Fresh off a residency at New York’s iconic Stone, versatile composer John King will be premiering a piece for six pianos in that city on Friday, May 22nd & Saturday, May 23rd, 8pm, at the Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, NY 11378. He took some time to talk to AMN about his background and works.
Tell us about your history. How did you get interested in music originally, and how did it lead to your current output?
I always begin with my first live music concert which was the Muddy Waters Blues Band playing at the Guthrie Theater in my home town of Minneapolis. I was 14 or 15 at the time and can clearly remember the raw energy, the excitement, the power of the music. I had been playing electric guitar in some bands, but from then on I threw myself into Chicago blues, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and then some of the rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was playing in 2-3 bands, had added Jimi Hendrix into my influences and with that came a whole new approach to improvisation, experimentation with sound, like that….At the same time, I was realizing there were other aspects to music which I hadn’t connected with, and very much wanted to, so a friend and I began studying 16th century counterpoint, I added violin and piano to instruments I was studying and I began to “compose” little pieces in those early styles – canons, fugues, chorales, even a short concerto for piccolo and orchestra! When I was a senior the school orchestra performed the concerto – my first big “concert” after playing many clubs and small venues around Minnesota. From there I studied composition more formally with a professor from the University of Minnesota, and he introduced me to the “classics” – Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and even into the 20th Century with Debussy, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez. And I was trying my hand at writing pieces with those composers as models. I did not go directly to college from high school but did those studies in the “gap year.” Then I applied to CalArts where I went for 3 years, graduating a year early and where I studied with Morton Subotnick, James Tenney and Leonard Stein. After graduating, I moved to New York where I settled in, writing more “uptown” music at the beginning, but then finding my way to the downtown improv scene, and also had the opportunity to meet John Cage after sending him a cassette tape of some of my music, and him writing back saying he wanted to hear more, after which he commissioned me to write my first piece for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1985. I owe a great deal to that long association with the artists, composers, musicians and dancers of the MCDC from 1985 to 2011 when the company ended. And along that way I was also working with various ensembles, string quartets, singers, other dance companies and at each stage exploring new ways of working, conceiving and imagining sound.
Your use of instrumentation is quite varied – do you start with an idea and then choose the instruments on which to express it, do you choose the instruments first, or is the process more complicated than that?
Of course, if the piece comes from a commission, then I’ll go with that instrumentation, and if it’s my choice for written music I often use the string quartet as my basic ensemble….which can be expanded to other colors as well. I’ve written pieces for string orchestra, percussion quartet and full mixed large orchestra for conceptual ideas that seemed to need realizations with those sonic colors. In about half my output I use live electronics which are like parallel compositions to the live acoustic music it is processing and transforming. When improvising or working in an open sonic ensemble I play electric guitar, electric viola, oud and recently ngoni.
Given the diversity of your compositions, your influences are hard to pin down. Are there any in particular that can be called out?
As I said before I think Jimi Hendrix as an explorer of sound, an experimental approach to the sonic moment – he was a big early influence. Then John Cage, who was doing more or less the same, but with different materials….also Mort Subotnick, David Behman and David Tudor for their approaches to electronics and live electronics as compositional systems.
How do you integrate indeterminacy into your composition, especially the operas?
For many years now I have been interested in time and its organization, so in the operas indeterminate aspects were used to organize time/duration/ordering of materials, as well as locations on the stage, orchestral parts, live video elements, choreographic uses of the same space shared with the singers. As a friend described it, I was constructing a massive “traffic cop” to say when/what/where singer A would sing “aria X” and then if that were happening, where/what/when/for how long dancers could share the stage with the singer, where would be the possible entrances/exits for the singer/dancers. It sounds very chaotic but when we did the opera “Dice Thrown” at CalArts, the collaborative team were very skeptical at first when I described the manner in which these parts came together, and came together differently for each performance. But then in the end, we did 3 performances, each different, with all these changing parts, arias, movements, choruses, video, stage design, live electronics, orchestral elements – all shifting for each show, yet everyone knew exactly what/where/when to perform and it all worked seamlessly and quite beautifully, without there needing to be any “director” besides a chance-determined “traffic cop.”
In 2015, do you think there still is a meaningful dichotomy between composer and performer?
My main teacher/mentor at CalArts, Mort Subotnick, used a metaphor about a composer having 3 “cycles” in the overall arc of working; first the “composer” has the ideas and concepts for the work; the “performer” realizes those ideas, whether by writing out the parts or playing the parts herself/himself; and then there is the “audience” or listener of the work who then determines how close to the original idea the realization and the performance of the work actually is. His idea was that then the “composer” re-evaluates the entire previous work’s cycle and that, then, informs the next work taken on. And this cycle continues. My reflection on this is that there really is NO separation between composer and performer, that there is a constant shifting back and forth between the 2 aspects of sonic imagination and creation.
The next concert I have is taking place at the fantastic Knockdown Center in Queens, a multi-disciplinary 50,000 sq. ft. space with amazing sightlines, acoustics and atmosphere. The work is titled “Piano Vectors for 6 pianos in a large space” – there will be 6 amazing pianists: Jenny Lin, Laura Barger, Taka Kigawa, Ning Yu, Tania Tachkova and Joseph Kubera performing on 6 Steinway 9-ft concert D grand pianos placed throughout the Knockdown Center space. The 6 pianists are each soloists in a way. They each play similar material but perform this material within what I call “time-vectors” – durations of time which are randomly determined and which cause the musical material to be compressed or expanded based on the individual decisions of each performer. So again, at each performance the materials will take on different shapes and be placed in time and space at varying points. The audience will be encouraged to move around the space, being close to or very distant from the pianos and therefore be active participants in how they experience the time/space/sound of this composition.
What other projects, live or recorded, do you having coming up?
I have a piece written for the wonderful soprano Ariadne Greif being performed at Pioneer Works May 30th, as part of the Ferus Festival 2015. It’s a new piece called “of all the stars the most beautiful” which is the entire text fragment of a poem by Sappho. This is one of many pieces Ariadne will be performing that evening as part of her “Dreams and Nightmares” project. I also have a premiere in November, for the Mannheim Ballet (Germany), for mixed women’s chorus and string quartet, using texts based on the themes of time found in T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” And sometime in the fall, a recording of my piece “ars imitatur naturam” for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be released on their “Black Mountain Songs” CD.