Author: Debra Kaye

Music Can be a Counterbalance to Hard Times

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.  On 9/11 after the attacks, I walked among the droves of people in the middle of avenues normally packed with cars and got safely home. I thought of my day. I’d been on my way to a 9:30 a.m. workshop at the Foundation Center.  It was sunny and pleasant. When I got to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street, everyone had stopped and was looking downtown trying to figure out what was happening.  We really didn’t know yet.  The rest is history.

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.

Like most of us, I was glued to the TV that night.  It was hard to watch, hard not to. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t fathom it. I knew we were in for big changes, that the 21st century had just begun.  I went to the piano. Playing slow chords along with the news I felt my original connection to music, comfort, and wisdom, a balm for the soul.  There was something reassuring in that.

In 2012, the night that Hurricane Sandy approached. I listened to the changing weather predictions and felt like a sitting duck. Once I realized I’d be alright, I took to worrying about others. During this vigil, I went to the piano again; TV news was on low and was slow to change, but alerts would be known.

Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to our doorsteps; friends and loved ones were uprooted.  The storm approached at night, and I improvised the beginning of what turned into a solo piano piece called While We Were Sleeping. The music’s overall shape is a crescendo-diminuendo, though random acts of chaos surge and dissipate, the storm gathers and subsides. In the beginning, the notation is classically specified. As the piece progresses it becomes more of a graphic score, at times alternating between these two modes. Particularly in the more graphic, improvisatory sections, I hope to elicit an intuitive “heat of the moment” response from the performer.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.  After the loss of my father, I wanted to find expression for what I felt; it seemed there were no words for it.  The vocal expression of an infant conveys its meaning, the timbre of the voice before words. Thinking about this was the impetus for And So It Begins for tenor, sax, and string quintet.

If this were a story, loss and regeneration would be the themes. Imagining grief as a processional, the incarnate dissolves into the ethereal, a heart-beat pizzicato becomes a time-ticking drum beat.  The final movement brings regeneration through a series of dances.

I allowed my process to be more intuitive than ever, taking the first idea that came to me and developing it.  Sensing my way, low tones stir in the tenor sax, seeking to rise, strings join in.  Allowing chance to play a role, while listening to the MIDI playback, a bird sang a tone that harmonized so well, I wrote it in. Sometimes even a typo turned out to be a usable gift—while transposing a passage to use it as a sequence, I accidentally made it a step higher than intended and I liked it! A descending third dropped into the saxophone part, and I realized it was the whistling motif familiar from childhood when he’d call us from play.

A photo of a tea bag containing the words "Listen and you will develop intuition"

Before I knew what the words meant, I remember being aware of the rise and fall, the varying intensities, and patterns of sound of the human voice, and knowing that these sounds carried a meaning that I was intensely curious to understand. Later, in my teens, I similarly listened to the muffled voices of my parents and grandparents behind closed doors.  I couldn’t understand a word, but their tone was foreboding.

An old spinet was in my room. I closed the door, went to the piano and tried out something new for me at age sixteen.  I took out manuscript paper and lined it up in four parts for a string quartet.  Life went on, but these phrases haunted me through college and into my adult life. In 1988, I fleshed out that initial sketch into a movement, but returned again in 2015 to bring the music to full expression as a four-movement work. My initial sketch became the second movement of my first string quartet. That slow second movement is the heart of this work. Its theme reappears in varied guises in the journey of the piece. I found metaphoric connections for the music in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The titles of the movements are inspired by the light and dark shadings of his poetic imagery. As in the body of Lorca’s work, motifs recur, reinterpreted in echoing variation throughout the four movements.

Composing is usually a long-term project for me, but sometimes I struggle with returning to a piece if it seems at odds with the climate around me. I’d started a flute and piano piece in early 2016. A fantasy seemed apropos, a wedding gift from flutist Carl Gutowski to his niece. But after the election, it became hard to conjure this feeling, this expression of love, so in opposition to the political/social climate of the time.  How could I rally myself to it? Why was it important?  Journaling helped me find an answer.

After the election it became hard to conjure love, but strong bonds of love deserve celebration.

Strong bonds of love deserve celebration. Hope and optimism in the face of many unknowns can carry us through the struggles, both personally and culturally. It’s important to continue our lives as we mean to live them, celebrating our American freedoms, becoming more aware of how precious they are and how worthy of our energies it is to protect them.   We need to stoke the fires of love and hope within—raising our energy, hopefully not just to preach to the choir, but to find some common ground.

