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A Conversation with Carson Kievman


Composer Carson Kievman, founder and director of the SoBe Institute of the Arts in Miami Beach, has had a long and diverse career, including study with Messiaen and work with Joseph Papp, and a catalogue that includes seven operas and six symphonies. His Symphony no. 2(42) was released on New Albion, and he is raising funds to record and release Symphony no. 4 (Biodiversity). We talked via Skype on June 13, 2013.

©Carson Kievman

©Carson Kievman

TM: Please talk about where you were born and grew up, and what kind of music you had in your family.
CK: I was born in North Hollywood to a Hollywood family – my mother was a jazz singer, and my father was an actor, and they met while they were under contract to Columbia Studios. My mother would dub the singing voices for actresses who couldn’t sing – in those days they used to do that a lot. Now they just let them sing, even if they are bad. I was a studio kid. I had musical influence on both sides. My mother grew up in Chicago, and her father died when she was sixteen. So at that point she went to work as a singer in clubs in order to support her whole family. She sang with Skitch Henderson, and Teddy Wilson – jazz people. My father grew up in a family that was mostly musicians except for him, although he also was a musician when he was younger. Two of the four siblings went to Juilliard. My uncle Louis was a very successful musician, was a violist and a member of a couple of legendary string quartets – the Stuyvesant Quartet, the Musical Art Quartet. He went to Juilliard before it was called Juilliard – it was the Musical Art Institute. He also played in the viola section of the NBC Symphony with Toscanini, and when they decided not to put concerts on TV anymore they sent the whole orchestra out to Los Angeles, to be a back-up studio orchestra. He moved out there, and made a fortune doing recording sessions with Frank Sinatra, and so forth.

I had the classical influence from my grandfather, who had a huge collection of classical music, and I had jazz from my mother, so I grew up listening to Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra as well as Tchaikovsky and even some Stravinsky…

TM: What was it like growing up in Hollywood at that time? If I think of Los Angeles in those days I immediately think of Frank Zappa.
CK: He was older than me. I actually communicated with him at one point – he wanted me to do an arrangement of one of his pieces for some recording. It didn’t happen for one reason or another.
It was a strange time. My parents were a typical Hollywood couple at the time –going out every night, drinking, carrying on, …my father was a studio contract player, and did around a hundred movies, but he was screwing around too much, and stopped getting jobs. He went under the name of Michael Towne – that was his acting name. He had a fan club and everything. My brother, who was two years older, had asthma, and he was really sick, so we moved out to Tucson so that he could recover. I don’t remember too much about studio life – I just remember that I was on the lot every day for about four or five years.
I actually had a very bad childhood after that – pretty horrifying, actually. My mother and father divorced when we were living in Tucson. My father went to work for a television station – he was a TV pioneer. This was in about 1954, 1956. Tucson, at the time, was basically just one strip, with some stores, and some suburbs right next to the desert. He had a show like the Beany and Cecil show, where he did puppets, and he had his own talk show at the Desert Inn – the Mike Kievman Show – sort of like the Mike Douglas Show.
Eventually, he fell for some hot young thing, my parents broke up, and we ended up moving back to Los Angeles and moved in with my grandmother. We were extremely poor at that time, and he didn’t help much. So I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.
I started music in school when I was about six or seven, although I had always been listening to it, and singing with my mother.

TM: Was she still singing when you moved back to LA?
CK: No, she had a few gigs here and there, but basically she was too distraught over the divorce, and let that get in the way of her life. He was everything to her. She ended up working for a doctor, an obstetrician, as an assistant – the doctor’s family was wealthy, went to New York every year to see the Broadway shows, but we were the working class.
We lived in a neighborhood that was horrible. It wasn’t a ghetto, but terrible things would happen. My best friend when I was in middle school had a very strange family – they were from Oklahoma, they were Okies, and used to go to square dances. He had a brother, sister, mother and father, and in the end, the mother had an affair, the father hung himself, the older brother ended up in prison, and the sister overdosed on drugs, and he ended up in prison. That was the kind of neighborhood that I lived in.

