Petr Kotik & the SEM Ensemble
“You were looking at the score when you came in?” Petr Kotik asked at the end of our interview, holding up the folio of Tristan Murail’s Gondwana. “It’s difficult!” he laughed.
Given that Kotik is conducting Gondwana in August at a new music festival he’s originated, there’s no reason to doubt his judgment. The music in his hands was a new work for full orchestra by Murail, a Columbia professor renowned for spectral compositions.
But difficult? Kotik is precisely the sort of artist who makes a career out of ushering the difficult into being. The words complex and feasible appear regularly in his conversation. For example, in reference to works by Edgard Varèse, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, he says, “I trained myself as a conductor on these pieces, which are some of the most complex scores of the 20th century”; or, he “was concerned about the feasibility of being able to do it.”
While Kotik’s organizational skills are impressive, so is the support he garners. Several years ago he instigated Ostrava Days New Music Institute and Festival in his native Czech Republic, and in August the three-week teaching workshop and concert series has its second incarnation.
“In scope it is probably the largest project of its kind in the world,” Kotik says. “It’s certainly the only one which has a professional symphony orchestra (the Janacek Philharmonic) as a resident ensemble, working twice a day every day with us.” One focus of this year’s festival is works for three orchestras by audacious composers (Olga Neuwirth, Earle Brown, Somei Satoh, and Kotik)—audacious being another word Kotik resorts to readily. And with just cause, as the realm of his occupations requires it. On the same week as our interview, Kotik and his SEM Ensemble were scheduled for two performances of his Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, a piece that pairs a ten-piece ensemble with vocalists singing Buckminster Fuller texts, a pairing that lasts four uninterrupted hours.
Another telling instance of this complexity/feasibility comes from Kotik’s career as an instrumentalist. A conservatory-trained virtuoso on flute, Kotik had played Feldman’s three trio compositions for flute, vibes, and percussion: Crippled Symmetry, Why Patterns?, and For Philip Guston, all multi-hour works. So he recognized an opportunity when, in 1987, he was “asked by Triannual Festival in Cologne to do a Feldman concert…I suggested to them that we do an all-day, 11 hours with breaks, of all three trios in one day.” Then he did it.
Difficult? Even just in the telling, Kotik’s feat begs distinctions between what’s difficult and what’s artistically necessary.
Kotik leads the SEM Ensemble, a new music group he formed in the early seventies to play his own music and that of composers he admired: Feldman, Cage, Brown, and Christian Wolff are some of the composers he’s presented with SEM. (The ensemble’s press kit makes the declaration that they play music “which should be heard without regard to the opinion of critics and audiences.”)
A decade ago, Kotik’s ardent and steadfast advocacy of other composers’ music advanced to the orchestral level. After forming an orchestra from the SEM ensemble and some pick-up musicians, he conducted the Carnegie Hall debut of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis. When the program was repeated in Berlin he talked the producers into letting himself do something more—yes, audacious. He premiered Feldman’s The Turfan Fragments.
“It is one of the most complex of Feldman’s orchestra pieces,” Kotik says, “and I can see a lot of people shying away from it. You’re conducting bars which are [in the time signature] 5/16; there’s no ordinary techniques to conduct 5/16 to begin with. And you have regular tutti attacks by the orchestra in 5/16 which are very, very complicated, and you have to be really very clear to the orchestra, otherwise they can not possibly play.
“So I had to sort of invent the gesture. And in many ways, as I discovered much later, this was an advantage to my not being trained as a conductor, because I was not given any preconceived, wrong ideas how to do things. So it ended up well, and here I am, 10 years later, being considered a conductor with a great deal of expertise in this kind of music.”
This career outgrowth has led to engagements conducting concerts internationally, and recordings of orchestral works by Cage, Feldman, and Maria de Alvear. Kotik’s own music has also grown to orchestral scale: Music in Two Movements, four years in the making, was premiered last year at Alice Tully Hall, and Kotik will premier Variations for 3 Orchestras this summer at Ostrava Days.
The late April revival of Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking had a preview concert at SEM’s base, the Willow Place Auditorium in Brooklyn Heights, with the main event two nights later at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. Kotik has been presenting SEM concerts at Cooper’s gallery since it was based in SoHo. In 2000 they co-founded the label Dog w/a Bone to release SEM recordings including Feldman’s chamber music, the complete music of Marcel Duchamp with John Cage, and multi-disc sets of Feldman’s For Phillip Guston and Kotik’s Many Many Women.
