Katarina Visnevska (MUS ’06) is accustomed to perplexed looks from strangers. It helps that she’s not the subject of the confusion. Rather, it’s the S-shaped electric violin she plays alongside DJs in Chicago and across the country that attracts much of the attention. Visnevska—also known by her stage name, Kat V—invites the questions that often accompany the looks. She gets it. She’s fascinated by the instrument, too.
Read on to learn more about Kat V and her unique performances.
When did you start playing violin?
When I was five, in Latvia, where I was born. My grandparents were musicians, and my mom would always go to my grandmother’s performances—even when she was pregnant with me, so I think I even remember that (just kidding). When my grandmother showed me this one-eighth, child-sized violin that literally looked like a toy, and asked me if I’d like to play it, I immediately said, “Yes.”
Was it love at first stroke?
Ha, not exactly … I’d go back and forth. There are different methods of learning the notes. In America, most kids are taught using the Suzuki method where you play by ear, but that wasn’t available to me in Latvia, so I had to learn the notes right away, and that was sort of like learning the math and chemistry—you learn the technical things, but you’re still a kid, so you don’t enjoy it as much. But there were always moments when I did love it. I vividly remember when I was 13 and started performing real, classical records, like beautiful concertos. Once I was performing the fun stuff—the pretty music, so to speak—I loved it.
And when did your interest in electronica start?
When I entered my teenage years, I started going to clubs. (That’s okay for teenagers to do in Latvia!) As I was becoming more independent and finding things that appealed to me, I discovered American pop, house music, hip-hop and other genres that were so much more fun and different from what I was used to. The message is clearer, more defined and simpler. I was fascinated with the repetitive patterns—that they were able to take one short phrase and keep repeating it and somehow it just worked. When I was 16, we moved to Chicago—the center of this kind of music—and my passion just grew.
Why did you choose the School of Music? How has that experience affected your current career?
In high school, I studied violin privately with Mark Zinger, who was a School of Music professor at the time. He was a truly magnificent teacher and mentor, and he encouraged me to audition for the full-time violin performance program at DePaul. Staying in Chicago was important to me, and the Lincoln Park campus always felt like home. Being surrounded by so many talented faculty and students was incredible. My classes, jazz in particular, helped me realize that classical violin would serve as the foundation for my future career, whatever that turned out to be.
When did you first start playing electric violin?
Well, the first time I saw one was as a junior at Highland Park High School. I was enrolled in the orchestra, of course, and they had an electric violin, but one of my classmates kept it for himself and would not let anybody else play it. I purchased one for myself after my first few gigs playing violin along with a DJ.
Why go electric?
After just a few DJ gigs with a classical violin, I realized I needed the amplification of the electric violin. It’s still important to me that it doesn’t sound like the violin setting on a synthesizer. Some of them do, and that’s not what I’m looking for. I look for an amplified sound that’s as close to a traditional-sounding violin as possible, which can also cause some confusion. In my current gigs, I usually freestyle along with the songs of the DJ’s choosing, usually pop music. I rarely know who the DJ will be that night, and I never get a song list in advance. I make up the accompaniment right there. But if I’m doing a good job, most people in the audience won’t realize I’m actually playing unless they look at me. Or sometimes they think I’m air-violining. That’s okay. It means I’ve found what works with the music.
What do you want people to know about you?
I like to put on a show. Because I always improvise, it’s different every time, so it’s always one-of-a-kind. It’s partially a result of having worked with jazz musicians, but I also wanted to get away from classical music. I still love classical. I haven’t forgotten my roots. But I’m moving forward.