©Carson Kievman

©Carson Kievman

TM: What was the name of the neighborhood?
CK: Now it’s an affluent area called Granada Hills, but not then.
I started playing violin when I was six or seven years old, and switched after a few years to guitar. I always did music, but I never thought that I would end up being a musician. I was a writer, and used to write a lot, and then I thought I would be an actor. I did a lot of acting, and was a member of Actors’ Equity when I was young, and also SAG and AFTRA. I thought I would either be an actor or director, for theater or for films. I did a bunch of commercials, and TV shows. Then I started directing. This was in the sixties, and I ended up moving to San Francisco, during the heyday of the hippie era, and got involved in a commune. I started making a movie about life in that period, and got someone to donate money to make the movie, and I hated it. I hated the process – all the shit that goes on in order to make a film. But I ended up doing the music for the film myself, and I loved that, and that’s when I decided to focus more on music. I had done all that stuff professionally as an actor, and had directed a bunch of plays. But at that point I decided to go more towards music full time. It was only later that I decided to bring theater, which had been in my past, back into my music.

TM: What year was that film?
CK: 1969. It was inspired by the John Lennon song, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, and that was what it was called. It never got released, and I never finished editing it because all kinds of hell broke loose.

TM: Do you still have that in your archive somewhere?
CK: I think I still have the film. God only knows if it is still good or not. Somewhere in storage I have all the boxes of 35mm film.

TM: So you could resurrect the soundtrack if you like.
CK: Theoretically. Technology for music has always been so fluid, unlike film, so that a lot of the music that I wrote and put onto the computer is nearly impossible to get access to. I used to use a program where the guy who developed it is dead, and it is not compatible with Windows, Apple, anything, which has caused me a great deal of consternation.
In the meantime, I have skipped over a lot of terrible stuff. My mother went from relationship to relationship, various marriages, battles, blood, there were stabbings, there was police – my childhood was really nasty. My father was gone, so it was all my mother’s life, which was really insane. When I was sixteen, she overdosed on drugs, and died. That was a major blow in my life, obviously. It affected me, to this day, and probably had a lot to do with the direction that I took, going toward music, and especially toward experimental music and the classical world, probably just to get the hell away from the real world, instead of pursuing a more commercial route, which I could have done with my acting, or directing, or even with music, had I chosen to. I lived in LA – I could have been a film composer.
I went to CalArts, and instead of getting involved with the film world, like many people did, I moved to New York.

TM: Were you studying popular music on guitar?
CK: We didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t get lessons. I did have some lessons from a classical guitarist, and some lessons from a friend of my mother who was a jazz guitarist. I learned mostly on my own at that point. I was a typical teenager, got involved in a couple of bands, did some rock and roll, and started writing songs when I was fifteen or sixteen, wrote hundreds of songs…
The reason I went to CalArts, and getting influenced by people like Jim Tenney and Earle Brown, was because I went to visit my father, after my mother died, got hooked up with someone who had a recording studio, and tried making a demo, and I remember trying to do things that were much more complicated than you generally do with pop music, and in doing so I realized that I didn’t know what the f—ck I was doing. I had played, but I didn’t know the details, didn’t know anything about harmony or theory, and I was lost. They were pushing me to do simpler things, and I wanted to be more complex, and after that, I decided to get serious. So I started taking lessons – I was living in Atlanta with my father at the time – from a woman who did harpsichord/keyboard theory who used to work with Robert Patrick, and then I met Charles Knox, who was teaching at Georgia State, and applied to CalArts, and got in.
The first year I got no scholarship, and they didn’t even make me officially a music major, but by the second year I had caught up, and not only was a full music major, but got a scholarship, which increased every year until I was on a free ride at the end. I learned really fast, and necessity is the mother of invention – my necessity was intense, and so I was very inventive.
In my second year at CalArts I was invited to the Darmstadt music festival, and by the third year I was a Bernstein Fellow at Tanglewood, and by the time I graduated had had more success than many of the faculty. At Darmstadt I got to talk to people like Stockhausen, Ligeti was there that year, Mauricio Kagel, Berio –a plethora of superstars in the world of contemporary music.
Earle Brown came to teach at CalArts. I started working with him, and he became a lifelong friend. I met Morty Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff….the big influence at that point was Jim Tenney, who was my primary composition teacher once I had been accepted to the composition program.

TM: Had those names been part of your universe before you were at CalArts? Or was it just like Boom!
CK: Boom!
I started with Tenney. The first year that I was at CalArts, I got into Tenney’s seminar, and he played, live, the Ives Concord Sonata, and that was the beginning of the end for me. I heard a lot of Ruggles, Varese – that world that I had never heard of, along with rest of CalArts – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, all of that of stuff. It was totally not part of my world.

