Kevin Puts: Keeping Secrets
Composer Kevin Puts takes pride in keeping secrets, both by being understated in his interactions with people and by never initially giving away all the goods in his music, preferring, as he says, “to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener.” But in this in-depth conversation he reveals some of the secrets about his Metropolitan Opera debut The Hours, his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, his symphony inspired by Björk’s album Vespertine, Contact (his triple concerto for Time for Three which just won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition), and much more.
Composer Kevin Puts takes pride in keeping secrets, both by being understated in his interactions with people and by never initially giving away all the goods in his music, preferring, as he explained to me last month when we chatted for a about an hour over Zoom, “to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener.” Nevertheless, during the course of our conversation he revealed some fascinating secrets about many of his compositions including his latest opera The Hours (which received its world premiere on November 22 at the Metropolitan Opera), his first opera Silent Night (for which he received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music), his Symphony No. 3 (which was inspired by Björk), and Contact (his triple concerto for Time for Three which just won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition).
Puts’s opera The Hours received an extraordinary lavish production that most composers can only dream of. It featured a huge cast headlined by three top operatic stars–Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara–plus a gargantuan chorus which frequently takes center stage. When the production was announced it seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was in the works for five years. It grew directly out of Puts’s previous collaboration with Fleming, Letters From Georgia, a five moment song cycle based on letters that the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After Fleming announced she was no longer focusing on standard operatic repertoire and wanted to devote her energies to singing new roles, Puts casually asked her if she’d be amenable to singing in an opera if he wrote one for her. Within weeks she suggested an opera based on The Hours, a complex narrative that interweaves stories of women in three different time periods which had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as well as a successful Hollywood film. Puts, who had read the book and saw the movie and loved them both, said that he instantly “could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film.” Soon thereafter she mentioned the idea to Peter Gelb who was immediately excited about a work that could star three major box office draws. Curiously, these three women don’t actually sing together until the very end of the opera. Even though the entire opera is building toward that moment, Puts admitted that he didn’t compose that material until very late in the game. As he explained, “What I used to do is I would compose where I’m going before I got there, and actually that’s something I don’t do anymore. … Getting there was something I had to earn as a composer.”
Gelb was amenable to Fleming’s suggestion of commissioning Kevin Puts after listening to a recording of Puts’s first opera Silent Night, a work which also juxtaposing three different story lines involving groups of soldiers from Scotland, France, and Germany who come to a brief truce in 1914 during First World War. Based on the screenplay for the multilingual film Joyeux Noël which in turn was based on real life events, it was an ideal opportunity for Puts to demonstrate his skills in setting words in multiple languages and, since one of the German soldiers is an operatic tenor, it also gave Puts an opportunity to show off his ability to compose music that evokes the lush sound world of late Romantic operas.
The other two operas that Puts has composed thus far are based on The Manchurian Candidate, a fascinating political thriller written in 1959 that has been adapted twice for the screen and seems extremely relevant to our current zeitgeist, and Elizabeth Cree based on a Victorian-themed whodunit by Peter Ackroyd, which also allowed Puts to create music that enhances the impact of surprise through introducing new sonic elements. While Puts’s compositional approach is well suited to the operatic stage, it is also how he constructs his extremely effective concertos and symphonies which for him can also be narrative despite being abstract instrumental works. In fact, his first two symphonies were both cast in a single movement so that they would have the same impact as a motion picture which is a continuous experience from start to finish.
“As has been noted many times, there’s a cinematic quality to my music,” Puts acknowledged. “In fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. I think with those single-movement pieces, I thought, ‘I want to make an unbroken narrative arc like a film.’ Why should we have to stop?”
But Puts changed his approach with his Third Symphony, a three movement work that was inspired by hearing Björk’s 2001 album Vespertine although it does not use any of her music and is completely original. He got the idea for the piece while he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an art historian also in residence there was watching a music video of Björk on television.
“I’m not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music,” he admitted. “But this is gorgeous! So beautiful timbrally, gorgeous string textures and choral textures. And I really liked the shapes of her voice, the melodic quality of her singing in relation to the oddness and the transparency and the fragility of her singing, and sometimes power as well in relation to this sonic world around her. So I want to do something with it. I want to react to this in my own way. I was interested in making this kind of swirling sound world circling around the melodic ideas of the piece and to have the melodic ideas just in some sense be an imitation of her vocal style, and that’s really all it is. I wasn’t really interested in using melodies. … More just reacting to the sound world of that album.”
Puts just received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Contact, a triple concerto he wrote for Time for Three, a string trio that blurs the lines between classical music, Americana, and pop. “Most of the writing of the concerto for Time for Three was done before we went into isolation,” he recalled. “Then we just continued to work on it. We edited, we revised, we tried things out, we added and subtracted and I reorchestrated quite a bit.”
But despite being composed for a group whose usual fare is rooted in the here and now, Puts took the group on a very different musical journey even though it could not been conceived in any other time but in our own.
As he explained, “You probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said, ‘I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living.’ I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. They’re such a huge part of who I am. They’re the things that really excite me, and often, the very, very simple things, as you can hear in the music … It’s just truly what I find most exciting about the music I love, these simple, beautiful moments that probably end up being almost nothing on the page, but what they do to me emotionally is fantastic.”
Not worrying about whether your music fits in with the current moment and being true to who you are is also the advice he gives other composers, both as a composition teacher at the Peabody Institute and as the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.
