Cause and Effect: An Interview with Keith Kramer Print E-mail
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Written by David DeBoor Canfield   
Monday, 03 June 2013

Cause and Effect: An Interview with Keith Kramer

Fanfare readers have already met Keith Kramer in an excellent interview by colleague William Zagorski in 35:4, so I’ll attempt not to rehash any of the material that was covered there. Zagorski heard an existential component in Kramer’s music, coinciding with the titles of his works. I hear this, too, but also fathom a directional quality to the works reviewed below. Kramer’s music constitutes a most interesting synthesis of elements, as I hope to document further on. I engaged him via e-mail in March of 2013, and elicited the following responses to my queries.

Q: Keith, I find your music a bit hard to pigeonhole: How would you describe it stylistically?

A: I gave up on the labels a long time ago, but perhaps the first word that I might mention would be “Modernist,” however there is certainly a “Spectral” component to what I do, especially with my more recent work since 2008. I have been told that I have an individual musical style and language, and if that is the case, then conceivably that is a reason why conventional genre classifications are lacking.

Q: In your earlier interview, you listed a rather substantial pantheon of composers whom you particularly liked. Which of these (or others not mentioned) most influenced you?

A: Certainly towering figures such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ligeti, and Messiaen come to mind, but also I would have to include current composers, such as Murail and Chin. Also, I have been exploring a lot of Birtwistle as of late.

Q: You also regretted in the earlier feature that music calligraphy was quickly becoming a lost art form. Do you ever still compose with pen and paper, or are you also now using only computer software to notate your scores?

A: I sketch out numerous ideas on paper, but because of the huge amount of work involved with inputting the music into the software, my final notated scores are all realized directly via computer. I know that computer generated scores are what many performers expect to see these days, and so I gave up on calligraphy by hand a long time ago. There was a time where my musical calligraphy skills were actually pretty good and close to professional level.

Q: What musical forms are you fond of? How important is form in a composition for you?

A: While I find that form is very important, I don’t consider any particular established form (rondo, sonata, passacaglia, etc.) to be more important than another, and I tend to create new forms to suit the needs of a particular work. Someone once told me that all my pieces were in ternary form. While it is true that in a number of my works I have materials that clearly return and give that impression in a cursory way (as opposed to the more through-composed feeling of many of the progressive composers who choose not to repeat material in an obvious manner), my formal designs tend to suit the needs of the particular work, and not necessarily reflect the traditional forms of common-practice tonality (that Schoenberg embraced in his 12-tone work, for example).

Q: In particular, I am curious as to what formal procedures you have used in Duality?

A: Duality is a work that was composed specifically for the featured soloists Gottfried Stoger, soprano saxophonist, and David Taylor, bass trombonist, so it was composed with that combination of instrumental forces and musical personalities in mind. I wanted to explore the timbral possibilities that merging the soprano saxophone and bass trombone would offer, as well as provide an environment where the soloists could express themselves in their cadenzas. The first movement has a basis melodically and harmonically with the tetrachords 0123 (from the pitch C, this set would spell C, C♯, D, E♭) as well as 0167 (from the pitch C: C, D♭, F♯, G), as well as other symmetrical sets. There are no cadenzas in this movement, and it functions as an introduction of sorts, but it stands on its own as a complete musical statement, and features the full ensemble of soprano saxophone, bass trombone, and string quartet. The second movement is a duet for soprano saxophone and bass trombone, with no accompanying strings. It is more through composed than the other movements. In its opening bars it features sustained major sevenths and minor ninths that shift dynamically. It increases momentum and becomes kinetic over time, then ending with the slow, and more static and sustained sounds that the movement started with. The strings return in the third movement, featuring the first cadenzas of the work, one for soprano saxophone, accompanied by arco strings, and one for bass trombone, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The overall form is ternary, and the opening sonorities are dominated by the sound of the major seventh ♯5 chord, a sound that I was fascinated with for some reason at the time. I used a two-octave symmetrical scale as the melodic and harmonic basis for the fourth movement, and its transpositions help define the sectional design throughout. While the movement is very carefully planned, in its center there are three sections that highlight Gottfried Stoger’s and David Taylor’s improvisational abilities, creating a contrast to the strict writing of the other parts of the movement. The first two improvised cadenzas are solo (in contrast to the third movement’s accompanied cadenzas that have predefined materials for improvisation), interspersed with composed material that includes the strings, and the third cadenza features both Gottfried and David improvising together as a climax to tension built up in the solo improvisations.

Q: I hear an important juxtaposition of stasis versus motion in your music. Is this a conscious factor for you?

A: Yes it is. I always have been fond of space, the gradual unfolding of musical events and the push and pull between contrasting elements, faced with the challenge of merging them into a cohesive whole. With regard to static material, I prefer the listener to take her/his time in experiencing the music, as there will often be sustained sonic gestures that subtly change gradually over time.

