John King standing against a wall covered with a few branches.
John King: It All Becomes Music

John King: It All Becomes Music

About a month ago I was surfing through my Facebook news feed. Being afraid of rabbit holes, I tend never to do this very attentively or very frequently, but nevertheless something wound up catching my eye. It was just two lines, not even parsed into a proper sentence, about a recent performance. Even though I see tons of these every day, this one probably stood out because it included an image from the score. I was immediately drawn to it because there were no bar lines and it was just a single vocal part that was almost entirely in monotone. Then I noticed the post was from the eclectic composer John King and it had a link to his website. I loved several string quartets by King that I heard Ethel perform over a decade ago, both live and on recordings, and I also remembered an earlier, rather bizarre “double opera” that he had co-written with Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel which premiered at the Warsaw Autumn in 1999. But I had never before seen any of his scores. So I took a deep breath and clicked on the link to his website.

A screen capture of a John king Facebook post featuring an excerpt from a musical score preceded by the following text: "recent premiere of "The Park" by Loadbang....this excerpt entitled "larry" named after one of the denizens of Tompkins Square Park...]"

What I found there astonished me for a variety of reasons. I knew that he embraced a wide variety of styles—from Cagean indeterminacy and post-minimalism to rock, blues, and free improvisation. But I was hardly prepared for all the other kinds of music I found there: canons for chorus, orchestral pieces, a North Indian classical raga exposition, Baroque imitations, and numerous experimental operas. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only could I not believe how much music he had written—for example, 14 pieces totaling some six hours of music just last year—but also how open he was about all of it, including a piccolo concerto he composed when he was in high school. Everything was there with no hierarchy other that chronology. It was one of the most interesting composer websites I had ever visited. I had to talk to him for NewMusicBox!

Normally I prepare for these talks by attempting to listen to every single related scrap of music I can get my hands on. But there was no way I could do this with John King’s work; there was just too much of it. What was the secret to his being so immensely prolific and also so non-judgmental about it all? What could the rest of us learn from his equanimity?

I’m still not sure I got conclusive answers to these particular questions after spending a couple of hours with him at his home in the East Village, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park, which for him is a muse.  In fact, if anything, I walked away with even more questions. But I did leave there feeling inspired and more excited than I have in quite some time about the creative process. Our conversation was periodically drowned out by construction taking place in the neighborhood. Somehow that seemed appropriate though.  Initially Molly and I deliberated about how to proceed and what we might do to minimize the disturbances. King, however, was completely nonplussed by any of these additional unwanted sounds. For him it just added another sonic element, one that could potentially lead somewhere that was interesting. He told us stories about how birds chirping outside his window became part of one of his compositions. Occasionally he’d even point out moments when a hammer hit was synchronous with one of his syllables. Being so open, even to what others would perceive as noise or interruption, is perhaps as open-minded as you can be musically.

A conversation at John King’s apartment in New York City
June 15, 2016—10:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Might it be too noisy for us to talk?

John King: I think we should just treat it as New York.

FJO:  True, and considering that indeterminate sound is actually an important part of your aesthetic, the random construction sounds might actually be appropriate.

JK:  I remember John Cage speaking about car alarms and store alarms in the ‘70s.  That store alarm always went off on a Friday evening at six, and it would be going all weekend long because the people wouldn’t come back.  I remember Cage saying that for a while it sort of got to him, but then the way he managed it was to imagine where the sound was coming from. He just thought about the spatialization of that alarm—it’s on, say, 17th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Then the unnervingness of it would just disappear for him.  Sometimes I try to do that.  Sometimes I’m successful.

FJO: For me, when I can hear slight variations over time, it goes from being this constant, annoying thing to being music.

JK:  Right, you can all of a sudden concentrate on the overtones or the inconsistent nature of the pitch.  Yeah.  And it becomes music. We all know and love The Stone, but it’s on a very busy corner and some people want there to be complete silence before the beginning of a piece or before the beginning of a concert.  I had a residency there last year and some of the greatest moments in my own music were when the string quartet faded out and the sound of a car faded up and then the car faded out and the string quartet kept going.  So, for the experience of the music and the environment in that particular moment, I think it’s fine.  For recordings probably not, because you want those to be a little bit more indicative of the piece.  When people listen to that recording and a fire engine goes by, that becomes part of the sound world.  But I don’t think of it as a distraction; I think of it as an addition.

FJO: But since a lot of your scores involve indeterminate elements, there are often elements of surprise to the realization of what you’ve put on the page.  So when you say that you want a recording to be more indicative of the piece, what exactly is the piece?

“I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.”

JK:  For quite a while at least some elements within almost every single thing that I’ve written have been chance determined.  That to me is opening the door to all kinds of experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.  The hammer downstairs just hit on one of my syllables, so that makes it beautiful for that second, that accident, that simultaneity. It’s all beautiful.

FJO: The thing that finally prompted me to talk to you was total serendipity. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and there was a post mentioning some piece of yours that included an image from the score. It looked interesting, so I followed the link which took me to your website. When I got there, I was floored by how much music there is on it and how much of it was created in a relatively short amount of time.  I’ve followed your work for years, but I had no idea how much stuff you’ve done.  Last year you wrote 14 different pieces which total over six hours of music. That’s an incredible amount of work.

