Stefania de Kenessey
Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

On March 20, 1997, composer Stefania de Kenessey launched the first Derriere Guard Festival at The Kitchen, a shrine to cutting edge performance in New York City. It was a bold move for a festival whose explicit goal was “to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition” since “abstract painting, fractured architecture, free-form poetry and dissonant music, concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.”

I still remember the disdain this festival elicited from folks on seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum—the so-called “uptowners” and the so-called “downtowners.” People sometimes point to the first Bang on a Can Festival in 1987, which paired works by Babbitt and Reich, as the death-knell of the upown/downtown divide, even though these composers didn’t interact with one other. I personally like to think NewMusicBox, which launched in 1999, helped bring the two sides together. But the first time these sides seemed to actually agree on anything was in their hatred for the Derriere Guard two years earlier.

Why did they hate it so much? Were they offended? I still remember the stationary for the press release whose logo is accurately described in one of the few reports of that first festival that still appears online as “a hand shielding a pair of buttocks.” (My search for a JPEG of that logo has thus far been in vain.) Or were they somehow afraid of what de Kenessey and her compatriots were claiming in their promotional materials at the time? (E.g. “Musical modernism has been a failure: in spite of determined attempts by established musical institutions, by intellectuals and by critics, the newly configured aesthetic – music as organized, structured sound – did not take hold among the listening public.”)

Just as the uptown/downtown cold war has long since thawed, twenty years later, this too all seems like water under the bridge. And the Derriere Guard’s ringleader, Stefania de Kenessey, is now extremely inclusive in her own aesthetics, which we discovered when we visited her in her Upper West Side apartment last month. We also learned that her favorite teacher was Milton Babbitt!

“I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever,” said de Kenessey who, in addition to her own compositional activities, is the program director for the contemporary music program for the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. “When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.”

According to de Kenessey, the current range of new music has rendered the Derriere Guard movement no longer necessary, which is why even though there was a big 10th anniversary celebration of the launch of the movement a decade ago, there were no events to mark the 20th anniversary earlier this year. Music history has moved on and so has de Kenessey.

In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, de Kenessey has embraced percussion—in fact, a drum set sits proudly next to a grand piano in her apartment—and in the past few years she has gotten extremely interested in electronic sound reproduction.

“There is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound,” de Kenessey explained.  “I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.”

As for the more polemical aspects of the Derriere Guard, these too seem to have been tempered somewhat in de Kenessey’s thinking.

“I didn’t have a strict ideology,” de Kenessey maintained.  “It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish … I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.  Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.”


September 15, 2017 at 11:00 a.m.
Stefania de Kenessey in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu


launch gallery

Frank J. Oteri: Last month it suddenly dawned on me that this year marks the 20th anniversary of your Derriere Guard movement.

Stefania de Kenessey:  I know! When you sent me that email, I was actually flummoxed to realize that—that it’s been since ’97 that it started.  It’s hard to believe how time passes.

FJO:  The world was a very different place in a lot of different ways, but I still remember distinctly how angry certain people in the new music community were when you launched the first Derriere Guard Festival. And it was people on many different sides aesthetically, both folks coming from the so-called uptown and the so-called downtown. People on both sides who could never agree on anything agreed that what you were doing was outrageous.  And they seemed really upset about it.  Why do you think that what you were doing made them so upset?

The Derriere Guard “wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community.”

SdK:  I’m not quite sure.  It was meant to be both a serious and a humorous gesture, but not an antagonistic one which is part of the reason I held it at The Kitchen.  The whole point of having it at The Kitchen was to show that this is a kind of avant-garde.  So my only point in the Derriere Guard, besides to have a sense of humor, as the name indicates, was to really open doors to a kind of music that was just not able to be represented in the way that I thought it deserved to be represented.  I never wanted to change the uptown aesthetic.  I never wanted to change the downtown aesthetic.  It wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community, by any stretch of the imagination.  I just thought it was time to allow certain other kinds of music, that were not getting their fair share, to also be heard.  That’s it.  End of story.  That was the only point of the festival.  And I thought we did it.  And it was fun.

FJO:  From around that same time there was a British visual art movement called Stuckism. Were you aware of these folks?

SdK:  No, much to my shame.

FJO:  It’s a very interesting parallel to this.  It was started by a painter who calls himself Billy Childish. He’s a bit of a prankster.  According to the official story of all of this, in the late 1980s he was dating a now very famous conceptual artist, Tracey Emin, and she told him that his paintings were stuck in the past.  Apparently she yelled, “Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” He wanted to return visual art to portraiture, landscape painting, and other kinds of things that she and many other of his contemporaries thought was anachronistic. So he decided to call what he was doing Stuckism.

SdK:  Oh, that’s funny.

FJO:  Yes, and when he wrote a Stuckist Manifesto and organized exhibitions of Stuckist artists in London, everybody in the British art world was completely incensed by it, so it definitely does seem to me related to what you were doing to some extent. I think in both cases, people in certain corners of the so-called avant-garde perhaps felt a little bit threatened about all of this even if you just said that wasn’t what it was about.

SdK:  I mean, it certainly wasn’t my intention for it to be threatening or ideologically prescriptive.  I just always thought that the idea of a so-called avant-garde that is ensconced at, say, Lincoln Center or the Whitney Museum, is an oxymoron.  Right?  I mean, it doesn’t mean it’s not great art or not great music, but it’s not avant-garde if it’s at Lincoln Center.  Right?  By definition.  The avant-garde should be somehow at the edges, pushing the envelope.  And you cannot be doing that if you’re embraced and supported by the very establishment. So to begin with, I think we need to have a sense of humor about the term avant-garde and reconsider its meaning.  Also, modernism had a very, very powerful and deservedly very strong influence in the 20th century, but it was not the only way to think about music and not the only way to write music.

I myself studied with Milton Babbitt, so it’s not like I don’t respect or know something about modernism. I think he was a brilliant, brilliant exponent of it.  But it also left certain kinds of music and music-making by the wayside.  I think in any kind of revolution it’s important to—what’s that old cliché—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For me, that was the idea of certain kinds of melodic constructions, certain kinds of relatively simple and consonant, beautiful harmonies.  It’s not impossible to imagine a music which is modern and forward-looking that still uses those “old-fashioned” features.  Right?  One of the things I tried to do with the Derriere Guard, and one of the things I really do believe in, is that the act of using melodies, the act of using consonant harmonies, is not in and of itself a political statement.  It is not right wing.  It is not left wing.  It’s not forward-looking.  It’s not backward-looking.  It can be what you make of it.  And you need to let people simply work in that idiom if they choose to.  You just need to give them a space in which to do it.  And I think 20 years ago, it was difficult to find that space.  There were very few venues that would support that.  To be writing the kind of music that I was writing, or to be painting the kinds of canvases that my painter friends were painting, or writing the kinds of poetry that had meter and narrative that my poet friends were doing was thought to be sort of off the beaten path or slightly crazy.

