5 Questions to Gregg Kallor (composer, pianist)

Composer-pianist Gregg Kallor is completing the first of a two-season residency at New York City’s SubCulture, marked by the world premiere of a new piano trio. Influenced by a fusion of classical and jazz traditions, Kallor’s deeply personal musical language has drawn attention across a great diversity of contemporary media, including his inventive music videos, which have amassed over 650,000 views on YouTube. Kallor is SubCulture’s first composer-in-residence, a position that will continue through the 2015-2016 season.

Congratulations on wrapping your first season as composer-in-residence at SubCulture! Looking back, what have been your strongest realizations in terms of the responsibilities due this role; how has the experience influenced your work and outlook?

Thanks – it’s been fantastic! One of the most influential and exciting aspects of the residency so far has been writing for specific people. It’s helped me be a little less precious with this note choice or that rhythm, and focus more on how Joshua or Miranda or Adriana or Matthew will shape the phrase. And with so many interesting projects and collaborations in a relatively short amount of time, I’ve come to realize that the practical matters most. What works? What’s effective/poignant/real? And what’s possible in the time we’ve got to write, rehearse, and perform it? Of course, I’m a little spoiled for the upcoming concert on June 11 – Joshua and Miranda are phenomenal musicians who can play anything. Amazingly well.

Looking forward to your second season as composer-in-residence, is there anything new and exciting you plan to explore in your work that has been a direct result of this experience?

Marc Kaplan, the artistic director of SubCulture, and I have been very excited about the collaborative aspect of the residency, and we’ve been talking about continuing to explore what emerges from partnerships that push me in new directions. What happens, for instance, when I write something for a singer-songwriter + string quartet? Or an a cappella vocal quartet? Or a piece for chamber ensemble, rhythm section, and piano with improvisation? There will likely by a larger-scale work, as well. We’re still planning, so stay tuned!

Gregg Kallor

Gregg Kallor

As a composer-performer, do the choices that go into your compositional process differ considerably between works you intend to perform (or in which you plan to be involved as a performer) and those you devise for other, variable ensembles?

I try to compose everything from the perspective of a performer. Whether I play the piece or not, I want it to be something that can breathe in performance – that is specific enough to say something, but dynamic and flexible enough to allow a performer to make it her/his own. I probably take more technical risks in the piano music I write, simply because I know the instrument so well. When I write for other instruments, I feel a little bit like I’m sleeping on someone else’s couch. It’s super important to me that other musicians feel comfortable playing the pieces I write – or are enticed enough to get a little uncomfortable! – so I always check in with several people to find out what really works and what doesn’t. Performing a piece several times is really the best way to know.

As an extension to my last, do you think of these works as having been written for yourself, so to speak? Do you write to accommodate or suit your ability or to challenge yourself as a performer?

They’ve all started out as pieces for me to play at SubCulture, but I hope that they become pieces that others want to play! Collaborating with such phenomenal musicians as Adriana and Matthew and Joshua and Miranda gives the music new context, and it certainly affects how and what I write.

Any music I write is going to stem from – and likely suit – my way of playing/hearing music. Piano music, especially. I look for ways to nudge what comes naturally into new areas (for me) so that my writing and playing keep moving forward, but I hope that the challenges of playing it (and having written it) are sort of behind the scenes. In a performance, I’m most interested in connecting with the people who are kind enough to give me their focused attention for a little while – and the musicians with whom I’m playing.

I want whatever I write to feel honest and compelling to me, and keep me on toes as a performer so that I’m fully engaged – and so the people playing with me or listening are fully engaged. Without creating an undue burden. Like cooking a new dish with familiar ingredients, or a familiar dish with new ingredients. Either way, I want something tasty and satisfying; all the better if it makes me raise an eyebrow (in a good way) while I’m chewing.

Gregg Kallor

Gregg Kallor

Your work has been described as a unique fusion of jazz and classical traditions — do you think of your work as falling into these various categories, or trending toward one or the other on a piece-by-piece basis (this is a jazz piece, this is a classical piece, etc.)? Does it matter to you when people draw comparisons like these?

The great thing about my generation of performers is that these categories have mostly fallen away for us. For me, it’s the through-line of a composition – a narrative arc – that’s important, and that should transcend category.

One of the things I love about SubCulture – why this residency feels so right – is that everything is welcome there: the most beloved classics and the most cutting edge new music of every type. It’s all about the character and quality of the music that’s performed, and the experience of making and sharing music.

Different people tell me that they hear different things in my music, which makes me happy. It’s natural to make associations with what we know, and if that gives someone a way into my music, I’m all for it. Some people hear classical influences in what I write. Cool. Some hear jazz. Great. Yes. All of it. As long as they listen and, I hope, enjoy it.

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