JK:  Well, it was a productive year, I guess. A lot of that music was for dance companies. I have what I consider to be the great fortune and opportunity of working with choreographers, which began in college at CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts, where I graduated in 1976.  Then I moved to New York, but I kept up relationships with some of those people and I also formed new relationships. Then I sent a cassette to John Cage.  He wanted to come over and listen to some of my stuff and that led to a commission from Merce Cunningham, and then that led to an almost 25-year association while I worked with other choreographers, too.  I’ve worked a lot with a choreographer named Kevin O’Day.  Each time someone says, “Do you want to write a piece for this choreography that I’m working on?”—and a lot of them are evening-length pieces—I go, “Well, sure.”  Then I say what I’m interested in. “I want to write something for choir and string quartet.”  “Okay.  Great.  Why don’t you do that? We’ll work with a young people’s choir in Mannheim, Germany, and we’ll get students from the Hochschule and have them be the string quartet.”

Then live electronics. I have a long-evolving electronics scenario that works through chance, but for every piece I can go in and change and manipulate little things, and then it becomes the electronics environment for that particular piece. Then some other piece will come along and I’ll continue the evolution of that particular way of manipulating, processing, and locating sound.

I’ve got these other ideas for this other long series of pieces called Free Palestine that I started in 2013. I’m still writing them.  I get an idea and for some reason the string quartet is the ensemble that I go to for fulfilling an idea.  I’ll have an idea for a compositional structure or a compositional motive or what I sometimes call an epiphany, and it somehow crystallizes into the string quartet.  So I write a lot of string quartets for that reason.

FJO: Part of that I’m sure grows out of your being a string player.

JK: Yeah, I’m sure.  And I use improvisation. I played violin for a while, very poorly, and now I play viola very poorly.  But I play the instruments, so the physicality of working out some things, getting the fingerings, feeling how the bow works—I do have that visceral, physical connection in parts of the creative process so then I can go, “Oh man, this feels great.”  And then it goes right into the piece.

FJO: So pieces evolve from playing around with ideas physically before you get to the page?

JK:  Well, that’s the way it works sometimes. Then other times I’m just walking through Tomkins Square Park, which is a great source of inspiration.  I just walk and often how things are put together comes from free, mindless thinking.  I’ve been working with a way of organizing time, which I call time vectors. I used that in the piece for six pianos that was done last year at Knockdown Center called Piano Vectors—six Steinway Ds in 40,000 square feet of space. I had this idea of how to organize them temporally and that’s where I began. Not a note was written.  I went through the whole thinking process of how it was to work with just time, like how to fill the time, and then from there it got more crystallized and I got to the actual notes for the piano and how it was going to be put onto the page.  Most of that was chance determined, then some of it was also a kind of physicality at the piano, with me playing.

John King leaning on a fence outside Tomkins Square Park.

FJO: This compositional process seems somewhat reminiscent of the micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structures that John Cage was composing with before he started using chance and which, in fact, led him directly to compose using chance: having a larger-scale structure of the piece in place before there are any specific notes.

JK:  Right.  The pre-composition or meta-composition, the composition before the composition, the overriding way things are organized.

FJO: So, maybe this is a silly question, but with a piece that lasts a relatively long amount of time—let’s say an hour—how long does it take to compose it?

JK:  Well, sometimes it doesn’t take very long at all.  It can take a couple of weeks or a month. Piano Vectors was the first piece that I fully realized within these time structures that I call vectors.  Then from there, there was a series of string quartets that were written, and then I also thought, “Well I’m going to write a string orchestra piece.”  Then I wrote a brass ensemble piece, because I was thinking about that, then a piece for percussion quartet. It’s like what Cage used to do with Fontana Mix. It can be done by itself, with Aria, or with Concert for Piano and Orchestra, because the system that he used to create one was the system he used to create all of them, so why can’t those things be played simultaneously?  The piece could be an hour long or 25-minutes long or an hour and a half long.  All those things are able to be accordionated—stretched or compressed—yet the structure, which to me is the overriding thing, is maintained.

FJO: Certainly the most extreme example of this that I can think of is the performance of Cage’s piece Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) in Halberstadt, Germany.

JK:  They’re still doing it…

FJO: They’re going to be doing it for 639 years.  But obviously he didn’t spend more than six centuries composing it.  Theoretically you could have a structure for something that lasts six hours, but maybe it took you only an hour to work it out.  Is it possible for the process of creating one of your pieces to actually be shorter than the realization of it?

“It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline. I can’t be like, ‘Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?’ All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms.”

JK:  I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.  I taught at Dartmouth.  I took over Larry Polansky’s composition seminar for one semester.  I did these things with the graduate students that I called lightening composition.  If you play chess, you know what lightning chess is—it’s super fast.  You go with what you know, whatever your experience is with chess.  I had them do that with compositions, just as a way to kick start some ideas.  I gave them 15 minutes to come up with a piece.  I did it myself, too.  I never like giving students anything that I don’t participate in myself.  It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline.  A lot of people say, “Uh oh, I’ve got this deadline.” But I think, “Wow, I’ve got this deadline.”  You know, it’s got to be there.  I’ve got until Monday morning to finish it.  Great.  Because that means that I can’t be like, “Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?” All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms. You just have to go with what you believe is coming from you as purely and as transparently as possible, and just do it.

