At their 2019-20 season-opening concert at Brooklyn’s Roulette in October, the composer collective Kinds of Kings presented an eclectic set of new works for saxophone ensemble. Sounds spanned pulsating repetitions, powerful smashes, dissonant odes, haunting melodies, unabashed loudness, and deafening quietude. They told stories—of barren wastelands, social injustices, the roiling ocean.
The collective, which includes U.S-based composers Susanna Hancock, Maria Kaoutzani, Gemma Peacocke, and Shelley Washington, upholds a twofold mantra: creating immersive work that spans a broad range of compositional styles, and amplifying and advocating for underheard voices in new music. Both aims are reflected in the group’s season-spanning artist residency at National Sawdust, a four-concert series titled “Equilibrium and Disturbance,” which starts on Friday, Dec. 13.
Also emphasized in the residency is the collective’s Bouman Fellowship, a program initiated to provide career mentorship, commissions, and community for early-career composers. This year’s inaugural Fellows are Mason Bynes, Andrew M. Rodriguez, and Cassie Wieland, whose new works will be performed alongside those of the collective’s members.
This article – the first in a series documenting Kinds of Kings’ residency at National Sawdust – features a discussion with founding members Washington and Peacocke, followed by a Q&A with Bouman Fellow Rodriguez. Washington and Rodriguez will have works performed in the first concert of the residency, presented in partnership with Real Loud, a Brooklyn-based ensemble of guitars, basses, and drums, and with theater director Benita de Wit and video artist Xuan.
Our interview with Peacocke and Washington began with a discussion of their dogs – Mila and Rodeo, respectively – and how we all need a few more cute dogs on our Internet news feeds. From there, we discussed Kinds of Kings.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: What led you to co-found and participate in the Kinds of Kings composer collective?
SHELLEY WASHINGTON: About two or three years ago, I had just finished my masters composition at NYU, and Gemma was about to start a doctorate at Princeton. Over that year we had been giving each other composition lessons. We were both working on lots of projects and stepping in as each other’s mentors, as we weren’t really under the umbrella of anyone at the time. And so we just started thinking about how we lean on each other a lot as composers or musicians, but also as friends, because it’s a big, bad world living in New York. I had been struggling with mental health, and Gemma was, too. So we thought, what if we just started a club? We can all be there for each other and have an established group that we can lean on, but also to boost each other up.
GEMMA PEACOCKE: And share resources, and maybe even pull out funds and get someone to help us with administration—which has not yet happened. We started with this social-media presence that took off when we really weren’t even anything. And people started commissioning us as a collective, and it took on a life of its own.
WASHINGTON: So it started off as something maybe a little different, and we’re still wiggling around and not making any final decisions on who we’re going to be and exactly what we’re going to do from here on out. I’ve liked that it’s been flexible. We’re such a young group of people, and this is our second season. But the forming of it felt like a no-brainer, because I had already been hanging out with these people. What if we hang out in an official way, and we can write it all off as a business? That’s not really it, but it all does count now, which is very exciting.
You’re talking a lot about creating community and a group where you’re supporting each other’s creative output. Along those lines, Kinds of Kings is centered on the amplification of and advocacy for underrepresented voices and new music. How do you view allyship and advocacy, in the context of your own practice and in the context of the collective?
WASHINGTON: I’m a black woman from the Midwest. I’m a marginalized person, but also, I’m definitely in a position of power, because I’ve been able to do all these crazy things like move to New York and go to NYU, and now I’m at Princeton working on a doctorate. I’ve definitely had hardships of my own, so I know, to my own extent, what it’s like. So for me, it’s a no-brainer: if I have a hand that’s reaching forward, then I have a second hand that I can use to reach back and to lift up. It’s just my every day.
My first Master’s degree is in education, so I’ve always thought of helping. I view educators as helpers—you’re doing what you can to lead as a guide. And mentorship is part of what we do. We realize that we’re all still learning at our own levels, but we’re still in a position where we can be helpers, too.
PEACOCKE: And I think it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that all four of us studied with Julia Wolfe at NYU, and she was, and still is, an amazing mentor and advocate for each of us individually. And she was always really supportive of us and our private lives and private struggles as well as about music and compositional practice. And Shelley studied with Caroline Shaw as well, who’s a very similar kind of supportive, incredible, and generous person and amazing composer. So, I think we felt so much warmth from them, although that’s not really allyship, in terms of other marginalized groups, apart from women.
