Tag: politically-themed music

Tragedy and Inspiration

A course I’ve named “Tragedy and Inspiration” is my solution to drawing college students in to a challenging but powerful body of music. The course couples tragic events from modern history with great pieces of music written in response to those events. Reich’s Different Trains responds to the Holocaust and how trains were used to transport people to extermination camps in WWII. Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 responds to the personal and collective loss experienced by the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. Libby Larsen’s Sifting Through the Ruins and John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls respond to the deaths suffered when the World Trade Center buildings were attacked and collapsed in 2001. Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit respond to the crisis of human activity impacting our environment to create life out of balance. The course covers the historical subject, the composers and their musical styles, and the specific pieces.

Artists have responded to tragic experiences for millennia.

To varying degrees, this body of music either serves to process personal grief experienced by the composer, memorialize those lost for those left living, or mark a protest and call for action. These pieces respond to a common darkness that resonates across the many dividing lines that separate people. The pain of death from war or violent world conflicts transcends our differences. All groups of people throughout history have experienced disease, poverty, bigotry, sexual violence, racial violence, and unnatural death, and artists have responded to these tragic experiences for millennia. These subjects also resonate strongly with undergraduates. They understand the violence, pain, and horror involved in an event like the bombing of Hiroshima and can easily make the leap to the abstract and highly difficult musical language of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. We begin with news footage, mini-documentaries, and images surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb and the aftermath of the bombing in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Then we discuss the abstract language of extended techniques, tone clusters, noise, aleatory, graphic notation, and sonorism that make up the language of early Penderecki. Lastly, we dig into the music and explore how it responds to the event. (Note: Penderecki originally titled his composition 8’37” based on its length. After the premiere he renamed the piece Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and claimed the piece was always written in response to the bombing of Hiroshima and only after the premiere did he fully understand that. While the renaming is controversial, I accept his explanation and include the piece in the course.)

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring these undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music. I ask a lot of questions and invite them to offer their own critique or evaluation. While these students are not equipped to offer profound critiques of these compositions, the requirement for written evaluation requires deeper listening. They must have an opinion on the success of the music and defend their positions. The course requires a lot of written responses, and all of the tests are essay tests. I require that students engage with the material with enough substance that they can craft well-written essays (or aspire to such heights). They also have two opportunities to present pieces of their choosing that fit the subject matter. They often bring music from popular genres (rap, rock, country, R&B, etc.), and I welcome the variety. Having music from multiple genres enriches the course and allows for interesting compare-and-contrast discussions.

Because the subject matter is so real and raw, it is easy to bring undergraduates into a serious appreciation of difficult music.

I begin the course with a screening of the first 26 minutes of the documentary A Strong Clear Vision that features Maya Lin and her work to create the Vietnam War Memorial. This remarkable story follows her experience entering a competition for the memorial while still a graduate student at Yale, winning, and defending the design through horrendous public criticism and bigotry. Ultimately, the design has become one of the most celebrated war memorials ever created, and it has had a profound impact on subsequent memorial designs. (The World Trade Center memorial is a prime example.) This is a great documentary and draws the students immediately into the substance of the course. The memorial has served thousands of Vietnam veterans in their grief and healing. She created the piece when she was only a few years older than the undergraduates in the class and stood by her strong vision against tremendous odds. It is an amazing example of the power of art in the face of tragedy.

Here is the content that comprises the rest of the course:

Module 1: War

  • Steve Reich: Different Trains
  • George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from a Dark Land
  • Vietnam War Protest Music and Woodstock
    (This unit involves a collection of pieces including):

    • Richie Havens: “Freedom” (performed at Woodstock and based on African American song from slavery)
    • Jimmie Hendrix: “The Star Spangled Banner” (performed at Woodstock)
    • Country Joe and the Fish: “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
    • John Lennon: “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine”
    • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: “Ohio”
  • Krystof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima:

Module 2: Environmental Crisis

  • Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi
  • John Luther Adams: Inuksuit

Module 3: World Trade Center Attack

  • John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
  • Libby Larsen: Sifting Through the Ruins

Module 4: Social Justice

  • Gil Scott Heron and issues of inner city poverty and racism
    • “Whitey on the Moon”
    • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
    • “The Bottle”
    • “Home is Where the Hatred Is”
    • “Winter in America:
  • Frederic Rzewski: Attica and Coming Together, written in response to the Attica Prison Riots
  • John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1, written in response to the AIDS epidemic
  • Tonja Tajac: music written in response to violence against women, bigotry towards indigenous people, and environmental concerns
  • Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement
    • John Coltrane’s Alabama, written in response to the 1964 bombing of an Alabama church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the four dead Sunday School Girls
    • Charles Mingus’s The Fables of Faubus, written in response to the circumstances surrounding the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1968
    • Billie Holiday’s famous performance of Abel Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” written about lynching in the south


  • Kellogg on Kellogg: Dust Returns, written in response to the untimely death of the composer’s mother

This diverse and strong body of music allows discussion on a range of topics and the many artistic responses. We cover extended techniques, aleatory, spacialization, satire, spoken-word verses sung-word, amplification in classical music, film without narrative, site specific work, noise, chamber music versus symphonic music, classical instruments versus non-classical instruments, etc. We talk about pieces written in the moment compared to pieces written with the perspective of years. We compare Meerpol and Holiday’s searing depiction of racial violence in America (“Strange Fruit”) with Mingus’s absurd and satiric approach to school desegregation (The Fables of Faubus). We compare Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima with On the Transmigration of Souls. We explore what role art can take in healing from tragedy. All of this comes with a menu of great and diverse music. The majority of the course is music that the students likely would never have encountered outside of the class.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy.

The course culminates with students creating their own piece of art in response to tragedy. They pick an event/subject that they resonate with (personal or historical) and create a response in an artistic medium of their choosing (film, poetry, music, painting). They write a self-evaluation in which they state their artistic intent, describe the process, and evaluate their own work. Because this is not a class for art majors, I am lenient about artistic success and focus on the self-evaluation and effort. Some of the projects are stunning as students dig deep and discover creative veins they did not know they possessed. The topics vary widely, and the students share their work in the final classes.

The bulk of the content is offered online. I utilize YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, and archived web articles to create the content for the course. The students engage with the material through laptops or phones at their chosen time and location. The classroom is reserved for discussion and questions. We typically sit in a circle, and my student teacher suggested we routinely ask short questions that everyone answers with a word or two. This helps everyone in the room have a voice while sending a message that each voice should be heard. I always give a talk about respecting each other when approaching complex issues of racism, genocide, sexual violence, etc., but the conversation always has remained appropriate.

Teaching the class is rewarding and energizing. Many students tell me they will never listen to music the same way again, and they think about their own favorite music in a new light. We get to discuss some raw topics and investigate the power of art to heal, challenge, and memorialize. My greatest hope is that they have a lifelong invitation to seek deeper artistic experiences in their lives. Most of them will go on to have mainstream careers as engineers, business owners, or scientists (the three big majors at the University of Colorado). I want them to find room for art in their lives, and I treasure this brief opportunity to share some great music.

Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk): Music is a Weapon

The 30-minute ensemble showcases at the annual Chamber Music America conference typically run the gamut from string quartets to small jazz combos to the occasional outlier—a reed quintet (which replaces the flute and French horn of standard wind quintets with a saxophone and bass clarinet), a klezmer band, or at the most recent conference, a duo of trumpet and kora (the 21-string harp-lute played in Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia).  But one of the most unusual groups ever to be presented at the CMA conference, in 2016, was an organ trio fronted by Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk). A virtuoso on a Hammond B-3 electric organ accompanied by electric guitar and drums set has been a popular instrumental combination for soul, jazz, and R&B for more than half a century, but the material performed by Lewis and his sidemen—a standard, a Thelonious Monk classic, and some Lewis originals—took the format to some unexpected places. The music was contrapuntally intricate yet super funky, and often incredibly loud.  Their rendition of “Lulu’s Back in Town” was joyously raucous and their take on Monk was appropriately off-kilter. But the new material was what was the most revelatory.

