effect in music where the endgoal isn't merely beauty of tone.

Take Kurtág's miniatures. For him, concision is a value. His pieces are so brief as to be terse (the word "aphoristic" has been used), slippery and allusive, a dream whose meaning begins to fade as soon as you wake up. The shortest is 28 seconds, the longest 4:39 -- appropriate music for this age of short attention spans. Kurtág said "one can make music out of almost nothing." The focus thus shifts from a phrase to a single note; the "details" are no longer mere details. Kashkashian describes his music using the word "distilled"-- the idea of reducing the material to its essence.

It'd be easy to dismiss Kurtág's music as overly academic, concerned only with theoreticals and making a point. But these little pieces are human as well; many are dedicated to friends, containing secret messages and codes, ranging from the solemn to the playful. Perhaps because of its enigmatic nature, his music has been underplayed and under-recognized in the U.S. Kashkashian believes this needs to change: "[Kurtág] has been a greatly regarded composer in all of Europe for decades; it is certainly time for the U.S. to catch up. There was a week [at Carnegie Hall] devoted to his music a few years back, which also had great resonance... He is, I believe, the most deeply gifted and also widely educated artist."

And how does one describe Ligeti? I find myself reaching across the disciplines to find a comparison: if Kurtág is Samuel Beckett, then Ligeti must be James Joyce. This music is complex, sprawling, and volatile. While subtlety exists, it is not on the same level as Kurtág. Ligeti seems to relish complexity; just look at how he combines painfully dissonant microtones with the structures of Bach. He also exploits the instrument's capabilities, instructing that the opening movement "Hora lunga" be played entirely on the C string, producing a guttural sound laced with emptiness. Another movement is played prestissimo and entirely muted, creating a sense of tense, frenzied restraint.

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that there's a clear dichotomy of the two composers: the reticent minimalist and the sprawling excessive. But things are rarely this clear-cut, and Ligeti and Kurtág are no exceptions. By juxtaposing them, Kashkashian shows how they inform each other. "Both [Kurtág and Ligeti] have gone through such metamorphosis in their artistic expression that it cannot be pinned down. Kurtág is known for dramatic gesture, and absolute distillation of material. Ligeti is more of an explorer of texture and atmosphere."

In this album, Kashkashian acts like a programmer, thinking about the gradual build towards a climax. She shapes the album around dramatic intent: "... it is like drawing a great long arch on a wall." Solo performance is by its very nature vulnerable, intimate, and perhaps a bit stark. Particularly in these pieces, where music is reduced to gesture and line, vulnerability becomes mandatory. Kashkashian shines in these moments.

Compared to live performance, recording is necessarily going to feel a bit artificial, as if speaking to someone through a wall. Kashkashian acknowledges the difficulty: "Making a semi-permanent document is always a struggle: you have to be humble and accept that it is your vision of the moment, to be shared with unknown (not immediate) listeners. The energetic triangle of text, performer and listener which makes a concert work is changed into an open vector reaching we know not where..." On the other hand, there's a feeling of potential; reaching out to an unknown audience (in another place, another time, another era) allows for a massive sense of possibility. "In one way, this is a concert which gives great freedom."

Kashkashian plans to record a CD of solo Bach works in the fall.