Portland: A Kyr for Insomnia

Brett Campbell
M.E. and Brett Campbell

Robert Kyr just enjoyed the kind of months most composers dream of. Recent events have tested the 54-year-old composer’s self-asserted ability to get by on a couple hours per night, however, and forced him to trade in his dream time just to keep up with the demands of his waking life.

In Portland, the new music ensemble Third Angle performed his second Violin Concerto. Three days later, the University of Oregon School of Music in Eugene staged an all-Kyr concert in which his faculty colleagues and some students performed his music, with the composer himself playing various keyboards and percussion instruments during his chamber symphony Transfigured Lightning. Later that week back in Portland, the David York Ensemble sang Kyr’s “Alleluia for Peace” at the beautiful Grotto. Then, just a few weeks later, the Oregon Repertory Singers, whom Kyr once served as composer-in-residence, performed his The Divine Image for cello, chorus and piano at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the Yale Symphony Orchestra played Kyr’s Fanfare for a New Dawn at UO.

Somewhere in there, when he wasn’t zooming up and down Interstate 5 to participate in rehearsals for all these performances or teaching classes and attending to his other duties as chair of UO’s composition department, Kyr found time to fly to Minneapolis for several performances of his a cappella work “Living Peace,” that was earlier sung in Nagasaki for that city’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the world’s last (so far) atomic bomb strike. The work is a transformation of the third movement of his tenth symphony, Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light, a collaboration with Japanese writer, calligrapher, and artist Kazuaki Tanahashi, commissioned by the city’s Peace Museum.

Such a frantic schedule is nothing new for Kyr, who obtained music degrees from Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, and also studied at London’s Royal College of Music, MIT, and Darmstadt before joining the UO music faculty in 1990. He’s since made the composition department into a model of stylistic diversity—requiring, for example, that students compose for Balinese gamelan and study non-European musical forms. Over the past decade or so, he created several ongoing contemporary music performance series at the university and sextupled the size of the composition program.

His pedagogical emphasis on diversity reflects Kyr’s vast range of interests, which have produced a decidedly non-doctrinaire compositional voice that embraces influences from around the world and across the centuries. His music is intentionally quite accessible to broad audiences, while, especially in recent years, increasingly free from conventional constraints. The influences of Indonesian gamelan music, medieval music, and American hymns are especially evident.

For all its diverse influences, much of Kyr’s music shares an overriding concern for peace, as many of his titles attest. He grew up in an Ohio family where World War II’s wounds still burned, inspiring his lifelong pacifism. From 1999-2002, he directed a special UO program, Waging Peace in the New Millennium, that sponsored community workshops and lectures on peace and issued an international call for scores resulting in the creation of a sizable repertoire of new choral music on peace-related texts.

Nature has also been a frequent presence in Kyr’s work. He moved to the Northwest to be closer to its soaring vistas and also has drawn upon the canyons of the Southwest; he spends part of each year composing in a New Mexico monastery.

Kyr’s frenetic pace shows no sign of slowing. In September, Chanticleer sings Kyr’s In Praise of Music, which it commissioned, in the San Francisco Bay Area. In December, the Moscow State Chamber Choir premieres his Elegy. Next April, the New West Symphony in Los Angeles is scheduled to premiere his twelfth symphony, Yosemite: Journey of Light, a collaboration with photographer Lawrence Janss, in which images of Yosemite will be projected on a screen above the orchestra. A month later, the Oregon Symphony plays his twelfth symphony in Portland, and its string quartet debuts his third quartet alongside performances of his first two. The acclaimed Portland-based choir Cappella Romana will perform his settings of environmental and spiritual texts related to nature as it tours the Northwest and other regions in 2007-8.

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Brett Campbell writes about music and other arts for The Wall Street Journal, Oregon Quarterly, and other publications. He lives in downtown Portland, Oregon and plays and sings in Gamelan Sari Pandhawa and the Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan. He is completing a biography of Lou Harrison, co-authored with composer and music professor Bill Alves, with editorial assistance from M.E. (pictured above).