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan

Each of Lewis’s pieces was dedicated to an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officers. Of course music, unless it involves singers and sung words or an interpolated spoken word narration, is more abstract and introspective than a news report can ever be. But merely attaching a verbal title to an instrumental composition anchors it for listeners and has the potential to serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline. Think, for example, how a work like Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima conveys the horrors of atomic warfare in a way that is far more visceral than reading a history book (even though the title was actually an afterthought). Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and the horrific episodes that led to their deaths have been permanently etched into the general public’s conscience. But Lewis, by affixing their names to his musical compositions, provides a platform for their stories to enter our subconscious and for audiences to pay tribute to who these people were.  This music, though at times dirge-like and appropriately angry, is ultimately resilient and celebratory; it allows us not only to mourn their deaths but to remember their lives.

When we visited with Lewis in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment last year, he described several terrifying interactions that he personally had with police officers. As a black man living in an American city, the experiences of Brown, Garner, and Martin hit really close to home. As an aspiring musician, Lewis was drawn to jazz, specifically because it has been such a socially conscious music. He acknowledged as role models John Coltrane as well as Charles Mingus, citing in particular his “Fables of Faubus” which was composed as a protest against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ordered National Guard troops to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

“That’s the biggest goal that I would love to get to accomplish, to try to get everybody to see what’s going on,” explained Lewis. “Culture is your weapon. I don’t like to say weapon because you get scared when you say weapon, but the music is sort of a weapon to use to fight the craziness that’s going on in the most non-violent way.”

Lewis started out as a pianist who was heavily into Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, as well other lesser-known greats from the 1950s and ‘60s such as Elmo Hope and Kenny Drew. But at one point while he was still a student at the New School in New York City, Lewis’s teacher, keyboardist Gil Coggins (who recorded with Miles Davis), asked him to sub a gig for him and, unbeknownst to him beforehand, it turned out to be an organ gig for which he was completely unprepared. The different feel of the instrument, which at first was a hindrance, soon became an obsession. He started out on a Korg, but he now owns four different classic Hammond B-3s since, as he claims, “each Hammond organ gives me love different.” He initially devoured recordings by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and even Tower of Power, but he strove to find his own voice on the instrument.

At first that voice was heavily shaped by Monk and finding a way to interpret Monk’s extremely idiosyncratic piano figurations on an electric organ. In 2010, he self-released his first album, a trio disc of Monk covers called Organ Monk in which he is joined by two musical luminaries, guitarist Ron Jackson (who has performed with Rufus Reid and Randy Weston) and drummer Cindy Blackman (who has played with Steve Coleman, Ron Carter, and Ravi Coltrane, as well as Vernon Reid, Lenny Kravitz, and Carlos Santana, to whom she is now married). On his second recording, a quintet outing called American Standard which was a JJA Jazz Awards nominee in 2013, he tackles a collection of famous standards including “Tea for Two,” which he totally makes his own, and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

The covers of Greg Lewis's first two CDs.

Greg Lewis’s first album from 2010 is a reimagining of Thelonious Monk compositions for organ trio called Organ Monk

His follow-up, from 2013, is a collection of famous popular songs interpreted by a mixed quintet called American Standard

But his own compositions had yet to appear on recording until the release finally this month of his third album which includes all five of his pieces created in memory of those killed during altercations with the police, which he collectively calls The Breathe Suite in honor of Eric Garner’s tragic last words. The composition of the full piece was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America. For Lewis, it was not only very important to find a viable way to respond to what had happened but to put it in a tangible form that he hopes he can share with the victims’ families.

“I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail, I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do: I write music. … I want to get this record to each of the people … Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”

The cover for the new Greg Lewis CD, The Breathe Suite

The Breathe Suite was released on March 15. In addition to the links to purchase digital files from iTunes and Amazon below, it is also available in physical form from CD Baby.

Laura Kaminsky: Every Place Has a Story

A conversation in two parts:
in her office at Symphony Space in New York, New York;
and at her home studio in the Bronx
October 9, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Photos and video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Back in the 1970s when John Duffy created Meet The Composer (now merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA, the organization which produces this web magazine), the term “composer-in-residence” gained currency in music parlance. The idea of having a living, breathing composer around—not only for audiences to see but to actually influence the programming at musical organizations—was an extremely important one and one which could arguably be credited with creating our current, more accepting climate for new music in all its stylistic variety. Being cognizant that composers are among us is a much healthier paradigm than thinking of composers as folks from faraway lands who are long dead.

Some composers, however, have taken their citizenship role much further. For thirty years, in addition to writing her own socially and environmentally charged music, Laura Kaminsky has worked behind the scenes allowing other composers to have an opportunity to get their voices heard. In addition to teaching at SUNY Purchase and at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, she has served as the artistic director of New York City’s Town Hall, director of music and theatre programs at The New School, the associate director for education at the 92nd Street Y, and director of the European Mozart Academy in Poland, as well as vice president for programs at Meet The Composer. For the last four years she has served as the artistic director of Symphony Space.
Admittedly these administrative positions have been vital for Kaminsky’s livelihood, since living exclusively on commissions and royalties is extremely difficult, but they are hardly “day jobs” (she seems to be on call practically 24/7) and for Kaminsky they are as important to her personal identity as her own musical compositions. In fact, witnessing her at her office plotting out a concert season with color-coded charts or hearing her describe how the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination became the theme of a multi-media program she is presenting at Symphony Space on November 21 is not all that different from hearing her describe a piece of music she is working on. Because of that, I thought it would be fascinating to talk with her both in her office and in her home composition studio. For the most part, the conversation at Symphony Space focused on her work as a presenter and the conversation in her apartment dealt with her own music, but inevitably there was some bleed through. Although over the years she has learned to, as she puts it, “compartmentalize her life,” she also has come to realize that her own identity is an amalgam of her various roles:

When I was younger, I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this; and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist.

The fact that she is a presenter seems to have helped her to craft particularly vivid and compelling descriptions of each of her compositions, and the fact that she is a composer has made her curatorial methods somewhat—for lack a better term—compositional. Rather than getting excited about another composer or ensemble and merely booking them as a result, she works with them to carefully construct a program that will have greater impact and relevance. And because she is a composer, she understands the importance of making new work the focal point rather than an add-on. As a result, she has been one of the best composer advocates in the presenting community. In fact, one of the highlights of her tenure at Symphony Space has been an annual 12-hour marathon devoted exclusively to music by living composers, an initiative that has now become the inaugural event of a month-long living composer celebration throughout New York City .

Full disclosure: I’ve known Laura Kaminsky professionally for more than two decades. We first met when she was Town Hall’s artistic director and I wrote press releases for their events. Over the years, we’ve continued to orbit the same circles. I was very appreciative to be among the many composers asked to have a piece of music included on one of her 12-hour new music marathons a couple of years back. I was also honored to write the booklet notes for the first all-Kaminsky recording, a 2-CD issued on Albany Records released earlier this year. Laura and her wife, the painter Rebecca Allan, have also become personal friends and I treasure the meals and conversations that my wife Trudy and I have shared with them. But the fact is that Laura Kaminsky is a friend to all composers, interpreters, artists, and people who care about the arts, which is why I wanted to share this multi-faceted discussion I had with her here on these pages.


Part One: The 24/7 Day Job—Being the Artistic Director of Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky's desk

Laura Kaminsky’s desk in her office at Symphony Space is filled with various charts and graphs as well as music submitted for consideration.

Frank J. Oteri: Almost every composer these days has to wear a variety of hats to make ends meet. Composing is an all-encompassing activity, but most of those other jobs composers take on in order to pay the bills have a precise beginning and end. However, your other principal activity besides composing is also a lot more than a day job. It’s an all-consuming thing to which you could easily dedicate your entire life. So, how do you balance your life when both of the things that you’re totally immersed in are 24/7 kinds of activities?
Laura Kaminsky: Days are much longer than 24 hours, aren’t they? What I have found in my own life is I need to be always acting creatively. My composing life, which I do in the privacy of my studio, is all about taking ideas and giving them depth and breadth and life. Being a composer is a very personal expression. As a presenter and producer of cultural events—and they’re not just musical events, because I oversee film and literature and family programs, and arts and education programs—at Symphony Space, it’s my thinking about the arts and giving a lot of other voices a stage, a place to express themselves. It’s all kind of integrated in a weird way. The balance is sometimes a challenge. I think over the years, I’ve learned to be very focused and disciplined so that I can—as Bill Clinton did so well—compartmentalize my life.