“History will tell what becomes favored by audiences.”

Ten years ago, it was maybe a little eccentric. And I think now it’s absolutely acceptable to do it, even if it’s not part of the establishment necessarily these days, which is why I don’t need a 20th Derriere Guard Festival.  We needed one 20 years ago, just to make a statement.  Then we had a 10th anniversary festival to kind of recap, or remember what we had done. But now I feel like it’s in the air.  We’ve accomplished what we wanted to do, which is simply to create a space where this kind of work can happen and can be acknowledged.  That’s it.  History will tell what becomes favored by audiences; you cannot predict which way things will go.  But you have to give a multiplicity of voices and a multiplicity of styles space.  I think that’s a laudable thing to do and it shouldn’t be threatening.

FJO:  But there are some provocations in the Derriere Guard’s original mission statement. To quote from it:  “Concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.  In such a situation, the most proactive, radical act was simply … to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition.”

SdK:  I haven’t looked at that mission statement in 15 years at least.  But yes, it can be radical to do something as simple as write something with a beautiful melody in C-minor.  The trick is how to make it not simply a replica of the past.  I have no interest in simply returning to the past.  I don’t want to be put back in a corset.  That’s not my idea of revisiting history in any meaningful sense.  But it doesn’t mean that you can’t necessarily use certain elements selectively and intelligently from the past, that those are crasser techniques that aren’t valid in this day and age.  If you look at so-called popular music, it has never abandoned those kinds of historically grounded precepts that so-called art music didn’t abandon necessarily, but certainly pushed to the side for a long time.

FJO:  It’s hard to claim that tonality was long forgotten and long abandoned when there were a bunch of really significant composers in America in the last century who never actually abandoned tonality.

SdK:  Right.  And at the time of the Derriere Guard Festival, I remember some people saying what we need to do is write an alternate history of 20th-century music, because in fact it was not simply the 12-tone school that evolved and went in certain directions.  There was always an alternate history that was not being sufficiently acknowledged, or sufficiently supported.

FJO:  Samuel Barber was a tonal composer and for a while was one of the most successful composers in America.  When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened, he was the composer who got the commission to write a new work to inaugurate it. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t supported by the establishment.

SdK:  But that was in the ‘60s.

FJO: Even after that, Ned Rorem, who never abandoned tonality, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.  But I take your point to some extent—to read music history, to take a look at it from the way that historians write it, it’s too messy for there to be multiple paths. So when Arnold Schoenberg was coming up with the 12-tone theory and Josef Matthias Hauer was doing so independently of him, other Viennese composers, like Franz Schmidt and Karl Weigl, never abandoned tonality.  Richard Strauss certainly never did. Nowadays some people like to claim that Richard Strauss is the forefather of post-modernism.  They’ve retroactively claimed him so that there could be a larger narrative arc of history, and I suppose that’s the role of historians.  But reality is much messier. That said, maybe I’m making inferences here, but I did think that 20 years ago you were trying to make an historical statement. That mission statement certainly feels like a manifesto to some extent.

SdK:  Well, I think it was very important to establish that there should be a place for a kind of music—and in the other arts as well—which uses these techniques from the past in ways that were hopefully not repetitive of the past. We were really interested in moving music and the other arts forward in a way that was not being done, or was not being acknowledged—I thought at the time—in a way that it deserved, to be just let loose to blossom and to flourish.  So yes, I was trying to be provocative in that sense.  Sometimes you want to give history a little kick, to kick it forward a few inches.  One of the senses that I’ve always had is that in the 20th century we came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.  You always have to be doing something new and something that has never been done before.  I wanted to establish the idea that maybe you can do something that really is genuinely new by simply using things that have been done. When I do my 20th-century history course at The New School, once we get to the end of all these things that have been done in terms of innovation, one of the most unkind assignments I can give to my students is to ask them to go and write a piece using a technique that no one has thought of.  It’s really damned difficult to come up with something.  Right?  What do you do that’s innovative at the end of a century where innovation per se has been one of the focal points of development? It becomes a different kind of problem, right?

“We came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.”

History is a messy thing, and it’s very messy when you’re in the midst of it.  It’s very difficult to see clearly.  And I think one of the important things to do is not to be monolithic about it. Especially at this moment in history there’s such a multiplicity of styles and such a multiplicity of voices.  It’s particularly incumbent on us to have that broad palette available and supported.

FJO:  And history also keeps getting rewritten.

SdK:  Sure.

FJO:  Curiously, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg who established the 12-tone system and is hailed as an innovator and a torchbearer for the avant-garde, famously claimed that Brahms was a progressive composer.  Yet in the 19th century, the path that was considered progressive versus the path that was considered retrogressive was Wagner versus Brahms.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Schoenberg basically rewrote that history and said that if you analyze the organic structure of the way Brahms’s themes developed, it was really a more forward-looking idea than what Wagner was doing, which was just wandering around aimlessly without any structural underpinning.

SdK:  Well, that’s one way of understanding it.  Another one is to understand the end of the 19th century as not actually being bifurcated quite the way that it seemed to be.  The differences between Wagner and Brahms are in some ways radical and in some ways not at all.  It really depends on historic stance and historic understanding.  And those do change with time.  There’s no question about that.

Stefania de Kenessey talking with Frank J. Oteri.

FJO:  So I’ll be a provocateur.

SdK:  Go, go, go.

FJO:  It might be possible then with the hindsight of history, maybe even 20 years from now, to say that the music that you were composing back in 1997 and have continued to write up until now and the music of serial and post-serial composers, plus the music of the minimalists as well as the followers of John Cage—maybe all of this isn’t as different as we think.  They might sound very different, but maybe they’re not all that different.

SdK:  Well, I think you’re right in some sense.  I think the surfaces are obviously quite different.  So there are genuine differences to be claimed.  But I also think that the multiplicity of styles, and the search for what I would call a lingua franca in music, is certainly what unites everybody in the 20th century, or even the beginning of the 21st century.  There is no commonly spoken or commonly understood musical idiom. So if you meet somebody and they say, “Oh, I’ve been listening to music,” or “I’m writing a piece,” the first question is “What kind of music?  Is it classical?  Is it pop?”  Then if it’s pop, what pop? It’s the first question.  I don’t think that would have been the first question in the 18th century or even the 19th.

“A commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.”

