“…Time is your canvas and sound is your paint…”
Though these words were spoken by just one of many teachers composer Keeril Makan had in his musical upbringing, their continuing effect is obvious. His distinct brand of controlled cacophonous music is receiving wonderful press (The New Yorker, Newsday, Sequenza21, and even yours truly ;)); His works have been performed by great ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet, Bang On a Can All-Stars and Either/Or; His music has been featured in numerous festivals throughout the world (MATA Festival, Other Minds Festival, Gaudeamus Festival, Voix Nouvelles), and he is the recipient of several awards including the 2008 Rome Prize (American Academy in Rome), as well as awards from Meet The Composer and ASCAP. Even with such massive buzz as a composer, Keeril is also handling the position of Assistant Professor of Music at MIT. He managed to take some time and talk to us about his composer beginnings as well as his current CD Target, and a little about his life as well.
CM: When you studied violin, were you thinking of a career as a violinist with any kind of soloist aspirations?
KM: I enjoyed playing violin, but I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t really a performer. I have tremendous respect for musicians who can both master their instrument and connect with an audience. I actually stopped playing violin for a number of years during college. When I came back to it in graduate school, it changed my composing. I suddenly reawakened my physical connection to sound. Ever since then, I try to play the instruments that I’m writing for if I have the opportunity. This is how I wrote both Zones d’accord and Resonance Alloy. My physical exploration of the instruments connects the music with the idiosyncrasies of my body. It makes the music more personal, and I think more unique.
CM: What was it that led you to start composing?
KM: I started composing when I was in high school at the Interlochen Arts Camp. I went as a violinist, but I took classes in conducting and composition, and found that I spent most of my time composing during those summers. I like to tell the story of the first day of that composition class. The conductor said to all of us that composing is like painting, except time is your canvas and sound is your paint. Now go compose. There wasn’t any instruction given, or models put forth. I think this had a profound impact on my life as a composer–you just compose with what you have. There is no correct way, there’s nothing you need to know before you start. As you compose, you create your own tools and teach yourself what you need to know. It’s a continual, changing process, and there are no guidelines other than your own search for self-knowledge.
The Noise Between Thoughts (Either/Or Ensemble; Keeril Makan Portrait Concert, ICA, Boston, MA; 3/17/11)
CM: Who is your biggest influence?
KM: There are too many influences to name–many teachers, many colleagues and many friends. I’ve had some great teachers, but none of them were domineering figures. When I was younger, that made things difficult because I had to find my own way. As I’ve grown older, I’m thankful for the space that those early teachers gave me. All of them contributed to my growth, but none of them are towering over my shoulder as I’m composing.
CM: The piece titled Target you had written as a song cycle with poet Jena Osman. How did the idea for this piece come about, and was it your idea to collaborate with Jena?
KM: I was selected to participate within a workshop at Carnegie Hall on writing for the voice with John Harbison and Dawn Upshaw. When I was notified that I was selected, I was only given a week to find a text that I wanted to set to music, and get it cleared by Carnegie. I had met Jena at the Djerassi artist residency program, and I liked her work very much. I asked her if she had any texts that might be suitable, and she gave me a few different options. The texts were meant for performance, although in her case as spoken word. She gave me a lot of freedom to rearrange the texts as I needed. I don’t quite remember now, but I think there were two main texts that I rearranged into the five songs of Target.
CM: I must say, with the top-range notes and the dramatic weight of it in general, the piece was very powerfully sung by Laurie Rubin. What was it like to go through the process of working with her on this piece?
KM: I was assigned Laurie as the singer that I would work with by Dawn and John. I quickly searched her on the internet and learned she is blind. I talked to Laurie on the phone about her voice as well as by email, and she sent me recordings of her singing, but she never mentioned to me that she was blind. I figured that since she didn’t mention it, and she was having professional success as a singer, that I didn’t need to take her blindness into account in my composing. It’s actually a difficult part, with a lot of detail in terms of vocal inflection and rhythm. Her process for learning a piece is to have the text put into braille and have her accompanist teach her the melody by ear. But once she learned it, she’s had a string of remarkable performances with the piece.
Target (IV: Leaflet II; Laurie Rubin, mezzo-soprano; California E.A.R.)
CM: There is this incredible collapse/explosion at the end of the violin/percussion duet 2. By the way, the piece itself employs such a great use of the sonata form, but how was that last part done? Did the acoustics or production play a role, or did Jennifer [Choi] and David [Shively] slam everything they had into it? I really thought there was a third musician handling electronics on the recording (I even checked)!
KM: The ending of the piece is a structured improvisation for violin and bowed thunder sheet. David had showed me the marvels of the bowed thunder sheet when we were at college together at Oberlin, and I had been waiting for the right moment to use it. There are no electronics on this CD at all. The violin utilizes some techniques used in Zones d’accord which helped it blend with the bowed thunder sheet.
It’s funny that you should mention sonata form. When I was writing this piece, I was consciously trying to avoid any references to forms that I know. Every section explores its idea, and then never returns. I think Morton Feldman said something like if a composer succeeds in realizing his intentions when he starts a piece, then the piece will fail. Hopefully 2 is a success as a piece, so my intentions regarding the form are secondary.
CM: Zones d’accord is the unaccompanied piece for cello. Again, I thought there was an electronic element somewhere in the performance (or if it was an electric or a regular cello w/pickup) only to realize there wasn’t, and the soloist [Alex Waterman] made such a harmonic drone that sounded like guitar feedback (and the whole piece is wonderful, btw). Probably a dumb question, but do you have these instructions marked down in the score to make the musicians go to this extreme?
KM: Because I had been playing the cello as I was writing the piece, I was able to figure out how to very efficiently tell the cellist how to get the sounds I that wanted. It’s a combination of bow pressure and location, and placing the fingers of the left hand between nodal points to get some of the multiphonic-like sounds. There are short written instructions to indicate how to do the various techniques.
CM: Resonance Alloy is the percussion solo that closes the “Target” CD. You probably saw me say this in the review, but some of the structure of this piece reminds me of something a jazz group would play where the band plays the theme, takes turns playing solos, and then returns to the theme. Are you a fan of jazz and if so, did this have anything to do with the inspiration for Resonance?
KM: There’s a lot of jazz I enjoy and have a great respect for, but it’s never been a major influence on me. For me, this piece comes out of the experimental tradition, composers like [Alvin] Lucier, [James] Tenney and Reich. I certainly wasn’t composing it with a theme in mind; rather there is a continual timbral transfiguration in the piece, and an underlying rhythmic process where the rhythm simplifies, and this usually announces a new section of the piece. I’m guessing that it’s these moments of articulation that you’re hearing as points of return in the piece, which is my intention. Without these moments, I think the listener would get lost in the continual sound/noise transformation.
Resonance Alloy (excerpt; David Shively, perc; Keeril Makan Portrait Concert, ICA, Boston, MA; 3/17/11)
CM: Are there any future plans or fantasy projects you have for any specific artists on the drawing board?
KM: There are two big projects that I’m working on. The first is an operatic adaption of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Persona, with a libretto by Jay Scheib. It is being written for Alarm Will Sound. We are still looking for commissioners and presenters for this project. I’ve written a piano/vocal score over the past year that I’m very excited about. It’s the first vocal music that I’ve written since Target. The second is an evening-length chamber piece for Either/Or for 2 clarinets/bass clarinets, percussion and string trio. We just received a Meet The Composer commission for that, which will be premiered in 2014.
Mu (Masumi Rostad, prepared viola; Longy School of Music, Boston, MA 2009)