WASHINGTON: But we’ve been able to start our own fellowship this year with the National Sawdust residency. It’s a residency-within-a-residency called the Bouman Fellowship. We were able to commission three up-and-coming “emerging” composers. This Friday we have Andrew Rodriguez, who is a phenomenal musician and composer from Illinois. We’re able to commission him to write a new work that’s going to be premiering. And I’m really excited that we’re able to use what means we have—if we had one million dollars, this would all be so much easier. We’re working with what we have, and there’s probably going to be people saying, “wow, you could have done this,” and of course there’s a million different things you can do, but we’re trying our best. All of us are working and you can only do so many things at a time. But I’m really, really proud of the fact that we were able to commission three people and pay them money to write music and fly them to New York and have their work presented alongside us.
PEACOCKE: One of the things we want to do with the collective is have it not just focus inward on those of us who are the members of the collective, but on building a community, in the United States, of people who freelance and are trying to do something new and interesting, and who could benefit from more of a spotlight.
WASHINGTON: We want to use our platform to help people who already have a voice to amplify it further. Composing is a very solitary, isolated kind of work, because you spend a lot of time by yourself, and traditionally you have to be your own advocate, which is very difficult to do. But when you have a whole group of people, a community, it makes it a lot easier and also makes it a lot more enjoyable. I’ve always been on teams – sports teams or ensembles – and going into composition is the thing that made me the happiest, but also the most lonely and most sad. We’re thinking about how we feel, and then thinking about how different kinds of marginalized people feel. All of us in the community have a responsibility to do something bigger than ourselves, I think. But I’m glad that we’re able to start boosting other people up, and not just ourselves.
That’s great. So along the lines of the Bowman Fellowship, can you talk a little bit about how you selected the three winners?
WASHINGTON: The process was more on the internal side. It’s something that, if we do it again, we’re definitely going to be working on how it happens.
PEACOCKE: One of the reasons that we didn’t run a call for scores or applications was that so many of them are unfair. A lot of organizations charge application fees, and block out people who aren’t good at filling out application forms, or don’t have the money to put in a bunch of applications. You’re just skimming off money from people who can’t really afford it. And I think we all really believe that you shouldn’t have to pay to have your work performed; you should be paid for your work. And so we had this residency come up with National Sawdust, and we knew right away that we wanted to share it and amplify beyond ourselves and support people who represent marginalized groups beyond the ones that we exist in. And, like Shelley said, hopefully we’ll get funding to do it in future seasons as well. And we might tinker with the way that we find people to be a part of the program. But I think avoiding onerous application forms and application processes is really key.
WASHINGTON: They’re so exclusionary! I’ve seen so many application forms that are so long, and you really don’t need to know anything beyond my name and the title of the piece. Or it asks, “Who did you study with? What are your previous accolades, your previous awards? What colleges did you go to?” I feel like there’s a lot of preexisting bias.
PEACOCKE: So with Andrew Rodriguez, Shelley and I met him at New Music Gathering a couple of years ago and we’ve mainly been friends with him on social media, on Twitter.
WASHINGTON: We see him in person every once in a while. Twitter is a wonderful place.
PEACOCKE: It’s a sort of democratizing force, in some way.
WASHINGTON: It really is—that’s how I’ve met a big majority of the music people I know. I either met them in person at NYU or I found them on Twitter, or I found them on Instagram, and then we become in-person friends.
PEACOCKE: With Mason Bynes, she was recommended to us by our friend Luke Ellard, who’s a Texas-based new-music clarinetist and composer. I think he tutored Mason; she’s from Texas herself, and she’s just started her master’s degree in Boston. Shelley and Susanna met Cassie at Bang on a Can, right?
WASHINGTON: Yes, yeah.
Shelley, this piece you’re premiering at your first residency concert on Friday is The Worker’s Dreadnought, and it’s this story about a newspaper of the same name. Could speak a little bit about what drove you to choose this inspiration, and how you’re incorporating the story into your composition?