The sense of having a commonly understood or a commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we can know about music from the 12th century to the 20th.  I know something about African drumming and something about classical Indian music.  The sheer volume of information that’s available to people is staggering. And you can’t do all of those things simultaneously, so you have to make choices.  But that availability of huge amounts of stylistic information is wonderful.  On the other hand, it also means that we’re all searching, because you either do what your teacher told you to do, or demonstrated as what to be doing, or you have to go out on your own and start questing for something that makes sense to you.  So there isn’t that possibility that was probably much more common in past centuries, and probably in other cultures as well, where you’d enter a tradition—you’d learn from your teachers and you’d continue that tradition.  You’d make innovations, but within that tradition.  That’s no longer true.

FJO:  In terms of historical lineage, it’s interesting to look at composers from the generation before us who were apostates to modernism, like George Rochberg or David Del Tredici. They were both castigated for returning to tonality when they first did, even though they’ve both become iconic.  I think part of why it was so shocking to people is they were both such good serial composers, so they were members of the faith who had defected so it was really heavy. I’m curious about this in terms of your development. I knew that you went to Princeton and that you were at Yale before that.  And when you were at Princeton, you studied with Babbitt.  So were you a 12-tone composer back in the day?  Did you start off writing this kind of stuff?

SdK:  Never.  I always admired it.  I always knew about it, but I have never written 12-tone music and never desired to do so.  I almost went and studied with Rochberg.  I went to Princeton for a variety of reasons, but one of them was they kept asking me to come. Finally I went and I was interviewed by Milton Babbitt.  And I said “I’m very honored to be asked to study here, but why should I come here of all places to get my Ph.D.?  I write very tonal music. I’m not particularly interested in 12-tone music or electronic music, and I kind of doubt that that will happen to me in the next couple of years.  So why should I come here?”  And he looked at me, and he said, “Well, for a couple of reasons.  One, I think you’re very talented.  Two, if you come here, you will find that we spend as much time talking about Bach and Brahms as we do about Schoenberg and Webern.  And three, if you come here, I will take you under my wing.”  So that was a very, very nice offer and not to be refused.

At the same time, I had applied to other places.  The other place I was considering was Penn where George Rochberg was teaching.  He was the one that people were pushing me to study with. I decided not to go to Penn for two reasons.  One, it was just a master’s program at that point, and they weren’t funding it the same way. Princeton made me a very generous offer.  But the other reason, the more substantive one, was that when I spoke with George, he said that he had returned to tonality, but he felt—and he felt very strongly about this—that tonality was in some sense finished and the only thing that could be done with it was to imitate tonal examples from the past.  He really wanted to write a Beethoven movement, a Bartók movement, a Stravinsky movement, a blues.  He wanted to sort of mimic those styles and was not interested in the conversation that I had with them.  We talked for quite a while about trying to figure out a way to go through those and come up with an individual, distinct style.  And for better or for worse, I’ve been trying to do that most of my life.  I didn’t want to just write a pseudo-Beethoven quartet. That’s absolutely necessary to develop skill, but then you want to try to move beyond that and develop what you think is your individual voice, and he was not really interested in that.  He really saw the return to tonality as an homage to the past.  I wanted to think of the return to tonality as moving forward into the future.  I’m mincing words here, but I think you understand what I mean.

FJO:  It’s so interesting because one of the things I found striking about your music when I first heard it—and the same is true for Michael Dellaira and Eric Ewazen, whose music you also featured in that initial Derriere Guard Festival—is that it doesn’t smack of irony; it doesn’t sound like post-modernism.  It isn’t about referencing.  It isn’t like Schnittke or how tonal melodies reappear in the Alice pieces of David Del Tredici.  I think David has moved beyond that in his own music, to like a full-fledged, almost kind of crazed other path that history could have taken beyond romanticism now, in the music he’s writing in the last, say, 25 years or so, but his initial re-entrance to tonality was aesthetically similar to what Rochberg was doing at that same time.

SdK:  I tried to position it as something post-post-modern.  There was modernism and then post-modernism, which returns to the past but kind of ironically. The same thing happened in architecture.  You get columns again, but they’re in the wrong place.  Things of that sort.  The question for me is: How do you build new buildings which may have columns, but in a more organic way?  How do you write music which may have melodies and harmonies that somehow represent elements of the past, but in a novel way, rather than in an ironic or pastiche manner?  So that was the idea.  That’s why I focused on those kinds of composers, rather than paying homage to clearly incredibly talented composers like Ned Rorem or David Del Tredici or to the minimalists who kind of opened up the door that I think the Derriere Guard was then able to open up further, if that’s the right metaphor.

FJO:  But even though the music itself is not ironic, calling it Derriere Guard spelled G-U-A-R-D, and having as your symbol a little cartoon of a butt, was a bit ironic.

SdK:  Yeah, of course.  Well, I think it was hard for me to have a movement which is not really a movement. I didn’t have a strict ideology.  It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish. There are huge divergences between the music of Eric Ewazen and Michael Dellaira and myself and all sorts of other people.  And that’s good.  That’s fine.  That’s wonderful.  I don’t have any problem.  It was just to give a place for that music to flourish. So to give it a serious term was going to give it a kind of ideological credence that I was not looking for.  I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.

“You don’t have to dress in black any more.”

Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.

FJO:  Depending on what neighborhood you were in.

SdK:  Exactly.  That’s what I mean.

FJO:  Yet if you have a concert and you call it a new music concert, you shouldn’t know what you’re going hear.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  If you know what you’re going hear, then how is it a new music concert?

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  That, in fact, is ironic.

SdK:  Yeah.

Stefania de Kenessey standing in front of a red staircase.

FJO:  Alright, so to get to this place, you never wanted to write 12-tone music.  Yet you studied someone who is hailed as the father of total serialism. That’s another irony. So few of Milton Babbitt’s students actually pursued his compositional path. And he didn’t want them to. He wanted people to pursue their own paths.  He wasn’t interested in creating clones.

SdK:  Yes.

FJO: He was so open minded.  He was also obsessed with Broadway theater music.

SdK:  And Chinese food.

FJO:  Yes, and baseball.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But by the time you were studying with him, you were already well on your path. So when did you first start writing music?  When did you get this idea in your head that you wanted to be a composer?  How did you discover this music?  You and I are roughly the same generation; classical music of any kind wasn’t something that was necessarily nearby when we were growing up.

