Jerome Kitzke: Stories That Must Be Told
Although his chosen means of expression is music, Jerome Kitzke describes himself as a storyteller. Kitzke’s musical stories have frequently dealt with the plight of Native Americans and other examples of social injustice. If his music inspires people to explore some of these issues on their own he considers himself successful.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
December 4, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Although his chosen means of expression is music, Jerome Kitzke describes himself as a storyteller. “I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text,” he explains during our morning visit to his apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan. “It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.”
The stories that have most deeply affected Kitzke and which he feels compelled to tell through his idiosyncratic music—a poly-stylistic amalgam of advanced compositional techniques and improvisation—frequently deal with social injustice. An Allen Ginsberg poem about cold war bomb threats serves as a mantra in his 1991 Mad Coyote Madly Sings. The recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired his visceral 2008 Winter Count, which appears on an innova CD devoted to Kitzke’s music that was released last year. A recurring theme in Kitzke’s output has been the plight of Native American peoples. For him, understanding “how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here” is a way of coming to terms with being an American:
By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more. … I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people who have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”
Considering his populist inclinations, it might seem somewhat surprising that Kitzke has chosen the rarified world of contemporary music as the platform for his politically charged output. But even though his work reflects a deep understanding a broad range of indigenous traditional music as well as popular culture, the Western classical tradition has been its anchor.
I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician … What I am is a composer. … How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great. … I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. … I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.
Kitzke’s obsession with the written score ultimately led him down a singular path where the calligraphic elements are as important as the sonic ones. A page of a Kitzke score is often as stunning as a work of visual art. This is one of the reasons why he continues to create scores by hand rather than use computer notation software. The other is a worldview that values corporeality over technology:
I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Frank J. Oteri: I was very surprised to see an electric keyboard here since you seem to be somewhat anti-technology. Maybe “anti” is too strong, but it’s definitely not a concern of yours the way it is with so many people these days.
Jerome Kitzke: No. But I do have a MacBook Pro around the corner there, so I have a computer. Actually I didn’t get my first computer—a Gbook, iBook G3 thing, which I also still have—until 2003. I got it because my girlfriend at the time was moving to London. I had gotten a Hotmail account and I would go to the local library to use the computer there to email her. Then one morning I was standing outside waiting for the library to open; it was very cold out and there was a line. And a guy comes out and says, “The boiler’s not working today. We are not opening.” So I was standing there thinking, “Now I’ve got to walk 20 blocks back home. I need to get a computer!” It was ridiculous that I didn’t have one. So that’s why I got a computer. But I’ve come to rely on it in many ways for email and word processing. The thing probably does 150 more things that I have no idea about. I’m not anti-technology, it’s just not my first concern. I do see some things about the advent of the handheld devices that I don’t like, what that’s done to society in general. But they also have really great positive purposes, too. So I see both sides of it. For me, I always base it on do I need this. I got the computer because my girlfriend moved to London, and I needed it. If I ever get a handheld device, it’ll be because I need it. I don’t have a cell phone right now.
FJO: I was thrilled that you had email, since it made it much easier for us to arrange this meeting.
JK: Well, I also have three telephones in this apartment for various odd reasons, but they never ring unless it’s a telemarketer or maybe a family member or some friends who still call on the thing. So email is the way to communicate.
FJO: But there’s no Jerome Kitzke dot com.
FJO: And to this day you write out all your scores by hand.
FJO: So you don’t really use technology for your music much. Well, I noticed that there are CDs here, so there’s some technology.
JK: Well, yeah. My stereo, the one I had from [the age of] 19—from the early 1970s on—finally died. I had the big speakers, the receiver, the turntable, and the amplifier to play all the LPs I have. I recently got a Crosley turntable; it’s got little speakers in it, but you can also plug in external speakers. So now I can play my vinyl again.
FJO: But the keyboard that you create music on is an electric keyboard.
JK: When I use a keyboard, yeah. Most of the time I write out of my head and just use the keyboard to sort of check on things. That’s changing, oddly enough, which must be a part of the aging process. I’m hearing a little bit less in my inner ear than I used to, so I’m now using the keyboard a little more than I used to. I don’t like this electronic keyboard at all, but it’s a handy tool. It has a jazz organ stop with kind of a Hammond sound and one of my more recent works, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , has a big Hammond B3 part, so it was handy to just get those sounds in my ear.
