Whooping, laughing, whistling, chanting, rapid breathing, ululations, shouting, drumming on the piano lid, full-keyboard black key glissandi and foot stomps and jazzy chord clusters: the music of Jerome Kitzke coaxes us pianists out of our comfort zones, but to perform it, and to hear it, is an exhilarating and powerful experience. To all this, add speaking, while negotiating all of the above. Speech, poetry, and storytelling are all essential to Jerome’s work; even if the text consists of nonsense syllables, there’s always a story there.
The earliest work on the program is The Animist Child, for which Jerome himself jackknifes his tall, leggy physique at a toy piano and coaxes an extraordinary expressive range from the little instrument. Anthony de Mare, who blazed the trail for music for speaking pianist when he commissioned De Profundis from Frederic Rzewski in 1992, also commissioned Jerome’s exuberant Sunflower Sutra (1992) with the poem by Allen Ginsberg. I commissioned Jerome’s beautiful There Is a Field, with texts by Walt Whitman and Rumi, in 2008 for my project “A Sweeter Music.” Lisa Moore, also a maverick in works for speaking pianist, commissioned Jerome’s wordless Bringing Roses With Her Words in 2009. Jerome himself performs his Green Automobile, a wild fantastic ride through Allen Ginsberg’s poem, composed in 2000. The world premiere of A Lament and Cry for These United States was written for Kathleen Supové and her duo partner, oboist/English horn player Keve Wilson.
Jerome’s music is celebratory, vital, ritualistic, profound, and visceral, and this concert promises to be especially cathartic for our crazy distressing times.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Jerome, tell me about your own relationship to the piano, growing up. Did you have a piano in the house, and if so, what kind? Did you take lessons?
Like many mid-western households in the ’50s and ’60s we had an upright piano, in this case a Wurlitzer spinet in a brown box. Once I began paying real attention to it in 1966 or so, I really wore the thing out. In fact it was replaced by another Wurlitzer spinet somewhere in the early ’70s, an instrument my brother-in-law still has. Also, like most kids from that time period, I was forced to take piano lessons, which for me began at about at age seven. My teacher was Miss Reynolds, who lived around the corner on Oak Street, and though she was a sweet person, I hated the proceedings and lasted just six months or so. Though I loved the sound of the piano, I was not enamored of the practicing—not by any means a new phenomenon for young people encountering the piano. However, once the Beatles and other British Invasion bands hit America in 1964, I began to see how being a musician could make life ever so interesting, so I began to sit at the piano for long sessions of naïve tinkering without music.
Did you also compose piano music when you were growing up?
Over time, the aforementioned tinkering turned into more sophisticated and informed improvisation, and this pretty much became my mode of expression as a performer at the piano, and has remained so to this day. Practicing written music became even harder for me, because I discovered I was a facile improviser with a pretty good ear and when I tried to play written music I always veered off into improvisation. One could call this a lack of discipline, and I drove some of my later piano teachers batty because my technique was all “wrong” and I only seemed interested in improv.
My ear got tested in 1968 when, after pestering my parents relentlessly for a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker, I got instead a 1965 Farfisa Combo Compact with a 1964 Gretsch Chet Atkins amplifier. I distinctly remember how the equipment smelled. Today the poet in me would say it smelled like freedom. With this modest setup I joined four other musically challenged friends with guitars and drums to embark on a rock ’n’ roll journey playing cover tunes, one that lasted for me until 1972. We all had to use our ears to figure out our parts, and I used mine to learn the complex organ parts in the music of the Doors, the Animals, Iron Butterfly, the Buckinghams, and others by setting my turntable on 16-speed so as to better grasp the intervallic relationships.
My first pieces of music as a composer were written in 1970 for solo piano. These little tunes were based on John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, and though I play them to this day, I never notated them. My first notated piano piece was Triste December from 1973, written for a high school colleague, Laura Zynda, who had died of cancer. I did not write another piano piece until 1994’s The Animist Child for toy piano, which is on the October Tribeca New Music concert.
How did you first start notating the vocalizations and unconventional sounds for musicians in your scores?
My first piece for which this was required was 1976’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for vocal soloists, large chorus, and large orchestra. This involved the whole company on occasion expressively speaking in counterpoint, all traditionally notated save for using x’s instead of note heads, with the x’s appearing at different spoken “pitch” levels on an clefless staff. Other whole sections used squiggly lines and dots and dashes to represent improvised vocal sounds on given words. As I moved through the years I built upon a growing toolbox of notations. In my later works, all my scores have a special line/area above the instrumentalist’s regular staff, sometimes five lines and sometimes just one, and at other times just a blank space in between bar lines that allows for a little more whimsy if required.
Have you encountered any musicians who are so uncomfortable or shy about vocalizing that they can’t do it?
Yes, indeed. I have had great pianists who tell me they love the music but say they simply cannot handle the dramatic aspects of the speaking and/or vocalizing, so they end up not programming the works. I have gone to residencies where ensemble pieces of mine are prepared in advance, and upon arrival it is clear that shyness is getting the best of the players, so I then have to rather robustly demonstrate how things are meant to go, and often that does the trick. And then once unleashed, they often cannot get enough of doing it and in some cases have to actually be pulled back! Those are swell moments. Then there are occasionally large pro groups who are highly trained classical players who are not at all prepared for this kind of thing temperamentally, and no amount of demonstrating on my part will ever bring the right sound out of them. In cases like that you just go with it and hope for the best.
