October 4, 2011

Quite the Kraft-y One

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Musical living legend, William Kraft, visited Cornell for the performance of his Concerto No. 1 for Timpani performed by Cornell’s Wind Ensemble. Since its premiere in 1984, over fifty orchestras have performed Kraft’s timpani concerto. Cornell, with a consortium of other colleges, commissioned Kraft to re-orchestrate his concerto for wind ensemble. As an active composer, conductor, percussionist and teacher, Kraft was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first-ever Composer-in-Residence from 1981-1985. Kraft also played for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for twenty-six years, as both principal timpanist and percussionist. In 1990, Kraft was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Percussive Arts Society. The Sun had the opportunity to chat with Kraft while he visited Cornell, working with the ensemble and speaking at Cornell’s Composers’ Forum.

The Sun: How did you first start composing and getting interested in music?

William Kraft: Actually in the beginning, I never thought I’d make it as a composer, but I loved composing, so I kept doing it no matter what. I’m happy that it worked out. I’m not a self-promoter, but I was lucky in that I was always a performer and played in an orchestra so I had one distinct advantage of … being in the midst of great music played by great musicians. I could talk to them and ask them all kinds of questions whenever I had something I needed to know. Not always were they helpful. You have to know people who play in an orchestra every single day, well … something happens to the brain. So it was a mixed bag, because every moment that I was in the orchestra, I was listening to what was going on, and if there was a section in some piece that intrigued me, as soon as I got home, I’d dig out the score to see how they did it.

How I came to be interested in composing was when I was overseas in the Air Force, I was an arranger for the dance band. One of my colleagues, who had already been to Juilliard, took me down to the concert hall, which had three different pianos in the rehearsal rooms, and he would pick the piano to suit the composer. It was probably the best bit of musical education I ever had.

Sun: How do you approach composing?

W.K.: Every piece is unique. When I start a piece, I always ask, “What is this piece about?” And once I can determine what the piece is about, and that means: what is the character of the piece? I keep asking those questions: “What’s the best way to do that? What are the instrumental forces? What’s the style of the music?” Once I get started, which I think is typical of what I think of as composition, once you get the initiating material, craftsmanship takes over and you use that material for the rest of the piece. But the opening should have an indication of what’s going to be. There’s no typical way.

I do use percussion that is more typical. Percussion always has a musical, motivic or thematic role, just like any other section of the orchestra. I don’t think of it as being a coloring body or a rhythmic body. It’s meant to be another section that should be as expressive as the other sections are. Try to give it some dignity to say that percussionists can be musical, and percussion music can be musical. No “rat-ta-tat boom boom.”

People were beginning to think that I wrote for nothing but percussion.  It’s only natural that I write for percussion, I was a percussionist. And the literature for percussion at that time was either avant-garde, like Stockhausen, or Boulez.  So it was either avant-garde or “rat-ta-tat boom boom” music.  What was missing was something in the middle there that ties music in the tradition of music with the avant-garde to carry on what was always considered to be music.

Sun: How does being a jazz drummer influence you as a composer?

W.K.: Coming from jazz has built pulse into my soul, and I can’t get rid of pulse, no matter how hard I try. I find it’s always influential. One way I would try to overcome the problem was to have different tempi at the same time. In another piece of mine, the timpani has one tempo, and he’s doing his thing, and then in another section he has a different tempo, and another section has a different tempo. There’s three or four meters going on at the same time. And that eliminates the pulse of any given one. They mess up one another.

One of the hardest things for me, and I think for many, if not most composers, is how to define your style. And I finally realized, putting it all together, looking at what I had been doing, that it shows the influences of jazz and of impressionism. The harmonic world is derived largely from impressionism and the rhythmic world does have jazz underpinnings. There’s certain qualities, certain effects, that I found hard to do without rhythmic underpinnings.

Sun: I read that you felt pressured to use serialism in your music.

W.K.: All of us did at that time. And the intellectual aspect, particularly of serialism, became dominant. I might have said also, in what you read, that we all felt pressure to do some serialism, but the other issue at the time was whether Americans should go the Debussy/Stravinsky way or Schoenberg/Boulez/Berio, more Stockhausen and Boulez and Berio…

Sun: What was it like working with the CU Wind Ensemble for your timpani concerto?

W.K.: Cindy [Professor Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor of Wind Ensemble and Wind Symphony] is a very calm and patient conductor and she knows what she’s doing. And the students, I can tell, are trying hard. It’s not an easy piece.

Sun: How does your timpani concerto change when it is performed by Cornell’s percussion teacher, Tim Feeney, versus the original timpanist you wrote the concerto for?

W.K.: It changes. I’ve never had a bad performance. They’ve all been good. It’s been played by over 50 orchestras.

Sun: How did you orchestrate your timpani concerto from its original orchestra version to the new version for wind ensemble?

W.K.: Well, the second movement is a complete challenge because it’s built on glissandi. I really wrestled with that for the longest time, and I had another version written out with runs in the winds to represent the glissandi. But that’s a whole different world. Having the runs did not give the atmosphere that I was looking for that was in the glissandi. It was very smooth and a bit mysterious and gentle. And to have the runs gave it an excitement that I didn’t want. So after wrestling with it for weeks, I decided to write a whole different version. So I thought instead of glissandi, I would have these sounds and do crescendi. The crescendi took the place of the glissandi.

Sun: What was it like working, playing and interacting with Igor Stravinsky?

W.K.: Well, it was wonderful because here you are with the master, finding out how he wanted things to be played. He was always courteous and warm. And he would call us, “My dears, my dears.” That was a common expression for him.

Sun: From your unusual perspective as a composer, performer and conductor, what is your opinion regarding criticisms of contemporary music as very academic, with the composer sitting on top, not very involved with the musicians, not playing with them and thinking of them as having to perform their music?

W.K.: There are composers like that, certainly, the more intellectual composers, absolutely. In terms of not caring how the musicians reacted or how difficult it was, the worst case scenario for me is [Iannis] Xenakis, who produced everything mathematically. And what comes out is not what he heard, but what he created. There’s a cellist there who is a terrific cellist and specialized in contemporary music, took on very tough pieces. But in this cello piece of Xenakis, she came across a passage that she thought was impossible. And she told him and said, “This passage is impossible to play on the cello.” And he [Xenakis] simply said, “It’s your job to play it.”

Sun: How do you teach your students composition?

W.K.: When I teach, I try to find out the personality of every student I have. And that sometimes can be difficult because the student will be writing largely what he’s already heard. To be influenced by composers that were influential in his life is not you, but whenever I spot something that doesn’t come from anywhere else, that’s you. This first happened with a friend of mine. He showed me a variations suite for cello and piano. Every moment was derivative. But in the seventh variation, it was his own. I saw no outer influence. And I told him that. And he says, “Really? That’s the one I was really worried about well because it’s my own. That’s the movement I love the most, but I was afraid. I didn’t know if it was good enough.” Of course I said, “That’s the point. It was good enough. It is good enough.” And the great reward for me was that he wrote to me in about a month, and he said, “Because of what you said, I’ve written more music in the past three weeks than I’ve written in the past three years.” In other words, it liberated him to be free to say what he wanted to say. That’s the whole point that we have to find who we are. I mean that’s the joy of it. Why compose if you don’t love composing and you don’t love what you’re doing? If you can love and respect your music, I think you have something going. Our rewards are really in the composing. It’s not in the accolades, it’s not in the performance, it’s in the music itself, and for me, the writing of the music.

Original Author: Liza Sobel