A recent talk with composer/pianist Gregg Kallor yielded insight into his sensitive music writing and the well-thought-out choices he makes when performing and creating music.
All photos: courtesy of Gregg Kallor
Kallor’s widely praised and original work: “Espresso Nirvana,” from the 2013 recording of his New York City-inspired piano suite, A Single Noon, which he premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall and performed at New York’s downtown music hub SUBCULTURE, led us into a vivid discussion about the labeling of musical works. How much of a work should the title reveal without becoming a blatant description; how much should it facilitate the crossing over between the different channels of music and literary imagery? Does the title come first, or the music?
“I like it when the title opens a window into the music without imposing a specific narrative,” says Kallor, who explains that in most cases, the titles to his compositions are picked at a later point. “But a title can also help define a piece during the writing process. It’s interesting how much a title can help establish or define the parameters of a piece, which can then be stretched or broken or whatnot. Once I’ve found what a piece is about - whether it’s a musical idea or a programmatic element - everything sort of fits into place.”
Literati have inspired Kallor’s album Exhilaration. Released on his own label in 2008, it’s based on his debut concert performance at Weill Hall, presented by the Abby Whiteside Foundation in 2007. Kallor’s cycle for voice and piano pays tribute to literary masterpieces by Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. In Exhilaration, Kallor renders artful glimpses of singular musical impressions, or moments, which in Dickinson’s oeuvre appears as a metaphor for the essence of being: “And it is the moment to which she so compellingly calls our attention… she illuminates these fleeting sensations with exquisite nuance urging us to savor them before they vanish forever,” describes Kallor persuasively in his CD’s liner notes.
Inspired by Yeats’ lilting rhythms and strong cadences, Kallor aimed to capture the sound of the poet’s words, and the vulnerability that transpires in his poems. But his inspiration to compose was ignited no less by his collaborator on the Exhilaration disc, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala. “…She seeks a very personal connection to what she is singing and makes these songs come alive in a way that I had hoped for when composing them, but couldn’t quite imagine.”
Thematic ideas often suggest themselves as titles to Kallor during the composition process; as he mentions, associations that come up while creating a musical soundscape of a new piece, and certain narratives within that musical content, tend to stand out to him. Kallor’s inspiration from Dickinson’s allegory of the loss of a “single noon” as instantaneous, arrested present - nothing but essence - is an important leitmotif in Kallor’s work, and ultimately transformed itself into his last disc’s title: A Single Noon.
Most importantly, Kallor recognizes the direct impact of artists’ performances on him. A certain voice or way of a performer with his instrument, and the performer’s personal connection with the audience (which includes the composer) are important stimuli for Kallor’s creative process. “I get excited when I have someone in mind; I hear the sound of that person playing or singing in my ear. It makes it real.”
This inspiration is of great importance to Kallor as he explores chamber music collaborations for his new recordings and performances: “I look for superb musical instincts in a collaborator, because another musician’s interpretation can change the way I approach one of my own pieces. And I look for someone I’d like to have a beer with. I find that the two often go hand in hand.”
Some of the material for his recent pieces, including Short Stories for violin and piano, was conceived while Kallor was in his awarded residency at Copland House. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Hands down. I woke up before dawn every day, watched the sun come up with my morning coffee, and sat down to work. No distractions. No other responsibilities. Just me and a piano.”
The grounds, complete with great hiking possibilities for the avid hiker in Kallor, offered an ideal solitude, which enabled a total absorption into working, without any of the usual concrete distractions of life, and in particular life in New York City, where Kallor currently resides.
Among other projects, the fruit of Kallor’s intense experience at Copland House was a concerto for piano and orchestra, he reveals as he describes those weeks in February of 2012 spent surrounded by sublime nature at the Copland estate.
Kallor also thinks about the interplay of freedom and structure within his compositions and in its combination of freestyle improvisation and composed (notated) music. In his recording of A Single Noon, both disciplines shape the musical narrative, though the suite may be performed without improvisation, as well. “I wanted to give pianists the option to improvise on the themes in a few sections of A Single Noon if that’s their thing, but I designed it to be performed both ways.” Growing up, improvisation came naturally to Kallor, who trained as a classical as well as a jazz pianist. Six-time Grammy nominee, pianist/composer Fred Hersch, one of Kallor’s mentors, paid tribute to Kallor’s work, describing it as: “the work of an extraordinary pianist, a composer of great distinction, and a true conceptualist.”
Kallor usually programs a combination of his own music and works by other composers, mixing genres and incorporating some improvisation in concerts. “I often have an impulse to change something in my music during a performance, and I always follow it. I won’t do that with another composers’ music, but with my own it gives me a sense of freedom and alertness that, I think, carries through an entire concert. I want it to feel both uncertain and inevitable. Like with Argerich - you know she’s going to nail it, but you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time, even with pieces you know! It’s like you’ve never heard it before and have no idea what’s coming next. I love that.”
In May, 2014, Kallor will perform A Single Noon at London’s “The Forge"