The S.E.M. Ensemble, led by Petr Kotik, will perform its annual concert at Paul Cooper Gallery on December 20 at 8PM. (Please note that the concert will take place at the upstairs space at 521 West 21, not in the ground floor gallery.) The program features a Vivaldi concerto, a premiere by Sam Hillner, a Xenakis violin piece and Petr Kotik’s own Spheres and Attraction, with text by R. Buckminster Fuller – inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist who said in 1980: “For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.” This optimism matches that of philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse, who, in his 1964 popular work One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society envisioned reduced work time and increased leisure for the industrial society in the future. And I guess at that time, things looked kind of good… little did either of them know of the negative effects of global economy.

EL: What is your interest in R. Buckminster Fuller, and how did this new piece of yours take shape?

PK: Towards the end of 1971, Julius Eastman became the core member of the S.E.M. Ensemble. I was composing a piece for the group, There Is Singularly Nothing and I was faced for the first time with the task of composing for voice (I have not stopped composing for the voice since). In 1971, it was very fashionable to use the voice without words as a coloring device. I hated that, so the first order of business was to find the text. I chose Gertrude Stein, and continued to work with Stein’s texts until 1978. At that time I became more and more concerned with the text’s content (my interest in Stein was mainly the form, the language, the rhythm, etc.) and since, at that time I practically read nothing other than Buckminster Fuller, the choice was a given. In 1981 Fuller visited Buffalo to give a commencement speech at the university. I attended the ceremony and was so impressed with the speech that I got the recording, transcribed it and sent it to Fuller with a request for permission to use it in my new piece. Fuller edited the text and sent it back with his permission. In fact, he gave me a blank permission to use any of his texts in any way I saw fit. Last summer, in thinking about our Christmas concert at the Paula Cooper Gallery, I came up with the idea to revive this old piece (The title of the 1981 composition is Commencement, for two voices, and it is about two and half hours long). Commencement was last performed in 1982, in Buffalo and NYC, and I have not seen the score since.
I remembered ideas from it but had long forgotten that they were a part of that particular text. After looking through Commencement, I decided to create a new piece by editing the already composed part for voices, and adding a string quartet and percussion. In my estimate the new composition, Spheres & Attraction will be about 1 hour long.

Why I am interested in Fuller’s texts is a hard question to answer. It is difficult to justify or explain a decision based on intuition and other non-rational considerations. I could only say, without being presumptuous that, to some extent, Fuller’s way of thinking corresponds to my own and his intellectual brilliance has always been a great source of inspiration for me. Fuller, without being a revolutionary, always based all his conclusions on his own thinking, paying no attention to the accepted conventions. His ideas have always been derived from his own experiences, rather than beliefs. This aspect of his approach, especially, corresponds to the way I proceed with my own way of looking at things (which may be the reason why, on occasion, some people get so irritated with me).

EL: You have presented a number of European and American women composers on your program with S.E.M. Can you summarize this experience?

PK: My programming is never done from an ideological or social point of view, and the inclusion of women composers has been based on the merit of the music, not on gender. It is true in our world that female artists are somewhat handicapped by gender. I myself find such handicaps in general not overly tragic, and in some way even beneficial. All my life I have been under one handicap or another, especially after arriving in the U.S. at the age of 27 without speaking English, without having any influential friends, or attending schools which would have given me access to environment of similarly interested people. My handicap itself meant working harder than my colleagues, which in turn resulted in my being more productive than some of them.
I have observed the same in the case of my wife, the curator Charlotta Kotik. So there are no absolute negatives or absolute positives.

There is another aspect that I would like to mention. It has to do with my own personal delight in proving conventional beliefs wrong (applying this attitude to my own person I can tell you that it also gives me great satisfaction to prove myself wrong). I like to present women composers who defy the conventional wisdom (or the conventional stupidity) of not being ‘up to it’.

EL: I agree with you that programming should not be gender-based. In fact, I have sometimes had second thoughts about participating in a women-only program. But what I am doing here in Music Underground is evaluating whether women’s music is given a fair share of programming. Many programs do not present women’s music at all. Yours on the other hand has been supportive of women’s music, and for the right reasons: not because they are women but because certain works interested you, regardless of gender. Do you plan to present any music by women in 2006?

PK: We have not yet fully finalized our upcoming season’s program, but it is most likely that, among the composers we program in our season, there will be women composers as well. At the moment, we have plans for pieces by Maria de Alvear and Olga Neuwirth.

EL: What was your experience in Europe like in the past couple of years? Do you find that you can do more in Europe than in New York?

PK: We are living in this wretched time of rational thinking run amok. I sometimes find it depressing, losing much hope that I will ever live to see it changed. The situation in Europe is somewhat different than the one in New York. Each carries its own problems and difficulties. At the moment I can neither see myself living full time in Europe nor here in New York. Years ago, my friend Frederic Rzewski suggested that the best place for all of us would be to live in Iceland, to be as close to Europe as to the US, now I think Mongolia might be better.

EL: Lithuania might be the ticket. Frank Oteri had a wonderful production there last summer. Apparently the president himself is a music aficionado.

Following is a list of the pieces by women composers presented by S.E.M. Ensemble in the past few years.
1992-95 – Alison Knowles: Nivea Cream Piece; Anne Tardos: Among Men
1995-96 – Martha Mooke: Raindance, Winds of Arden, Off Limits, News, Dream Catcher, Wreckless; Pauline Oliveros: Pauline’s Solo
1996-97 – Annea Lockwood: Shapeshifter; Maria de Alvear: World; Pauline Oliveros: From Unknown Silences
Marilys Ernst: Mirror/Wedding; Yoko Ono: Wall Piece for Orchestra, Sky Piece for Jesus Christ
1998-99 – Akemi Naito: An Island in the Moon; Anne Tardos/Jackson Mac Low: For Dick Higgins; Meiko Shiomi: Music for Disappearing Face
000-01 – Rain Worthington: January, Yet Still Night; E
lodie Lauten: Symphony 2001: Frances White: Singing Bridge
2002-03: Elisabeth-Claude J. de la Guerre: Triosonata in D Major, Triosonata in G Minor: Maria de Alvear: As Far As We Know; Sabrina Schroeder: Simple Machines; Olga Neuwirth: Locus…Dublure…Solus 2004-05 – Annea Lockwood: Luminesence: Olga Neuwirth: Anaptyxis

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