SdK:  Well, yes and no.  I grew up mostly in the States, but I was actually born in Budapest.  When I was three-years old, my mother decided I was too skinny.  The pediatrician told her to make sure I got regular exercise, so she enrolled me in a rhythmic gymnastics school in Budapest, which was part rhythmic gymnastics, part ballet, part modern dance.  And there was a little old lady at the piano.  Probably not as old as I now remember her being from my vantage point.  She sat at the piano and played music with which I just fell in love when I was three.  And I remember literally falling in love.  I still remember to this day that whenever we weren’t doing exercises I would crawl underneath the piano and just let the sounds wash over me.  And from that day on, two things happened.  One, I started to be able to hear music in my head that I hadn’t heard in those classes.  My recollection is they were either two or three times a week for either two or three hours.  So it was a lot of stuff going on, and lots of music.  I also started to pay attention to what she was playing.  She was playing from real scores.  She never improvised. It turned out to be mostly 18th- and 19th-century stuff.  Some 17th-century repertoire as well.  So following that, I also made my parents let me audition for a music school founded by Zoltán Kodály, so I grew up on Bartók and Kodály. By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew some Schoenberg, some Webern, Shostakovich, and some Stravinsky. So to me, a lot of the discoveries that my peers were making in college about music—the radical music of, say, 1900 to 1930—was part of my lingua franca growing up as a child.  So there was to me nothing particularly revelatory or difficult about dissonant music.

FJO:  Yet you weren’t attracted to it.

“I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.”

SdK:  I wasn’t as attracted to it as I was to the other kinds.  So like I said, it is our blessing and our curse that we have available to us a huge of palette of sounds.  And you might have to make some choices because you can’t do all things all the time.  For me the choice was that I fell in love with the music of, say, Monteverdi and Mozart in ways that I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.  I admire Schoenberg and Webern.  I teach them all the time.  It’s not for lack of respect or lack of understanding, but what I love is just a different kind of music.  And that was always part of my upbringing.  So my path is a little bit different from the typical path because of that particular history.

FJO:  Well, to take it back to the years you were studying, and even the years leading up to formation of the Derriere Guard, to aspire to write music that sounds like, say, Rachmaninoff would have been considered old-fashioned.  Right? Yet to write music that sounds like Webern would not be considered old-fashioned.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But this is ridiculous because A, they were contemporaries, and B, they’re both long dead.

SdK:  Correct.

FJO:  So they’re both the past.

SdK:  Yes.  You’re absolutely right.  That’s why I try to have a sense of humor about it.  That’s why it’s the Derriere Guard with a humorous name because some of the things we do, if you think about it in a more sophisticated way, don’t make any sense.  They’re just sometimes silly.  Music of the ‘20s is long, long gone, no matter what style it was in.  And the ‘30s and the ‘40s.  And now even the ‘60s and the ‘70s.  I have lots of students who are really proud of themselves because they know some things from the 1960s.  That’s amusing.

FJO:  So in terms of your own music—

SdK:  —I always wrote tonal music.

FJO:  Was there any resistance to it with composition teachers you had?

SdK:  Yes, always. All my composition teachers except for Milton Babbitt.  Sooner or later, they’d say, “This is wonderful, but for the next class, or next lesson, would you be interested in bringing in something along the lines of—” and those lines were typically what they’d been doing.  So that’s why Milton was my favorite teacher, by far. I would bring him, say, a piano trio, and we’d sit down and he’d say, “That transition from the first theme to the second theme, when you’re moving from C to G-flat, do you think that transition is long enough given the harmonic terrain you’re trying to traverse?”  We’d sit and talk about that.  It was absolute heaven.  It really was.  He helped me to think about my music on its own terms.  And that’s the best thing a composition teacher can do is to help, in so far as possible, each composer develop his or her own individual voice.  You can only do that by working on the thing that they are trying to produce.  And working on making that better.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention a piano trio, because one of my favorite earlier pieces of yours is a piano trio called Traveling Light.  It’s a gorgeous piece.

SdK:  Oh, that’s very sweet.  Thank you.

FJO:  But what I find even more interesting about it than thinking it sounds gorgeous is that there is harmonic motion in it that I don’t think could have been written in the 19th century.

SdK:  Well, that whole piece is actually modal.  It’s technically in A-major, but it’s got two sharps, so in fact it’s not in A-major in a conventional 19th-century sense.  There are, of course, composers in the 19th century who wrote modal music—Fauré is the prime example of that—but they typically don’t take those harmonic constructions and use them in functional ways.  So one of the things I was doing back then, if I have to explain it theoretically, is taking modal harmonies and modal chords and creating a sense of functional harmony using them.  There are no tonic-dominant relationships.  There is no V-I cadence in that entire piece, for instance.  So instead of veering right towards the dominant, it keeps going leftwards towards the subdominant.  The harmonic motions are always off if you’re measuring them by 19th-century standards.  So yes, in some ways there’s no way that could have been written in the 19th century and that’s exactly what I was playing with.

FJO:  And that was your idea of finding a new path.

SdK:  Well, it was my way of finding a new path at that time.  But yes, I was trying to find a new path.  And I was having great fun with it because I thought I was doing something that nobody had done before.  It was fun.  On the surface of it, it doesn’t sound “radical” or “new” in any sense.  It’s, you know, a piano trio.  Nobody opens up the piano and plays with the strings inside, the violin is just played with the bow. There’s no novelty in that sense.  But I think in fact I had a great time with it because I wrote this long piece where there are no normative harmonic relations among the themes or the instruments or the overall progression.  I had a great time, and I still think it doesn’t duplicate the past even as it participates in the past.  So it’s at least my way of trying to take elements from the past and really shoving them into the future.

FJO:  I’d like to unpack something else you were saying. You said you had no interest in doing serial music.  You also said you had no interest in doing electronic music.  It seems to me that your aesthetics at that time, and the aesthetics of the Derriere Guard overall, were about more than just re-embracing tonality.  You kind of hit on this when you said that nobody is going inside the piano.  The aesthetic was about focusing on certain instrumental sonorities that, even though they are very much still with us, had been developed in the past and also intentionally not using electronics.  Is that a fair assessment?

SdK:  I think that’s fair to say, though again, this is where things do evolve.  Most of the music I’ve written in the last 20 years has been for acoustic instruments and standard instruments.  There’s no question of that.  But in part, that was because there is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound.  So that’s number one.  I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.

FJO:  Really?

SdK:  Yes, absolutely.

FJO:  Wow.

“The quality of electronically produced sounds was not great. My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.”

SdK:  So things do change, and they do shift.  Again it wasn’t so much ideological, I just wanted to make sounds that I considered to be really beautiful.  I felt the quality of electronically produced sounds was not great.  My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.  I eat frozen peas when I need to.  I will dunk them into something. But if you can get fresh peas, it’s just a world of difference.  And now the difference to me is much, much less.  It’s almost imperceptible at times, so I think we’re entering a new terrain, I actually do, which is why it’s always difficult to predict the future.  You never know.  And anybody who pretends to is being silly.

