Working Under the
Spirit of Aaron Copland
The composer Mark Kilstofte recently completed an enviable, if daunting, experience. Ensconced in solitude on a wooded hilltop here, he found that his only responsibilities were music. Food was delivered, a donated car awaited his every whim and a housekeeper arrived punctually to whisk away the dust. As he worked at a makeshift desk, only the sighs of trees swaying outside a glass-enclosed studio gave hint to the outside world. At 40, he said, such solitude was richly appreciated, especially since his usual life had been so hectic. Mr. Kilstofte, on leave from teaching music at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., was laying the groundwork for the first movement of a symphony before the six weeks allotted to him were over. As the second composer-in-residence at the Copland House, the restored house in which Aaron Copland lived for the last 30 years of his life, Mr. Kilstofte might have been forgiven some trepidation. After all, the desk -- a broad plank atop two sawhorses -- had been Copland's, and he produced many memorable works there.
Instead, living amid Copland's momentos -- candid photographs of himself with Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein, framed portraits of Igor Stravinsky and Franz Liszt, well-thumbed music journals in the spare but cozy bedroom -- brought the younger composer spiritually close to Copland. "I thought about him all the time," Mr. Kilstofte said. "For the first few days it was a little intimidating, but later when I went out I kind of missed him. It was a touching experience to be connected with that man." And speaking of the studio, Mr. Kilstofte said, "It was a wonderful room for solitude and thinking -- almost holy in a sense."
The first Copland composer-in-residence, Allen Shearer, lived in the house with his wife, Barbara. Mr. Kilstofte's girlfriend came from Ohio to visit him, but otherwise, he had only her picture for company. The quiet hours, however, worked their magic: Mr. Kilstofte, who has published 24 works for orchestra, band, chorus and chamber ensembles, said he had grown in ways he could not have predicted. For one thing his composing style had changed. "I tend to write in a very compact manner," he said, indicating the music sheets spread across the desk. "Here, I let myself fill space I never let myself fill before. This house is kind of a metaphor for that. All this space has allowed me to open up on a number of levels."
Copland's musical influence has been important,
too, he said. "I've always liked his music. The side that
might call esoteric is becoming more and more appealing to me."
Copland is probably best known for "Appalachian Spring," "Rodeo" and
the Kid" -- tuneful, spirited works often heard on the radio -- he also
composed 12-tone pieces and other, less readily accessible music.
"Without comparing myself to Copland, I'm aware of competing forces
myself," Mr. Kilstofte said. "I write music appealing to a lot of
people, but there's another force leading me to write music as close to
the edge as I can get, to make a definitive personal statement. I
sense Copland was dealing with these issues -- being esoteric versus
'The Call' Is
Musical Dream Come True
Ann Hicks, Arts Writer
The year 2002 is turning out splendidly for composer and Furman University music theory professor Mark Kilstofte. The lean Midwesterner, blessed with the kind of wholesome looks that National Public Radio's Garrison Keillor would cast as "Norwegian bachelor farmer," says he's looking forward to doing as the Romans do -- after winning the 106th annual Prix de Rome. He's one of just two composers selected for the 2002-03 honor. The Rome Prize is a coveted award given to American scholars and artists by the American Academy in Rome. In addition to musical composition, the Academy grants prizes in nine other disciplines, including architecture, literature and medieval studies. Other composers who have received the prize are Samuel Barber, Randall Thompson and Howard Hanson. The 43-year-old Kilstofte will live and work for a year in Italy at the Academy's 18-building, 11-acre site atop Rome's Janiculum Hill.
Kilstofte says he was surprised when he got "the call" from Rome. After all, some of his paperwork didn't even meet the Academy's deadline, due to mail delays caused by the anthrax scare. There was also an interview in New York City with five distinguished composers, including 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner John Harbison. Kilstofte had to field numerous questions, including some about musical influences. "I grew up singing Bach chorales in a modest-sized Lutheran church in Pueblo, Colo., where my older sister played the organ. All the technical aspects of that music kind of seeped into my pores in that span of time. I'm really grateful for having that kind of background."
His own composing process, he says, "is quite slow and laborious, and after I finish a piece, I feel like I have carved out a part of me that needs to grow back before I can write another." His award-winning works have been performed by numerous vocal and orchestral ensembles, including the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, the San Francisco Choral Artists and the Lutheran Choir of Chicago. Kilstofte composes in several stages, during which he does a lot of thinking and visualizing, he says. There's a good bit of improvising on the piano, "sounding like I'm going crazy at the keyboard," to get a sense of where the piece is going. After a certain direction is established, Kilstofte "puts note to page." It's like constructing a building, he says. First, there's the architectural plan. "You don't just go out into the field and start laying down bricks."
