Emily Kennedy was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on July 18th, 2019. Listen to the full interview here.
MK: So, welcome, Emily, to the show, or should I say welcome back. Was it last year or two years ago that we spoke?
EK: It was last year.
MK: Last year. So in the barracks last year, you were composing something to do with water, and you were in the process of it. How did that turn out in the end?
EK: (laughs) To be honest with you, I wasn’t super happy with it.
MK: It was quite a challenge; you were taking numerical data about the flooding that had happened, and transforming that.
EK: Yep, exactly. It was very process-driven; I didn’t really have control over what the end result would be. I think it’s okay for you to not like it when you have so little control in that sense.
MK: There’s a lot of pressure and time-crunch and things like that too, right?
EK: For sure.
MK: We should say that you’re a cellist and a composer. I didn’t start out with that; I already know, since we’ve met a couple times now. For people who don’t know, your name is Emily Kennedy, and you’ve seen this name on every group who has a cello for the last six months, it feels like. Has that been you going out and seeking different opportunities, or has it been the regular people you play with? I’ve seen a a lot of different names there.
EK: A little bit of both; I’ve been super lucky that people have started approaching me.
MK: I’ve seen the name, and I always give it some extra emphasis when I see it. You’re all over the place this summer, but right now you’re in the barracks. Last year, as we were talking about, the theme was water, and you were kind of taking that theme and turning it into an actual thing, which is an abstract composition, so I suppose it’s sort of abstract again. This year, the theme is trees, and I’ve talked to several artists so far about what they’re doing, but I kept thinking “What is Emily doing?” Because how do you make music out of trees other than sort of the nature music of wind blowing through trees or something?
EK: I’ve been fascinated by graphic scores recently.
MK: What’s a graphic score?
EK: A graphic score is a new way of conceptualizing how to read music. Often times, like the name suggests, it’s graphic-based, so it can be super suggestive, and leaves the performers a lot of room for how they want to interpret something. The nice thing about graphic scores is they kind of started popping up… I’m going to throw a number out there and it might be totally wrong, but probably 60-70 years ago. So there’s not one way to make a graphic score; there are some that you see that are just beautiful pieces of art, so it’s almost more like the score itself is more important than how it’s performed. I shouldn’t say that, they all vary. But I had been a little bit of work with them, performing them, and I’ve never really made one on my own before. I typically just hang out with a normal, traditional score. When the theme of trees popped up, I was just thinking about how you might be able to find a way to interpret the music, so I was really curious about the grain. When you look at the grain of a piece of wood, it looks like it’s very linear; there’s one path that is very similar to music. It almost looks kind of like a score.
MK: So you have something that looks like acetate there. And on it, I’m seeing multi-coloured lines. Was this a tracing over bark or tracing over a cut of wood?
EK: Yeah. I went to Home Hardware and I got a cut of wood that looked visually interesting (laughs).
MK: That must be an interesting request at Home Depot; “Can you show me your interesting wood?”
EK: Yeah (laughs). I’ll go get it.
MK: Oh, this isn’t a small piece either.
EK: No, it’s quite large. I’ll try not to hit you with it.
MK: (laughs) I appreciate it.
EK: I stained it just so you can see the grain a little bit better.
MK: So it’s basically a plank.
EK: Yeah, so it’s a little bit darker just on this side. I took the acetate, and I just kind of placed it on top, and I traced the grains that was super obvious and large. I’m kind of just treating it like a study or experimentation, because eventually I would love to do the whole plank, but I decided that before tracing the whole thing (laughs).
MK: Well this must be time-consuming; these are very small grains you’re tracing out.
EK: Yeah, it took a lot of time. I even surprised myself; I didn’t think it would take that long.
MK: So roughly how long for the two-foot long section you’ve done?
EK: Figuring out the best materials to use took a couple of hours; I was trying these little pens that just wouldn’t stick to the acetate, so I’m using an acrylic-based marker, like a paint marker.
MK: So you can get pretty precise with that then.
EK: Exactly. And then the tracing itself took me probably eight hours.
MK: Holy moly! Eight hours?
EK: Yeah, I was being a little anal though (laughs).
MK: Now, can you allow for mistakes in that? Or do you have to take it very carefully to be sure it’s precise as possible?
