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Steve Kuhn: Shimmering Beauty

By Published: July 7, 2009
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AAJ: Lyrically, the elliptical sentence of the sea captain's tale there is an almost Samuel Beckett flavor to the song. Does literature or any other artistic mediums ever fuel what you do?

SK: Well to tell you the truth, that was ["the captain called his men on deck"] something I had heard years and years ago, when I was in my twenties or something. It was a joke. It was an open ended joke that just kept repeating and repeating and repeating. So I did it more with the tongue and cheek, that particular lyric.

I never thought of it as being like Beckett. It's probably Beckett like but I never consciously did it. I just did it as a tongue and cheek. Some of the other lyrics I have written have been stream of consciousness and others have been written with more of a specific theme in mind or a strong emotion; where ever I am at that particular time.

AAJ: How important is any kind of self reassessment to one of your pieces when creating a different version of it?

SK: I would rather keep my mind as open as possible and let it go where it may. I mean if there has to be specific things that are written out, if it's a larger ensemble then so be it. But I really like to leave the possibilities as open as possible, so a song can go anywhere.

I think that's part of the beauty of the music, creative and improvised music. You can go where ever you want. Sometimes it works better than others, true, but you always have to take these risks and take these chances because that's the essence of what the music is about.

AAJ: When you write a song with lyrics is there any preconceived idea beforehand of who may be the singer or how you want the singer's emotions to come through in the piece?

SK: No. For me, I am flattered when anybody wants to sing it. Some of the songs are harder to sing than others., I wrote a lyric to this song "Adagio" which is quite difficult to sing but three singers have recorded that song: Luciana Souza

Luciana Souza
Luciana Souza

, a woman named Laura Taylor and a Norwegian singer Karin Krog
Karin Krog
Karin Krog
; all very different but all valid in their own way.

I really don't have anybody in mind. I don't necessarily think that's what I do; for the most part it's the instrumental stuff that I focus on. Whenever it's possible that somebody wants to sing something, if there's a lyric there or if a lyric has to be written that's fine. But I don't really compose with anyone in mind, particular, as far as a singers concerned; at least consciously I haven't done that.

AAJ: Some of the songs appearing on the Playground album had previously been known under different titles ["Thoughts of a Gentleman" is "Gentle Thoughts," "The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers" is "Poem for No.15," "The Zoo is "Pearlie's Swine"]. Did changing the title further facilitate a stylistic change in any of the songs' executions?

SK: That was just publishing. I had given fifty percent of the publishing to a company when I recorded them initially and there was some confusion. The publishing company went out of business and they gave me back all the rights as publisher but it wasn't being recognized in all parts of the world so I decided to change some of the titles to be sure it was clear. So no, I literally changed the titles. That's all. Just for publishing purposes.

AAJ: Your lyrics often have a playful Oulipo/Dadist feel to them. Are the lyrics created at the same time as the music which accompanies it?

SK: Usually the music comes first and then the lyrics. I can't recall if it has ever been the other way around. Then depending upon what I am feeling at the time the lyric will be either obtuse or more straightforward. It just depends.

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AAJ: Trance (ECM, 1974) features you, in part, on electric piano. You called your association with the instrument "a dalliance." In performance or writing have you tried other new technology?

Steve KuhnSK: No. Well, I did play synthesizers a little bit, although I don't think I ever recorded on one.

To me they are like toys. It is very hard to get an individual approach on an electric piano because you can't really mess with the sound. There is no identifiable sound, it is electronically produced; and the same with the synthesizers, from my experience anyway.

I was curious about it and the time that I recorded Trance, the first recording I did for ECM; I was playing electric piano at the time. I asked Manfred Eicher if I could do a couple of tracks on the electric piano and he was very much against it. He acquiesced eventually, if we could have the keyboards split so that it could be recorded in stereo. So I went to a technician who did that for me. And that's the reason I did a couple of those songs on that particular recording, with the electric piano.

But the acoustic piano is still my main instrument and continuously challenging to me. Every time I sit down, to this day; it never gets tired for me. It is always a challenge and over the years I think I have developed a personal voice and a personal sound that I get from it.

Somebody emailed me just the other day and said "You can play one note and I know it's you;" and that is really a very big compliment for me. That's nice.

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