FJO: So then do pieces ever get revised?

JK:  Sometimes they do.  The more notated the piece is, the more likely it is to be revised.  Some of the Free Palestine pieces were very open in terms of their interpretation. Then when we got into rehearsing them and then finally recording them, I had to do more arranging to make sure that everything worked.  So I took away some of the openness, but that was more pragmatic. I don’t think I’ll edit them.  But sometimes pieces change.

FJO: So, 14 pieces last year.  Six hours of music.  A productive year.  But I was just using 2015 as an example. It seems like you’ve been almost equally prolific every year for at least the past decade. How much time do you spend composing music in a given week?

JK:  Well, if I’m not traveling and don’t have something else going on, if it’s a week that’s just more or less a normal week and I’ve been commissioned to do something, I would guess between six and eight hours a day, sometimes more and sometimes a little bit less.  But I don’t divide the week into five days with two days.  I divide the week into seven days.

The upright piano in John King's apartment which has books of scores by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

FJO: And, in terms of inspiration, you mentioned to me before we were on camera that the piano you have here is a little bit beat up which could be a good thing—it could take you out of pre-conceptions about what a piano is supposed to sound like. I see a laptop over there and I saw some recording equipment in another room. So I imagine that this is your composition studio as well as your home; this is where you create your music.

“I don’t divide the week into five days with two days. I divide the week into seven days.”

JK:  Yeah.  There’s a little, mini-studio that I use, but even that. I remember—I think it was last year or it might have been the year before—I worked on some poetry of Wang Wei, who’s a Tang-era poet, a really beautiful poet, and he was also an artist and a kind of a political consultant to various people.  So I’m in there working on the piece, and it was eventually going to be for soprano and then myself on viola and Robert Dick on flute, and with live electronics.  But I’m in there working on it, I think it was April, and there were all these birds singing back there.  So I just threw out a microphone and grabbed some of the birds singing and tried to bring that into the piece. And that did become part of the piece.  Then when I was editing the piece, I remember wanting to make sure the bird sounds were there, but then the bird sounds were outside, too, and also inside what I was editing, so that was an interesting process of hearing what inspired something and then hearing where it ended up.

FJO: You’re able to create amid construction noise and birds singing—that’s all potential compositional fodder. So do you ever go off to artist colonies?

JK:  Well, I’ve had the good fortune of being at three residencies this past year—in Florida, Venice, and Bellagio, Italy.  That focuses you there for a certain amount of time and focuses the work that you can do there.  But New York is very inspiring, too, in terms of walking through the park.  I hear great things both from the park and what’s buzzing around inside.  I think both are great experiences.

A window in John King's apartment.

FJO: I’d like to take it all the way back to the past. Your website is an incredible time portal and archive of almost everything you’ve ever done.  I couldn’t believe it!

JK:  1972 is, I think, the earliest.

FJO: You included a piccolo concerto that you wrote when you were in high school. You included an image from a page of your manuscript.

JK:  And a very poor recording made on a cassette player.  Remember those cassette players that had one red button? It was my mother’s cassette player. I can still remember the piece. It’s in a very rudimentary baroque style.

FJO: And then there was this six-minute piece for guitar and piano that survives only on the recording from, I think, 1973.  I’m trying to remember.  It was hard for me to keep track of it all.  You might finally be the person who defeated me.  I always like to listen to everything somebody does before I talk to that person.  But with you I couldn’t possibly do it.  I would have wound up spending the rest of my life just listening to your music.

JK:  I’m so grateful and fortunate. Tony Kramer, a friend of mine from Philadelphia, looked at my old website and said, “You’ve got to get this organized and get it together.” And he helped support that new website.  It took many, many months.  I went back to reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.  I digitized it all.  I remember putting a cassette into the machine.  I hit play and I didn’t know if the whole thing would come off the spindle—that was the age of some of these recordings!

FJO: But to me the most interesting thing about it is that you decided to include all this stuff, even something you wrote in high school.  You still have a sense of it being you and you’re O.K. with it being out in the world representing you. And yet, there are some things that appear to be missing.  You posted a String Quartet No. 2, but there isn’t a No. 1.

JK:  There’s also a String Quartet No. 3.  I stopped numbering after three.

FJO: Right.  But what happened to No. 1?

JK:  I do have the score somewhere.  It was written in what they call a gap year now, between high school and my first year of college.  I was not in school, but I was studying with a composition guy in Minneapolis.  He introduced me to Lutoslawski. I used to take people I liked and treat them as models.  I would write something that was sort of in that style to say this is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like.  Then I’d retain what felt like my own voice.  So that first string quartet was such a piece. It was written on manila manuscript in pencil and I never got a string quartet to play it.  But I still have it.

FJO: But you haven’t put a thing about it on your website. Why did that piece get left out, when you were open to everything else?

JK: I tried to find pieces that had some audio. I don’t think there’s anything there that doesn’t have either audio or video.  But I guess I should maybe scan it or something.

