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Interviews

Steve Kuhn: Shimmering Beauty

By Published: July 7, 2009
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October Suite

AAJ: Does your method of composition vary depending upon the type of piece you are writing?

SK: Basically I compose at the piano. I sit there and I stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper and go from there. It really is perspiration more than inspiration, frankly. It is not easy for me to compose, but once I get into it, [it's] trial and error and a lot of rejections, but I come up with something I think is reasonable. But it is a perspiration type project for me to compose, unfortunately.



I know about people getting up in the middle of night with something buzzing in there head. If that happens to me, and it does, I am usually too tired to write it down. So it's either with me when I get up in the morning or it's gone.



AAJ: October Suite (Impulse!, 1966) was your piano trio playing alongside a chamber ensemble. The score was by Gary McFarland. Was this the first time you had done something which so jumped musical genres?

SK: I believe it was, yes.

Steve KuhnAAJ: What dictates how long you will stay with a project's performance/promotion before moving onto the next thing? Is a complex piece of work such as October Suite harder to get across to the public?

SK: That's up to the economics. I never performed the music on the October Suite until about five years ago. Somebody called me from California and they wanted to do this music, which had never been performed in public before; which was kind of strange—it was forty years later! So I am out in Claremont, California at this college, playing with the trio and a woodwind ensemble and a string quartet; playing this music. It was really very special to be able to do that.



But its economics; I have never had a name big enough where promoters will think they can sell out a hall or something like that. So it has been a question of economics and what different promoters think the traffic will bear.

AAJ: The chamber sections, having been written by someone else, does it make you approach your solos or even how the trio interact differently or is it similar to doing a standard?

SK: It is similar only because when I work with these different writers, especially with Gary I say "Just give me some room;" and he did. What he wrote was gorgeous and then he left space for me. Whatever was going on in the background to me was minimal, the same as it was on this string project I did Promises Kept (ECM, 2004). Carlos Franzetti did the same thing. We collaborated on the arrangements but the stuff that he wrote and the way he orchestrated it enabled me to just really respond to stuff that he did, in terms of background stuff, but also just left a lot of open space where I can play. That's important for me.

AAJ: With a project like October Suite or the follow-up eponymously titled album you did with Gary McFarland (on Buddha, 1971) how much does critical or public reception of the work effect what you will next attempt?

SK: It has never really impacted me particularly. The only time I did consciously try to reach out to a larger audience, I had been living overseas in Scandinavia for four years and I came back to the States in the early '70s. The first recording I did was for a label called Buddah Records in New York. It was sort of a bubble gum type label, but they had this guy Joe Fields; he was the jazz guy.



I made a record with a string quartet and Gary McFarland; it was the last he recording he did, as a matter of fact, before he passed. It was all my music. It was string quartet and it had percussion, Airto Moreira

Airto Moreira
Airto Moreira
b.1941
percussion
was the percussionist. Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
b.1944
drums
was the drummer and Ron Carter, bassist, and myself. I sang on a few of them, some of the lyrics that I had written to these songs.



That was really a conscious effort to maybe try to break out into a wider market and it didn't work. That was the only conscious attempt that I made to be more "commercial." Since then I really have just sort of got along and try to do what I wanted to do. In terms of career it hasn't helped me necessarily but that was really all I knew how to do.



I admire people like Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
or Chick Corea, who did, and I respect what they did. They are great musicians and they did go into the synthesizers/electronic stuff and did it quite well but it also brought them a larger audience so now these days they can do whatever the hell they want. I admire them for that. I was never able to do that.

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Promises Kept

AAJ: Promise Kept is simply billed on the album cover as "w/Strings," which is deceptively humble for the sweep of the work. It is not you merely soloing over strings nor is it third stream, fitting far more comfortably into modern classical. Do you give any thought ever to genre labels in regards to your works?

SK: How could I have described that differently?



For me it's about the music. People are gonna put labels on it anyway. I can't get involved in all of that. For me the bottom line really is the emotion. I try, especially in these later years, to reach the audience on an emotional level. If I can do that then I have succeeded.



A lot of times I hear people saying "This music made me happy" or "This made me cry." That's what I want to hear. If they're indifferent or if they say that was "interesting," that's a word that's used. It means nothing really. It's like looking at a painting in a museum and saying "that's very interesting." Well, what does that mean?



