Category Archives: Interviews

Trailblazer: Joseph Klein


photo credit: UNT Photo / Adriana Salazar Caro

We’re presenting a concert of works in Denton on September 19, featuring the works of Joseph Klein. It will include seven of Klein’s solo pieces, alongside his new ensemble work Canetti-menagerie. To mark the occasion, I thought it’d be fun to feature my colleague as our next trailblazer.

EM: With this upcoming event, I’d love to hear more about how these Canetti writings have inspired you since 1997 (or perhaps earlier?).

JK: Oddly enough, I discovered Elias Canetti‘s writings through the work of another composer, Magnus Lindberg, who himself had been influenced by Canetti’s seminal work Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power) in his 1985 composition Kraft. Intrigued by the concept behind Lindberg’s composition, I immediately went out and got a copy of Canetti’s book and was fascinated by his analysis of power systems and group dynamics, as well as his distinctive writing style. I was a doctoral student at Indiana University at the time, and several years later, after coming to UNT, I discovered Canetti’s Der Ohrenzeuge (Earwitness) at our local used bookstore — a quirky little book containing fifty brief character studies of the most bizarre, surreal personalities imaginable. It was quite the opposite of Crowds and Power, which dealt with human behavior in groups: these were paradigms of individual behaviors encapsulated into ironic, pithy caricatures. Halfway through the book, I realized that these characters were perfectly suited to musical interpretation as a series of works for various solo instruments. That was almost twenty years ago, and I have thus far composed sixteen solo works based on these characters, with more to come. In recent years, I began thinking about how these characters might interact with each other at a social gathering of sorts, and came up with an open-form chamber work titled Canetti-menagerie, which uses the material in each of the individual solo works as the basis for semi-improvisational interactions between the various performers.

EM: How has the culture of new music in North Texas (and at UNT), changed since you arrived here 2 decades ago?

JK: I think the most significant change at UNT since I’ve been here has been the dissolution of an arbitrary barrier between acoustic music and music technology that existed within the composition program at the time. When I arrived in 1992, there were computer music composers and acoustic music composers — different teachers, different students, separate courses, separate teaching assistants, even separate concert series and different performance spaces. There was relatively little integration between the two sub-groups of composers at the time. Among some of the faculty, in each camp, there was an underlying antipathy for the composers from “the other side.” Of course, this attitude was passed down to the students as well, and was not a healthy environment for building a robust community of composers, which we truly have now. Composers who are currently in the program — both faculty and students — are comfortable working in both realms, and there is much more understanding and mutual respect between what were previously two distinct areas. Needless to say, we no longer separate students, teaching assistants, or concerts based on this distinction either. I think this change in attitude over the past quarter century or so has been a natural by-product of our increasingly technological society — most people under the age of 30 take technology for granted these days, as a ubiquitous part of their lives — but sadly, there are still many composition programs around the country that practice a kind of segregation between these two worlds, which is such an antiquated mindset and completely untenable in the long run. I suppose as younger faculty are hired to these university positions, these old attitudes will eventually become a thing of the past.

As far as the performance of new music at UNT, the increasingly professional level of the Nova Ensemble (due in large part to your leadership, Elizabeth!) and the creation of a related field in contemporary music for graduate performance majors have certainly elevated both the level of new music performance and the awareness among faculty and students in general to the issues we deal with as new music practitioners. I feel that we could do an even better job creating opportunities for composers and performers to collaborate here at UNT, but I also believe that the overall quality of new music performances among students has vastly improved over the past decade or so.

EM: Your biography discusses fractal aesthetics and other abstract models for musical thought. How do you reconcile that with your engagement as a performer, and your sensitivity to the practical issues of communicating and creating music?

JK: I guess my interest in these abstract models and systems comes from my fascination with science and natural phenomena since I was young. (I was a microbiology major through my sophomore year in college, so this interest was strong enough that it almost became the basis of a career.) Perhaps the use of these processes in my music is a way that I could have my cake and eat it too — living vicariously as a “scientist” through my work as a composer! However, I am also very interested in performance, the inherent theatricality of the concert experience, and the engagement of an audience by the performers. I think it is relatively easy to square these two seemingly disparate concerns in one’s work: nature is elegant and inspiring and beautiful whether or not you understand the complex processes behind it; in the same way, a work of art can move people whether or not they understand the underlying method. This just speaks to the depth and richness of music — and nature — and how both can be appreciated and experienced in a multitude of ways; and the most engaging musical experiences to me are those that work on multiple levels.

