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Petr Kotik: Beyond Race, Beyond Genre, There’s Music

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I am doing what I’m doing. I think one should lead by example, not talk.
Petr Kotik has walked among giants. To the extent that he is recognized in New York City, where he has made his home for 41 years, it is as an associate of John Cage and Morton Feldman with an apparent fixation on Gertrude Stein. In his Czech homeland, he is held in higher esteem—in part, arguably, due to his move to New York. But his considerable list of musical relationships also includes the now-iconic composer Julius Eastman and a number of composer/performers who came out of Chicago's seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, including Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell and Amina Claudine Myers. Those relationships have developed by and large through his role as artistic director of the SEM Ensemble, which he co-founded with Eastman at State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970. 

Parts of that quick timeline are included in most discussions of Kotik, which frankly do not happen often enough. He is a living link to the "New York School" of composers—Cage, Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff—and regularly includes their work in his concert programs. But Kotik's name is not often a part of the recountings of Julius Eastman's genius and tragic end. And left almost entirely out of any narrative about Kotik is his connections with the AACM—not promoting them, not advocating for them, but simple and consistent programming of their work.

There is what certainly appears to be a race line here, something that could be easily traced, the line that until recently has largely kept Black composers out of concert halls. That has been changing of late, of course, as established orchestras seek to embrace, or at least represent, diversity and inclusion. But the SEM Ensemble have been doing it for years You will not hear Kotik talking about it, though. He has likely done more than anyone outside the AACM to put the work of those artists—Black artists, it should be noted, coming out of the jazz tradition—onto concert hall stages and on an equal footing with their white European and American contemporaries. The 2023 Ostrava Days biennial festival (organized by the Ostrava Center for New Music, which Kotik founded in 2000 and continues as artistic director) included a new orchestration of Mitchell's Nonaah (Nessa, 1977), performed by the resident Ostava New Orchestra, on a program that included works by Alvin Curran, Phil Niblock, Christian Wolff and Kotik himself, all composers representing different strains of 20th century musical innovation and influence. 

Two other longtime AACM members were also featured in the 10-day festival: Amina Claudine Myers's Improvisational Suite was performed by Myers with local singers and musicians from the orchestra. And George Lewis's Tales of the Traveler was played by members of the flexible chamber group Ostravská banda, an outgrowth of SEM. The festival also included bassist James Ilgenfritz playing his own "Roscoe Mitchell Transcription," "Orchestration," "Embodiment with Mechanical Instrument Array" and a club night with improvised music by Mitchell and Myers solo and in duet. 

Lewis—who was also a guest lecturer at the two-week institute that precedes the festival—took a moment to ruminate when asked about Kotik and other conductors who have featured AACM composers. "He would be number one," he said after a moment of searching his mental database. "I think he was the first. Certainly, he's the most consistent."

An intellect that pursues his own challenging compositions as avidly as he does the parallel and sometimes overlapping histories of jazz and concert music—and the social and racial dynamics within each—Lewis has watched perhaps more closely than anyone the integration of the classical stage. His 2007 book A Power Stronger Than Itself -The AACM and American Experimental Music(University of Chicago Press) documented the history and growth of the AACM. More recently, he co-edited Composing While Black. Afrodiasporic New Music Today, a collection of essays by Black composers. (Lewis's own essay for that book argues for an acknowledgment of the Creolization of music, that is, a recognition that music in the 21st century is almost always multi-cultural.)

Lewis and Kotik first met around 1977 at the Kitchen in New York City, after a performance of Kotik's marathon work Many Many Women, based on Gertrude Stein's text. "It's still one of my favorites," Lewis said during an interview in his temporary Ostrava office. "When I'm thinking about that kind of music—I could listen to it forever." Lewis was getting interested in composers like Philip Glass and Frederic Rzewski at the time, and before long was seeing his own music programmed alongside those figures of new music in Kotik's concerts. And while it was not a conscious effort—or if it was, he would never speak of it that way—Kotik was also helping to chip away at the norms that segregate music by profiling Lewis and other composers. 

"Petr Kotik is very nonjudgmental," Lewis said. "He has his own musical practice. I was lucky in a way because I knew him as a composer before I knew him as an orchestra leader. I think his commitment involves a wider vision, a creolizing vision. 

"It's not the old kind of thing where he's mixing genre and it's all fixed and it's all based on race," he continued.  "He's thinking in a very holistically broad way about music, which is counter to what a lot of the institutions, even in New York, are doing. It's not about diversifying anymore. It's about decolonizing. Petr has been at the forefront. You never see the word 'diversity' in anything he's done, but it's there."

The AACM was founded in Chicago in 1965 as a collective to present and promote the work of South Side musicians coming out of the jazz tradition who wanted to be recognized as composers and have their music performed in rooms other than noisy bars. Lewis joined in 1971, and met Abrams, Mitchell and Myers as well as other "first generation" luminaries, including Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. While the touchstones were different—John Coltrane on the one hand, John Cage on the other; Chicago vs. Czechoslovakia—the impetus for founding the SEM just five years later was only so different. 

SEM wasn't Kotik's first ensemble, however. As early as 1959, he had organized Musica viva pragensis in Prague to play contemporary music. As with the AACM, the focus was more about presenting work than expecting to reap financial rewards, although the conditions under communist rule were somewhat different. 