This concert will be all your works for “amplified speaking pianist.” Each work is very different, and almost all were written for the pianists who will be performing. Do they in any way reflect the pianists for whom they’re written?
To me all four pianists on this concert are very similar in that they all possess prodigious amounts of piano technique, human fearlessness, and humanity, and while each of the pieces are different in a number of ways, I am quite certain that all four could play any of the other works and do great justice to each of them, and making them their own whilst doing it. Kathy and Anthony have already done The Animist Child, and I would love to hear you or Lisa do some of the other pieces in this little canon of mine.
I guess I am saying that the piano writing, in my view, was not really tailored to any specific player’s ability. If I had any feeling that this or that musical move would be best served pianistically on one or the other of you at a given moment, it was completely subconscious. On the non-musical front, it was different. You had a specific theme you wanted me to touch on and thus I did choose the texts for There Is a Field with you and your goals in mind. Lisa gave me free reign, and roam free I did. And for Tony I auditioned a number of texts before we both realized that Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra was the one.
All these pieces combine speech or vocalizations with piano playing. Given the natural rhythms of speech, what is your process? Do you read the poems aloud and then compose according to the speech rhythms?
There are a number of variables as to how I choose to notate a spoken text or other vocal gestures. When I work with a text and well before I even consider anything musical, I absorb the language by memorizing it and then speaking it to myself, and then aloud daily for sometimes a month or more. I do this as if I am preparing for a poetry reading and work the texts up to that standard. Once I am satisfied that I am ready to read them in public, I then open my inner ear up to see what these preparations are manifesting on a musical level. Then it is often these musical ideas that lead me to how I set the language or vocal sound on the page. Clarity is paramount to me when it comes to notating text, and I do whatever I think will allow the language to be clear when performed and that the methods I employ allow the performer to best emotionally convey the story I am trying to tell.
You have said that your detailed notation makes it possible for a young pianist who you haven’t met to get one of your scores and practice and perform it without any interaction with you. But you and I worked together a lot on There Is a Field—you showed me how to go “Yip!” and the breathing sounds you wanted, and the rhythmic coordination of whistling and playing and so on. Does it surprise you when a pianist sends you a recording or video performance out of the blue?
Thus far I have not been surprised by any performances I have heard of these pieces when I was not involved in the preparation and rehearsal process. While it is true that I helped you to figure out certain things in There Is a Field, I am also quite certain that had I not been there you would have arrived at the desired effect or at least pretty damn close. I have strived to notate all of my scores in a clear manner so I would not have to be there to explain things because at some point, well, I won’t be. So the idea of people not knowing what the hell I was talking about, and thus perhaps deciding not to perform one of these pieces after I am worm food, long ago prodded me toward clarity.
My favorite example of a performance where my clarity notion got borne out was one morning in February 2012 when I got an email of a video of a guy I had never heard of performing Sunflower Sutra in Frankfurt, Germany, THE NIGHT BEFORE! Wow, that was fast. It was Everett Hopfner doing a magnificent, spot-on emotional performance of the piece, and it could not have been any better even if I had worked with him in rehearsal. Of course I have gotten videos of performances that could have benefitted from my presence at rehearsals, but in these cases it was more about emotional non-musical aspects of the performance and not anything about the notation or how to do this or that musical move.
Please talk about the new piece on the program, A Lament and Cry for These United States, and how it came to be.
Not since 1973 and 2003 have I felt the kind of loathing I now feel for our current president. I will not go into the now familiar and growing litany of his chronic transgressions and human failings. After I got over the shock of the 2016 election, I found myself wanting to say something about it through music, but I felt paralyzed and was simply not hearing anything. Perhaps my system was in lingering shock.
Last October I was in residence in Umbria at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and was just about to finish rereading Howard Zinn’s searing A People’s History of the United States when I got an email from Kathleen Supové informing me that she had a new duo with the terrific oboist, Keve Wilson. Something about this lit a fire in me, and within a day I had plotted out a five-section work and also knew that both Kathy and Keve would each be playing a drum and vocalizing and even stomping their feet. I also knew that Keve would play English horn in the last section. There is no text per se in the piece, but there are relevant words grabbed from here and there. I am laughing because it seemed I had to go to Italy to find my American voice again to say something about this most un-American president.
You’re performing your own Green Automobile, with a text by Allen Ginsberg. You only recently notated this score. What was that like for you, after performing this piece about 50 times over the years?
When asked about this I have been saying that it took me 14 years to finally notate this piece because I was at a bit of a loss as to how to notate it. Some of it is straightforward writing, but some of the sections where there is text spoken over some rather rambunctious piano passagework was tricky in terms of getting it just right. And even at that, the notated version does not have some of my composer/performer last millisecond add-ons that I am still not sure I would know how to notate.
I am happy to report that the new notated version has been performed. A pianist named Ben Metrick did it last year, and I was very pleased that it works as well as when I play it with all those composer flourishes. I am hoping that some other pianists will give it a whirl.
Tribeca New Music presents “Jerome Kitzke: The Complete Works for Amplified Speaking Pianist (1994-2009)” at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on Oct. 5 at 7pm; tribecanewmusic.org
Sarah Cahill has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. Composers who have dedicated works to her include John Adams, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, and Ingram Marshall, and she has also premiered pieces by Lou Harrison, Julia Wolfe, Toshi Ichiyanagi, George Lewis, Leo Ornstein, and many others. Her radio show, Revolutions Per Minute, can be heard every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 pm on KALW, 91.7 FM in San Francisco. She is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory and curates a monthly series of new music concerts at the new Berkeley Art Museum.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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