EK: It’s all an experiment; I probably could leave room for mistakes. But I don’t want to just make it up; I do want it to be based. You can kind of see that in some spots… you can’t do gradients or shading with these markers, so what would normally start lightly through here, I would keep as a block and just colour it in completely.
MK: Okay, so you’re starting a musical project with sort of a handicraft that turns into a painting project.
EK: Yeah, a lot of people have been confused (laughs)
MK: So was the choice of colours that you used, was there anything in particular that made the colour have any significance to start with? Or did you just want good, contrasting colours?
EK: Just contrasting colours, yeah. I had originally envisioned this to be for solo cello, but after looking at it, I decided that it will be for four voices, so the different colours will be for different performers. The version I’m most satisfied with right now, I’ve taken the tracing I had done and photocopied it. So you can see over there, there are different copies of it. And then I’ve just kind of cut it up, kind of like you would chop up a piece of wood, just so you can see that it isolated the four voices. So the way that it works is you determine a set amount of time; for this version I’m experimenting with each cut being roughly 30 seconds. So it’s super flexible, but as people are going through time-wise, they would play with a stopwatch that’s going, and whenever their part would come in, whenever you’d see a red line or a green line coming in, that’s when their entry would be. The black line through the middle is the middle register of the instrument; it’s super open. This could be a string quartet that could play, it could be four voices, it really depends. So within that, the width of the line determines the dynamic, and where it is in relation to the black line determines the register. So if you see at the very beginning, the red line would be starting lower in the register, and then it would come up into the middle register, and then it would stop and then come again a little bit later.
MK: When you say dynamic, what are you referring to there?
EK: How loud or soft someone is playing.
MK: And is that just that the thicker lines are louder notes or is it a variation in there?
EK: Ideally it would be louder, so if you’re looking down in through here where there’s a very thick line, that person would be more present than all the other people playing.
MK: So you’re going from almost a random element, a board and a tree, and we know there’s a certain shape that the grain has, so you have some idea of what sort of things to see, and then translating that and cutting it up into movements, what do you expect this to sound like?
EK: It’s part of the reason why I wanted to do graphic scores, because given my experience last year, you can get a lot of… not that there’s anything wrong with dissonance, but you can get a lot of things that clash that doesn’t necessarily sound the way that I had kind of hoped it would. And in some ways, that’s possible with this, but what I’m hoping is that the people who would be playing this would become comfortable with improvisation, so a lot of it is very suggestive, so they can determine the notes that they want and decide if they want it to clash or if they don’t want it to clash. I’m hoping tomorrow to do some rough recordings of this of my own, playing each of the lines. It would be all cello, so it would be kind of hard to actually hear the difference, but just to experiment it and see how it turns out.
MK: So is this the way that the graphic representation was used in the past? It takes something that sort of translates into graphic? Or was it just a different, abstract way of writing things that were more definite?
EK: I’m definitely piggybacking on the way some graphic scores have the whole translation process. But the scores itself; it’s common to have different voices mean different colours, or the line being the middle register is very common too, just so people can kind of get placement so that it isn’t completely random.
MK: There’s so much interpretation here; is it going to come out as consistent sound this time? Or do you expect it to change every time it’s performed?
EK: I expect it to change every time.
MK: That’s mind-blowing.
EK: Yeah, but if you think about trees, even along the length of a cut of wood, it’s the same thing; nothing is ever the same. I think it has a nice parallel to it.
MK: When you said originally you were thinking of this as a solo cello piece, tell me about that decision to make it into a multiple voice piece, what was the motivation there?
EK: I was looking at the grain, and I was just trying to think how I could convert it into sound in a way that makes sense; that wouldn’t be totally mind-boggling. The listeners can’t see what I’m holding up, but it looks very linear; it makes me think of long drones or something. I thought it would be kind of boring for a solo cello piece, just long different drones.
MK: But when you cut it up, you’re not necessarily following along those lines either. Like you said, some of them will get cut part way or they’ll dip down or rise up so that they’re different measures now. That really changes that nature of droning altogether, doesn’t it?
EK: Yeah, it does. But then I was thinking about that and how interesting it would be to have different voices coming and meeting, so that you can have that interaction, just to add variety. And to also just kind of add movement so that it’s easier for the performers to kind of piggyback on top of each other and play around with the different pitches.