"People's essential needs were more or less being taken care of," Kotik told composer Ian Mikyska for an article in the English-language Czech Music Quarterly ("The SEM at 50," issue 2/2020). "Money wasn't very important—it didn't have much value and there wasn't much you could buy with it anyway. I don't remember ever worrying about how to pay these musicians, and they were Prague's leading players. There wasn't all that much to do, everyone's employment was guaranteed so intelligent people welcomed the chance to do something interesting and entirely different from what they were used to."

Kotik's next effort, the QUaX Ensemble, still focused on the current wave of composition—John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Luigi Nono, Frederic Rzewski, Karlheinz Stockhausen—but he began employing jazz musicians, such as Jan Hynčica and Václav Vejvoda. Kotik relocated to join the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Buffalo in 1969, where he and fellow composer Julius Eastman established the SEM Ensemble. 

"He was a very important part of SEM Ensemble," Kotik told me. "It was essentially the Kotik—Eastman group. He was a very prominent member of the new music scene. All the doors were open to him. He graduated from Curtis, the most prestigious conservatory in the U.S. He had a piece debut at The Town Hall [in midtown Manhattan]. He asked for the fellowship at Buffalo, immediately he got it. We met there and connected because for both of us, the musical direction [at Buffalo] didn't interest us." Eastman's story ended tragically not so many years later, but the SEM has carried on under Kotik's leadership and has championed Eastman's music, along with other Black composers. But Kotik does not talk about his programming in such terms. 

"Why would you talk about it?" he said when asked about promoting the diversity in his programming. "If you have a problem with it, you might talk about it. But if you see it as a natural way of proceeding, living, there's nothing to talk about. 

"I am doing what I'm doing," he said. "I think one should lead by example, not talk."

In the mid-1990s, the AACM received a grant to commission and present orchestral works. Kotik was suggested to direct the concert.

"I found the music they were writing not predictably conventional and many times very interesting, coming to the composition from different points of view," he recalled. That concert cemented relationships that persist today. A pair of concerts in 2015 by the SEM Ensemble and Ostravská banda, marking the AACM's 50th anniversary, put works by Abrams, Lewis, Mitchell and Threadgill alongside works by Cage, Wolff and Kotik and included a set by the trio of Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell. And in 2022, SEM presented an all AACM concert (like the 2015 concerts, in New York City) with works by Abrams, Lewis, Myers and Threadgill as well as Thurman Barker, Adegoke Steve Colson, Leonard E. Jones and Amina Claudine Myers. Kotik was also one of the conductors elicited to lead the Art Ensemble Of Chicago when Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye expanded their flagship band into an 18-member orchestra. He conducted half of the concert they gave at the Big Ears festival in Tennessee in 2019. Mitchell described a "spiritual connection" with Kotik (an intriguing proposition for two men who keep their cards close to their chest) when asked about their connection during the Ostrava Days festival. "We've been working together for like 30 years," he said. "He really does give composers good rehearsals of their piece."

Myers sang similar praises in an interview at the 2023 festival. "I only use good conductors," she said. "Petr is special."

Her Improvisational Suite brought waves of gospel and spirituals, r'n'b, swing, soul-jazz groove, even a little scat to end a long evening of mostly somber organ and choral music in a 19th Century church. Myers led the ensemble in that piece, but Kotik has conducted her work on other occasions. 

"He has a feeling for that music," she said. "He understands the feelings and the moods that we write. He has a lot of soul in his conducting. The music is written for each director to put in his own style, but he brought the music alive. He understood how to conduct it, and that's very important. It was, I believe, the first time I had someone conduct my music because in the AACM we direct our own."

Bassist/composer James Ilgenfritz is a regular presence with the SEM Ensemble, both in Ostrava and in New York. At the 2023 festival, he played in Lewis' and Myers' works and presented his own transcription of a Mitchell solo. He grew up listening to John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus and driving from his small Michigan hometown to Toledo for bass lessons and Ann Arbor for concerts, including Mitchell and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Ilgenfritz stressed the role Kotik has played in making the AACM "part of the same fabric as western concert music.

"There's a contingency to this engagement with American and Western European history," Ilgenfritz said. "Petr has always been bringing Cage and people to Europe, and he's remained pretty steadfast to presenting that work. Come the 1990s, he started engaging with the AACM. I don't believe anyone in Europe was engaging with AACM composers the same way. In the U.S., it's also kind of the case. Before that, it was only the AACM putting on their own concerts." Kotik would not often go so far in touting his accomplishments. He speaks in terms of work ethic, and in a matter-of-fact tone. But if it is not a notable circle of friends he has built up over a long career, it is certainly an impressive collection of artistic associations. 

"Practically all my personal relationships really are through music," Kotik said. "I don't go out to have a drink at a bar, I find that sort of thing to be boring. I don't hug my neighbors." And at 82, the conductor and programmer is still busy looking for the next new thing. 

"I'm not into enjoying myself in general," he said. "When I want to enjoy myself, I want to sit down and smoke a cigar. Making music is not a vehicle to enjoyment for me. What is important to me is that I learn, every time, something.

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