Interview with Jonathon Kirk

On November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante's EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo ChinJonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers' approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part II: Jonathon Kirk and A Single Climb to a Line.

Nina Dante : You have now written two vocal works for me: the beautiful quartet Spirits and Elements in 2012  (which is actually when we first spoke about you writing a song cycle, I was so in love with that piece!), and now A Single Climb to a Line. In both of these pieces, you have writing in a meltingly beautiful style for the voice: highly melodic, yet very still; organic yet with a certain detachment from the activity of the instruments; generous in sound yet succinct in utterance. What role do you see the voice playing in these works, and what has influenced your vocal style? Do you see A Single Climb to a Line as a companion to Spirits and Elements, or something very new?

Jonathon Kirk : I approached the process of writing the vocal line much like Stein’s approach in Tender Buttons–as a continuous kind of fragmented sentence–resisting any strict adherence to set guidelines. Like Spirits and Elements, I was interested in the sensual–the kind of earthiness I adore in the vocal music of Charles Ives, Meredith Monk, Per Norgard, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen to name those few. This was an interesting point of departure for me–so many influences and ways to think about how I was writing spatial melodies. There was even some influence from the form of Kriti–the South Indian Carnatic style of devotional song. Certainly a connection to the past and something a bit new!

ND : So much of your work pays sincere homage to the natural world, so I was surprised by your choice of text to set for A Single Climb to a Line: extracts from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons  (Objects), whose abstract text is less about nature and more about the world of human objects and insecurities. Stein's writing is inherently ambiguous, but I find that when singing your settings, a deeply moving interpretation (what I take to be your personal interpretation) suddenly becomes perfectly clear. What is your relationship with/attraction to Stein's work, and what did you hope for in setting these texts?

JK : Yes, it is ambiguous, but certainly not unapproachable or difficult to form a relationship to. I grasp in Tender Buttons a strong overarching sense of nostalgia. I believe that Stein is inviting us here to form our own personal subjective reactions to these words and the images they invoke. While the language and rhythm of her text is certainly possible of so many interesting and experimental musical interpretations, I have put my energy in preserving the solitude of each word instead of focusing on phonemes, or chopped vowels, fricatives, and such.

In this way, I worked in larger sections of free-floating meter–very much inspired by Charles Ives–slower moving forms that I learned about in works such as Like a Sick Eagle or The Housatonic at Stockbridge.

I also felt it was important to read Stein’s texts that were consistent with the way she described these early writings, as “narration,” “description” and “sentences”–never in terms of any meaning or contrived structure. For a composer this is freeing in a way that I find satisfying–a meditation on the rhythmic patterns and melodic contour of the phrases. When I was in the midst of working on Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights last year (composing music and sound design for director Kelly Howe’s production), I began reading some of Virgil Thomson’s reflections on his settings of Stein’s text. Thomson articulates something about Stein that I found so spot-on and reassuring–that with her textual meanings “jumbled and syntax violated” made the words “shockingly present.” I think many composers and singers would agree that this conjures what Thomson describes as, “a minimum of temptation toward the emotional conventions” of the words. Wrapping her words in a highly melodic context allowed me to reflect on my own relationship with the way I use language everyday.

ND : I was very glad when you told me that you would be using live electronics for this piece. Spirits and Elements included a tape part consisting of deep boomings and cosmically high pitches... an ultimately organic environment evoking the natural world. You often work with electronics, and to my knowledge, almost exclusively paying homage to nature in some manner (for instance your Cryoacoustic orbCicadamusik). In light of the previous question, what role do the live electronics play in this piece whose textual themes revolve more around the mundane human world? What sort of environment will the electronics evoke, or do they act more as a third voice in this piece?

JK : My use of electronics varies so greatly from piece to piece. I would say that in this work, it allows the strictly notated ideas in the score to scatter and to come alive more–meaning that the live processing of both the cello and the voice add an unpredictable element to the surface textures of the piece. The cello’s timbre is removed and then thrown back through the speakers–yes, maybe becoming a type of third voice. But I think the primary aim of this piece was to create sound layers in the composition that would not be possible with only two musicians.