But I pretty much try to start every day in my composing studio. Jessye Norman said to me once, “But of course darling, you have to start the day with you own creativity.” I feel like that’s the most personal expression. I get up very early. I try to swim, or do yoga to get my mind and body moving. I head into my studio early in the morning. It helps that I live with a generative artist. My wife is a painter, and so there’s no tension around that. We’re both very happy to say, “Good morning and see you later.” We’re off in our creative worlds doing that which is most close to us. Then we venture out into the world, and I come down to Symphony Space. Sometimes that transition on the subway ride is hard because I’m still in that third iteration of the main material of my oboe concerto, which is what I’m working on now; it’s playing itself out in my head and I’m scribbling notes. But I know I’m about to go into a marketing meeting and talk about two shows that are coming up, one of which isn’t doing as well as we had liked, so I have to start being strategic about that. That’s my personal wrestling match, but it’s all to the good.
FJO: So a typical day in the life: You said you wake up very early. How early?
LK: Well, in the summer, it’s easy: 5:15 a.m. In the winter, the alarm goes off at 5:15, but the stumbling out into the world doesn’t usually happen until 6.
FJO: And what time are you here?
LK: This morning, I was here at 8:00 a.m.; it was not a real productive morning for me in my studio because we had a board meeting. I accept this and think, “O.K., during the next few weeks, where are the pressures? Where are the constraints?” My season opened here this week. Last weekend, I had to work a lot. The minute I wasn’t here working, I was in my studio. It’s this constant juggling act. My files have to be very organized so I can reach for my music paper and there’s nothing else there. And I can reach for my marketing report; there’s nothing else there. Otherwise I would probably have a nervous breakdown of some sort. I was here at eight in the morning, and we have an event tonight, so I’ll probably get home around ten.
FJO: How does a typical workday here carve up? What kinds of activities are you doing? You mentioned marketing meetings, but I imagine a lot of what you’re doing is planning and thinking through future programming. I noticed the papers on your desk with all different colors on them that represent different programs.
LK: It’s not so dissimilar to when I’m just in my studio all day as a composer. I have a short attention span in the moment, but a very long attention span [overall]. This pile of material here is a project that I conceived and developed with Bruce Rodgers, the director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat Center in Florida, called The Day Before: November 21, 1963. This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and we already have seen the books that are coming out, and the commentary that’s happening, and I think there’s a movie that’s coming out. And it’s always: Camelot, assassination, the world changed. Everybody forgets about what life was like before the world changed. So I posed that challenge to the Hermitage Fellows in all disciplines, and about 50 artists responded: filmmakers and screenwriters, video artists, composers, poets, and playwrights. They all submitted works of up to three minutes answering that question, and they’re very different kinds of works: some are political, some are nostalgic, and some are fantasy pieces. My job now is to take all of this and organizing it into what I think is going to be a really fascinating evening. Every three minutes you’re in a different world, with a different view, in a different medium or collection of media that looks at this re-imagination of a world that’s now lost. I have all of their submissions—there are DVDs, printouts of visuals, scores—and I’m trying to wrap my head around the theme of each of these pieces, plus who’s being asked to present and perform each of them, so that I can build, not just show each little fragment off to its best advantage. How will this feel for those performers? There are two singers, two actors, and a pianist, as well as some of the creators who are presenting their own works. So how do I negotiate the stage? When does John Guare walk onto stage and walk off, and is that a big moment because he’s such an important writer? Who’s also on the stage? How much disruption is that? I use color coding for everything, maybe because I live with a painter, so I track things. I don’t like working at the computer. A lot of people use a computer screen to manipulate. I like to cut and paste with Post-its until I have it right.
FJO: So in terms of R & D, this is an idea you came up with, and then you presented it to a group of people who then executed it.
LK: Just to be totally clear, I was in residence as one of the fellows at the Hermitage with Rebecca, my wife. The director, Bruce Rodgers, who himself is a playwright, asked me to meet with him because they had made a decision to invite an artist to be on their board of trustees. They’d never had an artist on the board, and they wanted me to take that position. Boards are generally about providing funding to secure the future of the institution. So I said, “My hope is that I can participate in a way that creates visibility for the artists and the work that they do in this special space, so that it’s a secure place for artists for all time.” And he said, “We’re coming to New York in the fall, because two of our fellows were involved in an important project [Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s opera Two Boys]. So we want to do some kind of an event to celebrate the wealth and breadth of Hermitage artists. Do you think we could do something at Symphony Space?” And I said, “Great. Let’s figure something out. But I don’t want this to be a show and tell, because an evening of works by artists from the Hermitage is only going to sell tickets to those artists and their significant others, and it won’t be a public event. We need to find something interesting and provocative that will be an inspiration to the artists to create new work, and will have interest to a public.” And so I said, “When are you guys coming for the opera? What’s happening this fall? What can we latch onto?” And that’s when I came up with this concept: rather than looking at the 50th anniversary of the assassination, let’s re-imagine a world before. It really touches on personal stories, a lot of pieces of innocence, childhood for many of the artists. It’s just been phenomenal.
FJO: This project really demonstrates your level of detail in putting together a program. You’re involved with an organization and so they came to you saying they want to do an event, but then you came back to them and said here’s the frame that can make this happen. It’s a really collaborative process. It isn’t like you heard an amazing string quartet and decided that you had to book them six months from now.
LK: Many presenters do exactly that. They go to a lot of events or they go to booking conferences and they find out who’s out there that has done well or has recommendations from other presenters and then they book them. I sometimes will say I think this is a good group, let’s hire them. But that’s not that interesting to me. What’s really interesting to me is finding the creative energy in everybody. So if I like string quartet X or jazz trio Y, I’ll contact them and say, “I’d like you to be part of our season. These are things I’m thinking about. Here are some questions I’d like you to consider. How would you respond?” And we begin a dialogue to then build a program. Or I might say, “I think you guys share a sensibility with this composer. Could you meet and talk?” Maybe there’s a new piece there. Maybe we’ll end up commissioning it, which we’ve done. I’ve also sometimes had the intuition that this soloist and this ensemble could work together, so I’ve approached them and let them go figure it out. And we’ve had some successes. For example, the Cassatt Quartet and Ursula Oppens had never played together. From the ways that both Ursula and the ensemble think about music—they’re both free and precise and have this passionate commitment to new music in an open, life-affirming way—I just had a sense that maybe if it worked, it would be a good thing. So we put them together about three years ago for one program. They’ve been performing regularly ever since. Not just here; they tour now. I feel like I made a match. But it was just this gut feeling: these are artists who could bounce off each other and good things will come. Now they make their own programs and they come to me and say, “We’re doing this tour, but would you consider this project.” And I say, “Well this is interesting, but would you consider that?” And we build it together. I tend to like the collaboration; I feel like there’s more investment all around.

Symphony Space Exterior

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy Symphony Space.