FJO: Now in terms of having it all out there, you include recordings and a page from the score. You don’t put up full scores, which means that people have to contact you to get the materials if they’re interested.

JK: Yeah.

FJO: So do people contact you about some of these older pieces?  Has having this resource given you this opportunity?

JK: Well, to a certain extent.  I do sometimes get string quartets that want to get the score for this piece called HardWood which, again, began as a piece for the Pennsylvania Ballet for Kevin O’Day’s choreography.  That was at the time that ETHEL was forming, and they performed it as a piece for the ballet.  Then they really liked three of the movements, so I said you can treat those like a concert version because it was, I think, a 25- or 30-minute-long piece.  They made it into a 15-minute suite. And that piece is the one that most people contact me about because it’s got this blues movement that’s got some really driving stuff in it.

FJO: What if someone came to you and asked to do that piccolo concerto?

JK: Wow, all that stuff that’s on paper with my pencil looks like I was drawing these big fat notes.  And the pencil is kind of smeared a little bit. I was so into Bach and all this stuff at the time.  I don’t know who would want to play that piccolo concerto. But if somebody did, I’d put it together.  I have the score. I bound it with twine.

FJO: One of the things that I thought was so sweet—it’s not as old as those pieces, but it goes back quite a ways—is a piano sonata after Mozart that you wrote for your mother’s 70th birthday.

JK: Oh yeah.

FJO: Once again, it’s totally unlike any other work of yours that I know.  But you put it up along with everything else anyway.

JK: I also wrote an adagio for my father—I think for his 80th birthday.  He really likes Wagner and the high Romantics. It’s not really Wagnerian, but it’s in that world.  It’s for a string orchestra, but I didn’t have the strings, so it’s just a sampler version of the string orchestra piece.  My mother used to tell me that they would listen to it at top volume.  Yeah.  Why not?

FJO: So you grew up in a household with parents who appreciated classical music.

JK: Yeah, my mother was a pianist, and we usually heard her play just at Christmas time, because she would play Christmas carols.  I played guitar in a rock band and they weren’t too happy about that, for many reasons.  But then I took up violin and started playing rudimentary things.  My mom and I played duets together and that was really fun.  My father loved to listen to music.  They had season tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, and they were members of the Walker Arts Center and the Guthrie Theater.  So those were the places where I got my initial [exposure]. I remember seeing a Bertholt Brecht play for the first time—I was probably 14 or 15—at the Walker.  And I was just so blown away.  It was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It had projections and went slam back and forth between 1930s Chicago and Nazi Germany, and I was this kid going, “Wow.  This is so cool.”  And I saw touring operas at this place at the University of Minnesota called the Northrup Auditorium.  Madame Butterfly was my first opera.

John King's kitchen. A table with flowers and some bananas, a bookcase, and a wall filled with framed photographs.

FJO: Were you writing your own things yet at this point?

JK: I was.  When I first started playing violin, I had a friend in high school who played viola.  And I was studying counterpoint.  I wrote all these canons, because canons were these cool things that if you just kind of did them and followed all the rules—that my teacher was always correcting me about—you had a little composition. So I wrote lots of canons for her and me.  In high school, I was in a free education program where you could choose your own classes.  Those were the days of Summerhill.  It was an educational system out of England where kids were given the opportunity to make their own curriculum.  You decide what you want to do with your time, and so I studied violin, piano, and counterpoint.  And I was in a rock band, so that was part of my curriculum.  I was also reading Plato and studying Chinese history, but all on my own.  I just decided to do those things.

During that time, I also helped organize the talent show. So the rock band played and I played these little funny canons for violin and viola. There were people that were there studying tap dance. And I wrote some stuff for brass ensemble.  I was getting into Stravinsky, too.  I was experimenting with polytonality. The band teacher hated my music.  He would make fun of it in front of the band.  He would come over to the piano and play two chords that were meant to be played together.  And he would bang on them and say, “This is how you’re supposed to sound.  This is how he wants you to sound.  Isn’t that pretty?  Isn’t this nice?”  And of course, he got a laugh from everybody.  But I said, “Yeah, that’s how I wanted this.”

FJO: Good for you.  I love how some of these early crystallizing moments stayed with you. Just a few years ago, you wrote this piece for chorus that’s a three-part canon which was totally breaking rules and, in so doing, you created these wonderful textures. It’s canon your way.  And that can be traced all the way back to those violin-viola duets.

JK:  Yeah.  It’s still hard for me to write parallel fifths.  There’s a big feeling of freedom to have parallel fifths or parallel octaves or things like that, because all that stuff was driven out of me.  It was counterpoint from the 1600s on, all those rules.  But yeah, those structural things like canons or how to unify a piece of music, it’s still there.

FJO: One thing that I find that’s so interesting about your story is that you were immersed in this world of playing violin and viola and in string quartets.  But you also had another foot in this world of the electric guitar and playing in a rock band.  Of course, they’re not really separate worlds.  And in the music you would later come to write, they definitely aren’t separate worlds. There are passages in string quartets of yours that sound like deep Delta blues and even hard rock.  Then there are things with electric guitar that almost sound baroque.  I came across a piece of yours called Dance Piece that sounds like square dance music, but it was done with all electronic instruments—electric guitar and synthesizers. It’s totally out of context for those instruments, yet it totally works.  So there are no walls that compartmentalize music into different genres for you. It’s all one big continuum; even within a piece, it can suddenly go from one thing to another.