TM: What year did you start there?
CK: 1973. I advanced so fast that I got my bachelor’s degree in 1975. By 1977 I had moved to New York, and although I wasn’t even there they gave me a master’s. Having gone through what I went through as a child, I was starving to get out of the world that I had come from.

TM: You got to CalArts with some facility on guitar.
CK: Guitar, and violin. But I didn’t know a lot, and my theory skills were minimal. I dove in, and took theory with Leonard Stein, who was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and Lucky Mosko, and Jim Tenney….I learned really, really fast. Although it took a long time for the more academic aspects of music, the serious theoretical aspects, to get into my system. I had a big disadvantage in comparison with a lot of other people who had studied at regular classes and lessons, people like those who go to SoBe Arts, where I work now. I went to CalArts with a lot of music background, a great sense of music, I had lived with music all my life, but I didn’t have the academic background. I learned it very fast.

©Carson Kievman

©Carson Kievman

TM: What were the things you were writing at CalArts?
CK: After the pop song era, I got into CalArts, and the only piece that I gave them was called “Ragged Tacks” –it was a funky ragtime piece that was really poorly composed, notationwise, but it showed something. And I started writing small pieces for different people that I knew there – a trio for Stephen Braunstein, who is now at the San Francisco Symphony, Shem Guibbory, a great violinist who is in New York, and Armand Ambrosini, the clarinetist [A Common Trio, 1973]. Things like that. The Danzi Quintet came to CalArts, and I wrote a woodwind quintet for them [Sirocco, 1974]. These were all pretty rudimentary. Then I started writing experimental stuff, like a piece called Strings Rumble for a string ensemble that had a big battle, and started walking off the stage, and A Concerto for Bassoon and Fire-Alarm System, 1973.
At that time, CalArts prided itself on being a multi-disciplinary institution, founded by Walt Disney, so all the arts would interact. But they didn’t really do that. That’s what they said they were about, but when I got there, there was very little like that happening. So I started my own program, involving students from different parts of the institution, from all the schools, called the Glass Bead Game project, based on an idea from the book Magister Ludi, by Herman Hesse. I got approval from the administration, and started writing a big piece for this group. We would meet every week, and people would share things, I was taking notes, and the work would involve painters and dancers and sculptors and actors and musicians, and we did it at CalArts, in the modular theater there [A Glass Bead Game, 1974]. That was the beginning of my unfortunate decision that everything that I was doing was big, longline, massive in scale….I was constantly warned by teachers not to do that, especially by Earle Brown. He was probably so right, because it was ridiculous – I started writing instrumental theater, music-theater, at that point …but I had a lot of success with that. By 1978 I was composer and director in residence at the Public Theater in New York, working with Joe Papp, with my own productions, and had two European tours of my work. I was a docent at Darmstadt, and had performances in Switzerland, France, England – so there was no way I was going to listen to him, to them, because of that. The result of that was that I started writing even bigger works – full-scale operas. And to this day not a single one of my operas has been performed, and I have written seven. One was done last year in a concert version, without orchestra, backed up with tape, at SoBe Arts – that was Hamlet… (Fairy Tales, (Songs of the White Woman) will finally be performed with full staging and instruments at SoBe Arts in May, 2014). And then I started writing big symphonies – this endless flow of largeness. It suited me, and had I had any family support for what I do, resources to live on, I might have been completely happy to keep on doing that even if they never got performed.
I am working on a sixth symphony, and have written at least seven operas and twenty-three musical theater, multi-media works. It was hard to listen to teachers saying write for your friends, when I was getting such accolades when I was young. I didn’t know that they were right in the long run, because we are a youth-oriented culture. Ageism is a big issue, but in those days you didn’t notice that because most of the very successful composers were older – Berio, Ligeti. We didn’t have ageism in those days, like we have now.
Our teachers were post-war, and they had a great curiosity about what was not allowed to be seen or heard during the war.

TM: The esthetic shift that took place after 1979 was very evident if you talk to people that were active in the sixties and seventies.
CK: I can’t say I was active in the sixties, but I was very active in the seventies, and it’s true, things have completely changed.