“I just feel like what’s going on right now in this moment, of course you should be open to whatever’s going on, the zeitgeist, but I would just look at all of music that you’ve heard, that meant something to you from the very beginning, and feel like it’s okay to incorporate all of that and to sort of build a voice from all of it and have that be the part of you that remains inviolate to all these pressures that exist right now in the world, all the transparency that exists through social media, that feels like there’s no private space now. I would make your music your private space and the place you can do the things you believe fervently in and that you’re most emotionally connected to. That’s certainly been my approach to things over the how many years I’ve been doing this.”
I could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film.
When someone asks me to write a five-minute piece, I don't know what to do. I need to have more time to set things up and let them go where they have to go.
I want the audience to understand. .... I actually don't want the audience to be confused. I want them to be with me.
Performers, like the ones I've written concertos for, expect things to arrive in a satisfying way. They're not so interested in enigmatic things. They're used to music that goes to a place successfully and effectively and lets them do what they are used to doing on their instruments and gives the entire structure a satisfying arc and a satisfying shape.
We're in an age where timbre is such an area of exploration for so many of my contemporaries. I'm just dazzled by these scores and dazzled by what they do and the kind of care given to the beginning, the middle, and end of every note and the kinds of effects that are experimented with. For some reason I just can't. Well, you probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said "I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living." I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. ... They're the things that really excite me.
Over the years I've gotten better at finding really practical ways to do very complex things with the orchestra.
Even thinking about my four symphonies, it feels like I've tried to do something significant. But I didn't just know what else to call an orchestra piece that's about 25 minutes long.
There's a cinematic quality to my music and in fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. ... We were very excited that The Hours, the HD broadcast, was like #8 in the box office gross, so I feel like that's the closest I've come to film composing.
Even though the quality of the music isn't Mozart, Mozart is always in the back of my mind. ... I feel like Mozart is my model for everything in a certain way.
I'm not someone who likes to pretend about my music or twist words about it either.
I'm not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music.
My colleagues are very respectful, we all are of each other, and we're very polite to one another, but whether or not my colleagues like my music is not of any importance to me.
I'm really only interested in listeners, or the public, whoever that is, engaging with my music on its own. I'm not interested in telling my story a whole lot or having a big internet presence.
Read the Full Transcript
Kevin Puts: Keeping Secrets
Kevin Puts in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
January 11, 2023 at 1:00 P.M.
Transcribed by Michelle Hromin
Frank J. Oteri: I’m going to start this conversation in perhaps a strange place. But I think it’s rather apt to describe what I’ve certainly been feeling about your music and about you and what makes it so unique: I find that you as a person and as a composer are really good at keeping secrets.
Kevin Puts: [heavy laughter]
Frank J. Oteri: It’s a very unusual quality in this day and era where we overshare everything on social media.
Kevin Puts: I am so intrigued. Let’s go in this direction; this is really interesting.
Frank J. Oteri: Well, the reason I say this is I know you’ve had a number of things brewing these last few years, but I was really very happily surprised when I saw the announcement that The Metropolitan Opera was going to give the world premiere of an opera of yours. It seemed to come out of nowhere, in a really kind of wonderful way. Obviously, it didn’t, because these things evolve very slowly over time. Even now that the Met is doing significantly more music by living composers, it’s still a rarity for them to actually premiere a new work, so, it’s very exciting. And I know you’ve told the story countless times, but to sort of unpack the surprise, I think it would be really interesting to hear the story of how that came to be.
Kevin Puts: It really came about through my relationship with Renée Fleming, which started because we are both alumni of the Eastman School of Music. Eastman had planned on commissioning a piece for their orchestra to play in New York on a tour. And they wanted to commission me. And they wanted to have one of their alumni performers perform it. And so, they asked Renée, they asked me, and then, we got together and talked about what it might be, and arrived at a piece about Georgia O’Keeffe, which came from my finding some of O’Keeffe’s letters. She wrote thousands of letters to Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and friend and lifelong partner. Well, not lifelong because he died in the forties. But they wrote beautiful, passionate, and really intriguing letters to one another. So I got the rights to them from Yale University and extracted some texts and wrote a piece for her in five movements called Letters From Georgia and she liked it. It was clearly a really good collaboration. She liked what I was writing for her voice. Of course, I loved the way she was singing it. So she asked me to expand it into a bigger piece which included a baritone part for Rod Gilfry and that went to a lot of orchestras around the country. At a reception somewhere–I think it was in Rochester, this was around the time that there was this article in the Times about “Renée’s not doing any more of these operas that she’s been famous for doing”–I said, “If I wrote an opera, would you be interested in being in it?” She was immediately really enthusiastic and within weeks we started talked about possible subjects, and she brought up The Hours. It had been something that she and her assistant Paul Batsel had been talking about among other possibilities and I just thought immediately that it was so interesting from an operatic perspective. I could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film. They overlap; the duets and trios eventually would happen. These three characters live in different time periods; once they’re introduced you can begin to blur the lines between those worlds. I love the film, I love the book. I knew both of them, and I just felt like I could summon the atmosphere for the piece. And she brought it to the Met, she brought it to Peter Gelb, and he was immediately excited about it and what it could be, as a piece for three major opera stars. I had had enough opera experience. He listened to Silent Night, my first opera, and felt good enough about it to commission me. So that’s where it started, about five years ago, I think.
Frank J. Oteri: Now, you and Renée both went to Eastman – did you overlap at all? Did you know her back then?
