Behind the Music: The Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Fund

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Carla Kihlstedt has stretched her experience of music far beyond the classical stage. The violinist, vocalist, and composer is a founding member of the acoustic instrumental group Tin Hat Trio, the more song-based 2 Foot Yard, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a 5-piece band that constructs rock-based music on an atypical array of instruments, many of them homemade. Kihlstedt has had the opportunity to work with Fred Frith, Tom Waits, Lisa Bielawa, Erik Friedlander, Don Byron, Ben Goldberg, Klangforum Wien, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. She has also collaborated with choreographers/directors such as Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions, and Shinichi Momo Koga and Allen Willner of Inkboat.

Molly Sheridan: From what I know about you, it seems like you started out on a classical path, and then you started pushing on that. So thinking about this Bang on a Can commission, do you feel like it’s just another extension of that pushing or is this something totally different for you?

Carla Kihlstedt: Actually for me, or at least the way I interpreted the commission, it in some ways is closer to my history as a classical museum—[laughs]—musician than most of the other things that I do. Having to write on paper a finished product of a piece to put in front of players to sight read down, work on for rehearsal and perform, that’s much closer to how I grew up and my early relationship to music than anything I do now, so in a way it’s kind of a throwback. But I’ve never been in that position as a composer before.

Most of the composing I do is for the groups that I’m in as a permanent member and as a performer. I realized early on that my strengths as a musician are that I’m a great collaborator, that’s what I get the most out of and enjoy the most. So I’ve created these three different bands with my friends that are really challenging and really great. None of them are about any one person’s vision—it’s very collective kind of writing and a collaborative approach to music. So this is really a different kind of situation where I am the chef of the operation and I tell everyone what to play to one degree or another. I have written some more open sections because I want to be able to use their own instincts and the player’s intuition. But it was challenging for me because of that.

MS: I wondered about that because I read about a project you started initially to find out what your own voice alone would sound like and even that ended up becoming a very collaborative project. This time it was on you to deliver this piece.

CK: And it was terrifying! [laughs] All the music that I’ve written in the last ten years has all been with people that I know so well as musicians and as friends that I can write an idea for them and really trust them to develop it in a certain way. I’ve developed these relationships over so many years that they really are a part of my process and I am a part of their process in that way. So when I was trying to figure out what to do I spent a lot of time initially listening to a lot of the Bang on a Can recordings which ended up being a mistake in a way. Well, not a mistake, but not something that ended up being helpful to me in the long run. They tend towards sort of a post-minimalist sort of aesthetic and that’s really not anything I’ve ever been involved with as a composer or a player. So the things that I kept hearing over and over again and the kind of aesthetic tendencies I was hearing in their recordings weren’t something that I was comfortable doing.

So I ended up writing something that in many ways is a more traditional kind of chamber piece. There’s a lot of openness in the beginning and towards the end of the second movement a lot of improvisation but is more traditionally notated and is a piece for instrumentalists. There’s no electronic component. But it was difficult for me to make the initial decisions about which direction to take it. Usually those decisions are emotionally very linked to my relationship with the players, and I don’t really have a relationship with these people. I hadn’t realized how much my musical ideas had to do with those actual friendships before, so that was interesting for me to see that so clearly.

MS: So once you got over that, where did that leave you?

CK: Actually, I gave myself a kind of conceptual foothold. I started getting interested in the development of communication technology and was reading about Samuel Morse and the first sentence that he ever uttered over his telegraph in a long distance communiqué. It was a biblical reference, “What hath God wrought?” And I ended up taking that sentence and applying it to different kinds of musical ideas. The first movement is based on the actual rhythms of that sentence in Morse code and I attached notes and chords to it. The second movement—it’s even traditional in that it’s a three-movement piece!—the second movement is my idea of a silent film soundtrack for the actual sped-up filmic version of the development of communication technology with everyone talking, the development of chatter in our lives, really. The third movement is a hymn. On a whim one day, I was taking a break from writing because I was kind of bashing my head against the wall with it and I just laid down on the carpet in this studio I was using and all of the sudden I was struck by this really silly idea. I was almost embarrassed to follow it through, but ended up doing it. I picked up the telephone and dialed in the sentence, “What hath God wrought?”. Every button has a dyad, a two-note interval that’s associated with it, at least on “old fashioned” phones. So I just dialed it in and transcribed the notes and it ended up being this beautiful hymn. I actually took that set of notes and re-harmonized it, added a couple of voices, and started using that as the basis for the third movement. Then on another whim I was thinking about work song and how with the development of technology the work song is kind of lost or at least losing ground. You can’t really sing in a factory. So I started looking into different work songs and folk songs. Of course the song that most represents the pace of technology is John Henry because John Henry was a steel-driving man who wanted to beat the machine and claimed that he could. And he actually did, he beat the machine through the mountain but then burst a blood vessel and died anyway. So it’s a tragic symbol of the impossibility of fighting technology. So I put that theme overtop of the hymn and for whatever miraculous reason, it worked really perfectly.

I actually haven’t heard the piece yet anywhere but on my keyboard and my head, so I really don’t have a very clear idea of whether it works as music or not, but I had a great time writing it.

