Pianist Katrina Krimsky Makes the Hill Home

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Texas Street resident, Katrina Krimsky, is a pianist who has engaged in San Francisco’s classical, jazz, and experimental music scenes for decades. Today, Krimsky can often be found practicing and composing at home on her grand piano, occasionally inviting fellow musicians to jam with her.

“The neighborhood knows me pretty well because I’m always walking my little dog, Coco, who is a Maltipoo,” said Krimsky.

Krimsky initially moved to Potrero Hill in 1974. Her first house, on Rhode Island Street, was a fixer-upper Queen Anne Cottage with “lots of room, where I could teach piano students on the top floor and rent to Art Institute students on the bottom floor,” she said.

In 1984, Krimsky sold the Rhode Island Street property and moved into her current Texas Street home. “It’s wonderful for me, because it’s quiet and I have a beautiful view of the Bay…a great studio where I sometimes play or host house concerts,” she said.

With the Hill as her home base, Krimsky moved to Switzerland in the early-1980s, often returning to San Francisco to visit. Her husband, Swiss physicist and violinist Hans Siegmann, was on the faculty of ETH Zurich. The two spent the next 20 years abroad. “We came back to the City in 2001 when he retired,” said Krimsky.

Krimsky likes living on the Hill because of its friendly community feeling, pleasant weather, and absence of a commute. “Everything is immediately available. I think it’s the best place to live in the City. I can walk to wonderful restaurants, grocery stores, a bookstore, the public library, public transportation, and parks where my dog can play, and we have the best climate. Potrero Hill gives me the qualities of life to pursue my art,” she said.

Krimsky, who holds dual American and Swiss citizenship, is a composer and pianist of Russian descent. She was born in Georgia, grew up in Virginia and West Virginia. A child prodigy, with a mother who was a classically trained pianist, Krimsky received her Bachelor of Music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Soon after, she joined the faculty of American University in Washington, D.C. A few years later she moved to Cologne, Germany and associated with prominent European composers, such as electroacoustic pioneer Luc Ferrari. In 1967, Krimsky became a performer with the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts Ensemble in Buffalo, New York. There she met Terry Riley, a minimalist composer who was also a creative associate with the Ensemble.

Krimsky played “The Pulse, the one who holds the beat,” for Riley’s groundbreaking recording of “In C” for Columbia Records. The piece consists of 53 short melodic fragments written for roughly 35 performers. “I knew the Rileys…” Terry and his wife Ann “…very well from our years together in Buffalo and New York City. We lived in close proximity in North Beach when I started living in San Francisco. (They) had lived on Potrero Hill in the 1960s. When I started house hunting, they told me to explore Potrero Hill, where their daughter was born,” she said.

Krimsky first moved to the City in 1972, teaching at the San Francisco Community Music Center on Capp Street. In 1973, she joined the music faculty at Mills College. “I wore another hat on the weekends. I would play solo piano from 7 to 9 p.m. at Keystone Korner, a jazz club on Vallejo Street in North Beach. All the masters played there: Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson…I’d sit in the front row and learn from listening,” she said.

Krimsky especially liked playing for the working crowd who got off their jobs late on Friday. “People would come in off the street and I’d touch their emotions. I’d wake them up. It did a lot for me,” said Krimsky.

Engaging in innovative jazz and minimalist music changed Krimsky’s view of performance and composition. “I’d taught my whole life since I graduated from Eastman. When I came to the City I got the freedom to branch out beyond performing traditional classical music. I was very much into African-American, World, and contemporary music,” she said.

Krismky said she’s fortunate to have been in San Francisco during the 1970s, a “hot spot” of musical development. “I’m a sponge and I soaked it all up. I was really heavily influenced by Terry, who exposed me to pattern music and minimalist music. But I was stretching out too, to play jazz,” she said.

One of Krimsky’s favorite songs is a piece written for her by Shaw, “Katrina Ballerina,” which she’s performed and recorded.

Over the years Krimsky was drawn into inventiveness. “At first, I was doing very primitive, very basic improvising. I started to write music from what I was hearing and coming up with on the piano. That’s still my method of composition,” she said.

Krimsky began making electronic music, working with tape delay and a pickup on a grand piano to create unique pieces. “One of my students lent me a VW bus. With my huge Altec Lansing speakers, I’d travel around to perform my first acoustic-electronic pieces in concerts at venues such as the Exploratorium, the Art Institute, Zellerbach Hall, and others,” she said.

In 1975, Krimsky made her first solo recording, playing pieces by Samuel Barber, Riley, and Shaw. “While living on Rhode Island Street, I did my first recording at Different Fur Studios. I sent it to Manfred Eicher; German music producer with ECM Records. He wrote back that he’d record me someday,” said Krimsky.

Several years later, Krimsky moved to Switzerland with Siegmann. During her time there she performed as a solo artist and formed multicultural groups with flutist Lisa Hansen, sitarist Krishna Bhatt, bassist Peter Kowald, saxophonist Trevor Watts, and others.  Members of her ensembles presented and recorded Krimsky’s original compositions. She worked with masters of free jazz, who focus on breaking the rules of the genre, and, as Eicher foretold, recorded an album, “Stella Malu,” for ECM, one of seven she’s released.

Krimsky’s advice for beginning pianists is to practice, play with other people and “listen, listen, listen. Of course, a good teacher is essential,” she added.

Krimsky said piano requires hours of solitary practice. “When you play with other musicians, that is the richest dialogue you can have,” she said.

Krimsky believes that even experienced classical musicians should allow themselves to be creative. “There are no mistakes when you improvise. Once you go into a new area of music, at first it seems so remote. Then you do grow into it a little bit at a time and it’s very exciting,” she said.

Krimsky is presently composing a piece for a flute and string ensemble. She said composing and improvising help her strengthen her sense of rhythm and find joy in “the only job I’ve ever done professionally. You have to transcend the mundanity of everyday life. The music you love lifts you to a higher open space of emotions.”