TM: So you left CalArts with your bachelor’s…
CK: I had already been approved for my master’s at the end of 1976, but they couldn’t technically give it to me until 1977. I didn’t want to hang around any more, especially after I broke up with my girlfriend. She had moved to New York to dance with the Twyla Tharp company. I moved to New York in 1977, and got the master’s in absentia. I met a number of people right away – Bill Hellerman, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk – and I met a painter who was looking for a roommate. He had what was basically an illegal loft in Tribeca. It was 5000 square feet, which we divided so I had 2500 square feet, and it cost me $250 a month, on Chambers and West Broadway. Tribeca was all industrial then. To do your laundry you had to go at least three stops on the subway.
I ended up on a tour of Europe with some other composers, including Carl Stone, and moved to Paris. I was there for almost a year. I had already been a Leonard Bernstein fellow, and got a commission to write a music theater work for Tanglewood, since when I was there I had done a piece called The Earth Only Endures. During the Bicentennial I wrote this piece about the annihilation of the American Indian, done behind screens with hand gestures, and it had been fairly successful. I was invited back with a commission from the Fromm Foundation and the Tanglewood Festival to write a musical theater piece for the festival, something that they had not been doing since the 1960s.
So I moved back to the States and did a series of things. I got into the McDowell Colony. I lived there for about six months, which you are not supposed to do, but I got all these extensions, and then went to Tanglewood as composer and stage director in residence. I wasn’t the main composer in residence, who at the time was Jacob Druckman, I think. To go back, having been a fellow at Tanglewood was important for my life because I met Olivier Messiaen, and became a student of his, and would periodically go to France and study with him.
So I lived in the apartment above the garage at the Koussevitzky estate for the whole summer, and did a piece called Wake Up, It’s Time to Go to Bed, which was very autobiographical, about my mother and my life, and it got a rave reviews in the Boston Globe and The Village Voice. It just so happened that Gail, Joe Papp’s wife, who was director of play development at the Public Theater, came up and saw it, and invited me to come down and meet Joe Papp in New York. I went back to New York, and he put me on salary as composer in residence to develop a show at the Public Theater. I moved to the Village, and now was back in New York again.

TM: Please talk about that piece. It’s a wonderful title.
CK: It’s a pretty cool piece – I would like to do it again someday. It’s a large theater piece, one act, but fairly long. The Boston Globe: Soundrama causes stir at Fromm festival” “The Soundrama actually takes place in a single moment-the moment that hovers between one thing and its opposite. Keats talked about it in a line; Joyce expanded it into “Finnegan’s Wake.” Our Orpheus has a crowded mind early in the morning, and in it childhood memory, present loss, and future resolution are simultaneous presences? Like the primordial beginnings of Wagner’s “Das Reingold.” It recalls the dawn-garglings of Ravel?s “Daphnis and Chloe.” Why, one wonders, should the Fromm Foundation subsidize someone’s therapy? On the other hand, great art is supposed to therapeutic for those who make it and for those who respond to it. And it was hard not to respond to this piece. Conflicting and compelling personality emerge from it. I was fascinated and oddly moved.”]. [Village Voice: “Itchily innovative composers still can work in New York?s popular musical theater. Exhibit A: Stephan Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Stree” at the Uris. Exhibit B: Carson Kievman’s triple bill of “The Temporary & Tentative Extended Piano,” “Multinationals & The Heavens,” and “Wake Up, It?s Time To Go Bed!” at the Public. There may be others. I hope so. Nevertheless, taking into account the recorded samplings I’ve heard from the competition, I have to salute these two shows and none other for fighting the good fight against music-theater solely of, by, and for the tired businessman. As a builder of music-theater constructions, Kievman is a wizard! Orpheus as a modern artist-musician is depicted in music of isolation. Jazz-like riffs murmur, moan, wail, and scream from separate cells of shadow – the cumulative effect is often overpowering. Kievman and his musicians conspire to reveal a theater where music is not content to accompany speaking, singing, or dancing, and is not inclined, no matter how entertainingly, to imitate non-musical components, but takes over, instrumentally pure, tolerating no accomplice-arts. To the extent that Kievman’s present work achieves this, it is stunning!”]

