Karl Kohn is highly respected as a composer and pianist, not just in Los Angeles but also throughout the world. He’s also had a long career both as a teacher and on the board of directors of Monday Evening Concerts. In light of the upcoming Piano Spheres concert (this coming Tuesday, November 7), where Mark Robson will be playing a solo piano work by Kohn (Seven Brevities), I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about composing, his long performance career as a pianist, Monday Evening Concerts, and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Having served for two decades on the board of directors for Monday Evening Concerts, could you tell us about your experience there? Do any particular memories stand out?
The connection with MEC was very important for my wife Margaret and me. Under Lawrence Morton’s directorship the concerts were an opportunity to hear and to perform old repertoire as well as many new works, both by contemporary American and by European composers. Our collaborations and friendship with Pierre Boulez was special and delightful, but the list of other wonderful and meaningful composers and musicians with whom we worked is very lengthy.
Has your childhood growing up in Vienna informed the type of music you like to play/write? How so?
I was brought up in the Viennese Classics but also played some Debussy and Ravel. It was not until the years at Harvard that I played my first piece of twentieth-century music, Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. My freshman advisor at Harvard, Edward Ballantine, sent me packages of music while I served in the Army on Tinian in the Marianas, shipments that included works by Scriabin, Stravinsky, and the last two volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I was a lucky guy.
You’ve composed for a wide range of instrumentations/genres of concert music. Do you have a favorite instrumentation/genre that you like to write for? Least favorite?
I have no favorites, either in the instrumentations/genres, and no favorites, really, among the works that I have composed – I like “all my children!”
Having written extensively for orchestra, what are your thoughts about composing for this medium? Has your opinion changed over time?
I loved writing for orchestra, and also for symphonic band. But for a Los Angeles-area composer (and especially a reasonably shy one situated way out in Claremont) writing for orchestra is not rich in opportunities. Nevertheless I have written several large orchestral works and all have had performances. In recent years, however, I have written and continue to write mostly for smallish chamber combinations of instruments.
How has your performance career as a pianist informed your career as a composer, and vice versa?
I imagine that my career as a pianist has had a very powerful impact on my compositional career, and I have written very much music for the piano, both solo and duo, and also for chamber groups that include the piano.
Your wife Margaret also has a long career as a pianist, and the two of you have performed together as a duo across the world. How do you inspire/encourage each other? What has your career of performing together been like?
Margaret and I started performing together while we were undergraduates at Harvard, almost seventy years ago – wow! For me certainly it has been a great joy to rehearse and play together with her these many years – indeed a blessed life.
Along with composing, you’ve also had a long career as a teacher. What are your thoughts about teaching? Do you find that it changes the way you look at music?
I taught at Pomona College for 44 years and have been retired from teaching since 1994. I like to think that it was a mutually beneficial experience both for my students and me.
You’re known for having a unique voice as a composer, which links an innovative musical style with a deep understanding of European classical tradition. How did your voice as a composer evolve? Where do you find the main sources of your inspiration?
As for my voice as a composer: I was brought up at Harvard in the milieu of American neo-classicism, admiring the music of my teachers Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and also Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. The Monday Evening Concerts and three sabbatical years in Europe gave me an opportunity to stay abreast of current developments from mostly in Europe while at the same time retaining my feet on the ground with teaching – albeit wonderful but more or less initially “unwashed” – undergraduates at Pomona College. I consider that my “style” since the late 1960’s has been referential to the broad historic past of Western, i.e. European and American, art music.
What advice do you have for emerging composers?
Get to know as much music of the past and present as possible, but be aware that this is getting to be ever more difficult in our current musical world. There is no any longer just one musical heritage but rather, in the words of David Noon, a former student: we live now in “a condominium of Babel!”
Check out Piano Spheres for more information on the upcoming concert, Tuesday November 7.