Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.

Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.

Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.

Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.

When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts.

Jonathan Palmer Lakeland (JPL): As you have gone through your life predominantly as a composer, has your view of the job of the composer changed over time? How do you feel it has changed?

LK: Yes, one thing that I feel has changed as I’ve grown older is an awareness that a composer can be very fluid in the kind of music that they write. When I was a younger composer, there were very clear “boundaries” and “camps”- if you studied with so-and-so, you are expected to write like this, and you hang out with composers who write music that sounds like that. Today, there is a lot less separation, and a much bigger pool and set of languages that are available to everyone, and you are no longer expected to live in just one style, or speak in just one language. That, to me, is really exhilarating and refreshing. In the past, I felt like a composer who never quite fit in any one place. [Today] We are allowed to have many voices, appeal to many audiences, be presented in a wide range of situations, and serve many roles.”

I think that, as I have grown older, I realize there are certain nonmusical issues, ideas, and concepts that I keep coming back to and address through my music in different ways. Some of these are political, some are my response to the natural world and the environment, and some are more personal and purely emotional.  I use different approaches, languages, and formats to write music that lets me express the range of ideas I keep coming back to as source material or sources of inspiration.

JPL: How do you approach writing about one of the ideas you keep coming back to?

LK: Let me start by saying – when you are a composer you are always a composer, even if you are not sitting and writing at any given moment. It’s essential to who you are.  As I go about my life and experience the world, I process my experiences in emotional and intellectual ways, and , in order to make sense of it all and to communicate my perceptions and beliefs with others, I am compelled to express my experience through sound. That’s the composer in me, who, as I go through my day,  sonically translates my response to everything I do and experience into music.

If, for example, I am given a commission, I am told: “We are going to give you this much money, for a piece of approximately this length, for this combination of instruments. Are you interested?”
And that’s about as generic a commission that one can get. This is, of course, assuming that there is no extra-musical layer attached to the project, which then adds other parameters and boundaries to the project and informs my process.

When I start my day, I think to myself, “What do I want to write about?” It could be anything that sparks that initial impulse. Sometimes, it’s as simple as looking at the light. Then, I think, “When I look out the window, and I see the formation of the clouds, and I look at the density of the clouds, and how they move across the sky, and the range of colors in the clouds, is my partner looking out the window and seeing this as I am seeing it? Is someone else having a different experience than I am?” It could be as broad an experience as that.

Sometimes, the concept behind a piece can be more conscious. For example, I was asked to write a piece years ago for a certain ensemble. At that point, I was looking at a more philosophical concept: When you like someone, when does that “like” shift to “love”? I thought to myself, “What is a metaphor for that experience?” At the time, I was living in the Pacific northwest. I thought to myself that if I take a walk to the mountains and find a mountain stream coming down from the glaciers, the water is grey blue. The rocks are grey blue. The sky is grey blue. The grass is green. When the water has algae in it, it becomes more green [than blue]. When is it that something which is green becomes blue? It’s the same question as, “When is it that a person you ‘like’ becomes a person you ‘love’?” What is that moment when you no longer say “like” and you say “love”? I thought that this would be an excellent abstract behind this piece, and called it, “The Full Range of Blue”. In each movement, I took an image of blue in the natural world, and colored each piece differently to create a multi-movement work.

JPL: When you are writing music, does the audience come into consideration, or are you writing purely from the perspective of the composer?

LK: It is a kind of complicated answer. Before I think of the audience, I think about the musicians who are playing the piece. Music is dependent on the work of human beings other than the composer – the interpreters. I most often like to work with people that I know. If I am invited to write for musicians that I do not know, then I usually want to get to know them before I write for them. How you play a G# versus how I play a G# is different because we are different people. I probably spend more time seeing, in my mind’s eye, these musicians sitting together with my music and communicating than I imagine the audience assembled to hear the performance. I do not mean to devalue the power [of] and need for the audience, but I don’t think about the audience. In writing music, I need to express something in the most articulate and powerful way I can. These people [the musicians] are going to bring it to life and they become the conduit between my composition and the audience who apprehends it. In the end, I hope that the audience has the same visceral, emotional, and intellectual responses to my music as I do. For example, if I am in the hall with the audience, and I feel the audience breathe with me, I know that I have communicated what I wanted to communicate. That is a great reward for me.