FJO: It’s interesting that you compose mostly in your head because you actively perform your music as well, and with a great many people who perform the music they write, composition tends to grow out of improvisation and physical performance. But you write it and then you start figuring out how to play it.
JK: For the most part. And actually I only perform a couple of my pieces pretty regularly, like The Animist Child, the toy piano piece I wrote for Wendy Chambers in 1994, and The Green Automobile, which I wrote in 2000 for piano. I perform those pieces a lot. The Great Automobile is the kind of piece that came out of a situation. I was at an artist colony. Sometimes if you have a group of people that is small and one of them is a little off, it can really affect the vibe of everybody else. I had a really bad experience at an artist colony in 2000. I wasn’t able to work very well, but I would play a lot of piano. And I was reading Allen Ginsberg at the time, so that piece kind of came out of my sitting there at the piano and speaking the poem aloud and tinkering around on the ivories. But The Animist Child mostly came out of my head. So I do things both ways. Especially more and more, as I said, because I think my inner ear, or my brain, my body, the whole thing is changing, which is interesting. I’ll be 60 in February, and I’m just noticing that stuff changes, as we all do, as we age.
FJO: Long before it got appropriated by politicians, the term maverick was bandied about to describe a somewhat disparate group of idiosyncratic American composers from throughout our musical history—
Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Cage, and more recently people like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. All of these composers have created work that doesn’t quite fit in with the categories that existed before for music. They’ve come up with completely new ways of thinking about music as well as realizing their creations. If I were to try to describe you and what you do in a word, that word would be pretty high on my list. And I remember the terrific interview with you that was part of Minnesota Public Radio’s American Mavericks Series, so you obviously were comfortable with that word being used to describe you then. Are you still comfortable with that word? Is it a fair word to use?
JK: I don’t feel any discomfort about it, but I don’t think about stuff like that. The whole labeling of things in art and music has never interested me very much. I’ve been called many things. Being called a maverick composer feels like a compliment in a way, but that’s the extent to which I’ll think about it. I just write what I hear in my head and write based on my experiences in life. A lot of my music comes directly out of my life experiences away from the studio, away from even thinking about art and creativity. I’ve written many pieces that have to do with my perception of the relationship between the Europeans who came to this country and the native nations that were already here. That interaction, now ongoing for well over 500 years, is a fascinating one to me. And I always heard music in those interactions. So for me to write music about those ideas and those interactions, I had to really immerse myself away from any considerations of music—away from the studio and away from the city where I live. I’d spent time out west, weeks and months with people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for instance, where I spent most of my time. Out of those situations, I would then take the feelings I had there.
Let’s face it: everything we do in our life becomes a part of our experience, and it can affect how you then go about whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re creative, if you’re a writer, or even if you’re laying bricks, the way you lay those bricks can be affected by the other things that go on when you’re away from laying those bricks. I’ve been called a storyteller, which I like because I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text. It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.
FJO: Considering this, it’s fascinating that even though you did not come from a Native American background, that Native American themes have been so central to your music—for decades at this point.
JK: For me it has to do with being an American, living on this continent. I feel—and have now felt for over 30 years while dealing with these kinds of issues and writing these kinds of pieces—that one of the outcomes is that I feel I’m going to be a better American by understanding these stories, understanding what actually happened, digging deeper for the truth of the interactions that occurred between these peoples. If you do that, you’ll discover really terrible, terrible stuff about how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here.
When I was really young, I was kind of being led to believe that there were no Indian people left. The way they were depicted in museums made it seem like they were actually not really a presence anymore; whereas in Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were nearly a dozen Indian reservations right in the state. The city of Milwaukee had many Indian people. You didn’t know it. It was just a hidden kind of thing. I became really interested in trying to write pieces that were not directed to listeners that were native people, although that’s great when that happens, but toward non-native people so they would on their own maybe explore some of these stories a little more deeply than all the stereotypical stories they were perhaps given in grade school about native nations and the relations between whites and natives.
By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more, as rotten as these stories were, and as terrible as the situation still is to this day. Look at what’s going on in New York City right now with the Eric Garner case. The race relations are really not very good. They’re not as good as I think people tend to believe they are. So I just have always felt that I really want people to hear the pieces I’ve done and maybe, as I said, go find their own way into these stories.
FJO: You describe it as though you are an investigative reporter or a documentary film maker, but you’re a composer. That’s a somewhat odd role to have as somebody who’s so concerned about social issues.
JK: If you’ve made the decision to write a piece that deals with some of these issues, you better do your investigating, not take information that you’ve gleaned from one source or write something that’s all surface-y. If you’re going to write a piece about the Wounded Knee Massacre, you better get your ass to Wounded Knee and talk to people there. And not just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which is an okay book but that’s just the tiny surface.
FJO: My point is somewhat larger here. Other people who have become so concerned about these matters channel that concern in a completely different way: by writing some kind of exposé, or making a film about it, lobbying congress, or maybe even getting directly involved in politics or social work. You, however, respond through music. Perhaps you see music as something that can not only accomplish the same things as these other activities but perhaps maybe even accomplish them better.
JK: I don’t know if it could be better. I’d have to think about that. But I can only speak for myself in regard to the question you’re raising. I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician. If I were a writer, I’d be writing about this stuff. But what I am is a composer. I guess I’m an artist, too. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but if I’m an artist, I’m also wanting to make these statements artfully, in a way that’s not me up on a soapbox ranting. I don’t feel I do that in the pieces I’ve done. I’ve tried not to. There are moments that are incredibly intense about these issues, but I’ve always tried to be more subtle about how I present the material. How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great.
I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people that have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”
FJO: For me, one of most poignant moments in that talk you did with Minnesota Public Radio was when you recalled a reaction from someone you met on a reservation when you were working on your first Indian piece: “People come and they do things and then they forget about us.” You really took that comment to heart. You did not forget and it became a permanent part of what you did. And your whole compositional trajectory since then has been a kind of giving back, an honoring of that connection that you made there.
JK: Yeah. Not every piece I’ve done in the last 30 years has been about these issues, but there have been about 10 or 12 pieces—and I’m not a prolific composer, so that’s a big part of my output.
FJO: I’m always eager to find out how people come to their mature compositional identities. Certainly there have been pieces of yours that do not deal with Native American themes, but even those that don’t still seem to have either some kind of political overtone or to tell some kind of magical or mythical story. There’s a story attached to every piece of yours I’ve heard. But was it always that way? I know that back in 1980 you won a BMI student composer award for a chorus and orchestra piece called Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it’s not in your catalog anymore and I couldn’t track it down.
JK: It’s never been performed. It won that BMI prize. I think it needs eight timpanists, four harp players, so it’s one of those “I’m doing this because I can” things. I was 21 when I did it. It was just one of those huge pieces that’ll never get played. To the point though, Rime of the Ancient Mariner was based on the first portion of the Coleridge poem and is a kind of journey.
But even further back than that, to 1970 when I wrote my first piece of music, it came out of considerations of some of the familial themes in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I was 15 years old. We were reading that in high school, and my English teacher, Mary Johnson—who is still alive and with whom I’m still in touch, she lives in Wisconsin—asked me, among other students in the class, to write some musical themes based on some of the familial themes in Steinbeck’s book. And I said to her, “What are you talking about? I don’t write music.” I think she knew I played French horn badly in the high school band and orchestra, and I was in rock and roll bands. I had a Farfisa Combo Compact organ. That was my instrument and I was self taught, but I never thought about being a composer. But she saw something and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Lo and behold, I discovered I had some innate talent. The first pieces came out of literature, so that set a pattern for me in terms of being connected to stories and having pieces tell a story, whether it’s actually using material from literature or poetry, or creating an anti-war piece or a piece about Wounded Knee.
FJO: So even back then, you were having musicians talk while they play?
JK: In 1970, no. The first instance of that would have been 1982 or ’83. By the late ‘80s and very early ’90s that really became a part of my language.
FJO: Now, I’m curious about how that plays out when you’re working with other players. You’ve had your own group, the Mad Coyote, for years and with them you can really direct how you want your music to be. But now you mostly write for other people and other ensembles that might have never dealt with a piece that involves that kind of thing. So, what’s that interaction like? Classical musicians really like having a good tone, having it sound wonderful, and getting the notes right, playing really hard music and showing they can really do it with a good tone. But you throw stumbling blocks in their way. You have to play this really hard passage and you have to stomp at the same time or you have to shout out. I know that when Guy Klucevsek recorded a piece you wrote for him that was originally supposed to be a solo, it wound up being a duo with you because he felt he couldn’t do all the additional stuff you’d asked him to do and also play the notes to the best of his abilities.