MS: So you come out of a classical background but now you’ve talked about writing for colleagues who can pick up your meaning and what you’re going for. What sort of compositional training did you have?

CK: When I was seven, I took composition classes with this really funny old woman who had a big bouffant and two grand pianos with candelabra chandeliers on them and she always wore white patent leather go-go boots. I can’t remember her name, but I don’t even think those count. Growing up studying the violin, you have to do ear training and sight-reading and sight-singing, so I’m actually fairly quick. Reading music is like reading English for me. It’s a different thing having to articulate on paper what your musical ideas are, and I actually have a newfound respect for anyone who attempts to do that. But there are things that I realized. There’s a certain element of chaos that I really wanted to create at the end of the second movement, and I realized that no amount of writing fast chromatic notes was really going to get that, so I ended up writing up to a point and then giving frameworks for improvisations, figuring that these players are great players. They’d be more comfortable improvising what is comfortable to them than reading notes that I think would sound good. So sometimes it was difficult to articulate in visual writing all of my ideas, but the actual writing of notes is pretty easy for me.

I was talking to J.G. Thirlwell right before our interview at WNYC, and I got very jealous because he said he had a transcriber, and I was like, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that!” I did the whole thing by hand, which in some ways was appropriate to the piece from a philosophical perspective. But, oh my Lord, it took so long and was so painstaking, just sitting on the floor for however many days it took me to write out the score and then the parts in pen. I had this whole system to pencil in the notes so the bars are all exactly the right length and then pen in the heads with a .6 pen and then pen in the stems with a .4 pen and then erase. It’s was this incredibly painstaking process which I’m not sure if I’ll do again.

MS: We’ll have to at least get you a copy of Finale or Sibelius or something.

CK: Exactly, when I get the back half of my commission check I’m going to go straight to the store and buy Finale for myself.

MS: So now that you have been through this sort of compositional process, will it affect you going forward?

CK: Yeah, I think it will. In the most obvious way, as I was trying to figure out which direction to take the piece in the beginning, I wrote many, many sketches for many different kinds of pieces. Now I have a whole notebook full of things to go back develop. I have an outline for a string quartet. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and then threw most of it away. And I think I’ll probably try to do more of this kind of composing. I think it will inspire me to do more private and in solitude kind of work. And it forced me to get a keyboard—I’ve been meaning to get one forever—so I’ve kind of assembled some more practical tools for composing that I hadn’t every really had to sit down and make happen. I’m setting up a studio in my house now that it will be a much more efficient kind of place to write.

In another way it made me really excited to be in the groups I’m in. I would go to rehearsals at night with my band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and never be happier—to be in an actual room with actual people bouncing ideas off of them in real time. It was really so satisfying. So in one way it made me appreciate what I do have as a musician and a performer and in another way it also was really exciting to have to be the sole engineer of a musical piece.

MS: Is it strange for you not to be performing?

CK: Yeah. I don’t think—is this true?—I don’t think I’ve ever written something that I wasn’t performing in ever. I was even commissioned to write David Krakauer, the clarinetist, a piece a couple of years ago and I wrote a duet for the two of us because I approach writing from an experiential place. I’m primarily a performer and the writing has always been a way to further the performing. They go hand in hand, but this is really the first time that I’m just going to sit back.

MS: Do you think you’re going to be able to sit still?

CK: I have no idea. At this point I really feel like this is a draft because the way that I work, I need time with people to push and pull things, so I’m looking at this whole thing as a draft of the piece. And it’s a very public draft, which is interesting and nerve wracking, but at a certain point I was getting really stressed out about having to make all these little decisions that as a player I wouldn’t want to have someone make for me. Like how specific should I be? I really want to have time to work with these guys and trust them to learn the music and add their own two cents to it. It’s not really going to happen that way in this particular situation, so at a certain point I just decided that the best part of it has happened already. The fact that I had to meet this deadline and they’re all great musicians, so we’ll all learn from it what I did wrong or right or what I’d do differently next time and probably rework it at some point.

It’s a great thing that Bang on a Can does by asking people that aren’t necessarily used to this kind of process. So it’s a brave and really great thing that they take the risk to ask people who aren’t used to just tossing off scores. But it also means that there’s a lot more uncertainty in how it’s going to turn out as a final product.

MS: It makes me think, too, in the situation you’re normally working in, if a piece isn’t working you have a pretty immediate opportunity to fix it or try it a few different ways or scrap it altogether. A piece for an ensemble the size of Bang on a Can, it could be a long time even before you get to hear it again.

CK: Yeah. Luckily, I’ve got a friend in California where I live who hasn’t heard the piece but just emailed me and said, “I really want to get some people together and perform this piece out here in your hometown.” So, maybe I’ll end up having another hometown version of it and a chance to work it out.

The hardest thing in a way is the instrumentation. It’s very bizarre. It’s why I kept on writing string quartet material by accident. It’s not an ensemble that’s an established kind of sound; it’s not an obvious choice. So when they commission, they’re developing a whole body of work for that exact group. It allows a lot of flexibility aesthetically, because they can go the rock-ier direction with drums and electric guitar or they can go more experimental and quieter. So they have a really huge range. So I really obsessed over this and I still wish I had another month.

MS: But you must have put some time in if you hand-copied all the parts.

CK: Yes, indeed.

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