The sky on a bright day.

So I composed a series of variations for flute and piano that fall out of synch at times but are always linked to one another in harmonious partnership. The piece is in a loose rondo form to convey the enduring nature of a bond through the ever-returning theme of love. As with the individuals whose marriage inspired this piece, flute and piano are equal partners. Their relationship flows between discussion, duet, argument, and canonic imitation, each voice having the chance to be leader and follower.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance, to dream the impossible dream and find a new way, not to be locked into the present trajectory or momentum, to know that something else is possible, even though we have to traipse through the unknown to get there.  We don’t always know the way, but we keep trying until we find it.  It’s the role of the arts to inspire persistence.  With creativity there’s always hope.  Art speaks truth to power. We need art more than ever now.  These are some of the things I’ve learned through my life in music.

Music and a Sense of Place

Have you ever been arrested by sound—music, a bird call or even a siren?  You might even notice, in an Ivesian sort of way, the polymetric pulse of a city or the rhythm of footsteps on the stairs (and their canon with your own). These rhythms say something about the life that created them. How different they’d be in Bali.

A sense of place can be the impetus for a piece, motion can be the catalyst.  Beethoven often took long walks, I imagine both to clear his head and to stir his thoughts.  When I walk down the streets of New York City, I’ll sometimes find myself humming a bass line vamp that accompanies my pace and mood. It’s unconscious at first.  The soundscape around me fits on this grid, often in syncopated counterpoint.  The movement suggests music by its weight, duration, tempo, direction and rhythmic patterns. Everything is part of the music.

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen”

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen” and earlier this year I wrote a piece for electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit and a pre-recorded audio track titled Citi-zen.

The recording that accompanies the piece is my vocal improv with the New York City night, vamping and riffing into my phone’s recording app as I walk down Broadway at a tempo of about 100 to the quarter note, responding to the sounds I hear around me. In the course of my walk, a bus whooshes by, a dog yaps, sirens wail, there’s theater talk, a trumpet plays across the street.  Live instruments play along in a game of hide and seek/cover and reveal. The recording is unedited; I wanted it to express a natural occurrence, the polymetric counterpoint of life.

The recording gave me the form of the piece.  I wanted to do a five-minute piece, and so I stopped recording when the time was up. But I felt it needed something more, so I started recording again for another minute. Near the end of that coda a woman shouts, “It’s a full moon!”  That was the ending I needed!  It happened to have been October 4, the Harvest Moon, 10-4, the old ham radio code for “got it!”  I welcome the random occurrence, the synchronicity, improvising with life, making the best of what’s come before as best I can.

My current work in progress is The Universe of Grand Central for any solo instrument and a two-minute cellphone video with improvised commentary, filmed during “off-peak” hours in Grand Central Station.  A solo instrumentalist plays along with the video. We begin with a view of the ceiling, the cosmos in all its astrological glory.  Following the arching windows, the viewer descends into the hall and its inhabitants, and follows them in their crossings through the Grand Hall, their individuality more pronounced in this quiet hour, after the herds have already passed.

The ceiling of Grand Central Terminal

Sometimes a place can affect the music more indirectly.  I lived for a time in the mountains of Northern California.  The wide open spaces and majestic beauty filled me with a sense of reverence. The “emptiness” of the wilderness provoked a fullness, the stillness roused my inner life.  As I wrote, I looked to the mountains. Did the music ring true?  Sympathetic vibrations between saxophone and piano evoke this resonance.

Sometimes a place can affect music more indirectly and the desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst.

The desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst. The Beauty Way for soprano, tenor, and bass viols (2009) is inspired by my residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.  In Taos, 8000 feet above sea level, closer to the heavens, I observed the mercurial play of light and shadow and experienced a sense of wonder that I never wanted to forget. Time slowed down. I was off the clock; there was only morning, afternoon, and night.  I was in the Timeless Zone.

I was fascinated by the place. It’s a cultural crossroads of Native American, Mexican, and Spanish influences, and then in the 20th century, the artists colonized it.

Debra Kaye in the desert

There, for the first time, I had the opportunity to walk on one of the few places in the United States that is still nominally acknowledged as “Native” land, and which is also completely off the electric grid.  With beauty all around me, a Navajo blessing came to mind.  You may have heard it.

Now I Walk In Beauty

Now I walk in beauty
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Above and below me

Returning to New York City was culture shock at first. Walking through crowded Harlem streets, I could envelop myself in the aura of those summer walks by singing the Navajo tune.  I was soon discovered. Through the sirens and screeching cars, I heard a man singing a gospel version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We smiled at each other, each continuing our song.  Integrating these experiences (and these tunes) became the impetus for the piece.

