This interview was conducted over two days in the summer and fall of 2019 at Guy Klucevsek’s Staten Island home, where he lives with Jan Klucevsek, his wife of fifty years. It covers three main categories: Klucevsek’s compositions, his early life, and his Vignettes project, a book of short original compositions accompanied by recordings. Vignettes is being distributed by Starkland and is available through Bandcamp (www.starkland.bandcamp.com) on March 27, 2020.
Guy Klucevsek is one of the world’s most versatile and highly respected accordionists. A composer as well as accordion virtuoso, he has performed or recorded with American Composers Orchestra, Laurie Anderson, Alan Bern, Brave Combo, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, A.R. Rahman, Relâche, Tom Waits, John Williams and John Zorn. He has also appeared as a guest on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and accompanied soprano Renee Fleming at the memorial service for Senator John McCain.
His group Accordion Tribe, a quintet of international composers and accordionists (Bratko Bibic of Slovenia, Lars Hollmer of Sweden, Maria Kalaniemi of Finland, Otto Lechner of Austria, and Klucevsek himself), has released three albums and is the subject of Stefan Schwietert’s documentary film, Accordion Tribe: Music Travels.
Klucevsek has written over one hundred pieces for accordion, not only for the concert hall but for collaborations with choreographers, theater artists, and filmmakers. His discography includes twenty-three recordings as soloist, leader and co-leader on Starkland, Tzadik, Winter & Winter, Innova, Review, Intuition, CRI, and XI.
He is the recipient of a 2010 USA Fellowship supported by the Collins Family Foundation, “recognizing the most compelling artists working and living in the United States.”
The interview was transcribed by Keven Sun and edited by Mary Berman and Ethan Iverson. Special thanks to Joseph Franklin and Arthur Sabatini.
(Compositions and Recordings)
Anthony Creamer: Do you prefer to write for yourself as a solo performer or do you prefer to write for ensemble?
Guy Klucevsek: It’s essentially a practical decision. I wrote so much solo music because that was where the concert opportunities were at the time. The ensemble music I wrote was almost always on commissions from dance and theater companies, and the thing with those is, you need to use an instrumentation that’s right for the mood of the piece or the subject matter, but then it’s a one-off. It’s hard to have a band that has the instrumentation to travel with because every piece is a different instrumentation; you’d have to go on the road with a seventeen-piece orchestra to do the pieces that you had written for various ensembles.
When I went on tour, I would tour as a soloist and I’d write music for myself, but oftentimes for recordings, like with the Bantam Orchestra, that would be pieces that I’d written for dance companies, and then if there was enough of it, then I could eventually tour with that band, too. I wrote enough music for this string trio and accordion that I was able to do two albums with that combination and do a number of tours with it.
AC: You’ve also worked with dance.
GK: Yes! The first dancer I remember collaborating with was Maureen Williams, who eventually became Maureen Fleming, and she’s still working today. I wrote a piece for her in the early ’80s because she had met me doing theater work at La MaMa. La MaMa was also hosting a lot of choreographers and dancers, but she knew me as a sideman in a group with the late Dan Erkkila, who wrote a lot of music for La MaMa Theater productions, and she asked me if I would write her something. I did, and that was a solo piece. From there, other choreographers heard my work for her, and then I started getting invitations from elsewhere.
After Maureen, the first company that I can remember approaching me was Zero Moving Dance Company in Philadelphia, because I was working with Relâche and they’d been hearing me play for years, and Helmut Gottschild approached me about writing something for them. One of his dancers was Karen Bamonte, and eventually she formed her own dance company, Karen Bamonte Dance Works, so I wrote pieces for her. I played a solo of Laura Dean’s for her dance company once, and one of her dancers was Angela Caponigro, and Angela commissioned me to write music for her, both as a soloist and for ensemble work. So it was that, you know, meeting one choreographer, other choreographers hearing those works and approaching me, and it kind of just grew and blossomed from there.
AC: You use a lot of odd meters, I enjoyed your essay on the topic in John Zorn’s Arcana series. What do the dancers make of the odd meters?
GK: H’mm. Well, in the early ’80s, I wasn’t really writing in odd meters yet. At the time, my solo pieces were sort of long tone pieces and more based on a single idea. “Tremolo Number 6” was all based on tremolo figures; the form started very simple and got much more complex, and then I stripped layers away and kind of came away to the beginning. There were a lot of pieces like that. “Toronto (Sevenths),” from 1972, which I wrote when I was a student at CalArts, is the only one that was still in my repertoire as of four or five years ago, because it can be done anywhere—from a solo with tape delay, to a live ensemble of four accordions. (I’ve done it both ways.) But when I worked with Maureen, I kind of broke away from that, and when I started breaking away from the long tones, it led me back to the social dance forms of my youth, which were Slovenian-American polkas and waltzes.
I also had a band in high school that was called the Fascinations, and we would play cover tunes. My favorite band at the time was the Ventures, because they were an all-instrumental band, and nobody in my high school could sing. I came from a small high school, we only graduated sixty-five in my class, and we had some great musicians, but we didn’t have any singers. But I had played a lot of weddings with Kenny Igo, so I learned to cover all the pop stuff of the day. We would also play Slovenian-American polkas and waltzes. We would play everything from high school dances to weddings to other kinds of social functions. I’d play at social functions for my family, and so when I became a quote unquote serious accordionist, I kind of disowned all that, from I would say 1965 when I went off to college to the mid ’80s.
Later, the dancers who asked me to write for them were the kind of dancers who wanted something kinetic, and that took me back to my childhood. I didn’t decide, “Well, I think I’ll use those unusual meters.” They were part of my history, so I went back and started mining that stuff, but my tastes and my style of writing had changed. For example, one of the first pieces to come out of that process was “The Grass, It Is Blue (Ain’t Nothing but a Polka),” which I wrote for Helmut Gottschild, for a piece of his called Waiting Room. It’s a polka, but it’s all over one chord. The whole thing’s in 2/4, the whole thing’s over a C chord, but it has quotes from Terry Riley’s “In C” in it. It has a walking bass section with kind of a jazz solo on top of it, even though the solo is a steady 16th note solo.
So, the process is mining the things from my childhood through the lens of somebody who was in a very different place when he went back to revisit those. That’s really interesting for me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
AC: Scenes from a Mirage was your first vinyl record, correct?
GK: Not only was it my first, it was my only vinyl record until this year, when Imprec Records re-released Sounding Way, my duo record with Pauline Oliveros. Everything after this LP went to CD format, so this was right on the cusp, 1987, when the CD format was coming into existence. What I especially liked when the CDs first came out was on the back of them, it would always say, “These will last forever,” and I was wondering, how could they possibly know that? They only just came out! Who did the tests for that?
So, how this came about is that I was playing with David Garland, a singer and songwriter in the mid-’80s, and he had a project called Control Songs, and he did an album for this label, Review Records. The director of the label, Jürgen, said, “How would you like to do something?” I said, “I’d love to.” I’d never released a solo album of my own except for a cassette-only release. So, Scenes from a Mirage was the result of that.
A lot of the music on there was written for Zero Moving Company Dance company, like “Dining in the Rough, in the Buff.” “Mounted on the Fairground’s Magic Horses” was written for Maureen Williams, who, again, later became Maureen Fleming. “A Wakening” was also written for the same piece for Zero Moving Company. It was choreographed by Karen Bamonte for a piece called “The Attic.” “And Then There Were None” is another. “Old Woman Who Dances with the Sea” was also written for Maureen Williams. The only one in there that’s metrically unusual is “And Then There Were None,” which is in 5/4, but the others are pretty straightforward. (I guess those mixed meters came later in my development or my undevelopment, whatever you want to call it.) “The Flying Pipe Organ (for four accordions)” was, as it says on the album, suggested by reading the memoirs of “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who talks about entering the province of Xi’an in China and hearing this amazing sound overhead, which to him sounded like a flying pipe organ, but it was this: citizens of the city would tie these little bamboo whistles to the tail feathers of pigeons. That’s so aesthetically beautiful that they would do that, just to create something beautiful in the air. That image stuck with me, and so I wrote this piece with it in mind.
With Scenes from a Mirage, I decided that I wanted to write a piece in tribute to the soundtrack scores that I’ve loved over these many years. The approach of the soundtrack, the old-fashioned soundtrack, was to introduce a theme and then write it in a different style depending on what was going on in the movie at the time. So this is an imaginary film that I wrote a soundtrack for. I don’t have any images in my mind for the film, but that’s the way I decided to develop it, and it was written after my first contact with John Zorn. John Zorn will be the first to admit that he has a short attention span — at least he did in those days — and with him, changes would come a mile a minute, a mile a second, and they’d be radically, almost more like jump cuts than segues, and so that really influenced this piece.
AC: John Zorn seems to have a unique ability to multitask on multiple levels.
GK: Without my contact with John Zorn, Scenes from a Mirage would never have existed, and that was a revelation for me.
AC: All for accordion?
GK: I would also say that all these pieces were specifically written for the instrument I was playing at the time, which was a dedicated free bass accordion, which means that the buttons in the left hand were only single notes; there were no preset chords.
Over the course of my life, I’ve played three different kinds of instruments. My very first instrument was a traditional accordion, a piano accordion with what’s called a Stradella bass or standard bass, which is arranged in the cycle of fifths with major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords and two rows of bass notes. I played that until I was twenty years old. In my late teens, I heard a couple of incredible classical players at competitions playing transcriptions of classical pieces like Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” and I couldn’t believe what they were doing in the left hand. I asked my teacher at the time, “How are they doing that?” He said, “Oh, they’re playing this thing called a free bass.” So, somehow, I convinced my dad into buying me one, and this whole album was written for a five row free bass accordion, where the fourth and fifth row are repeats of the first two rows for ease of fingering, and I played that for years. So that was my second kind of instrument.
Eventually, when I went on tour, I decided I could only tour with one instrument, and I decided that the free bass was kind of like playing with one hand tied behind my back because a large part of my repertoire and my childhood was based on the standard bass accordion. I started playing a converter accordion, which has both systems involved in it, and I still play a converter to this day, but also, I have in my accordion room a Stradella bass accordion with different kinds of tuning systems.
AC: You have the most unique titles. When we look at this gigantic box of recordings, I can’t think of another artist who has more creative titles for their work than Guy Klucevsek. Where does that come from?
GK: You ever seen Henry Threadgill’s titles? “Too Much Sugar for a Dime,” or something like that? His are pretty creative, too. I think mine rely maybe a little too heavily on the pun, but actually, I don’t always know where they come from. Sometimes the music comes first and suggests a title, sometimes I hear something or mishear something and I write it down in a book, and the music for it comes years and years later when I write something. I go, “Oh! That’s that piece.”
In these titles in Scenes from a Mirage, it’s obvious to anyone my age—which is not that many people anymore—but that’s from the Ingmar Bergman series, Scenes from a Marriage, about the dissolution of a marriage. The mirage for me was the imaginary film I was writing the score for. As for the other titles… like I told you, I have a list of twenty to thirty titles I still haven’t written pieces for. My favorite is “Icicle Repair Shop,” because I’m hard of hearing and when I heard that on the radio, I thought I heard Tim’s Icicle Repair Shop, and I wrote it down immediately. Others, god only knows. “The Wakening” was the title of one just because it was the first piece in The Attic, and it was about kind of these mementos in an attic in someone’s house, awakening or re-awakening the characters’ childhoods. On the other hand, “Old Woman who Dances with the Sea” is actually kind of poetic. My poetic titles have been few and far between.
AC: What about “And Then There Were None”?
GK: This was literally for a game of musical chairs, so I would stop the music in an unpredictable place and it would change every performance. The dancers wouldn’t know when I would stop, so there was an element of improvisation. At the end, there was nobody left and it was kind of a takeoff on an Agatha Christie title. As we get to the other albums, I can talk about where some of the other titles came from, but they come from all over the place: mishearing things, a terrible propensity for puns, and the subconscious.
AC: Well, it’s humor and I think that’s a real sign of genius.
GK: For a long time I was afraid to let that in, because in classical music, humor was often associated with not being serious. But the thing that I eventually came to realize is that writers do it all the time. Philip Roth can be hilarious and one sentence later break your heart. James Joyce, same thing. Writers have never been afraid to use tragedy and comedy in the same mixture, but for some reason, classical composers think that—let’s say, by and large, as a trend —that you can’t do that, and I thought, why not? Humor is a part of my personality, why should I have to throw all that away when I walk onstage and when I sit down to write a piece? Am I supposed to sit down and all of a sudden become serious?
Well, sometimes I’m writing tributes for departed friends and I’m not going to make fun of them; I’m going to write from the heart and I’m going to try to write a title that honors them. But other times, if I write something light—for example, I just wrote something, a slow bluesy piece that I called “Gringo Star,” and I wrote it for a beautiful accordion player called Dallas Vietty. He said, ‘May I ask you where that title came from?” And I said, “Yes,” and I said, “I see myself as a gringo many times because I write pieces in genres that I’ve never covered.” I write pieces in the style of Eastern European accordion music, Balkan music, Cajun, Tex-Mex, musette. I’ve never covered any of those styles, so in some ways I think of myself as a gringo, but because I’ve never played any of those tunes, I can take a fresh look at them and just write in my style being influenced by them. The “star” part came because as soon as I saw the word “Gringo,” “star” came out, and it’s a Star with just one “r.”
I just wrote another piece, a kind of klezmer barn-burner for Alan Bern, my dear, dear friend who’s a fantastic player, and it’s called “Feel the Bern,” B-E-R-N. So sometimes the titles come from the person I’m writing for.
“Eleven Large Lobsters Loose in the Lobby” is an all-percussion piece which has many clicks in it, from the register switches, and I was practicing it one day and I said, “Oh, this sounds like a lobster’s claws clicking together,” and it’s in 11, and so then the alliteration, “Eleven Large Lobsters Loose in the Lobby” came. When I used to play it in Europe, I knew no one would understand the title because every country has a different name for a lobster. So I would always ask the presenter to translate it into the local language for me. First I would say the title in English, and then I would try to say it in the local language, and people would crack up, and I never knew if it was because they understood it or because of my accent trying to say it! But they appreciate the effort, you know.
AC: You know, Guy, my three most memorable musical experiences have involved you. In reverse order: The duo you did with Alan Bern in Philadelphia many years ago that went on for two hours and when you were finished, I wished you could have played for two more hours, it was just so exceptional. The second was in approximately 1995: Relâche played “Stolen Memories” at Merkin, and it was one of the most extraordinary pieces I’ve ever heard.
The third and probably the most memorable was “Polka from the Fringe,” first presented onstage at Revival, the rock music nightclub, during New Music America ’87. At the time I knew you only as a very serious man, and then I saw a completely different side of Guy Klucevsek. I was going to wait until later for this, but since you mentioned going from serious to whimsical, I thought we’d discuss “Polka from the Fringe” now.
GK: Sure. Well, the origin of it is that there used to be something called New Music America, which used to move from city to city in the ’80s. In 1985, I believe it was in Miami. [NMA ’85 was in Los Angeles and Houston in ’86 and Miami in ‘88. It’s possible that Guy is referring to Houston, not Miami. –ed]
Yvar Mikhashoff, the late pianist, was doing his collection of waltzes which he had commissioned from people, and I was sitting next to my dear friend Lois V Vierk. After a couple of pieces, she turned to me and she said, “You know what you should do?” And I looked at her and I said, “Polkas!” And she was right, and it turned out I was right, so I started asking the composers I had been working with in the various genres of music to write them.