“My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.”

JK: In high school, I was playing in two or three bands simultaneously.  I was getting as much playing as I possibly could.  Chicago blues was what gave me my inspiration.  Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were my big idols, so I was learning their stuff and playing their stuff.  My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.  She tried to ban Jimi Hendrix in the household, but I said no.  She had heard these things about what he did and what he stood for and all that. But I was not copying that; I was just listening to the music and playing in bands.  Later on I played on and off in blues bands here in New York for years and years.  It was that period in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when the electric guitar also could become an instrument—as were lots of jazz and rock instruments—for pure improvisation, free noise, and noise that was mixed with all sorts of other elements from the universe.  It was not just about one thing. Let’s put everything together.  Let’s have there be a continuum where there are no walls, no borders. One thing just flows to the next as quickly or as slowly as you want to make them.

Another recent piece that’s on the website that’s just for guitars is Requiem for Eric Garner. I had discovered Erik Satie, probably through Cage.  Then I found these pieces that had no bar lines—Ogives.  So immediately I loved it—1880s and no bar lines!  And then I read that ogives are things in Notre Dame [Cathedral], the kind of arcs that were used.  Satie went in there and just got inspired by l’Ecole de Notre Dame composers and he wrote this thing.  And it’s just so beautiful.  If I transpose it a little bit, I’ve got it all on the guitar.  So I learned those, and incorporated that. It goes from Ogives, then 11th century, then back to root pedals and strangeness with the guitar.  It’s all lots of fun.

The sun reflected in John King's glasses.

FJO: I have a notation question regarding your electric guitar music.  The tradition of writing for string quartets is an old tradition, and it is very clearly and very precisely notated, down to all the articulations and bowings. You can break that down in various ways and open it up, and you get all sorts of other things.  But with electric guitar, there are elements of performance practice that notation really hasn’t caught up with, like settings for amps and pedals that are so individualized. All the great players have a very personalized sound on the instrument. If you want someone to recreate your sound, there is a great deal of information you’d need to convey that isn’t part of standard musical notation.  How much of an issue is that for you?

JK:  Well, I think that if any guitar player were to pick something up, I think they’d just have to have the recording and take it from there.  I have another piece called White Buffalo Calf Woman Blues. I think the recording is up on the website.  I got an email from a guitar player in Italy who said he wanted to play that piece and did I have the music for it?  Well, I didn’t. I didn’t have the sheet music for it because it was kind of an improvised piece.  But then I said, “If somebody wants to play it, I’ll put it together.”  And you know, it can be put together. Some things were written out and then there were some areas that were improvisational.  But something like tone—guitar players are so particular about that, so to notate it would be like telling the guitar player to throw that away. So I wouldn’t want to be too precise with that kind of stuff; I would encourage the player to change the settings.  I have this kind of guitar, I have this kind of amp, and I have these kinds of pedals.  Maybe I’ll try this version of it.  If then out from that someone wants to interpret it various ways, I think that’s just a great thing.

But when I do string quartet music or orchestral music, I try to really go through and make sure that everything is correct about the bowings and things like that.  But then you go to rehearsals, and you hear the string players go, “Let’s take these bowings and let’s not take those bowings.” If they feel like they can get the grit, the beauty, or whatever the musicality is that they find in it with a different bowing, I’m fine with it.  I’m not really into saying, “This is the way it has to be.”  I’m not that kind of guy.

“I’m not really into saying, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ I’m not that kind of guy.”

FJO: With an orchestra, the more precisely something is notated, the less rehearsal time it requires.  As soon as you give people choices, they have to take time to debate what they’re going to do in terms of those choices. Because they’re on a clock, they’re forced into certain kinds of music-making paradigms.

JK: That’s exactly right.

FJO: While you have written for orchestra, it’s not a ton of what you do.  I imagine that’s probably because you prefer for there to be more freedom with the players.

JK: This is again something that is on the composer.  What kind of freedom do you want, and how much time are they going to have to digest it and to be able to understand it and do something with it?  That means the notation has to be really clear.  You can’t waffle at all about things and you have to be maybe like, “I want them to do this, this, and this, but maybe I should just have them do this and this.”  Go into those things, and then they’ll get it more precisely.  With these things that I call time vectors, I’ll try to explain it to the musicians and they’ll play through it once or twice. Then I’d say, “That one thing that you did, you’re not understanding what I meant.”  A clarification comes, and then they get it.  But you’re right, it’s about time.  It’s about being on the clock. If it’s an orchestra, how many orchestras in colleges or conservatories work with a digital clock? How much experience do they have with it and when are they going to use it?  Maybe no orchestras will ever want to do a piece that’s on a digital clock or that has anything but bar lines in it.  How much music do they get that has no bar lines?  How long will it take?  But then what happens if the players come out and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that 50 times before; this is nothing to me.  Let’s go.  Let’s explore this.  It says that I can choose any articulation.  Well great.  Let’s do it”?  If someone were to commission me to do an orchestra piece—and it’s been done, but in Mannheim, Germany—usually what I do is I end up in 4/4, trying to put it into that kind of configuration. I get the sense that things are changing, but I don’t know how fast it’ll change.