I later found that the beauty way is described as a feeling of joy, bliss, and safety, a state of grace.  There are no battles with people, nature, or our own nature. It recognizes those times when we are in harmony with all that is.

The Native melody is very similar to the traditional English round, Hey Ho Nobody Home, and I wondered if these tunes had ever met and influenced each other.  It seemed interesting that the words of the two songs seem to be opposites and represent a positive and negative aspect.

The Beauty Way is in rondo form. It begins with the original Navajo tune in canon. The B section is a fantasy on the original material that leads to a darker aspect and the return of the Beauty theme in combination with Hey Ho Nobody Home.  Next, again, there is a development section, but this time it leads to a more positive aspect, culminating when the Beauty theme returns, this time in combination with This Little Light of Mine.  The goal of the piece is to establish the feeling of the beauty way, to fall out of harmony and to find the way back.

Toward a Music of the Spheres

My summer project: write a piece for solo violin influenced by Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. It’s August and I can finally turn my head to a collaboration with Polish violinist Kinga Augustyn for a concert in mid November. I’d sketched a few phrases after listening to her recording of the Telemann Sonatas—which, by the way, made me a new Telemann fan. And now, I turn my attention to the Bach Chaconne—how great!  But does this fit with my initial sketch? Or how does it fit? Where? What? When? Why?

I listen to the Chaconne over and over, both entranced and mystified by it.  Looking at the score, I want to know its secrets.  How does it make the effect it does?  What does this cyclic form mean in the hands of Bach, with his deep spiritual life?  What patterns can I find? How does each small thing relate to the whole? I sense a cumulative meaning as themes return, carrying different meaning over time. I find some overarching processes that echo through the macro and the micro.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken. Pairs of opposites emerge throughout the Chaconne. In the macro, D minor becomes D major. The dotted rhythm of the opening goes through diminution and augmentation and leads eventually to the culminating “trumpet call” of the dotted eighth and sixteenth near the end of the piece.  In the micro, pairs of phrases end high then low, counterpoint above leads to counterpoint below, syncopated rhythms appear in palindrome (just like in jazz!), lingering embellishments become forward-moving scalar passages

I realize why the Chaconne seems to unfold organically.  It’s because it does!  As Bach breaks his established patterns with an anomaly, he develops the new element.  Sometimes the thing is a small change, a surprise—the repeated chord progression acquires variation as embellishments gnarl their way through the harmony. Sometimes it changes the trajectory, or leads to a culmination.

Not to be too literal, but I am often struck by the seeming metaphorical connection between musical process and effect, leading me to muse about the correspondence between physical science and our supposedly abstract art of music, which dances again around my fascination with the idea of the Music of the Spheres: What does it mean?  Different things in different ages, but is any one of these complete?  Does it relate to the new physics and its String Theory, which builds upon the fact that everything is vibration, and suggests that the universe is a vibrating symphony? Is this the unified theory that Einstein was searching for, a completely quantifiable universe, yet so vast and interrelated that it is still ultimately unknowable.

In my first sketches, I work with some of the elements I’ve noticed in Bach’s writing: pairs of phrases, with a sense of development by their end.  As I try to emulate Bach, I become more and more aware of his finesse at keeping this potentially static form going more than 60 times round the four-bar pattern! How did he do it? In many subtle and ingenious ways.

I track the phrasing.  In the opening, each pair of four-bar phrases begins identically, but the second one ends differently and as the new material is developed, it brings forward momentum to the unchanging aspects of the four-bar cycles.  The form becomes a many-layered experience that reflects back upon itself and also forward into uncharted territory.

About half way through the piece, he breaks this pattern. A group of three phrases leads out of the minor into major.  Knowing Bach’s “music for the glory of God” worldview, I can’t help but think of this as a reference to the trinity. This anomaly leads us to the new, now on a more macro level. There’s a sense of endless variation as Bach plays out this process, introducing a changing element amid the unchanging.

In the big picture, the rhythmic flow of the piece is formed by its mysterious opening. Bach skews the momentum. He begins on the second beat, but doesn’t end on the downbeat as expected to complete the 3/4 bar with a sense of finality.  Instead the piece ends on beat two, a little beyond the known, as though passing itself off into the ether and leaving an air of mystery. What now? Will it begin again? Perhaps, in inner hearing, it will—seemingly out of nowhere as it did initially, a tonic (home) chord on an upbeat moving to a dominant (away) chord on the downbeat, leading us forward through the life of the piece.