A lot of these composers were people I had met in the Cobra band of John Zorn’s, like Anthony Coleman. Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp were from the free improv scene. (Elliott Sharp, it turned out, had already written a polka called “Happy Chappie,” so when I asked him, he said, “Well, I wrote one,” and I heard it and it was so fantastic, I said, OK, just let me cover that one. So that was the only cover tune.) Lois V Vierk, Mary Jane Leach, and Mary Ellen Childs were from the New Music scene. Carl Finch I knew from the alternative music scene—he was in Brave Combo, a band that I loved, and he actually knew what a polka was. He had also written many of them, and I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but “Prairie Dogs” is one of my favorite songs in my entire collection. David Mahler, who I knew from CalArts, was from the new music side of things. Peter Garland I knew from the CalArts scene. David Garland I knew from Control Songs, so he was from the art rock scene, the free improv scene, the new music scene. And I had written a couple of polkas myself. So that was the origin of that.
Revival at New Music America ’87 in Philadelphia was the premiere of that collection, although some people who shall remain nameless hadn’t finished their pieces yet, so I couldn’t play them on that concert. Still, that was one of the highlights of my life. Not only because of the collection, but because it was played in a, can I call it a dive?
AC: Revival was a converted bank…
GK: …and audience was a New Music America audience, which means it was people who came to the festival to hear new music, most of which was quote unquote serious. So the audience was loaded with composers.
But there was a bar as well. The bar reminded me of the kind of places that I had spent most of my childhood playing in. And people had had a few drinks, so they were loose. It was late at night, and I got in touch with my childhood self and I just let it all hang out.
Plus, the pieces themselves. Some of them were serious, but the thing is that, because these composers were from all over the map, they took the serious ones on their own terms and the ones that were lighter they just laughed and had a good time with. The one I particularly remember is when I played my own contribution, “The Grass is Blue, Ain’t Nothing but a Polka.” It starts off in 2/4 and then at one point, I pull in a polyrhythm and the audience was clapping in 2/4, and things kind of fell apart, audience-wise, when they tried to keep that going while I was playing 3 against it. I remember just saying at the time, “Ha! Got you, didn’t I?” Because I loved the idea that all these terrific musicians weren’t able to keep the polyrhythm going, you know? It was a magical evening in every respect and it was one of the highlights of my life.
AC: It certainly was for me, too. You ripped off your “wife-beater”-type shirts and made a remark that you attributed to Charles Mingus.
GK: Charles Mingus said, “If the white man wants to develop something, he should develop the polka.”
AC: And then you tore your shirt off! It was raucous; people still talk about that evening. And then, of course, Polka from the Fringe went on to great acclaim at BAM, but that was the first performance.
Let’s move on then to the next recording from your long list, and this is a really important one, Manhattan Cascade. Unlike on Mirage, you brought in other composers for this work and, frankly, it’s some really fancy artwork. You had Christian Marclay do your design work for the collateral material. What are your recollections of Manhattan Cascade?
GK: Well, let’s work backwards. The artwork by Christian: I met Christian in the Cobra project. He was working with turntables for that piece, and I knew him to be a brilliant visual artist as well, so I asked him to do the design for me. Fortunately for me he said yes, and yes, it is extraordinarily beautiful.
As with Polka from the Fringe, the people on this album are people I met in various contexts. John Zorn, I met at New Music America 1984 in Hartford. They were doing one of his game pieces, “Rugby,” and I went up to him afterwards and said, “That was absolutely extraordinary. If you ever have an ensemble piece where you think me or the accordion would be appropriate, I would love to do it,” and he said, “I’ve been a big fan of yours for years, and I will definitely give you a call.” And then the next year he wrote “Cobra” and I was in that piece.
During the Cobra tour, I asked him, “Will you write me a solo?” “Road Runner” was the result, and I am so happy about that for many reasons. One, it’s a great piece. Two, I’ve recorded it several times. It’s one of the most beautiful scores I have because he pasted in some of the cartoons from the original Road Runner cartoons. And three, I think it’s been recorded by other artists at least three times. It’s one of the few pieces that I’ve asked people to write for me that has become a standard part of the accordion repertoire, and that doesn’t happen very often, so I’m very proud that I had the guts to ask him and so thankful that he said yes.
Anthony Coleman was in the Cobra band. John King, I knew from the scene. Lois V Vierk, I met at a concert of her music at Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia Foundation. I remember specifically the piece: it was Malcolm Goldstein playing her multiple violin piece, “Crane with 1,000 Wings,” and I found out that night that we lived near each other in Brooklyn. We took the F train back to our neighborhood and I said, “Lois, I would love if you would write a piece for me.” And she said, “I would love to do that,” and “Manhattan Cascade” became the result.
Christian Marclay’s “Ping Pong Polka” was written for the Polka from the Fringe collection, as was Mary Ellen Child’s “Oa Poa Polka.” Rolf Groesbeck I knew from the Downtown Ensemble in New York, which was an ensemble I played in with Daniel Goode and William Hellermann. They formed that band, and Rolf was one of the composers associated with that band. Aaron Jay Kernis, I knew from Philadelphia, playing with Relâche Joseph Franklin had been one of his earliest composition teachers, and I met Aaron probably through Joseph.
So, all of these composers I asked were through personal connections. I had met them at some point, rather than just reaching out at random and saying “Would you write me a piece?” They were all people I knew personally, and that’s my favorite way.
And these were all free bass pieces as well, I’m seeing on the album here. It says “Guy Klucevsek, free bass accordion,” so these were written for that same Giulietti, dedicated five-row free bass accordion. What year was this recording? 1992. Yes, so I was still playing that instrument at that time, although most of these were recorded probably around 1990 or 1991.
AC: You mentioned Phill Niblock. Next up in your discography is Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse, which was released on Phill’s label, Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Let’s talk about that.
GK: There are some solos on that album, but it’s mostly an ensemble album. “Union Hall” is a piece for accordion, clarinet doubling sax, and bass, and I wrote it for a choreographer, Mark Taylor. “Fez Up” is also an ensemble piece. “Loosening Up the Queen” I wrote for Gregory Whitehead, a radio artist who was partners with Karen Bamonte at the time. The queen I’m referring to in the title is the Titanic; Whitehead had written a radio drama or a radio piece about the sinking of the Titanic. I also expanded this piece and used it as a dance piece for Angela Caponigro. “Waltzing Above Ground,” “Reprieve,” and “Perusal” were written for a piece by Karen Bamonte. “Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse” I think was written for Karen as well. Those are all ensemble pieces.
“Blue Window” is accordion and saxophone, and that was created from a sketch that I found by Teiji Ito, a dear friend and beautiful composer, after his death. It was a sketch and a recording of him playing the “Blue Danube” waltz with an old chord organ and a melody instrument over it, so I wrote a set of theme and variations incorporating some of that, and it became sort of a three-contribution piece: one by Johann Strauss Jr., one by Teiji Ito, and one by myself. And the band version of the “Grass, That Is Blue (Ain’t Nothing but a Polka),” was also an ensemble piece.
AC: “Blue Window” was a cassette that you released before Mirage.
AC: And that was produced by Elliott Sharp, and that’s where you first introduced “Blue Window,” this wonderful three-part piece.
GK: And “Road Runner” as well. But that was different; I can’t remember if that was the same recording or a different one. John Zorn produced the original recording of “Road Runner.” The piece was brand-new and I’d never played it live, so the way we recorded it was on four channel tape bouncing back between tracks 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. There are like fifty-two or fifty-three separate little pieces of music in it, always played in the same sequence, but they’re each a few seconds long; I’d play the first one and we’d stop, wind the tape back, and play back the first one and I would jump into the second segment on tracks 3 and 4, and we would bounce back and forth, and so the whole thing was really a studio recording.
And after I played it for years and years and years, it took on a whole different personality because it breathed more. When you play live, you’re more patient with the material and the audience is more patient watching all the physical stuff you have to do to produce it, whereas in a recording: bang bang bang bang bang. There’s no down time as a listener because you get so easily distracted when you’re sitting in your living room listening to recordings, so I decided to re-record it again years later after having played it live. That was a live performance in the studio.
AC: What was the Cobra experience like? There were some interesting collaborators that you work with on Cobra.
GK: It was wonderful. It led me to decades-long friendships and collaborations. Anthony Coleman was in that band, and I ended up being in a band with him called By Night. We made a recording of that at some point and played live with him at several points. John Zorn used to introduce the guitar section as the greatest guitar section in the world. It was Elliott Sharp, Bill Frisell…
AC: You have Bobby Previte, who produced your Polka from the Fringe records.
GK: Yes, he produced those and I was also in a band of his for a recording, Claude’s Late Morning. Jim Staley was also in that band, and I ended up having a very long relationship with him, which goes to this day with Roulette. They’ve been so good to me; I’ve played at the various Roulette spaces many, many, many times—probably more than any other space in the New York area.
AC: Carol Emanuel was the harp player….
GK: …And she commissioned me to write a piece for her CD Tops of Trees. Bill Frisell was in the band, and he invited me to join his band for a recording called Have a Little Faith, and then we toured with that band, with Don Byron and Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. Talk about a band! Arto Lindsay was the third member of the guitar section.
There was also Christian Marclay, who, as we mentioned, did the art work for the CRI recording. That relationship was kind of dormant for many decades, and then, just a few years ago, Christian had a sound and visual exhibit at the Whitney, where people would be brought in to play his scores. I was in residence there for several weeks, playing one of his scores. So when he was asked to do this major, monumental exhibit at the Whitney, he called me and asked if I would do that, and I was happy to do that.
Zeena Parkins was also in the Cobra band. I don’t think that we collaborated after this project, but through Zeena, I met her sisters: Maggie Parkins, cellist, and her sister, Sara, and they become the violinist and cellist in my Bantam Orchestra eventually. The first version of the Bantam Orchestra was Erik Friedlander on cello and Mary Rowell on violin and viola, but when it came to touring, those two were so busy that I couldn’t seem to be able to arrange a tour, so I approached Sara and Margaret. I heard them play a concert at Roulette and I was very impressed by their playing, and I asked them if they would join me on a tour.
Cobra introduced me to a whole scene in New York that I was unaware of and that I probably wouldn’t have discovered, except through that New Music America ’84 experience, what with hearing John Zorn’s “Rugby” and introducing myself. I’m a very shy guy, and doing that took an act of will which I’ve never regretted and led to some relationships which go on to this day, and we had a great time.
AC: I could imagine. What was it like playing in Cobra?
GK: Part of the fascination was that the person who was sitting upfront was almost a conduit for the improvisation. In “Rugby,” for example, Bobby Previte was what they called the prompter, and Bobby’s role in this piece was to let the ensemble know what a particular band member called as the next thing that should be done.
Zorn provided a kind of menu of items, like Play faster, Play louder, Play genre music, Play solo. People would have their hand raised while they were playing one thing to say, “Oh, I have an idea what we should do next.” Bobby had to choose a person, and then either Bobby or the band member, I can’t remember which, would decide who would play the next thing. Like it could be a duo, it could be a trio, it could be the full band, and sometimes you’d be playing the loudest thing you could possibly play on earth, and somebody would raise their hand with the signal, “Play louder.” And so Bobby would have to tell the whole band to play even louder than we were already playing! It allowed for so much spontaneity, and there was a lot of noise. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of racket, but it was a lot of fun. That’s probably where my hearing loss began in 1985 or 1986 or whatever it was, but I don’t regret a minute of it. It was great fun.
AC: You mentioned Roulette and what an important relationship you had there. On a recording called A Confederacy of Dances, Volume 1, you’re featured along with some of the people you’ve mentioned already. The piece you contributed was “Sylvan Steps.”
GK: Yes, “Sylvan Steps” was a piece I wrote while in residency at the Djerassi Foundation in California. It was inspired by a sculpture out there of a series of wooden steps which led nowhere. The sculpture was in the middle of this beautiful forested area, and I think the sculptor was David Nash. It inspired me, and I went back to the studio and started working on the piece, and it became a string trio as part of a piece I wrote for Angela Caponigro.
It’s one of the few ensemble pieces I’ve written without an accordion. When I finished it, I played the piano version on the grand piano in the studio, and a number of people said that it reminded them of Aaron Copland, who had just died recently.
AC: He had died perhaps just the day before.
GK: So I dedicated “Sylvan Steps” to him. That knowledge must have been in my subconscious, because he was and remains to this day one of my favorite composers. If I had to take just a couple of recordings with me to a desert island for the rest of my life, “Appalachian Spring” would be one of the pieces that I would take with me.
AC: For me, the thirteen-instrument version is just so extraordinary. Have you heard that?
GK: It’s gorgeous. But I’d take that or the conventional orchestrated version, either one.
AC: It’s one of the great pieces. And you played Copland with Bill Frisell.
GK: Yes, “Billy the Kid.” We played some Charles Ives as well.
AC: Before we talk about the next sequence of recordings, I’d like to discuss for a moment your compositional approach. I think of you as an accordionist, but in Teiji Ito’s notes on the recording of King Ubu, he said that he had you playing many other instruments. Is the accordion your only instrument? And how do you write? Do you write on piano? Do you write with the accordion in your arms? Do you use a paper and pencil? Computer? How does this magic actually take place?
GK: It’s pretty much yes to everything, except that I basically do not play other instruments. I mean, I have played other instruments, but I wouldn’t pay to hear myself play the other instruments. I use the piano as a composer tool. I have no left hand; the keyboard is the same as my right hand, but I have no feeling for the touch. I used to compose on the accordion, though not exclusively.
You know, accordion’s one of the few instruments — I always get a chuckle out of this —where people will ask you if you play anything else. They’ll say, “Is accordion the only thing you play?”
AC: Well, it’s a whole orchestra. You’re playing an orchestra, frankly.
GK: Yes, I know that’s what you mean when you ask me that, but when most people ask me, it’s like when you’re an actor but nobody’s ever heard of you. “But what do you do? Oh, you’re an actor, but what do you really do?”
The accordion is the only instrument that I play with any degree of facility. I started it when I was six years old or so. When I went to high school, I did play tuba for many years, and I think that’s where I got my facility with writing bass lines. I got tired of playing “one, five” all the time on tuba, so I started learning, running bass lines.
AC: We spoke briefly about the two recordings from Polka from the Fringe. I’d like to jump ahead to the Stolen Memories record, that signature tune. Could we talk a little bit about the group? You talked a little earlier about having worked with Mary Rowell and Eric Friedlander and then recruiting this other fine-looking group of players. Could you, as you recall this mid-’90s recording, provide your recollections of Stolen Memories?
GK: You know what recording is missing from here? Citrus, My Love. That came earlier.
AC: Sorry, you’re quite right. We should start with Citrus, My Love.
GK: That was the first Bantam Orchestra. The first iteration of the Bantam Orchestra had fantastic musicians: Mary Rowell on violin and viola and the amazing Erik Friedlander on cello. This recording came out on the RecRec music label of Switzerland in about 1991 or so.
I have some very good news, which is that Starkland is going to reissue this. We don’t have a set date, but Tom Steenland was here visiting and said, “I have a favor to ask you,” and I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “I would like to release Citrus, My Love,” and I said, “I would be so honored.”
Citrus, My Love is one of my favorite recordings because I think that the music on it is so personal and heart-on-the-sleeve. It’s from a period when I was transitioning from being a hardcore, take-no-prisoners minimalist to somebody who was working more with melody and rhythm. The score from 1990, the title track, “Citrus My Love,” is a quite lengthy piece in three parts, eight scenes, three parts. It’s over twenty minutes long. It was written for the choreographer Stuart Pimsler, and the title is his. And it uses a lot of those long tones that I talk about, but they form melodies.
The opening melody is like [sings melody], and later on in the piece, it’s going [sings part], moving very fast. “Citrus” is kind of the transitional piece because of those two styles, as is “Patience and Thyme,” which I did with piano and three strings. That was a piece that I wrote for my fifteenth wedding anniversary with Jan. We just celebrated our fiftieth, so I guess I owe her another piece.
