The man behind the mountain music
With his dashing good looks and young age of 35, Bravo!’s composer-in-residence Kevin Puts cuts a different figure than one might expect of a typical composer, but his list of accolades speak for themselves. The award-winning composer, who will debut “Two Mountain Scenes for Orchestra” on July 25, sits down with us for a chat about inspiration, odd commissions and the eccentricities of composers.
Vail Daily: When you began writing your new piece for Bravo!, how did you start? Do you already have ideas floating around that you incorporate, or do you always start from scratch?Kevin Puts: What I always want to do is write something that’s appropriate for the concert. Even though it’ll premiere in New York, it’s for Vail, so I wanted something with mountains as backdrop – that’s why it’s known as “Two Mountain Scenes.” But I’m also writing for the New York Philharmonic, and they’re an amazing virtuoso orchestra, so I can use their talents as a showpiece for the Philharmonic. But it’s not easy. I started with several ideas, threw it out and finally arrived at the music that I used. But my main two points of inspiration were the (New York Philharmonic) orchestra and the setting in the mountains. VD: When you work on a commission, how much free reign are you given?KP: Usually it’s pretty free; almost always I’m only told how long of a piece they want. As far as programming, they want to know if it’s going to be a five minute piece or five hours. In this case, people will be relaxing and drinking wine, so they probably don’t want me to write something depressing or tragic. But it’s not that I’m not allowed to; that’s what I love about what I do. Maybe there’s a certain kind of music that I want to write, and as long as the music is convincing I can say what I want. That’s not necessarily true if you’re writing theatrical music or music for film – everything is absolutely controlled in those situations.
VD: What are some of the strangest or most exotic commissions you’ve received?KP: Orchestral commissions are pretty tame, but I’ve had commissions that premiere in Japan and that’s an excuse to go. I think the coolest thing I did – and I didn’t hear the piece live – I wrote something for a percussion group in Japan. They had six marimbas players who were singing while they played. They sent me a recording, and it’s six Japanese guys in a circle with marimbas, all singing in the circle.VD: It seems like a huge leap between playing an instrument and composing for an entire orchestra. How did you make that leap?KP: Well, I always composed. When I was young, I improvised on the piano and made up music. I had a piano teacher who encouraged me ad helped me write things down. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a pianist or composer or both until undergrad at Eastman (School of Music). Composing is a lifelong pursuit – it was more exciting than playing the piano, because I never knew what would happen next – I was always exploring the unknown. I can pursue myself, and the music can be more me. I’m starting to arrive at a voice which hopefully no one else has. But it wasn’t until I was 21, 22 that I knew I wanted to pursue composition.VD: Who are your favorite composers?KP: I’d say my favorite composer is Mozart, but you learn from all the great masters. I’m not sure my music reflects my appreciation for Mozart as much as Ravel or Mahler. But my music sometimes ends up being influenced more by those than ones I would rather listen to. Ravel has a way of using the orchestra that I sometimes use. I’m also inspired by modern composers – John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Michael Torke.VD: Does pop music ever creep its way into your works?
KP: I think in harmony, my music is related to pop music. Experts in the field relate the harmony and chords to Mahler or Debussy, but I think some of it comes from ’80s pop music – things like Chicago tunes. Their way of using harmony is rich and beautiful. I find my own way of doing it, but that’s sort of where it comes from. In the ’80s, pop music was harmonically more interesting than it is now. I’m really into alternative musicians like Bjork and Radiohead. I even wrote a piece inspired by (Bjork’s) “Vespertine.” There’s the harmonics, which I loved, and the tamboral sounds. I do that in my own way, using a variety of tambor and color.VD: You’ve achieved a lot of success early in your career; is there ever any kind of ageism, or any sort of resistance because you’re a younger composer or you don’t fit the traditional mold?KP: I always think about that, but I’ve never been asked that question. It’s not like I encounter it, but it may be there. There is some sense of pressure to cultivate a certain sense of image – people almost always want composers to be eccentric. I’m certainly weird, but I don’t try to project that. Maybe they’re disappointed or off-put, but all I care about is the music I write, and I do it with absolute passion and conviction.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado