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Interview with Phil Kline: Composing, a lifestyle

by Kayleigh Blanchette, intern at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

Contemporary composer Phil Kline, returns to FlynnSpace this Friday with an exclusive selection of song cycles, chamber music, string quartets, piano pieces, and new choral works. Performing the compositions are five members of the prestigious American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Kline’s longtime vocal muse, Grammy nominated singer Theo Bleckmann.

Phil talked about the show and his life as a composer over the phone.

What will audience members see at your show on Friday, March 23?

Well, over the last ten years or so I’ve written a lot of songs for different projects and this is a selection, several songs from Zippo Songs, a few choral works called John the Revelator, and a few songs from a show we did in Philadelphia a few years ago that hasn’t been performed since. So there will be some songs that have not been recorded as well as some brand new ones. A few of them come from a cycle called Out Cold, which will premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the Next New Wave Festival in October. And a little bit of chamber music is in there too. I think we’re going to play two movements from one of my string quartets, as well as piano pieces, so it’s sort of an evening of mixed stuff. The songs themselves go in a lot of different directions. I see my work as being old school and new school at the same time.

What is your relationship with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and Theo Bleckmann?

I first heard Theo when he was working with Bang on a Can. I just remember thinking “Wow! What a voice!” He has this very smooth, silky, legato voice. I don’t want everything I ever write to be for such a voice, but I’m content to write a few hundred of them. The first piece I wrote for Theo was Zippo Songs. And then a couple of the songs from the show that I mentioned that was only performed once—that show was called Locus Solus—I wrote that for Theo. More than half the music in the program is written for Theo.

ACME is just great. There is this whole wave, just an avalanche of musicians who are around 30 years old coming up all over the place. We hear of a fair amount of the young composers, but what I think is even more amazing is the young performers. Part of the reason you can have all of these young composers is because there are people out there to play our music.

How did your academic work in the English Literature program at Columbia lead you to music?

I had really cool teachers at Columbia. One of them, my favorite teacher ever, was this guy David Shapiro. There are going to be a couple of songs in the show that are his lyrics, because I admired his poems so much as a kid and I studied with him at Columbia. Two of his poems are in John the Revelator, one in Zippo Songs, and one in Locus Solus. David always taught us, “Don’t just study about poetry and don’t just read about poetry. Study everything. Your poems should be informed by what you ate or what you just read in the Scientific American, or anything, just the whole world.”

I remember that even at that time, David pointed out that my poems were full of allusions to music. Sometimes I even wrote poems that described musical performance. So I thought, “Well, maybe this indicates something.” Now I mostly write essays about music and I’ve been getting more into writing my own lyrics. Out Cold will probably be two-thirds or maybe 90 percent my own lyrics. I’m also working on an opera, and that’s one where we’re writing the entire text. There was probably a decade where I didn’t write anything as far as text or words. It came back to me, especially in the last few years as I’ve been doing more work with songs and choral pieces. There are only so many poems and texts out there that jump at the chance to set to music, so suddenly it went through my head: “Why don’t you write your own, dummy?”

How do you define yourself?

I’d say I’m a composer, lyrist, and writer. I’m a performer too, but I no longer perform that frequently. I may again. I play guitar. I was in a band in the early ’80s called Del-Byzantines [with Jim Jarmusch -ed.], and we were somewhat successful, but we only stayed together for two or three years and that’s not quite enough time to have a great career.

What are your hobbies outside of the music world?

Other than helping raise my 4-year-old daughter, who takes up about a third of the day? I really like to listen to music, go hiking and watch birds, and cook.

Has your daughter inspired your music at all?

I don’t know about directly, but in a broader more spiritual sense, absolutely. I mean, I had a child late in life. I wasn’t 25; I was like double that. There’s this “Oh my goodness. Will there be enough time left for me?” Then you realize, somehow, I got bigger and stronger and that there’s not less time, instead there’s more. Like the world is bigger.

What brings you back to Vermont?

This will be my third time at the Flynn. My first time at the Flynn it was 2000 or 2001, it was in February and the temperatures at night were around thirty below. I’d never experienced anything like it. I suppose I prefer the green Vermont to the white one but it’s just such a beautiful place. It’s one of those states that’s like its own little world. People from Vermont are a bit different. There’s a certain kind of Vermont guy and a certain kind of Vermont girl…there is a certain kind of freedom in Vermont that I find particularly inspiring.

Has the growing influence of technology helped or hindered your music?

What’s the best way to put it? I’m not a gearhead and I’m not proactive with technology. I’m not one of these guys who wakes up and checks out what’s new at the Apple store. I write music on a computer, but I began years after I could have. Early on I was really well known for what I did with hundreds of boom boxes. Boom boxes are already almost obsolete pieces of equipment, so I guess I like to work with junk.

But really, the computer does nothing but help especially with things like copying and correcting. I cannot express how much easier it makes all that. In a way, I feel very lucky that the computer was there at the right time to help me make a couple of leaps in my composition. After the first couple years, when everything I wrote was performance piece for a boom box, I wanted to write pieces for a regular ensemble. Using sequencing software and digital audio has really helped.

As a matter of fact, this year we introduced our first iPhone app for my piece Unsilent Night. There’s also a piece that I’m doing for Lincoln Center this summer for the Out of Doors Festival that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of John Cage’s birth. This is a piece that will exist on several simultaneous levels, and one of those levels will be as an iPhone app. You’ll be able to hear parts of the piece walking around Lincoln Center using the app. Parts of the piece will be triggered by your positioning on the Earth. So there are a lot of things going on simultaneously. Some of them will be absolutely low tech with live musicians hitting things with sticks and people reading aloud and other elements will be entirely in the air; all with a global positioning application.

You’ve been involved in a lot of different types of musical projects from musicals, to rock bands, to sound installations. What direction do you see yourself going in next?

I don’t know. I guess, in a way, I’ve done different things that seem to point in different directions and though I can’t follow them all—well actually, I was going to say I can’t follow them all at once, but I can’t prove that that’s true. Maybe I can. I like to think that I can follow them all. For example, the Cage piece at Lincoln Center, it’s sort of a large audience participation work involving electronics. At the same time I’m writing a song cycle for one singer and a chamber ensemble, as well as writing an opera. You know, I’d like to be able to follow all of those directions, but I don’t have a master plan for putting them all together to make a gigantic work of art. I probably like the idea that I don’t know where I’m going.

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