Kevin Puts: No, I didn’t! I think she was there for only a couple of years. It was before I was there. We’re a little over 10 years apart in age. I think she spent a couple of years there, but then moved on. I knew who she was, of course, I mean, everyone knew who she was. Eastman was a really special place for me. I had an incredible time there as an undergrad and also during my doctorate. I thought and I still think it’s just an incredible institution, a great place to learn about music.
Frank J. Oteri: Getting back to this whole notion of surprise and secrets, I think it translates into your music in that you’re able to create really effective narratives both in instrumental pieces and in operatic pieces by not giving away all the goods immediately, by having things develop over time so that when you get to the end of something, whether you’re performing it or just listening to it, you really feel that you’ve experienced something really significant.
Kevin Puts: I can’t thank you enough. It’s rare that I talk about the actual content of my music in interviews and, believe it or not, especially when it comes to opera, it’s about all of these other things, the character development, et cetera, but for me, what you’re describing is the single most important motivating factor, not only in my music, but to write music. To set these moments up and, as you said, to save something, to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener who’s been tracking the things that’ve been happening, for it to make sense when the idea achieves fruition, in whatever direction it’s going. These are the things I love about music. This is the thing I love most about music, especially large forms, which is why I think I do better with those forms. When someone asks me to write a five-minute piece, I don’t know what to do. I need to have more time to set things up and let them go where they have to go. But I think there are other composers who do the opposite so well. You’re immediately dazzled. It could be a three-minute span. But that kind of development and planting of seeds that I want to grow, I want the audience to understand. That’s another part that I would add. I actually don’t want the audience to be confused. I want them to be with me. I’m not sure that’s maybe the case with every composer, or maybe there are varying degrees of it, but I very much want it to be like “Okay, we got this; where are we going to go with it?” So I think that’s a very interesting observation and it’s very gratifying that you pointed it out.
Frank J. Oteri: I do think it’s what makes it so appealing to soloists because soloists get to evolve during the process of performing the piece whether it’s an opera, going through this narrative arc with somebody, or even a concertante work for soloist and orchestra, and you’ve certainly written tons of these. You’ve had really significant advocates; when they perform this music, they go through a process of transformation which is something they do in front of an audience and it shines light on them as interpretive musicians, I think, in a way that really enhances the performative aspect of this music.
Kevin Puts: Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t actually discussed that aspect of the music with the performers and conductors that I work with. I hope it’s something that appeals to them, the idea that they start somewhere and go somewhere, and even if it’s a certain amount of virtuosity that is held in reserve or a kind of lyricism or a kind of emotional depth that has to be earned, that’s something that I continue to work on: telling the story with those elements and having them arrive at the right place. There have been times where I think I haven’t gotten it right. I remember one of those early summers at Cabrillo. Aaron Kernis and I were on the same concert, and I had an early version of my 3rd symphony, and he was saying, you know, in a very kind of not professorial but nurturing sort of supportive way, that I hadn’t quite earned the end of the piece. It was satisfying, but there needs to be more before it gets there, and you know, I think he was right, too. It’s one of those things where I knew something was not quite right. What I used to do is I would compose where I’m going before I got there, and actually that’s something I don’t do anymore. I don’t want to rush the process of getting there compositionally, and also I don’t know where the piece is going to need to go before I get there. For example, the trio at the end of The Hours, that was not something that I thought “I can’t wait to get to this moment; I’m going to compose it and find my way there!” I didn’t actually know how it would operate musically. I didn’t know the content of it exactly except that we wanted the three stars on the stage singing at the same time, really for the first time, the qualities of their voices blending for the first time. But getting there was something I had to earn as a composer.
Frank J. Oteri: That’s amazing to me. I thought you had composed it first and built toward it because that trio felt so inevitable.
Kevin Puts: Yeah, thank you. It did, because in some ways you have to just deal with the environment where you are. So, in other words, after maybe two and a half hours of music, where haven’t I been yet? When I got there, I began that moment with the orchestra playing a sort of pulse. You heard so much of that in the opera. There’s so much clock-like pulsing going on. I thought the thing to do was to not have that at all, to have the orchestra as a sort of resonating chamber for the three singers and just let them sculpt the sound, and the orchestra’s just there to echo the harmony that they’re singing. That for me felt like the thing I hadn’t quite done yet. That’s another thing I find satisfying about composing: I have to deal with where I am at the moment, react to not just the immediate context, but the entire context and find the solution. That’s the case with that opera.
Frank J. Oteri: It’s interesting that you say you’ve never talked to musicians about this, but they inherently get it, certainly, because there’ve been lots of really effective performances of your music. You can feel their transformation as well as the music’s transformation, both in the operas and in orchestra and chamber pieces as well. So I’m curious, I know that early on you were also a performer, you were active as a pianist. I’m wondering if part of that sensitivity to interpreters comes from the fact that’s a role that you had had.
Kevin Puts: Yeah, that could be. I feel the less that I perform, the further away I get from that sensitivity to that experience. You know, being on the stage for 30 minutes and getting to this moment, two minutes from the end, what does that feel like? I feel like to some extent I lost a little of that just because I’ve decided to focus almost entirely on composing. I just feel like being the jack of all trades is not something I really have time to do with the rest of my life. I think the performers I work with are mostly not new music performers. Right now I’m writing a piece for Joshua Bell. As I’m presenting him this piece with orchestra, he’s going to be thinking of Prokofiev and Beethoven, Brahms, and on some level comparing the experience of it and the success of it and the craft of it, if it’s there, to those composers. It puts me under pressure, but I think that’s something that I like.
