What are some distinctive attributes of Debra Kaye’s music?
Back in the days when there were record and CD stores, they had all these bin cards. One for Pop, one for Rock, one for Jazz, one for Classical and so forth. If you took out all those cards and mixed them up, that's where I would place the "Debra Kaye" card!
I love music. I love listening to it and playing it and sharing it with others, so when I start a new piece, whether it's a song or a string quartet, I try to find the best way showcase the sound of the instruments and musicians I'm writing for. You could describe it as "lyricism meets experimentation."
I use different techniques depending on the piece and sometimes, even mix things up within the same piece. I think of it as sound-painting; I’m interested in fine-tuning the coloristic aspect, and sculpting the sound to bring out or suppress the natural beauty and individuality of the instruments.
What would you say to first time listeners of your music? What should they pay attention to?
I’d say welcome! Enjoy the exploration. Don't be afraid! For a lot of listeners and concert goers "Contemporary Music" has a scary reputation. They think it's going to be something strange and the musicians will be doing weird things to their instruments. I want to assure them - no instruments are harmed in the making of my music.
I write music with both melody and method, though sometimes that’s an improvisatory one. I’d like to welcome you to a very special place where, I hope the music I have created will envelope you, carry you along, engage your feelings and imagination as it unfolds and tells its story. And, when the piece has ended, I hope it leaves you heartened and refreshed, stimulated and inspired.
Do you see the impact of your work linked to the fact that as a female composer you probably did not have access to as many opportunities as you should have?
In some ways, but I don’t dwell on it. I’m glad to see that aspiring young female composers now have more educational opportunities than when I was a girl. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when it wasn’t yet the cosmopolitan city it is now. There was a general lack of awareness of living composers, and for girls, there wasn’t the cultural atmosphere to even dream of it. Access to the essential early music education was limited. Word on the street was, if you wanted more in-depth training, go to a summer program at Interlochen or Brevard, which I finally did at 16, and I got my first doses of theory, ear-training, and all the rest, and went on to be a piano major in college. So, it made for a game of catch-up. On the positive side, with the growing awareness of the need for gender equality in music, some opportunities have opened because of being a woman.
I’m on the board of the New York Women Composers, and we give a number of grants each year that support performances of music by women composers internationally. And that’s just one example.
Unfortunately, the most established national and international arenas have been slower in the move toward equity, and that’s a negative for us all. They’re programming more women composers these days, but there’s still a long way to go. One person who’s really fulfilling that commitment is Marvin Rosen on his WPRB radio show, with his 50-50 marathon, Viva 21st Century on Classical Discoveries. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do when you don’t have to worry about ticket sales, but as far as I’m aware, he’s the only one actually doing it!
Could you tell us more about your recent work Turning in Time?
I wrote Turning in Time for the violinist Kinga Augustyn. It’s such a pleasure/treasure to write for a virtuoso with her extraordinary artistry and sensitivity. When I heard she wanted something that referenced the Bach Chaconne in D minor, I knew we were aiming for something of great depth – tall shoes to walk beside.
My hope was to honor the master through my offering. I got Bach’s score and began listening. What fascinated me and what I wanted to understand was how he got such an incredible sense of development and forward motion, with a form that is by nature, repetitive – a repeated, usually descending bass line, with variations. (Think – Hit the Road Jack and many others.) I found the answer largely in his patterns of phrasing, and the slow and patterned rate of change of his motifs. He’ll set up a pattern and stay with it religiously, until at some point, he doesn’t. I emulated these aspects of the Chaconne, using them in my own way. The piece fell into groups of phrases ala the Bach. His are groups of 2, mine are groups of 3. As in the Bach, the motifs return in new variations. I also included some of the string techniques he uses, particularly double stops and jete, an off the string technique that appears in an arpeggiated, virtuoso climax high in the violin just before the end of the piece.
Turning in Time is written as a dialogue. Rhapsodic 21st century solos alternate with chorale-like sections, juxtaposing past and present, reflecting on things that have changed and what remains the same, ending with the opening of the Chaconne, in a conversation between the "then" and the "now".
Who are the musicians with whom you’ve enjoyed collaborating lately?
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with many fabulous musicians of the freelance community in New York City, and lately with the Chicago-based Lincoln Trio (violin, cello & piano), Voxare String Quartet, the Portland Youth Philharmonic; violinist, Kinga Augustyn; flutist, Carl Gutowski; and my friends at Composers Concordance, led by the amazing Gene Pritsker and Dan Cooper.
How has music helped you navigate various pivot points amidst the global pandemic?
Music has always helped me steer through hard times and find comfort and peace. Composing also puts me in touch with my spirituality and intuition. Sometimes I jokingly say - music is my religion, I practice it.
