So. Have you noticed there’s a lot of depressing career advice out there for classical musicians, and not a lot of stories of people succeeding in their own unique way? A lot of starving-artist jokes, and not a lot of options? A violin professor in Boston once told me that if I could think of anything besides music to do with my life — ANYTHING — I should do that instead. Pretty dark words — and now that I am a professional musician, I’m so glad I didn’t listen.
What she was trying to tell me is that it’s not easy to forge your own career. So I’m I’m doing interviews of Chicago musicians with diverse, interesting and successful careers – people who love what they’re doing, and are doing it their way. What I want to ask these musicians is: How do you make it work?
I’m calling the series Making Music Work. And hopefully we can all learn a bit from each other.
A quick technical note: My wordpress theme is being a little cranky. To open links in a new tab, work your usual magic (control+click, right-click, etc.). The mp3s will open in new windows on their own. Enjoy!
When I first interacted with Kyle Vegter, I was alone in my practice room, frowning at his piece, ((CONTEXT)). The violin part was very difficult to play – a rapidly alternating sequence of arco, col legno, pizzicato, and sul ponticello. The piece had been commissioned by Homeroom Chicago for their Physics for Listeners concert, and I was their hired violinist. I think I sent Kyle an email hinting that it was kind of a b*tch to play – but I could sense its interesting groove, and Kyle’s attention to detail, from the very beginning.
I was delighted to discover later that while the part was tough, Kyle himself is not. He’s an easy artist to be with and a natural collaborator. His current musical path is a fascinating mix of composing and producing, ambient sound and puppetry, folk music and art music. Kyle has had works performed at the Sound of Silent Film Festival, the Viaduct Theater, and the Hungry Brain. His piece Bertoia Sculpture was commissioned by Access Contemporary Music for their Songs About Buildings and Moods concert. His band, oh+ah, is getting ready to record a new album, and they have a performance coming up with Manual Cinema, Kyle’s collaborative effort with several musicians and puppeteers.
I also wanted to talk to Kyle because he has three jobs – including administrative roles at two of Chicago’s most prominent new music organizations, Access Contemporary Music and eighth blackbird. I thought he would have an interesting take on the financial realities of a life in music – and he does. But we also talked about music as a raw material, the problem with ‘accessible’ music, and the spiritual side of the recording process.
Click to take a listen to Kyle’s band, oh+ah, while you’re reading. oh+ah – florida, Florida – A Place (find it)
Tell me about your early experiences with music.
I didn’t want to do music at all. I had no interest in doing music whatsoever, all the way until, I would say, sophomore year of college. In high school, I was a super sports dude. Baseball, 100%, year round, gonna play in college, travel team. And then I started playing in a band. And I started playing upright bass in middle school orchestra – just as sort of, a reason not to take home ec or shop. It wasn’t a real thing.
You went to the University of Florida, ready to study English and go the academic route. You were playing in the orchestra and taking bass lessons seriously for the first time. Tell us about the class that changed things for you.
The first semester of my sophomore year, I took Composition Skills. Like, Comp Skills One. Intro. And the class was with Paul Koonce – he’s fairly big in the academic, electronic music world. He put out a CD four or five years ago that blew some minds. And he’s a really, really interesting guy. And he just sort of blew my mind with what you could do with music. And how he thought about music was SO different than how I thought about music.
And I struggled. I was not good at it. I would stress about it – it was my most stressful class. I would spend hours staring at the computer screen like, ‘What do I do now?’ And I would put a note, and I would delete it. And it was this terrifying thing for awhile.
What was it about Paul Koonce’s approach to music that inspired you?
We would do exercises where he would say, ‘Okay, You have ten minutes. Use these two notes and write a thing. In ten minutes. Go.” And he would try to make you conceptualize things. Say, here are these rhythms. What are all the ways you can use these rhythms? Put them on top of each other, reverse them, retrograde them. This was just stuff I had never thought about. The way I thought about music was: you play quieter here. Or, you play louder here. Or, this is my part on this song, playing bass guitar. … It was so weird to think about music in a sense where you could work with materials and overlap them, the way that a visual artist would. That really attracted me at the beginning, and I still think that way. I think that’s still what attracts me to writing academic music, or composed music.