Performers, like the ones I’ve written concertos for, expect things to arrive in a satisfying way. They’re not so interested in enigmatic things. They’re used to music that goes to a place successfully and effectively and lets them do what they are used to doing on their instruments and gives the entire structure a satisfying arc and a satisfying shape. It’d be very different if I were commissioned by different people, you know. If Claire Chase asked me to write her a piece, or Ensemble Modern, which’ll never happen, but I think I would feel like I’m in a different space, you know? I could do different things and I would probably do those things, but the work that I have, a lot of it comes from performers who mostly do the standard repertoire.
Frank J. Oteri: Interesting. So it’s tailor-made. I’m curious, the piano concerto that you played at Cabrillo which you wrote a very, very personal, very poignant essay about for NewMusicBox many, many years ago. I assume you wrote that for yourself?
Kevin Puts: I didn’t actually; I wrote that for Jeffrey Kahane. He premiered with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Then I played it, and it hasn’t been played a whole lot. I might revisit it and do some revisions. I’d like to record it, actually. That was actually an incredible experience, a kind of harrowing experience as well as I wrote in that essay you were describing. It was a time that I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot. We had a very young baby. [laughs] I had this idea that I could, from memory, play my piano concerto with Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival, and it had gone fine, but suddenly in the performance I didn’t know where I was. I completely lost track of where I was in the 3rd movement, not something I had experienced in rehearsals or practicing but, because I don’t perform a lot or I hadn’t at the time performed a lot, I wasn’t used to that kind of thing. So then I just kind of stopped and asked if we could start the movement over, and I think it was kind of a surprise to Marin. [laughs] It probably doesn’t happen to her very often, or if ever. That was really an experience, to have to play my own piece like that and to experience my music as a performer. I think it actually was something that had an impact on the concertos I wrote thereafter.
Frank J. Oteri: I LOVE the 3rd movement.
Kevin Puts: Oh, thank you!
Frank J. Oteri: The thing that I find so stunning about that movement is how you just ever-so briefly in the beginning use prepared piano. It’s there, very briefly, it’s not like the centerpiece or anything, but it’s a flavor and it’s extremely effective because it suddenly happens, it’s like “oh, there’s that” and then it goes into something else.
Kevin Puts: [laughs] Yeah, and then I go back to Ravel, Prokofiev. That’s as out there as I get. That’s not entirely true, but we’re in an age where timbre is such an area of exploration for so many of my contemporaries. I’m just dazzled by these scores and dazzled by what they do and the kind of care given to the beginning, the middle, and end of every note and the kinds of effects that are experimented with. For some reason I just can’t. Well, you probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said “I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living.” I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. They’re such a huge part of who I am. They’re the things that really excite me, and often, the very, very simple things, as you can hear in the music, but I sort of can’t escape it, you know? It’s just truly what I find most exciting about the music I love, these simple, beautiful moments that probably end up being almost nothing on the page, but what they do to me emotionally is fantastic.
Frank J. Oteri: Well, you’re being very self-effacing with this because I thought after walking out of a performance of The Hours that this is an opera that could only be written now. It was very much a piece of our time and it sounded like a piece of our time, you know, the kinds of juxtapositions, the kinds of overlapping of different styles, of different elements, and I’m also thinking of the concerto that you recently wrote for Time for Three. They’re a group that’s pretty much associated with Americana and what you did doesn’t sound like what they normally do but it was an element of it and it was completely idiomatic to what they do and I think you took them on a journey, taking them to somewhere else, where they’ve never gone before, but once again, it’s very much of this time.
Kevin Puts: That is cool to hear. Actually, that concerto called Contact and The Hours were written at the same time which is something I’ve not done much in the past. I usually do a piece and I think about only that piece and then I move on. But these juxtapositions, that’s another thing. It doesn’t occur so much in my concert music, but in opera really seems to happen. People have different opinions about its validity, whether or not it leads to a recognizable voice, and it really isn’t of so much interest to me. I’m more interested in telling the story in the most effective way I can. I needed those really stark juxtapositions of different vocabularies to tell that story in the most effective way. You know, you’re dealing with three women who are living in different time periods, different countries, different situations, you know, and I needed there to be real delineations between them. The other thing is, these decisions composers make, as you know Frank, we do what excites us as composers, not just what needs to happen for this piece, what needs to happen for The Hours. It’s more like “What do I want to do? What would be fun to try and make work?” And for me a lot of that is sometimes having a very stark seam between two scenes and sometimes having it be utterly seamless. Can you make the audience not really understand how we got to where they are? Both of those things I find really exciting as I’m working in my little office upstairs. The other thing I found really exciting about writing The Hours was the use of the chorus and how they could interact with the principals and the orchestra, sort of just contrapuntally. It’s fine to write an aria [laughs], you know, that’s interesting, but what’s even better is if it could be a duet, and if the duet could be sung between two characters who are living 40 years apart and also if the chorus can be singing the things they’re thinking in their heads at the same time so they have this sort of 3-part lyrical counterpoint. From a composer’s perspective, that had me really interested in writing this opera during a very uninspiring period where we’re all isolated and not knowing when live performance might happen again.
Frank J. Oteri: Yeah, that’s the aspect we haven’t gotten to yet is that both of those pieces, you know, the concerto for Time for Three and The Hours were created during the pandemic and I think in some ways, I don’t hear it in the Time for Three concerto, maybe I need to focus on it more, but certainly in The Hours where there’s a narrative story, there is definitely the story about loss and moving on, but also stasis, and dealing with that and that is very much the present moment.
