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What's that you say?
You want to play my piece?:
An introduction to the music
of San Francisco composer Michael Kaulkin

By Frank Barcone

When a composer finishes a new commissioned work, the question that looms is, "will it ever be performed again?" For the San Francisco-based composer Michael Kaulkin the answer has been, with a lot of pushing and smiling, a resounding "yes."
Michael Kaulkin

You can find much more information about Michael Kaulkin at his website.

You can hear excerpts of selected works here.

For more information about the music of Michael Kaulkin, contact Generation Media at info@generation-media.com.

Most recently Kaulkin has been seeing his small cache of orchestral works find second and third performances in interesting places. Kaulkin's recent orchestral work Misterium Tremendum was performed by the Oakland East Bay Symphony in February 2003. The piece had previously won the San Francisco Conservatory's Highsmith Award for composition, and is now among the repertoire in the Vakhtang Jordania International Conducting Competition. This work was chosen by the Jordania competition because of Kaulkin's unique way of blending soundscapes that are shaped by the conductor and the interpretive skills of the orchestra.

Misterium Tremendum holds great challenges for the conductor in terms of blending color, dynamics and shaping. Most orchestras would find a comfortable home for Misterium Tremendum should they be searching for an opening work that would "wow" their usual subscription audience.

Pleasing the audience is something that the 36-year-old Kaulkin has not forgotten. His Cycle of Friends is receiving more performances in 2004. This glowing work for orchestra and chorus has been scheduled for performance by the San Jose Symphonic Choir with the Mission Chamber Orchestra on their March 6, 2004 Peace and Friendship Concert.

Having sung in symphonic choruses with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Symphony, Kaulkin is a particularly skilled choral composer. In 1996 he was commissioned to write Cycle of Friends for the Music Group of Philadelphia, who premiered the piece that year in conjunction with Orchestra 2001.

Another work by Kaulkin that is getting attention is Most This Amazing, a work for two pianos, percussion and childrens chorus. This uplifting setting of E.E. Cummings' "I thank you God for most this amazing" was commissioned by the Wilmington Friends School to celebrate their 250th Anniversary. The piece makes use of all age groups, with the possibility for the inclusion of an adult chorus, as well as kids.

Several groups across the country that are considering this work for performance include the Piedmont Children's chorus and the children's choruses of The Santa Fe Desert Chorale and the Long Island Philharmonic children's chorus.

Word of mouth about Michael Kaulkin's music seems to be the best catalyst for new performances. His harmonic language and compositional formats seem to give conductors and audiences an appealing alternative to modern music that is self-serving and standoffish to new ears.

In addition to large-scale orchestral works, Kaulkin shows a more intimate side in the one-movement clarinet and piano work American Standard. This challenging crowd -pleaser has received numerous performances around the world.

A sophisticated chamber work that reminds us of Leonard Bernstein, American Standard combines the rhythmic complexities of compound meter with soaring clarinet melodies.

American Standard has been recorded by the London-based clarinettist Peter Furniss and pianist David Jones, and will be released in 2004 on a CD of collected works for clarinet and piano by American composers.

Before going to print with this article we caught up with Michael Kaulkin and asked him if he would give us a few minutes to answer a few editorial questions.

FB: How do you come to decide on the instrumentation and/or assembly of a new work?

MK: It depends on the situation. In the case of a piece like Misterium Tremendum, which was not a commission, it was purely a practical decision: I wanted the piece to be seriously considered by orchestras with typically tight budgets, and that meant a standard orchestra (double winds, no contrabassoon, no sopranino saxophone, no ophecleide, etc.).

Sometimes a commission comes with a set of forces to work with. Cycle of Friends was written for a concert including the Bach Mass in G Major. So, I had my pick of soloists to write for, but the orchestra was limited. On the other hand Most This Amazing was written for a very specific and idiosynchratic grouping of children's age groups, but for instrumentation I was given my pick of up to four instruments. I ultimately settled on the two pianos and percussion. I just love those crunchy sonorities -- I'm a big fan of the Stravinsky work Les Noces, which uses four pianos and percussion. I thought the brightness of this combination would suit the exhilarating e.e. cummings text well.

I'm now beginning a movie score for an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. The production really emphasizes the nastiness of the play, and the instrumentation will largely be defined by that.

FB: Which do you find brings your greatest creative efforts to fruition, a commission or a new piece that you have to write?