FJO:  But, of course, the other schism is between using electronic sounds to mimic the sounds that we’re already familiar with versus electronic sound offering the possibility to create entirely new sounds.  Maybe new is the wrong word here, but rather sounds that exist on their own terms rather than trying to replicate and never quite getting right things that are already done so well on acoustic instruments.

SdK:  No, I think we are entering a new world of sound.  I think it’s going to be possible—it is possible—to create new sonorities that are, by my standards, very beautiful, but are not replications of standardized sounds. Actually one of the genuine revelations I had this summer is I went to Prague for the first time, and I heard a performance of Figaro in the house that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in. The revelation to me was that the combination of instruments in the pit—and it was not a large pit—and the voices on the stage was the most perfect combination of Mozart-ian sounds I’d ever heard.  It became clear to me that he really was writing music for that medium.  The voices didn’t have to be loud.  The orchestra didn’t need to be large in order to sound absolutely plush and full.  And the interplay between them was acoustically perfect.  Mozart really was writing for the medium.  One of the things that has inspired me to do is to start to think about writing for the medium.  And frankly, a lot of my music is being heard on computers and computer speakers these days, or on film scores, or even the opera that I wrote, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which we’re now editing so it can be viewed in a theater or shown to opera companies as a filmed product.  A lot of the sounds that we listen to and create are actually being mediated electronically and at the same time, I’m not writing for that.  And that’s a mistake.  So I’m working on actually moving in that direction.

FJO:  That’s so interesting.  Well, one of things that triggered this thought for me was hearing what Artis Wodehouse did with your solo piano piece Sunburst on a Disklavier.  It was extraordinary.  It really worked, but it became a slightly different piece than how I first heard it—performed on a grand piano, which is how you originally conceived it.  Perhaps because of the associations we have with player pianos as antique curiosities, anything that resembles that sound world sounds like it’s from another era. So even though she was using a very contemporary technology on a piece that embraces the harmonic vocabulary of an earlier era, it conjured an earlier technology which actually made it sound older to me than when I heard it performed on a piano.

SdK:  Interesting. That’s funny. The Disklavier itself is an unusual thing if you think about it as an object—a piano that is a piano, but not really a piano.  So it occupies a very strange space in sort of aesthetic or philosophical terms in the history of instruments.

FJO:  But it also made me wonder what kind of a piece you might write had you written something that was originally intended for that medium.

SdK:  Well, it should be different.  I think it should be different.  I didn’t write it specifically for that, so I don’t know what I would do, but yes.  I think I need to start being more responsive to changes in the medium, or the media that are available to me.

FJO:  The other thing about the Derriere Guard aesthetic that perhaps I’m just inferring is it also has to do with performance practice to some extent, the performing aspect of how people play this music and what your preferred sound is for the way this music is played.  And it seems to me that a lot of the music that I’ve heard on recordings and in live performance, it’s really about embracing the performance techniques of players who play the standard repertoire and using performance techniques that are specifically associated with that, like singing with vibrato or playing instruments with a lot of rubato instead of singing with a pure tone or being metronomically precise. So it seems that part of your aesthetic in the way this music is performed is that it is probably more ideally served by players who play older repertoire than people who are “contemporary music specialists.”  Is that fair?

SdK:  That’s absolutely correct.  You’ve hit the nail on the head.  For me, the music needs to breathe in certain kinds of ways, so metronomic exactness of rhythm or tempo is not something that suits the music particularly well.  That’s also part of the reason why I’ve gravitated more and more towards working with singers, because singers take for granted that what they do is inflected by the meaning of the text that they’re singing.  So they will not hesitate to take an extra breath here or to stretch something out there because the emotional context or the word requires it.  Whereas, an instrumentalist might.  And you cannot put in, at the end of every phrase, that it’s the conclusion of a phrase, so make it sound like like the conclusion of a phrase.  Let it just pull back a little bit.  You can’t put those kinds of instructions in the score constantly.  It’s intrusive, and it also takes away the immediacy of the performance, the heat of the moment.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Beethoven is that he was reported never to have performed his pieces the same way twice.  That’s an extraordinary thing.  He was performing his own music.  Presumably, he knew how it went.  But in the heat of the moment, each phrase is going to be slightly different.  And sometimes the fortissimo might be much louder than the others.  And if it is, that might influence a quiet moment coming up.  So if you’re going to have a live performance, let the human being really inflect that live performance.  What I do with that once I get to start writing electronic music is actually particularly interesting.  Because that’s where you set up your tempo and everything is kind of precise in a way that human beings aren’t.  Or they strive to be, but you know, they have to work at it.

A manuscript for a vocal setting by Stefania de Kenessey sits on top of her piano next to a sheet with the text she is setting.

FJO:  And if you’re going to be doing electronic music and incorporating singers into that, you would probably want to use amplification for the singers.

SdK:  Probably.

FJO:  The technique of singing with a microphone is so different.

SdK:  Completely different.

FJO:  Vibrato doesn’t come across too well when it’s amplified.

SdK:  But I’m not a huge fan of vibrato either. I don’t particularly love those big, hooty voices that you hear at the Met.  I understand they’re needed to carry into the stratosphere, but I much prefer smaller voices and more pure, clean tones.  So that I’m totally okay with. But the question of how to make the time a little bit malleable to match the singers is one that is a very complex and vexing one and one that I haven’t solved.  The next opera project, which is just really in its infancy although I have a call to my librettist this afternoon, is we want to write a piece where I would write the score electronically and then we would have the singers sing on top of that for live performances.  How we do this yet, I don’t know.  So don’t ask me.  The details will be figured out, but we are moving in a different direction and in that direction specifically. But I don’t have the answer yet; I’m sorry.  That’s why it’s fun to be an artist because you set up a problem and you work with it. I have this goal, so it’ll keep me busy for the next couple of months.

FJO:  So you say you gravitate toward vocal music because singers know how to respond to a text. I also wonder if you also gravitate toward vocal music because having a text makes the music that much more directly communicative to people.

“To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world.”

SdK:  Could be.  I don’t know.  To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world. On the other hand, I would say for the first 10-15 years that I was out in the world and producing music, it was all instrumental.  I wrote piano trios and sonatas, a clarinet quintet and a string quartet—all instrumental stuff.  I’m actually a latecomer to vocal music, in terms of the trajectory of my own career.  I really come out of that Germanic tradition of motivic building and construction.  I moved into the vocal realm, and now I sort of write music on, if anything, the Italian model. I hate these nationalistic labels.  They’re not particularly useful.  But the idea is of these beautiful melodies that you can kind of remember, even sing, engagingly and with pleasure.  But it’s taken a long, long time to have come to that.

FJO:  But interestingly, you mentioned a clarinet quintet. It’s called Shades of Darkness. And your piano trio is named Traveling Light.  You didn’t call any of your pieces, say, Piano Sonata No. 4.