Q: Speaking of space in a piece of music, what do you think of John Cage’s 4’33”?

A: It is a seminal and revolutionary work that was very influential on later composers who, because of 4’3 3”, realized the power of space and silence in music. It is a contemplative piece that has its roots in Eastern philosophies. I frequently use more silence than many other contemporary composers, although there are composers who effectively use much more silence than I do. Ironically, many people argue over the piece’s validity, taking up much more time than the four and a half minutes it takes to experience the piece to begin with. Cage wanted us to experience and listen in different ways than typical culture allows for, and I believe that 4’3 3” achieves its goals beautifully. Cage wrote a lot of wonderful music, 4’3 3” simply being one of his explorations of redefining experience.

Q: What do you think classical music will be like in 50 or 100 years? Which composers writing today do you think will still be heard then (present company excluded, of course!)?

A: It is hard to say because we are living in a climate that is generally hostile to culture and progressive creativity. Certainly there are organizations that help to promote new music, but in general there are very few opportunities, leaving many composers on their own to scrape together resources to get original works heard.

Because of the fact that most composers don’t have the opportunities that existed in the past, they don’t have the chance to experiment and grow as individual entities, so there is not a cultural environment for music to evolve and grow. The reason that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were revolutionary for their time and made their mark as individual and original creative entities was because they were not only talented musicians, but they had access to an environment where they could grow and prosper. The 1950s and ’60s were a great time in America as classical and jazz genres were in their most exciting and creative stages to date. Today, it seems that many of our talented composers and musicians are caught up in performing music for very conservative audiences and for functional events such as weddings, as well as juggling huge teaching loads in order to feed their families, so the creativity portion of their lives ends up being stifled. Perhaps there is a revolution to come, where progressive ideas will come to the forefront of American society again, and thusly will produce an environment conducive to the next stage of progressive music, which will undoubtedly include electronic music in some form. There have been great strides in electro-acoustic music in recent years (although very few people are aware of it, aside from those involved in organizations such as SEAMUS), and perhaps those innovations will shape the music over the next century.

To directly answer your original question, I suspect that current composers such as Tristan Murail, Unsuk Chin, Wolfgang Rihm, and Kaija Saariaho will likely be played in the next 50-100 years. I am not sure about the more minimal and referential composers. I suppose time will tell, but in the current era, there are no longer any household names in the world of contemporary classical composition (composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich were known by the average person during the composers’ lifetimes) so it is clear that the demand for creative personalities has shrunk dramatically over the past few decades. Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way over the next 10 years or so, but it is truly hard to tell with the state of the current media that seems to focus solely on popular music.

Q: How do you think we might go about fostering an environment more conducive to true creativity?

A: The role of primary education is paramount in producing a more creative society. Exposing our youth to the progressive arts as well as traditional forms of art is key, but many educators are too prejudiced against progressive artistic trends and/or are not qualified to present such trends in an objective and wholesome context. This is such a difficult question, because every program or initiative costs money to implement, and there aren’t a lot of institutions that are fostering programs to educate the masses in the progressive arts. It seems that much of the burden lies with us as artists, using social media and the Internet as conduits for disseminating information in a grass roots manner. As a consequence, to make anything meaningful happen, there tends to be a lot of pro bono work and at the expense of the artists themselves. But ironically, it all comes down to us, doesn’t it? If we are not active in producing, performing and promoting our work, especially work that we absolutely believe in, then nothing gets accomplished.

I know so many truly talented people who simply stopped performing and composing because of the discouraging circumstances that pervade through the current age. We do have to persevere and continue to make progressive art and find ways to share it with the public. Perhaps the thinking “outside the box” strategy that a number of artists have embraced, of presenting art music in unconventional spaces, is promising, as well as working with organizations that partner with established groups from other disciplines, (i.e., dance, film, etc.), who tend to have more success in getting funding. With regard to Internet grassroots work, I am currently initiating two new websites:, highlighting under-appreciated composers and performers of new music, and, highlighting aspects of career management and tips for musicians that may be helpful in navigating the difficult waters of a musical vocation.

Q: An unimportant question, perhaps, but I’m curious as to why the order of the pieces on your Causal Dualism album was reversed between the original release and the present Navona disc? There is also, of course, one additional work, Flame of Attention , on this reissue.

