The avant-garde cellist
Cellist, composer, and improviser Lia Kohl was born in New York and grew up in San Francisco, but she’s a midwesterner at heart. She studied at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and after short stays in Berlin and New York she moved to Chicago in 2013. She’s a dedicated collaborator, helping shape the music of performance groups (including multimedia company Manual Cinema) and ensembles such as new-music collective Honestly Same and pop-oriented bands Whitney and Finom (formerly Ohmme, whose cofounder Macie Stewart has also recorded in a duo with Kohl). In March 2022, she released her debut solo album, Too Small to Be a Plain.
Interview by Leor Galil
Photos by Matthew Gilson
Both my parents are musicians. My mom is a singer and pianist and now a harpist, as of the last two years. My dad is a bass player. I grew up not with the expectation that I would be a musician but with the idea that music is a very normal part of life. It wasn’t something that was added on in school—it was a very familial thing.
My mom recently showed me a picture of myself at the piano. I think I’m probably two. I’m completely naked, and I’m banging on the piano. It wasn’t an expressed interest so much as, like, it was just around, and my mom would sing and play to me, and I loved that. My mom taught me piano when I was little, which I hated.
I took up the cello when I was in third grade, just as part of the school orchestra—I went to Waldorf school. It’s like an alternative, very creatively focused schooling thing. It’s hippie school, basically. There was a lot of art and a lot of music, and one of the offerings in music was a little orchestra.
I don’t actually know where I heard a cello or where I got the idea that I wanted to play the cello. But my mom was like, “What instrument do you want to play?” I was like, “I want to play the cello.” That was my first self-sufficient musical experience—like, I wanted to practice, I wanted to play in the orchestra, I loved playing in little string quartets with my friends.
I liked having this object that I could play with. Up until then, [my options] had been either the piano, which is so static and almost like a piece of furniture (no offense to any pianists), or my voice, which is just my body. But there was something exciting to me about having this thing that was almost the size of me, like a friend that I could carry around and then make sound with. I still love that about the cello. Not the “carrying it around,” but the size and the objectness of it.
I took lessons all through elementary and middle school. Then in high school I got into this program for people who wanted to play string instruments more seriously. It was akin to doing after-school sports really intensely. Every day after school I would play chamber music, and I was in a string orchestra and took private lessons. My whole after-school life and extracurricular life was music. There was a whole culture around that—with any extracurricular activity in high school, that becomes your friend group, your identity that you’ve chosen.
I also realized how many opportunities being a musician can give you. I went to Switzerland when I was 16 to go to this music camp—that’s an insane experience, and it was just because I played the cello. It wasn’t because I’m particularly special. It was like, “I play the cello, and now I get to go be in the Swiss Alps.”
I didn’t have that, like, “Oh, I wish I was just hanging out, being a kid.” I love the athleticism and discipline of being a classical musician. It’s really intense, and I like that sense of purpose. Even now in my life, I tend toward maybe having too much of a need for that, instead of being like, “I can just chill.”
I spent a lot of summers in Germany, because I have an uncle who lives in Germany. He said, “Yeah, come over whenever you want.” There’s a really amazing classical music scene in Germany, obviously, since that’s where classical music started. I would go over there and do what they call master courses, where you go and study with one person for a week or two weeks—you take lessons every day and you practice six hours a day. Having done a few of those summers in Germany, I was thinking about doing a master’s degree there. I moved to Berlin—not exactly on a whim, but not with a lot of a plan.
I spent nine months in Berlin living there, and then I decided that that was too intense—mostly just to be away from my mom. There were some priorities questions about being not far away from family. Twenty-two seems like being old enough to do that, but I didn’t actually feel like I was. So then I moved to New York for a couple years and studied with someone there, and then I moved to Chicago.
I came here to study with someone who plays in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, John Sharp—he’s amazing. But as soon as I got here, I started going to Constellation and hanging out with people who play new music, and with dancers, and getting into more weird stuff.
It was funny to be studying with John, who’s the principal [cellist] of the CSO. He’s an amazing orchestral musician and such a kind man, and we had a lot of arguments about whether I should learn orchestra excerpts—that’s when I started doing the rebellious thing that I’d never done before. I kept being, like, “I want to play this new music!” It was a really good relationship, but that’s when I started getting weird.
This is the thing about Chicago that I find to be so amazing. The first time I went to Constellation, I sat next to this woman—I’m kind of a shy person, I don’t talk to strangers that much, but somehow I was talking to her—and she was a dancer. I said, “I’m a cellist. I would love to play with dancers,” and the next week I was in her rehearsal.
And I kept having experiences like that, where I suddenly felt comfortable to assert myself a little bit or just reach out to people. And people have reached so warmly back to me. It felt really astonishing, and it still feels astonishing that Chicago’s like that. But I didn’t actually feel like I had to do much—I just kind of appeared in places, and then people were welcoming.
I liked it immediately, and then after about a year I was like, “Oh yeah, I know a couple people when I go to a show.” That feels like home, you know?
I think classical musicians tend to think of themselves more as practitioners and certainly artists of the form. I started to have the idea that I could have a voice. And that was a really new experience. And I think since then, especially through improvisation, I started to have the feeling that I do have a personality.
During the pandemic was the first time that I made anything completely by myself. I’m a very collaborative person and always have been, and obviously that was less of an option during the pandemic. I decided to just try to see what I sound like when I’m alone—even when I’m playing all the instruments and I try to make an orchestra for myself.
I think collaboration is the first part of my artistic personality. I’m very responsive. I feel like everything is conversation, and even in my own work, I feel like I’m creating situations in myself where I can respond to something, even if it’s myself in the past. I’ve been doing a lot of work with radios, and something I really like about the radio is that I’m responding—you turn on the radio, and someone could say pretty much anything, except, like, a select number of swear words.
A lot of my daily life is recording for other people: recording cello, arranging strings, recording for commercials. I really like being challenged. Someone sent me an email yesterday that [had] all this lingo about commercials, and I was like, “I don’t know anything you’re saying, but I’m gonna google it all and it’s gonna be great.” What keeps me motivated is wanting to be challenged, which sounds a little bit like an inspirational poster, but it’s true. I like to put myself in situations where I don’t know what I’m doing and figure it out.