Kevin Puts: Actually, come to think of it, most of the writing of the concerto for Time for Three was done before we went into isolation, and then we just continued to work on it. We edited, we revised, we tried things out, we added and subtracted and I reorchestrated quite a bit. I’m too close to the opera. One part of writing an opera for The Met is that when it’s over, you want to take a break from it, it’s just so all-encompassing. It’s exhausting. It was so exciting, but also an emotional rollercoaster from the time rehearsals started, really the last several years, composing the entire piece and leading up to the premiere. I think only in ten years or so will I really understand the way the pandemic affected the composing of that piece. There were certainly times, it was really hard to compose because everybody was home and my son was doing remote school and I need privacy to compose. It was sometimes good getting up early in the morning, but I guess the other part of things is that once I started it, and I knew it was going in the direction I wanted and I established, more or less, the kinds of music for the three characters, then, in some sense, the piece kind of writes itself. I mean, it doesn’t write itself, of course it doesn’t, it’s tons of tons of work and revision and considering and reconsidering, but the hardest thing for me I think is just deciding on the material, and then the development of it feels logical after that.
Frank J. Oteri: We haven’t really talked about a thing that I feel really is a key part of your music, its sensitivity in its orchestration, how carefully orchestrated it is, and I want to talk a bit about the symphonies and how the orchestra is used in an opera. I’m wondering, how ingrained orchestration is to you in your thinking as you’re composing. Are you one of these people that jots down ideas in short score or piano score and then orchestrates or does it come fully-formed with the orchestration?
Kevin Puts: Yeah, that’s a massive topic. The things you mention are the most important things to me as a composer–orchestration. I was a student of Jacob Druckman at Yale and I remember him saying that he always just wanted to hurry up and finish the sketch, the “short score” so he could orchestrate because really, for him, it’s just like being in a candy store and for me it’s the same thing. I absolutely love the process of orchestrating and it’s about half of the process for me to write an opera. So I begin with a piano reduction because what I’ve found is that opera companies desperately need a piano reduction. This is the way, first, that people hear of the piece is in workshops and rehearsals, so the piano part has to actually work as a piano part. It has to sound effective. So the challenge is doing that and also knowing things exactly but almost exactly what I’m going to do with the orchestration when it comes to that. But there are always little questions that are not answered and those are the things that are just so fascinating for me about the process of orchestrating, which for The Hours took over a year. I think about the symphonies I’ve written and those earlier orchestra pieces, orchestration was important to me back then as it is now, but I think over the years I’ve just gotten better at finding really practical ways to do very complex things with the orchestra. That’s actually something that I remember my other mentor at Yale, Martin Bresnick, would always say about Druckman’s music: “You know, he has this way of making the most complex structures and complex textures with things happening, but you look at each part, you look at the Trumpet 2 part and it’s the easiest thing in the world.” I absolutely love that, you know? The fact that I can do something for the violins, for the oboes, for the vibraphone player, for the harpist, that is completely manageable on their instrument in the week that they have to learn this piece and perform it. But the composite is what it is. I don’t find that a burden. I find it absolutely fascinating to find ways. Some really difficult gesture that I have swooping up and down–can I do what Stravinsky did and make that totally idiomatic for the instruments involved? So it’s a huge part of the process and, for opera as well, and sometimes I feel in the opera, things get buried a little bit in the pit. It’s a different feel entirely, and so I feel like, for example, John Adams, he approaches opera orchestration in a very different way from the orchestration of his orchestral pieces, and very smartly so because some of the details can get lost or some of subtle details in orchestration, or just not matter as much because they just almost get submerged in opera. But for any piece I write that involves an orchestra, these days I start with a piano reduction, so for example Contact, the piece I’m doing right now for Josh Bell, or Renée Fleming’s song cycles, all begins with piano. Sometimes I add a staff if there’s something I can’t quite fit in two hands, but I always have explicit notes to myself: harp, string pizzicato, brass mutes, or even something simple like brass/woodwinds, just to know I’m not thinking strings, but usually when I get there, I remember to do it anyway because the ideas spring from my imagination of what will happen in the orchestra. That wasn’t really the case so much when I started writing orchestra pieces. I would play the piano and then improvise the ideas on the piano and not have a super clear idea of how that would translate to orchestra. But these days, when I play something on the piano, I’m pretty sure of how I will translate that to orchestra.
Frank J. Oteri: Interesting, it sounds like it’s time for you to write your 5th Symphony. [laughs]
Kevin Puts: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t know, it’s so arrogant, “A symphony, I’m going to write a symphony.” Even thinking about my four symphonies, it feels like I’ve tried to do something significant. But I didn’t just know what else to call an orchestra piece that’s about 25 minutes long. I think at the time I thought, well my first one was my dissertation at Eastman, “Oh, I’m going to write an important orchestra piece.” After Chris Rouse made me listen to 100 symphonies from all over the world as part of my lessons, I thought I would try my hand at it, and I had it planned that I was going to write shorter symphonies that are one-movement long and eventually connect them all into a massive symphony, but it just didn’t happen and I couldn’t stay with it.
Frank J. Oteri: Well, the first two were single movements and that’s definitely–when you talk about contemporary, there’ve certainly been antecedents for it, you know, Samuel Barber wrote a really great single-movement First Symphony, there’s the Sibelius even before that, the 7th, but writing single-movement symphonies is really a more contemporary kind of approach rather than parsing it, rather than falling into the cliche of fast, slow, dance like, even faster, and, in a way, your whole idea of wanting to create surprise and create moments, if you already give people a road map of what it’s going to be, you’re already giving away the goods, whereas if you have a single movement, it can go anywhere you want it to go.
