Kander: Composers Corner Q & A

Welcome back to “Composers Corner,” where you can better get to know our composers and gain some insight into their thoughts on creating music while they look forward to moving ahead and beyond these challenging times.

Today, we’re featuring Susan Kander, whose catalog includes a wide range of genres. She is the composer of such orchestral works as Miranda’s Waltz and The Red Dress. Her often-performed chamber pieces include The Lunch Counter, Postcards from America and Etude for Two People and One Thing; and among her dramatic staged works are She Never Lost a Passenger (based on historical American figure Harriet Tubman), The Giver (adapted from the novel by Lois Lowry) and most recently the chamber opera dwb (*driving while black*) which premiered in November 2018, performed by soprano and librettist Roberta Gumbel and the New Morse Code ensemble.

S: How has COVID-19 impacted your work and current projects?

Kander: Covid-19 shut down two productions of dwb—the NY premiere at Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC) this past March (we were a day away from going into production week) and a production at Urban Arias next spring in Washington D.C. I feel immensely lucky that both productions will happen digitally, with newly made video and film, though Covid still is the limiting factor in how these get made logistically. At the moment, BPAC is scheduled for several online performances in late October and Urban Arias is aiming for April.

S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?

Kander: Yes, but of course, not in person. Roberta Gumbel and I had started working on a new opera before Covid and we’ve made some progress on the libretto but it’s really hard to work in such a complete time void. Over the past couple of years, I had been writing songs to collect into an album, so that kind of came to the front burner since it’s something I do by myself, though finding texts that light my fire has been interestingly tough in Covid times.

S: What technology have you used to continue your work in a virtual world?

Kander: Apart from Zooming like everyone else, no new technology. However, I’ll need to make demos soon of the songs in the new album when it’s ready to go to press, so I’m contemplating how to do that: wait until people can get together in one room, singer and pianist, or do it the Covid-way – piano and voice tracks recorded in different places then mixed. Undecided about that at the moment.

S: How has having a background in theater shaped your approach to composing?

Kander: My relationship to theater, and to music as theater, predates memory for me. Though I majored in music, I was a playwright for almost 15 years before turning completely to composing. My compositional relationship to playwrighting is pervasive and multi-faceted.

For me, adding music to language is just a way to be more in control of the text and the emotional life of every single isolated moment of a piece. Without music, a playwright has a very limited ability to control how an actor delivers a line. Punctuation only gets you so far. You don’t get to give directions on delivery. You don’t get to tell anyone – actors or audience – how to feel about what just got said. You don’t get to tell anyone the subtext. In opera, with music you can do all of that on a moment-to-moment scale. Since I imagine my characters and scenes in both aural, emotional and physical extreme detail, opera is the obvious conduit for downloading what’s in my brain as totally as I can. I am always amazed at the power of ink on the page to communicate what’s in my brain to another person’s brain. First read-throughs are like magic to me!…

To be honest, I have frequently over the years written against this ‘inheritance’ to push myself somewhere uncomfortable. But an experience I had a few years ago was illuminating for me. Commissioned by a virtuosic violinist to write a duo for violin and cello, I said to myself okay, now I’m going to write “pure music” (whatever that is); it’s not going to “mean” anything, this guy can do anything, so let’s go crazy. So I wrote a really cool beginning, and loved what I was writing, and then after writing about a minute of music I suddenly lost interest. It took a few days for me to figure out that at that time I needed the piece to be “about” something, anything. Well that was a summer of terrible news, I was mourning humanity every day, there was no way to write without meaning. When I realized that was the issue, I subtitled the piece “For the Littlest Refugees Who Never Reach a Place of Safety” – the most explicit title I’ve ever made. I found I didn’t need to change anything I’d already written – I had, in fact, been writing about this all along! And now I had a way forward and a lesson learned.

S: Has it been a challenge for you being a woman in a trade that has been dominated by men?

Kander: Yes. “All the rest is commentary.” – Rabbi Hillel

S: As a composer, you have the opportunity to hear many of your works performed by incredible ensembles. Has there been a moment that surprised or inspired you while watching one of your works performed?