JK: Breath and Bone is what you’re talking about. Guy had premiered it as a solo. But when it came time to record it—I loved how honest he was—he said, “Look, at this moment in time, I don’t feel like I can do it justice in the recording studio and get everything right.” Would I do the vocal stuff? So we did it as a duo, which opened up a whole other world because we then did it as a duo many times and it works very well that way. Then as he played the piece, on tour all over the world, he got it in his chops and then subsequently recorded it again as a solo on a Starkland release. So it was a wonderful evolution with his eventually performing all the vocals and everything.
When I work with my own group—of course I know those people—they’ll do anything. So I don’t have to worry about that. But if I’m going to do a residency—one time I went and a group was playing a couple of pieces of mine. They were students—really good students on their instruments, but they had no feel for what it meant to shout or to stomp their feet. It just was really hard for them. They could be very dramatic on the clarinet, but very skittish about going “hey!” or “hah!” or doing anything like that. I found what really worked well is if I were there to demonstrate. That seemed to get them over the hump. And then there are some people who just are never going to be able to do it. I’ve had pianists say, “I love your piece Sunflower Sutra; I would really like to do it, but I just can’t do that other stuff in a way that I think would serve the piece well.” So I’ve had both experiences—I’ve gone and people have just been great at it instantly, and many times I’ve had to coax out of them the drama and the ability for them to use their voices and do other things that are extra-musical.
FJO: A lot of this is really about understanding and conveying character, and bringing a text to life orally. It’s about diction and public speaking, but it is also theater to some extent. Instrumental musicians don’t study acting.
JK: I often call my pieces theatrical music, especially when it has a text. Even pieces that don’t have a text are about something—a current event or an anti-war piece, for instance. I still feel these are theatrical because I want the musicians to not just be playing the notes. I try to encourage them to feel like they’re telling some kind of story.
My piece We Need to Dream All This Again from 1993 is about Crazy Horse and Custer. It’s got some vocal things in it, but there’s no text except at the very beginning, where it says Crazy Horse comes to the hill, and at the end, where it says he is in the hills to pray. Everything else is instrumental. But I’ve encouraged the players to read Bernard Pomerance’s book We Need to Dream All This Again or to read other books about Crazy Horse and Custer, just so they understand where I’m coming from and why I would create this piece. That’s a lot to ask of a performer, because it’s only an 11-minute piece. Musicians get hired and think, “Well, I’m just going to do this piece; I don’t want to read a book.” But sometimes they do it, and it’s actually very helpful for them. I also have voluminous program notes often. The pieces can work without that, but I think it’s really great to let people know why I’m doing what I’m doing.
FJO: So for an 11-minute piece, you ask people not only to rehearse the music but to read an entire book which could take many, many hours of their time. With an orchestra performance, you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals beforehand that are about maybe a half-hour each. Of course, when you’re writing for a chamber ensemble, you can get a bit more of their time, especially if the piece enters their repertoire and if they take it on tour. Still, this is a lot to ask, and certainly reading and comprehending a book that involves a complex history requires a much different skill set than playing an instrument to one’s maximum potential. But it makes me curious: in a completely instrumental performance, can you tell if somebody has absorbed what these pieces are about? How do you know? What is different about the interpretation?
JK: Wow. That’s a great question. I’ve never even thought about that. Subconsciously I’ve probably thought and just assumed when something’s going really well that they’ve gotten at least some part of the non-musical reason for doing the piece. But I can’t prove that.
FJO: I ask this because some musicians who have performed total serial music have acknowledged that they knew absolutely nothing about the way the music was put together and that they never spent time trying to analyze the music—they just played what was on the page in front of them to the best of their abilities and their interpretations were extremely convincing on a musical level. Maybe they don’t get the back story, but does it ultimately matter?
JK: I think it doesn’t necessarily matter, or it matters from person to person. I mean, there are some musicians who perhaps think a certain way about life in general and they focus narrowly on playing the piano, let’s say. And they do it so brilliantly from some sort of dramatic part of themselves that they can’t necessarily explain, and it works. Then there are others that feel they really love to know what the composer was thinking and do some exploratory work. But you can get the same result, I think.