Kevin Puts: Again, excellent point. As has been noted many times, there’s a cinematic quality to my music and in fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. I think with those single-movement pieces, I thought, “I want to make an unbroken narrative arc like a film.” Why should we have to stop? I kind of changed my tune on that a little. In fact, I just finished a Concerto for Orchestra we’re premiering in St. Louis next week and it’s seven movements. There are a couple of those that are attacca, but there is something I also do like about the chapter. I know you know this, it’s a relief to stop and say, okay, I can start something entirely different. These days I’m not sure where I am about that. Certainly with opera, it has to feel like at least 2 halves that are unbroken, maybe 3. At the time I just felt there was no reason to stop. I should be able to continue this moment and then hold the audience with me throughout a span of 25 minutes, if I do it right, and so that was the motivation for that.
Kevin Puts: Elizabeth Cree is 90 minutes. But that was something that [librettist] Mark Campbell and I, that was our decision from the beginning. This is a thriller; we do not want to stop. Some opera companies want to. They want to sell drinks and [laughs], I don’t know what else they do, t-shirts? But it’s the first thing you think about, you know, when you write an opera: where’s the act break in this story? It has to make sense. It has to make people come back and hear the second half, so it’s a necessity I suppose. Movies used to even have a break [laughs] and they probably still should.
Frank J. Oteri: And you’ve not done a film score. Is that something that you’d be interested in?
Kevin Puts: No. I really want to. I’m hoping for that in the next few years. We were very excited that The Hours, the HD broadcast, was like #8 in the box office gross [laughs], so I feel like that’s the closest I’ve come to film composing. It was in theaters and a lot of people went to see it which was exciting.
Frank J. Oteri: Wow. Getting back to Elizabeth Cree, I don’t want to give away the goods on this because it is a mystery, it is a who-done-it; it’s rather startling. I don’t want to ruin it for people who maybe haven’t heard or seen it yet, and hopefully there’ll be many more opportunities for them to do so in the future. But I’m curious because you’re sort of at the edge of your seat through the whole thing, trying to figure out who this serial killer is. How did that shape the kinds of musical decisions you had in terms of resolving things, in terms of shaping music? I feel like I’m not completely giving away the goods here, it doesn’t completely resolve, there is a lot of ambiguity to it which I think is part of its power. But once again, that’s a musical thing, and I felt it was enhanced by that music, but I wasn’t quite sure how you were doing it, so I’m curious how you approached it.
Kevin Puts: Well, as far as the moment when you find out what’s been going on, [clicks tongue] you know, I guess I probably was reserving something for the kind of most frenetic aria to happen at the end for Elizabeth. That piece is actually – it’s interesting, you know, I think – maybe now I’m thinking all my operas are the same, just talking to you today, Frank. Silent Night has three armies [laughs] and you cycle between the French, now it’s the Germans, or now it’s the Scottish. The Hours has these three time periods. And Elizabeth Cree actually does a similar thing in that there are very specific types of music that are associated with the situation. So there’s The British Library: The Reading Room, and it has its own sort of tranquil setting. Then there’s the music of Inspector Kildare who’s trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing. And then there’s the courtroom music. It just keeps kind of cycling through those and of course, I want the audience to know, “Okay, we’re back to this one again.” Each time it returns it goes a little further. I add more in the inspector scenes. I add more to the witnesses, the chorus basically gets bigger as each repetition of that scene occurs. So the growth happens cyclically I suppose. But as far as that moment when Elizabeth reveals what’s been happening, I can’t remember if when I got there I thought, “I’ve gotta do something I haven’t done yet for Elizabeth’s character” or if it was sort of always kind of a card I hadn’t played yet, or, in my mind that I was saving for that moment for her to make this reveal. And then the coda of the piece was also a new thing, something that I hadn’t gone to yet musically. Somehow it reminds me of Mozart. Even though the quality of the music isn’t Mozart, Mozart is always in the back of my mind. This is a going off on a little bit of a tangent, but I think that if Mozart were around today, he would do a similar thing, a sort of similar polystylistic thing where he would draw from all these different kinds of music, which he kind of did. He would react to the music he heard in Italy or if he was in Prague or London or, of course, the Turkish stuff going on, there’s a lot more polystylism. And then there’s of course Baroque contrapuntal learned style that he was also referring to, so I feel like Mozart is my model for everything in a certain way.
Frank J. Oteri: As long as we’re talking Mozart, it reminds me of two different things. It reminds me of years ago when I did one of these talks with Joan Tower, she said that she really felt that there were two kinds of composers: there were instrumental composers and there were vocal composers and rare was somebody who felt equally comfortable doing both, explaining about herself that she’s an instrumental composer, that she wasn’t really interested in writing vocal music. She’s written very, very little and it’s not something she wants to do. But we agreed the rare example is Mozart, who was equally fluent as an operatic composer and a composer of symphonies and piano concertos, string quartets, and what have you. You are equally comfortable in both worlds, and in a way they sort of inform each other. It’s interesting learning that the Time for Three Concerto and The Hours sort of overlap in the composition because I feel like the two things feed off of each other. The way that there’s always a narrative sense in the instrumental pieces even if there isn’t a word-oriented narrative, even if it’s an abstract musical work. And, as you mentioned, orchestration is so significant in your operas in the way it is in your instrumental music as well, so the same attention to detail in the instrumental lines. But there’s another thing. Your Flute Concerto, where you’re directly referencing Mozart. I’ll tell you a funny thing about my listening to this piece the first time I heard it: I heard it before I read your program note and I’m really glad that I did because I’m listening and I heard something and I’m like “That’s sort of vaguely sounds like the Mozart Piano Concerto 21 in C Major.” And then all of a sudden, it’s there! It comes out, you know, the full on thing and, had I read the program note, I would have been waiting for it, so the surprise would have been gone. It was just very effective the way that was done.