MK: I hate to admit it, but I'm terrible at writing for myself. I really thrive on a deadline -- the tighter the better. It must be something about knowing that other people are counting on me; there's more at stake than my own self-satisfaction. It would be lovely to sit down and complete a work, just because I "have to". Misterium Tremendumwas not commissioned, and it took about three-and-a-half years from the first sketches to the first performance, with a lot of leisurely tweaking and revising along the way.

FB: What would you consider to be the ultimate commission, if orchestral resources were unrestricted.

MK: One thing that has been on my mind a lot is the idea of writing something theatrical for the concert hall. A few years ago the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony presented a concert version of Sweeney Todd that was ingeniously staged by director Lonny Price. It really was brilliant. Platforms were used so that the actors could move around among the orchestra, and members of the chorus could come upstage as needed. It gave me the idea that it would be fun to write a musical theater piece with the concert hall in mind instead of the stage, where the music is sophisticated and rich enough to warrant a symphony orchestra, and the staging requirements are light enough to make it viable. In addition to being fun for me, it's a great way for an orchestra to expand its audience base.

FB: Tell us about your approach when composing a new work. When you start a new work, do you have the entire road map of the piece already fixed, or do you work through it in sections?

MK: If I'm not setting a text, as is the case with Misterium Tremendumor American Standard, I start by just writing down ideas until they seem to suggest a larger idea, or road map, as you say. These can be anything from tunes to rhythms or even just vague ideas for textures. At a certain point, after the high-level structure evolves, I get more deliberate about creating material. For example, Misterium Tremendumopens with a very harsh, dissonant fanfare using minor seconds. This was created deliberately, as the material that I'd originally sketched was a very lyrical theme using leaps of sevenths and ninths. I needed to establish contrast in order to fulfill the requirements I'd established for the piece.

Sometimes, when the general structure is in place, I work on the end first, because I usually feel like the piece ought to be "about" getting to the end. So, I need to know where I'm going. Once I know what the end is like, I can work on whatever section interests me. I usually worry about transitions toward the end of the process.

Working with a text, which is what I've mostly done, is generally much easier, because the road map already exists. The fun part of that is that I still get to decide what route to take. In other words, it's still up to me to break the text down into sections according to my own interpretation. There can be any number of valid ways to break down a text into a musical form, just as Interstate 80 and 90 both have their pros and cons in planning a transcontinental road trip.

FB: Do you think living on the West Coast has influenced your writing or does your Northeastern / European training have a dominant voice in your music.

MK: This topic comes up a lot among my Bay Area colleagues, some of whom believe in such a thing as a "Bay Area Sound" in which I am included. I'm sort of baffled by it. I moved to San Francisco when I was 27, and my aesthetic was pretty much already shaped by then. Except for John Adams, whose music I've loved since I was about 20, I'm actually not terribly familiar with so-called West Coast music. I've heard some of Lou Harrison's music, and I like it fine, but I sure wouldn't call him a big influence.

My writing is still strongly influenced by the music I loved in my teens and early twenties. I discovered Stephen Sondheim's music in my teens and found my way to "classical" music by studying his roots in Ravel and Stravinsky. Same with Leonard Bernstein, whose concert music was among the first 20th-Century music I heard. In college I did a lot of choral singing and was exposed to really terrific repertoire including music by Vaughan Williams, Kodály, Hindemith, Ravel, Barber, etc., all of which remains the root of my choral style. I later studied composition and choral conducting in Budapest, Hungary, which is artistically just about as far away as California as you can get, and I was very much in my element there.

The truth is I don't really feel that geography has much to do with anything anymore. It's just a matter of what your influences are. I may not particularly fit in here in San Francisco, but then I'm pursuing opportunities all over the world, so it doesn't really bother me.

# # #

Michael Kaulkin's music has been praised for its lyrical style and dramatic scope. A lifetime enthusiasm for live theater informs his orchestral and choral works, as well as his music for the stage.

A native of Washington, D.C., Kaulkin earned his Bachelor of Music in Composition at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, during which time he served as Music Director for the Philadelphia Area Repertory Theatre, where he composed incidental music for numerous productions, including a ballet score which was danced by members of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Kaulkin later went on to further study at Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, where he remained for three years, studying composition and choral conducting. After returning from Budapest, he enrolled in the San Francisco Conservatory, where he studied composition with Conrad Susa and received the Master of Music degree in 1996.

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