I notice how the music crests and falls in a series of culminating points.  It quickens until you think it can go no further, then pulls back into itself in stately half notes, and points yet again onward, round the cyclic form, the four-bar pattern of the chaconne, the cyclic form of life, glancing both forward and backward, returning to the same place, yet experiencing it differently. “And the circle, it goes round and round.”

Bach described himself as a musical scientist.  I can only think what that meant to him, living as he did in the late Baroque poised on the Enlightenment: a spiritual, metaphysical world transitioning to the rational perspective we generally assume today. I imagine his thinking carried the wisdom of his nature, looking both forward and backward to the traditions surrounding him.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.  Scientists have been hard at work trying to prove what mystics long intuited, and it seems to be coming together in our time. Maybe String Theory is right and this spiritual connection which we sense in music, is indeed a rational supposition.  Not either/or, but both/and, connecting science and the mysterious, unknowable creation and continuance of the universe.

So what was I to do with all this?  Fascination turned to fear, a daunting task ahead.  I’d been blown away by how Bach took this repetitive form and developed it so profoundly. I aspired toward such a depth.  Could I do it? And how?  The answer that came: Be yourself (a good answer to any question)! Write your piece; let him be an inspiration.  You don’t have to write a chaconne. Time to get rational, choose some elements and processes you learned from him.

Kinga Augustyn wearing a red dress to which a violin-shaped pin is affixed and holding a violin and bow in front of a shelf filled with violins.

Kinga Augustyn

From the time I’d first heard Kinga’s recording of the Telemann Sonatas, I’d wanted to do something that had the gestural, improvisatory feel of Baroque ornamentation but in a more jagged, 21st-century way.  Something that would show her sensitive musicianship and virtuosity, and her nuanced use of the bow that brings a vocal quality to her playing at times.

Be yourself (a good answer to any question)!

As in the Bach, I wanted the music to be a many-layered experience and to have a sense of organic growth, to be both cyclic and developing, to reflect on its themes like memory does, and to move into uncharted territory. Kinga’s understanding of historical styles would allow me a wide range of musical styles; I was happy for that.  And in a practical way, with deadline looming, I wanted to be able to integrate what I’d already written with these new ideas.  Necessity is the mother of invention, not a new thing!

I usually find my way into a piece by getting a sense of its emotional terrain or trajectory, but now I struck out on a different path and chose form to give me a sense of direction.  To integrate the Bach-like phrases with my initial sketches, I decided to intersperse them in a kind of modified rondo form with the goal of attaining a sense of development over the course of the piece.  Like Bach, I’d develop a new element in each new section.  To help get the sense of reflection and development, repetition might include variation. The piece would culminate at the end by quoting the beginning of the Bach Chaconne.

I’d keep in mind the underlying processes that I’d found most striking in the Bach, but I would write freely and intuitively by playing off of things I’d noticed in the Bach and then spin them in whatever ways suited me. I settled on a title, Turning In Time. The music opens with pairs of phrases, though not always of equal length.  This pattern is broken when the first Bach-like phrase enters, standing alone in its four bars.  I referenced Bach’s characteristic dotted rhythm in my own Bach-like phrases, and played with shifting the rhythmic emphasis, a technique I’d noticed in the Chaconne.  I used the idea of a characteristic rhythm, and chose a quintuplet, adding unity to the piece when it returns as a pass-through to another destination, as a declamation on the downbeat, and later developed it into its own section.

Opposites abound.  In the macro, the form I’d chosen gives a sense of opposites through its juxtapositions, where the Bach-like phrases are regular and mine, more jagged and inconsistent.  As in the Chaconne, major comes as a relief to the minor in these Bach-like sections as the piece draws to a close. Augmentation and diminution are used throughout to develop the motifs, sometimes unfolding in a minimalist line, other times when the motif returns. The use of high and low becomes a feature of the piece as phrases end high and then low, or are repeated at the octave.

I emulated Bach by accelerating into arpeggiando near the end of the piece, a contrapuntal line emerging in the upper register.  Changing meters abound, but the music is generally in 3/4, as is the Chaconne.  The meter is most clear in the Bach-like sections, where it remains consistent. To highlight the difference between the 21st century and the Baroque, Bach-like phrases are at a slightly slowed tempo. I think of Turning In Time as a conversation between the “then” and “now,” our time and his.