I started writing this at the McDowell Colony. I was reading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust. I was fascinated by the idea of a place that was another world, between waking and being asleep, right when you wake up in the morning, just before you become fully conscious. Every morning, before I was fully awake, I would grab a piece of paper, and write down whatever came into my mind. That’s how I ended up writing the piece – every morning for six months, I would write a little bit more. It was very autobiographical, and cloaked in the Orpheus/Eurydice legend, all about loss of love. It was basically thirty minutes of pure music, with movement, but not dance. You see a woman isolated in a tube; three guys come out in business suits, they lie down, they go to sleep, when they wake up, they open their briefcases, and one of them pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the mouth; a little boy runs out; there’s all this action, and suddenly a guy stands up in the audience and starts talking. When you walk into the theater you are handed an envelope, and it says “do not open this envelope until Orpheus opens his”. You don’t know who Orpheus is, you don’t know anything. So Orpheus opens his envelope, everyone opens theirs, and they start reading about this guy who has gone to hell and back to recover love. After a few minutes he starts talking and then goes on stage…that’s the kind of piece it is. It was very successful.
The title comes from my mother, who had so many relationships, and got married so many times, and of course, she finally killed herself. In the show, so many times we hear “Wake up, honey, it’s time to go to bed”, because the kid falls asleep in the living room, waiting for his mother to come home. “Wake up, honey, meet your new daddy!”

TM: You’re in New York, it’s the late seventies, you are doing theater for Joseph Papp – where do you go from there?
CK: The show was a big success critically with reviews in the New York Times, and a lot of people came to see it. After it was over Joe Papp called me into his office – this was another of those life-changing moments, where I made poor choices, at least for the real world, maybe not artistically – and he said “This was good. What are we going to do next?” I said “ I have this theater piece I want to write, called “California Mystery Park”, about a dysfunctional American family after World War II. He said “That’s a nice idea, but I would like you to apply your sound-theater ideas to Hamlet.” He had done it in many different versions over the years and he said “I’ll pay you $500 a week for as long as it takes.” At that time that was still a good deal of money. I had already been being paid by him for the previous three years or so, not only my production, but I had advised him whenever there was a play that had music, and so forth….
He said “I want you to do Hamlet”, and I said no. Looking back on it, it’s got to have been the stupidest thing I ever did. Everything would have been different. I would have had major support from the Public Theater when Joe Papp was still at his height. Hamlet, had I done it at that point, would have surely gone to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and even to Broadway. But I said no. Stupid me, I am an artist, so I have to do what I have to do. He wanted me to do what he wanted me to do, being an artist as a producer. That was the end of that relationship for a while.

But it was not just because I didn’t want to do it – I was honest, and said “I’m not ready – it’s too heavy, it’s too much, I am still finding my way, I’d like to do this first, and then look at it again.”

Many years later, in 1987, I went back to him, and said “I’m ready”. And he said “OK”, and instantly put me on salary. For four years he paid me $500 a month, and every time I would finish an act I would fly to New York, meet him either at the Public or at his house in Katonah, and we would go through what I had worked on. After four years, he wanted to do a reading of some of it. He said “let’s do an hour of it, let’s cast it, get some pianists, and do a reading for some directors…” And we did. It was a hugely successful reading, and he called me into his office once it was over, and said “I want to tell you the truth. Honestly, I really didn’t think you could do it. It’s not you, but Shakespeare’s language, especially Hamlet, is already so musical, that what could you do to enhance that? And you did it. Let’s do a production at the Delacorte Theater. Let me contact a couple of directors, because I don’t think you should direct this one yourself.” He decided he wanted Jerome Robbins to come out of retirement to direct it. He wrote to Jerome Robbins, and got the answer that he really liked the project, but didn’t want to direct theater anymore. Then a bunch of things started happening, with the battle about the NEA with Jesse Helms about funding for artists, with Mapplethorpe, etc. Joe Papp took a leave to battle with the NEA, he refused funding from the NEA unless they would fund without discrimination – it took a lot of his attention. Then his son got AIDS, the summer passed, and he himself got cancer, and within a year he was dead. The person who took his place was George C. Wolfe, and if you know his body of work, Hamlet would be the last thing that he would be interested in at that time.
Had I done it when he first asked me, it would have been a different situation.
I have a story like that about every one of my operas, by the way.
We did a staged reading, book in hand, last year at SoBe Arts.

©Carson Kievman

©Carson Kievman

TM: How did you get from this environment to the time when you ended up at Princeton?
CK: I got married at around the time I was doing Hamlet, and my daughters were born in 1993 and 1995. I was continuing to compose, was Composer-in-Residence at the Florida Philharmonic, and had a lot of pressure financially. When I got out of CalArts, I had this notion, probably the warped thinking of a kid with post-traumatic stress, that I didn’t know enough to be teaching, and that I should really be doing the art of music.
A lot of people who were supporting me and were important to me had died when I was working on Hamlet, including Luigi Nono, an important mentor to me, Messiaen, my own father, Joe Papp – the list goes on. It was tumultuous. I felt like “maybe although I have a lot to do, perhaps I should go into teaching.” I looked into it, and found out that the master’s was no longer a terminal degree. You couldn’t get hired at university without a Ph.D. I applied to Princeton and Columbia, got offers from both, and for a number of reasons having to do with my kids, I chose Princeton.