EM: We have a shared lineage in our mentor Harvey Sollberger. I’d like to learn more about your mentors.

JK: It’s interesting that we both have Harvey as a mentor, but within two different worlds! I first met Harvey when he was a guest artist at UC San Diego during my first year in the masters program there, back in 1985. I got along with him immediately, and was inspired by his energy, passion, and ideas, and the fact that he is such a versatile musician (also a conductor, of course, as well as a flutist and composer). Even though I had just started at UCSD, I decided then that I wanted to work with Harvey for my doctorate at Indiana University, which I eventually did. While at IU, I also had the pleasure of playing bassoon and contrabassoon in the New Music Ensemble there, which Harvey directed, and served as assistant director of that ensemble for a time. To this day, I consider Harvey to be one of my good friends and a very important role model. When Harvey left IU (to teach at UCSD, ironically!) in 1990, I finished my studies with Claude Baker, who was also an excellent mentor, and quite different from Harvey in his approach. Backtracking a bit, I should also mention that at UCSD, my major professor was Robert Erickson, whom I had the good fortune to work with during the last few years of his tenure there; however, I would be remiss if I did not mention another important UCSD mentor of mine, Roger Reynolds. I only had the opportunity to study with Roger for 10 weeks (during my first year in the program, when the new graduate composers were required to rotate faculty studios throughout the year); but In hindsight, those were probably the most critical ten weeks in my artistic development, as I credit Roger with setting me on my future trajectory as a composer.

EM: You are a great advisor to students. Do you have any general advice to practitioners and advocates of new music? Audiences?

JK: I think performers, composers, and other devotees of new music have an obligation to build audiences by creating opportunities for interesting and challenging programs, as well as providing listeners with the proper tools to appreciate unfamiliar music through various types of audience outreach. With so many traditional ensembles dependent on ticket sales and filling concert halls in order to survive, a lot of the contemporary repertoire has been watered down by mediocre music that has been commissioned and programmed in an effort to pander to their patrons — which I think is an insult to both the artists and the audience. Composers and performers have an obligation to meet the audience halfway in order to raise their awareness and create an environment conducive to more demanding music. To this end, performers should create opportunities to share their insights as interpreters, demonstrating musical passages to help guide listeners; composers should do the same by providing insights on the creative process, thus enhancing the listeners’ experience and elevating what we can expect from our audiences. I have heard some composers claim with a tinge of haughtiness that “the music should speak for itself,” that it is somehow a weakness of the work or the composer to explain one’s compositional process to an audience. I think this is a cop out — a lazy excuse not to engage with an audience and allow them to experience one’s work on a deeper level. If it enriches the experience, why not provide the listener with these additional insights?

Maintaining one’s integrity as an artist can be a real challenge if one wants to succeed in the current musical environment. With that in mind, there are a couple of quotes that are worth referencing here, and which touch upon my own philosophy as a composer. The first is from Frank Zappa, who once said: “I [compose] to amuse myself. If I like it, I release it. If somebody else likes it, that’s a bonus.” The second quote is by Steven Stucky, from his article “Listening to Contemporary Music”: “…a composer’s duty is not to any particular listener of any particular imagined audience: a composer’s duty is to the work itself.” I consider it a luxury to have a university teaching position, which frees me up to do the things that truly interest me as a composer, and not to depend on accommodating commissioning bodies, ensemble boards, and marketing departments. That may sound a little selfish, I suppose, but it is also liberating to be able to take risks and push my own limits without concern for the financial consequences. And hopefully, the work I create will be of interest to a few others along the way.

trailblazer: Alyce Santoro


Alyce Santoro is an amazing West Texas artist. I had the pleasure of collaborating with her last year, when we premiered Unset in Marfa, Texas (one year ago today!). She is an inspiring creative force, and I am delighted she consented to an interview.

EM: How did you become interested in playing new music?