Now that I had a cyclic form, and ways to develop it, it got me thinking about time and cycles in life, and how the same things, events, etc., carry different meaning over time.  And again, of the Music of the Spheres as a correspondence between musical processes and life processes.

Debra Kaye's solo violin score covered with a variety of emojis.

Kinga Augustyn’s markup of Debra Kaye’s solo violin score.

Musical Experiences in Daily Life

What does it mean to live a musical life? How has my perspective as a dedicated musician shaped my experience of the world? How does that manifest in my life and music?

The idea that movement suggests music is an influence from my study of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, as is my interest in rhythmic flow—how to create momentum, and let it subside. And so sometimes life can seem to be a vast counterpoint.  And it can blur the edge between the quotidian and the musical while, at times, they become one.

The counterpoint of life is omnipresent.

Art imitates life, or life imitates art. Which is it?  Both/and? The chicken or the egg…? Looking at life through a musical lens, I see many correspondences that are perhaps easier to see in a city like New York, where the counterpoint of life is omnipresent.


Rush hour between Port Authority and Grand Central is a corridor of music – live, vibrating along subway passageways, on the platforms, or on the trains. Music pairs with the clatter and screech, the footsteps, the travelers, the dancerly crossings and those who come too close during rush hour when so many people are trying to get somewhere else. Then you’re walking through a corridor and hear a drumbeat. Rounding the corner, you see the drummer, Ah!  He drums you through the turnstile and gives you something you didn’t even know you’d needed.

The music fades as you walk away and seems to disappear, but it lingers in your head and pairs with your surroundings, the conversations in polyglot rhythms, the varied paces of the stream of travelers, each with their own tempo, weaving and tacking through the crowd.  Movement is music. Having improvised for a walk as I did in my Dalcroze days, I’m noticing the differing gates and the movement of weight. I weave my own line into the counterpoint as I move through the crowded platform, humming a vamping bass.

Commuters awaiting the shuttle train at Times Square


Walking home one night, I discover an Indian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. Turns out it’s good food but nearly empty due to delivery apps and the like, so I had the place to myself.  Soft Indian classical music in my ears, I order.  Waiting for the food, I’m looking out the window, sipping a glass of wine. It’s a charcoal black night lit by the storefronts across the way, the passing yellow cabs amid the vehicle sea, a colorful array of red, yellow, and white neon.  As I’m watching, I start to notice that there’s something more. Cars are going both ways on one-way Amsterdam Avenue.  Everything seems much busier!  Twice as busy in fact.  Comings and goings. Looking to my right, I notice the large mirror covering the entire wall of the restaurant.  These are mirror images; I’m watching contrary motion in practice!

There are various rates of flow.

There’s the direction – the coming towards, crossing at the center line, then moving away like partners in a dual, disappearing into the vanishing point.  There are various rates of flow. Cabs are the fastest, darting to the light, while cars and trucks may saunter.  Eventually, I see that the cab goes through an equal deceleration at the other end, accelerando and ritard referring back to their opposite.  The saunterers, whose speeds are less varied, bring an amazing but ordered complexity to the scene.  And then there are the people. Walking at a steady pace, self approaches self and departs from self.  If that’s not counterpoint, what is?

A baby cart and a car moving as seen from a window from within a restaurant, and their reflections through a mirror.

Contrary motion and variable rates of flow observed from an upper west side Indian restaurant.


My mentor lives at the West 86th Street subway stop.  When it’s cold outside, I take the subway home from her apartment. Waiting for the train, I hear Bernstein—“There’s a place for us…” The train across the platform is leaving the station, and that’s its song. A perfect Bernstein tribute, though unplanned.


I turn on the electric tooth brush in the morning; it sings C.  I join in humming “om” as it does its work.


My dancer friend tells me that she experiences everything in terms of phrase—waiting at a stop light, walking through a department store. Her years of dancing have given her an internal phrase clock. Sometimes it goes on in the background, but it’s always there.


Sometimes I swim in phrases, holding my breath longer to lengthen the phrase.  My mother once told me that she learned to swim in 6/8 time, three kicks to each arm stroke.  When I tried it, it propelled me through the water with much less effort. I tried it walking up the steps, it helped there too!  This must be the most efficient use of energy? A connection with the three-part beat of swing and the indigenous rhythms of African drumming and of original life?

A musician performing in one of the walkways between platforms at the Times Square station.

A lone subway musician at Times Square, but his music is just one layer of the sonic landscape there.