JPL: It is a very good thing that you stay mostly in your mindset, or the mindset of the musicians. I feel that by doing this, you have more of a chance of honestly connecting with the audience. I have talked to some composers writing today who, in my opinion, pander to the audience too much because they are too concerned with being “liked” or “loved” as a composer.

LK: It’s funny that you just said that, because one thing I would add to what I just said is this: Of course I want to be liked. In honesty, though, it does not matter if they like my piece. I want people to be moved to feel and think by my piece. They may not like it, but if they have had a profound experience because of hearing it, then that is good. In the long range, they may come to like my piece, or they may come to hate it, but I want them to be impacted by it. This is not to say I do not care about the audience. I care deeply about the audience, but I am not writing music to pander to the audience. I am doing this because I have something to say, and I am saying it with sounds that I have fashioned into a work of art, and that it comes to life when  performed by talented and committed artists. Hopefully, all the steps along this spectrum – creation, interpretation, apprehension –  leads to meaningful communication. Liking my music is not as important as being open to it, exposed to it, touched by it, and challenged by it.

JPL: You have such a varied career. You are not only a composer, but the Artistic Director of Symphony Space, an educator, and you hold leadership positions in a number of very important arts organizations. If you meet someone on the street who says to you, “You know, I love Beethoven, and I love Mozart, and I love Brahms, and I love Mahler, but I just do not understand Schöenberg or Babbitt,” how would you go about leading someone through the experience of coming to understand the piece?

LK: Years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I was often a lecturer for both the Symphony and the Seattle Chamber Music Society. One of the lectures I was asked to give for the Seattle Chamber Music Society was, “How to listen to new music”. I accepted their challenge. Then, on reflection, I thought to myself, “This is a really stupid title”, because it’s not how to listen to new music, it’s simply how to listen to music. I think most people do not know how to listen to music at all, they just do it. But they think they have to know something different or special or esoteric in order to listen to new music. If it’s in a language that is more of a vernacular and more familiar (Jazz, Pop, Musical Theatre, some Classical), it’s naturally “easier” to listen to, so they think they are having an experience of deep listening, though they may not be. So, when approaching this lecture, I made myself vulnerable. I took a piece of mine that has a strong programmatic structure to it. The piece was my “Vukovar Trio” which I wrote about ethnic cleansing in Croatia after being there under United Nations protection. It’s a very structured piece, with titled sections such as: “A Sky Torn Asunder”, “The Shattering of Glass”, “Revenge/Retreat,” “Death Chorale”, “River of Blood and Ice”. I didn’t say who the composer was but I told the audience, “I’m going to put a piece of music on. I won’t tell you anything about it or who wrote it or when it was written. All I will say is that [the piece] is about 13 or 14 minutes long. I want you to take a piece of paper, and as you listen to the piece write down either a drawing that maps what you hear, or words that describe what you hear. You do not have to use any musical terms, in fact you probably shouldn’t, and we’re going to talk about what you heard after you’ve listened to the recording.” It was incredible. [During the discussion afterwards] they told me that this was a piece about war, violence, pain, and hope. They mapped my piece emotionally. Then we discussed their feelings. I asked them, “Why does this section sound like anguish to you?” They told me, “It seemed like the higher notes were in the cello, and there was a droning, crying element to it.” Similarly, with: “why does this part sound hopeful?,” they knew it was because of the dance-like rhythms and that all three instruments were playing together in a rhythmic unison. People were able to listen to and understand my piece.

In my role as a producer/presenter, I often program “hard” music, meaning unfamiliar music, or music that you can’t tap your toes to at the end. But you know, you can’t sing or tap your toes to a lot of Beethoven, either. I might, however, program something like the Berio Folk Songs, which is largely accessible, but which has some wonderfully abstract musical landscapes laid out.  In a pre-concert talk, I might give an overview of the piece and its wonderful, rich  history, but spend time explaining the more abstract movements. Everyone can sing along to “Black is the color of my true love’s hair”, but then you get into the less familiar Eastern European (Armenian) dirge-like movement, with the rattling and the rumbling and the hissing, it opens up a new world for most listeners. With the juxtaposition of the familiar and the exotic, the piece as a whole becomes exceptionally interesting to listen to, as well as emotionally riveting.