MK: This seems a long ways away from what most people think of as composing. You have a sheet here with an additional five lines across it, you write some notes on it; what attracts you to this kind of composing? Is it because of a discovery? Is it curiosity? Is it a chaos? What is it you enjoy?
EK: It’s partially curiosity; I had recently done a program in Montréal where a bunch of composers and improviser and composers come together and present new works, and there were a whole bunch of people who were writing these improv-based pieces. A lot of those performances were just really beautiful; it allows different performers to bring their own personality to it, and it’s not so dictated, and is more of a collaborative process. I’ve always personally liked working in those kinds of environments too, because as a performer you can have your say, and add a little flavour to it. There was one person who had these old photos of the Mississippi River, and she just had people interpret what the shape of the river meant to them, so that was super open. This a bit more controlled, like I said, I have a hard time completely letting go of control, but it’s also just something new that I haven’t done before, so I just wanted to give it a shot and see how it feels to hand off some of that responsibility to the performers too.
MK: If we present this as a sort of spectrum between sonic art and music, is that a fair way to think about this? Maybe as a bit more in the sonic art than strictly music?
EK: I would almost say that it lands closer to structure than improvisation.
MK: Which is like what jazz comes from. Is this the kind of thing that you can only do because you know all the rules? There’s a saying that I’ve heard many times, where the only way to know how to break the rules is you have to know them all very well first. Is that sort of thing going on here?
EK: No, I’m going to keep this super accessible. There will be a little rule-sheet that people can follow, but it’ll be mostly directions on how to interpret it. I do want the time to be very specific, just so that there’s a good flow through it, and I do want people to follow the suggestion of register.
MK: Are the performers all recording this separately? It sounds like they’re doing this independently. Is that true?
EK: No, they would perform this all at the same time, so it could be like a string quartet or something; they could pick their favourite colour and that could be your part (laughs).
MK: So have you decided or talked to people about what instruments you want in this?
EK: Well that’s the nice thing; it could be four singers, a string quartet, anything. I do know a couple musicians who I’m kind of hoping I can twist their arm to try it out, just to see. But I think I’ll definitely experiment with recording it myself first, just to see how it all fits before I subject a bunch of other people to it (laughs).
MK: Now these are almost all continuous pieces too, so I think it lends itself to, say, a woodwind instrument more than drums. Is that fair?
EK: Yes, definitely.
MK: So you’d be looking at something more in the woodwind area probably.
EK: String, woodwind, yeah.
MK: Although, I could see bagpipes going well in some of this.
EK: Yes, especially in the giant red one.
MK: So tell me about other pieces you have performed. You said you have looked at some of these other ones before. What were some of those pieces like?
EK: John Cage, he’s kind of one of the pioneers when it comes to graphic scores, and his stuff… Some of it is super wacky; it almost just looks like a kid has scrolled across the page and put in all these coloured blocks and stuff. So I’ve done works like that, normally in relatively larger groups. I haven’t done a lot of graphic notation for solo cello.
MK: I’m trying to figure out how this comes out to be performed. Is it a matter of everybody getting the graphic score ahead of time and they try to work out what they want to do or is it a group that’s trying to work out what they want this to sound like? How does that work?
EK: Yeah, it would be like a group that would come together at the same time. That’s the nice thing about the score having the same parts. As you’re going through, you can kind of see where you’re playing in relation to the other people, and then it’s easier to discuss the vibe that you would be wanting. And ideally in this kind of situation, I would either be playing or I would be helping the group along so I can kind of shape my vision of how I want it to go. Just to kind of help people or guide them as they’re doing it, at least for the first little while.
MK: This notation is, how do I put it? I want to say simple but that feels like the wrong word, because there’s a lot of complicated little moves in here. But is there going to be more notation in terms of… I don’t know how musical notation goes, but with instruments, you can play them in different ways; you can mute a guitar when you play certain strings or make a different sound when you strum. And with a flute, I’ve heard of a trill, and I don’t know how that’s notated, but is that something that you would also notate here, or is that something that the person would put in on the spot?
EK: I guess in this version of the translation, people could do whatever they want. And I am working on another version of it where I’m trying to devise a way where I can convert it.