AC: So you’re going to stay together, then?
GK: So far the jury’s still out, but it looks good!
“Passage North” is a suite of three pieces that I wrote for Angela Caponigro’s dance company, and the prologue and processional are deceptively simple because the accompaniment is in 2/4, but the melody is in 5/4. It’s one of my first examples of putting two very simple things together to form something very complicated, because first you hear the long, short short, long, short short, and you go, “Oh, this is in 2/4.” Then the melody comes in on top of it, and it’s in 5/4, so the melody will end in the middle of a measure and start up again.
I just loved the complexity, but it’s not only for complexity’s sake. I love the sand in the perfect painting, you know? It’s like a little dirt in the works. I think this came from falling in love with the first work of Steve Reich’s that I heard. Morton Subotnick was a composition teacher, and one of his seminars for us, he played “Come Out,” which is simply the phrase “Come Out to Show Them,” which is gradually moved out of phrase with itself, and he formed an entire piece out of that just being the only source material. And what starts out as a very simple declarative sentence becomes this incredibly complex and rich sonic landscape.
AC: A wonderful piece.
GK: I love it. And I learned a great lesson from that, which is that you don’t need a great, by which I mean grand, exposition. You can start with very simple materials and never introduce any other materials and make a very beautiful piece out of that. So just taking a 2/4 accompaniment that pretty much stays the same all the way throughout the piece, and a melody in 5/4, and creating variations on that melody, can be a piece in and of itself.
Then “Sylvan Steps,” which is the string trio, is kind of a piece of Americana. I consider it probably the most Americana piece that I’ve ever written, but at the time, pretty much anything that had a melody and a more traditional harmonic sense would be considered to be Americana, because it’s a kind of chamber folk music, you know? Like the way Bill Frisell can turn folk music into jazz, just because he’s covering the tune in his own language. But many jazz artists have done that, and that can be the beauty of jazz, taking any tune and playing it with your own personality. And “Sylvan Steps” became my way of doing that.
AC: Beautiful piece.
GK: Thank you.
“Ceremonial” is what I would call a very process-oriented piece. It starts with a very simple melody and gradually adds voices and builds up into a huge texture and then winds itself back down. I just recently listened to this album from beginning to end for probably the first time in more than twenty-five years, because I do not sit around listening to my own music. I spend all day composing it, and the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is listen to any more of it, but I just did because a friend wrote to me and said that she had listened to the music and, after all these decades, she still found it beautiful. So, I thought I’d go back and give it a listen and I actually cried, thinking, “Wow, I wrote that!”
Because my music is so different now, and I actually forgot that I wrote music like this. It’s not that I am not happy with what I’m writing now, but when you look back on your whole life and you see the scope of the way you worked and your creativity… I was so proud that I had turned out that music at that point in my life. So it’s a personal favorite.
I can’t choose what’s a better piece, what’s a worse piece, what’s a better album, what’s a worse album, because they’re all my babies. It’s just a personal favorite; it’s one of the closest to my heart, is what I would say.
For Stolen Memories, we had Sara Parkins on violin; her twin sister Margaret Parkins on cello; Achim Tang, a beautiful Austrian bass player from Vienna on bass; and myself on accordion and piano, and I think I play melodica on one piece. We toured first with the material, and then we went into the studio to make the album, which is commercial suicide. You’re supposed to do the opposite.
So this is much more of a tune-based album, although some of the pieces were written for dance, too. “Rumbling” is a very sonically oriented piece in the low registers with a lot of glissandos. “The Gunks” is named after a mountain range in upstate New York; I called it “The Gunks” because, at first, I came up with like “The Bumps” or “The Peaks” or something. I was trying to think of something jagged, and then a friend of mine said, “Well, you know there’s a mountain range called ‘The Gunks,’” and I said, “Oh, that’s it.” That’s art.
“Urban Rite” was written for Helmut Gottschild for one of his dance pieces, and it’s in an odd meter. It’s in 11, but it’s very chromatic and it’s kind of in a swing rhythm, so it’s a kind of jazz chamber music, because it’s played by classical musicians but the language of it is jazz.
“Wave Hill” is one of my favorite pieces, and I would say it’s probably one of my most covered pieces. It’s been used in a lot of film scores, documentary films, and a lot of people have played it in many different orchestrations. That was written for a dance piece by Victoria Marks for a dance series at Wave Hill, which is a botanic garden up in the Riverdale section of New York, and it’s also a process piece. We did this with the Accordion Tribe, too. We recorded it with them and I did it as a piece for four accordions, and it’s just a very simple melody that builds on itself. It’s one of my favorite pieces.
“Tesknota” is a piece I wrote for Present Music in Milwaukee. It grew out of a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and we did it for a workshop concert, where the audience would just come and hear the work in progress. It had no title, and after we played the piece for the audience, a woman came up to me and said, “You know, there’s a word in Polish, tesknota, that really captures the feeling of that piece,” and I said, “What does that mean?” and she said, “A sorrowful longing.” I said, “Can you give me an example?” She said, “It’s the feeling you have when you’ve left your homeland.” And John Cage had died recently, and I admired him so much, and so loved his philosophy and his early piano music and his string quartet music and his whole being, that I dedicated it to him.
“Stolen Memories,” a piece that you’ve already mentioned as being one of your particular favorites, was a way of me trying to combine the phasing technique of Steve Reich with a kind of genre tune, and it has a kind of a Middle Eastern feeling with the melody.
AC: Wasn’t it from a tune you heard on the African radio?
GK: Oh, yeah. I haven’t been sued yet, but yes, it’s a melody I heard on the radio, an African melody, and then I wrote a B section to it. Oftentimes, in order to be able to live with myself when I steal a melody, I create my own B section to the tune and I say, “Oh, but I wrote the B section.”
AC: You’ve obviously transformed the melody in an amazing way.
GK: Thank you. It starts off very simply, but then it’s played in a canon: one voice, the same melody played over itself. A canon is like, a measure or something like that. This is at the beat. I think the first time I do it, it’s like three beats apart, then it’s two beats apart, and then it’s like an eighth note apart, so your head starts to spin, you know? Because it’s like going through a revolving door. And you have a continual experience where you don’t know where you are in the door and you forget to get out in the lobby and you end up going around a couple of times. It always used to make my head spin trying to play that piece; it’s very difficult to play even though the notes are very easy.
You asked about humor in titles, and the next one is called “Donut Ask, Donut Tell,” which is one of my few attempts at lyric writing. I was sitting in a place that, at the time, was called Country Donuts, which is right down on the Kill van Kull right here in Staten Island, and looking out the window and seeing a barge pass by carrying tons of garbage on it. That inspired the lyrics about a Coast Guard Cutter going downstream, an oil spill it would seem, and the “Donut Ask, Donut Tell” is from the Bill Clinton policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so it’s a way of combining politics with donuts. Politicians have to generally eat a lot of donuts while they’re on the campaign trail, and who doesn’t like a donut? And, like a donut, that policy has a huge hole in.
“Regunkitation” is a retake on “The Gunks” at a much faster tempo, with Guy screaming and yelling on top of it here and there. “Skating on Thin Air” is a re-take of the first track, “Rumbling,” about a hundred and fifty octaves higher in the stratosphere of the accordion and violin harmonics. And that is the story of Stolen Memories and that band.
We had so much fun touring. First of all, the Parkins sisters at that time were living on opposite coasts. Sara was in New York and Margaret was living in LA. Nowadays they both live in LA, but they didn’t get to spend that much time together, so when we were on tour, they were inseparable. I had never seen twins hanging out together, and I’m an only child. To see the love between them and the affection and how different they were… My favorite was the nightly routine of ordering food at a restaurant. We would have a sound check, so we had like forty-five minutes to order the food, eat, and get out of there. Me and Achim, the bass player, and Margaret, the cellist, would have our food chosen in thirty seconds. Ten minutes later, Sara would still be trying to figure out what she should have. At the time I would be angry, but then later I would just laugh like hell, because it was so funny. Here were twins, but their personalities were so different and they got along so beautifully. It was just a lovely and loving, beautiful relationship, and seeing it from the outside was something wonderful. It was the first time that I toured with a band that had as many women as men, and it had such a nice vibe.
AC: You’re on record as having a deep affinity for Morton Feldman’s work, along with Steve Reich’s “Come Out.” To the best of my knowledge, you’ve never recorded Feldman, but you mentioned there’s no need for exposition in composition. What was it about Feldman and what influences has he had on your work, if any?
GK: It was the sheer abstract beauty of it. I have a particular love for abstract art. It doesn’t have to be abstract—there’s narrative art, pictorial art, realism that I love, too—but I love the work of Jackson Pollock, I love the work of Robert Rauschenberg, I love many artists from that period. I could sit and stare at a Jackson Pollock painting for an hour, and I’ve done so at MoMa and the Met, just stared at them for hours. Rauschenberg’s work, the mixed media and the three-dimensionality of it—his work makes me smile.
AC: He’s probably laughing at you as he’s creating it.
GK: Maybe, but we laugh with him when we see it!
GK: Feldman never wrote a piece for accordion, and his music probably isn’t suitable for arranging or transcribing, because he was such a beautiful orchestrator. He was so specific for instruments. I did meet him, though. I played in Buffalo many times during Lukas Foss’s tenure with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and also with SUNY Buffalo. SUNY Buffalo had a program and an organization there, which had resident artists like Julius Eastman, and Foss was part of that as well.
AC: They were a hotbed, yeah.
GK: And they would do concerts at the Albright-Knox art gallery, and I remember we had dinner at Renee Levine’s house with Morton Feldman there. I asked him about writing a piece for me. He said, “I would love to write a piece for accordion, double bass, and voice, but the vocalist has to be Joan La Barbara,” and I said, “Well, that sounds great to me!” And he wrote it right there that day or the next day. He wrote a sketch of a few measures and it already looked beautiful, but for whatever reason, it never came to fruition.
But another thing I learned from him then is, I said, “I’d be happy to demonstrate my instrument for you.” He said, “That’s not the way I write music. I imagine the music and then we find a way to realize it.” I’ve also talked to people who took orchestration with him, and they said that one of the things he would them start off with was an exercise, like, “OK, write something very simple, and then I want you to orchestrate it by breaking all the rules.” He would say, “Make the bass play everything in the high register. Make the flute play everything in the low register. Make the clarinet play everything in the middle register where nothing is supposed to resonate.” And so he had them learn orchestration by breaking all the rules.
There’s a lesson to be learned from that. Yes, you can master elements and expand the rules, but part of the beauty of his music is ignoring rules and using his own imagination as to what’s possible. Then, over time, players learn how to make that part of the vocabulary. You know, like those opening bassoon notes of the Rite of Spring. When the bassoonist sight-read that part, he must have thought Stravinsky was absolutely out of his mind and didn’t know what the heck he was doing. But now, people audition on bassoon playing that, and every bassoonist of orchestral caliber can play that solo and it’s one of the most revered solos in the bassoon repertoire, you know?
Also, here’s one of the things that I learned from the John Williams sessions, recording film scores with him. We would run through something and he would say to the horn section, “I’m really sorry. That horn writing is really difficult and impossible, but I know if we do three takes, we can get it!” So he knew that he was asking them to do something unreasonable, but he also knew that because they were playing for the recording medium, they could get it in a couple takes. When he put it that way, all the horn players relaxed. And when you relax, it relaxes your embouchure muscles, too. So he’s a psychologist as well as a brilliant composer and conductor. You learn something when you hang around people who know what the heck they’re doing.
AC: You’ve raised the topic of touring, and you’ve toured with some interesting characters. You mentioned Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, Cobra. Are there any stories you’d like to recall from those experiences?
GK: I learned a great deal from playing in Dave Douglas’s band, Charms of the Night Sky, and playing Cobra, and working with John Zorn on other projects. One of the primary things I learned from those two is that, Dave Douglas, I would say, and I think that he would agree, the focus of his career is as a bandleader, and that’s never been the focus of my career. It’s mostly been as a soloist and having an occasional band, and so being a bandleader and having a band and writing for a band is a special art. What I admired so much about Dave is that, like Ellington, he wrote specifically for the players and that band: Mark Feldman on violin, Greg Cohen on bass, Dave on trumpet, and myself.
AC: What a group!
GK: Every night that we played, every recording, every minute of every recording session, was an honor and a pleasure. So was listening to how Dave wrote parts for us and gave us room to be ourselves. Now, Mark and Dave are prolific and amazing improvisers, so Dave was very generous in giving Mark space, and he also, you know, wrote featured tunes for Mark. I don’t just mean sections of a piece that featured Mark, but specific tunes for him.
Now, improvising in a jazz style is not my specialty. I’m not a jazz musician, I don’t pretend to be, I’ve never studied jazz chord changes. If I see something that says D7 sharp 9 minus 13, it’s not a springboard—it’s a stop sign. But Charms of the Night Sky was like a chamber jazz group. and he wrote for my specialty. I could read notes well, I could play in odd meters, and I didn’t play in a lot of bands, so my time was not always as solid as the others, but I learned how to play time in that band. I had to learn how to play time in that band because we didn’t have a drummer. Greg Cohen can lay down an incredible groove.
AC: What a man, he’s something else, that guy’s resume…
GK: Amazing. Who can play with Ornette Coleman and Tom Waits?
AC: Not to mention Woody Allen, and all the others.
GK: And keep all three jobs. Yeah, he’s incredible. So, that experience was incredible, powerful, and humbling, to be surrounded by those three guys every night. Also, as you and many others have noted, I’m generally considered to have a sense of humor. When I was touring in that band, I was in fourth place in the humor department. Mark Feldman and Dave and Greg are non-stop and they are funny as hell. Mark with the jazz humor, Dave with the everything humor, and Greg with the puns. I would just have to keep my mouth shut, it would be like walking on the bandstand with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ornette Coleman and deciding when to sit in and show them how to be done. I said, “Not only am I not going to do that, I ain’t getting nowhere near that bandstand and I’m not even bringing my instrument,” and I would just shut up and just like—
AC: Let ’em roll.
GK: Let ’em roll, and every once in a while, when there was a moment—well, first of all, there was almost never a moment because they were always coming up with something. If it was quiet for more than thirty seconds, I would stick in something and maybe I would come up with a good one. Anyway, they’re all funny as hell and it was really a fun band to hang out with.
And Bill Frisell. If somebody offers you a chance to play in a band with Bill Frisell on guitar and compositions and arrangements, Don Byron on clarinet, Joey Baron on drums, and Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, and you say no, you’ve got to be crazy. I am crazy, but I said yes anyway and it was a wonderful experience. All of them, without exception, are brilliant improvisers. I was, as I said with Dave’s band, honored to be there, thrilled to be there night after night, and humbled to be there, to be surrounded by such incredible talent.
The opportunities to play in both bands were two honors of my lifetime, and they came about in some ways by chance. The opportunity with Bill came because I met him in Cobra; but years and years and years went by before he had the idea, between Cobra and the Have a Little Faith album, which was the project that became the touring album, with music of Copland and Charles Ives and his own and folk tunes and Bob Dylan. Dave, I met at a house concert sponsored by Kenny Wollesen in the late ’90s. Kenny had a place on Columbia Street in Brooklyn before it was a hip place to live. Kenny had a loft there, invited me to do a concert. I did a solo concert, and this gentleman walks up to me and says, “Hi, my name’s Dave Douglas. I’m a composer and trumpet player. I really enjoyed your set. Would you like to play together sometime?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great.”