There’s a lot of debate in the concert programming world about whether or not the performers should be less “God-like,” meaning less “remote” or “distant,” but instead, should  come out on stage and talk and laugh with the audience. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the individual musicians and their own predilections; when that kind of dialogue is comfortable for the musician, then it usually enhances the performance; when they are not comfortable speaking to the audience, it is, to my mind, a detriment. I do think that is good, though, to have a conversation, either with the musicians, or with a spokesperson whenever possible that can contextualize the work for the audience so that they can have ownership of what they are hearing.

JPL: Do you feel we should have some institutions dedicated to presenting more “classic” classical music (Beethoven’s 5th, etc) and some presenting contemporary or rarely heard compositions, or should all institutions be responsible for programming both?

LK: All avenues that bring music to people are good. There is an ecosystem, if you will, where a small, grungy salon might be a better place to try out something new among friends, than a larger venue where the cost to put on a performance is much greater. There are reasons why people go to certain places to hear Jazz, and other places to hear Symphonic works. Institutions have cultures, and that’s all good. Today, there is some mixing up of these norms, and when done right, these performances in different contexts can be highly successful – both in that they bring new audiences together with different kinds of music and create for us different kinds of environments in which to experience music. What I actually think is the question for the future, especially for the big guys – the mainstream institutions – who tend to rely more on the traditional programming structure, is with each progressive generation, the familiar pieces change. The canon today may not be the same as the canon of 1970, nor will be it the same in 2020. I don’t think most kids today know Beethoven’s Fifth. I don’t think most kids today have heard of Tchaikovsky, unless they took a ballet class. We live in a disconnect right now in the 21st century where that canon of largely late 18th through early 20th century Western music as a common language, or “standard” jazz of the 1930s through 1950s, are no longer universally known, nor necessarily revered. I would not assume that most people who claim to love music now know some of the “standard repertoire,” but I also don’t think they are necessarily poorer for not knowing. I  think most people [in the younger generation] are no longer given access to this music and they tend not to know it. I actually believe that providing more contemporary music as a “way in” to appreciating “the classics” is, in the end, going to be more successful. I would advocate programming “backwards,” just as I might want to teach a history of western music class backwards – starting with Keith Jarrett and John Adams and Witold Lutoslawski, and working backwards to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky, all the way back to Beethoven, and further, to early music.  If I were to teach a music history survey course, I would start today and work backwards.

As a composer, part of a commission fee and project often includes doing educational outreach. Whenever I have done educational outreach with children, they listen to my piece and they do not think that it’s weird. When they listen to Haydn, though, they think it’s weird. They didn’t grow up with Haydn.

In most artistic fields, people don’t ask, “Hey, what’s old?” People want to see the latest play or film or dance work, or go to the new exhibition or installation. So why should we expect that people would want to hear the “old” in music? I feel that the more contemporary compositions you present, the more vibrant the concert will be for both audience and performer, and ultimately, that will insure bigger and more appreciative audiences for the future.

JPL: So then you must believe there is a connection between a piece of music and the time period it is written in. The nature of your pieces is inherently going to reflect some aspect of life today.

LK: Absolutely. To that point, I also believe that one of the greatest issues with music as an art form is that it is abstract and temporal. It takes longer to be understood. For example, we understood analytic cubism in the 19-teens before we understood what some of Stravinsky’s bitonality was about.

I think that people are hungry for artistic experience. Unfortunately, with cuts in arts education over the past generation, among other things, we have done a good job about dumbing-down our society. At base, however, I believe people are hungry for edification and for the “Ah-ha!” moments, and to be transported by arts and ideas. I believe that the arts are essential to human beings, and that as long as we survive as a species, there will also be the will to make, and to experience, and to appreciate art.

JPL: You have had so many leadership positions on arts organizations and in educational institutions around the country and the world. In your experience, do you feel as if other countries may be doing arts education better than we are?

LK: Let’s just say that if there were more money put into the arts and agriculture than is put into the military, the world would be a better place.

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Laura Kaminsky is a composer, educator, and holds many leadership roles in a variety of arts organizations. She is also the artistic director of Symphony Space. More information can be found at www.laurakaminsky.com .