Stock question, what made you decide to go into composition, and what led you to your particular aesthetic?
Growing up, I wanted to be an architect. I played piano from an early age; looking back on it, I think I read music before I could read words, but I never considered myself a musician. Despite my ego as a pianist, music was just an outlet for...something...but I never entertained the idea that I could pursue it with any seriousness. I wanted to design buildings and houses and things that stood in the ground and space and lasted the test of time...
Following a hand injury in high school, I started writing music to fill the time while I couldn’t play piano. Something clicked, and -- a bit on a whim -- I decided to apply to a few conservatories. I think it was by accident that I fell into Oberlin. I was never conditioned to be a composer: sure, I had a mentor teaching me the basics in high school as my hand healed, but I never quite reconciled how I arrived at that conservatory...
Designing structures in space, I think, wasn’t too different for me than writing music in time. Once I understood that music has its own multiplicity of dimensions -- similar to, but stretching far beyond, architecture’s length, width and height -- I think that same urge to see structures exist in space drove me to compulsively write music.
I took quite a bit of time to find the voice that I write with now -- I was woefully unprepared for a life in music from the outset. But, I can definitively point to those instrumentalists who supported me and guided me as the catalysts for my aesthetic direction. Just like understanding the stresses and forces at play in designing a building, it took the passionate, open-minded, and patient players in my life to “show me the ropes” -- and then they showed me how to fight with the mitts off, too...these wonderful musicians have been (and continue to be) some of my closest friends and creative firestarters.
Your website describes your music as having “structural fractures,” which I think is an interesting description of form. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by structural fractures why it is often an important element of your music?
This comes back to space for me -- in the same way an architect might think of it. Time (and music’s particular demarcation of time: form) is analogous to physical space. “Structural fractures” are exactly the same as those that might exist physically: cracks that disconnect two continuous parts, radical juxtapositions of materials, oblique connections of dissimilar facades...
In music, these “structural fractures” manifest in any number of ways. Much of my music contains sudden “jumps” to similar-but-different material in a non-developmental fashion. This is because many of the pieces I write realize huge portions of developmental material to “connect,” say, A to F in a logical fashion, but I’ve edited out steps C, D & E. Sometimes I write minutes of music that I know from the outset will never make into a final draft of the piece -- they will be left on the cutting room floor. Sometimes I sketch out huge chunks of music, but never realize portions of those sketches and move discontinuously between arbitrary points within them.
This is because I still have an obsession with following my developmental procedures. I’ve never given that up; I think it’s my version of “being a good Catholic” -- I still hold some educational guilt (the “right” way to do things).
But, to chop out parts and sew the furthest reaches together? That creates any number of interesting effects: drama, perplexity, frustration, sometimes apathy…
Lately, you’ll see some instances of these “structural fractures” represented in my music as “REDACTED” chunks within the scores -- huge silences that awkwardly bisect sections of my pieces. Just like the institutionalized form of censorship (thick black lines blotting out sensitive portions of a document), the redactions in my music represent fully-realized materials that have been...well, censored. The information is somewhere, but neither the performer nor the listener are privy to it. Instead, silence stands in as an aural version of a black sharpie pen.
You also describe your music as having “striking dissonances” and “complex arrays of color.” When I listen to your music I often hear the pieces as transformations of clouds or blocks of timbres and colors, similar to Lachenmann’s musique concrete instrumentale or Varese’s use of timbral blocks of sound. Have these composers influenced you in any way, or do you feel that your use of timbre, color and dissonance as handled differently than Varese and/or Lachenmann?
I have always loved Varese; Lachenmann and I have an altogether more complicated relationship...
I think that Lachenmann’s obsession with history is inhibitive. He is a European who, as far as I can realize, sees himself as a reincarnation of Webernian ideals -- so many of his ilk are concerned with their place in the arc of some artificial (and highly territorial) history. I hear it in his music; I think we all hear it in his music. But, the sounds themselves are SO attractive that we’ve collectively ignored the restrictive qualities of his “historical consciousness.” That is because, well...the sounds in his music ARE so attractive. His music does so many things that others haven’t, and (more importantly in his mind) that others hadn’t.
Varese, on the other hand, was a character who decided to play with chaos. He was a musical alchemist: methodically portioning out rationalized measures of X, Y or Z and seeing the reactions they produced when mixed together. Structurally, I took many cues from him: “juxtapositional development” is, really, a fetal version of my “structural fractures”...but Varese also ventured to encapsulate the complex entirety of reality in a completely artificial medium: music.
When I think of the “complex arrays of color” and the “dissonances” in my music, I think of those bits that pick up a small handful of chaos and try to manipulate it, to replicate it, to forget and move against it. There is an intrigue -- but also, maybe, a terror -- in building highly complex and unstable timbral profiles and, like Varese, attempting to repeat them, quickly retreating from them, and setting them in opposition to one another.
Varese often chose to repeat his chaos like a scientist: with subtle variation, thereby showing the multiplicity of the colors he pulled from the flames. I take his cue at times, but more often these days I choose to repeat my chaos directly, identically, obsessively...
When playing with fire, though, you’ll never fully control the burn -- one cannot truly replicate chaos. Still, in attempting to do so, I think that I’m trying to find the same complexity of color and shifting dimensions of sound that Varese sought to uncover...
Your music often has incredibly poetic titles (color boundaries and plastic action/red ground behind your eyes). What is the origin of these titles, and do your pieces have any programmatic undertones? Or do you view your titles as an abstract element of your music with little or no direct connection to the aural result?