SdK:  Yes, except I did, and then one of my early mentors, Richard Hundley—I had a couple of lessons with him—said, “You’ve got to put different titles on these, otherwise they’ll never catch on.”

FJO:  I agree with him.

SdK:  So I went back, and I listened to my pieces again, and I thought, “What are titles that would actually exemplify what this might be about to a listener?” Originally it was just Clarinet Quintet in G-minor, opus whatever, 13.  Suite for Oboe and Piano.  Not Magic Forest Dances.  All of them had plain, vanilla titles.

FJO:  And opus numbers, too?

SdK:  Yeah.

FJO:  Wow.

SdK:  Yeah.  Because that’s what serious composers did back then.  And around 1990, I stopped numbering because it just got too complicated. I couldn’t care less anymore, and I started giving them titles anyway, so I stopped.  I have no idea where my oeuvre stands.

FJO:  Well, to go back to something you said earlier about the language of music and this desire in the 20th century to constantly innovate and come up with a new idea. One of the functions of art, whether it’s a poem or a painting or a piece of music, if you’re presenting this for an audience, for viewers, for readers, it’s got to communicate in some way.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  So how does that communication happen for the person receiving the work? If I picked up any of the books on your shelves, I’d be able to read them since they’re in English and I’ve spoken and read English all my life. But if one of those books was in Hungarian, I’d be lost since I don’t speak Hungarian.  I wouldn’t get much from it. I’d just be seeing random combinations of letters. Music is sort of tricky because it doesn’t mean anything specific, so we have to metaphorically attach meanings to it, which I think is part of why titles are important.

SdK:  It helps.

FJO:  Yes, and it helps because it grounds it in a way that makes it more comprehensible. But there’s a larger kind of communication here as well, which I think the whole idea of Derriere Guard was trying to tap into, the idea about having recognizable chords and discernible melodies.  It seems to me that part of that was about wanting to communicate more?  But that’s something you haven’t said yet.

SdK:  Sure.  I mean it’s the only reason to write music, for me. It’s not for my drawer or to create a construction of sounds in a particular way, but to communicate to audiences and to move them.  To give them beauty.  To give them pleasure.  To make them think.  All of those things.  I think one of the big problems—I won’t say failures, but one of the serious problems—of 20th-century art music is that it left its audience behind.  And it was not because audiences weren’t trying.  I think the notion in the ‘20s and ‘30s that audiences simply needed to be educated by hearing more and more of this music and being exposed to it, then they would come around, didn’t prove to be true.  There is something about certain kinds of music which are just too difficult, too dissonant, too problematic. If they communicate, they communicate something to an audience that audiences are not able to take in.  So I do think the problem is how to reach audiences, and if we don’t have an audience, then there’s no point in writing music. If nobody’s listening, what are you doing?

FJO: Now you’ve done a lot of vocal music.  You’ve done this beautiful setting of poetry by Dana Gioia.

SdK:  Oh, thank you.

FJO:  The second song in that cycle was another example where I thought, “Okay, this couldn’t possibly be 19th-century music, because it’s filled with all these ninth chords.  Then it ends with this blaring ninth.  That would have been considered tonally unstable.  But to our 21st-century ears, which have lived through a century of pop music where for a decade every song was nothing but major seven chords, those chords aren’t unstable at all.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Tonality and how we perceive music is really associative and experiential, much like language.

SdK:  Okay.

FJO:  We can communicate with each other because these are words we’ve heard before and that we’ve said before, so there’s no problem communicating. I think we underestimate how music can function that way, too.  There is this kind of associative listening.  You hear something going a certain way, and you’re able to follow it because you’ve heard other things that did it.  Then when it goes somewhere different, like when you subverted harmonic relationships in Traveling Light

SdK: —No leading tones.

FJO:  Yes, you can follow that, because you were expecting it to do certain things from other pieces you’ve heard.  Whereas, if you have a piece that’s in a totally new system, someone who is listening to it is not going to hear what’s new about it because there’s no associative listening that they can go back and say, “Oh, well this references that, but then does something else.”

SdK: That’s true.  Although I actually was just speaking about this to a friend of mine.  One of the interesting things to me now is that the popular music that we’ve been listening to for the last 20, 30 years is this constant amalgam of both what we would call tonal music and modal music.  Half the songs have leading tones, but half of them don’t.  They just have flats.  I think for listeners today, they’re equivalent in a way that they weren’t equivalent to me when I was a child.  I could really hear tonality and tonal music, blues, driving rock and roll, and Eastern European folk music, as all really somehow distinct.  But I think they’re no longer distinct to contemporary ears.  And that speaks to your point that the reference points are very different today.  In that sense, they’re more open and more engaged.  But tonality still persists.  There is something about those damn triads and the fifths. It’s hard to get rid of that stuff as being somehow elementally pleasurable.  And I think elementally pleasurable and intelligent should not be opposites.  I think they can be combined and really innovative in interesting ways.

FJO:  So then who’s the audience for this music?

“There’s a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.”

SdK:  I would love for it to be a relatively broad audience, not just the few thousand who would go to concerts.  Obviously not the millions and millions who have never heard Beethoven or Monteverdi.  But something in between. I do think there’s a large group of people in between who’ve heard music of the past, of the classical canon, but feel that it’s very, very distant.  And the only other kind of music they know is pop music of, say, the last 30 years.  Maybe some jazz from the ‘30s, stuff like that.  I think there’s a huge gap and a huge opening, a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.  So that’s my goal.  Whether one meets that goal is another question or another story.  But that’s certainly the audience that I try to speak to.

FJO:  So, I’d like to talk about your opera, Bonfire of the Vanities, which was based on a very famous book.  And that book was also made into a famous movie, so theoretically it’s something that has a hook for the general public.

SdK:  That’s partly why I was interested in it and, of course, I loved the novel.  I don’t think there was a single chapter when I wasn’t bent over with laughter.  Although, you’d be surprised. I would say people 35 and over have heard of it, but the younger generation has not heard of the book—or the movie, for that matter.  So again, times are changing.  They really are.  The book doesn’t have the kind of resonance for younger people that it does for me or our generation.

<Bonfire of the Vanities, the opera, trailer footage (excerpts from concert 2-10-14) from Burgeon & Flourish, LLC on Vimeo.


launch gallery

FJO:  Another thing I thought is that when you set a text, whether it’s poetry or a storyline that’s been adapted into the libretto for an opera, there are certain things in the original work that help guide where you go musically.  When I learned that you were writing an opera based on this novel, I was slightly surprised. I initially thought that Bonfire of the Vanities is very urban and gritty and quite far away from your sound world, but it actually isn’t. People’s immediate association with operatic singing in a tonal context is with the 19th century, the gilded age. People nowadays don’t sound like that. However, that sound world also has specific class associations and that’s actually a big part of what that book is about. So I’m wondering if that was an ingredient in terms of you wanting to write music that reflected the status of these characters in some way.