AS: I think my interest in playing new music must have begun with an early fascination for listening to the out-of-the-ordinary. I was fortunate to have been raised by parents who, while not musicians themselves, were very earnest listeners with eclectic tastes. Early on, I recall being exposed to Babatunde Olatunji, Ravi Shankar, and Oregon on vinyl records. In the New York metropolitan area we had access to incredible radio…in the mid-1980s I remember hearing Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson on WNYC’s New Sounds with John Schaefer. It was Laurie Anderson’s tape bow violin that inspired me to put an electric pick-up in my flute at age 15 or 16. At that time a group of misfit friends and I formed an experimental/improv/post-punk group…this was an extremely formative time for me, though we had no idea what we were doing, or where we could find guidance for our nascent interests in new and experimental music. Though I’d been playing the flute quite avidly as a young person, it seemed to me that the only options open to a flutist on the college level would be a strict study of classical music…which wasn’t really my interest. Morton Feldman and SUNY Buffalo, or music programs at places like Hampshire or Oberlin were just not on my radar.  Instead I decided to study science as an undergraduate. After finishing a biology degree (with bioacoustics, sound, and music mixed in whenever possible), I went on to pursue a degree in scientific illustration. Though much of my current artwork has a visual bent – inspired in many ways by science – sound and music have always been part of the mix.

EM: You presented works of John Cage in Marfa a few years ago. What was the response?

AS: In 2012 my then-partner/now-husband composer/guitarist Julian Mock and I, with the help of a couple of friends, put together a program for John Cage’s 100th birthday. We presented it at the wonderful Marfa Book Company. For a town with a population of less than 2,000, we felt it was very well-received! Aside from the community performance of 4’33”, in which about 15 local musicians participated, the packed house seemed to enjoy the Improvisation for Amplified Cactus (regionally appropriate!), Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation, and several other works on the program. We definitely got the feeling that, while most attendees were at least somewhat familiar with Cage, some were being newly exposed. As part of the event, Marfa Public Radio featured a Cage special earlier in the day. All-in-all, we felt that Cage had been well-feted in rural West Texas!

EM: Your work ranges from theory to performance to instrument design to textile design, and I’m leaving out plenty. How would you describe the common thread that binds these varied directions?

AS: In general – no matter what medium I’m using – I’m looking for ways to highlight the interconnectedness of all things – disciplines, peoples, geographies, etc. I think of nearly everything I make as a collage…whether it’s a visual collage or a collage of sound, I am often weaving together seemingly-disparate elements as part of a kind of “delicate empiricist” (Goethe used this expression to describe science that allows for the qualitative in addition to the quantitative) approach to exploration into the Grand Unification Theory.

EM: Having left New York City for a relatively remote mountain town in Texas, you’ve maintained connections in a variety of ways. What have you found to be the most effective ways of staying connected to your artistic community? Do you feel more or less isolated than when you were in New York?

AS: I think of my website  as a virtual studio, gallery, cabinet of curiosities, and archive. It’s important to me that anyone with a connection to the internet can freely access the information and ideas behind the work. In many cases, the pieces I make are ways of illustrating concepts…the ideas, to me, are often more important than the resulting artifacts. I’m grateful that these intangible elements can be shared and “owned” by anyone who comes in contact with them.

I never really expected or wanted to be a web designer or social media maven…but, for a creative practitioner who lives in a remote place and yet wishes to make work that is accessible, I find these skills essential. I use FacebookTwitter, and am just getting started on Instagram. I also belong to several email lists for professional discourse related to the intersections of art, science, and ecology.

I also occasionally attend residency programs (Blue Mountain Center is one of my favorites) and conferences related to my fields of interest (for example, ISEA 2012 and New Music Gathering 2016).

Though I sometimes long for closer, more consistent proximity to fellow artists and receptive audiences, the environment in which I live has become so integral to my work that I hesitate to be away from it for any length of time. I think both urban and rural experiences can be isolating and aggregating in different ways…for me, alternating phases of each would be ideal.

EM: You’ve designed a new set of tools for cognition and practice of diatonic theory. Do you feel that a change is needed in the way music is taught? How do your materials fit into your ideal approach to teaching music?

