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.”