You also got into producing fairly early on. How did that process start for you?
I started out in high school, just recording our band and experimenting with microphones. And we had the crappiest gear, and we didn’t have any money to buy real stuff.
What gear did you have, out of curiosity?
We had this little interface that had two inputs, and it was really old. Like, we got it on eBay for $50. And one condenser microphone – and we just used it for everything! Guitar. Drums. Hanging the microphone, and taping it to my friends’ ceiling. And his parents would come: “What’s all this tape?” But I’m actually really glad that I started that way. It taught you to really spend time experimenting, and I think that was really important for what I did later.
How does your career right now compare with what you imagined you might be doing after college?
It’s way more than I thought I’d be doing. I thought, being out of school, it would take me years to actually be writing stuff and getting it performed. It’s crazy how fast it happened.
So what you’re doing now is beyond what you dreamed about.
It’s WAY beyond. I graduated, and I had been composing for two years, maybe. From first written notes to graduating with a composition degree. I didn’t feel accomplished at all, or ready to do anything real. And I was sort of thrust into it, being in Chicago. I think I’ve just met some really awesome poeple, like Seth [Boustead of ACM]. And he asked me to write the first piece of mine that was performed in a real venue, for the Sound of Silent Film Festival last year. Since then, it’s just one thing after another after another, which is great. It’s crazy to me how you know a person, and they respect what you do, and it just sort of takes off. So yeah – I didn’t expect to be doing anything for a couple of years. I expected to slowly meet people, and go to a lot of concerts. But I didn’t expect to really be participating in the music scene at all.
One big idea for art music right now is the relationship between composer, performer, and audience. Can you talk a little about the role those relationships play in your own work?
It’s a really complex relationship. All of those are really complex relationships. I guess in my work, in the art music that I work on, I don’t think too much about the relationship I have with the audience, or the relationship that my performers have with the audience. I’m sort of very focused on a conceptual goal, and making sure that I achieve that. Setting up the sort of bounds that will achieve that in the best way. I don’t really think about audience. And that’s a big thing right now: do we, as composers, need to think about whether our music is accessible enough? But I never have. And I think if I did, it would be a detriment to what I was doing. That’s actually something I had to get over when I first started writing music. What is my professor going to think, what are my classmates going to think, what are the performers going to think? And a lot of my education was about getting over that and finding other things to focus on, like conceptual goals, and things I wanted to achieve with this piece.
I do think a lot about how the performers are going to interact with each other. I’ve done that in a lot of my pieces, in that I’ve built in these pseudo-improvised sections. That’s something that really interests me as a composer: how can you set up an ideal set of bounds to let performers work in, where they can have this experience with each other, this dialogue. And I think it comes back to a sense of spirituality. It’s probably coming across that I think music is a spiritual thing. I like the idea of performers losing themselves, and being able to really express themselves. I think that’s when performers are at the best – I know that’s when I am, whenever I’m performing.
It seems like making performers comfortable is a really high priority for you as a producer, too.
[In college], I just really connected to the recording process. It could have been that I just really loved the songs, too … Usually, the people I work with are people I’m already friends with. I really like working with people I’m really comfortable with, where I feel free to experiment and try stuff out. I want to care, a lot, about what I’m recording.
You know that what you’re doing is going to be really good when it sort of feels spiritual, in a way. I really like helping to create that for musicians. That they’re really having an experience that’s important. And I think that’s what creates the best recordings.
You’ve made it clear that you feel music is this special, spiritual thing – which is sometimes not very connected to money. How do you decide which projects to take on, for money or for free? What role does money play in your career right now?
It’s this weird balance. I think I’m at an age when I’m starting to figure it out.