AS: As a flute player without advanced training in music theory, the Tonal Relativity project came out of my own desire to become more fluent in modality. I am always seeking to improve my skills as an improvisor. Over the years I’ve intermittently set out to study the modes, always coming away feeling like I wasn’t quite getting the big picture. Early last year I was determined to fully grasp the modes once and for all. I sat down with a 3-by-5 card and a pencil to make myself a kind of “cheat sheet”…I mapped the Modes of the Major Scale using shapes…squares for whole steps, and triangles for half steps. When I did this, a pattern was revealed that suddenly helped me to understand the modes as a holistic system.

Here is the original doodle on a 3-by-5 card that led to the development of the Tonal Relativity project:

I am no expert on the way music is taught, but I think the same is true in almost any discipline: gaining a full, functional understanding of a subject tends, in the long run, to produce far richer and more interesting results than, say, rote memorization. As a scientific illustrator, I am interested in figuring out ways to convey complex information efficiently. For me, the traditional methods of learning the modes weren’t clicking. I hope others – teachers, students, and independent practitioners alike – may find the Tonal Relativity project as useful as I am finding it!

EM: What would be your ideal artistic venture right now, and its ideal audience?

AS: I’m extremely interested in improvised music and interdisciplinary collaboration. With all that’s going on in the world, I feel there is much to be gleaned from the successes and failures of mid-20th century experimental communities like Black Mountain College, the Pulsa Group, and the Creative Music Studio. I have facilitated several “happenings” inspired by these collectives under the auspices of the Synergetic Omni-Solution, the Dialectic Revival, and the Obvious International. These events have, thus far, not been particularly music-oriented. My ideal now would be to facilitate or participate in kind of residency program in which listening, atmospheric phenomenology, and the exploration of musical/sonic ideas would be the central focus.

EM: What is on your music stand? Where will you next be playing?

AS: At the moment my stand is laden with theory books, staff paper, the Mode Charts, some compositions by my husband Julian Mock, and a stack of 3-by-5 cards with various musical ideas scrawled on them…these are frameworks for improvisations that Julian and I are working on collaboratively. We have been incorporating some of the modal ideas into partly composed, partly improvisational dialogs between the flute and guitar. I’ve got an exhibition coming up in spring 2017 at a gallery in Albuquerque in which the Tonal Relativity project will figure largely…we don’t have any concrete plans as yet, but these sound pieces will definitely be part of it!


Trailblazers: Harvey Sollberger

I am very pleased to share this interview with my mentor Harvey Sollberger (pictured above, with me and Shannon Wettstein).

EM:  How do you know when you are on the right path, doing the music you ought to be doing?

HS: I imagine that people have a lot of different criteria for answering that question. For me, finding the answer to it wasn’t a matter of sitting down and thinking about it. I suppose that it’s the sort of thing that “when you see it, you know it.” Sort of like falling in love. When we fall in love most of us don’t sit down and rationally calculate whether we should or whether it’s convenient or whether this is the right time, etc., etc. (such thinking probably comes later); we’re just, for better or worse, swept away. For me, finding the music that I most loved to play involved a kind of gut recognition. It spoke to me more than other music, it challenged me more and on more levels than other music, and offered correspondingly greater spiritual and existential rewards. It wasn’t an easy road nor was it a commonly-traveled road (at least not in those days). It was just what I felt I had to do if I was to remain a musician.

EM: As a performer and presenter of new music, what are you most satisfied with having accomplished?

HS: Probably my “greatest” accomplishment – if it is an accomplishment and if it is great – was in bringing a new sort of ethic to the performance of contemporary music. The standard for performing challenging new music was very low when I started out in the 1950s and 1960s. The work I did in New York City with my colleagues at the Group for Contemporary Music helped to set new and higher performance standards. It also proved that what some people were calling “impossible” was both playable and transformative in its excitement when performed with careful preparation and full commitment. One example: the composer, Milton Babbitt, wrote his beautiful, Mozartean “Composition for Four Instruments” in 1948. A recording of it was published in 1957; the performers were “big names.” Thing was, they played it loosely and sloppily and it sounded terrible. When my friends and I at the Group performed it in 1963, Milton said, “I’m hearing this piece for the first time. This is how it should sound.” Imagine a composer of the stature of Milton having to wait 15 years to hear a good performance of his music! This is what I dedicated myself to from the beginning, and for me it is a matter of honor, truth, and ethics. If you don’t care enough to dedicate yourself FULLY AND WITHOUT COMPROMISE to performing a piece of music as well as you possibly can, DON’T DO IT. And if you do, WORK YOUR TAIL OFF!