Kilstofte says that some of the time he writes in response to individual events, such as his fiancee's birthday -- a cello solo. Other times he might be meeting commission deadlines or just expressing his creativity. One of his best-known works, Recurring Dreams: Variations for Orchestra, happened as a result of repeated messages from his subconscious through serial dreams on the same theme. "In my dream, I live in a very small, cramped apartment for a long time. One day, I notice this door that I've never seen before. I open it and find myself in a very large space, room after room vacant and dusty, needing only to be cleaned and occupied." Sometimes in the dream he would find that just beyond the door was a ballroom with nine grand pianos. "So I looked at that as a kind of metaphor," he says, "that ultimately I was placing a lot of creative and other types of restrictions on my life and on my work." Recurring Dreams starts off with a kind of a sleep music based on this one idea. It is followed by several variations that get faster and faster, and longer and longer, before drifting into a lullaby at the end. Kilstofte calls it "a perfect example how life and the creative process can intertwine."
The main thrust of Kilstofte's year in Italy will be to complete the symphony he began about four years ago. At present, the second movement is complete, and the first, third and possibly fourth movements must be composed. "This is the kind of project that I have a terrible time doing when I have all the distractions of teaching and life itself," the composer says. "So, this prize allows me not only huge blocks of time daily, but in a sense a very long block of time to concentrate just on that, to be able to complete that work." Afterwards, he said, he wants to continue teaching. "I don't know if I'll ever be satisfied composing full time. Because there is a certain balance, an equilibrium, that teaching and composing provide."
Kilstofte's latest success came just two weeks ago when the Dale Warland Singers announced that he was chosen from 254 nationwide applicants for a $7,000 choral work commission to be premiered in DWS's 2003-04 season in St. Paul. Could life be any sweeter in 2002? Well, there are some things to attend to before he heads for Rome in September, such as his wedding to Greenville Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Leslie Nash.
Persistence paid off for composer Mark Kilstofte of Furman
Ellen Bache, Contributing Writer
When composer Mark Kilstofte's "Recurring Dreams: Variations for Orchestra" was premiered by the Oakland East Bay Symphony two years ago, the critics loved it. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "an exciting and beautiful score full of rhythmic vitality and sonic invention." The Montclarion dubbed it "intriguing." The Oakland Tribune proclaimed it "a significant addition to the orchestral repertoire." All this praise for the piece Kilstofte, now a Furman University professor, had almost given up on, that had dragged him through every artist's nightmare of rejection and self-doubt.
Although he was in his early 30s when he wrote it, 41-year-old Kilstofte felt from the beginning that it was one of his better works. A "dabbler" in composition even during his early years of playing piano and French horn, he attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he was "on track to be a vocal performer but had an increasing interest in the way music was put together" that led him to begin composing seriously. Later in graduate school at the University of Michigan, "Recurring Dreams" was the piece he completed for his doctorate.
He began sending it out even before coming to Greenville in 1992 to teach at Furman. "I submitted it for five or six years," he says. "I left no stone unturned. I called people, and I wrote letters. If any conductor seemed at all open to looking at the piece, I would send the score." He was also writing other pieces -- he describes his style as "contemporary classical" -- which began to be performed in concert halls from Chicago to Spain. He authored more than 20 published works for orchestra, band, chorus and chamber ensembles. The recipient of a number of grants and awards, Kilstofte was considered an up-and-coming composer. But no one wanted "Recurring Dreams."
I really labored to get it performed," he recalls, "and although I was a little discouraged all along, by the time this contest came up, I was getting seriously discouraged and was just about to put it on the shelf. But I thought, 'I'll give it this one last shot.' " It won the prestigious ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Award in 1997. The same day he learned about the award, Kilstofte got a call from the conductor who wanted to premiere "Recurring Dreams" in Oakland.
"That turned out to be pivotal in my career and in my life," Kilstofte says. "It taught me the value of perseverence and not giving up on what you believe in, even if you get the sense that others don't. Hearing the work is so important. What was abstract to me about how to deal with a large orchestra was made more real by hearing it -- hearing what you imagine you've done."
Since then, the theme of "Recurring Dreams" has in many ways played itself out in the composer's life. The piece was inspired "by an actual dream I used to have and sometimes still do have," Kilstofte says. "I dreamed that I'd been living for about five years in a cramped apartment, and I was frustrated by that. Then one day I opened a door and discovered I'd been living in only about a fourth of the space." The unsuspected rooms that opened out and out are portrayed in the music by eight variations on a French cradle song that becomes increasingly louder and longer and "larger." But in Kilstofte's real life, the opening up of spaces has been much more than a metaphor. For one thing, he's had a chance to work in a bigger space, at least temporarily, and found it changed his composing style. During six weeks as the composer-in-residence at Aaron Copland's spacious estate in Westchester County, N.Y., he wrote in a glass-enclosed studio atop a wooded hillside, far different from his modest home studio in Greenville with its single window.
"How you imagine a piece is impacted a lot by where you're working on it," he realized. "For a composer who tends to work in compact ways, the big rooms and windows made a difference." He points to the freehand whorling doodles he sketched at the time, along with words such as "vacuum" and "maelstrom." "For me, composition doesn't necessarily start with a few notes. I was working on a symphony, and I had been reading a lot of Dante -- when you're 40 years old you read Dante -- and I had the sense it should have to do with a journey. I knew the first movement would have a large spiraling effect, but I didn't know how I was going to do it. I try to represent visually, very quickly, what I might do later."
It was as if his composition style had opened into another one of those ever-larger rooms. Back at home, Kilstofte's career has expanded to almost bursting. The still-unfinished symphony is his "labor of love, as yet unclaimed," he says. But increasingly, he writes on commission, with work scheduled through 2004 and other work turned away in order to make room for the things he likes best. High on his priority list is teaching music theory and composition at Furman. "Composition is such a solitary activity that I rely on the interaction of teaching to balance my life. There's a kind of healthy tension between the two. I don't think I'd be happy without either one."
Yet he's finding that even when one escapes the cramped rooms of an apprenticeship and moves outward, there's still not space for everything. "I wrote a song cycle that was done at the University of Hawaii, and I sang the work with the group there. But I have less and less time to do that. You have to sleep to keep your voice working properly. A composer has to sacrifice sleep."
But not dreams.
Composers Win a
Stay in Copland's Old Home
In 1960, Aaron Copland, searching for a new place to live as he approached his 60th birthday, found a six-room house on a hilly three-acre site in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., about an hour's drive north of New York. One room, separate from the main house, had two glass walls that overlooked forests, gardens and, in the distance, the Hudson River. "This looks like a place where a composer could write music," he said at the time. He bought the house on the spot, and lived there until he died in 1990. Now, thanks to an unusual agreement between the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, which manages Copland's estate, and Cortlandt, a town of 38,000 in upper Westchester County, other composers will be able to live and work in that house, called Rock Hill.
Yesterday officials from the Copland Heritage Association, set up in 1990 to maintain the house, announced the names of seven composers who have won residencies at the house. Allen Shearer of Oakland, Calif., will be the first composer-in-residence, from Nov. 27 to Jan. 12. The other composers are Mark Kilstofte, Stephen Cox, Carlos Carillo, Donald Crockett, Akemi Naito and Robert Carl.
When Copland died, the house was in bad shape, with a failing roof, wood rot, a faulty heating system and other problems. The Copland Fund decided to sell it. But the town of Cortlandt began a grass-roots effort to save the house and turn it into a permanent cultural institution. After six months of discussions an arrangement was worked out whereby the Copland Fund leased the house to the town for $1 a year. The town, in turn, leased the house to the newly formed Copland Heritage Association, a nonprofit organization that raised the $150,000 needed for repairs. The association will continue to maintain the house, with help from the town for services like snow removal and exterior painting. "These were just ordinary, culturally minded townsfolk," said Michael Boriskin, a pianist who serves as artistic director of the association. "We hear so often about government officials not caring a whit about such things, but the leadership in Cortlandt was visionary."
The association will also present concerts, organize exhibits and develop educational programs. Given the modest size of the house, only one composer at a time can be in residence. Each recipient of the honor, known as the Aaron Copland Awards, will get the run of the place with a spouse or partner, but no children or pets are allowed. Residents will receive food allowances, and a car has been made available. "We in the town are so proud that Aaron Copland lived here for 30 years," said Linda Puglisi, the Town Supervisor. "It's wonderful that promising composers will now reside in his house, and hopefully write music comparable to Copland's."
Interview by Denise Dabney
With energetic and committed performers and teachers like Cliff Leaman in our corner, the future of the saxophone is, without a doubt, a bright one. Having premiered and commissioned many new pieces, including work with several Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, he has already set himself up (at the ripe young age of forty) to be long remembered as a major contributor to expanding the instrument's repertoire. As a teacher, he is clearly making his mark through an uncompromising commitment to the diverse needs of the saxophonists of tomorrow.
