Navigating the wave: An interview with Kirsten Volness

Composer and Reed professor discusses the making of her album 'River Rising'

Last year, composer Kirsten Volness did the thing all composers should do: she released a whole album of her own music. The compositions on River Rising are the type that would occupy seven to ten minutes of a typical Fear No Music or Cascadia Composers concert, and it would be the best seven to ten minutes of the whole show–but that’s all you’d get. This is the complete experience those minutes always leave me longing for.

Now, using the expanded definition of “composer” that I normally apply, this isn’t that unusual–another of my favorite local albums of 2020 was composed by three dudes who call themselves Gaytheist. But for a composer working, teaching, and performing in the “classical” tradition to release an album like this, well, it’s somewhat rare in Oregon. We could list several locals who do–Bonnie Miksch, Lisa Neher, Christopher Corbell, Darrell Grant, et alia–but we could certainly list a lot more who don’t.

Anyhow, Riving Rising is good, solid, enticing “classical” music, a 55-minute collection of six chamber music compositions, eight-to-sixteen minutes apiece (plus three-minute coda “Gaia”), all held together by a cohesive musical voice and a coherent, well-produced sonic signature. Sparse, expressive “standard classical” instruments (strings, piano) blend with compelling layers of electroacoustic soundscape, suggesting a solid familiarity with the world of academic and electronic music. The harmonies and melodies are nicely “pitch-centric,” in a traditional-yet-fresh sort of way that stands out in a landscape often dominated by the aesthetics of field recording and musique concrète. Volness’ surreal electroacoustic layers borrow from both without dominating the music, providing counterpoint to the acoustic instruments and also something of a crinkly frame (in the post-modern sense), not totally unlike the acousmatic dramas of Éliane Radigue, but even more not unlike the pop dramas of Radiohead and Björk.

Capping it all–when I play River Rising on my speakers or headphones, it sounds like an album. It’s not a bandcamp page with recital audio, or a youtube playlist compiling various concert performances. It’s been mixed and mastered with care. You can pull it up on [redacted name of streaming service]. It can sit on your shelf with Somewhere I have never traveled, The Territory, Monica’s Notebook, and so on.

And, of course, there are still also videos:

It came as no surprise that the composer had produced the album herself. “Of course,” I thought. “Here we have another auteur.” And so I reached out to Volness, and we spent April emailing about the composing life, the teaching life, her new single (released today with astonishing animation by Alexander Dupuis), and how she makes all those wonderful sounds.

Volness’ answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

The a-ha moment

I had a piano at home and asked my parents for lessons when I was three years old, but it wasn’t classical music that inspired me to do so. Around the same time, we would go out for dinner at the Cannonball, a truckstop diner in my rural Minnesota hometown, where each booth had its own jukebox—two songs for a quarter. I remember obsessively playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and Pink Floyd’s “Money,” along with any Stevie Wonder song I could find. The sheer joy of those listening experiences sparked my passion for music.

I realized I wanted to be a composer after taking Judith Lang Zaimont’s orchestration class at the Univ. of MN. It was her simple offer (and mentorship) that changed everything: “You can choose a piano or chamber piece to orchestrate, or you can write your own music.” I found the world of composition to be entirely liberating, a space where one’s individuality was valued, where there were more “right answers”–as opposed to the self-loathing of never being good enough in the practice room.

That is not to say I didn’t have amazingly supportive piano teachers, I think I just hit a wall where practicing felt like more work than fun. I stopped playing for a few years and focused on composition, but eventually Hotel Elefant coaxed me back into the world of performance and I am grateful for that.

Making River Rising and “murmurations”

I wrote these pieces between five and 17 years ago, so this album has been a long time in the making, and not without a lot of help from my friends. Before teaching at Reed, I was primarily self-employed as a freelance musician and educator, so, by necessity, much of the album was pieced together from DIY sessions. Thanks to some friends in the multimedia and electronic music composition program at Brown University, I was able to access studio spaces and nicer mics than I had at home to capture many of the solo recordings.

The musicians featured are also good friends I have worked with often, so that aspect of the process was effortless and fun. The string quartet was recorded at a non-profit studio in Boston designed to be affordable for artists called The Record Company, with help from one of their engineers. Having someone else moving mics and hitting buttons allowed me to focus more on listening, taking notes, and communicating with the ensemble.

