EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight – Kristin Kuster

Composer Kristin Kuster is the earliest EarShot participant we are catching up with to commemorate 25 years of new music readings. ACO awarded Kristin the Underwood Commission for which she wrote Myrrha, a work for choral singers and orchestra praised by The New York Times as being written “commandingly for the orchestra.”

We caught up with Kristin to talk about her experience at ACO’s Readings in 2004 and see what advice she has for this year’s participants.

Composer Kristin Kuster

American Composers Orchestra: What impact did your experience at the Whitaker New Music Readings in 2004, and the resulting Underwood commission which you won, have on your career and your voice as a composer?
Kristin Kuster: Both my experience at the Whitaker Readings and the subsequent writing of the Underwood commission had an enormous impact on my compositional voice and my career. The Readings sessions were an intensely fun, and thrilling, learn-about-orchestration boot camp. I knew while preparing to apply to the Readings that–and this is the most valuable thing about the Readings–composers come out of it with recordings of their pieces, to which they can return in the future to improve their orchestration skills. Because of this, the piece I submitted for the Readings had a handful of overall sections that varied significantly in their orchestration. My goal for the piece was to lay out a menu of wildly different orchestral textures, in order to hear what worked well and what sounded like scrambled eggs.

And WOW, some bits of that piece sounded yucky and didn’t work at all, which was great because I got to try it out! The most awesome gift from the Readings session was that I learned, from the mentor composers and ACO’s musicians, precisely why certain passages didn’t work. In addition, it was tremendous fun, interesting, and informative to hear the new pieces written by my peers–all of which were cool in unique ways. Also, a magical and unexpected bi-product of my Whitaker Readings participation was that it was at these sessions that I met and had the initial connection with one of my most cherished composer-friends, (you know who you are).

Now, ten years later, I can see that having Myrrha premiered by the ACO for the Underwood commission was a significant catalyst for my future. However, what I love and find most interesting about this outcome is that the catalyst wasn’t solely due to the reception and/or publicity that surrounded the premiere, as that stuff is often fleeting. Primarily, it is the recording of the premiere that has served as a huge, yet not for public use, behind-the-scenes tool for me. I’ve turned to this recording often in the decade since Myrrha‘s premiere: to keep learning and to continue to draw upon the orchestration techniques I find most beautiful in the piece, and I am forever grateful to the ACO for the personal mileage this piece has provided since 2006.

ACO: The New York Times described you as writing “commandingly for the orchestra” in its review of Myrrha, the Underwood commission premiered by the ACO in 2006. Trying to summarize what can be a lifetime’s work, what do you think it takes to write “commandingly” for an orchestra?
KK: It takes writing buckets of scrambled eggs. The best way to learn how to write “commandingly” for any instrumentation is to DO IT, and to do it a lot. Keep doing it. Do it well, and do it poorly. Write sounds that sound awesome, and write sounds that turn out to be nothing more than merely serviceable or terrible. Produce gorgeous scores, and make glaring errors on those scores. The more we do it and hear where things are not as clear as we want them to be, the better we learn how to improve our writing.

The figuring-out of how to unscramble all the musical eggs is the primary reason services like the ACO Readings are imperative for our field. Composers need to hear, both in real time and in retrospection with a recording, what it is in the nuts and bolts of our music that is of best use in expressing whatever it is we wish to express.

ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?
KK: All of it. Literally, every moment of the Readings is beneficial. I wish there were enough space for every composer interested in writing for orchestra to participate. The mentors’ feedback is invaluable and useful. The ACO’s musicians’ and staff’s and administration’s feedback are invaluable and useful. All of the participating composers’ feedback is invaluable and useful. Hearing what one’s peers are doing in their music is invaluable and useful. The Readings are a giant buffet of beneficial information, all of which the composers can draw from in every second of their future writing.

ACO: What advice would you give this year’s seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?
KK: Congratulations! You are about to hear your terrific piece! Yay!!!

Now, calm down. Relax. Chill your self. Going into an experience such as this, while carrying the notion that it’s going to “make or break” your “career” is not only silly, it is untrue. The experience of these Readings will impact and have significance for your artistry and your music in ways you cannot yet identify, so leave your ego on a subway platform or in a cab en route to the gig–it is not useful to you in this experience. There is zero need to be nervous or worry, your music is in fabulous hands with the ACO, and it’s going to go great!

The Readings do go by quickly. If you drink coffee, pace yourself, as going over the Coffee Edge is a Real Thing, people. It’s a total rush of excitement, and a flurry of creative and sonic input while you hear your piece. At the same time, hearing this amount of new and equally-terrific orchestral music by your peers, in this compact and intense amount of time, is both invigorating and taxing on the musical brain. Having cookies available for snacks = invaluable and useful.

Listen to every single ounce of feedback: read the answer to question #3 above, again. For real, read it again.

Even if some feedback doesn’t resonate with you right away, it is still useful information. Listen. Take notes. Then go have another cookie snack.

Most importantly: connect and engage thoughtfully with your peers, and remember to ENJOY YOURSELF.

After the readings, you will in fact come down off your amazing ACO-Readings buzz. The good news is: now you have your recording, to which you can refer and from which you can learn if ever you decide to, or are asked to, cook up some fresh eggs.

Learn more about Kristin at www.kristinkuster.com

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