When the pandemic began, I started pouring it into a piano piece. I now have a couple of commissions coming due, so the piano piece is on the back burner, but I come back to it on the in-between, kind of like a diary.
As a composer, having this time alone in the cabin has been definitely a silver lining during the pandemic.
What arts and performing organization have gotten your attention because of their programming selections during these recent months?
There’s been so much good arts programming online, more than I’ve had time to stream! A few standouts that I’ve seen lately - the Composer-to-Composer Talks through the American Composer’s Orchestra. I really enjoyed the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s recent offering featuring premiere performances of the winners of their new Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative.
Early on in the pandemic, I went to the ‘interactive’ New Music Gathering. It’s usually an in-person event with its natural opportunities for networking, but they were inventive, and we did speed-dating as the networking component!
I’ve been following Kyo-Shin-An Arts. Founded by Meg Fagan and James Nyoraku Schlefer back in 2009, they commission new music for Japanese and Western classical instruments, a great new genre of music. You always hear distinct new sounds, so well performed. I recently did a piece for them, three zen poems, that I’m soglad and grateful was premiered In February, just before the shutdown. The Howland Chamber Music Circle in Beacon, NY, is very special, and dear to my heart. Excellence is the word that comes to mind, world-class performances in a historic venue with all wood interior and vaulted ceilings, a perfect acoustic for chamber music that somehow still comes across to some degree on their Alive Musica streaming series. Honored to have written a string quartet commissioned for their 25th Anniversary.
A few others that I’ve been impressed with -Tribeca New Music, the Momenta Festival, and of course there are wonderful things happening at Chamber Music of Lincoln Center, Miller Theater, Carnegie Hall and so many others, both large and small.
Has your writing schedule changed in any way and has music writing helped you keep a positive outlook?
It’s been nice not having to be in a rigid schedule. I really like being able to have two or three sessions in a day – say one in the morning, late afternoon, and maybe a short one after dinner. Having more flexibility also allows me to also to be able to “strike while the iron’s hot.” And yes, composing has and generally does help me keep a more positive outlook.
Like any creative act, it’s a living, growing thing and that in itself is positive, but there are times when it’s difficult. I tend to wear the emotion of the music I’m composing, so that can be difficult at times. And some places in a piece can just be harder puzzles. When that happens, it’s easy to have an emotional reaction and go into fear, but I’ve learned to return to the creative process itself. If you keep going back to it, it will grow. As I learned in high school chemistry lab - I did an experiment – it didn’t prove true - what did I learn from it?... At those times I come to know the piece through what it is not and how it is not that, and then just keep going.
Have you picked up any new hobbies given the void created by lack of in person events and restricted physical activities?
Yes, I love improvising with my I-Phone. Narrating or singing along as I walk with video on during walks in nature or when I'm out and about in New York City. Sometimes, also I am quiet and let the visuals speak for themselves.
Could you share a piece of good news with us?
I’m excited and gratified to welcome the 2021 arrival of Turning in Time, Kinga Augustyn’s album of 20th and 21st century violin music, named for the piece I wrote for her. It also includes the premiere recording of a work by the great Krzysztof Penderecki. Kinga is such a highly sensitive virtuoso, I’m so happy to be collaborating with her!
We’re planning some other projects, the first will be her recording of Ikarus – duo for Binya for violin and viola. It was the piece that inspired her to approach me to write Turning in Time. So, this will be a full-circle event, and that feels good.
What are you thankful for?
My loved ones, my health and home, the wonders of nature, the wonderful musicians I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with, and my life in music.
What event(s) or projects are you looking forward to in the months ahead?
I have a couple of commissions that I’m really excited about. One is a jazz-influenced quartet for tenor sax, piano, bass and drums called Colossus 1067. It’s named after one of Gus Foster’s Time Photographs. He took it on an old wooden roller coaster with a camera that rotates 360 degrees (the “1067” in the title relates to the rotation of the camera – just short of 3 x round/ (3 x 360 degrees would be 1080). It’s scheduled to premiere at the Harwood Museum in Taos in Fall 2021, at the opening of Gus’s 40-year retrospective.
I’m also working on a commission for flutist, Carl Gutowski. This new piece will be the final movement of a 3-part suite that he commissioned. The first movement was a wedding present for his niece, so it celebrates love and relationship. The second is an elegy for his older brother who died tragically at an early age, called a deafening silence. With this third movement, I’m hoping to convey the feeling that life goes on, there’s regeneration after suffering.
And once live concerts can happen again in some form or other, a deafening silence will be able to have its long-postponed premiere in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and I’m certainly looking forward to that!