I met Alex Dupuis when he was an undergraduate at Brown. He plays electric guitar with us in Verdant Vibes, and makes incredible multimedia and performance art of his own. I wrote “murmurations” as a wedding gift to my partner Jacob Richman as something fun we could play together that shows off his background as a jazz bass player. My father passed away unexpectedly when writing it, so it took a bit of a different turn musically and is also dedicated to him. Alex animated a different video for the Blevin Blectum remix released with my album and I loved it so much I commissioned him to create something for this—so the music came first and the video two years later.

I love to collaborate, but it also feels empowering to have creative control over the final mix as an extension of the compositional process. I asked people I trust to listen and give me feedback along the way. It still feels like it took a village.

I tend to write music that leaves room for and relies upon performers’ individual interpretation–like jazz, folk, or Romantic music might. When composing electroacoustic music, I try to approach the electronic part like I would any other instrument, like an orchestra of infinite sounds. The way in which the electronic part interacts with live performers varies: sometimes it serves as underpinning and atmosphere, sometimes it plays melodies in counterpoint with the musicians, or it harmonizes and supports what they are doing, or simply enhances the timbre of the live musicians’ sound with an added effect.

Sometimes it takes the lead and the musicians are asked to listen and follow. At times I offer the performers a click track to help keep everything synced, often when there’s not enough rhythmic pulse coming from the electronic cues to be helpful. At other times, the musicians use a foot pedal to trigger samples and other effects so they can control specific timings in performance.

Creatively, I’m drawn to working with electronics because I feel they can create more immersive environments (literally, if you’re sitting in a field of multiple speakers) and allow for an array of explicit and implicit references one may not be able to make with a flute or saw wave alone. It’s also fun to play with feedback, modulation, and other spectral tricks that allow us to hear effects of sound waves physically interacting in the air around you.

I often use these tricks to enhance the expressive qualities and dynamic shape of the music itself, rather than being the primary focus. In the end, it helps me connect with listeners and engage their imagination in different ways—and there’s nothing more fascinating to me than hearing about all the imagery, emotions, and ideas that my music conjures for people. It is truly a gift.

I’m fond of synthesizers, but my source materials often consist of recordings I make, including samples of whatever live instruments I’m writing for and other “non-musical” sounds. I usually compose the acoustic and electronic parts in tandem, so I have some sense of the composite texture throughout.

“River Rising” was very different, in that I wrote and produced the entire fixed media part–then scratched my head, wondering what to do with the solo violin. I toyed with the idea of asking the performer to improvise, to “navigate the wave” themselves, but that did not go over well with classically-trained musicians who are not used to that kind of responsibility! So I wrote my own improvisation that rides above the surface at times, and is consumed by the electronics at others, in hopes of evoking the tsunami and overwhelming grief that inspired the piece.

On a news report, I had unexpectedly seen a video of the 2011 tsunami reaching the shore in Japan and was horrified to see what forces beyond our control can do. It can happen suddenly in moments like this, but that feeling of overwhelm can also relate to more gradually-progressing disasters like climate change, whose effects are theoretically within our reach to mitigate, making it even more tragic.

Composing life

I’d say that my contemporary peers who are working to build community through their practice are the most inspirational to me. Gabriela Lena Frank is using her success to mentor and create professional opportunities for young composers, actively working to expand the canon to include a broader diversity of voices. Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green created Castle of Our Skins to champion the work of Black composers years ago, and it has grown into an important institution leading the way toward greater equity in our industry.

I have found boundless inspiration from the other members of Tenderloin Opera Company, a houseless advocacy music and theater group in which we collectively create and perform operas telling the story of housing insecurity in Rhode Island. Whether we’re singing protest songs at a rally or bringing joy to a community meal site, it’s the one project in which I have seen the tangible, positive effects art can have on people’s lives.

I’m not the kind of composer that can get up and work for a couple hours and then move on to my teaching job. So, I tend to write music on days off or breaks from school, in deep-dive, marathon sessions during which the music takes over my life. Often the pressure of a deadline helps me stay focused. Getting started is always the hardest part! I love writing songs because it feels like the text has already done most of the work and I just need to illuminate it.