So, we started getting together and as I’m remembering this, we started playing duos together and then we did this recording for Winter and Winter, and a lot of it was duos. He even recorded three pieces of my own called “Mug Shots,” and then eventually Dave went on to write music for Trisha Brown and the base of that band expanded, adding Susie Ibarra on drums and Greg Tardy on clarinet and tenor saxophone. That group toured, always playing live for the dance company, so we went to Paris and we played that piece in the same theater where the Rite of Spring premiered, the thrill of a lifetime. We played in numerous places throughout the US and had a season in New York, and that music was recorded just on its own, the music for that dance of Trisha Brown’s.
AC: El Trilogy is a hard recording to find, it took me years to track down. If memory serves, Terry Winters did the set for that. What a lineup: Guy Klucevsek, Trisha Brown, Jennifer Tipton with lighting.
GK: Well, Guy Klucevsek was not one of the creative people; Guy Klucevsek was one of the performers. Dave Douglas and Trisha Brown and Jennifer Tipton and Terry Winters were the creative people. They were responsible for coming up with the piece, and the rest of us were performers who basked in the glow and added our own contributions. I can’t remember, was that an independent release or did Dave do it on his own?
AC: It came out on RCA Victor, but it went underground immediately. It’s an impossible recording to find, which is too bad, for it’s really quite remarkable. Joe Ferla was the engineer. He did a great job.
GK: That’s right. After Winter and Winter, Dave got a contract for RCA, so he made a number of recordings for RCA and then eventually founded his own label.
AC: Thousand Evenings was the other RCA recording with that group. I remember going to see you at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. I went backstage to say hello and Dave was still playing. He was continuing to play backstage after a two-set gig at Painted Bride.
GK: Well, he often did that because as a brass player you have to relax your lip muscles after you’ve played, too, because they’re so tense from having played two sets—that is, he would warm down. He would warm up and he would play, and then he would warm down or cool off.
AC: On that note, what do you do to warm up and then, after you get offstage after a fairly intense experience, how do you wind down? How do you cool yourself off so that you can go to sleep that night? Start with how do you warm up. What do you do? What’s your ritual to get ready?
GK: In middle age, I learned that the way to warm up was not on my instrument, but to relax my muscles, so I would do yoga stretches. I would do toe touches, I would do arm spreads, things to loosen my neck muscles, my shoulder muscles, my back muscles, because every instrument has its own injuries associated with it. Tendonitis with the hands for accordionists, back injuries from schlepping the instrument, shoulder injuries from the weight of the instrument hanging on it. Everybody gets tendonitis somewhere from what they have to do, the unnatural position they have to hold their hands or wrists or arms in for unnaturally long periods of time.
If I could just digress for one minute to reflect back on something: I told you that Mark Feldman was one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. To give you an idea of his brand of humor, on one of the tours in the US, he had tendonitis of the wrist in his bow arm, his right arm, so his right wrist was wrapped in bandages. After the concert, someone came up and said to Mark, “I see you have a wrist injury. Would you like me to sing into your wrist?” and Mark said, “No thanks, I’ll wait for the CD.”
AC: OK, and how do you wind down after a concert?
GK: Well, it’s depended on whether I was pre- or post-sixty years old. I mean, before I was sixty, after a concert—like, when we were touring with Dave and Trisha Brown in 2000, I was fifty-three years old or something like that. We would have a performance with Trisha Brown in Paris and we would get out of there at eleven o’clock and we were staying, I think, in the Marais district. We would get back to the hotel at twelve or 12:30 and go out and have dinner and get back to the hotel at 2:30. Now, we normally have dinner at six o’clock and I go to bed at ten, so I don’t know what I would do now. The way I used to relax then was the way musicians did: you play a late set; you hang out with the guys afterwards. If you’re with a dance company, maybe they hang out with you or maybe they don’t; usually they don’t because they’re having to do workshops somewhere the next morning and they have to get up and take care of their bodies, which means going to a dance class or stretching their bodies or taking yoga or getting a massage because they have to dance again the next night. So, you would wind down by staying awake for another three hours.
But I do have to say that I never got comfortable with those hours, because as a concert musician, I would generally do a concert or a set at around eight o’clock and be done by ten. I never quite got used to the jazz life of doing a set at, say, nine and eleven and getting off at one o’clock. I’m really an up-at-six-or-seven, in-bed-by-ten-or-eleven kind of guy. That’s my natural body rhythm.
My only real brushes with the jazz world were with Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell. Those bands were also so comfortable to travel with. And they were so tension-free that there was no drama or melodrama within the band.
AC: Guy, I’m handing you five Winter and Winter CDs. These are five really, really beautiful recordings that have been perfectly beautifully packaged. Could you make some comments about the series?
GK: I first met Stefano Winter through Dave Douglas, because Dave recorded his album Charms of the Night Sky with Winter and Winter. Could you remind me of the year of that recording?
AC: 1998 is Charms of the Night Sky.
GK: That’s the same year I was touring with Accordion Tribe 2. So, I met Stefan Winter during the recording of Charms of the Night Sky. First of all, it’s a beautiful album. Dave Douglas’s music is gorgeous, and he also did me the honor of recording my Mugshots suite on that album. I was really taken by the artwork, too, right from the beginning. Winter and Winter, I have to say, I think has the most beautiful artwork in the history of CDs. They were one of the first to use that kind of cardboard packaging, and the artwork was always commissioned, so they had beautiful original artwork and crystal-clear design, and the sound was always in an acoustic space as opposed to a studio. Although, if I’m not mistaken, I think Charms of the Night Sky was in the studio. That would have been the exception, because we recorded that in the United States, whereas all of the Winter and Winter ones that I did were recorded in Europe in an acoustical space.
So that was my connection to Stefan Winter, and at that point he asked me if I would be interested in recording for his label, and I said sure, I would love to do that. The project I was working with at the time was with Alan Bern, so I proposed doing Accordance with him, which is what the title of the duo album with Alan Bern became. That album features Alan playing piano and accordion and me playing accordion, and it’s all duos. That’s the other thing I should say about all the ensembles that I put together with accordions, with Accordion Tribe 1, Accordion Tribe 2, and my duo album with Alan Bern, and even my duo album with saxophonist Philip Johnston: everybody was a composer. I was interested in having groups with creative musicians, because I liked being able to do their music as well as them doing mine.
Alan is a brilliant composer and was mostly known as being a klezmer musician at the time, but he’s a brilliant virtuoso pianist, a terrific accordionist who’s basically self-taught and who didn’t start playing accordion probably until his late teens or early twenties. This album gave him the opportunity, he’s told me, to write pieces outside of the klezmer genre, because he didn’t have any other vehicle to realize that part of his compositional skills. So it was a real pleasure to be able to do that with him.
Stefan was interested in continuing the collaboration, so eventually I did five albums with him: a couple of solo ones called the Heart of the Andes and the Well-Tempered Accordion. They were both original compositions, although the Art of the Andes had more covers on it; it had a Dave Douglas piece and a Philip Johnston piece, and I did covers of some of the Shostakovich piano preludes from the 24 Preludes and Fugues, which was really fun and interesting to do. I love those pieces, and I love the fact that the accordion brought out the folk sides of those pieces.
AC: Had those been done before?
GK: Well, my buddy Evan Harlan, an accordionist from Cambridge, gave me a call and said, “I would like to send you this album I just made and see what you think of it.” He sent me the album, which was band versions of various classical pieces, and one was a set of pieces from the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I said, “These are absolutely gorgeous. You’re not going to believe it, but I am working on solo versions of these.” I think it was a raw tape at that time, and I said, “Listen, you’ve already recorded these. You release yours first, and I will at some point do mine and put them out. Because first of all, it’s not really going to be competition because yours are band versions with a very specific sound and with improvisation, so they’re arrangements and you opened them up, whereas mine are really transcriptions. Secondly, you got there first, so you put those out there and you will not be seen as somebody who ripped me off, and I won’t be seen as somebody who ripped you off because mine will be an absolutely different take on it.”
So that was a treat. I loved Evan’s versions. I think they’re just brilliant. He also covered some Samuel Barber, wonderful.
Eventually I did another duo recording with Alan Bern, which is called Notefalls, because I had been working on a book of sketches at the time called Notefalls, A Musical Day Book. This was 2007, and I was having writer’s block at the time. I decided the one way out of it, I would just sit down at the piano every day and just play a little bit and try to come up with thematic material and not think about development or orchestration. In other words I would just come up with melodies, and I decided that I would make sketches and if the sketch was something that I liked, I would just use it as the material. I didn’t want to get involved and hung up on developing and lengthening things. These pieces could be played as solos or in combination with various instruments. Eventually I ended up with six of those and I recorded them with Alan. Then Alan contributed some material as well and I contributed more of mine.
He wrote a piece for us called “Starting Over,” which was on Accordance, the first album we did, and which is still to this day my favorite piece for our duo. It was inspired, he said, by a breakup, a very bitter and difficult breakup of a relationship, which is why he called it “Starting Over.” It’s a stunningly beautiful duet, very moving with some gorgeous sonic colors. I said, “Alan, I invited you to form a duo with me and then you wrote our best piece. You left me in the shade, dude.” But anyway, every time we get to play that piece again, I experience the beauty of it. If all that had come out of that duo was that one piece, I would have been happy, but many more wonderful tunes also came out of it—as well as the simple experience of playing with him.
Then I did a duo record with Philip Johnston, a composer and soprano sax specialist and the leader of the group the Microscopic Septet. That record also contains music of his and mine. There’s one Satie cover called “Petit Overture à Danse,” and I wrote a piece to go with it called “A Pear for Satie.” We also covered a piece of Schubert called “Der Leiermann,” meaning the organ grinder, from Winterreise. The rest were all original tunes by myself and Philip.
We have very, very different sensibilities. Philip is straight out of the jazz world; he’s a wonderful improviser and soprano sax specialist (although he also plays alto), whereas I’m from the new music world. We combined our talents for this.
That record also has a cover of mine called “Blue Window,” based on a Blue Danube waltz. At first, I premiered that piece and recorded it with Marshall Taylor of Relâche playing it, and I released it on my very first recording as a leader, Blue Window, on the Zoar label, a cassette-only release.
AC: You mentioned the organ grinder. Where does Schubert fall on your favorite composers list? That was an interesting choice.
GK: Well, part of it was the organ grinder. The hurdy-gurdy has a sound that for some people conjures up the sound of an accordion — the barrel organ, like from the beginning of Mack the Knife — so I’ve always had a kinship with that instrument. I had seen somebody perform Winterreise, and I was very taken by the song cycle as a whole and the concluding piece in particular. I thought it could be beautiful in the combination of soprano sax and accordion, so that’s what drew me to it.
Schubert could write beautiful melodies. I have real admiration, respect, and awe for people who can write a beautiful melody, it’s one of the most difficult things to do. To write a two-minute song is at least as difficult as writing a full-length symphony—to hear somebody who can write a melody that you just can’t get out of your head.
One of the fellow residents here on Staten Island for years, before he passed away a few years ago, was Galt MacDermot. If I could ever in my life have written one song like “Let the Sunshine In”… I mean, there’s almost nothing to those lyrics, but that melody combined with those lyrics still sends shivers up my spine, you know? And the ability to make an audience bond over one of the few American tunes that almost anyone can recognize, because we don’t have a shared musical culture like, say, Belgium or France. There, somebody starts singing a Jacques Brel tune and other people join in, and they could be in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, up to their eighties: they start singing the melody. They know the melody.
AC: I heard about those thousands of people every year who get together in Riga, Latvia and all sing together. Wouldn’t our culture be so much better if we sang together more?
GK: Of course, but Americans have a much more polyglot culture than many others. We have people from all over the world, each with their own tradition.
Belgium and France, on the other hand, are steeped in French culture, and they have a shared vocabulary. (Jacques Brel is the most famous composer of pop tunes in the French language, and he was Belgian, so there’s that irony.) But it’s always great when people can sing songs as a shared experience.
AC: Guy, I’ve just handed you a few of your more recent CDs: Carousel of Dreams, Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy, and the Multiple Personality Reunion Tour. These recordings are so much fun to listen to. Could you put some comments on the record?
GK: Chronologically, Multiple Personality Reunion Tour came first. I stole that phrase from a TV show that was on at the time, starring one of my favorite actresses, Toni Collette. It was called the United States of Tara, and she played a person with multiple personality disorder. One of her personas was a male. He had a very butch voice, of course, and he dressed in coveralls, and he would have like a wrench hanging out of his pocket or whatever. So, Tara’s daughter would show up sometimes, and she’d recognize that this persona was there. One time she exclaimed, “Oh, no. It’s not the multiple personality reunion again, is it?”
And one day I realized that my own music comes from so many different places, and this album represents so many different styles and so many different genres and approaches to music. I was looking for a term to encapsulate all of that, and that phrase came to me.
AC: Great actress, too, isn’t she, Toni Collette.
GK: She’s one of my absolute favorites. I like her film choices too; she makes interesting selections, and every film she’s in is interesting.
I was able to make this album because of a fellowship from the United States Artists Awards. I got a $50,000 cash award, and I had always wanted to collaborate with Carl Finch and his band Brave Combo, one of my favorite bands out of Denton, Texas, but I had never had the money to pull it off. The grant enabled me to travel to Denton and co-produce a number of tracks with Carl and his band, and also have sessions in New York collaborating with freelance musicians and some soloists. So, it’s obviously not an album that was ever going to make money, because there was going to be too much invested in it. But as soon as I was notified that I had received this grant, people started asking me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I know exactly the album I want to make.”
So, five or six of these tracks are done with Brave Combo, with Carl Finch and I co-producing. It was a magical collaboration from the beginning. We did a day’s worth of work in a studio that he had recommended in Denton, which was really great for many reasons, not the least of which was that they had an old beat-up out-of-tune piano with this honkytonk sound. That’s one of my favorite sounds ever. I love a piano that just sounds like it’s been sitting in the same place for thirty-five years and it’s never been tuned. I used to have an album when I was a teenager called Honky-Tonk Piano, and it had that ticky tacky, rickety rackety sound, and I loved that sound. When I heard that piano in Denton I said, “OK, I gotta use that on one piece at least.”
After our first day of recording, we all went our separate ways. The next morning I had notes of what we needed to re-do or what I’d thought of the previous day’s session. Carl had taken notes too, and we started to compare. And I would read a note from mine and he’d say, “Oh, yeah, I have that on mine too,” and he’d check it off. Then I’d say, “What else you got?” and he’d read something and I’d say, “Oh, yeah. I got that on mine.” We were thinking absolutely alike.
But I also loved that Carl would listen to the tunes, because I did send tracks ahead, but Carl learns by doing. He’s not a classically trained musician; he’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays electric keyboards, he could play a piano, he plays guitar, he sings, and I really wanted to take advantage of that. He listens to a track and then he has an idea for a sound that might fit in through an overdub.
The other great thing about hanging out in Denton for a couple days was that it’s a great town for live music. It’s a university town, and you can go into a club and people will just sit with the bands. Jeffrey Barnes, the saxophone clarinet player for Brave Combo, said to me once, “You may want to come to the club tonight, I’m playing in this small bar and this great accordion player Ginny Mac will be playing.” I stopped by, and this young woman was playing this incredible Texas swing style, improvising beautifully. I went up afterwards and said, “Are you free tomorrow for a couple hours? I have a tune that I’d love for you to play with us and take a chorus on.”
She came in the next day, and at one point she was talking to a friend on the phone, and she said, “Oh, this is going great. I just did my first improv solo over like 13/8.” So that’s the kind of thing that could only happen by hanging out in one place for a couple of days and having the money to be able to pay for a motel and meals and hire side musicians and things like that. There were so many wonderful things about Denton, Texas.