MK: This one looks very different. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but you’re getting more and more into almost abstract art with every version you make. So on this one, you’ve got a whole bunch of vertical stripes that cut through all the different pieces, and they look like they’ve been rearranged.
EK: This was actually my project yesterday; trying to figure out a way to turn this into pitch, but I was juts trying to decide whether I would assign pitches to the different colours, or sign duration to the different colours.
MK: When you rearranged these, was there a particular method to this madness?
EK: It was very random (laughs).
MK: What about the randomness makes sense? The thing with music is that music is not random; improv is not necessarily random. How does the randomness play into this for you?
EK: I kind of like the loss of control. I don’t know if that’s just a creative inspiration or something, but that’s also something that people have been doing for a long time in music. But maybe for me it’s because I don’t feel as responsible if it turns out really badly or something (laughs).
MK: Are you hoping for serendipity though? For some sort of hope that everything sort of clicks together?
EK: Yes, definitely.
MK: This is a really radical interpretation of wood.
EK: (laughs) Thank you!
MK: When you proposed this project, did anybody have any clue what you were talking about?
EK: Probably not, I’m not sure (laughs).
MK: So you’re working on this while you’re here, and like last time, I’m assuming there’s gonna be a lot of work afterwards to make sure there’s a final product. Are you anticipating being able to play this in three/six months down the road?
EK: Yeah, I hope so. Once it’s finished, I’m hoping the string quartet that I play with will be able to workshop it with me a little bit, just so I can get their feedback as performers who haven’t been living in my head. Once I get their opinion on it, whether they like it or not, I would like to tidy up the score itself. It’s very cut-and-paste right now. I literally cut up the pieces of paper with scissors and taped it on, so I would love to scan it properly and then do a lot of this with the computers so that it’s cleaner reading-wise, too.
MK: I also see that some of these have more than one colour. There’s two prominent red lines in the fourth passage here. Is that the person who’s going to play twice as many instruments? Or is there a way to play a split note like that?
EK: This was actually the scanner; this was supposed to be orange, but the scanner just didn’t pick up the colour. But you’re right, there are a few instances where that happens, and if you’re a string player, you can play another string in time, and so the idea is you would be doing two voices, or sometimes wind players can make multi-phonics; kind of like two different pitches that are coming out at the same time.
MK: I could see this kind of stuff driving some players nuts. It’s not the precision or specific detail we’re used to.
EK: So if you’re someone who’s just really into playing Beethoven all the time, it probably wouldn’t be your jam.
MK: What would Beethoven think of this kind of stuff?
EK: He was pretty radical fellow at the time, he did a bunch of things that made people stand up in their seats during live performances and stuff. I’m sure he would’ve been into some weirder stuff if he were here now. I bet he would’ve been in this crazy prog-rock or metal band or something, I don’t know. (laughs)
MK: Is this the punk rock of classical music?
EK: No, I don’t think so. (laughs).
MK: So, with this, you are creating visual art as well as your musical art. Do you kind of anticipate a display of that too?
EK: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that since I’m so music-centric, but maybe. The FAA is doing an exhibition once the residencies are finished, so I could give them some of it if they wanted to display it.
MK: Yeah, because you can’t display the musical work itself; you can only hear it. Do you think that you would perform this multiple times just to see how it turns out?
EK: Yeah, I’d like to.
MK: And you think there will be a performance of this sometime this fall maybe?
EK: I don’t know. It’s about programming. It probably wouldn’t be soon, I would have to propose it to a couple different organization that specifically do music. But I would love it if I could.
MK: And with this sort of stuff, it kind of has to be performed to be believed, first of all, but also to really come to life, right? Because you can score it on paper, but if it’s not really performed, it hasn’t really existed, right?
EK: I guess that’s the same for all music though, all notated music.
MK: And that just makes it all the more intriguing I think. This mystery of what it will turn into. Do you kind of hear it when you’re looking through it?
EK: Yeah, a little bit, but that’ just from experience of hearing these kinds of scores.
MK: Well I hope people catch you humming along to these scores while you’re here. I want to thank you for joining me. Where can people find out more about what you’re doing? You were doing a lot of performances this summer, and continually busy. Is there a central place where people can follow what you’re doing?
EK: I do have a website that people can check out, and it would be a good excuse to update my calendar on my website, so that would be emily-kennedy.com.
MK: Great, thanks again Emily.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2019