For a few years now, I’ve collected words from various sources: poetry, literature, theory, etc...some of these have a very direct connection to aural components, but mostly this collection further abstracts my music. Words and language operate in similar ways to music -- syntax, context, inflection -- but they also offer strengths and subtleties that differ as well. I think what I’m after aesthetically rests somewhere between words and music as these nebulous, fleeting connections that don’t cleanly translate into either medium. Each piece I write offers me an opportunity to attach a latticework of words (in titles, section headings, inscriptions, etc.) that may be considered with or against the sounds as they are. Sometimes, like I said before, they go hand-in-hand; other times the words are dissonant or obstructive…
The poet Matthea Harvey’s work really started this practice for me. I first found her collection Modern Life while aimlessly perusing the university library in Bowling Green. The first poem in that collection hit me like a bus. Honestly, it still does -- every time I read it. I decided to begin stitching Matthea’s words into my music in a number of different ways, which led to a number of loosely-related pieces that all borrow from her poetry. Altogether, seven pieces of mine directly reference Matthea’s work, with two of those pieces (as if to hold the hemispheres of their own heads together & the future of terror) actually setting entire poems.
Other poets have captured my attention since then -- Rochelle Hurt, Andrew Maxwell, Alan Gilbert -- and I even find myself pulling from novels that I am reading and noteworthy articles that pop up here and there. Really, anything that propels the on-going monologues and commentaries in my music...
You’ve written, or are currently working on, a series of pieces that have similar titles, that being “__________ species.” Is this part of a cycle you are working on and is there a recurring theme between these pieces?
This is my “bestiary.” It’s not a cycle in the traditional sense of the word, no, but all of the pieces do share common threads: animalism, hybridism, identity, ecology... There are currently five “species” in the bestiary -- invasive, flickering, carnal, radiant, and captive -- I don’t know if there will be more…
I tend to work in groupings or taxonomic collections of pieces that explore similar ideas and characters -- I think this is an extension of my word-collecting habit. In particular, this bestiary is where I found myself after finishing my (only half-jokingly named) “meat cycle,” which consists of three complementary works for strings and examines the slaughterhouse from various points of view: process (machine), material (meat), identity (animal/beast), decay (waste). I also confronted notions of “genre” with these pieces since each was written for a particular icon of instrumental chamber music: the string quartet (as antibiotics climb the blood’s bowl within the silence of no), the string trio (as a family of civilian ghosts phase-shifts through the fog lights), and the solo bass (the way of all flesh).
The bestiary is much more illustrative and, at least in its subtext, moralizing than the meat cycle. Overall, the “species”-pieces tend to be less genre-conscious and more self-contained despite being concerned with many of the same themes as the “meat”-pieces.
Other than the “species” pieces do you have any upcoming collaborations or projects you’re working on?
I am just rounding out a large series of projects for trombonists Matt Barbier and Weston Olencki, who have become two of my closest friends and fiercest musical allies since moving back to California. Additionally, Andy Costello and I will re-confront words in a musical way with a lengthy piece for speaking-pianist; I then undertake another major project, this time for the elusive gnarwhallaby paired with my most-respected and -loved partner-in-crime, Elise Roy.
For now, I have no idea how each of these future projects will relate to one another -- or even if they’ll relate...I’m just thrilled to work with this amazing line-up of young, ravenous players.
How would you describe the LA, and even more generally, the west coast new music scene in terms of activity and opportunities for performances and collaborations?
LA is a bit of a puzzle, in general. It’s a city of immigrants, pilgrims, and other transplants that all seem equally at home and clearheaded in laying claim to the city. More than any other place I’ve ever been, LA is a city that seems to belong to everyone simply because it belongs to no one: no common ancestry, no common accents, no common terrain. Musically, this is the city that Schoenberg and Stravinsky both inhabited, as well as a nascent John Cage (...hell, Schoenberg taught Cage at UCLA and, himself, even died in LA).
Yet, at best, the city is only a footnote in music history because it has no singular history: it is too many things at once.
LA’s new music community today is the same: everywhere and everyone, nowhere and no one. There are the conservatives, the minimalists, the experimentalists (in many senses of the word), the tonalists, the microtonalists, the noise-makers, the academics, the misfits...and even these borders are never clear. Cross-breeding is endless as performers straddle the divides between each of these territories, and the city’s new music scene is seemingly less-and-less defined by its major institutions (universities, orchestras, etc.) as each day passes. Most of us are relatively young and tend to gladly shrug off the stuffy politics of “tradition.” The shows that I am most eager to attend generally take place in galleries or “DIY” spaces (a few are even literally underground). After living here for only a year, the idea of the “concert hall” now makes me more than a bit uncomfortable...
...it’s also increasingly difficult to look in from the outside. Many still seek to define LA by importing figureheads from New York and abroad -- by trading in “prestige” -- and, lately, they’ve been gaining traction. However, this behavior is expected of the anachronistic organizations that underwrite LA’s cultural trade; they are a sort of rank-and-file old-guard: the critics, the orchestras, the foundations, and the blue-haired donors. Despite how trendy these organizations try to be, I always feel like they’re spinning their wheels in this city by trying to put LA into a different place and time...
Maybe things will calcify in the future, maybe not...for the time being, everyone around to me just seems happy to listen.
What is your favorite bourbon?
...are there others?
Desert island list, what are the 5 pieces/composers (regardless of genre) that you would say have had the most impact on your life and career as a musician?
Tobacco & the Black Moth Super Rainbow
Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip series
Rebecca Saunders’ Molly’s Song 3
Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants
George Crumb’s Night of the Four Moons
[...and I’ll have you know that this last question damn-near killed me.]
For more information about Kur Isaacson and his music check out the following links:
And listen to some of his tasty jams below