FJO: But of course when you create music that has an attached social message, if somebody’s not getting the message—and I suppose that’s more for the audience than the interpreters—hasn’t the piece failed? Otherwise, why have the message?
JK: Well, my piece The Paha Sapa Give-Back for four drumsets and piano—it’s a really visceral experience live in the concert hall. I think it’s quite possible for an audience person to lose sight of what the message of that piece is and be completely taken up with it on a purely sonic level. To me that would be a success. If that same person also took in the message about returning the Black Hills to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe people, it would be a double success. Now I suppose it’s possible, of course, that there’s an audience member that won’t get any of it, and won’t get it and won’t like it.
FJO: Well, I bring this up because so much of what you’ve done has a political point of view—say, for example, your anti-war pieces. This is a huge generalization which I probably shouldn’t make, but I’m going to go ahead and make it anyway. I think it would be fair to say that a majority of the folks who listen to new music are probably going to be more partial to an anti-war sentiment than a pro-war sentiment. You’re preaching to the choir; most of the folks in the audience already agree with you. How do you reach people who don’t? This was a real dilemma for composers like Hanns Eisler and Cornelius Cardew. At first, they both wrote really avant-garde music. But once they got really deep into political causes they felt they had to abandon that kind of music in order to reach a wider audience so they could get their political message across to more people. So Hanns Eisler went from writing 12-tone music to writing popular songs. Cardew went from post-Cagean conceptualism to stuff that sounds almost like Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it doesn’t sound like you do anything in terms of your compositional language to try to have it reach more people. Is that even an issue for you?
JK: It’s a total nonissue for me. I can only write what I hear in my head and hopefully have it be something that’s coming from a really deep emotional part of my interior soul. So it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be no matter what. We talked earlier about how the new music audience is a pretty small group. New York is maybe more provincial in this way. But there are some places where new music audiences are actually quite large and the demographics are very wide. The group Present Music in Milwaukee, for instance—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of their concerts or had music performed by them, but it’s quite an experience because the audience is 800 to 1000 people per concert without fail, and it’s mostly made up of non-musicians and non-artistic community members from the Milwaukee area. Present Music has accomplished something there that everybody always talks about wanting to do, which is they have a real audience from the community. It’s a fantastic experience. So when I do an anti-war piece at a Present Music concert, it’s not always preaching to the choir. There are a lot of people there that aren’t necessarily going to have the same view point, I don’t think. How would I know? But even if an audience is small and made up entirely of contemporary concert classical music composers, it doesn’t hurt to have a little sonic affirmation of one’s feeling about being against war. So, it’s okay to preach to the choir, I think.
FJO: In terms of getting your pieces out into the world, there’s more to it than it just being what it’s going to be. There are practical considerations, especially when you write for certain forces. You wrote a chamber orchestra piece a few years back which I haven’t yet heard. There are certain conventions that come along with writing for orchestra; how did you deal with that?
JK: Well, it’s a Kitzke orchestral piece in that there’s a lot of extra stuff that themusicians are required to do. There’s no text involved though.
FJO: Of course those extra elements are what make the work yours. But they also might make it a harder piece to program for an orchestra that’s used to playing music by Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. All of a sudden they’re presented with this wacko piece with all of this other stuff.
JK: The piece you’re talking about is the American Composers Orchestra work I wrote called The Fire at 4 a.m., and during the rehearsals, one of the first violinists came up to me and said, “You know, this is great, because it’s really good for us to be asked to do some of this stuff, to step outside of our little safe circles of playing our instruments.” That comment was very gratifying to me. But you raise a good point, like what I mentioned earlier with Sunflower Sutra. The piece requires the pianist to really be an actor as well as a phenomenal pianist. It’s now been played by 12 different pianists around the world, and they’ve done it with different accents which is really interesting. But I’ve also had many comments from pianists who just can’t do it. What I require instrumentalists to do can sometimes be limiting in terms of me having a wider number of performers play the work, so it can be considered a little impractical. But then again, I don’t think about that stuff much, because I just have to write what I need to write and it will go where it goes.
FJO: But there are obviously people that think about that. You have a publisher, Peermusic, so you don’t have to do that part of it, for the most part. But every composer, whether he or she is signed with a third-party publisher or is self-published, has to think of these matters to some extent. These things might be somewhat impractical, but it’s significantly less impractical than a lot of the other music that has been created by so-called maverick composers. There are no special instruments that need to be built for it. There are no new tuning systems or polyrhythms that only a handful of people can actually perform. In fact, quite the reverse—there’s something very immediately physical about your music. It’s very grounded in the earth and very human in a way that I think makes it more practical. And it seems like, at least on a musical level, it has no particular structural axe to grind. It also seems completely intuitive.
JK: Yes, that’s the first place it comes from always. It always will be the reason why I even want to do the piece in the first place. But there are pieces where there are formal things going on that are private to me. I talk about them if someone wants to. I’ve always said a piece often works for me because of what the composer’s thinking about formally. There’s a formal arc. So formal structure is really important to me.
FJO: But you don’t care if an audience hears it.
JK: No, not at all. For instance, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , this 90-minute piece that takes 44 people to perform, tells this incredible story about bison with a huge, beautiful libretto by Kathleen Masterson. But it’s essentially a giant rondo form, where this theme comes back seven times, I think, throughout. So I’m a bit of a formalist.
FJO: I’m glad you’ve brought up Buffalo Nation, because of all the pieces that you describe as being theatrical, this actually is a piece of music theater.
JK: Right. I tend to call Buffalo Nation and pieces like it in my output theatrical music as opposed to musical theater because that connotes a different kind of world that my music doesn’t fit into. But yeah, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) is a complete piece of theater that I would love to see done up entirely with all the theatrical elements—lighting, staging, sets, all that stuff. Right now it’s just been done in a concert version.
FJO: It seems like the most natural place for these kinds of pieces would be on some kind of stage. Yet interestingly you usually engage instrumentalists to speak, sing, and shout, rather than actors or singers. You do have some pieces which involve singers, but less so. I wonder if this is because of an aesthetic preference for untrained voices as opposed to trained ones. Perhaps an overly trained voice would somehow reduce the visceral quality that you want it to have.
JK: Up until the early ‘80s, I was writing vocal music. I think the last vocal piece I wrote was in 1985, a setting of Jack Kerouac’s 171st chorus from his Mexico City Blues for voice and doublebass. That’s an actual song the singer sings. And my vocal music before that was the same. After that I just became less enamored with that very stylized, kind of stiff vocal sound of classically trained singers. And I often couldn’t understand what they were singing. Language is really important to me, so I became very interested in the idea of text being spoken with music. There are many pieces like that from the past which I always loved. It’s a great way for the text to always be understood. As long as I did my job properly and didn’t obliterate someone when they were speaking, the language would always be heard.
I’d become very unsatisfied, as I said, with hearing singers sing music where I couldn’t understand the English language they were singing. Sometimes it’s the composer’s fault; sometimes it’s the singer’s fault. So I just thought I might go a different path and just use people and have them be speaking, whether they’re actors or the musicians speaking. Then when Buffalo Nation came around, talking with my librettist, she really wanted to have some songs, and I said okay. So for the first time in many years, probably 30 years or so, I finally set with a singer singing. In this case it was Kurt Ollman, a wonderful baritone. It was fascinating to me because I applied all my thinking in the past 30 years about what it means to set language and have someone sing it versus to just have someone sing the notes you wrote without really caring what the words were. And I think it worked very well. So when the singer sings the songs in Buffalo Nation, you can actually hear what’s being sung. So I’m happy about that.
FJO: So to really be a provocateur here— you said that early on your teacher had you write music. You played the French horn and you’d played in rock and roll bands, but she got you on this path. And we talked about working with singers and you said that you avoided the classically trained voice because it obscured the words.
JK: I know where this is going.
FJO: You know exactly where this is going. Why didn’t you stay doing rock and roll?
JK: Well, I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky—whom I really like a lot, by the way. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. I just fell in love with that idea. So, you know, I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.
FJO: This is probably why you’re also so attached to the physical act of writing music on paper rather than using a computer and a notation software program to write out your scores.
JK: Right. To this day, I use a mechanical pencil. I used to use ink and vellum and all that. Oh man, I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old. But I use a mechanical pencil and just the sound of the pencil on the paper—I love it. The idea of creating from a blank page to your finished score is still exciting to me. I have a BFA in composition. That’s all I got. I didn’t want to go to graduate school. But I was in school long enough to be introduced to the magnificent music and also the visually stunning scores of George Crumb. That stuff just blew my mind sonically, but also what I saw on paper I thought was just gorgeous. I could feel that guy’s spirit somehow from how he worked on the page. And I said, “That’s for me.”