Kevin Puts: Well, the connection between opera and concertos is something that often is talked about and referenced to Mozart, that those piano concertos he wrote, which are among my favorite pieces in the world, are very operatic. The piano operates like a singer, like singing an aria. In similar ways, with opera, you’re often dealing with the one against the group, the one reacting to the group, so that the solo voice, which is unaided and undoubled, in relation to a group of people playing, surrounding it. And it’s the same with a concert group. It’s actually very challenging. It seems like all I do these days is write concertos and operas. When I had to begin this new Concerto for Orchestra it was actually very difficult because I couldn’t use that model. Setting up the entrance of a person. What does that voice sing as an independent voice against a group of voices, and what’s the dialogue like between the orchestra and the soloist? Does the soloist ever accompany the orchestra and sort of get embedded as accompanist and then emerge again as a soloist as it happens so gorgeously especially in those piano concertos by Mozart? I think John Adams is a composer who is equally comfortable writing opera, and Benjamin Britten. I guess maybe he’s mostly known for his operas. But the instrumental pieces, for orchestras and chamber ensembles, they’re just amazing pieces, so brilliantly crafted.
Frank J. Oteri: And Barber, actually.
Kevin Puts: And Barber, yeah.
Frank J. Oteri: Although sadly, his second opera is one of the great tragedies.
Kevin Puts: Yeah.
Frank J. Oteri: But certainly, Vanessa remains one of the key works.
Kevin Puts: You know, it’s hard to say. These things when they arrive on the scene, maybe the circumstances aren’t right, but then over time, people reconsider their feelings. Nixon in China wasn’t so well received and now when you think of American opera, that’s certainly one of the most important.
Frank J. Oteri: There was an article. Alex Ross said, “Whatever happened to Nixon in China?” And then all of a sudden, people started listening again, and then all of a sudden there were productions everywhere. So, yeah, that’s an exciting thing witnessing that transformation happen. But to take it back to you, another opera, there’s something that I’m hoping there’s a similar transformation just because as a listener, I always want to hear the thing I haven’t heard, and I’ve never heard the The Manchurian Candidate. That’s the only one of your 4 operas that I’ve yet to hear and it’s so timely because of its topic. They’re fictitious characters from this amazing Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury movie, but it’s all about democracy being compromised, this plot to destroy democracy and that seems to be what’s happening all around us here in the U.S., and elsewhere in the world, so it seems very much a work for this zeitgeist.
Kevin Puts: That is true. I’m not someone who likes to pretend about my music or twist words about it either. I just think that the problems with that opera–that I went into the composing of it sort of glibly, sort of “Oh, I wrote my first opera, so I’m just going to do the same kind of thing with The Manchurian Candidate.” It’s a different kind of piece entirely. It’s a thriller. It’s about suspense. And so adopting the same kind of polystylistic approach doesn’t entirely work. I mean, it takes the audience out of that focus. I think it contains some of the best music that I have written, but I would like to [laughs] revisit it at some point. It always seems I have these plans to do things like this, but we just get busy with other projects. Of course, the expectation after Silent Night was pretty great. It was pretty hard to live up to those expectations, but I’d like to tweak some things and see what production might emerge from that.
Frank J. Oteri: It would be wonderful to see.
Kevin Puts: Yeah, I know. Sadly, we are in the time where it’s just a fight, isn’t it, to maintain the things that we value in our society; it’s really scary.
Frank J. Oteri: With the Flute Concerto, we talked about the way you used Mozart’s music and transformed it and made it your own. I’m thinking of what you did going even further along those lines, being inspired by other music but not actually using it in your 3rd and 4th symphonies. Now, your 3rd Symphony was inspired by an album by Björk but [laughs] there are no Björk tunes in the symphony! And, even further, your 4th Symphony was inspired and originally, you were going to use music from Native American peoples of the territory around San Juan Bautista where the premiere took place, this incredible land. It’s funny, when I think of that place, I always think of Vertigo.
Kevin Puts: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Frank J. Oteri: That scene – that’s the music that’s glued in my head.
Kevin Puts: [laughs] Mine too.
Frank J. Oteri: You wound up not using the Native American music because you were told not to because of the sensitivities. How do you reference other music without using it, and what is your process for doing that? I’m curious.
Kevin Puts: Well in the case of the 3rd Symphony which I call “Vespertine”, that’s the subtitle of the piece, it began as a shorter piece, which I think I described earlier, the piece that Aaron Kernis was commenting on at Cabrillo. But then I decided to expand it a little and make it into a full-fledged symphony. I’m not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music. So I was at the Academy in Rome, living there as a fellow, whatever year that was, 2001 I guess, and the TV was on, some kind of MTV in Italy, whatever that is. Is there still MTV? [laughs] There used to be. Anyway, my friend who was an art historian, was just hanging out and I said, “Oh, what is that? I love that.” There was this music video. And I said what is that and she was like, “It’s Björk. Do you not know Björk’s music?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve heard of her, but this is gorgeous.” So beautiful timbrally, gorgeous string textures and choral textures. And I really liked the shapes of her voice, the melodic quality of her singing in relation to the oddness and the transparency and the fragility of her singing, and sometimes power as well in relation to this sonic world around her. So I want to do something with it. I want to react to this in my own way. I was interested in making this kind of swirling sound world circling around the melodic ideas of the piece and to have the melodic ideas just in some sense be an imitation of her vocal style, and that’s really all it is. I wasn’t really interested in using melodies, for example, you know. More just reacting to the sound world of that album.
