Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interview with composer Michael Kaulkin

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:
"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

I had so much fun talking with composer Michael Kaulkin last week about creative process that I thought I would ask him a few more questions, as we continue to prepare for the premier (on February 4th) of Michael Kaulkin's new choral work entitled "Waiting...".

EE: So, Michael, I have to say that my husband, a singer/songwriter, constantly has music going through his mind—kind of like an onboard radio station playing anything you want (and sometimes things you don’t want, but they get stuck there, anyway). I know other people who have that onboard radio. Do you have that? And does it help or hinder your process when working on a composition?

MK: I never thought about it, but I guess I do have that onboard radio station as well, although it doesn't play anything I want. It's more like Pandora than Spotify, in that sense ;). It just... plays. Sometimes it's related to what I'm working on, but the repertoire is pretty ecclectic and can include anything from Mozart to Ravel to Tom Waits to Hungarian folk songs. If I'm working on something, it actually can help a little. I'm able to work the material in my head and maybe get some new ideas, say, if I'm stuck in traffic or something. The big question is always whether I'll retain it later!

EE: I completely understand that dilemma. I find myself writing cryptic notes to myself on any piece of paper at hand, one hand on the wheel, both eyes on the road. Sometimes it is possible to make out these hen scratches afterward, but not often!

Whenever creative people are interviewed, the question always comes up about “major influences” to the person’s work. Can you name for us your top 3 musical influences (could be other composers or mentors)? And would you briefly comment on what you “got” from that person that you use all the time in your work?

MK: Well, the very top of the list is hands-down Stephen Sondheim. He's who I wanted to be when I grew up (and still do, to an extent). He was the first model I could grab onto when I was a kid, and first figuring out that I wanted to compose. I have made several forays into musical theater, and his influence on me is clear in my music for those piece (for which I've written lyrics as well). More interesting, though, is his influence on my concert work, where it's less obvious but very much there, in my mind at least.

Specifically, with regard to "Waiting...", for starters, there's an over-arching theatricality to my strategy around assembling your poems. This is hard to explain, but I tried to build a drama, with no particular narrative, if that makes any sense. It has a sense of direction that's more based on the rules of playwriting than musical form. There's a protagonist, conflict, denouement, resolution, etc.

But, the musical language itself is also closely related to Sondheim's, even if it's in a way only obvious to me. One concrete example I can give you is, after the introduction (your poem "More things", where the "waiting" refrain occurs for the first time (from your poem "Come again"), the atmosphere comes from my thinking: "suppose this were the opening of a Sondheim musical". I had the score of Pacific Overtures out when I was working on that, and I think that's a clear influence.

When I went to college and became more steeped in the "classical" music world, I moved on somewhat and absorbed a great many other influences. I think Ravel would have to be at the top of the list. His combination of a very beautiful musical language with enormous wit and resourcefulness seems to have never failed, and I'm in awe of that. I feel similarly about Bartók, who was an utter genius. (Of course, my taste is skewed by having lived for three years in Hungary, where the ghost of Bartók is everywhere.)

Finally, you mention mentors. The man who led the choruses and taught musicianship at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where I was an undergraduate composition major, Seán Deibler, was a colossal influence on me in many ways—and not just me. In the course of four years, I sang with him in two college choruses and the symphonic chorus he directed, where, incidentally, I had the opportunity to sing many choral masterpieces with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His enthusiasm for choral music rubbed off on many of us, and I have him to thank for my ongoing interest in writing choral music. He was also responsible for my interest in going to Hungary, where I ended up studying for three years at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. He had studied there himself, and was something of a pioneer in the 1970's bringing the then little-known Kodály Method of music education to schools here. So, he was a big influence on my teaching career as well.

EE:I am not at all surprised to hear that Sondheim has provided inspiration. In fact, during our interview last week, I spoke to what I perceived to be a difficulty in setting non-lyrical, sometimes freeform text. I almost mentioned Sondheim as an example of someone who has made a career out of doing just this, and there are others, as well.

God bless Mr. Deibler for passing on a love of choral exploration to new generations of composers!

Ravel and Bartók… mmm… I readily connect the evocative nature of each of these composers’ styles to the work I have heard on your website, as well as my experience in preparing to perform "Waiting…" I feel more of Bartók’s influence throughout the orchestration in this piece. I have to say, the primary melodic motive in "Waiting…" is frequently quite haunting, or perhaps better described as extremely internal. So, this leads me to ask how you get the melodies/motives you use in your work (whether vocal or purely instrumental). On what do you pin your motives? Do you hear the motives with particular instruments in mind?

MK: The answer to that varies so much from piece to piece. In a choral (or any vocal) piece, it comes directly from the text. In musical theater, it can come from characters. In "Waiting...", for example, you'll notice that that word "waiting" is almost always heard as a descending minor third or perfect fourth. This originated with the first section (mentioned above), and it was always there for me to grab onto whenever I needed it. I wonder if you and others ever noticed that motive returning for the word "onward!" at the end of "Spiraling".

Sometimes, an idea that seems to have no particular significance seems to decide for itself that it's going to be a key motive, and I just go with it. I can't think of a specific case of this in "Waiting...",but in my previous piece, for string quartet, some of the most important, dominant material came about this way!

EE: Yes, I did notice the motive with the word “onward”, and that sequence seems rather similar to the sequences on the word “waiting”, earlier in the piece. I also notice it cropping up in the strings, particularly the rich cello line following “onward”.

We’re running out of time again! But I just have to squeeze in one more sort of whimsical question.

I have had, on occasion dreamt that I was speaking poetry. Most of the time, I could not remember, on waking, anything I said. One time, however, I was able to remember the first part of it, and then write a completion to the piece! Another composer I know wrote of having dreamed music that he tried to write down on waking, only to be disappointed at its incoherence. Have you have ever dreamed music? And were you able to remember the dream music long enough to write it down when you woke up? If so, how did that “dream work” come out?

MK: No, definitely not. I've heard of this happening, but not for me. As I said in our last chat, it's all trial and error and a lot of sweat!

EE: A good, honest, solid answer! That type of thing happened for me only the one time.

Well, our time is up. Thanks so much, Michael, for breaking away from your work to speak to these, some of them quirky, questions. And I want you to know that my colleagues and I are really looking forward to the concert on Saturday, where everything will come together. This piece has been delightful to explore. I feel privileged to be part of the Ensemble as we bring your piece forward for its first hearing! See you Saturday evening!

Our previous discussion of creative process can be seen at last week's blog entry.