I always had an interest in music from age 4, but it wasn’t until I took an orchestration class with Judith Lang Zaimont that I tried composing. It was more fun than practicing, and that was that! I also knew I would never be happy in a corporate office of any sort.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences, composition or otherwise?
As a small child, I would always play the same two songs in the jukebox at the truckstop diner in town: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Pink Floyd’s “Money,” in that order. The Pixies and 90’s industrial music taught me about dissonance and timbre as an expressive force. Aphex Twin sparked my interest in electronic music and production. Before I started composing, I wrote poetry and short stories, so that carried forward to an interest in songwriting when I started writing music.
Can you talk a little bit (generally) about your music. Where do you find inspiration for new pieces and what is the general process you take when composing?
My process is intuitive in that I start at the beginning of the piece and write to the end, often developing ideas as “organically” as possible, with lots of editing along the way so the pacing and balance is right. I tend to be slow to start a piece, then get obsessed once I figure out where it might be going. Often marathon sessions are undertaken out of necessity to meet a deadline or when a break in the schedule allows for extended creative time to start and finish a project. I generally draw inspiration from my other non-musical interests: sociopolitical and environment issues, nature, mythology, spirituality, the intersection between art and science. It’s an opportunity to start conversations. For example, little tiny stone, full of blue fire is a quartet inspired by the discovery a new pigment in a very hot fire, YInMn blue, which led me to discover a poem by Dorothea Lasky (“Beyond the Blue Seas”) that deals with similar ideas, but in more personal terms. River Rising was inspired by the video I saw of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the consequences of climage change.
My first experiences with your music were pieces for instruments and electronics. When did you begin working with electronics and implementing that in your pieces for live performers?
I took Evan Chambers’s electronic music seminar as a masters student at the University of Michigan without much initial interest in the subject. After one semester of learning to listen entirely differently—to appreciate that music is far more than notes and rhythms—I was excited to have limitless possibilities and absolute control over interpretation, timbre, and spatialization. Gaia was the first piece I wrote in that class. Its source material was one four-note djembe sample that I processed a million different ways. It took me six months to write, partially because I didn’t know there was a grid function in ProTools, so I lined up all the individual hits by ear to make various rhythms. It was the first piece I ever heard premiered as a young composer, spatialized in 8 channels in a big auditorium, with sound flying all over the room creating a sense of physicality and power I hadn’t experienced before… and I was hooked. When my friend Lisa Raschiatore asked for a piece, I wrote for clarinet and fixed media (Ultraviolet) and learned a lot about technical needs of the performer in trying to sync up with technology. I learned to approach the electronics as I would any other instrument: they can play a supporting role or take the lead, be in counterpoint or harmony with the solo line, tacet to allow for acoustic moments or take a solo while the performers stop. Orchestrationally, it feels the same as writing for any other ensemble, but now any sound I can imagine and create is possible.
Do you work primarily with fixed electronics or do you also work with live processing of instruments?
I’ve always been drawn to fixed media because I felt I had a better ability to control every last detail (and there are tons of them) with less of a possiblity of computers crashing. In more recent works, I’ve used live processing to color the solo line, to change its relationship to the fixed media part, to allow for freedom in performance. When Lilit Hartunian requested a looping piece (Alone Together) on a quick deadline, I played around in Ableton and a piece appeared within the day. I try to use whatever tool works best.
You’re also active as a performer (pianist with Verdant Vibes and Hotel Elefant). Can you talk a little about your work as a performer.
I started college as a performance major and when I decided to pursue composition instead, I literally shifted my time spent practicing to time spent writing. I would play my own pieces here and there, but it wasn’t until Hotel Elefant invited me to play with their newly-formed ensemble that I started performing regularly again. When job opportunities almost lured me away from Providence, but then didn’t, I felt motivated to create my own gigs as a composer/performer locally, so Jacob Richman and I started Verdant Vibes with a seed grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. We’re in our third season and have performed over 40 pieces by an array of living composers from around the area and the world. It’s rewarding to create jobs for other people and bring this kind of art to the community.
How does performing influence your approach to composition? Do you keep these separate or do you feel that one is always influencing the other?
Performing makes me more aware of the physicality of the music—what it feels like to interpret a score or how people breathe and interact expressively on stage. My ears are continuously learning more about what works and what doesn’t, and how we physiologically respond to sound and ideas. It allows me a better understanding of the sounds I want to hear when I compose and how to make that happen.
You’re also involved with other projects in various capacities (performer, composer, lecturer, artistic director) and have worked in multimedia. Can you talk a little bit about your interests in collaborative and/or cross-disciplinary and multimedia works?
The arts community in Providence is exceptional and has been a valuable resource for finding collaborators and friends. Working with people possesing different skills and ideas has allowed me to create projects I never would have dreamed up alone. I write and perform with Meridian Project, a multimedia performance group exploring topics in astrophysics and cosmology. We often perform at plantariums and observatories as a collaboration between musicians, scientists, visual artists, and audience participation on topics like dark matter detection, comets and meteors, the sun and moon. Half the band lives in Chicago now, so we’re working on finding residencies to have time to create a new project in collaboration with scientists at LIGO.
I worked with video artist and composer/performer Alex Dupuis on a video to accompany for Anna Atkins and invited dancer Meg Sullivan to improvise movement. Previous projects with Jacob Richman have included playing accordion in a multimedia dance piece at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a multimedia roving opera about an unsolved murder mystery in Rhode Island. In 2011, I worked with a group of local artists under the moniker Awesome Collective to create a roving performance piece Mercy Brown and the Devil’s Footprint at a park in Providence exploring local folklore that involved theatre, installation, dance, music, shadow puppetry, and animation.
I am also co-music director of Tenderloin Opera Company, a homeless advocacy music/theatre group I’ve been involved with for 7 years. We meet weekly before a community meal and devise characters and scenes that become an opera over the course of the year, which we set to music and sing/perform together in May. We also perform at meal sites, protests, arts events, and schools to raise awareness and support to address issues they face like access to public transportation, benefits, and health care and end homelessness.
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to talk about?
I just finished a piece for bass clarinet/percussion duo Transient Canvas called Year Without A Summer that they will be touring around the country this season as part of an electroacoustic program. I have an orchestra piece in the works commissioned by Rhode Island College and a duo for piano/bass/electronics to be premiered this spring with Verdant Vibes. It’s application season, so various other things have been dreamed up, and perhaps they will come to fruition.
And, finally, the list. What are the top 5 pieces/songs that inspired your most throughout your musical career.
This is hard, and I am indecisive, but albums I listened to a bazillion times in my formative years seem most relevant:
Nine Inch Nails — Downward Spiral
Björk — Debut
The Cure — Wish
Stevie Wonder — Greatest Hits (any of them)
Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works Vol.1 & 2
For more information about Kirsten Volness, her music and other activities check out her website: www.kirstenvolness.com/
Below are some examples of Kirsten's work: