Bow to No One: RogueViolin breaks away from academic constraints

Samantha Bounkeua learned to read sheet music before the alphabet. She first picked up the violin at age 4, and it more or less dominated her life for the next two decades. But after the exhaustion and frustration of being in the classical music system for years, she broke away and formed a new project: RogueViolin. Her debut release, Etudes, is built around non-traditional violin performance, electronic production and a healthy dose of catharsis.

"There's a lot about classical training where you're given a piece of sheet music and it's your role to execute a vision, versus more of a composition frame where you get to explore the concept itself," Bounkeua said. "I think those limitations are very much part of why I've broken from a lot of classical performing. There's been so much unlearning I've had to do to be able to not only play classical music."

The debut RogueViolin EP showcases Bounkeua's technical abilities on the instrument, but also her singing, sound collage, distortion, drum machines, keyboards, and plenty of sounds and effects. Across its brief runtime, the release tells a story of uncertainty and affirmation, all based around different musical techniques.

Bounkeua entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music out of high school prepared to practice her instrument eight hours per day. However, she transitioned to a more alternative style of violin performance after growing frustrated with only playing music composed by "dead white men." In a contemporary classical style, she began working with new composers and electronic musicians, becoming more interested in the textures and atmospheres in violin playing.

However, the stress of rigid practice routines built up, worsened by the pressures of an academic music system. She heard horror stories of piano players having razor blades between their keys to ensure precision, or people being locked in practice rooms.

"I've had recurring nightmares about violin and losing my violin, probably five nights a week. I couldn't stop dreaming about it. I got really anxious when I got called to play classically. I think this particular experience is not just about academics, but the relationship between a mentor and a student. Now, that's a different experience for everyone depending on their teacher, but I have heard some horror stories, and I myself had a really unhealthy relationship with my teacher," Bounkeua said. "I know it's not everyone's experience, but it is common in the music world at that level of competition."

Upon graduating from the conservatory, she says she felt unsure how to continue in her career, and played in various groups in a range of styles. She says she couldn't even listen to classical music for two years.

"A lot of it has to do with the expectations I put on myself, and I totally own up to that. But within the competitive way the classical music system is set up, I think those expectations are encouraged," Bounkeua said. "I think it's very common. I have several friends I went to school with who have quit or put away music altogether upon graduating."

Although Etudes—and the RogueViolin project itself—is an attempt to move away from classical playing, the album's opener "Idealism," is the most traditional sounding track, signifying how her violin journey began. Aside from some background layers, it is almost entirely bright and sweeping violin notes, almost as if Bounkeua is proving to the audience (and herself) that she does indeed know her way around a violin, before deconstructing the instrument on the following tracks. She says she also chose to open the album with a more minimal track as a focus on acoustics.

"There's a truth and vulnerability to the acoustic sound. And also, it's really hard to mic," Bounkeua said. "So I spent hours finding the exact space in my room and the exact height of the microphone. So it was also an exercise in finding the sound."

This style is immediately subverted on the second track, "Shame," which opens with a playful synthesizer and an old recording of someone speaking to their music mentor. Before the song picks up kinetic energy with a funky and distorted violin passage, Bounkeua sings, "You thought you knew what best to do, you left a stain, you taught me shame."

Bounkeua says Etudes partially serves as an experiment if she could go back in time and speak to her younger self. This focus is clear on the song "Anxiety," which opens with staccato vocables and echoing string plucks similar to Arthur Russell. Bounkeua sings about her mental stress and diminishing self-worth as a piano sneaks in. However, she reassures herself on the chorus, saying that she has time, is capable, and defines her own self-worth.

Although the album is a largely personal journey of self healing, Bounkeua also credits the Tucson music scene with her recovery. She played with local groups such as the Rosano Brothers and Jimmy Carr and the Awkward Moments. The RogueViolin project came out of her work with those musicians, and also serves as the name of her home recording studio, where she hopes to support and record fellow queer musicians.

"It was really in Tucson where this healing process began... I think Tucson champions the vulnerability of artists in a way I was not expecting," Bounkeua said. "When I first came to Tucson, I wasn't expecting to be here for more than a few weeks, but I think it's a gem of a music community. People show up to the concerts to support you, and I think it's a very active listening community. They're engaged with you as a person, not just your work. That connection has meant everything to me."