EM: As a composer and performer, how do you see the role of humor in new music? How can it best be used to strengthen rather than undercut the experience of new music?

HS: There is certainly room for humor – whatever that is and however it’s to be achieved – in new music. There’s not one way to go about it, and one size – not even “wan” size – doesn’t fit all. If one’s inclined in that direction, as I sometimes am, the question is how to project it by means of the musical means and language you have at your disposal. It seems to me that regardless of the musical language employed – in other words, this works as much for Stravinsky as for Haydn – humor is often projected through creating expectation in your music and then either delaying the arrival of what’s expected or subverting the expectation completely by presenting – often suddenly – something that’s totally UNEXPECTED. In other words: TIMING. The difference between a successful comedian and one who’s not is often just that, timing. And of course, as performers we have to be sufficiently savvy to understand or intuit what’s going on and make sure it comes off as effectively as possible by means of our timing and musical joke or story-telling skills.

EM: What is the best venue you’ve performed in, and why? What is the worst, and why?

HS: Nice question. I’m inclined to be a little sentimental and say that the best place in which I’ve ever performed was McMillin Theatre at Columbia University in New York City. It’s still there, just called Kathryn Bache Miller Theater now because the money-raising folks at Columbia found out they could sell the name for beaucoup bucks. But it’s still McMillin to me. That’s where we gave our first nine years of Group concerts, 1962-1971. It was a drab, dingy, dusty hall with torn shredded curtains flanking the stage and a poor abused Steinway piano onto which some resourceful graffiti artist had inscribed “PUSSY” with a sharp object. Oh, and the seats were uncomfortable. Edgard Varese came to our concerts at McMillin from the beginning until he died a few years later. He said he liked our concert venue because of (pardon my French) “cette aire de poverte’.

Okay, and what was the worst? Probably the lobby or reception area of the Indianapolis Museum of Art where my Indiana University New Music Ensemble students and I performed one Sunday afternoon in 1986. Not “bad” acoustics; just no acoustics. And the space was full of families loaded down with kids coming in and going out who hadn’t been informed there was a concert going on. You would have had to have the aesthetic of a John Cage to have enjoyed the resultant Klang and Din; and John would probably have enjoyed the crowd noise more than the music. Or maybe not.

EM: If you could tell a classical music lover one thing before a concert, what would it be?

HS: I’d probably tell them to be willing to jettison some of the expectations they have concerning “classical music.” Their background might be useful to them in certain respects, but in others it might put them at a disadvantage. I like to ask people to “clear” their minds and to basically shut-off that little voice in us that’s usually constantly chattering-away as we listen to music (“wow, that was loud, mm, doesn’t the violinist’s arm ever get tired? yipes, wish I’d used the restroom during intermission, etc., etc.”) I’d say something like, “Clear your mind, and let the sounds play on your perception the way the colors and images of a film ‘play’ over the surface of a movie screen; hold-off making comments or value or evaluative judgements for now: just ‘be there’ and take it in. Follow the sound’s behavior: when it scrunches together, when it goes to extremes, when it moves haltingly in fits and starts. Absorb all these things in the way that a reed which pushes through to the surface of a pond is ‘operated’ on by the wind, the water’s motion, a tadpole brushing by, etc. Give yourself over to that experience and see what happens. Nothing is guaranteed because purchasing a ticket to a musical performance is not like buying a mixer at Walmart. It’s a little more like going to your local casino. Bon chance!”

EM: What would you like to see in the culture of American new music to move forward and thrive?