Then, for the New York sessions, I hired different musicians depending on the track. “Breathless and Bewildered” is a tribute to Ivan Milev, who’s a great Bulgarian accordion player, so that’s in an odd meter and it’s fast and furious. For that track, I hired the banjos player Brandon Seabrook, because I had heard him play on Evan Harlan’s record and he was outrageous. He had been playing note for note with Evan, and he’s an incredible virtuoso of melodies. I went to rehearse with him in some dive of a studio on the Lower East Side, just the two of us. I brought in this melody and he sight-read it note for note with me, and it was not something that depended a lot on open strings. There were a lot of chromatic notes. I said, “Oh, man. I made the right choice here.” But again, I had the funds to hire him just for this track, so a number of the pieces are for this kind of a band: accordion and rhythm section and added melody instruments.
Now, “Give Me a Minute Please, My Sequins are Showing” was a tribute to the Swingle Singers. It was commissioned by the Masters Singers out of Lexington, Massachusetts. They wanted the piece for solo accordion and choir, so for my recording, I was a solo accordionist and I also brought in a rhythm section. I needed voices to come in and overdub, so I hired Theo Bleckmann, whose voice I loved, and I said, “Is there a female vocalist you could recommend?” And he said Jo Lawry. Jo Lawry was a backup singer for Sting, but she was also in the movie a few years ago about backup singers. And she came in and sang a couple of parts in harmony, and Theo also did a couple of parts in harmony, so beautiful.
Then I had written some pieces for Lionel Popkin’s dance piece, which at the time was called Looking for Ruth. I wrote a “Hymnopedie,” a wordplay on Eric Satie’s “Gymnopodie” for solo piano. Once I wrote one Hymnopedie, I realized that I had to write two more, because there were three Gymnopedies. So one of them is with Brave Combo and one is for various orchestrations, that’s all I’ll say.
My favorite is the cover version I did of “Moja Baba Je Pijana.” It means, “My wife, she is drunk.” That’s a Slovenian polka that I played many, many times when I was a kid, and I wanted to cover it, so I wrote an additional set of English lyrics for it, which I narrate on top of it. I played it with Brave Combo, and I also did variations on it. I kept the same melody, but I wrote variation in a very slow meter, featuring Jeffrey on clarinet and a very laid-back minor version of the melody. At one point it ends with this furious, like, 7/8 version of the melody, and it was such great fun. I had Alex Meixner, who is a brilliant Slovenian style polka player, do these obbligatos over the melody, which he’s absolutely brilliant at, and he did the same thing for the “C and M Waltz,” dedicated to my cousins Charlie and Marianne. He also did an obbligato over my melody, and that’s with Brave Combo as well.
And then we did a cover version of a Lars Hollmer tune, that’s the one Ginny improvised on, called “Ladereld,” which has something to do with “leather.”
That might be the most fun I ever had on an album. It was just pure joy to show up each day, and it was the one and only time I got to work in a studio with Brave Combo. Later, they did a show at Joe’s Pub and they invited me to sit in and play a couple of these tunes with them. That was great fun also.
Next, you mentioned Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy. A lot of this music is from the collaboration I did with the Los Angeles choreographer Lionel Popkin, and that was scored for violin and accordion.
AC: And Todd Reynolds.
GK: Todd Reynolds. The indomitable Todd Reynolds.
AC: That was a great duo.
GK: Thank you. Talk about fun hanging out. Yeah, Todd has it all. He can read anything; he can improvise in just about any style. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s not afraid to totally let it loose emotionally. He’s not afraid of making a fool of himself, so as a result he never makes a fool of himself. He risks everything in every performance and in every piece, and it was such a joy to be able to play the score with him and to do the recording with him. A great many of the pieces on here are from that score for Lionel Popkin.
That score was titled Looking for Ruth, after Ruth St. Denis. That title was based on Lionel Popkins’s search for the essence of his own identity. He’s East-Indian American, and Ruth St. Denis was often accused of exoticism, and Lionel is on a constant search for what part of him is what and what do with that, and he has to constantly explore what is real, what is exotic, what is over-doing it, what is it fair for him to explore, which are things that I go through all the time in my own work, so we bonded over that and many other things.
I did another cover version of “Hymnopodie No. 2.” I’ve actually recorded that three times: once with Dave Douglas on trumpet, once with Brave Combo, and here as a duo with Todd Reynolds, which became part of the Looking for Ruth score. “Moose Mouth Mirror” was actually a piece for violin and accordion; I conceived it on the plane back from my first workshop for Looking for Ruth with Lionel Popkin in Los Angeles. I wrote it on a napkin on a United Airlines flight. It never made it into the score because the mood wasn’t right, but I got a piece out of it. I loved it, so I recycled it and it became a concert piece.
I also had the idea to bring Alan Bern into the recording, so I wrote him a solo dedicated to Joseph Franklin, because I actually finished it on Joseph’s birthday. The solo is called “Haywire Rag” and Alan Bern plays the living daylights out of it. If you think he’s a good accordion player, listen to his piano chops on “Haywire Rag.”
The thing about Alan is, he was being trained at Indiana University in Bloomington to become a classical piano virtuoso. He was studying with Paul Badura-Skoda, who was one of the top teachers in the country, but at a certain point, he realized that wasn’t the life he wanted for himself. He wanted to play folk music from his own tradition and others, and piano wasn’t the instrument to do that with; the accordion was. That’s when he started doubling on accordion.
And then, for a friend who was a pianist who had a daughter who was a pianist, I had originally written a piece for solo piano called “The Day the Snow Fell Upwards” as a kind of lullaby or children’s short story, but in music. So, I did an arrangement of that for accordion and piano, and Alan joined me on that.
Then when I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2014, I think it was, I wrote a piece called “Roundabout Now” which turned out to be for solo piano. The title and the piece were inspired by all of those traffic circles in upstate New York and in New Hampshire, where you’re on your own going around and around. The piece starts with an ostinato, which keeps working back on itself the way you would if you were caught in a circular door. I also worked in a chorus for Alan to improvise on, because he’s such a beautiful improviser.
“Song of Remembrance” was a piece I wrote for a dance theater work by Karen Bamonte of Philadelphia, and I had recorded it on the album of the same title. It was the title track for Tzadik many years ago, but when I did some chamber music concerts of my own music at the Stone and a few other places, I had Kamala Sankaram sing it and Todd Reynolds play violin. On this recording, Peggy Kampmeier was on piano. It’s one of my few chamber pieces without accordion, and they did a beautiful job with it.
“Little Big Top” was a piece I wrote in memory of one of my favorite film composers, Nino Rota. “Three Quarter Moon” was a tribute to Kurt Weill. “The Swan and the Vulture” was also written while at MacDowell Colony in an attempt to find a new way of breaking down 9/8 meter. For this piece, I broke down the meter as 2 plus 3 plus 2 plus 2, which is a breakdown that I had never used before. I usually either wrote 3 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2, or 2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 3, so here I put the three in the middle. It was very interesting.
“For Lars Again” was my second tribute to Lars Hollmer of the Accordion Tribe. I had also dedicated a piece to him while he was alive called “The Return of Lasse.”
Lastly, we’ve got Carousel of Dreams. This is a combination solo record and accordion quartet record with a group of mine called Bellows Brigade. The record has four accordions. Two of the accordion players, Kama Sankaram and Nathan Koci, double on voice; the other two accordions are Will Holshouser and myself. We also use a bass accordion on some tracks. The piece I wrote for us was a piece that we premiered in Roulette in 2017. I wrote it in honor of Pauline Oliveros; it’s called “Pauline, Pauline”, and it’s one of the longest pieces I’ve written in quite a while. It’s sixteen or seventeen minutes in live performance, I believe.
AC: Five movements.
GK: Five movements, with each movement trying to capture a different aspect of her personality through my own filter. There’s also a tribute to Errol Verret. Errol Verret was the original accordion player in Beausoleil. I heard him at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1980. There’s actually a poster in my dining room from that festival, and Errol played a Cajun accordion, a button accordion that he made himself, Evangeline accordions. I introduced myself after the performance and we got into chatting. We exchanged some recordings over the years. Eventually Errol was replaced by a piano accordion, because Beausoleil wanted to be able to do some zydeco, and zydeco requires a chromatic accordion like a piano accordion. Cajun accordions are diatonic, so.
AC: Michael Doucet is the fiddler.
GK: Yes, and he’s still with the group. Anyway, I wrote this in Errol’s honor because he’s the first accordion player I ever heard play Cajun music live. The piece is called “Verret’s Waltz.”
The three main tributes on the album were commissioned by the American Accordions Association in 2016. For me, it was a beautiful closing of the circle, because the American Accordionists Association commissions had influenced me in the ’50s and ’60s. When they commissioned me to write something, I was so touched. I decided to write tributes to three people who either played accordion or were related to the instrument, who I felt had made invaluable contributions to the instrument and its legacy.
The first piece, “Evan-essence,” was for my good buddy Evan Harlan, a composer, arranger, accordionist, and pianist who had worked out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The second piece, “Ballad of Faith,” is in memory of Faith Deffner. She was the owner of the Ernest Deffner Corporation, the company that made Titano accordions, which I have played for many, many years. And the third piece, “Sir Walter’s Main Squeeze Rag,” was for Walter Kuehr, who owned an accordion shop on Essex Street in Manhattan called Main Squeeze for all your accordion needs. “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Each of these three people had died within a few years of each other, and I wanted to write tributes for them because of their connection to the instrument.
I also did one of my few covers, the Dvorak “Largo” from the New World Symphony. That was, I think I can safely say, the only solo accordion piece commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. As part of their Concerts in the Park, they had a program called Share the Stage, whereby a local musician recommended by the community would open for the orchestra. They did a concert at Snug Harbor on Staten Island, and Snug Harbor recommended me. The concert was a chamber concert with the chamber players from the Philharmonic, and they said that they were hoping that each of us could do something inspired by the work of Dvorak. I had always loved the Largo from the New World Symphony because it’s one of the first pieces of classical music that I ever heard, but I didn’t hear it in a symphony hall. I heard it as the closing piece of music in the choral version sung at the end of the movie Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland, and it’s the first time I ever remember as a kid crying during a movie. It was so moving. I just saw that movie again recently after sixty-plus years and I started crying again at that scene. I call the piece “Variations and Theme” because it actually starts off with the variations and you only get the theme itself at the very end.
“Carousel of Dreams,” the title track, was written for Cody McSherry, who lives in Lancaster, PA. He’s a wunderkind accordion player and multi-instrumentalist, who for some strange reason has taken a fancy to my music and wants to play it. When I wrote the piece, I was inspired by his enthusiasm for the instrument and for his brilliance at being able to play so many different styles.
The final piece, “As They Waltz Off into the Sunset,” was written for my wife Jan. This is an accordion quartet version of it. For the Vignettes collection, I’ve come up with a solo arrangement, and that’s the recording that will be on Vignettes.
Background: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
AC: You’re a huge baseball fan; let’s talk about that and about your geographic background. How does a young boy from Central Pennsylvania become a New York Mets fan?
GK: I loved baseball as a kid. I played Little League, I played Pony League. I was a big Pirates fan, and I found out later after I met my wife, Jan, that she had been, too. Everybody in Pittsburgh knows where they were in 1960 when the Pirates felled the mighty Yankees with Bill Mazeroski’s home run.
Then, in ’76, Jan and I moved to New York, and Jan worked for a company called Butterick Patterns, which was owned by American Can Company. American Can owned several box seats, but the Mets were terrible in the mid-’70s, and so American Can would just give the seats away to their employees. So we started going to some Mets games, and I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, so watching the Mets was like… It was like the days when the Pirates were really terrible, when you could get tickets for Pirates games on the back of milk cartons.
AC: What position did you play?
GK: I played catcher, second base, and outfield, but when I had to start wearing glasses, the catcher position was out because they didn’t have safety glasses in those days. I was never great; I was like middling. I was fine until Lenny Oshevsky learned to throw a curveball. I wasn’t the only one who looked like a fool, but when I see somebody like Pete Alonso strike out on a dastardly looking curveball, I don’t feel so bad, you know? The difference is that I couldn’t hit a ball four hundred and seventy-five feet when I wasn’t striking out. I was never a very good hitter.
AC: Is there any similarity between baseball and your music-making?
GK: H’mm…Hopefully no piece that I’ve ever written is as boring as some baseball games! I used to like having the time at a baseball game to think, except now of course you’re bombarded between innings with audio and visual information at a hundred-plus decibels. But when I was a kid, I loved being able to just think, and I loved that there was time in between pitches. It’s not quite as leisurely as cricket, but it’s not far.
But no, I don’t offhand have any brilliant analogies between music and baseball. Sorry.
AC: How about the use of silence? There’s, in my mind, nothing quite like tuning into a terrestrial radio station and listening to a game and that silent bit when you just hear the ambient sound of the crowd.
GK: Oh, I love that!
AC: Did you ever use silence selectively in your work?
GK: I think that was probably a bigger factor in the early days, when I was influenced by Morton Feldman and John Cage and Earle Brown. When I got into writing more what I would call “tunes,” I think silence became less of a factor in my music. But I love it in abstract music; it’s very expressionist.
AC: Tell us a bit more about your earliest beginnings.
GK: I started playing accordion when I was around five in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, and we moved to Pennsylvania when I was nine or ten. The teacher who changed my life we found in Pennsylvania. He was Walter Grabowski in New Kensington. He imbued in me a love for classical music, and he also gave me very good technique and a solid basis in harmony and music theory, to the point where my first year in college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was a rehash of everything I had learned from him from the time I was ten. I even have a notebook, a spiral bound notebook from 1956 or so. In some of my very first lessons, he was already teaching me chords, and so by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I had every major, minor 7th chord memorized. The difference was that he taught me the chords by memory; I didn’t know the theory behind them. So when I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that’s when I learned the basic theory behind chord structure.
But Walter’s teaching was a big help. I just knew the chords, the same way someone else would memorize a recipe. Even if you don’t understand the principles behind why certain elements are combined, like baking powder, baking soda and salt in baking, you know you need them to make pancakes or whatever. It just becomes a part of you, like a routine. And that’s the way it was with the chords. If I saw C major written somewhere, my hands would just go to the chord on the keyboard, I’d just form it immediately, I didn’t have to think about the intervals.
On accordion, the buttons on what’s called the Stradella bass present two rows of bass notes and four rows of preset chords: major, minor, dominant seventh, and diminished seventh. So you don’t necessarily have to know the notes that are under any chord button. You just know that if you press the chord button next to C bass, you’re going to get a C major. But I learned all those, and not only that, I can tell you what position they’re in on each of my instruments because I learned the theory behind them. I’m absolutely shocked when I meet accordion players, and there are a good number of them, who press the button and don’t know what position the chord is in. I actually can’t believe it. Practically any jazz pianist, if you play a chord in the left hand, they can tell you what position that chord is in, whether it’s in root, third, or fifth position, what note is in the bass, et cetera. So it shocks me. Because if you don’t know that, then you don’t understand the voice leadings when you move from one chord to another, and that’s important when you have preset chords, because you can have, for example, an F-sharp jumping up to an F because of the preset positions, which can be a very unsettling chord movement. I think it’s very important that you understand your own instrument and what’s coming out when you play.
AC: You picked up the instrument at such a young age. Isn’t five years old pretty young for an accordian?
GK: Yeah. Well, I saw Dick Contino play on one of the amateur-hour talent shows as a teenager. It was one of these talent shows where you had every talent that you could conceive of, not only musicians but jugglers, musicians, singers, dancers, all competing against each other, and Contino was winning, like, month after month as an accordionist. He was a very flashy player, playing things like “Lady of Spain” with the bellow shake and “Dizzy Fingers” and “Tico Tico.” That was my visual introduction to the instrument.
