Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).
Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.
“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.
It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”
He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”
Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.
Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”