Frank J. Oteri: So, have you ever gotten the symphony to Björk? Has she heard it?
Kevin Puts: I’m not sure if she’s heard it. I asked if I could name the movement titles after her songs. I think they’re quotes from her lyrics. And I guess I got a note back that she was okay with that but does not endorse the project. I can’t remember what the wording was [laughs]. I’m not sure it’d be her kind of thing. I’m not sure. When it comes to modern classical music, she’s into some pretty out there stuff and my stuff isn’t in that category. But that’s another piece I’d like to go back into and do what I’ve learned over the years with regards to practical scoring, because I think in many ways that it’s too hard. I mean, it’s not like it’s impossible; it’s not as hard as Thomas Adès or something. But playing it really well requires a lot more rehearsal than I think a lot of people have and so I feel like I could find ways to be more practical and have it just play itself better in a week of rehearsal. I was pretty demanding of orchestras 15 years ago. But I feel like since then I’ve come to terms with what an orchestra can realistically do even with the very best players in a few rehearsals.
Frank J. Oteri: Now, the 4th Symphony, again, you’re referencing music without actually using it. It inspired you to create your own music. I’m curious about that process.
Kevin Puts: I found transcriptions of those Mutson melodies of that time, the early days of the Mission San Juan Baustista; they’re actually available in the library. One of the missionaries transcribed some of their tunes. As you said, I didn’t want to quote any of them because those tunes were used for a very specific purpose and it’s not okay to use them for another purpose. So I tried to encapsulate the melodic qualities of some of them. Some of them are pentatonic. So the kind of shapes, melodic and rhythmic shapes of some of them, but just didn’t quote anything verbatim. There’s a lot in that piece. The second movement was kind of an imaginary compendium of melodies which are all derived by myself.
Frank J. Oteri: We’re living in a weird place in real time, how to address this as a creative artist, an interpretive artist, or even as a listener, you know, what should we be more mindful of?
Kevin Puts: [exhale] That is really a good question. There’s a lot of pressure to have a stance on various things and I just wouldn’t bring any of that to composing. I ignore all of that. My colleagues are very respectful, we all are of each other, and we’re very polite to one another, but whether or not my colleagues like my music is not of any importance to me. I just feel like what’s going on right now in this moment, of course you should be open to whatever’s going on, the zeitgeist, but I would just look at all of music that you’ve heard, that meant something to you from the very beginning, and feel like it’s okay to incorporate all of that and to sort of build a voice from all of it and have that be the part of you that remains inviolate to all these pressures that exist right now in the world, all the transparency that exists through social media, that feels like there’s no private space now. I would make your music your private space and the place you can do the things you believe fervently in and that you’re most emotionally connected to. That’s certainly been my approach to things over the how many years I’ve been doing this.
Frank J. Oteri: And thoughts for listeners? It’s interesting because you said earlier in this conversation that you want to take the audience along.
Kevin Puts: We’ve had this talk that I’m a composer of secrets. It’s because I’m really only interested in listeners, or the public, whoever that is, engaging with my music on its own. I’m not interested in telling my story a whole lot or having a big internet presence. I mean, I’m not good at that. There are some composers that are sort of successful presenting themselves as creators and influencers and I’m just not one of those people. I’m really interested in, like you said, pushing play and having the experience be something that can be followed without any idea of what you’re about to hear, that everything you need to know is there in the music and hopefully you find it engaging or powerful just because of the music itself. Not because you like me, or you like what I have to say, or you like my politics [laughs]. I just want it to be about the music. And so I think maybe there’s a kind of elusive quality, like you didn’t know about my opera or those things because I’m just not really interested in being out there, you know? I’m interested in the projects I can really invest in emotionally and intellectually, just getting them out in the world. And the recording is the final thing for me. To put the recording out in the world is kind of fascinating to see what might happen. Once it’s out there in the world, who reacts to it? You know, does someone in Finland hear it and write to me out of the blue? I find that really interesting that you can do that as a composer and place something in the culture that may or may not resonate, or may or may not mean something to someone else who doesn’t know anything about me at all, has just heard this recording on the radio or heard a performance of it and might want to connect in that way. I think it’s really interesting, and hopefully by the time you got to the end of that movement it made some sense. I’m not trying to criticize people coming down one way or the other on things, but it really does feel like where we are as society [laughs] there’s no grey area and there’s no room for discussion.
Frank J. Oteri: This whole idea, you’re either for us or against us, I think it was Dubya who said this, you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists. This binary. I think it’s very dangerous and I think it’s why we’re so polarized as a society about every issue!
Kevin Puts: As a composer, as a writer, as a poet or whatever you are, a painter, you should be able to go to that place and shut out everything else and go, “Here are the harmonies I love, this is the direction I want to go in, this is the way of working that I feel may be more at home than any other moment of my life, you know, this is it.”
Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for spending an hour with me.
Kevin Puts: Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be part of this thing.