FJO: Well, I’d love for you to explain time vectors to me.

JK: Okay, well I’ll explain it by way of where it comes from.  The first piece that I did for the Cunningham company was for a dance called Native Green.  The music was called gliss in sighs, and it was written for an electric prepared violin.  John Cage hooked me up with Max Mathews.  Max was making all these electric violins. The violin that he gave to me was so cool; every string had a separate microphone on it.  The way the Cunningham company works is they have speakers all over the theater.  So by making a broken chord across those four strings, you make the sound go around the auditorium.  It was just so beautiful. Playing a double stop, we had sounds coming from two sides of the auditorium.

“With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.”

That was the first piece where I began to use time as the way things were organized.  I had a grouping of material—what I called a time window: Like from zero to 30 seconds, this can take place.  From 30 seconds to 45, these materials can be improvised or used.  That’s how it worked.  Cage later had those things that he called time brackets, where you had to start within a particular window; that was the way that time was organized.  With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.  So, you can think of it this way: You have to begin after zero and end before 30.  You have to place this material within that.  Then, another kind of vector is you have begin before a certain time and end before a certain time.  Another way is that you have to begin before a certain time, and end after a certain time.  And the last vector, the last possibility, is you have to begin after a certain time and end after a certain time.  So I give you a musical phrase, and I say this has to fit like this, or you can stretch it here, or you can compress it here, or you can place it here, or it could become the entire piece sometimes.  Or it could be that you’d have to stretch those three notes if you wanted to be really extreme with your interpretation of these time vectors.  You can play three notes over the entire duration of the piece.  Or you can place it here, or place it there, stretch it this way, or compress it that way.  Have it fall at this particular point, have it fall within another particular point, but within these chance-determined timing points.

FJO: So you were doing this before Cage’s Number Pieces?

JK: Well, what I call the time windows thing was done before them.  But the idea of how to stretch these vectors was after.  It was maybe four or five years ago.

FJO: So would you say that that grew out of the influence of the Cage Number Pieces?

JK: I’m sure it did. And because of being with Cunningham, we played this pretty famous piece of his called Four3, which is based on chance-determined reworkings of the Erik Satie 24-hour piece Vexations. Cage took the cantus firmus, and he made all these different single lines where the pitches are chance determined, either above or below the cantus firmus. The rhythmic element of the cantus firmus is intact, but it is stretched out over a minute and a half or two minutes.  I used to play it for a while with David Tudor.  The last time I saw Cage was after a performance of that that I’d done with David Tudor at City Center.  When you’re playing that piece, you put yourself in this very interesting mind frame.  You get the piece of music that you’re about to play, but very little. There are maybe 16 or 18 different phrases you can choose, and so you get ready to play and then you look at the clock, and you look at the time score, and you think, “Okay, is this between 35 and 45?  Yes it is, so I can begin now. And then how long do I have play?  Well, I have to make it last until one minute, or until one minute and 20 seconds, and so I have to stretch it out.  I’m going to end at 1:20.  I’m going to go to the very end.” And you make that decision, then you play, and then you end.  So it puts you in a place where you really have to be focused. David Tudor’s doing his version of it and I’m doing my version of it. I’ve also played it with Christian Wolff and with David Behrman. You’re a performer and you’re also completely an audience.  You’re somehow aware of what’s happening around you.  You’re not reacting to it, but you’re aware of it.  That always fascinated me about that piece.  You have to be totally invested in that decision that you make.  “Okay, I’m going to do this one.  I’m going to do it here.  I’m going to do it for this length.”  But then what’s happening?  What else is out there in the world that’s co-existing with this thing, with this decision that I made?  That experience was really fascinating.

A small painting leans against one of the window panes in John King's apartment.

FJO: When you mention being the audience you open up a whole other Pandora’s box full of questions. We talked about how performers respond to the score, but not really about how audiences respond when they’re hearing things. How much concern do you have about audiences knowing how these pieces were put together? What does an audience coming to this music need in terms of advance planning, if anything at all, to really experience what you’re doing?

JK: Well, in those kinds of pieces, I think if an audience understands that they don’t have to understand the particulars of how the time’s being organized, but that the organization of the sounds that they’re hearing, the simultaneities, is chance determined, then what they gain from their experience is unique and totally valid. What do you hear? What is interesting to you? What do you notice? What those things are is completely valid and the best is if someone is sitting next to you and hears a completely different thing. That’s fine. It’s the experience you bring to it, then what you get out of it is valid. But there are also pieces that I’ve written that have more of an emotional or dramatic trajectory.

FJO: Your string quartet AllSteel immediately comes to mind. Once someone reads that you composed half of the movements of the piece before 9/11 and the other half afterwards and that the before and after movements alternate, there’s no way to un-know that information. It becomes a very significant part of the listening experience.