Kotik composed Explorations from 1978 to 1980. As with its predecessor, Many Many Women (with texts by Gertrude Stein), it is a multi-hour work for voices and ensemble. It takes its name from the subtitle to Fuller’s Synergetics, and interweaves texts from the social architect’s 1400 page magnum opus. Kotik wrote the vocal parts using compositional techniques that utilize graphs and Cageian indeterminacy, as he had done with Many Many Women, but there the performing structures of the two large works diverge.
The score of Many Many Women is broken into six parts which are equally divided between the singers and the instrumentalists who select their own parts and thereby select the overriding texture of a given performance.
On the other hand, once finished with the vocal parts for Explorations, Kotik went on to compose its musical accompaniment, Chamber Music. (On May 15, SEM performed a portion of Chamber Music alone for the first time at a Music Under Construction concert).
“Towards the end of composing Many Many Women, I started to be more and more concerned with the content of the text. [With] the Stein text, the main interest was in the form and in the language. The content repeats itself in such a way that if you don’t get what it’s about now you get it next minute or next hour; it comes back and forth. I was more and more interested in content and at that time I was reading everything by Buckminster Fuller I could get my hands on. Since I was so concerned with content, I didn’t want to divide Explorations between the instrumentalists and the singers and lose half of the text as I did in the Gertrude Stein piece.”
Explorations achieves a sonic balance across its epic duration, with solos and choral passages for voices both with and without instrumental accompaniment, and other passages where various combinations of instruments (flute, clarinet, trombones, string quartet) are at the fore. In addition, there’s a subtle dramatics at work as the vocalists rise from seats to the line of music stands, where they assemble and reform among their places. The ensemble, seated in a horseshoe-shaped arrangement alongside the coalescing and dispersing vocalists, creates a visual contrast distinct from Explorations’ suspended, variegated aural impact.
At both the Willow Place and Paula Cooper performances, the audience came and went over the course of the evening. There’s a liberatory quality to this latitude, unintentionally trumping attendance expectations and freeing the listener to make what he or she will of the music they’re hearing, or are able to remain for.
A variety of performance choices are worked into the score. Highlights at the Willow Place preview concert included soloist Thomas Buckner’s startling, quavering singing, and a late, alerting trombone solo by Tom Hutchinson that was both gossamer and gutsy. But at the Cooper Gallery, the trombone part vanished, replaced by swelling power shared by vocalists Lisa Biewala and Gayla Morgan that culminated in vivid solo passages.
Explorations derives from plainsong and polyphony, as harmonically intense as it is materially familiar—a familiarity of working components vaulted to extreme duration. The nature of the texts Kotik works with is striking: Fuller’s placement of humankind within a radical, natural awareness, Stein’s skirting of meaning to mine it.
A 15-minute excerpt from Explorations concludes a 1989 CD on the Ear-Rational label that serves as a good introduction to Kotik’s music. Solos and Incidental Harmonies, also included on the disc, opens with Kotik’s lilting and rising flute. The horn ensemble joins and the piece takes on a suspended processional air. This gives way to solemn solo violin by Mayuki Fukuhara; joined by percussion, they flirt in a jig contrasted by spare horns. The horns then morph into a passage of fascinating charts before paring back down gradually to end. But not too gradually; the formal effect of this structure makes a vivid impression in memory.
The CD’s first track, Wilsie Bridge, steps straight in to utterly jazz-like propulsion for flutes, trumpets, keyboards, and eight percussionists (“nonclimactic, uninflected music that nonetheless moves forward,” as critic Richard Kostelanetz wrote).
After embarking on orchestra conducting, Kotik orchestrated and modified Wilsie Bridge under the new title Quiscent Form, thus giving his SEM Ensemble both a new piece for their repertory, and an ever larger field to play on. Perhaps, for Petr Kotik, difficulties are these as-yet unwrapped opportunities.
Alan Lockwood’s previous Dimensions in Music column was on composer/sound gallerist Michael J. Schumacher in the Rail’s Autumn 2002 issue.