FJO: So the $50 million question: How does somebody get on your radar in the first place to even be considered for these kinds of conversations?
LK: A lot of people send me stuff. I have stuff behind you and underneath my desk. People show up and say here’s my CD. It takes a long time for me to get through all this stuff. Between my own creative work and need for quiet, so that I can deal with my own voice and the demands of the day, it sometimes may take me two years to get through all the things that come through. But I generally take the time and find my way through. And people introduce me to people. I do go and check who’s out there. I’m not living in a closed world. I’m curious and eager. I sometimes am artist-driven: that person is a performer whom I respect and I would like to engage in a dialogue with that person or that ensemble. Sometimes it’s composer-driven: I’m interested in so-and-so’s work. What are they up to now? Oh, they’re doing a project with these people. Sometimes there really are surprises: people I don’t know but somebody recommends them so I check them out. I give them a chance to do something small at first. If it feels good, like this belongs here, there’s integrity to their music making, there’s an idea behind what they do, I usually find a home for them here.
FJO: In a conversation we had years ago you said something about the way you program that I have always treasured: What you program isn’t about your personal taste.
LK: Oh, absolutely not. It’s not about my tastes. Maybe it’s because my tastes are rather catholic. I like a lot of different kinds of literature, a lot of different kinds of visual art, and a lot of different kinds of music. My taste is broad and that gives me a big playing ground to start with. But it’s not like, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear it because I like it.” It’s that I believe in the integrity and the quality of the work. I may not like it, but I respect it. I feel and think that it’s an honest artistic expression that has merit and that our society is better for it being shared. And if there’s a diversity of voices, it’s even better. We’re a polyglot culture, so lots of voices with honest expression saying interesting things is what motivates me. And it’s intuitive; it’s not scientific. It gets down to a chart with colors where it’s like, O.K., these are the building blocks now, but it’s intuitive and I trust the intuition. I may not like something, but I like its place. Then there may be things that I love that I don’t really think necessarily have a place on the season and I have to separate that out. I juggle all of that. Just like when I’m composing. I could be in the middle of writing something—I think I’m in that place right now—where I really like this material and I’m working on it and there’s a little voice telling me: This really doesn’t fit right here in this piece; you’re probably going to end up editing it out before you get to the end of the piece.
FJO: But then that material will wind up somewhere else probably.
LK: I used to save all my little scraps. I don’t do that anymore. My feeling is if it’s meant to live, it comes back. There have been a few fragments I have held onto in my sketchbooks that I do look at again and again. I don’t think I would ever take those and use them exactly. But I think that the reason I haven’t thrown them away or said I’m done is because there’s something in that material that still is at play someplace deep in me. And it will find its way to be expressed.
FJO: So to take it back to the presenting part of this equation. Let’s say something doesn’t work for this season or something doesn’t even work for this space. Is there a place where you put that away and ponder, “Where could it work? Maybe something else could work to make that work.” Also, are there other things for which you’ll think, “Much as I love this, this just isn’t going to work no matter what.” What are the things that wouldn’t work and why?
LK: It’s not like “O.K., I want two string quartets and three pianists, and two jazz ensembles.” I don’t do that. I think about things that are interesting to me now and that will be an undercurrent in the season. Sometimes I think it’s very subtle and maybe it’s my private little conversation with myself. But it creates a through line, so if people come to this one they might come to that. There’s something that links them, although they may seem on the surface to be quite different.
I think fairly conceptually and thematically, and I program thematically. In the winter, we do “The Music of Now.” That’s about as broad as you can get, but not everything that’s the music of now necessarily will fit for me. In the fall, we do something called “In the Salon,” which tends to have contemporary music in many forms, but not always. It can sometimes be “dead music”— you know, dead composers—but it has to be re-contextualized in some way. There’s usually a conversational aspect to it. For example, this year’s the Britten centenary, and much as we would like him to come, he’s not available. But we’re doing an evening of all of his works for tenor and guitar, which he wrote for Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Well, none of these people can come and talk about it, but there will be a conversation. In this case, I’m doing the presentation to the public about what’s important about this body of work. So, it’s not just come and hear this great music. It’s part of history, but it still has relevance today. In my talk, I’m going to hopefully craft a journey for listeners so that they get something beyond just the momentary experience of listening that they might not have had otherwise.

Whereas sometimes, and I just had to do this to an artist—I’ve been talking with a particular artist who has a really interesting project that conceptually I love, and I’ve been trying to find the fit for it, and I finally had to go back and say, it doesn’t fit with the theme that I’m developing for this program and for this series for next year. But I really want this project, so now let’s re-open the conversation and look at the next season and can you start to think about it in these contexts. And if we have the “a-ha” moment, it will be in the fall of 2014.

Again, it’s just this sense of honesty that’s really important to me as a human being and as an artist—and I mean being an artist as a subset of being a human being. So it’s really a very basic human answer. There are some artists—and I’m not going to name any names—for whom a big career may exist, where I think it’s about the career and not about the art. For me, if it doesn’t ring true from why that art got made originally, and why it’s being presented, I just don’t go with it. But if I trust it and respect it, I find the right place. It’s got to be in the right home.

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

FJO: So how far ahead do you plan?
LK: Well, usually nine months out. I’m now looking at next season. But I’m also looking at the season after—conceptually. It’s important for us as an institution to be looking longer term, mostly because some artists are booked that far ahead. And we have to raise money further out. Those are practical considerations. But we’re also opportunistic. If you came to me and said, “I have this great project and it has to happen in March,” and our season’s already budgeted and booked, if it really is great, we’ll figure out a way to welcome it in if it fits with what we believe we’re supposed to be doing. So, it’s slightly loose, but we have budget approval deadlines and marketing necessity deadlines that kind of dictate a time sequence for all of this. I’d like to be planning nine months as a kind of norm, and two years ahead for the big festivals that we do, so that we can get people coordinated and get money in place.
FJO: Theoretically, however, there are open days where something could be slotted in relatively last minute if it’s so major.
LK: Yes, we do like to be nimble that way.
FJO: This brings me to something that you’ve alluded to which we actually haven’t yet addressed head on. You were talking about the program you are doing with Hermitage Fellows. You said if you had called it a celebration of the Hermitage Center, only the fellows and their families would show up. So you came up with this idea about the day before the Kennedy Assassination and suddenly it’s an event. Then you mentioned thematic through lines—maybe somebody who came to this will come to something else. There is a lot about enrichment in the programs that you put together. It’s about giving people aesthetic rewards and, ideally, enlightening them and taking them to a higher place. But it’s also about getting them there to begin with and entertaining them, the horrible presenter cliché of putting butts in seats. So when you’re thinking of how this fits with that, how much are you thinking about whether or not there’s an audience for it? Or if it could be marketed a certain way, could there be an audience for it?
LK: It’s a piece of everything that a responsible presenter has to do. I think about it like energy. The artists are going to do their work, whether there are 12 people or 1,200 people or 12,000 people in the audience. But if they’re going to do that work, wouldn’t you rather have more people come and appreciate it? I know that some of the shows that I want to put on have a limited appeal for the general population. “Who’s that? I’ve never heard of so-and-so.” Sometimes I have to stick up for some of those programs and say, “It’s part of this ecosystem. We’ll have this other show that’s going to sell out easily, and it will sort of subsidize that show, but that show’s really important.” The other thing I always have to point out is that some of the most important musical events in history that are now iconic in our imaginations didn’t involve throngs at Madison Square Garden. When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia—I think on my first trip, which was on a fellowship doing research on Soviet music to do a Soviet music marathon festival here—I was taken to the House of the Composers’ and Musicologists’ Union. And I was like, “Oh my god, isn’t that the place where the Stravinsky concert happened when he came back to Russia for the first time?” And they said yes. I remembered reading about this. People were pushing to get through the windows; it was a mob scene. So I was thinking of this cavernous stadium and thousands of people pushing and shouting and struggling to get in, but it’s a tiny little hall. It’s an intimate chamber hall, but it looms so large as an important cultural, historic, musical event. The Schubertiades were twelve guys drinking and playing music for each other, but it helped create an outlet for this body of work to be developed. So sometimes it’s really O.K. if there are only 60 people in the audience. It’s not great financially, and it’s a little bit upsetting that we couldn’t have had a hundred and fifty or even have filled the house. But maybe it’s part of the ecosystem and it needs to be protected. I have to balance all of that.
FJO: At the other extreme of it, you mentioned things that don’t necessarily press your buttons because, as you described it, you believe it’s more about the career than about the work. For things that are doing really well out there, might you think that it doesn’t need you and therefore you wouldn’t present it?
LK: I don’t know that we’re an institution that can say that, because we’re a smaller institution. I think we have an important place in the whole cultural landscape of New York and—because of our radio program—nationally. But we’re still a small institution. So, I think that we actually serve a particular level. Every now and again, somebody who really is better suited for a bigger, splashier venue has a special project and we become their home. For example, I think it was two years ago when Tim Fain, the violinist, was doing a project with Philip Glass, Benjamin Millepied, and Nicholas Britell. It was a personal project. You’d think Philip Glass would go to BAM or a bigger venue. But they wanted to do it here, and we made it happen. It was really exciting. That was a big event for us, but a small event for Philip Glass.
FJO: I want to take it beyond Philip Glass because we still think of him as part of the new music ecology. Sure, he’s super successful, but he’s nowhere near as well-known as someone like, say, Miley Cyrus.
LK: Right. We can’t afford Miley Cyrus.
FJO: But I know that you’re completely open-minded in terms of what you listen to. So I wonder if there would be certain kinds of music that you might say are too mainstream in the popular culture for a space like this or not?
LK: This is a conversation I have with my president and our board. Should we do a regular mainstream classical music series? That’s a good question to ask. Should we expand world music offerings? That’s a good question to ask. This past week we opened our season with Kurt Weill on Broadway, and we had some really amazing people from the Broadway theater world here who generally don’t do such small spaces. Would they come here and do just a concert of their own? We’ve had some of that. So, you know, we’re opportunistic and we’re creative. If Elton John wanted to do a concert here, I’d say, “Yes, that’s great.” It’s very open-minded here.