A: I decided that Causality would have a stronger impact if it were the first piece on the album. Unfortunately, yet realistically, I am thinking of the MP3 generation, where the first track of an album is the one that people typically listen to, and rarely the others. Additionally, I reordered the movements (switching movement 1 with 2), as there is the hope that it will have a stronger impression on the listener and (more importantly) will improve the overall flow of the work. The additional bonus work Flame of Attention , featuring saxophonist Gottfried Stoger, as well as the enhanced features of the disc (access to the complete scores, as well as other bonus features) makes for a more attractive and more complete product. In addition, the audio also has been completely remixed and remastered by veteran audio engineer John Guth.

Q: Do you foresee the CD as an artifact disappearing in favor of MP3 or other similar formats?

A: It is hard to tell. The problem with the digital paradigm is that music no longer seems to have the importance to the average person as it once did. Tangible, physical objects tend to hold more value than do virtual ones. Perhaps this is slowly changing, or will change over the coming years, but the fact that people have easy access to so many recordings, much of it available for free or seriously reduced cost (either by legal or illegal means), diminishes the value of recorded music significantly. Phonograph records have renewed popularity among the younger generation of serious music listeners, so perhaps the same will happen with CDs. I think the focus today needs to be on live performance and quality music education, starting at a young age, which will enhance the appreciation of music in the coming generation.

Q: In your interview with Zagorski, you mention that you are an active jazz guitarist. Hearing very little of jazz in the works under review (or on the previous set that I reviewed), I am curious if you have written works in a jazz style.

A. I have a few works in the jazz genre that are combo oriented, a collection that I hope to expand in the near future.

Q: What inspired you to write for the unusual (virtually unique, I should think) combination of soprano saxophone and bass trombone?

A. Duality was an opportunity to bring saxophonist Gottfried Stoger and bass trombonist David Taylor together as featured performers. They both had worked together on occasion, and Gottfried came up with the idea of composing a piece for him and David to be premiered at New York’s Merkin Hall. Consequently, we produced a full-length program of my compositions there in 2006 that featured Duality, the closing work of the concert. Combining the timbres of the soprano saxophone and the bass trombone led to the opportunity to experiment with a lot of wonderful colors. Gottfried and David are crossover artists, both with vast experience in performing the genres of both classical and jazz. Both are great improvisers as well, so Duality was an opportunity to have them improvise their cadenzas, in the way that cadenzas were performed traditionally.

Q: Where did you meet Gottfried Stoger and how did you come to write Flame of Attention?

A: I met Gottfried at the University of Miami in the mid 1990s, while we were both in graduate programs there. Gottfried was very supportive of the composition department and he worked with a number of the student composers at UM. At one point we spoke about composing a solo work for soprano saxophone, which was realized with the piece Flame of Attention, and was premiered by Gottfried on a program of new music at UM in 1996. The studio recording on Causal Dualism was engineered at Studio Center in Miami during the same year, and our mutual friend Raul Murciano, Jr., a founding member of and musical director for the Miami Sound Machine, produced the session.

Q: I get the idea from your previous comments that you are wary of technology, while realizing its impact. Will the day come that computers will supersede human composers—as has happened to a degree in chess and other areas? I recognize, of course, that it would be the programmers essentially doing the composing, rather than computers that can do only what they’re told. To elaborate, if all the music of Beethoven were scanned into a database, will it someday be possible to have a computer spit out a new and convincing Beethoven symphony?

A: To me, computer technology is no different than a hammer and a nail or a quill pen and paper. It is simply a tool for expression. From what I understand, there are programs that based on a given algorithm can compose somewhat convincing new compositions based on the style of a given composer. If it comes to the point where computers are taken seriously as “composers” of art music, I think that will be a dark day indeed.

Q: What would you like to do musically that you haven’t yet had an opportunity to accomplish?

A: I am interested in doing more work with electroacoustic music in multimedia settings. I recently saw the DVD of Kyong Mee Choi’s amazing multi-media opera The Eternal Tao, and my reaction was what in the world could I possibly do to equal that? Consequently, I plan to do more collaboration with choreographers in the coming months, including developing interactive electronic music that responds to the movement on the stage. Also, I want to expand my work with controlled improvisation so that it is the focus of entire pieces, especially with large groups. I have done this to a limited degree in a number of my pieces (the symphonic work Emerge, for example), but not for the entire span of a piece. Also, I am developing repertoire for electric guitar, a neglected instrument in the world of progressive classical music, with a hope that it will inspire others to compose more serious works for the electric guitar. In addition, I am interested in expanding my conducting endeavors, with a focus on newly composed works by underappreciated composers of progressive new music.

KRAMER Causality. 1 Duality. 2 Flame of Attention 1 Vit Micka, cond; 2 Keith Kramer, cond; 2,3 Gottfried Stoger (sop sax); 1 Stanislav Behal (pn); 2 David Taylor (bs tbn); 2 Lisa Lee (vn); 2 Wei Tan (vn); 7 Ching Chen Juhl (va); 2 Clara Lee (vc); 1 Moravian PO NAVONA 5886 (71:10)

The present CD is a remastering from an earlier incarnation of the disc, which was reviewed in 31:6 by Colin Clarke. The remastering seems to have fixed the “rather thin” recorded sound of Duality described by Clarke, even if it is not the last word in sonics, and the CD includes one additional work, Flame of Attention.