I asked my dad to buy me one, and he said, “They’re expensive, so if in another year you still want to play, we’ll get you one,” but I wore him out after six months. He got me a 12 bass accordion, because accordions are sized for different ages and different sizes of people, and they go by the number of basses, 12, 24, 36, 48, 72, 96, and 120. 120 is a full-size adult accordion. So I started on a little twelve-bass accordion, which is maybe a little over an octave in the keyboard, right side, and I gradually moved up through the ranks with my dad having to upsize and upgrade the instrument every couple of years. It’s a little more expensive than upgrading an infant’s clothes, you know! But he went with me all the way.
He bought me my first accordion when I was between five and seven, and the last accordion he bought for me, I was twenty years old. He bought me a free bass instrument and I think that was in 1970. It was $2,200 in 1970, and my dad was a working-class guy who washed windows on high rises for a living, so that was a lot of money for him. And when you’re a kid you think, “Oh, my dad bought me an instrument, so what?” But now I look back and I know that’s the equivalent of buying your teenage kid or somebody in their early twenties a $10,000 instrument.
AC: Even more.
GK: Probably, and that was in cash. He never had a credit card in his life, so he paid cash for that for his young kid whose music he didn’t understand, but he just quietly supported me anyway. I didn’t appreciate that until after he was gone, really, which is a shame, but now I can see what he did for me.
AC: Were there any other young accordionists in your community in Saddle Brook?
GK: Not in Saddle Brook. Well, I don’t know about when I was a kid, because my accordion teacher at that time, Joe Macco, went door-to-door, so there was no community. But when I went to Pennsylvania and started studying with Grabowski, I studied at his studio. He had an official accordion studio, and there must have been dozens of players ranging in age from six-year-olds to eighteen- and twenty-year-olds, including two of his sons. So there I heard some very fine players as I was growing up. I always had role models, and as I was growing older, I became a role model for some of the younger kids.
We also learned about playing chamber music, because he would have us form accordion duos and trios and quartets. It was a way to learn to play with other people, which is sometimes a skill you don’t develop when you play a solo instrument, especially if you don’t play an orchestral instrument. So that was a very valuable experience, and he was a great teacher.
AC: You grew up in the era of rock ‘n’ roll, and yet you developed an early interest in classical music. What was the repertoire for accordion at the time? What did you listen to?
GK: Well, it was mainly transcriptions. There are entire sheet music books of overtures, opera overtures, Puccini and Verdi and Mozart. I remember playing the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, which is really a bear.
AC: Must have been fun, though.
GK: Well, if I were to play it now, it wouldn’t sound so great. As a sixteen-year-old, it was a real challenge. I remember playing The Barber of Seville. I remember playing the William Tell Overture, which is actually in four parts, which shocked me. I played transcriptions of violin concertos, like the Brahms violin concerto, but you played all the parts. Your left hand played the accompaniment. I played the Tchaikovsky violin concertos. I played one of the movements of one of his piano concertos. Probably my favorite, because it actually worked the best in translation, was the suite from The Nutcracker, because it’s very folksy Russian folk music, and the Trepak was really a challenge, and it’s a lot of fun, a lot of fun. There were a couple recordings out at the time of some professionals playing it, and they played the living daylights out of it. Really, it translates beautifully. So that was the kind of thing.
And I think maybe it was in the mid- to late ’50s, the American Accordionists Association started commissioning composers. My favorite pieces were by Paul Creston, who wrote a beautiful piece called “Prelude and Dance,” and Nicholas Flagello, who wrote a piece called “Introduction and Scherzo,” which I played at competitions. The Association would commission a piece and then it would be the test piece for competitions, so there was a test piece that everybody had to play, and then your other piece was a choice piece. I remember with the Flagello, I had an instant attraction to that language. It was kind of thorny and dissonant and I think some of the other players did not really bond with the piece so they played it OK, but I really bonded with it and I played it very well.
The Accordionists and Teachers Guild commissioned Alan Hovhaness to write something called “Suite,” which is very, very beautiful, and Virgil Thompson wrote a piece called “Lamentations,” which is bitonal, very interesting. It expanded my mind and I was young enough that I wasn’t intimidated by that language and I fell in love with it, actually, and it made me eventually want to become a composer years later. But I still liked rock ‘n’ roll, and I still liked the folk music at the time. I loved the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four. The first time I was really challenged and didn’t understand why the hell my classmates were going gaga over something, especially the girls, was the Beatles single, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” At lunchtime we would go down to the gym and they would play it over the sound system and go, “I wanna hold your hand, oh yeah!” and I was wondering, “What the hell is this? They’re going gaga over this.” I was a bit of a snob, and I didn’t think there was a whole lot of musicianship, and there didn’t seem to be much content. The lyrics in these early Beatles tunes were completely inane, you know, but it was written for teenagers by teenagers, right?
So my friends who were teenagers, they weren’t musicians, they were reacting from pure id and emotion and hormones, and eventually I did come to love the Beatles, but I also loved rhythm ‘n’ blues and I loved the Temptations and I loved the ones who did Twilight Time, a vocal group, I forget their name. Eventually I got to play with the composer who wrote that tune. His name was Artie Dunne and he had a group called the Three Sons and I left college to play with the Three Sons for a year, so that was a nice connection.
Then I formed a band in high school called the Fascinations. We had one of those cardboard stands with “The Fascinations” spray-painted on the front. I did arrangements of the hits of the day, but we also did Slovenian polkas and waltzes. That was my introduction to composition. When Chubby Checker came out with “The Twist,” I wrote a twist myself. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was just a blues progression, and that was my first sort of pop tune.
Let me just say one more thing about pop bands. My favorite band was the Ventures. They were an all-instrumental band and they did “The Lonely Bull” and “Green Onions,” and the reason I loved them was because they were all instrumental and nobody in my high school could sing, so they were somebody I could model my band after. So, we did covers of their tunes. I did arrangements of “Telstar,” because it was on a really cheesy organ.
AC: Could you tell me a little bit about your education, high school to IUP? Take us through your experience with academics and music, and then describe how you went on from college.
GK: Sure. First of all, something that not many people know is that, all the way through part of grade school and high school, I also played tuba. At my small school in Pennsylvania, if you weren’t either playing a sport or in the band, you had no social life. So I asked the bandleader what they needed, because there’s no accordion in a marching band or a concert band, and he said, “We need tuba players and we need”—I forget, I think they called them chimes—and I said, “Well, tuba then.” So, I played tuba from seventh grade until my second year of college. IUP didn’t have an accordion major, so I majored in tuba, but I was not a great tuba player. I was just piddling.
AC: Did you play concert tuba or marching band only?
GK: Both. But I was not great.
AC: You did it to meet girls, I guess?
GK: Oh, no. I don’t think you’d take up the tuba to meet girls. No offense to my tuba colleagues, but there are probably easier paths to that. I did meet Jan, but I don’t know if she was attracted to the tuba or the accordion or just my overall charisma. But we’re still together, so whatever it was, it worked.
AC: I suspect it was the accordion.
GK: Yeah, that’s usually something else you don’t pick up if you’re after girls, but it seemed to work for Dick Contino. Anyway, I played tuba. So when I went to IUP, I was a tuba major. At the time, it was Indiana State Teachers College; all the state schools in Pennsylvania were teachers colleges at the time. And I thought I was going to become a music teacher. But, in a stroke of good fortune, they transformed into Indiana University of Pennsylvania in my second year, which meant they had to start offering liberal arts. So I switched from education to liberal arts, and I was the first person in music to do that. It was great for me, because they had a whole curriculum for the liberal arts and music; but I was the only student, so I got to take private lessons for my last two years there.
There was a wonderful composer there named Robert Bernat who wrote some pieces for the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he was very good. He also had a group called the River City Brass Band, amateur players who got together to play brass band music, and he was their conductor. He was extraordinary. I had all private lessons in advanced counterpoint and advanced harmony with him. I dropped the tuba at that point and just studied composition and theory and kept playing accordion, which I had never dropped, anyway.
At one point, I left school between my junior and senior year to go on the road with the Three Sons, which was a very popular group at the time. They were the original creators of the tune “Twilight Time.” It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous tune and I loved playing it. Then I came back and I wanted to graduate with my own class, so I went to school for two summers so I could graduate with my class. As I was nearing the end of my education, I asked Robert Bernat for advice for graduate school, and he said, “You have a unique opportunity in Pittsburgh, because Morton Subotnick has just been hired at the University of Pittsburgh as the guest teacher for two years, and he said they’re going to have an electronic music department. They’re putting in a vocal studio and he’s a wonderful teacher and I think you’d really benefit from that.” So I applied and I was accepted.
I studied with Morton Subotnick, and I studied the vocal synthesizer, which was a really great thing for me as somebody who was just really starting to compose concert music and who was an accordionist, because the Buchla was an analog instrument. If you wanted to create a sound to simulate something else, you had to combine sine waves, square waves, and sawtooth waves to simulate the sound of an instrument. So you had to know the sound you wanted before you did anything. I used that later when I was writing for accordion; I would sit down and ask myself, “What sound do I want?”
AC: So You left Indiana and went directly to Pittsburgh and studied with Morton Subotnick. Tell us about that experience.
GK: Studying with Mort was great, because he taught a seminar for composition and theory students. It was there that I heard the music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass for the first time. He played Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”; Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” which had a huge influence on me; and Philip Glass’s “Music in 12 Parts.” He also played the European avant-garde, much of which I really loved: Penderecki and Xenakis, and also Cage and Feldman and Earle Brown. We studied all those scores. So he had no axe to grind and I really loved that.
It wasn’t like some schools, which were really pushing the post-Webern aesthetic and everybody was supposed to write in that style. Mort found out what you were interested in. Any issues you might run into with your composing, he would advise you to take a look at a certain score, or he would study the score with you. I got very interested in development from cells, from little germs, and he said, “We should study Bartok.” He said that nobody did that better in the modern era than Bartok did, and so I ended up doing my master’s thesis on the Bartók Fourth String Quartet. In the second year that Mort was supposed to be at Pitt, CalArts formed, so Mort went out there and became full-time faculty, and Gerald Shapiro from Brown took over the job at Pitt. That was very valuable experience, too. He brought something else to it, but when it was over, I decided to follow Mort out to CalArts and that was a mind-opening experience.
I already had a graduate degree and they didn’t offer anything beyond a graduate degree, but they had something called an Ensemble Associate, which was so California and so ’70s. What that meant was, they didn’t have any more scholarship money and I couldn’t afford to go there, so I couldn’t get a degree, but I could audit any class I wanted. I got to take acoustics with James Tenney. I got to take a jazz course co-taught by Harold Budd and Buell Neidlinger. I got to take a post-Beethoven course with Leonid Hambro. I got to hear Joel Krosnick play concert in the great hall. I got to see Judy Chicago do one of her early installations in the lobby. I got to hear Philip Glass play a live concert; he wasn’t on the faculty, but he came through and it was just a mind-opening experience.
I met a lot of students I’m still in touch with. John Luther Adams was there at the same time I was. Peter Garland was there; he started Soundings magazine while I was there. We’re still close friends. He’s in Maine now, where he’s from. David Mahler, the composer, was there, and we’re still very close friends. He lives in Pittsburgh. Michael Byron was there; he lives in New York now. So I was in the generation before Lois V Vierk and John King, who were out there around the same time. That probably would have been around ’75, ’76; I was there just for one year, ’71 to ’72, doing postgraduate independent study. Charlemagne Palestine was on the faculty. They had a Gamelan orchestra, one of the few in the country.
What I remember most about the Philip Glass concert, besides loving it, was that Mort had asked me to help unload the equipment. The vans pulled up and I went out to help and I grabbed one of the boxes, and I think they thought I was stealing stuff, and they said, “Where are you going with that?” But then the second thing was, there was a main space in the music building shaped like a big rectangle, and then on the second floor a balcony that surrounded it. I sat up in the balcony with Jan, and I absolutely loved the music. I think they were playing “Music in 12 Parts.” At the end, I was clapping like crazy, and I didn’t hear anyone else clapping, and I thought, “Wow, I’m the only one who likes this,” and then I looked around. Everyone was clapping. I had lost my hearing! It was so loud!
AC: Sounds right.
GK: That was my first experience with rock-level amplification, because I was not into rock music at all.
AC: The volume level is really key.
AC: But for that “Music in 12 Parts” especially. I heard it at Town Hall last fall and before that at the Park Avenue Armory. It was not served well in either place, but you really need to hear that piece at top level, no question.
What did you do at CalArts? You said it was the ensemble program. Did you perform while you were there?
GK: No, that was just the name. It was the name of a special unfunded scholarship thing—it was just called Ensemble Associate. It didn’t mean anything except what I said, which was that they didn’t have money to give you and you didn’t have money to go there. I was there just auditing these classes, that’s all I was doing. I also sat in on Mort’s electronic music course and his composition seminars. I couldn’t take private lessons with him because I was not a degree program student, but I organized a performance of “In C” in a gallery. Harold Budd played the pulse, and a combination of students and faculty played the music.
They also had a wonderful policy that let you sign up and present a concert on your own in any room that was available. They were called Noncerts because they were not scheduled. They weren’t on any calendars; you would just make up your own flier. It was a bit, what do you call it, anarchic? But it was perfect for me. I had never been to California before in my life and I dove in. It was the first year that CalArts was in Valencia. The year before, while the building was being built, it was in the Villa Cabrini, which was an old Catholic girls’ school, I believe, and that’s where there were all these stories of kids swimming nude and all that. I didn’t see any of that at CalArts, but I was probably also one of the oldest students there. I was already twenty-four at that point, because I had already done all my graduate work. Carl Stone was there when I was there, but he was a teenager. I think he was a freshman, so he was eighteen.
AC: For the students reading this interview: Guy, just to go back to your liberal arts degree at IUP. How important was that additional liberal arts training for your music career, if at all? Or how has it benefited you in other ways?
GK: For me, I think it’s all a match with personality and program. I was interested in more than music, which is why I didn’t go to a conservatory. I was bound and determined not to go to a conservatory. I did explore them; there were a number of conservatories in the country which accepted accordion at the time. SUNY Buffalo had a great jazz teacher, Russ Messina, and I went up there to visit in the winter and immediately decided I wasn’t going to go there. And Joan Cochran was a great teacher with a program at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
But I really decided that I wanted a liberal arts education. I loved literature, I loved philosophy, I loved sociology. Liberal arts gave me a chance to explore all those things. I also got to be with very, very, very good musicians who were not there to explore professional careers, but to become teachers, and that environment was right for me. They weren’t there to practice ten hours a day to become one of the world’s great players. They were there to learn music, so they could share their love and joy of music with young people.
I discovered early on, though, that teaching wasn’t for me. Interestingly enough, I’ve only seriously gotten into one-on-one workshops and masterclasses since I gave up performing at the end of last year. I have done it with very advanced students, coaching them on my own music because they want to learn how to play it, and in that setting, I’m not only the composer, but an adequate accordion player.
AC: Well-regarded virtuoso.
GK: Thank you.
AC: You’re too humble.
GK: I coached Nathan Koci on the “Prelude No. 2” that I wrote for him. I coached Will Holshouser on the “Seesaw Song.” I coached Jeanne Velonis on a horn pipe and barcarolle that I wrote for her, which she’s recorded for the Vignettes collection. I learned two things through coaching: that I absolutely love doing it, and that they personally got a lot out of it. I didn’t know coaching was something that I could be good at and that I would love, but on the other hand, I’ve done it specifically with my own music. I’m not someone who feels capable of starting off, let’s say, a seven-year-old and teaching them how to play accordion. I don’t have the pedagogical tools, nor have I pursued pedagogical training. I just don’t have the skill or the interest or the patience to work with beginning students. But I love working with really good, really enthusiastic players and coaching them on my own music, which is something only I can really do. So that’s been a joy and a discovery, and one of the perks of retiring from performing.