Kander: I am always shocked and thrilled by the incredible performers I have gotten to work with! They make music with their bodies and minds and hearts better than I do anything – tie my shoes, brush my teeth, you name it. I never get used to it. I myself was a serviceable pianist growing up, but hated performing. Having nurtured a violinist as he grew up and joined the ranks of these amazing performers, I learned concretely how technique exists to achieve a musical end, and that’s the thing I never get used to when I watch and hear these players. Because of the way I write, often individual beats are loaded with meaning, and the ability of these performers to convey that meaning through their instruments – voice included – always takes my breath away.

S: You have many wide-ranging compositions. How do you tackle an opera versus a chamber or orchestral work? Are there similarities in composing for these different mediums?

Kander: For me, opera is human life on an almost heartbeat-by-heartbeat basis, and it stimulates both my musical and my emotional imagination in ways that are both exciting and very comfortable. I live in that theatrical space very happily. But I also need to write “Other Stuff” and often, but not always, what I’m writing has a relationship in my own head to the theater or dance even though no one else knows that. One piece, My Lucky (for solo piano), is a fantasia that’s actually directly derived from a very famous soliloquy, Lucky’s speech, from Waiting for Godot. I have two extended song cycles with chamber ensemble that outline the life, in many movements, of a single character; and, they can be programmed as mono-operas or as chamber music. A couple of works are experiments in using chamber music to take a deep look at particular characters, even requiring text to be spoken: 1) The Lunch Counter, a music play in seven movements for solo bassoon, in which the player speaks briefly before each movement to set the scene; and 2) Postcards from America, for oboe and piano, which involves reading a ‘postcard’ before each of the movements. I was also commissioned to write an extended “song cycle” for violin and piano, which became Hermestänze. It was a marvelous experience for me, composing 14 wildly different movements to deliver one of the most multi-faceted characters — Hermes — in all of history. But I also love being free of any pre-existing demands or purpose. For non-text-based music, sometimes I start with a physical/musical gesture that I can toss around in purely musical adventures as in the Six Bagatelles (for solo piano), Etude for Two People and One Thing (for clarinet, Tibetan prayer stones and electronics), and Once. Upon. A Time. (for percussion ensemble). With these pieces, I enjoy just getting into my own head and invite the audience to come inside.

S: Your chamber opera dwb (driving while back) is a very timely work with the current Black Lives Matter movement. How has this piece and the experience of working with Roberta Gumbel impacted you? Has it changed the way you’ll compose going forward?

Kander: Since I myself am a playwright, I had never sought a collaborator for operas. dwb was my first time working with a librettist other than myself and it grew out of a long friendship, not out of a search for a collaborator. But working with Roberta was a revelation—I loved talking to her about every little thing, imagining characters and scenes together. Her long experience as a performer means she knows the art form from being the singer on the stage, which only adds dimension to the sort of scene sculpting that a libretto has to do. I’m happy to say, we’re working on our second project together.

S: Of your many works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?

Kander: I love the one I’m with! That said, dwb with its severe limitations – one singer and two very busy instrumentalists – pushed me harder than any project had before. I’m extremely proud of my work to help bring Roberta’s libretto into 4-D (with big nods to both Roberta and New Morse Code who are all superhuman creative participants!) At the other end of the stick, I want to add that I’m particularly proud of the orchestration for large forces in Miranda’s Waltz (for narrator and orchestra). It gives me great pleasure when musicians really enjoy playing something of mine, which was very much the case with that piece both at the Kennedy Center and in Melbourne, Australia.

S: What would you say to other artists/musicians who are craving ensemble work, and want to continue to perform as part of their mental health during this pandemic?

Kander: My heart goes out to them all. I myself crave being in a room with live music. We all do! I know some performers and ensembles that are giving outdoor concerts, or streaming live but without audiences. The sticky wicket is that artists/musicians need to perform for their mental health, but they also need to be paid for their physical well-being. It would not be good for the old saw, “They do it for the love of it” to rise up and settle in people’s minds again. I think, I hope, that even though the digital performance has come in on a semi-white horse to offer something otherwise unattainable, when live performance is safe again, I look forward to an explosion of demand and appreciation. May it be so!!!