SdK:  I wanted to write an opera along the lines of, say, Carmen, which has some terrific tunes and has a nitty-gritty series of events.  In Bonfire, there’s a black kid who eventually gets run over and he dies. It’s a horrible story on some levels, but it’s still ironic and satiric and makes fun of the upper class.  And I thought that’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told very often in opera.  How cool would it be to write an opera that is in some sense very operatic.  The soprano has to do pianissimo high Cs.  It has all those trappings, but also is going to attract people who don’t normally come to the world of opera and sort of pull them into this world that’s more sophisticated than the kind of music that they listen to outside the opera house.

So, in that sense, the conjunction of differing kinds of class or stylistic endeavors was deliberate.  And I also used a trap set in that, for instance.  Not in all the numbers, but a bunch of them have drums, and it kicks into rhythm the way good rock and roll does at appropriate moments.  Again, I’m toying with how to maintain a level of contrapuntal and structural sophistication that I associate with music of the past, but bring it into the present, or the future, with both sonorities—drum sets and singing styles—that are a little less operatic.  And subject matter that is entirely contemporary and can resonate with contemporary audiences. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not.  But in that sense, it’s a stylistic blend of different things that are associated with different classes.

FJO:  That definitely answered it.  I was struck when we walked into the apartment.  I saw the grand piano and I saw the trap set.  That was the first thing that I noticed.

SdK:  That’s me.

A grand piano and a drum set are side by side in Stefania de Kenessey's living room.

FJO:  People talk about the 20th century and say Schoenberg emancipated dissonance, but I think the larger thing that happened in the 20th century was embracing percussion on equal terms to other instrumental sonorities.  When I went back and I listened to your two 9/11 memorial song cycles, I was struck by very prominent foregrounded percussion in both of those cycles.  And, once again, I thought to myself that there’s no way anyone could say this music could have been written in the 19th century, because it wouldn’t have been.  People would not have foregrounded percussion that way.

SdK:  Right, the European tradition doesn’t do that.  Correct.  Yeah.  And that’s a real mistake. Again, I’m coming relatively late to this.  It’s just been the last 10-15 years that I’ve been doing this.  But yeah, the rhythmic component of music—which is so important and such a source of pleasure by the way, raw physical pleasure—is not a part of the European canon.  There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  Just because you have a drum set doesn’t mean you can only do a groove.  One of the things I was working on in those songs, and in other works as well, is to use percussion in a way that actually goes along with the narrative arc that I’ve created.  It’s not just a groove that you start and then you know exactly where it’s going to end three minutes later.  The idea is to progress along with the rest of the musical material.  But that’s eminently doable.  There’s no reason why that can’t be done.

FJO:  Nowadays you are teaching, so you’re now in the position with students that Milton Babbitt was in with you.  You mentioned that you present Schoenberg and Webern in your music history class.  In terms of teaching composition, what paths are your students taking?  Do you try to guide them in certain ways?  Or let them be themselves?  How do you do for them what Milton did for you and what maybe the others didn’t do for you in terms of not being supportive?

SdK:  First of all, I really believe you have to let individual voices blossom on their own because just teaching them to be me, when I barely know who I am, is a difficult proposition and not particularly useful.  But I also believe in teaching techniques.  Craft is important.  You have to know what you’re doing at that basic physical level.  What I try to do more than anything else is to teach them to problematizes, or think about issues that are relevant in any kind of music.  For instance, in the spring, I’m going to be teaching a composition and analysis class.  And the analysis will be to make them listen to certain kinds of music, and look at certain kinds of compositional devices or problems.  And sometimes they’re very simple, but they’re things they don’t think of.

“You have to let individual voices blossom on their own.”

For instance, I ask them to listen to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn and it turns out of course that the flute melody is never presented the same way. Well, the first two iterations are almost identical, but none of the others are.  So the first thing they have to do is write a melody which begins the same way, but goes in five different directions.  That’s something which problematizes an issue: What is melodic construction like?  It makes them acquire craft, because you have to be able to write a melody in five different, very distinct ways, but it also enables them to write music in any style or genre they like.  It’s not prescriptive. It can be rock-ish.  It can be electronic-ish.  It can be classical-ish.  I don’t care about the -ish.  Look at melody and melodic shape and what it means to vary it considerably and what it does to narrative structure long term, if you have melodies that progress in different ways.  So that’s one way of encouraging people to write music which I don’t think makes them write music like me or like Debussy, or like anything else.  It enables them to develop their own style, even as they learn certain kinds of technical abilities.  And that’s just kind of emblematic of the kinds of things I do.  I set up compositional problems for them, and then ask them to solve it in their own voice, and then I help them in their own voice.  But the compositional problem also lifts it out of the realm of personal expression. At some point, you want to express yourself, but you also want to just be able to make mistakes—try out stuff and goof around, try this and have that fail, and just develop a sense of craft.  So I’m very, very eager to do that, and I stress that a lot.

FJO:  Have you ever had any students who’ve wanted to write atonal or 12-tone music?

SdK:  Not too many is the honest answer.  You have to remember, I’m teaching at Eugene Lang College, not at Mannes College of Music.  Some of them go into music history or music theory or composition, but many of them wind up going into popular music, either as producers or performers or creators.  They tend to veer in that direction.  Not exclusively, but they tend to.

FJO:  I’m curious though, what your advice would be to a composer who did want to go in that direction.  Could you be the Milton Babbitt for that person?

SdK:  Absolutely.  I mean, if I can be, if I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever, which are not my daily bread and butter, I certainly can do 12-tone music.  So yes.  The example I just gave you of writing a melody that goes in five different directions; that could be a 12-tone exercise easily.  In terms of the kind of aesthetic precepts that students bring with them, I think it’s very important to let them experience those and enrich them and let them blossom.  Otherwise, you’re getting in the way and not helping.

FJO:  So to the larger question, to return it full circle, you said there is no need to do a 20th anniversary of Derriere Guard. So, do you feel people’s perceptions have changed about what new music means?

SdK:  Which people?

FJO:  People, the community, the audience for it. I mean, what does new music mean now?

SdK:  I don’t know.  I’m being facetious in answering because I think it’s a very confusing and confused time.  I think new music can kind of mean almost anything these days.  Which is both wonderful and terrifying, because it can mean anything.  I think in some ways a lot of possibilities have opened up, but I’m also less and less sure that new music as a concept is as meaningful as it was, say, 20 years ago.  So I’m not sure.  I’m not sure what’s happening with what we mean by new music.  I’m not sure what’s happening with concert music or art music.  It’s a very interesting and difficult time.