It’s really tricky when you’re working with people you really like, who you’re friends with. Like, “Yeah, I want to do this creative thing with you, but – you need to pay me some money.” Being able to say that is really hard. But I think you’ve got to reach a point where you do that. And I think in the end, it’s better for both parties. It puts everything on a new level. Even if it’s not that much money, just the fact that money is exchanged makes everything more serious, and really focuses you. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s been true for me.
As far as composing goes, right now, enough payment for me is getting it performed and produced. If someone offered me – write a piece; we’ll get it produced, performed – I would do it. Hands down. I feel like that’s something that’s good for my career right now. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to pick and choose, but I see that as down the road.
Which producing, I feel a little differently. I’m at a point where I’m ready to start charging something, and prorate it to how much I want to work on the project.
[I start laughing.] I love that.
It’s true! If I’m recording some random band that saw an ad on Craigslist, I’m going to charge more. It’s going to be more work for me to be interested and really put my efforts in. Whereas if it’s music that I’m already interested in, I’m going to get more out of it, as an artist, and personally. Putting the time in isn’t going to be as laborious. To me, it’s like lifting 100 pounds or lifting 25 pounds. I’d charge more to lift 100 pounds.
It’s tricky. I have day jobs so that I can pick and choose my projects. But I know a couple people in my life have just thrown caution to the wind, diving in headfirst, saying, “I’m only going to support myself doing art stuff.” And it’s worked out for all the people that I’ve seen do it. So there’s a part of me that wants to quit my restaurant job and say, “This is it. I’m going to make money doing, art period.” And that might happen at some point, but for now I think I’ll hold onto the day jobs. But I really respect people that take that leap of faith.
Tell me one current project of yours that you’re really excited about.
I’ve worked on a lot of other people’s music, and I feel like oh+ah is the place where I can do my thing – where I can express what I want to express. In a not-art-music sense. And a big goal for everything I do, for my entire career is to sort of fuse the two – to find some common ground between art music and more listened-to, popular music. And oh+ah is the space where I’m doing that the most right now.
But we’re finally at a point where we’re going to write new stuff, and we’re trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve been jamming, trying to figure out stuff, and it hasn’t really worked that well. … And so we had this meeting recently, to hash out the plan. We’re writing a new album, and I really like it, because it does fuse a conceptual approach to writing music with a more natural, “this-sounds-good-and-I-like-it” approach. The idea is that each of us will have a day, and we’ll dedicate six to eight hours of the day to a session with each other. And one person will have to have a vision for a piece of music. A form, a sample – some idea for a three-to-five minute piece of music. And at each session one person will have to have the vision. And we all have really different backgrounds, so I’m really excited to see what comes out of it. It’s a totally new approach.
There’s an over-arcing theme for the whole album. The thing we came up with was ‘tectonic plates.’ So somehow, what you bring in has to relate to that. So I think it’s going to be really weird and awesome.
How about someone else’s project that you find exciting and inspiring?
Well – I’ll mention two. I’m really excited about the Photographers, whose EP I just worked on. I really like where they’re going with their music. They’re getting to work on a new full-length with their new lineup, and I’m hopefully going to do the mixing for that.
And I’m also excited about my roommate Ben’s project. I think he’s in there, listening.
[Silence from the next room.]
He just finished his first three or four songs. He’s calling himself lawn mower, by the way. And it’s sort of – well – Ben, what do I call you?
[I see Ben’s socks in the other room and we all start laughing.]
It’s electronic-focused. Beats, loops. I don’t have a name for it, but I’m excited about what he’s doing. I like where Ben’s coming from, musically. It’s a very different place than I am, but I like it a lot. He has a lot of energy for doing music – more than a lot of people that I know. And I’m excited to see what he does. It’s been influencing me a lot lately.
[Take a listen to Ben, aka lawn mower, right now: lawn mower- Enough to Follow]
I can’t thank Kyle enough for sharing his time and creative energy for this interview. Be sure to check out oh+ah and Manual Cinema on February 28th at the Whistler. And stay tuned for the time-and-money pie charts that Kyle drew for me! Here’s a secret: he doesn’t sleep much now, and if he had another life, still wouldn’t sleep much.