Some pieces I write by hand, especially acoustic solos or music that is more ametric, but most often I hear what I want to write in my head and transcribe it directly into Sibelius notation software, line by line. I produce the electronics on my laptop using Logic, Ableton, and Max/MSP, recording sounds and instruments at home and listening through various headphones, studio monitors, car speakers—even my sad, tinny laptop speakers—to make sure the mix sounds right. Jacob is also a composer and can give me feedback when I’m unsure of myself (which is most of the time).

Volness and Jacob Richman. Photo by Michael Salerno.

Teaching life

I have been teaching music in some capacity since high school. Before moving to Portland, I was an adjunct professor at the University of RI, teaching 13 different courses over six years, from music theory, ear training, and piano class, to composition, orchestration, and electroacoustic music. I also taught piano and composition privately.

Teaching music at Reed College is a bit different because there is no audition required to major in music, reducing barriers to access for those who may not have been on this path since elementary school. In fact, most of the students I teach are not music majors, making my interdisciplinary classes like Collaborative Creativity less novel than they might be at a university with siloed departments. This approach presents its own pedagogical challenges, but fits well with my teaching philosophy that everyone is creative and capable of making art—it’s just a matter of building the skills and understanding necessary to communicate their ideas effectively and taking the risk of doing so.

Whether in terms of listening, programming, teaching composition, or curricular development, I have been expanding and refocusing my teaching to be more inclusive and representative of a broader artistic community. The racial justice uprising of the past year kicked this impulse into overdrive and, like many other teachers, I feel we need to reconsider our systems of (music) education along with the rest. It is an ongoing process of reimagining what a 21st-century music degree entails and how it best serves the goals and interests of the students I teach.

I learned how to be self-employed by necessity and have been incorporating that knowledge into my teaching. My interest in community building and arts advocacy informs most things I do, including my assignments. As evidenced by my graduating senior advisees who wrote their creative theses on “acid techno” and “psychedelic cumbia” respectively, it’s important to me that every student knows they are on their own individual musical path and that I meet them where they are presently. I prepare them for professional careers, but, regardless of how they make a living, I hope that their musical experiences make them more empathetic and imaginative citizens of the world.

Composition lessons, like many lessons, are a bit like therapy–in order to “succeed,” you need to learn about yourself as much as you do the topic at hand. There is a craft side of it, but the part I love the most is seeing growth in their ability to express their ideas, when you start to see more and more of their personality shining through with confidence. That’s the best.

What do you listen to for pleasure?

Short list: MMW, Björk, Radiohead, Aphex Twin, David Bowie, Fiona Apple, the aforementioned Stevie Wonder. I’m really inspired by musicians whose style evolves, who take artistic risks and grow through collaboration, as opposed to artists that seem to write the same music over and over again because it has found a viable market. So John Zorn should probably appear in that short list, too. I am inspired by Lizzo’s sincerity, sense of humor, and advocacy.

I definitely move between different modes of listening. In recent months, it’s been lots of Harold Budd, Cocteau Twins, Pauline Oliveros—whatever soothes the soul in the background while I’m doing other things. I listen to various radio stations to explore new music: my old college station, Radio K, and their internet hip-hop channel The Vanguard; New Sounds on WQXR/WNYC; 20/21 Music on WTUL; locally XRAY, The Numberz, KBOO, KRRC, and All Classical Portland.

Pandemic releases I enjoy include Mulatu Astatke, serpentwithfeet, Run the Jewels, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Missy Mazzoli’s bass concerto Dark with Excessive Bright, and a whole lot of music my current and former students have been writing. You can check out some of their recent releases on Bandcamp—Aaron Space & His Terrestrial Underlings, David “Motocross” David, House of Warmth, Husk Oscillations, and Renegade Snares.

Last question: what would Kirsten Volness ask Kirsten Volness?

“What’s the weirdest gig you’ve played so far?” In 2011, I was commissioned to write a piece for REDSHIFT to commemorate the UN International Year of Forests. The premiere was at an awards ceremony full of foreign dignitaries at which Rwanda won an award for reforesting their country post-genocide. The event was at the Central Park Zoo, so the sea lions were singing along fervently during the performance, and I got to try sustainable protein (bugs!) for the first time with Olympic gold medalist and UN Ambassador Carl Lewis!

Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

Comments are closed.