100 Colorado Creatives: Conrad Kehn

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#75: Conrad Kehn

The opening sentence of Conrad Kehn's professional bio kind of says it all: "Conrad Kehn is a composer, improviser, performer, educator, writer and artist." But that's the glib definition of a guy who, under the skin of his basic vita, is hellbent on spreading the joy of making and sharing and being a part of music that is sometimes difficult, all while never assuming that any audience is too dumb -- or immature -- to appreciate it.

See also: - Soundpaint with Walter Thompson and the Playground tonight at the Auraria campus - With its Mile High Voltage Festival, the Newman Center makes classical music more accessible to the masses - 100 Colorado Creatives: Mark McCoin

He's led or collaborated with classical ensembles, experimental and improvisatory groups, multimedia artists, rock bands and avant-garde marching bands, but his heart seems to lie with the modern music ensemble known as the Playground. As this year's Playground season draws to a close, the group will host its seventh annual Colorado Composers Concert (CoCoCo7), which -- true to its name -- features works by a cross-section of locals, including some talented youth composers.

CoCoCo is at 7:30 p.m. April 27 at the King Center on the Auraria campus; tickets, ranging from $5 to $10 (MSU students will be admitted free with student ID), are available online in advance from the King Center box office.

Kehn is also a thoughtful guy with a lot of good ideas about how to not just present new music to the public, but also bring the public, and especially kids, to the music. That's an important job in a canned technological world, and we wanted to know more about it, so we asked Kehn to take our 100CC quiz. Read on for his thoughts on getting people, youngsters included, involved in the business of making music.

Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?

Conrad Kehn: I want to make an album with Ron Miles, Janet Feder and David Eugene Edwards. I think the songs we'd write would be something special. That isn't very historical, is it? I tend to think forward, not back.

There are a lot of people in history that I'd like to study with or drink coffee with, or, if I was still in my twenties, get hammered with, but I wouldn't want to force them into some kind of awkward collaboration. Stravinsky, e.e. cummings, Modigliani.... It'd be cool to be verbally abused by drunken deaf Beethoven for a few minutes; Mingus, too. Jackson Pollack sounds like a good time. I love Nick Cave, but can't imagine what he would need me for. Stockhausen, Cage.... I'd like to hear Judas's side of the story.

Continue reading for more from Conrad Kehn. Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?

My daughters. They are the most complex and amazing little creatures. People on TV, radio, the interwebs and magazines are usually lucky frauds. One time I was having coffee with a friend, and I was talking about how hard it was to keep my creative career and professional life and family life in order. He told me that once he put his children and their needs at the very top of the list, everything else fell into place. He was very right. Once I intentionally said no matter what deadlines, projects, obligations are making me crazy, I will put my kids at the top of my list, my creative and professional career took off!

What's one art trend you want to see die this year?

I may not be aware of any art trends this year. When you are busy enough making your stuff happen, you kind of lose touch with what else is going on.

I think all of those TV talent shows -- "world's best dancing sing-off BS" -- could go away any time now, but I'd hardly call that art. Radio music is kind of like the fast food of the culinary-arts world. Temporarily full, but poisonous to your insides. The TV talent-show version is seriously poor.

Maybe major symphony orchestras playing concerts with washed-up hair-metalers?

What's your day job?

I teach music courses for the Lamont School of Music at DU.

A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?

Hang out all day in my pajamas drinking coffee and writing music. Actually, I have gotten where I am because I believe that you put the needs of those around you before your own and everything will work out. I'd certainly invest a ton of it into the Playground. I think I would help some of my friends bring their projects to fruition. I'd open a multi-disciplinary performance space, start a record label (whatever that means). I'd found an arts entrepreneurship program at a university.

Probably most important, I'd start as many youth composition programs as I could. We need to let young people know that they can write for the instruments of the orchestra, regardless of their background, ethnicity, training, etc. Many classical ensembles have completely missed the boat when it comes to youth programs. Don't play music at kids. Play music BY kids and WITH kids.

What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?

I think that with SCFD and the public art programs, Denver is already pretty progressive in this sense. I also think that if artists are waiting for their city or other large bureaucracy to help them, then they probably don't have what it takes to be successful anyway. Also, can city-funded art really be cutting-edge in any way? I think the development of the first Friday art walks, in particular on Santa Fe, is great for arts and culture in Denver. The last few times I went there, I was very amazed at how many people were there, but I also thought most of the art was stuff my parents would like. If you have public money helping build it, then you have to make sure the general public likes it. Sometimes that is problematic.

I spent a couple years on the Denver Public Schools Arts Resource Council. I think Denver taxpayers would be wise to pay more attention to where mill levy money is going and demand higher accountability. From what I saw, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. If you start to ask questions, they baffle you with "21st-century skills" platitudes and self-serving assessment rubrics. Quality arts education is more than a student-teacher ratio. Everyone says the arts are important when they run for public office, but they never come through, and it isn't because of ill intent. It is that they are buried with bigger issues. Denver voters need to make sure to push the issue and keep arts education a bigger issue. We are good to vote for money to go to the arts, but throwing money at a problem never solves a problem. Get involved. Demand answers.

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative? (this can be anyone you especially admire)

Hmmmm......Laura Bond, I think. She just recently joined the Colorado Symphony to help with some education outreach, but if they recognize her for what she is, they will move her through the ranks quickly. She could really be part of a future solution for them...if they actually believe they have a current problem.

What's on your agenda for the rest of 2013?

First we need to finish this Playground season. Our seventh annual Colorado Composers concert is April 27 at the King Center concert hall on the Auraria Campus. More info at the Playground online. I've got some new commissions to start working on. I've got a CD of amazing vibes and piano music that I did with Mark Clifford, and we are looking for a label to release it.

I think I may be close to securing a TV licensing deal for one of my old rock projects, and I want to push that into reality. Summer is coming, so my kids and I will try to ride bikes and go swimming every day.

I want to grow our youth composition programs in the schools next year. I need funding to train more teachers and pay our musicians, so I will be working on that. And of course next year's Playground season will be pretty amazing!!!

Throughout the year, we'll be shining the spotlight on 100 superstars from Denver's rich creative community. Stay tuned to Show and Tell for more, or visit the 100 Colorado Creatives archive to catch up.

Who rocks your world locally? Do you have a suggestion for a future profile? Feel free to leave your picks in the comments.

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