FJO: Some point before you decided you were able to create music full time, you spent many years working at the American Music Center.
JK: Yeah, I was the curator of the physical collection for ten years. I took care of it. I made sure the boxes were in good shape. I made sure the scores were treated properly. It was fascinating. That was a mountain, a physical monument to creativity. What I liked about the AMC at that time is that there was no quality control. We took everything. It was just fascinating to see how many composers around the country were creating music; you’ll never hear about these people ever.
FJO: I’m curious about the impact that it had on you as a musical creator. You saw these scores of George Crumb and you felt some kind of attachment to him. Then you worked shepherding this collection of work by all these people you never met from all over the country. And this is what you wanted to do, to create artifacts like this. You didn’t want to create something that can come out of a machine. What’s missing when you don’t write out a score by hand?
JK: I always say this is just the way I have to do it. When you hear a piece that’s done entirely on a computer and all that, I’m not going to necessarily be able to tell that it was done that way. Sometimes, when you hear something where you can sort of tell a younger composer got enamored with sequencers, you can sort of hear that, but even that—who knows? I’m not sure there’s a difference.
FJO: Last year, a new CD came out devoted to your music, which was the first one in a very long period, and a CD devoted to your music from the late 1990s was finally re-issued.
JK: I re-released it.
FJO: So now there are two full CDs available of your music, but now we’re in this era where nobody’s sure about the future of CDs.
JK: Well, I still like having the physical product. You can hold it and you can open it. I still miss LPs. There were vast amounts of things you could do with the artwork on a record. But you can still open a CD and you can read about the pieces. I’m not someone who likes sitting in front of a computer screen for very long. In fact, I start to feel physically not well when I do that. So I like having the physical object. And I know a lot of people just get all of their information about everything sitting at a computer.
It’s also great to be able to hand a physical thing to somebody, instead of saying just Google me, or go to something-something dot com. There’s a situation with this record, for instance, where there are three pieces on it. One of them, Winter Count, utilizes a bunch of poetry. One of the poems is by Harold Pinter, and there were permission problems. Because of the way we were able to work out the Harold Pinter permission, Winter Count is not available as a download which is a problem for everybody that likes to get everything by downloading; they might see this online and think it only has two pieces: The Green Automobile and Paha Sapa Give-Back. But there’s this 37-minute string quartet for actor, bass drum, and string quartet that they can’t download. You have to actually buy the record to hear Winter Count. I know everyone’s saying that at some point there won’t be anything physical, but I’m not sure if that will actually ever happen.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this idea of taking all of our experience and un-physicalizing it, since you are so physically grounded. I think we need to make things more physical and not less physical.
JK: I agree. I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
FJO: Yet you’ve chosen to live in New York City, of all places. You’re not from here originally. Even though many people talk about this place being an epicenter for new music, in the 21st century there’s really no center for anything. Stuff is happening everywhere and it’s easier to be connected to it from anywhere than ever before. So I wonder what makes this home for you. Why is New York City the place where you’re able to create your work? Why is this place where you decided to be?
JK: Well, I’ve been here 30 years. It had nothing to do with the arts scene here. Some really good friends of mine had moved to the East Coast, so I said, “Oh, I’m going to make a big change; I want to live in a big city for a while in my life and see what that’s like.” So I came here with a bunch of money I had saved in Milwaukee, having worked at Hal Leonard Publishers. This was in the very early ‘80s. I didn’t really start doing anything musical here until 1990 or so. For about six years, I just ate up New York and what it was. But what I started to realize is that the only way I could be here was I had to leave as much as I could. So one of the ways I’ve been able to live here so long is that I go away a lot. I’ve not spent 12 solid months here ever in 30 years. After a certain point, the places I would go to would be artist colonies and I’ve been to many of them. I love them; it’s where I tend to get my best work done. I do most of my composing at artist colonies now. I can work here in New York, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me. Here you are in my apartment; there’s construction on 215th Street. This is a one way circle here, so every vehicle in this area has to go around this corner. It’s a little too noisy here.