Ten Questions for Phil Kline
Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night – which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.
One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?
Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.
If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.
LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?
PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.
LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?
PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.
LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?
PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.
LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?
PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!
LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?
PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.
LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?
PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.
LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?
PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.
LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.
PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.
LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…
PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.
ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.
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