Classical Music

Q & A: Musical notes with contemporary composer Kenji Bunch

Named a "Composer to Watch" by the New York Times, Juilliard graduate Kenji Bunch excels as both a talented violist and a composer. His highly accessible contemporary works have been heard worldwide, and as a performer, he's worked with everyone from the Flux string quartet to the bluegrass band Citigrass, as well as solo, in many settings. It's a wonder that someone so renowned (and in town to premiere his new Piano Concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra) would take time out for a small-scale chamber concert to benefit the Denver School of the Arts Orchestra, but that's just what's he's doing, with help from an all-star cast of notable local musicians, including CSO violinist Erik Peterson and conductor Adam Flatt, tomorrow.

We had a chance to chat with Mr. Bunch about his Denver appearances and double musical life as a composer and performer. Here's what he had to say:

Westword: You're a both performer and a composer. What are the challenges in managing both?

Kenji Bunch: There's always some give and take. I'm physically not able to pursue both avenues in my career equally all the time, but I also can't see myself giving up one for the other. I love performing. The thing about composing is that it's very rewarding and I feel lucky to be able to do it, but it's also very isolating. I spend a lot of time alone. So it's nice to keep a connection with other performers. I think a lot of my composition work connects with others due to my work as a performer. It's essential for a composer to have some kind of understanding the experience of being on stage. That's something you can't pick up in textbooks.

I encourage performers to experiment with finding right music. I've always been interested in different kinds of music, and I was lucky to grow up without making a lot of qualitative judgments about style, without the realization they were different. For me, composing is like cooking: If I eat interesting ethnic food, I become curious about how it was made and want to experiment and see if I can figure our how to do it at home.

WW: When did you first know you wanted to compose?

KB: I can't really remember any defining moment when realized my real calling. But ever since I was very little, I always thought the coolest thing to be was the person who wrote the music that everyone else was playing. I went to hear music from a very young age: From the time I was 3, my parents were taking me to all kinds of different performances. So I've always been drawn to the more modern, experimental works. It's fascinating to me that there are still people living today who write music, and they are not like those guys in powdered wigs. I never pursued composing seriously when I was younger -- I didn't really have the resources, the training or the theory. I read books about composers and was interested in them, but it was not until I was studying viola at Julliard that I started studying composition. I learned it there and later did a double major in viola and composition for my for masters.

WW: What are your influences?

KB: All kinds of things: It's a very broad spectrum. I'm deeply influenced by the music I studied growing up, including things out of string repertoire, operas. My mom loved Wagner. I remember going to see the Ring Cycle performed when I was 5 or 6. I loved Broadway musicals, jazz, and later, I was taken with rock. Then, I picked up on bluegrass when I spent some time in the South, teaching at a festival in Kentucky. What really drew me to bluegrass was the similarity it had with what I specialized in: classical chamber music. In both, there's one person to an instrument, and it's all acoustic, technical virtuosity. There's a lot of subtlety to it, and the musicianship in bluegrass is at such a high level. And despite the often grim subject matter, it's a joyful music. I've been playing bluegrass for ten years now, and it's helped my classical playing a lot.

At my premiere with the Colorado Symphony, they'll also be playing the triple concerto with Edgar Meyer, whom I respect a lot. He's led the way for a lot of musicians like me to cross musical boundaries, and he's every bit as legitimate as the classical concert composers. I consider it a real honor to be on the same bill.

WW: What inspired the pieces you'll be presenting at DSA?

KB: Verso is a concerto for violin and viola. I wrote it for Erik for his Corvallis festival to celebrate its tenth season. I'm excited to play it and be part of the piece from the inside out. "Verso" is a flexible word that suggests the turning of a page. The idea of the other side of the page seemed appropriate for a commemorative piece. It's a way of looking back, but also forward to the next chapter. Musically, you could call it neoclassical -- it incorporates a harpsichord and string orchestra -- but I was really thinking about Bach's Brandenburg concerti when I wrote it.

It's a treat for me to hear my work realized well. That music doesn't exist until the moment it's played by the people it was meant for.

String Circle I wrote in 2006. The title refers to the continuum of traditions that developed in our country through string playing, by taking different instruments and using them in some really interesting, original ways found in American vernacular music. I'm a student of different fiddle styles, and I'm very curious about the different ways of using the fiddle.

WW: Where do you hope the art of composition takes you in the future?

KB: I feel that with my etudes and the concerto music I've written in the last couple of years, I'm settling into a language that feels comfortable to me. At same time, it's interesting: It feels like there's still a lot to continue to explore. When you hear my music, you hear how I'm informed deeply by American folk music, and hopefully in a way that uses the classical craft and instruments in a way that makes sense. Right now, there's no real uniform school of writing that a composer needs to adhere to. It's really up for grabs.

WW: Any advice for folks with an itch to compose?

KB: The best advice I could give is this: Most people interested in composing are reluctant to try. Usually what they're afraid of is writing what's already been written. I think it's so important to get past that fear. I always tell people there are only twelve pitches, twelve different notes out there, and at some point you're going to write something that's already been written. I've reconciled myself to it; it doesn't bother me anymore.

See Kenji Bunch and friends perform at the Denver School of the Arts Concert Hall, 7111 East Montview Boulevard, as part of the DSAO Chamber Music Series; to buy tickets in advance, $10 to $12, go to the Performances tab at at the DSA website. Kenji Bunch will also premiere his Piano Concerto with the CSO, under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane, on May 20 through 22.