HS: That’s out of my hands now. My gas tank is almost empty. And what do you mean by “move forward and thrive?” In some ways it seems to be doing that more so than at any other time I can remember if you measure moving forward and thriving in terms of the amount of activity going on, the number of people involved, the number of new ensembles on the scene, and an extended aesthetic menu that offers something for everyone. And yet I remember Schoenberg’s dictum: “If it’s art it’s not for everyone; if it’s for everyone it’s not art.” Holy cow, what a snobbishly elitist (shame!) thing to say. And yet, and yet… them’s my roots, gosh darn it. And I must here say a word for what’s not at the center of the “action,” for what’s marginal and liminal, what’s said in a small voice and not through a megaphone. New music’s “salvation” lies not in becoming like rock and roll or in acquiring rock’s “energy” – not my words, other people say things like this and long may they wave it’s sure a free country.

In these my “sunset years,” I find my activities revolving more and more around performing the few very best solo flute pieces I’ve encountered through a lifetime of playing and study (or at least some of them). One of my favorites is called “Ein Hauch von Unzeit I” – which I translate (pardon my German) as “A Breath from What’s Out of Season” – or perhaps the last word of the title should be “Eternity,” I’m not sure. Huber has subtitled the piece as (pardon my French) a “Plainte sur la perte de la reflexion musicale” which he translates as (pardon his English) “a complaint over the loss of musical reflection.” He wrote “Ein Hauch…” in 1972, and I think that there’s even less musical reflection today than there was then. I like the final sentence of his program note for the piece, too: “a piece for patience, for meditation, for freedom from rigidly set schemes.” As new music becomes cool, hip, and popular its overall health and vigor might well benefit from a contemplation of the downside of “being for everyone,” as democratic as that may seem.

Trailblazer: Sarah Plum

photo (46)

My regular Trailblazers posts will feature interviews with people who are championing new music off the beaten path. Meet violinist Sarah Plum, who currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah when she was in Denton for the ICMC last month (thanks to my former student Zo Manfredi for introducing us).

How did you get started doing new music?

My parents are/were visual  artists so I think it just always seemed natural to be involved with newly created works.  I grew up with that – people making art in real time.  So that was the backdrop.  And then, as I said in [UNT’s contemporary performance practice] class, I was lucky to have amazing teachers like Szymon Goldberg who were involved with the music of their own time (in his case Hindemith, who was a friend and collaborator of his and who also, it could be said, saved his life by  arranging  a concert tour for him with his duo partner Lili Krauss to Dutch Indonesia.  He ended up spending the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and survived the Holocaust) and also  Felix Galimir, who premiered lots of 2nd Viennese School works with his quartet before emigrating to the U. S.

What is your favorite new music venue?

Favorite venue? Well Spectrum is pretty cool. What a wonderful thing Glenn Cornett has made there. I love the space and am very appreciative of what he has created – which is vital and living. I love places like that and am so happy to see them springing up all over these days. And I love playing non traditional venues like Libraries and art galleries. But I also have a weakness for lovely concert halls, like the Philharmonie in Cologne where I used to work. Two recent favorites – the Elias Kuppel Saal in Berlin – a beautiful domed room, with a freakishly amazing acoustic. I would love to record there. Go to Berlin and hear this hall! It is amazing! And I also want to mention New Music San Francisco which is a great place for new music, has great audiences and a really engaging spirit. I really loved playing there – great space.

Do you have a favorite audience? Favorite performer? Composer?

All these favorites! I am fickle – change favorites all the time. I love all audiences. Performers? Gidon Kremer (if you are going to limit me to people that are alive) takes the prize. Great player, great commissioner, someone who has changed the game and created things. And as for composers I have lots of favorites and opinions but they are SECRET!!! As a professional I do it all with gusto! So you have to get me pretty drunk for that list!

Where have you not played yet, that you’d like to?

I would love to play a solo program at Warsaw Autumn, Huddersfield, the BBC Proms (we are dreaming here, right – all for fun!).

How often do you present new music?

I play new music all the time – now starting a presentation where I bring my own tech, speakers and set up to do school visits at high schools and show students the range of music that is out there. And also doing stuff at non-traditional venues. So it is a big part of my life.

How do you decide on new projects?

New projects – well I always have more ideas and people and things and composers than I can support. I commission a lot and believe in it – so lots of names of composers. This is what we do. What I am proud of. The best part of working in new music as a performer is commissioning things and and building a new world of music – the composers deserve it – create it. Happy to have you all on board!