FJO:  You know, we’re almost 20 years into a new century at this point, a new millennium. When we look back to the year 1917, Schoenberg and his followers were saying that the 19th century is the past.  For us, the 20th century is that now.

SdK:  The past.  Right.

FJO:  So, are there hallmarks of the 21st century that are distinct from the 20th?  Could we now say, “Oh well, that’s stuff that was called new music, but that’s actually old music.  And new music now is something else.”  Are we there yet?

SdK:  I don’t think so.  I think from my vantage point at least we’re still in that phase of what I would call post-post-modern experimentation—of trying to find something that kind of unifies us all.  And I don’t think we’ve come to that point.  Maybe we never will.  Maybe that’s the future.  Or maybe there are only going to be different kinds of new musics.  That’s also possible.  I don’t know.  When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.  I don’t have the sense, at least right now, that we’re any better at finding an answer to how to combine those things than we were, say, 10-15 years ago.

FJO:  So earlier, when we were talking about the difference between Brahms and Wagner and how we can now see the similarities. Maybe we can’t say that yet with all of the music that’s happening now, but I imagine one day somebody might.

SdK:  Yeah, you were saying that earlier.  I think that’s possible.  But I do think that perhaps the range of sounds that we’re exploring today is larger than the range of sounds being explored between Brahms and Wagner.  I mean, you could put those guys in the same room and describe the parameters with which they worked.  If you tried to do the equivalent for all the new music today, you would need a stadium to house all those parameters.  So I think you are right to some extent, but I also think the playing field has increased and has gotten so large—again, that’s one of the blessings and one of the curses of our era is that there’s so much variety out there that’s possible. There’s a huge variety of sonorities, and approaches to sonorities, and approaches to audiences, and to subject matter.  So I don’t have that sense of clarity or even of semi-clarity that I would say I can impose on the world of Brahms and Wagner.

FJO:  And then when you open it up to other genres—is the word genre even relevant to 21st-century music?

SdK:  Right.  I don’t know.  I suspect not.  I think we’re seeing a genuine revolution in all sorts of ways in music.  Again, partly because of the wealth of sounds that are available to us and are known to us, and partly because the way in which we make sound is less and less the way sound used to be made, which is by learning to play acoustic instruments.  I’m always struck by my students: I give them 24 hours and they will return with a passable version of a pop song very nicely produced.  They may not play any instrument or sing.  They don’t have any music notation.  They don’t play an instrument, never have played guitar, piano, anything.  They know how to manipulate sounds via Ableton Live or Logic Pro or whatever program they’re using.  So it really is a different world out there, and I’m not quite sure how all these pieces fit together yet.  I really am not.

FJO:  But part of the whole Derriere Guard aesthetic was about not wanting to lose the things of the world before all of this.  The sound of a violin.  The sound of a piano being played on the keys.  Sounds that are not amplified.  Where does that fit in with this new world we’re now in?

“The great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.”

SdK:  Well A, I’m not sure, but B I don’t think that stuff will ever disappear.  The love for that will certainly never disappear.  There’s no question of that.  To what extent that will be a major centerpiece of artistic endeavors, it’s hard to say. There’s less and less support for high art—I hate that term, but there it is.  So I don’t know to what extent that will flourish any more than in a corner.  There’s always the danger of it being turned into a museum piece. For me, part of the beauty of that old tradition is certainly the sound of a violin or the sound of a piano, but it’s also a level of what I would call complexity married to beauty in kind of a 50-50 melt. Obviously I can’t actually demonstrate quantifiably that it’s 50-50.  But for me, the great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.  It’s really a 50-50 combination of those two.  And that is the thing that’s crucial to me in my music.  How one does that—it’s not uninteresting, but that’s not the question for me; it is how to maintain that.  And to me personally, that’s the important thing, and that’s what I try to do in Bonfire of the Vanities: write something that on the surface has some beautiful melodies and really transports you into the worlds of these people.  But if you listen, it actually has a kind of complexity to it that would not be embarrassing if it were played after a Mozart opera.  I’m trying to do both, and that to me is the heart and soul of all of what I think cannot be or should not be jettisoned from the history of Western music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

  1. Nancy Bloomer Deussen

    I too was involved with The Derriere Guard. After participating in the second festival in Chicago I was entrusted with the responsibility of organizing the third festival In San Francisco.I organized a group of local tonally oriented composers and musicians, including myself, and we did indeed have the festival here. Stefania started the new tonal movement with the Derriere Guard which has now swept across the country. Following the DG I became affiliated with The Delian Society, an on-line International tonally oriented composer’s group whose founder, Joseph Ford, has recently passed away. Along with Stefania, several of us have been on the front lines for several decades leading the fight for more accessible music. Today we are much more readily accepted and I know the audience is grateful, as I have repeatedly been told.

    Nancy Bloomer Deussen
    composer

    Reply
  2. Alex Shapiro

    What a joy to read this wonderful interview! Stefania has always been a hero for fellow artists, and makes very wise points here, as she and Frank recount the trajectory of changes over the past few decades (uptown/downtown “rules” and all). For me, as a rogue midtown composer who spent the first 15 years of her career writing for media because the concert scene at the time wouldn’t have been nearly as welcoming, reading this piece is a walk down memory lane.

    I find myself discussing this topic frequently with younger composers, to offer a perspective of how fortunate we are to finally live in an artistic world where one can write the music one wants to hear, and thanks to technology, often be able to discover or create an audience for it. When I was in conservatory in NYC in the early ’80s, the arts world was still narrowly defined by the approvals of the “literati.” With web connectivity, an individual’s ability to engage and publish globally 24/7 is a complete game-changer for composers– one we could never have anticipated 35 years ago. When an artist can choose to have complete control and disseminate her or his work unfettered by a gauntlet of gatekeepers, that’s the height of expressive freedom. All styles are welcome; excellence and authenticity are criteria’s currency.

    [Courtesy flame-out prevention note: yes, of course there have always been some terrific, supportive, open-minded publishers, performing organizations, and critics, and they serve an important role. The relatively new “do-it-yourself” option just presents an empowering alternative.]

    One factoid that wasn’t really touched upon in this piece strikes me: the 1997 advent of the Derriere Guard pretty much coincided with the advent of the internet as a daily tool. It’s no wonder that twenty years later, Stefania is proud to say that her movement is no longer a necessity because as she always hoped, an all-encompassing view of music has morphed from an oddity, to the norm. This is quite a success for those of us old enough to have begun our careers under one set of circumstances, and who now watch them thrive in a new environment!

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