"Hiking through a dense and changing forest": An interview with composer Mikel Kuehn

We've got Mikel Kuehn's String Quartet No. 1 "If on a winter's night..." on the bill for YACHT ROCK and we can't wait to get this alluring work back on stage after premiering it in May. Rather than the more typical apply for grant –> receive piece from composer –> perform piece dynamic, we were lucky to workshop intimately with Mikel throughout the development of the piece...and become friends in the process.

Mikel and his son, Stefan, in Northern Thailand

Mikel and his son, Stefan, in Northern Thailand

Doyle: You've heard your String Quartet No. 1 twice now (the premiere and live on WFMT). Has your thinking about the piece changed since you delivered us the parts?

MikelMost of the time hearing a new piece is an uncentering mental mess! We composers usually do a pretty good job of hiding our feelings about our creations, which is probably why we spend so much time relaxing on expensive yachts. I had a lot of fun writing this quartet but it was quite intense – it's around 23 minutes and took most of a year to write – so I'm relieved to be finished with it. Since I worked with you all several times during the composing process, bringing in sketches for you to play, then going back home and revisiting my notes and recordings, I was able to build the piece like a sculpture, in more of an interactive method. In fact, I made some full mockups of the piece from various recordings along the way so there actually weren't many surprises when I heard it for the first time. The funny thing is that by the premiere I was more worried about the page turns than anything else! And yes, composers do have to think about that kind of stuff...

DA: We love that you looked to Italo Calvino's mesmeric "If on a winter's night, a traveler" as your frame for the piece. What does drawing inspiration from an existing book look like for you in your process?

MKI didn't originally intend to base it on the Calvino or any book; it was really an accident since it just happened to be what I was reading while I was working on the piece. This book really got under my skin and took hold of me. (Kids: this is why you should be reading novels!) I have a little hobby of talking with writers and other artists about their process and it turns out that we are all doing basically the same thing: making stuff that communicates and expresses our ideas and personalities through our work, though the mediums differ. In Calvino's Norton Lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, he talks about the idea of “visibility,” or the inner image that spawns-on a work before expressing it through a particular medium such as literature, music, painting, etc., a kind of inner cinematography, in fact. The medium in which we work inherently changes the message of the original inner image and this process can ultimately feed off itself, distorting and contorting the material. In this piece, I was interested in the idea of digesting Calvino's novel to get at what I thought was the background image or the essence of the material, then to reinterpret portions of it through my own filter, basically abstractly translating bits of the imbedded novellas into music. Strangely, many of my original sketches actually went along with the kinds of atmospheres or scenarios found in parts of the book, so I began using the text as a way to shape and build on my sketches. My understanding is that Calvino created much of this novel by improvising with controlled elements and this is exactly my process, though for me it stems from my background as a jazz musician.

DA: The composition of this quartet was unique because of the workshopping we did before you started writing. Is this always your process? How does it inform what you eventually write?

MKIdeally, I'd always like to workshop a piece with the performers and I do that whenever I can since it is more interactive and collaborative. But it isn't always possible due to logistics; plus, buying people food and beer all the time gets expensive! After constantly banging my head against the wall, I find that for me, each piece is its own beast. At a certain point, I take my basic ideas, along with myself, and throw them all into the water without a life preserver and then it's sink or swim – hopefully no sharks. In high school I spent a lot of time throwing pottery and drawing and those working methods taught me a lot. Sometimes I'll learn to get around on the instruments I'm writing for in order to find out what it feels like when playing certain kinds of gestures. We're usually talking 6th grade level, but it helps me wrap my head around things.

DA: The quartet may have been inspired by the Calvino, but I'm guessing that's not the whole story. What were you unearthing with this piece, compositionally?

MKI was initially interested in two opposing ideas: a way to think about the group as a single unit – for which I composed a bunch of eight-note chords to try – and creating textures that would highlight the individual musical characters of each player or instrument. So I prepared these basic elements and some diverse sketches and we workshopped them in a kind of musical jet-ski playground. I suppose I came to those two ideas from overdosing on hundreds of string quartets over the years and discovering that those concepts were at the core of the literature, so why not start there?

DA: There is a patience to the pacing of this quartet. Are you thinking about the journey of the listener as you create the larger structure of the piece, or do you go where the writing takes you, or both?

MKGood question! To me, the most important aspect of a piece is the listening experience concerning the narrative that is built-up over time. As a listener, I want to be challenged but engaged. I want to sit on the edge of my seat and be surprised, to feel as if I'm walking the plank or what I experience on a good hike through a dense and changing forest – raw beauty with a little suspense and maybe even a tinge of danger thrown in. By the way, I think Calvino's book is exactly like this! Sometimes composing a piece is like driving a giant yacht – you can't turn it on a dime and you have to ease it into the right direction keeping sight of the landmarks, with an eye peeled to avoid hitting another boat, a pier, or even a skier. But at the same time various activities can be taking place on the boat – a party, or perhaps a game of Battleship. And if you don't get caught in a storm it should be fairly smooth sailing. I once asked Donald Martino how he achieved such wonderful colors in his music; his answer was “follow your nose!” and that's what I try to do.

DA: We feel especially connected to this project because we got to hang out and eat at Sauce & Bread a couple times together. Does having a personal connection to the performers affect the writing of the piece in any way?

MKAbsolutely. I have to say that the food at Sauce & Bread is scrumptious and I probably got most of my fuel for digging into the piece from all of the hot sauce that I brought home and digested!  But seriously, for me having a human connection to a performer is incredibly helpful in knowing how to frame the writing in terms of the kinds of things that the performer does especially well, or likes to do. Writing music is a fragile process and knowing the person who will bring it to life helps give one a sense of confidence, a feeling of security, and plain old inspiration. Plus, it allows for a healthy dose of experimentation and joke telling. It's fun to have new friends too...

DA: And finally, what is your best or most embarrassing boating/jet-ski/water-sports-related story?

MKThat would have to be the time that I got pulled on an inner-tube behind a boat by college friends who thought it would be funny to see what would happen to me if they went REALLY FAST and made a lot of tight turns. Best to leave that one alone!