From the opening mysterious sonorities and other-worldly textures of Causality, the listener will be drawn into the web of the music of Keith Kramer. Causality is scored for string orchestra, percussion, and piano, the latter being more part of the ensemble than a solo instrument. The mood of the work is essentially dark, but shimmering colors frequently break through the mood as points of light in a cloudless night.

As someone who maintains a high interest in apologetics, I was intrigued by the work’s title. The Law of Causality is a key component of classical apologetics, and from the program notes, it would appear that this was in the mind of the composer, for he describes the work as “a reflection of action and reaction that permeates through all events.” Thus it is that the stable (albeit rather dense) harmonies of the first movement produce the harmonic events of the remaining three movements. The opening tri-partite movement moves in its central section towards a more kinetic section, demonstrating organic growth from the initial sonority, but returns to the original stasis at its close. This movement is actually an arrangement of the second movement of Uncertainty Principle, which was included on a recital of Kramer’s music that I reviewed back in 35:4. The original work was scored for saxophone and piano, and the aural effect of the piece heard here is consequently quite different. The second movement is, if anything, more mysterious than the first, and opens with luminescent harmonics in the double basses, accompanied by whispers in the upper strings.

The third movement limits itself to the string instruments alone, and is a bit more tonally centered than the preceding movements. Something about the harmonies and figuration reminds me of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, but it might be just me. An irregular pulsating pizzicato rhythm lends interest to this movement. With 11 sections, the final movement is doubtless the most complex of the work, involving driving rhythms in quintuple meter and its kaleidoscopic array of metric structures. The piano also has a more prominent role in this movement than in any other, but is used mostly in percussive ways. The effect of the whole work is quite striking, and quite unlike any piece that I can recall: I was gripped in interest throughout its duration of more than half an hour. Kramer achieves originality through his personal harmonic and rhythmic language, and not because he is seeking it as an end in itself.

On a casual hearing, Duality might seem a bit aimless to the listener, but closer listening will reveal its subtleties in color, timbre, and figuration. Nevertheless, this work will demand more from the auditor than will Causality. Some of the interest is generated through the unusual colors produced by the juxtaposition of the soprano saxophone and the bass trombone, the latter often muted. The work is cast in four movements, “Divergence,” “Light,” “Glimpse,” and “Clarity.” There are extended passages that forego the string quartet that accompanies the two solo instruments, resulting in a rather thin texture. Tonality is eschewed in favor of fairly complex atonal sonorities—more overt than those in Causality, which allows in at least a modicum of modality. Once again, Kramer proves that, even in this more “difficult” style, he can write music that sounds like that of no one else. The composer gravitates in the work between conflict and agreement between his protagonists, a device that helps sustain interest in a work that defies easy formal analysis (at least with no recourse to a score). Another variable is the juxtaposition of fully notated music with portions that contain elements of improvisation.

Kramer’s impetus for the work seems to have been an examination of such lofty concepts as the self, peace, truth, self-actualization and individualistic self-expression, and in each of these movements, he seeks to explore these concepts. I will state that without prior knowledge of what is intended, few listeners would extract these concepts just hearing the music, which can be enjoyed on its own terms. I am tempted to diverge into a lengthy discourse exploring the 19th-century conflict between the followers of Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick and the disciples of Richard Wagner as it relates to the representation in music of such things, but I shall resist the impulse. In the final movement, there are a few licks that swerve almost into jazz territory, but don’t quite get there. This is a work that invites—nay demands—repeated listening, as it will not begin to reveal all of its secrets on a single hearing. The work’s intricacies are adroitly handled by bass trombonist David Taylor and soprano saxophonist Gottfried Stoger.

Flame of Attention, an addition to the previous incarnation of this CD, is set for solo soprano saxophone, and is also very capably rendered by saxophonist Stoger, who commissioned and premiered it in 1996. Its title is taken from the book by that title by J. Krishnamurti. As in the previous work, disparate elements, including sustained tones, trills, quick figures, flutterings, and the like are woven together in seemingly random fashion, but result in a convincing tapestry. Its two movements combined comprise just over five minutes of playing time.

All three works contained in this recital are well deserving of the attention of those interested in the music of our time. My favorite is Causality, which is an exceptionally strong work, and an important contribution to the chamber orchestra literature of our day. There are additionally scores and other bonus material on the CD that may be accessed through one’s computer. David DeBoor Canfield

Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )
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