The liberal arts thing at Indiana also gave me an interest in literature, which I’ve retained to this day. I’ve always loved reading, ever since I was a kid, and my education broadened the scope of works I was interested in. I got very interested in philosophy and in sociology. I loved the works of Oliver Sacks and the studies of the human brain and its relationship to the other parts of the body.
But here was the main thing: other kids know from the time they’re very young that they just want to play their instrument, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Frankly, Tony, I didn’t know anyone who played accordion for a living. I saw that there weren’t any in symphony orchestras, and when I looked up the accordion in music school brochures—well, I used to kid that the first instrument listed alphabetically was the bassoon. The accordion wasn’t taken seriously as a classical instrument, and the really good accordion players I knew were miners and steelworkers who played Slovenian-American polkas and waltzes on the weekends because they loved doing it and it was a way to pick up some extra cash. That’s what I knew an accordionist could do; that’s why I thought I would go into teaching and I would teach music school students, become a band director or something like that. But the second year into college, I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. It was a big leap to make to liberal arts. But I’ve never regretted it, and it shaped my life.
The great thing about CalArts was their philosophy in putting together the faculty. They wanted the faculty to be primarily working artists, rather than academics. So, you had Mel Powell as the dean of music, and you had Morton Subotnick out there working as a composer. You had Joel Krosnick, a virtuoso cellist, who became part of the Juilliard Quartet. You had Judy Chicago. These are names that people really know as professional artists. CalArts gave them a lot of leeway to be able to go out and do their work, because number one, that kept them happy as teachers; number two, it brought prestige to the school; and number three, for me, it showed that you could be a working artist. I didn’t know that was possible. I was twenty-four. I didn’t know anybody who did that, so that opened up that doorway to me.
It did take me a long, long, long time and plenty of temp work in offices. I was in my forties before I was making enough money and had enough work that I could no longer afford to work a day job, because I had too many engagements to get ready for. It took me another five years or so to start earning enough to make that worthwhile. During those five transitional years, I was too busy to be able to work a day job, but I wasn’t making enough money. I just needed the rehearsal time and the practice time, which I couldn’t get if I was working as a Georgy Girl. I was a temp working for American Express and AT&T in office buildings.
AC: After you left CalArts, did you come back east straightaway?
GK: I did, but I ended up in Westmont, New Jersey, right next to Haddonfield, which we were talking about over lunch because Stanley Darrow had an accordion studio there. I taught accordion there for two years, and I also taught at what was then Glassboro State Teachers College, which eventually became Rowan. Stanley had been working for years and years to get the accordion accepted at Glassboro, and it finally was, so I was hired as an adjunct teacher to teach accordion students. While doing that I met Joel Thome, at Philadelphia Composers Forum, and that got me involved in playing with contemporary music ensembles, which I had never done before in my life as a non-student.
One of the great things about Stanley Darrow, besides the fact that he was a very, very good teacher, was that he really loved experimental, avant-garde music. He was in touch with European side of that, and it was a very exciting time for the development of contemporary accordion music because there was a great virtuoso, Mogens Ellegaard, who was commissioning a lot of the Scandinavian composers. Per Nørgård wrote a piece for accordion and tape called “Dinosaurus,” which was a terrific instrument, accordion and tape piece. I played it many times. Per Nørgård was wonderful composer, kind of a minimalist. He wrote another really fantastic piece, I think in twelve movements, called “Anatomic Safari.” Each movement was a study in some part of the accordion’s anatomy. Terrific, terrific piece that ended in a rousing polka—really great and very, very, very difficult. And there were dozens of other pieces. So I was exploring those European, mostly Scandinavian pieces, and then eventually playing more of the commissions by the American Accordions Association and the Accordion Teachers Guild. Henry Cowell wrote a beautiful piece called “Iridescent Rondo in Old Modes” for the 3A, and that piece had a huge influence on me. First of all, it was theme and variations. Second, his modulations were not to different keys; they kept the same tonal center and changed the mode. I’ve done that a lot in my music, not to mention the variation.
AC: So it goes back to Cowell. How interesting.
GK: Yes, that came from those commissions and from really getting involved in playing solo contemporary music. Stanley Darrow gave me the opportunity to be able to do that at his studio, and Joel Thome gave me the opportunity to play those kinds of things with the Composers Forum. There I met Romulus Francheschini, who wrote some pieces for me in Philadelphia. Living there also got me my first meeting with Joseph Franklin, who was reviewing concerts and previewing concerts for a column in The Drummer, a Philadelphia independent newspaper, called Earshots. He interviewed me for a concert I had coming up at the Painted Bride, back when it was on South Street in the old bridal shop.
Then, in the late ’70s, Relâche was formed. I was already living in New York; we had moved here in ’76, but I commuted between New York and Philadelphia from ’76 through 1990, when I eventually left the group.
So it turned out that the move to Philadelphia on the way to New York was very, very eventful, and profitable emotionally and musically if not economically. It was a great thing to have done all that, and a lot of it by happenstance.
AC: Could you elaborate on your years with Relâche? That’s how I got to know you. I was at probably one of the first concerts you ever played with Relâche. You were a key member of that group for so many years, and the sound really revolved around you in many respects. I never made the connection to Romulus Francheschini, but it all makes sense now. (Romulus, as you know, had worked with Archie Shepp in one of his militant pieces, amongst other things.) What are your recollections of working with Relâche all those years?
GK: At the beginning, it was really a kind of a composers’ collaborative. Joseph Franklin and Joe Showalter had formed it together, and they had different approaches. Joseph Franklin’s was more of a composer’s approach, getting people to write original music that we would do as a collective, or we would hire freelancers if the piece needed an instrument that none of us played. Joseph Showalter, brought to the table a very good knowledge of existing twentieth-century music and the ability to conduct those kinds of pieces.
But I was more interested in the original music side. Romulus Francheschini, I don’t remember how he and Joseph Franklin met, whether it was at the Philadelphia Music Academy or what, but Romulus was very involved in the early days as well. [ed: Franklin was introduced to Francheschini by the late John Clauser, founder of the Yellow Springs Institute for the Arts and Humanities.] Eventually I formed a trio with Romulus and the percussionist Michael Sirotta, which was called the Forum New Music Trio… Excuse me, that predates Relâche. That came from the Philadelphia Composers Forum.
AC: No, I’m very interested.
GK: If I could just tell one of my favorite stories, from my Philadelphia days, pre-Relâche.
GK: It was during the bicentennial, so that was ’76, of course. We were playing in a park near the Liberty Bell. What’s the name of that park?
AC: Independence Park.
GK: On the same bill, so to speak, was someone from the Philadelphia Zoo who was demonstrating how to milk a cobra. Talk about talent shows! Anyway, we did our sound check, and the snake handler was there, listening. The snake handler was on first, so he milked the cobra, and when he was finished, he said, “If you thought this was weird, wait ’til you see what comes next!” And that was the introduction to my trio with Romulus and Mike Sirotta.
AC: Great story.
GK: That’s my favorite intro of all time.
AC: You followed a snake act.
GK: One time, I was playing at the Cincinnati Zoo with the Three Sons, and the outdoor stage for the Cincinnati Zoo was in front of the apes’ pens. They had either the oldest or the largest gorillas in captivity at the time, so you’d be playing onstage and then at one point you’d hear a tremendous noise and it would be the ape bouncing off of the bars. Sitting onstage and hearing that huge bang, it would sound like the stage was exploding and everything would vibrate. That was priceless.
AC: Recently Joseph Franklin came through Philadelphia, and we took the occasion to listen to Here and Now: Music by Relâche, which was the very first Relâche record. It came out in 1983, and there’s a piece on here called “Oscillation No. 2.” We listened to it and we all said to ourselves, this could have been written yesterday or tomorrow. It’s held up so well. Do you remember “Oscillation No. 2”?
GK: Yeah, of course I do. Actually, I was reminded of it recently, because in the final concert I gave, which was in Albuquerque of December 2018, my fellow performer played it. We were in a beautiful space in Albuquerque, the concert was presented by the Chatter Ensemble in this incredible acoustic space, and Luke Gullickson played the living daylights out of that piece. I hadn’t heard it in twenty years or more. I was a little worried that it would be very dated, but I started to hear all the things that were going on inside the music. I started hearing what I had been hearing at that time, which was all the resultant tones from doing these really rapid tremolos with the pedal down, and you start hearing melodies forming inside of the overtones.
It renewed my faith in my music from that time, because as you move on as a creative artist, sometimes you wrongly assume that what you’re doing now is better than anything you’ve ever done. Otherwise what’s the purpose? But it’s just different, because you’re a different age. You’ve been through different experiences, and so you create art sometimes in a different way, or it has deeper emotional meaning, or you treasure certain things that you tried to avoid when you were younger. You’ve moved on to a different way of making your art. I was still, in 1980, very influenced by my CalArts experience of getting really on the inside of a sound and exploring it for all it was worth. I wrote a series of oscillation pieces. This was the only one that I still have in my catalog, and Luke just approached the piece with total abandon—he just went for it.
AC: I’d love to hear it played live. The recording is quite remarkable, and as I said, it’s not a matter of holding up well. This could have been written today or tomorrow. It’s a really, really exceptional piece.
GK: I’d written it for Tina Davidson and she did a beautiful job of performing it, too. There’s an Australian pianist who played it in the ’90s who did a brilliant job on it as well. Then Luke, who didn’t know anything about the piece, I just sent it to him and said, “Give it a try, and if you like it, I’d like to put it on the program because it’s unlike anything I’ve written since. It’s one of the few surviving pieces from that time in my life that I still keep in my catalog, so I would love to hear you play it,” and he played it for me. He sent me a recording of a read-through of it, and I was just floored by how beautifully he did it and how committed he was to it. Then I heard him do it at the sound check and I was completely floored by it again, and then at the performance, he tore the roof off and kind of stole my thunder! I did a solo set, but he got the loudest applause. But it was my piece, so I didn’t feel bad.
AC: You spoke of getting inside the sound. How did you meet Pauline Oliveros?
GK: I met her through Mort Subotnick when I was studying with him at the University of Pittsburgh. He said, “Pauline Oliveros, a composer and colleague of mine from the San Francisco tape music center, is also a wonderful accordionist. She’s written some things for accordion, and I think you two might have something in common.” That was in 1969, 1970. There was no Internet, so I wrote Pauline a letter and introduced myself, told her I was studying with Mort. I said, “Mort said you’d written some accordion pieces, would you send them to me?”
She sent me a trio for accordion, trumpet and bass, but it was from her very early days, so it was almost like a post-serial piece, and I never performed it. There weren’t many instrumental majors at the University of Pittsburgh, so I didn’t have anybody I could play it with. It wasn’t really a school for performers. The Master’s program was for musicologists and composers, and they had also introduced a jazz program that year. But Pauline and I became pen pals, and then eventually we became duo partners and started playing duos together. As a matter of fact, one of the albums that we recorded at Yellow Springs in Pennsylvania in the mid-’80s as a cassette release has just been released on Imprec records as an LP called Sounding Way, with one piece of hers on one side and a piece of mine on the other side.
So, we met in 1969 and we were pen pals for the longest time, and then we were performing partners and, I think I can safely say, mutual admirers. We exchanged recordings and attended each other’s concerts. Then I formed the Accordion Tribe, the original Accordion Tribe in 1996. That tour went extremely well, and we made a record. I decided I wanted to put a second version of it together, and I put together Accordion Tribe 2, which Pauline suggested we call Four Accordions of the Apocalypse, which was great. That’s what we called it, and that was myself, Pauline, Amy Denio on accordion and voice, and Alan Bern.
AC: That’s what you would call a super group.
GK: It was a blast, and everybody brought a different perspective and different experience to the group. It was all-American, too. That was interesting because the first Accordion Tribe was international. I was the American, Otto Lechner is from Austria, Bratko Bibic is from Slovenia, Maria Kalaniemi is from Finland, and the late Lars Hollmer was from Sweden. So it was a very different group.
Pauline’s sonic meditations brought a completely different vibe into it. We did her tuning meditation. The instructions for that are, Play a sound of your own, then play a sound of the other person’s. That’s on the Sounding Wave recording as a duo. With Accordion Tribe 2, we did the meditation as a quartet, and to hear four like instruments do that is magical, because after you’ve played your own tone and then somebody else has played your tone, you’re still hearing your tone. I had to look down to see if I was playing it or if somebody else was playing it, and it was magical, just the sounds intermingled. It looks so easy on paper and like there would be no content, but there was content all over the place, partly because she doesn’t put any restrictions on the tonal language. So, if you like dissonance, you can play a minor second against what the other person’s playing; if you’re into consonance, it can be all open fifths and thirds and fourths. It can go in any direction tonally, and the players make up the tonal language.
So it was actually completely brilliant. And Amy Denio has a drop-dead gorgeous voice. I once told Jan I would pay to hear Amy sing the phonebook. She also plays the accordion in a different way because she’s a multi-instrumentalist, so she plays it not as an accordion player but as a musician. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but multi-instrumentalists are doublers and play instruments in a different way. They bring a different sensibility to any instrument that they play, because they didn’t just study one instrument and get to be a virtuoso on it.
I love the way that everybody played. Alan, he’s a virtuoso. We only did that one tour in 1998; we never played the United States. The original Accordion Tribe never played the United States either, but I had such a great time on the tour that I wanted to somehow keep the idea together, so I talked to Alan about forming a duo. We did, but he lived in Berlin, still does, and I live in New York. So we weren’t able to play as much as I would have liked over the decades. But each time it was magic and a treat. We did two recordings for Winter and Winter together, and he’s recorded a beautiful track for my Vignettes collection, the “Feel the Bern” piece.
AC: Is there any recorded documentation of Accordion Tribe 2?
GK: No. Maybe some radio. I may have some radio cassettes around somewhere that were done by a radio broadcast of the group, but we never made a record and we only did one tour.
AC: It’s so interesting how times have changed. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concert this year in September 2019 had a sonic meditation of Pauline’s, and at the Curtis Institute of Music’s graduation this year, the doctoral honoree Claire Chase led the graduates in a Pauline Oliveros participation piece. She’s really gaining in recognition, but you were trailblazers with her. I mean, you charted territory that I don’t think anyone else had explored before.
GK: She was a role model for me in what a composer-accordionist could be. I had heard virtuoso accordionists before, and I had heard very good accordionists who composed for accordion, but I didn’t have a role model for somebody who was a composer whose instrument happened to be accordion, and that’s what she showed me. And when you talk about Curtis graduates and the Philadelphia Orchestra doing her music, that speaks to how Pauline Oliveros went beyond composition and music. She was one of those figures like John Cage, whose influence went way beyond music.
You know, John’s approach went into philosophy and into any art, and Pauline’s approach went beyond art because her sonic meditations were therapy. They could be therapy for recovering patients, they could be a form of meditation for relaxation and stress reduction, they could be used in a hospital. The sonic meditations were verbal instructions that you didn’t have to be a musician to do. Anybody who could sing could do them, and you didn’t have to be a professional. You didn’t have to be a virtuoso. It had to do with creating music as a community, so it went beyond music. The outpouring of love and honor and respect that came out after Pauline passed away took my breath away, because I really didn’t have any idea—I knew her as an excellent composer, a brilliant improviser, and a lovely human being—but I didn’t realize the effect and influence that she had outside of not only of music but the arts. That’s one of those things that you only discover sometimes when the person has passed away.
AC: Did you ever discuss deep listening on your tours with Pauline? Or get into any deep conversation besides planning the next stop?
GK: No. We just enjoyed each other’s company, frankly. When we weren’t onstage, we just enjoyed being together. Pauline and Amy really bonded. I had one other band with two men and two women in it, the Bantam Orchestra with the Perkins sisters; the Accordion Tribe 2 had a totally different vibe. Me and Alan tended to hang out together, and Amy had an enormous respect for Pauline and she was also on a similar wavelength in terms of natural healing. Amy used to sing into people’s bodies wherever they had a problem in a kind of healing way, music as healing or sound as healing and vibrations as healing. So Amy and Pauline bonded immediately.