JK: But I don’t how much there are connectivities with the more abstracted time organized pieces. At the performances of Piano Vectors at Knockdown Center, the audience was just wandering.  It was like an installation. People would park themselves in different places. One person fell asleep under one of the pianos. They were constructing their own journey through these expanses of music that were done at different times and different ways. Those kinds of pieces I think are the ones that are the most open to the individual creating their own experience and getting from it what they notice. But there are other pieces that have a program or a beginning inspiration behind them that does impact the way they’re experienced, like Requiem for Eric Garner or the Free Palestine pieces.

FJO: I’d like to continue talking for a bit about AllSteel. It’s interesting to me that before 9/11 you were writing a certain kind of music but that afterwards it was a completely different kind of music. You’ve described it as the point where the 20th century ended and the 21st century began. It somehow changed the music you were writing. So I wanted to explore what exactly you meant by that.

JK: The piece was a commission. Some ideas I was gathering before, but I sat down on September 10 to begin the piece. It was a Monday. I remember going through those four movements and writing a good minute or two into each of those four parts. The beginning was this groove that I had in my head. I knew that there was going to be a very kind of sleazy blues thing from a pizzicato cello. Then I had this other kind of technical thing that I was going to use in the fourth movement. I really had a lot of it planned out. Those four movements were pretty well in place. Then 9/11 happened and I just couldn’t go ahead with it as planned, because it was pretty aggressive. So I wanted those other movements to be reflective and I think it did well for the piece.

FJO: There’s another string quartet of yours that has even a greater variety of musical styles co-existing together, 10 Mysteries, but I don’t have the same kind of window into it that I do with AllSteel because of your comments about that piece. These kinds of back stories are certainly helpful to me as a listener, but I wonder how important they are to you?

JK: Well, I remember 10 Mysteries was one of the pieces that I also wrote when I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what.  I called it the trilogic unity—having these three ways of making music be so connected that it was a unified thing.  I would like an audience to know, to the extent that they are able to understand, something that’s written down is going to be the same thing every time but there’s also something that comes purely spontaneously from improvisation and then other things that were embedded into the music with indeterminacy.

“I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what. It’s like you make a reservation at a steak house. And just before you get in the door, you think, ‘I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.’ Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to pass by, and he says, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’”

I had this metaphor that I said once in a composition class.  It’s like you make a reservation at a restaurant.  It’s a steak house.  You plan it in advance: Friday I’m going to go to this steakhouse.  And just before you get in the door, you think, “I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.”  A spontaneous thought comes in.  I determined to do this, but now I’m going to do that.  Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to be in town, who just happens to pass by, and he says, “Let’s go have a drink.”  Three kinds of ways of interacting with the world.  I just wanted to put that in the music somehow, that little compression of possibility.  Let’s put those close together so they’re always present.  That’s what I was trying to do with that piece.

FJO: Now how my brain works is that you messed with my head by calling this piece 10 Mysteries even though it only has nine movements. Where’s the tenth movement?

JK: I know. I threw off everybody with that. At the very end of the piece, it finishes and the quartet just holds—if it’s done live—for 30 to 45 seconds because I wanted there to be a moment where people would just collect all that at the end, all the stuff going on in people’s experience.  So the tenth mystery was what happens in the listener when the piece is finished.  It’s like the seventh direction for Native Americans. There are seven directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down, and then there’s where you are.

FJO: Another piece of yours that has thrown me off somewhat is The HeartPiece, which you co-created with the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel for the Warsaw Autumn festival at which it was described as a “double opera.” I’m not sure what that means.

JK: There’s this great text by Heiner Müller called Herzstück and it has two characters in it: A and B. I was at the Warsaw Autumn performing with a friend of mine—Krzysztof Zarebski—who is a performance artist. He’s good friends with Krzysztof Knittel, a composer who lives in Warsaw.  I remember speaking to him about this crazy idea I had: “What if we were to write a double opera, kind of like an exquisite corpse. We take this text, and we do different things with it. You do your version, and I do my version, and we just go back and forth. And we’d use a string quartet.” He played electric keyboards, I was playing guitar, and then the singers would be David Moss, who’s a friend of mine, and he knew a well-known Polish soprano, Olga Pasisniek, who was open to doing something really wild and crazy. So that’s how we did it. We had some disagreements; it wasn’t like [John Cage and Lou Harrison’s] Double Music, so we had to come up with some kind of structural agreements, and then we just put it together.  I thought of that A-B text being like the structure for how the piece would be composed: A-B composers. The text is very open and it’s very funny. A could be a man and B a woman.  It could be two men; it could be two women.  It is without any gender, though people have their own thoughts about how that could be.  We put it together very quickly before we played it in a small theater in Warsaw and, fortunately, we did two performances.  And it was done for Polish TV. The set was designed by Krzysztof Zarebski. The string quartet was inside this big tent made out of paper. They start playing, then they poke through the paper and it reveals them as the paper is torn apart. It was an all-female string quartet called Dafo.

FJO: Doing that project seems to have opened up a whole other world of you. Since then you’ve composed a bunch of these weird kinds of operas that are experimenting with texts in a completely different way. Or works that play with narrative or a lack of narrative, like impropera, where the text and the staging also have indeterminate elements. This has now become a central part of what you do.