Pete Seeger is going to be coming here in January. We just got that confirmed. We’re really excited about it. The one time that my knees actually buckled like I can’t believe I’m putting this man in my theater was when Chick Corea came. He’s been such an icon for me. I was not nervous when I had Jimmy Carter as my guest at the 92nd Street Y. I was not nervous when I had John Kenneth Galbraith as my guest. I was not nervous when I had Sir Edward Heath, especially when we started talking music. But when Chick Corea walked in, I couldn’t talk. I just looked at him, and I said, “I’m sorry, this has never happened to me, but my knees are shaking.” He just gave me a big hug.

But I think that only some big pop-type artists would come here, because again, if Leonard Cohen can sell out Madison Square Garden, why would he come here when there are only 800 seats? If we knew Leonard Cohen was in the process of developing some new work, and we had access to him, and [could] say, “You want to try it out here before you’re ready to go on tour?” That’s a kind of conversation that we can consider having. We’re open to everything. I’ll talk to anybody. As long as there’s honesty in the work, they have a potential home here.
FJO: And that honesty is determined by intuition.
LK: I just feel it. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a music major in college. I was a psychology major.
FJO: Wow! O.K. so one big, heavy, loaded, philosophical issue to ponder then. In our 21st-century digital environment, where everybody’s online and using social media 24/7, one of the big concepts is disintermediation, which is about getting rid of all the tastemakers. Let’s get rid of all the middle people and have it just be about the artist and their work directly reaching an audience. Goodbye critics. Everybody’s on Facebook and now everyone’s opinion can be on equal footing. Goodbye record companies. Stream it on Soundcloud instead. Goodbye book publishers. Upload a PDF. Goodbye film distributors. Just put it all on YouTube. I’m not sure the disintermediation works in these other paradigms, but in a live performance environment, you really can’t do that. It would be more difficult to have a disintermediated venue, although I guess a street corner is a disintermediated venue. But I’m curious—in the role that you’re thrust into by the very nature of being a presenter, of being a tastemaker, how does that make you feel, especially since you’re an artist yourself, that you’re somehow arbitrating between artists and audiences?
LK: You know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to answer this question, because I think it’s something all of us walk around thinking about. I mean, as an artist, I think about it. And as a presenter, I think about it. And as an audience member, I think about it. There’s something about a contract that’s being made, a trust-based contract of artist to presenter. Well, creator, the creating artist, the generative artist to the interpretive artist, then the interpretive artist with the backup of that creative artist to the presenter who provides the platform and then the presenter to communicate to the public—the public who has to be responsive to and open to the artist. It’s a contract of trust among everybody.

There’s something very exciting about the thought that everybody’s equal and everybody can be an artist and be an audience member all the time. There’s also something very exciting about being guided. So, the notion of curating, that’s the discernment that my job requires. I’m a voice; I’m not the tastemaker. I’m an open-minded art-loving, thinking person, and I’m very fortunate to have this position where I can take resources and try to bring different kinds of artists and different kinds of audiences together. I’m one of many voices doing that. There’s still a place for this structure. We don’t know exactly where things are going to go with the total democratization of art making and art consumption. I don’t like that term, “cultural consumers.” “Experiencers” is maybe a better word.
There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that shows a man holding a book and a man standing next to him with a scroll saying, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to be able to read with that thing; how can you let go of the scroll?” Here we are reading everything with our thumbs. People are creative. People want to experience ideas and feelings in a shared way. And the technologies will change, and that will change the structures and platform for it. But people want those experiences. I think we’re hungry for them. I think throughout history there have been different forms in which we’ve engaged in the arts, but people always do. And people always create. So I’m not that worried. We may have some crises of budgets in institutions, like how do we pay the rent and get people here. I think those are short-term issues. The honest truth is human beings are going to always want to engage in the arts. You want to have somebody who’s great touch you. I mean you really do. It’s great to see your kids in a school play, but it’s really amazing to see fantastic actors doing that play. All those experiences are valid.


Part Two: A Personal Composing Space That Embraces Many Places

Kaminsky's composition studio

Compared to her desk at Symphony Space, Laura Kaminsky’s work space for composing is much sparer.

FJO: We’re now in your home where, at least theoretically, you should be able to temporarily shut out the outside world in order to have your own space in which you can concentrate on your individual creative work as a composer. But of course, you can never shut out the rest of your life completely. So I wonder if you think consciously about how your work as a presenter seeps into your ideas as a composer.
LK: That’s a really interesting question, and I think what I’m going to say is really true, which is that everything seeps into my work: The neighbor you meet in the elevator—and the conversation you have—seeps into your work. What you read in the horrible headlines every day seeps into your work. And the music you hear through somebody’s really too loud ear buds on the subway seeps into your work. So in that sense, I’m just an absorbing sponge. It is all just there and it all informs what I’m doing as a composer. But when I’m really in composition mode, it’s like there’s this language and I’m just having this conversation with myself in that language. All that external stuff goes away. My protection against the rest of the world is that I have something to say and this is the sound world that I say it in. I don’t really bust out of that and steal from others. I’ve never actively quoted other music or composers in my work. But a separate piece of it is if there’s a problem at work, can I shut it out? Sometimes the answer is no. There’s very little down time. When I’m not composing, I’m conceptualizing what I want to do next, or putting pieces in place so that I can write the next piece. But I think what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, and the more pieces I write—maybe it’s a sense of maturity—is there’s no anxiety around not writing. If the external world intervenes—and I’m not actively working on a piece for a period because there’s a deadline at work, or a lot of nights in a row with events—I don’t panic. If I’m not writing, if there’s really an issue at Symphony Space or in my teaching job (which is something I also do), I just go. That’s what I have to focus on. It’s O.K.; I won’t forget how to be a composer. I can carry that thread. Every now and again, I’ll lose the flow of an idea because there has been a lag, or the real world has intervened, and it sort of disrupted my mood, and now I can’t quite reclaim it. But I trust that I’ll get there. Once you know how to ride a bicycle, you can always ride the bicycle.

I say this to my students, too, when I talk to them about being a composer: You’re learning the craft now. You’re still figuring out which note follows which note, what’s vertical and what’s horizontal, and what does it add up to. What is it saying? You’re still juggling that. So you have to put the hours in. You have to build up your muscles. Then once you really have that, you can lift the weights of being a composer; you just have to stay in shape. But you’ll always be a composer.