DD: You are an avid supporter of contemporary music and have commissioned and premiered numerous works. Which of these are highlights in your mind and why?
CL: Well, there are two which I've commissioned that I think are real highlights. The first, which we recorded on the Brillance CD, is a piece by Mark Kilstofte who has a very interesting way of combining old, traditional issues with new, contemporary ones. I commissioned him to write a piece hoping to get it on the slate for the World Saxophone Congress in 1997 in Valencia. Fortunately we got it done in time and were able to premiere it at the Congress. I think it's just a terrific piece and it seems to have garnered a lot of positive attention from the saxophonists I know.
DD: I really enjoyed listening to the Kilstofte Sonata and was intrigued by his combination of old and new musical elements. I was fascinated by the second movement -- is it a loop? Please share your thoughts on this work.
CL: Everybody asks that question. No, no it's not. The movement is all done in real time. The whole thing is done by pitchless slap tonguing on two and four of every measure throughout the piece, and everything else comes in between. Yes, Kilstofte uses baroque and traditional elements together with pop elements in many of his works and is very eclectic in his musical taste. He's a big fan of The Simpsons and of various pop groups. He had also written a brass quintet that I heard before we commissioned him, called A Past Persistence, which fuses Renaissance and Baroque musical elements with some very contemporary things. He's also a sixteenth-century counterpoint specialist and, just for fun (in a spoof on all the L'Homme armé masses that were written in that century), he wrote a mass which he called [Missa] L'Homme on the Range. He, of course, based it on the familiar melody, but put it in the same kind of contrapuntal setting that Palestrina would have used. He stayed completely within the sixteenth-century style the whole way through, but used a modern tune. It's actually much like what Stravinsky did by starting with an older piece and through the course of his own re-composition surrounded it with his own language until he completely took it over. Kilstofte, in a different way, starts with an old concept (a traditional, Classical, Baroque, or even pre-Baroque concept) and fuses that with modern stylistic elements and comes up with something which I think is very unique.
Edward C. McIrvine
Mark Kilstofte presented his work Ballistic Etude No. 3: Panic! two months ago at a Furman University wind symphony concert. In my February 17 column I reported my pleasure at hearing this composition and said: "Dr. Kilstofte's output bears watching. The work on Tuesday made excellent use of the resources of a wind ensemble, effectively combining a full percussion section with winds to provide dramatic emphasis and transitions. And he recently won the Indiana State University contemporary music festival competition."
Following my own advice on April 18, I attended a program that consisted of seven works by Mark Kilstofte, who coordinates the music theory division at Furman. He is completing his tenth year on the music faculty and all seven works were of the last decade. The works included an outstanding (and very demanding) sonata for saxophone and prepared piano, a moving cello solo dedicated to and played by Kilstofte's fiancée Leslie Nash, and a setting of the Walt Whitman poem Lovelost for baritone and nine instruments. The Furman Chamber Choir conducted by William Thomas presented the three works after intermission. Kilstofte has a love of choral music that certainly was enhanced by his undergraduate days at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, home of the famous St. Olaf Choir that presents "Christmas at St. Olaf" each year on the radio. Samuel Barber is the only other American composer who comes to mind with the professional training as a singer that Kilstofte displays.
The final work on the program in Furman's Daniel Recital Hall was a composition for chorus commissioned this year in celebration of Furman University's 175th Anniversary. Entitled Beauty, the work is a setting of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty. Hopkins' poem begins "Glory be to God for dappled things --" and concludes "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him." The text of this curtal sonnet is most apt for an anniversary celebration of a religiously based college, and Kilstofte's compositional tools work perfectly with Hopkins' sprung rhythm. My admiration for this composer grows.
The American Academy in Rome dates from 1893. Architect Daniel Burnham, painter John La Farge, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudents and their friends established the Academy as a center to study the arts amid the classical tradition of ancient Rome. Support initially came from the usual art-loving robber barons: Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Frick. These days the American Academy community, housed on the crest of the Janiculum hill in Rome, consists of 75 scholars and creative artists. This number includes resident scholars, visiting scholars and about 30 "Rome Prize fellows". The fellows are chosen each year by juries in eighteen fields, from archaeology to art history, from literature to Italian studies. By coincidence, the American Academy chose April 18, the date of the Kilstofte concert, to announce the Rome Prize fellowship winners who will spend the next academic year in Rome. Mark Kilstofte was one of only two musical composers among the Rome Prize winners. Apparently people other than I have been listening to his compositions with approval.