Alan and I never really got to know each other that well before the tour, so we hung out and just got to know each other, and he’s an absolutely hilarious person. He tells great jokes, he’s a fantastic storyteller, he doesn’t forget anything, and he has an insatiable curiosity about the world and human beings and culture and nature. So, every second with him was like falling in love with the world all over again and being alive—what it meant to be a thinking, feeling human being in every second of the day.
AC: I saw Pauline just a few days before she passed. She spoke of being a reader of the letters of John Cage and the release of the book edited by Laura Kuhn. Someone called me Thanksgiving Day and said, “Did you hear Pauline passed away?” and I said, “No, I just saw her Monday night.” So she died very peacefully. There was nothing wrong with her. She just went to sleep.
AC: You have a project now called Vignettes.
GK: Yeah, that I think is mostly compositions lasting two minutes.
AC: Well, I heard John Adams once said something like, it’s much harder to write a two-minute pop song than a four-hour opera. So please, tell your readers about Vignettes. This is a big project.
GK: It’s huge. There are twenty-four short pieces, but not all of them are new. They cover four decades of my work. The oldest piece, from 1988, is called “Some of that Old Time Soul Polka,” which I wrote for a radio drama called Kafka’s Radio by Eric Overmyer. The latest one is called “Dear Werner,” which I wrote as a tribute and in memory of Werner Strobel, who was a dear friend and a sound designer and engineer for Relâche for decades. My own criteria for selecting certain pieces was that they had to be under four minutes. A lot of them were originally written for dance theater projects, part of an evening-length work or a larger work. Some of them are so short that they didn’t work as freestanding pieces, so I hardly ever played them in concert, because I couldn’t form a suite from every one of them. Some I did, some I couldn’t. For example, there’s one called “Puppet Song.” It’s from The Heart of the Andes—I wrote it for Dan Hurlin’s object theater piece—and it’s literally one minute long. That will be the first piece in the book and it’s just for the right hand, it’s just a melody.
The average length is two to two and a half minutes. The shortest one is about a minute or a minute and a half. The longest one is, I think, a little over four minutes. There are a lot of waltzes. I love waltzes.
This is the first time I’m publishing a book of my sheet music. I figure there’s no time like now to do it, because if I don’t do it now I may never do it. It will be accompanied by a recording of every track. I had to record seven of them myself. I think I must have had six that were in the can from previous releases. Then friends of mine who are wonderful accordionists covered all the other tracks, so all twenty-four pieces are covered. Jean Velonis did the recording of my performances in this very living room in my house.
AC: A really fine engineer.
GK: She’s terrific and a dear friend and a huge accordion enthusiast, and she plays herself. She’s a very enthusiastic amateur when she’s not doing her day gig of recording, doing some wonderful work with Judith Sherman who she’s been with for a very very long time. She gets home at ten o’clock at night, and then she goes to her studio and she plays accordion because she loves it so much. I have accordionists from California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Austria, and Germany who have covered some of the other tunes, and they recorded them on their own in various ways. So, I had a lot of help.
Jean Velonis handled the mixing and editing, and Silas Brown did the mastering, with Jean present in my stead. What I’m doing on my end is fine-tuning the editing of every single piece of sheet music. I have to figure out the sequence of the twenty-four tunes, and the sequence is kind of arbitrary, it’s not by date, it’s not by difficulty, it’s just really intuitive.
AC: Well, sequencing is an art form in itself.
GK: If I were only doing a recording, I feel that for my own music, I would have a really good feel for what the sequence should be. But this is a book of sheet music, and the recording that’s going to go with it is purely for study purposes. They’ll be very good recordings by very good accordionists, but the idea of the CD is not for non-accordionists to sit down and listen to as a theme album or anything like that. The real importance is the sequence of the sheet music. I’m starting off with “Puppet Song” because it’s a piece for right hand alone and it’s short and I like that it’s an introduction for the player… but some of the pieces are for free bass, some of them are for standard Stradella bass, and one piece, “Eleven Large Lobsters Loose in the Lobby,” can be played on any accordion because it’s basically all percussion and beating up your accordion the whole time in 11/8.
So, Vignettes is a huge project that I’ve been working on since last fall. Six of the pieces have been written since November of last year. The most recent, “Dear Werner,” I began in March of 2019 and finished in July of 2019, and it’s about two and a half to three minutes long. So the album covers four decades: the ’80s, ’90s, the 2000s, and the 2010s.
AC: How do you write, and how has that changed over the four decades you described? Paper pencil? Piano? The instrument? How do you work?
GK: I start at the instrument, which is generally the accordion. Sometimes, if I’m just looking for a pure melody, I’ll do it at the piano. By pure melody I mean that I’m not thinking about harmony or form, I just want to generate material. If that’s the case, I might start at the piano because it’s a lot easier to pick something out and write it down. With accordion, it’s more difficult—you have this huge thing on your chest, you have to write past it and all that. But if I’m writing specifically an accordion piece and it’s a two fister or a two hander, I start on the accordion and I start by just playing, and I have a sketchbook in there.
The sketchbook’s on the piano for when I’m writing at the piano, and I have sketchbooks on the music stand in my accordion room for when I’m writing for accordion. I’ll just write down thematic material or ideas, and if one of the thematic ideas seems to be developing into something I want to continue with, then I’ll continue working with the material on the instrument. I always work with paper and pencil to start with. After the instrument, in terms of remembering what I’ve done or the ideas for what I want to do after that, I write things down on paper. Then, if I get an idea for how it should develop formally, I’ll just work with the pencil and paper. I use the same pencils, the Blackwings, that Sondheim uses, because I read somewhere that he uses them and I thought, “Well, if that works for him, I’m down with that.” And I use regular manuscript paper and a ruler. When I feel like I’m done with a rough draft, then I get my PowerBook out, and I open up the Finale music notation software and I start to transcribe. I start keying in the stuff and I put it into Finale because it’s a lot easier to do the editing in music software because I’m an infernal editor.
I can edit a piece twenty years after I wrote it, because I play the pieces so frequently that my ideas about them can, I don’t want to say get better over time, but fine-tune over time. A lot of times, when I’m writing pieces that I’m going to be playing myself, I don’t write the dynamics down because I intuit those as I play; but when somebody else wants to play the tune, they need to know what I have in mind for the dynamics. Then I have to write the dynamics in, then I have to get more specific about tempo changes, whether they’re gradual or sudden, if it’s a new tempo, how much faster or how much slower is it, if it’s a change of dynamics, is that sudden or do you have to use a decrescendo or a crescendo to get to that dynamic. I have to capture a mood, so I’ll say something like “gently rolling” or “enthusiastically.” I wrote a piece recently for Nathan Koci called “Prelude No. 2,” and the expression mark at the beginning is “processionalistically,” which is just my humorous way of saying “like a procession.”
AC: Yes, of course. Very, very clever.
GK: I like to think so, but to other people it’s just torture. But they have to deal with it once I come up with it.
I’ve had a blast with the Vignettes project. It’s been really fun. The fact that there are six new pieces, several of them written for other accordionists, is new for me; I’ve been the primary performer of my own music since I started writing for accordion as a teenager. Now I don’t play in public anymore due to health reasons, but I still have ideas for accordion pieces.
AC: How did you decide to do this project?
GK: I wrote what I thought would be a collection of six preludes. That concept changed over time, but “Prelude No. 1” was written in the fall of 2018 for a wonderful Los Angeles accordionist, John Torcello. “Prelude No. 2” was written for Nathan Koci, who’s based in New York. Then I started to write something called “Prelude No. 3” for Will Holshouser, a beautiful jazz player who lives in Brooklyn. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a prelude—it was a waltz, which is called “Seesaw Song,” but had I not thought of it as a prelude, it wouldn’t have turned into what it was.
The idea of writing preludes is that, first of all, they’ll be short and they’ll sound like they’re leading to something else. The first two you definitely get that feeling, but “Seesaw Song” started to turn into its own thing. It’s a little bit longer, and Will’s an improviser, so I wrote it with jazz chord changes, and I also built in a section in the middle for him to blow over, to improvise over. He does a beautiful job on the recording, and the next one, “Gringo Star,” is for Dallas Vietty, who lived in New York and then moved to Philadelphia for a number of years, and he recently moved back to Brooklyn. He’s a beautiful kind of Django jazz kind of player, gypsy jazz kind of player. Light swing, beautiful improviser, terrific in the pocket groove, which for solo players is really difficult. Stride pianists have it. Monk had it, of course. People who had bands maintain it when they play solo, but for accordionists it’s a little harder because most of us are soloists and we’re playing more freestyle pieces. Tempos changed and there were rubatos and things, but when you’re playing a genre piece, it has to be in the pocket, I feel.
Another piece I wrote was for my good buddy and longtime duo partner Alan Bern, the fantastic accordionist and pianist. I wrote a piece called “Feel the Bern,” B-E-R-N, which is how you spell his name. I just got his recording of it and absolutely burned my socks off, blew my mind apart. I wrote it for him because I knew what he could do. I also left a part for him to blow as I did for Dallas and his piece. I knew I was writing for improvisers who could read well, so I left space for all of them. I wrote these pieces specifically for them.
So that’s five of the pieces. The sixth piece, “Dear Werner,” was for Werner Strobel. I originally asked somebody else to record it, but they couldn’t work out their schedule. I felt like I wouldn’t have the energy to be able to do it, but it was almost a blessing in disguise that my friend couldn’t record it, because it’s the most personal of the new pieces. I really should have been the one to record it and I was. It’s the last piece I’ve written. I don’t know if I’ll write any more music or not.
AC: Werner was an old and dear friend, wasn’t he?
GK: Yes, going all the way back to the ’80s. He was part of a group that you’re familiar with, called A Moveable Feast, which was originally five couples, and at least one of each couple worked with Relâche. People scattered to the four winds and years later, or even more than a decade later, somebody had the idea that every summer we would rent a house somewhere and we would spend a week reuniting. Werner was part of that group, and he was the first one to pass away, I think in October 2017. I was due to play a concert in Pittsburgh and I had been in touch with Werner a week before, and I knew he was very ill, but he said, “I really hope to be at your concert.” And then, I didn’t hear anything more from him or his wife Kathy. While we were in Pittsburgh, I found out that that he had passed away, so in that one week he had passed away. I knew immediately that I wanted to write something for him. Over the course of two years, a year and a half, I tried a number of times and I didn’t get anywhere with it.
Then in March of 2019, I started writing something, what I thought was the sixth of this series of what started out as preludes. I just started writing a piece with nothing in mind as to what it would be, and I worked on that from March until the end of April when I got very ill and had to spend a lot of time in the spring and summer in the hospital. So the piece came to a stop, although I had a rough draft of the whole thing.
But toward the end of the draft, before I got quite sick, I was playing through the piece, and my wife Jan was working in the room outside of my accordion room. And when we sat down to dinner she asked, “What was that piece of music that you were just playing?” And right then I said, “That’s a piece for Werner.” That’s when I knew what it was, and then during dinner, I had the title, “Dear Werner.” I never got to meet him that week in Pittsburgh, and this is a musical letter to him.
AC: It’s really moving. I can’t wait for your fans and public when they purchase Vignettes to hear it. Have you ever put any limits on yourself in writing, like time limits or other structural limits, or do you just let it go?
GK: Since I’ve done a lot of collaborations with dancers and directors, some of the time limits come from theatrical concerns. A dancer will say, “I need a piece of music here with this kind of feeling and the scene that I’m working on in workshop is three minutes long.” So that’s a limit that they place on me. They may also tell me something like, it goes through a lot of mood changes, or it has one sustained mood. Those are limitations that I love, actually. Wasn’t it Stravinsky who said something like, “Out of limitations come freedom”? Or, “The more limitations I have, the more free I feel”? I find that very liberating, and collaborations have been a huge, huge positive influence and development on my musical language.
The preludes were actually an attempt to write something short that wasn’t a dance form, because I’ve written a lot of genre music and social dance forms, mostly waltzes, but also some tangos and Bulgarian odd meter things and a few polkas over my years. Well, not that many—I’ve only written two or three. Why do I have to feel like I have to apologize for that? If I had written fifty, that would have been fine, too!
One of the reasons I wanted to write preludes was that I was hoping they would be continuous development and they would be short. I also have a predisposition for writing theme and variations, and my friend Jerome Kitzke, who’s a wonderful composer, to my face refers to me as the king of theme and variations. I don’t consider myself an improviser in real time, but when I sit down to write a piece of music, I do consider myself an improviser because I improvise what comes after the theme. Then I write it down and I play it the same each way. So that’s my way of improvising.
AC: I’ve always been suspicious of these guys who say they’re improvisers and then get up and play. In my mind, they work out in advance what it is they’re going to do. I guess some do improvise, but I’ve been very suspicious of anyone who says they’re a pure improviser like this guy Keith Jarrett. I have firmly in my mind that he knows exactly what he’s going to do when he gets up there.
GK: Jarrett, see that’s familiar, I’m not sure I’ve ever quite heard of him… KIDDING!
Yes, I know for a fact that some people play something that sounds and feels improvised but is not. There are also people who do improvise, but they’re practicing licks all the time. I hear them in the restroom before a concert practicing licks, and then when they improvise, those licks come out. Then they string them together with improvising, so it’s a mixture. Anyway, writing is my way of being an improviser before I get onstage.
AC: Who do you have in mind for Vignettes? Who are you writing this for? Obviously, you’re writing it for players that you respect and you’ve given them really great music, but who do you have in mind for the future? Is it going back to your earlier comment about being a role model? Is it for the next generation, posterity, your legacy?
GK: Certainly posterity and legacy are an important part of it, because this may be the last big project of this scale that I do; but I really have it in mind for everybody. Not every accordion player can play every piece, so there’s a little bit for everyone. “Puppet Song” can be played by any accordion player who can play something in D major. The basic melody is a single voice. It’s pure, simple, and hopefully beautiful, and it’s the first piece in the book. It’s to draw in the student, the amateur, the professional—because professionals like beautiful melodies too, and they can express them in their own way. Hearing somebody like Itzhak Perlman play a single line melody is more beautiful than hearing some other violinist play a full concerto. A really great player brings so much expression and so much beautiful tone.
Some of these pieces already existed, because I wrote them for specific situations—dance, theater, film, freestanding pieces of music. But in terms of the collection, some of them can be played by anybody from a second-year student to the best virtuoso in the world. Some of them can only be played by people who are very good, with a very good technique; certainly, the piece for Alan Bern requires that level of technique. The free bass pieces that I’ve written are not heavily technical, but you have to be able to play counterpoint between the hands, and you have to have very solid bellows control. They’re very expressive, so they require emotional depth, which means a certain age and certain seasoning in your playing.
So, again, my hope is that there’s something in here for everybody. There are going to be pieces that some players can’t play, but there are going to be others that they can.
What’s more, about half the pieces are for Stradella bass and half are for free bass. So many free bass players also play standard bass, like I do. And the Stradella pieces can’t be played by somebody who only has a free bass instrument, and the free bass pieces can’t be played by somebody who has only a Stradella bass instrument. So it’s a mixture. Vignettes is aimed at teachers, students, amateurs, and professionals. It’s for everyone.
AC: Guy, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you these two days. Thank you for your time and for your music.
More information about Guy Klucevsek’s Vignettes is at www.starkland.bandcamp.com. For more about Guy Klucevsek and Relâche, please see Joseph Franklin’s Settling Scores: A Life in the Margins of American Music (Sunstone Press).