JK:  It is. For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be. It was done in a certain way in the Baroque period, and different ways as we’ve gone along in history. But both the team of Brecht/Weill and Cunningham/Cage took the idea of staging in kind of similar ways. They wanted to treat the music separately from the text. They wanted to treat the text separately from the stage design. The stage design with a Brecht piece wasn’t meant to be naturalistic: “Oh, we’re really in someone’s room.” Instead, it took the opportunity of staging something and saying, “Let’s put a cow skull on the top of a pole and that will represent what goes on in this room.” The audience wasn’t being told how to think. The audience was encouraged to think about what goes on in that room, not because it’s got chairs and sofas, but because it’s got a cow skull on the top of a stick.  That puts people in a slightly different place.

Another opera that I did was called Dice Thrown. It was based on this Stéphane Mallarmé poem.  Mallarmé was very particular about where the words appeared on the page, what font they were in, whether they were italicized or bold. I found it at the end of a collection of poetry by him.  When I opened the book for the first time, I looked at it and I said, “This is a musical score.”  And when I looked at his notes, his introduction to it, he said that it is like a piece of music.  The space on the page is meant to be like silence.  The way that the words are written is meant to be like how they could be read. 

A page from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that uses space and various types of typography.

I looked at this and I said I just had to do something with it.  So I took the text apart.  I put all the italicized words together, because that’s a kind of a narrative, even though it stretches from top to bottom.  And then there’s the title—it’s also embedded from the beginning to the end of the poem.  I just used that as this rich inspiration for how the music was done.  I also had video incorporated in ways that exemplified that, and I divided the stage similarly to Cage’s Europeras.  He divided the stage into 64 parts.  I didn’t want to get that complicated, so the stage was divided into 16 squares. Every time the piece is played, there’s a projection behind the audience that shows where the singer is singing from.  They look at the score, which has a time code as well as a stage breakdown.  “I sing Aria One from this place tonight.  Then I’m joined.  There’s a chorus. The three singers can occupy these parts of the stage.”  There was a choreographic element. They had all the negative space—any place the singers weren’t occupying, that’s where a dance movement could be done.  Steve Koplowitz was the choreographer.  He had to do choreography for his six dancers that could exist in one square, or along the strips, or along the back, like he had to have it be mobilized and transformable, so that it fits every night. We did two different performances, and each performance has a kind of an A and a B part.  We’d do a version at the beginning and then a version at the end, so that the audience could experience two passes at this way of organizing material.

The set design people and even the choreographer didn’t think that it was possible in the beginning.  It happened when everyone understood how it was to be organized.  It was beautiful and seamless, and everything about it worked. You just had to make sure that everything’s organized, and people understood.  The singers understood, “I might sing this aria tonight.  I might not.  I might someplace else.  I might sing it from this part of the stage. It might last two minutes, it might last six minutes, but I have to make it go along with all the different variations that are possible.”

John King reading a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that inspired his opera Dice Thrown.

That was one of those things where all those elements were organized completely separately, but then unified in the performance itself. The audience can notice, “Oh that word was projected on the back wall, and something else was sung, but I made a connection between this appearance that was projected and what the person was singing in French simultaneously with that projection.”  Maybe the dancers were doing something that, again, emphasized something for this person, but the person here didn’t get that, they got something else.  That was how I organized that opera.

“For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be.”

Theatrical work is of great interest to me. With the most recent micro-operas that I did, lighting was also a big element.  Chance-determined lighting. Getting that incorporated into the piece and noticing what happened. Getting reactions from the audience about how they experienced that. I will hopefully do many, many more of these.

FJO: We’re now almost at the halfway point of this year, and you’ve already written three pieces—an hour of music. Maybe you’ve written more, but you haven’t gotten them on your website yet. What are you working on next?  Are there going to be more operas? How far in advance do you plan the next thing you’re doing?  Do you know what the next six months are going to be?

JK: I know that there are certain things that I’m hoping to realize. I’ve had a project in mind for quite a while. I’ve worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus a lot. And I’ve made contact with a choir in Ramallah, Palestine. I have contact with people at a place called Culture Hub—that’s the new media part of LaMaMa Theater.  They do multi-site performances, which they call telematic performances. I’ve written a choral piece that’s similar to a lot of the stuff that I’ve written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who was a great Palestinian poet. I’m hoping that I can get these two choirs to sing together at some point. The idea of a choir in Brooklyn singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Palestine and the choir in Palestine singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Brooklyn, and then having them sing something together is something that I’m hoping to do in the next six months. The music is finished. It’s now just the technology that we’re waiting on to get everyone to be able to talk to each other. I’m also working on a piece for the Belgrade Philharmonic with my partner Aleksandra Vrebalov. We’re working on the entire piece together without divisions of responsibility, trying to create a work without identifiable “creators” but blended so well that even we won’t be able to tell who wrote what! Plus the recording of the Free Palestine string quartets is another thing that will have to be edited, probably in the fall. Those are the main things right now.

FJO: So never a free moment. I know you drink lots of coffee.

JK:  Café Bustelo.

A can of Cafe Bustelo on the kitchen counter in John King's apartment.

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