WASHINGTON: I actually wrote the first portion of this piece during my second year at NYU, in a class. It was the composers ensemble. Whatever performers showed up in the class was the ensemble you write for. And it was one of my all-time favorite classes that I took there. My final year, there happened to be four electric guitarists, and I thought, “This is awesome, because I love electric guitar and what a cool ensemble. I want to write something for it.” I had been doing research into Sylvia Plankhurst and other feminists, just going back through history, as far as history is recorded, and found a lot of similar stories where you fight a battle and you win a battle, but it’s still just won against the entire war of working towards equality.
I stumbled upon the title, The Workers Dreadnought, and I was immediately obsessed because it’s such a cool title. It was also called The Woman’s Dreadnought for quite some time, and then at some point they changed it. I was really drawn to it, because I knew of the term “dreadnought” from warships — World War I, World War II machinery. They were these big iron, steel, behemoth monster battleships. And I grew up with a real fascination around that and old-time machinery.
In my mind, in a collage kind of way, I was putting women and marginalized people throughout history together, battling against the same kinds of things. It’s not at any one person or one group specifically, but there’s been so many similar stories throughout time, and I wanted to put sound to all of that struggle through all the triumphs, the losses, and to build something really powerful. I felt like having four electric guitarists was one of the more powerful groups I could work with. That’s a lot of sound that I was pretty stoked to work with. What was the second half of the question?
Well I think you’ve begun to answer it, because the second question is: how are you telling the story in the work? And the instrumentation seems to be a big part of that.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. I also write a lot of poetry in lieu of program notes, so there’s a poem that I wrote that I broke into three chunks, and that is the overall structure of the piece. There are three different movements: the first one is called “Ironclad,” the second one is called “Blossoming,” and the third one is called “The Workers/Hell Hath No Fury.” It follows the narrative of the poetry that I wrote. And it isn’t about any one specific character. It’s more a cumulative stack of puzzle pieces. It’s all happening at once all the time—all of history in one little electric guitar quartet package.
Andrew M. Rodriguez is an Illinois-based composer and producer. Originally a guitarist in the hardcore band Close Your Eyes, his musical practice is centered on the DIY ethos and a collaborative spirit. His new piece, Empty parking lot, ringing, commissioned as part of the Fellowship, explores his fascination with abandoned spaces, and the need to appreciate the small things in life. His inclusion in the upcoming Kinds of Kings concert at National Sawdust on Dec. 13 represents his first major exposure as a composer in New York City.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’re one of Kinds of Kings’ inaugural Bouman Fellows. How did your participation in the program come about?
ANDREW M. RODRIGUEZ: I met Gemma and Shelley for the first time a few years ago at the New Music Gathering in Bowling Green. I think we only vaguely knew of each other through Twitter, but we got to hang out for a few days during the Gathering, which was such a great time. Since then, I’ve kept in touch and have become good friends with Shelley.
The Bouman Fellowship was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea they were planning on curating such an ambitious season and looking to commission other composers. I believe they nominated and selected the three Bouman Fellows themselves. I’m extremely grateful to be considered and chosen as one of the inaugural three, and I can’t wait for the rest of the season to unfold.
What have you gained from your participation in the Fellowship?
This Fellowship has given me the opportunity to help put together a concert at a scale that I have yet to work on. Working with Benita de Wit and Xuan to curate the best experience that I envision for this new piece has been so informative and exciting. Getting a chance to think about how the first performance will be experienced, instead of just the notes on the page, is like stepping into a new world. Not to mention that this is my first major performance in New York City!
Your musical background began in hardcore and metal scenes. How do you bring this influence – or not – into the works you compose today?
There are probably ways in which my history seeps into my current work that I don’t realize in the moment. One thing that I do recognize and push towards in my work is creating a unique experience that is inherent in the music. Going to hardcore shows and being in a hardcore band was so exciting for me, because the live music experience was like nothing else. For a while, it was hard for me to sit through live music that wasn’t some sort of hardcore show because I would just be longing for that experience again—that energy.
While I can’t necessarily recreate that exact sort of live experience, these memories of what it was like to be at these shows keeps me thinking about my music as more than just notes, melodies, and sounds. I want my pieces to be their own unique experience. I don’t think it’s something I can accomplish with every piece I write, but it’s something I think about any time I start working on something new: what kind of experience do I want this to be? Any time I’m not thinking exclusively about notes and rhythms means I’m pushing myself a little further creatively.
In addition to composing, you work collaboratively as a music producer. How does producing effect your own practice and musical output?