I want to try to move people. They may be moved to the point where they don't like it. That's fine. I prefer it the other way but as long as I can reach them emotionally on some level, then I have succeeded. That's really what I try to do.

Steve KuhnAAJ: The orchestration and conducting was by Carlos Franzetti. Was there any temptation to do it yourself?

SK: No. Only because I know what it takes. The technique and the craft of writing for other instruments, that's something that requires a fair amount of study. I could probably do it but I don't have the energy, at this stage.



I just recently received a recording of Claus Ogerman; I had forgotten what a great writer he is. I may try to, if it's possible, to hook up with him and get some interest in the company to do some other stuff, but with him doing the arrangements and orchestrations. He is an incredible writer.



But I leave that up to them. There are people out there who can do this a hell of a lot better than I would ever be able to do. So I just focus on the piano and original music, what ever it is I am doing.

AAJ: Did the project change at all from its conception to its execution?

SK: Not really no. I had wanted to do a recording with a large string orchestra because I had done a couple with string quartets. It always had been a dream of mine and I had asked around, Claus Ogermann

's name was in the front of my mind at the time. But I didn't know, I figured that economically it might not work out, I didn't know where he was.



People had kept telling me that in New York, Carlos Franzetti is the one you should really meet and talk to about it, because he writes incredibly well for strings. So as it turns out, I did contact him and it turned out that he had been a fan of mine, which didn't hurt.



We got together and we really hit it off quite well. I was able to just talk with him about what I wanted and we exchanged a lot of ideas. I think it worked out quite well.

AAJ: You have had a chance to perform it live. Does the live version differ much from its recorded sibling? Does the venue you are performing in effect its characteristic at all?

SK: Minimally. We have only actually done it twice; once right around the time when the CD came out and the other time at a summer festival here in upstate New York. Unfortunately again it is economics. I had hoped to do some stuff in Europe with it and have been told by different promoters that it could work out. Because actually the string writing, the music is not that difficult; so you could get local musicians to do it. The only common thing would be me and bringing Carlos along. But so far it hasn't really materialized. Hopefully it will one of these days.

AAJ: There are several of your older pieces re-imagined on the album ("Lullaby," "Life's Backward Glance," "Trance" and "Oceans in the Sky"), yet the over all album has an almost programmatic feel to it. Is this something you intentionally strove for?

SK: No. It just came out the way it was. A dear friend of mine when he first heard it, and he meant this as a compliment; he said it really sounds as if my playing on it, aside from the stating of the melody, that my improvisation was written out. I know he meant that as a compliment but the fact of it was, of course, that it wasn't. I just played fairly sparsely and on purpose, because the emotion for me with the strings was very strong and I wanted all that to come out.



I think as I get older too I tend to play less. I realized that leaving the space and letting the music breathe is really quite important. When you are younger, of course, you tend to want to cram in everything, in every chorus and tell your whole life story. Then you find as you get older that it is not necessary. Just, you play less and things work out, I think, better. It's much more emotional.

Steve KuhnAAJ: The piece was written for your grandparents who emigrated from Budapest and dedicated to family, including your parents. At times there is an almost hand dulcimer effect to your playing, was there any ethnic music influence occurring?

SK: I'm sure there was. When I was very young there was some Hungarian music going 0n the house, not much but I did hear it. When I was quite young there were several Hungarian women that babysat me over the period of a couple of years. So that was in my fiber.



Two years ago I did a concert at the Hungarian consulate here in New York and it was quite unexpected; I walked in and I really got extremely emotional just hearing the people speaking Hungarian, just the whole feeling in the room. I was completely blindsided by that. I really didn't expect it but there are a lot of deep rooted associations that I have with Hungary, I'm sure.



Ironically I have not been there. I've gotten, while touring, as far as Vienna and never had the time to go; because that's about as close to Budapest as you can get. But I am hoping, I am going to Italy next month and I have an eight day period where I have nothing (at the moment) that's booked in between two teaching situations. So I may, unless something comes up at the last minute, take a side trip and go to Budapest for a couple of days. Just to do it. It is something I should do.



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