I do a lot of my composing when I swim laps. I believe it’s an important part of my process as a composer, because that’s a place where I’m weightless, which every woman wants to be. It’s timeless. I’m a terrible swimmer, but if I get into a good flow, I don’t hear minutes ticking by in my head. I don’t have external stuff going on. I’m just floating. I do a lot of singing through ideas, reiterating those in my mind and hearing them with different colors. I can really orchestrate that way somehow, being in that swimming pool for half an hour. Nobody’s talking to me; I don’t know what time it is. I tell my students, don’t do it in front of the computer playing with a program, but you don’t have to be sitting in front of a keyboard with a pencil. You don’t have to look like a composer to be a composer. You are a composer.
FJO: I’d like to play musicologist here. I think I can hear a through-line between the presenter and composer parts of your life. I can think of very few other composers who have such a well-defined sense of space that generates so many compositions. So many pieces of yours over the years have been inspired by a particular space and are about telling the story of that space through music. To my mind, this has been the way you hear music, as well as the way you respond to spaces because you’re so attuned to how music functions in a space.
LK: I never have thought about it that way, although I’ve actually thought about the fact that I’m very much inspired by space and place—whether it’s physical, cultural, or historic. I’ve always thought it’s because I’m a visual person more than I’m an aural person. Visual memory is filled with resonance for me, so I can evoke those memories and make that my way into a private world where I then tell my story in sound. But I never really thought about it in terms of the connection between the fact that I’ve been presenting events for 30 years. Wow.
FJO: Along those same lines, the kinds of things that inspire you to conceptualize programs also fuel your compositions. You were talking about how to construct a whole event around the night before JFK was assassinated and what that means. You went to Vukovar and experienced firsthand what happened during the Yugoslavian civil war, and that became your piano trio. You were in Ghana and you met people there who had AIDS, and that also became a piece of music. Not far from this apartment there’s a really beautiful idyllic spot, Wave Hill, which inspired your violin and piano duo. Sometimes things that could become concert programs or festivals become your own compositions.
LK: I never made that connective thread, but when I was younger I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this, and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist. I’ve partnered with my partner, with Rebecca, to do a piece which was about place. It’s called Horizon Lines. It was a commission that I had from the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. She was in conversation with the Seattle Art Museum; they were going to give her a show. So we had this idea: What if they could time the show with the festival and we made the work to reinforce each other? So, everybody was thrilled, because in the history of Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum—which are catty-corner across the street from each other in downtown Seattle—the two institutions had never collaborated. So they thought, well, this is a nice idea. And then Rebecca went to make her body of paintings and I went to write my piece. But then I said, “Wait a second; this still isn’t a collaboration. All that’s happening is you’re having an exhibition and I’m having a premiere.” So we used my commissioning funds to commission a filmmaker, John Feldman, to make a film. He’s a photographer as well as a filmmakera and he’s married to a composer—Sheila Silver—so he’s very sensitive to sound as well as image. We commissioned him to make a film with Rebecca’s paintings, which are very abstracted landscapes, and her photographs and my photographs of place, as well as his. My piece then had a structure to it.

We chose places that were meaningful to Rebecca and me. I created soundscapes and she created paintings, and then John took all of the music and all of the images and made a film that was projected over the live performance. This is music of place which is very much rooted in the environmental crisis that we’re living in today—looking at a beautiful landscape and realizing how human beings in the anthropocene age are making an impact that’s not part of the natural flow, that’s affecting the climate. Our work is both about our own individual creative process and our shared belief system around paying attention to the fragility and strength of the environment, the ability to collaborate without messing with each other’s processes. Then bringing other artists into the process, and—here we go, my presenting life—bringing audiences together who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have gone to the museum or have gone to the concert. To me that was an incredibly satisfying project because it touched on all these things that I care passionately about.
FJO: That’s a very special case because it’s something an audience can see when they watch the film that accompanies the musical performance. That’s quite different from a piece like, say, the Vukovar Trio. If you know the program note, and you know the title, and you know something about contemporary history, you’ll immediately know what it’s about. But what if you just heard it on the radio and missed the title, or what if you had simply called it Piano Trio No. 1. There’s a lot of turbulence in that piece, but maybe someone would hear it differently. By your verbally associating it with Vukovar, listeners are primed to hear it in a certain way. So how important is it to you that a listener knows the back story?
LK: That’s something that I think about a lot. I’ll just give the background on the Vukovar Trio. When I was living in Poland and running the European Mozart Academy, we took small groups of chamber musicians throughout central Europe to give concerts. One of the concerts arranged was to go into Vukovar under Human Rights Watch protection and give the first live concert since the official end of the war at the fairly devastated Serb Cultural Center. Going into that devastated war-torn city was really eye-opening and very humbling for all of us. We were really quite taken aback by seeing the destruction. This was three years since the end of the war; people still had no electricity and there were food shortages. It was grim; you could tell that this was not a good place. When I say Vukovar, like I’m talking to you now, to this day I’m seeing this picture in my head. Somehow I had to deal with that picture. I knew I needed to write a piece, and I wanted to write a piano trio, partially because I was living in Eastern Europe and that sound world was so much what I was breathing and hearing every day. I felt like I wanted to write an homage to Shostakovich and his great trio which is such an iconic piece. Then I thought, his Eighth String Quartet is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war; I would dedicate my piece to the victims of ethnic cleansing. I hate to say this, but most Americans don’t read the headlines. It’s history already. I wanted to keep [in people’s minds] the fact that genocide is alive today, so I gave it that title. But I did think about just calling it Piano Trio.

In fact, when I lived in Seattle, I often lectured for the Seattle Chamber Music Society or the Seattle Symphony. The Society asked me to give a talk called “How to Listen to Contemporary Music.” With all due respect to the Society, I didn’t want to do that talk, because I don’t think it’s any different than listening to any music. So, I came in and I said, this is the talk I’m going to give: How do you listen to music? I chose to play my trio, and I said, “I’m not going to tell you who this composer is. I’m not going to tell you when this piece was written. I’m not even going to tell you the instrumentation. I’m not going to tell you if there’s any story behind this piece. I want you to listen. I want you to all take a piece of paper and a pencil while you listen and make notes to yourself as to what you think you’re hearing, and what the structure of the piece is. So you can tell me what you’ve heard.” And they all got it. They said this piece sounds like it’s about a war. Then there are these chorales, so it’s about mourning. But then there’s this more energetic, joyful music, so maybe there’s victory or peace. But the fast music isn’t really easy happy music, so there’s still a struggle. They all got it. So I believe it’s an abstract piece that tells a story. And you know, I think all music tells a story. This was a specific story. But even without them reading the program note or knowing anything, they got it.

Kaminsky Vukovar Trio

Kaminsky’s Vukovar Trio captures the anguish of war in the former Yugoslavia. © 1999 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: With your piece about AIDS in Africa, And Trouble Came, you included a narrator, so of course that helps to guide people. But people hear language differently than they hear music. There’s an instant comprehensibility for language. Even if you’re completely fluent in music, it’s still an abstract language. So there’s a directness to that particular piece that might not have been as possible to pull off without the narrator.
LK: I just came back from a tour in the Midwest. I was in Iowa and Illinois with performances and lectures around that piece, and it’s interesting to me because I wrote that while I was living in Ghana. I went to Ghana for a year, and I went with a commission to write a piece dealing with AIDS for a benefit concert in Connecticut, and I was given the configuration of narrator, viola, cello, and piano. It’s like, O.K., that’s my project. I went there without many books because we could only take so much stuff for the year. So I went to the U.S. embassy library, because there were no libraries or bookstores in my village. Most of the literature that was available was African American literature, and it makes perfect sense for the U.S. embassy to be a repository of African American culture in an embassy in West Africa.

So I devoured all of this, and I found some poetry that spoke to me, and I found some biblical texts that worked; since I’m not a believer of any sort, I had to really cull through a lot of reading of Psalms and Proverbs and Job just to find lines that spoke to me. But I couldn’t put it all together. It never connected until I met these two American nuns who had built a hospital in a village and most of the people they were dealing with were AIDS patients. They invited me to go across the country to visit them in the convent and meet their AIDS patients, and I read my texts to these two young men and I got their stories. And it was that night in the convent where I was like, now I can make this piece happen. I can incorporate a fictionalized version of my story, of meeting these people, and I can create what I called my diary entries to weave together a narrative that deals not with the specifics of AIDS and how it’s transmitted and how it ostracizes people, but much more conceptually, globally and metaphorically, so that it would be a piece that is specifically about AIDS and all of those issues, but also about compassion, fear of death, anger, loss, and community.