TM: It’s hard to say which between Columbia and Princeton would have been better for a theater composer.
CK: Neither, in all honesty. At Columbia I would have been in New York City, and it was a DMA, not a Ph.D, and I wouldn’t have spent so much time writing the dissertation. When I went to Princeton, I told them “look, Columbia is offering me a teaching fellowship, a place to live in New York City, and I don’t have to write a dissertation, just a paper, and a large-scale work.” They said, “OK, you can do the same thing here, and we’ll give your kids free day-care at the university school.” So I took, though later they reneged, and I had to write the dissertation….
By that time I had had a great deal of success in the real world of music and theater, and had already made a recording of my second symphony, and my third symphony, and the second symphony, which was commissioned by the Philharmonic to commemorate Mozart, was a big success, with rave reviews all over the country, and was even in the top 10 for sales for classical CDs for a while. I didn’t really study composition – I had a few sessions with Paul Lansky. He had some interesting seminars, including “Words and Music”. I took a seminar with Steve Mackey on Debussy…but primarily my learning process was from people like Kofi Agawu and Scott Burnham – the musicologists. Rob Wegman and I became very close. I learned a lot more of the things that I didn’t know from those guys.
Learning how to write academically was an incredible challenged, and that is why Rob, and Scott, and Kofi were so influential.

TM: I think of Kofi primarily as a theorist, but not one who has said much about contemporary music.
CK: I was filling in the holes about music that I didn’t know. I quote Kofi a lot in my dissertation, since I was rethinking music history. It’s not this long line stretching to the present day. I learned a lot in studying his book on symbols in classical-period music. From Rob, I learned about early music, and from Scott, about romantic music. Contemporary music I learned about from the horses’s mouth – from Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulez, and so on.

TM: If music history is not a linear succession of canonical names, what is it?
CK: The two analytical perspectives were Ockeghem and Ligeti. The idea was that music is more like an ocean, with the classical period being a bubble popping out of the infinite ocean. The purpose of music at the beginning was to take us OUT of our day-to-day lives, in an expression of otherworldly transcendence, to bring us closer to that spiritual thing, call it God, or whatever. Today, we have a lot of composers with that same goal. In between, you have a bubble that pops out of the ocean, and becomes self-reflective, talking about itself, with horn calls and so forth, and by the Romantic it gets bigger and bigger, and the bubble bursts back into the ocean, after about 1940, 1950.

TM: We have this deification of Beethoven, but in talking with another composer last year the two composers that he singled out as being formative voices for him were Palestrina and Ligeti.
CK: In writing this book, it turned out that for me, what makes these great composers “great”, like Mozart or Beethoven, are the moments that Scott used to call “purple patches”. The music is going along in its typical classical structure, and suddenly a complete surprise happens. It throws you off from where it is going, and you are in this other place – “Wow!” – and then it brings you back. Those are the moments that tap into that ocean, because the thing about the music of Gesualdo, or Ockeghem or Machaut is the avoidance of cadence, the continuous surprise, the multiple voices that are constantly changing. They tap into that, and that’s what make those composers particularly great is those moments.

TM: How does the ocean, the “purple patch” work in the music that you write?
CK: I am constantly striving for that. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not so much. The most important thing in music is the element of surprise, to bring us away from where we are and into another world. That is my ultimate goal, and the pieces in which I have been most successful are the ones in which I come closest to achieving that. Even if the whole thing is not that, there are moments of otherworldliness, and that is important to me. Sometimes when you take those moments and fit them into the context of moments that aren’t, the contrast is even more astounding.

TM: The late French baroque composer, Guillemain –a contemporary said of him that he got up every morning thinking about how he could be more bizarre. How do you get out of your habits, and do something different, and more bizarre?
CK: I think the key is to not care what people think, and to not be struggling and worrying about how you are going to survive, and just let it all go. That’s hard to do, especially when you make your living in music. That’s why Ives made the choices that he did, to not make his living as a composer. But it’s hard. If you are lucky, like Ligeti, and some film-maker uses your music, you have a lot of opportunities, since you don’t have to do something else to survive.

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