I’ve noticed that producing music keeps me sharp and detail oriented. If I go a long period of time where I’m only composing and not producing or mixing anything, I catch myself becoming lazy about whether this or that rhythm should be a triplet or if I should add this note to a specific harmony, or whatever.
Composing is such a solitary and all-encompassing craft. I didn’t come into music as a sole creator or performer. I learned how to be a musician by playing in bands, and we wrote music together in rehearsals. Shifting my practice into composing was exciting, but it was a huge transition to just rely on myself as the sole creator. I catch myself getting worn out by having to be the sole decision maker for my music.
When I’m producing, I’m usually producing someone else’s work, which gives me a chance to bounce ideas off of another artist and experiment with things that I usually don’t let myself experiment with in my own music. It’s a constant reminder that I can keep trusting myself at least a little while longer, and it conditions me to keep recognizing the important details.
Your commission for the Bouman Fellowship, Empty parking lot, ringing, deals with concepts of memory, time, and change. What drove you to choose this inspiration, and how are you incorporating this story into your work?
The concept for Empty parking lot, ringing started out as a challenge to myself, and then eventually evolved organically from there. At the time, I was getting stressed about my creative work and the direction it was going in. I felt very closed off from the world, simply because I was in my own head all the time. So I proposed a little challenge to myself to find meaning in the small, mundane aspects of life. I wasn’t necessarily looking for inspiration for a new piece; I simply wanted to feel better about my life.
There is a small church parking lot that I pass by every day on my way to work. Considering the times I drive by, I never see any cars in it, yet I always turn to look at it. This little empty parking lot always seemed to pull me in. So one day I went down a rabbit hole of thoughts and began ruminating on this idea of empty parking lots.
I grew up in a small, practically rural area of Texas, and it’s littered with abandoned buildings, lots, and parking lots. These empty spaces always fascinated me in a weird way, because I couldn’t help but wonder what they were like when they first existed. Did people visit them often? Was it a local hotspot? Or was it always abandoned like this? Eventually this train of thought began to form a coherent enough concept in my head to be able to put it on a page in the form of music.
The piece has what I refer to as “timelines” that swirl around and bump into each other, as if I were imagining a parking lot in different times throughout history. There is a backdrop of sounds that grounds a particular section, almost as a reference point, and everything that happens against that backdrop is history or memory cutting through the noise, if only for a moment. I drew inspiration from a lot of parking lot imagery, such as deep cracks in the asphalt or lines painted over old, faded lines. Also prevalent throughout the process were my own memories of being in parking lots. I’ve slept in many parking lots on tour, and waking up at 5am in an empty Walmart parking lot is an oddly serene and peaceful experience that I’ll never forget.
The piece is written for the ensemble Real Loud. How does instrumentation play into the sonic elements of the piece?
I would say that the most influential factor behind the construction of the piece was the instrumentation. I pushed myself to not give into my tendencies when working with these specific instruments. I’ve written a lot of loud, fast, and aggressive music for guitars and drums, but I had never explored the other side of the spectrum—something more introspective and atmospheric.
I wrote two different versions of the piece before finally landing on what it is today. There were certain sounds and techniques that I knew I wanted to use, so a lot of the work was cutting and editing what I had to complement the sound world I was creating. Earlier drafts were much more aggressive and raucous, whereas I would describe this version as patient and sincere.
It was definitely a challenge, at first, to go against my own tendencies. These are the instruments I am probably most familiar with, but I’ve hardly ever tried to dig into them from this angle of quietness and restraint. A lot of the early process was just experimenting with a guitar. I didn’t want to go too far out of the box and start doing weird things with sponges and drills. I like the challenge of having to rely on tools that would be commonplace for any guitarist. In the end, there were a lot of sketches I had that didn’t get used at all. I really took the time to get as much out of the instruments as possible, and used that information to craft what I think is the best version of the piece.
Kinds of Kings opens its National Sawdust residency in collaboration with Real Loud on Dec. 13 at 7:30pm; nationalsawdust.org
Vanessa Ague is a violinist, avid concertgoer, and music blogger at theroadtosound.com, and the development and research associate at National Sawdust. She was a 2019 Bang on a Can Media Fellow, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University.
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Previewing a National Sawdust residency that gets underway Dec. 13, Vanessa Ague talks with Kinds of Kings founders Gemma Peacocke and Shelley Washington, and fellowship recipient Andrew M. Rodriguez.
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