So I wrote the diary entries that were just spoken by the narrator, then set up for the music [underpinning] the text pieces that I had already selected. And the piece is a full story. It’s like a play with those diary entries, but if you took them all away and just had the other parts, people would still get the same message. This was in 1992. I wanted to tell the story because that year, living there and meeting these people, was before we knew about AIDS in Africa. We still weren’t paying attention to it in the rest of the world. So I had to tell the story. And I wanted it to be very encoded, so all the names are relevant to my experience in Ghana and people I loved and trusted and met there. I use the metaphor of this young tailor who thought he got AIDS because he pricked himself with a bad needle, because that was a metaphor for the intravenous drug use which was a cause of AIDS. I tried to use symbolic bits to tell the story that would be specific and universal. So that is a different kind of a storytelling than, say, Vukovar.

Kaminsky: And Trouble Came p.10

To further elucidate the plight of AIDS sufferers in Ghana, Kaminsky includes a narrator along with piano, violin and cello in her composition And Trouble Came. © 1993 by Laura Kaminsky (revised 1996). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But those two pieces bring to my mind the same issues we were talking about before in terms of presenting. It’s a tough balancing act between enriching people’s lives, and perhaps even enlightening them and giving them this really transcendent experience, with people wanting to be entertained. No matter how effective these pieces may be, they’re a hard sell. Imagine someone who has not heard these pieces before wondering if this is something to check out—hmm, I’m going to pick up this recording about AIDS in Africa or I want to listen to this piano trio about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
LK: Well, I’m not a salesman. I’m a composer. I think one of the great pieces of chamber music of the 20th century is the Quartet for the End of Time and that is a hard sell. It’s an incredible piece of music, and you do have to work to get people to want to go hear it because it’s a hard, big piece and the back story is incredibly intense. But it’s worth it. I know that I have this problem. I care about the fate of humanity. I care about the fate of the earth. Probably underneath being my artist self, I’m just a utopian-activist-politico. My life is filled with activity to make the world a better place. Maybe I should have just been a union organizer or an anarchist or something. I’m an artist, so I make music, but my music is connected to the things I care about. I don’t expect, in all honesty, to get programmed in entertainment concerts for the most part. Now it’s interesting because the concert with And Trouble Came that just took place in Iowa about two weeks ago was, to me, one of those chilling moments of being an artist and knowing that it was worth it.

There’s one particularly poignant bit of text, and tears started coming down the cheeks of the actor as he was narrating it. It then led to a solo cello line, and all of a sudden, the cellist was crying on stage. I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to die.” I was a bit overwhelmed that they didn’t have the distance, that they were living that story while they were performing it. At the end of the piece, which is painful and powerful, there was dead silence. I looked on my watch. Two minutes of total, total silence, and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get thrown out of town.” I was panicked, and all of a sudden, one woman stood up and just went like [claps twice]. The next thing, everybody stood up, and about a half hour later, people were giving me checks. Everything I earn on this piece since 1993, when it was premiered, I donate to my nuns in Ghana and their hospital. I don’t care if people don’t think this is entertaining. I’ve been sending kids who are orphaned in Ghana to school through what I earn on sales or royalties on this piece. Or when performances happen and people just spontaneously make contributions. So that’s valuable to me. That’s why I get up in the morning. And yes, sometimes I just want to write a nice piano piece that’s just about exploiting the piano, but when I need to write a piece that’s about a social or political issue that I care about, and it has an impact, that’s joy. So, it’s O.K. if it’s not entertainment.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that maybe you should have been a political activist, but you’re an artist, so you create pieces about issues you care deeply about. Although I tried to make the argument about music being an abstract medium that can usually only carry a larger meaning if you attach visual images or language to it, your story about what was essentially a blindfold listening to your Vukovar Trio in Seattle shows that sometimes these deeper meanings can come through. And people wrote you checks because of a performance of your music that will directly help people in Ghana. So there’s no doubt that you believe it is possible for a piece of music to change someone’s world view, to be moved by something to the point that it’s a transformative moment. Marc Blitzstein would have said, “Yes. They’re going to hear this piece, and they’re suddenly going to be marching on the streets.”
LK: Yes, that’s great. You can transform people. But they don’t have to march on the streets. Maybe hearing something so beautiful makes them want to be nicer. It could be as simple as that for a transcendent moment. That listeners were just totally surrounded by the beauty of that artistic experience, and it made them gentler, made them happier in their souls. That’s transforming the world. It may not be a political rally. It can be much more personal. We all have works of art that we go back to—read your favorite novel and you’re transported, you live again in that world, you feel happy or ennobled, or it reminds you to be a good person, or it reminds you to be upset about indignity. There are favorite paintings. Every time I look at certain paintings, I get transported. You know, if I write one piece that can do that, it doesn’t have to be entertainment. Again, you don’t have to like everything. It doesn’t have to be entertainment. It doesn’t have to be fun. It can actually just be powerful. If, in the end, people don’t come to Laura Kaminsky’s output to have a good time necessarily, but maybe to feel and think about why we’re here, how to be good, why we die, why does it matter—maybe that’s O.K. I’m not trying to be grandiose about it. Sometimes I wish I could just write a good pop tune, but that’s not where I live. If I can say something about paying attention to the beautiful environment, and it’s a nice piece of music that is compelling to listen to, and it makes people think about climate change, great. I feel like I’m serving through my art.
FJO: On the other hand, there are pieces that are much more inward. I’m thinking of Cadmium Yellow, which is a string quartet that is about trying to convey pigment and color through sound. It’s a very abstract idea. But once again, it connects to something visual. So hearing the piece might make people more aware of something in the world that’s beautiful, but it’s not necessarily political.
LK: No, but it’s also a metaphor in a way. I have another piece that deals with this in a different way called The Full Range of Blue, but Cadmium Yellow took the notion of this natural substance that can be very pale and very watery, and can be very intense, and it can either be transparent or opaque, and things can come through it or it can cover. It’s like, wow, this is such a rich concept to create a piece [out of]. That’s a metaphor about human engagement and interaction, for how we are as people. It’s about stronger and weaker. You’re bold and forthright and your voice outplays every other voice. Or you’re meek and you sort of insinuate yourself into a conversation; you’re kind of there, but you’re not there. These are all metaphors. So I had little themes that were weaving in and out. It was a game that I played with myself, basically. I’m actually not a composer who writes music because I want to show off my craft. That’s not interesting to me. I want to find something that’s not music, that’s an interesting concept, and then find a way to realize it through a narrative journey in sound. I live with a painter. I think about color all the time. I watch the paint being mixed, and every painting is handmade color. There’s nothing that’s squeezed out of a tube with Rebecca. I love the fact that she’s created her own universe of color, and nobody has that universe. Most great painters own their colors, like most composers own their voice.

Kaminsky Cadmium Yellow

Kaminsky’s string quartet Cadmium Yellow was inspired by the high hiding power and good permanence of cadmium sulfide which produces the pigment cadmium yellow, one of the most vibrant and varied colors available on a painter’s palette. © 2010 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: So it’s not about synaesthesia?
LK: It is in a way. Sometimes I think maybe I am synaesthetic because I actually see colors when I’m composing. When I think about Vukovar, I see those images. There’s one of an old woman with a babushka in front of a bombed building. When I say the word Vukovar, I see her. But what I’m really seeing are those colors. And those colors have sound to me. I don’t know if I’m officially synaesthetic, but to me, it’s all interrelated. My other piece that I mentioned, The Full Range of Blue, is another one that’s all about metaphor and layers of symbolism. When you like somebody, and you start to love them, what’s that moment when liking becomes loving, or vice versa? On that spectrum of human emotion, when do you say I love you for the first time? What happens? And I thought: How do I deal with that in sound? What would be an image for that? So I started thinking it’s kind of like the spectrum. You know, when is blue still green, and when is blue indigo? And when you are moving into purple, do we all say that this is no longer blue? So I started getting interested in this notion: Do we all taste the same? How do I make a piece out of that? So I came up with the concept of the full range of blue. O.K., where is blue? I didn’t think about paint at that time. I thought about nature—blue sky, blue rivers, blue-gray rocks, blue flowers. So I created a piece of multi-movements. And each one was a different expression of blueness in nature. But it was really not about the flowers, or the starry night, or the river, or the sky. It was really about the fact that I was falling in love, and how did I know I no longer was in like, but was in love. What’s the full range of blue? But it was all synaesthetic in the sense that I was seeing gray-blue, yellow-blue, green-blue, purple-blue.
FJO: So to get technical for a moment, how does this play out in the way you put your music together? I hear all this about a color gradually changing and no longer being the same color and I think about minor thirds changing to major thirds and all the infinitesimal gradations that aren’t quite one or the other, but I’m a microtonalist.
LK: I don’t work in microtones.
FJO: I know you don’t.
LK: It’s funny because I have a student right now who is and I keep saying, “Are you really hearing this? Because I don’t know how you’re imagining this. Sing what you’re hearing?” I don’t work that way. Again, I’m being kind of vague in a way, but it’s an energy thing. I feel the vibrations. I see what those vibrations feel like. That’s what leads me. It’s maybe intuitive again. Remember I’m not conservatory trained, so I’ve had to find my own way. I still have never taken an orchestration class. I haven’t really taken many theory classes. I was very lucky to have studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, but I didn’t go through an undergraduate music education. So when people talk about a lot of chord things, I didn’t learn that stuff. I had to figure it out. For me, it’s about the energy. I see it, and I hear it, and I feel it like that vibration. I struggle to find it, and that’s where my language comes from.
FJO: A piece of yours that just got released on CD, The Great Unconformity, which is about one billion years that are missing from the historical record, is a six-minute solo cello piece. How do you cram a billion years into six minutes?
LK: Well, if I wrote a billion-year piece, that would be a problem! I was invited by Rhonda Rider, a wonderful cellist. She had applied to be an artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon. Since she’s not a generative artist, she’s an interpretive artist, her project was that she was going to invite nine composers to write their response to the Grand Canyon. She would then take all these scores and do her residency, to learn them, and she’d perform at the Grand Canyon and record the project.
As somebody who loves natures, I was like, yes, sign me up. Thank you for inviting me. I was thrilled. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon. It just so happened that that summer, when she had commissioned me, Rebecca and I were going to an artist colony in California—the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony—and we flew right over the Grand Canyon. So that was where I got my inspiration for the piece—looking down on it and seeing all these layers from above, imagining being at the bottom, but trying to imagine it from swooping down. There are a lot of glissandi and a lot of pizzis, which are sort of like digging into the rock. Then the low is like getting down to the bottom. I was trying to find musical symbols for looking down on something that we can’t really comprehend, trying to chisel your way into something, but then finding your way at the bottom where there’s more history than we can ever imagine. I mean, nobody can imagine a billion. We can’t imagine the national debt. That number’s too big. We can’t imagine billions of years. How can there be that much missing rock between one layer and the next layer? What happened?
Here we are with climate change. It’s probably not so dissimilar. There was an ice melt or something. Rebecca was an artist-in-residence at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in the Hudson Valley. We went up to a lecture there one night, and the scientist had done research in the Grand Canyon about how certain fish species have changed because of what’s happening in the waters there. So Grand Canyon stuff was in my head. It actually became easy for me to think about the grandiosity of it and this layering of life and the mystery of it all.
FJO: As far as grandiosity goes, most of the pieces you’ve written are chamber music pieces. You mentioned that you’re working on an oboe concerto, and a few years ago you wrote a concerto for three percussionists and orchestra called Terra Terribilis, which was your first piece for orchestra, and that piece concerned climate change as well. But the only other full orchestra piece you’ve done thus far is a piano concerto. As far as I know, there’s no grand theme for that one.

Terra Terribilis

In the 2nd movement of Kaminsky’s triple percussion concerto Terra Terribilis, glaciers are evoked through briskly moving music in septuple meter. © 2008 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

LK: The piano concerto was commissioned by the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic in Russia, with a Koussevitsky commission. There was conversation about whether I should make this something about St. Petersburg, which is on a river. My studio overlooks a river. So I kind of played with that notion as sort of a back story. But, really, I just wanted to write a great concerto for Ursula Oppens; that was enough of an inspiration. I could have called it Music for Ursula, but I thought I’d just dignify it and call it Piano Concerto.
FJO: It seems that suddenly there’s been some long overdue attention to you as a composer, which I think ties into the fact that you’re now getting asked to write orchestra pieces. It’s much easier to get a piece of chamber music played and so that is mostly what you have written; for many years you actually had your own ensemble which performed your music, as well as the music of other composers. Of course, when you work ten-hour days at something other than composing, when you finally can carve some time for yourself, you want to devote it to putting notes on the page. You don’t really have time to promote your compositions the way others who might have more time are able to do.
LK: Yeah, I’m bad at that.
FJO: But I wonder if you learned some lessons from being a presenter. All this stuff comes into you and some of it stands out more than the rest. Have you been able to distill that and turn it back when you’re the person who’s pitching something to a presenter, or to a performer?
LK: You saved the hardest question for last.
FJO: Of course.
LK: I actually am not particularly good at selling my own work. I find it hard to do. And I have to be careful about my time. It probably takes as much time getting the projects out there as writing them. And if I have to choose, I’d much rather be composing than pitching a project. So I’ve not been so good at that. I finally decided I have to update my website because it doesn’t even have that my CD is out—and my CD has been out for six months! You know, that’s stupid. I’m not taking care of my work. I have to chastise myself in a way, because I believe in the best for these pieces. I want them to be played by other people. And I have to help that process along. I know that.
FJO: But you actually have an opera on the docket for BAM and the Kennedy Center. That didn’t just happen, or did it?
LK: What happened was I’ve wanted to write this opera for four years now, and it took a long time to put the concept and the team together. I started talking to Charles Jarden, who is the general manager of American Opera Projects, and he loved the concept. He decided to take it on, and it took me two years to find my collaborators. It’s an innovative concept for an opera; it’s this story of a transgender person. It’s a kind of monodrama for two singers who play the one person. It’s small in scale: two singers and string quartet. It’s for the Fry String Quartet with Sasha Cook and Kelly Margraf, because they like to work together. I already know we have a company. But it’s with interactive film, so it’s bigger in scope than just the live artists. But I didn’t know how to write the libretto and it took a while. I found my filmmaker and we felt we could do it together. Kimberly Reed is fantastic. I saw her film called Prodigal Sons, which is partially her transgender story, but it’s a much bigger film than that—I urge everybody to go see it. I said I have to find this person; I want to work with her. So I tracked her down and I told her I had this concept for this opera, and she said great, I want to be involved. I could hear music, and she and I together could begin to see it: the filming, the staging, the forces. Then we couldn’t get the words. It took until I was sitting on a panel judging grants for Opera America, and Mark Campbell was one of the panelists. He’s one of the great librettists in this country, and during a break, I went and said, “Mark, maybe you can advise me. I’m looking for a librettist. You know everybody out there. Could you suggest somebody?” He said, “Let me think about it. Tell me more about your project.” And I explained it to him. He said, “I have a perfect person for you: me.” I said, “Marc, I can’t afford you. This project is small.” He said, “I have to do this. This is wonderful.” I said, “You have to connect with Kim as well as me.” So the three of us met, and this has been the most unbelievable love-fest of three artists getting together and just talking, sharing, and building ideas together. And they have just completed the first draft of the libretto. American Opera Projects has been so supportive of this. They applied to BAM. The BAM-Kennedy Center-DeVos Institute is a development project, and they’ve supported this. So we’re going to be developing it, and hopefully in the summer 2015 it will be born.

Kaminsky at home

Laura Kaminsky at home.

FJO: So as a going away thought, being someone who has been on both sides of the fence, as a composer and as a presenter, do you have any specific advice for composers on how to get their work out there?
LK: I can’t say that I’m going to give the best advice, because I’m not a youngster and I’m just finding my place because I’ve always done so many different things. Now it seems like it’s coming into focus in a much better way. But it comes back to the earlier conversation that we had in my office today at Symphony Space. Be honest. It’s really important that you make the work from an honest point of entry and departure. And that you keep your craft honed. You’ve got to do your sit-ups. You have to make the art regularly, so that you know what you’re doing skill-wise. But if you have something to say, you have to say it honestly. If you do that consistently, you build a body of work over time, and if you get good people to play it and they become champions of the work, hopefully it grows. And all of a sudden, you have a bigger community, and more people listening, and more people trusting that you’re going to produce another good piece. I just think it’s got to start with being honest. I think art has to be honest.