Monday, August 29, 2011

Jazz tubist leaves town: Interview with Stefan Kac

Stefan Kac by John Whiting 2011
It’s a good move for him, sad news for Twin Cities jazz fans and musicians: On Labor Day weekend, after a final performance at the Nomad on Wednesday, Stefan Kac will pack his tuba and head to CalArts to pursue his master’s degree.

I mean it about the sad news part. Since I first saw Kac lug his instrument on stage at the AQ during a rare jam session, I’ve been watching him with great interest. At first, mainly because he plays jazz on the tuba. But it wasn’t long before the novelty ceded to the musicality, freshness, imagination, and depth (literal and figurative) he brings to each performance.

He gives jazz, especially free jazz, new layers, colors, and sonorities. If jazz is like a sand painting, he’s the dark layer at the bottom. If jazz has colors, he’s the indigo blue and burnished bronze. A tuba changes the physical experience of hearing jazz. Those low notes get you where others can’t reach.

Soon, other musicians were playing with him, and those who weren’t were talking about him and wanting to play with him. I saw him with his groups Pan-Metropolitan Trio and Ingo Bethke, with BronkowVision and AntiGravity, with the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble, with Bryan Nichols’ We Are Many, with Ann Millikan’s “House of Mirrors” project, and with his own ensembles small and large: trios, quartets, and the Consortium of Symphonic Transients (CoST), often performing his original compositions. I regret that I never heard him with his classical group, the Copper Street Brass Quintet.

On Wednesday at 10 p.m., the Stefan Kac Octet will play the Nomad as part of the weekly jazz series being curated by bassist James Buckley. The octet features Scott Fultz, Chris Kauffman, Shilad Sen, and Chris Thomson on saxes, Geoff Sen on trumpet, Pat O’Keefe on bass clarinet, Kac on tuba, and Nick Zielinski on drums.

Claiming that he writes better than he talks (which isn’t true; I’ve had several interesting conversations with him, plus I took his "Jazz History and Listening" class at the West Bank School of Music), Kac asked if he could respond to my questions by email.

PLE: What’s on Wednesday’s program? Mostly your compositions?

Stefan Kac: All my compositions. One set will be a potpourri of various things I did with CoST, the other will be new arrangements/expansions of some of my jazz tunes.

PLE: Can you talk about the configuration of your octet? A lot of horns, no piano, no bass. Did this happen naturally because you want to work with these musicians, or are you going for a specific kind of sound?

SK: Both. This is just the D Series instrumentation (or one instance of it) with one player per part. (The D Series is one of the open instrumentation templates I used when writing for CoST: seven pitched parts in particular ranges with one percussionist.) I’ll be functioning as the bass when it’s required, a possibility I neglected for a long time, but which I’m slowly bringing up to speed with my “front line” horn playing. It’s fun, plus you don’t have to pay a bass player $100 to make room for you in their schedule!

There is, in fact, a particular sound I’m going for here, same as with CoST, sort of a mixed wind ensemble sound that’s less about specific instrumental timbres than it is about balance and counterpoint among whatever you have. And to your other point, Chris Thomson and Pat O’Keefe are two people I’ve played with elsewhere but never had the chance to involve in one of my projects, so this was also a way to accomplish that before I leave.

PLE: It’s been six years since you received your Bachelor of Music in Tuba Performance from the U of M. What made you decide now to continue your education?

SK: One reason is that I want to someday, if not necessarily in the near future, find an academic job, and it’s hard to do that with just a bachelor’s degree. Another is that I came to feel as if I’d squandered my education. I was terribly burned out academically even before I got to college due to the magnet program I attended in high school, and after five years of college, I was ready to be done for good.

There’s not much I wouldn’t do differently as far as my education is concerned, if I could go back; it’s one of the only major regrets I have. I was really good at jumping through hoops, but I was never allowed to study anything I cared about for credit, not even in music school really. From the time I was very young, I hated reading, which freaked out my parents sometimes. It never affected my grades somehow, but I would sometimes get headaches trying to read a book; for a while we thought there was something wrong with my eyes. Well, it turns out I just don’t give a shit about Shakespeare and Jane Austen. That was the real problem. Eventually, I went looking for books that were somehow related to the music I was interested in hearing, playing and writing, and it turned out that none of them gave me a headache. They’re books that give most people headaches; how ridiculous is it to say that Schoenberg’s Style and Idea taught me to love reading? But it did!

At that point, I started realizing all these things that went terribly wrong in my education and really regretting most of it, most especially the fact that I hadn’t learned anything whatsoever. I also decided that there was no reason I needed to go back to school in order to learn; I’d found what I needed to do it on my own better than I’d done it in school. Even so, seeing what went wrong was also the first step towards feeling like going back might not be the worst idea in the world; no one’s making me go this time, and now I know why I’m going and what I want out of it. I’m also going to a place that’s much more open, both structurally and philosophically, than the U of MN (not that that’s saying much), a school where I’ll be more than just a piece of tuba meat for the wind bands to devour.

CalArts has a program called Performer-Composer, which is what I’ll be doing my master’s in. When I was looking into grad schools, I came across an interview with the head of the music school discussing this program, and saying, among other things, that the non-performing composer is really an incredible historical and cultural anomaly. Everybody outside of old-school academic music departments knows this, but it’s still hard to find Professional Composers willing to say it, so this was encouraging. It’s not like we’re just talking about jazz, either; we’re talking about composers like Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Prokofiev, Bartok, et al. who were career performers as well as composers, and who wrote for themselves constantly. That’s where it’s at for me.

I’m just not interested in doing another tuba degree, yet I’ve got almost no chance of being admitted, let alone financially supported, for anything else at most any school I would actually want to attend. Fortunately, CalArts has this Performer-Composer program, not as a “double major” per se, but rather as a curriculum unto itself, and it’s also a place where jazz, free music, and the experimental tradition are actually taken seriously, along with old and new classical music. It’s my kind of place.

Stefan's hand by John Whiting 2011
PLE: How often can we expect to see you back here?

SK: Not sure. Probably just to visit and play a gig or two, but who knows. This scene has not been particularly conducive to what I want to be doing, so I’m going looking for one that is, and if it’s not L.A., moving back here would probably be a last resort; I’d rather keep looking.

Musicians ask me what I think of Minneapolis, and when I tell them, they say my description could apply anywhere. At that point, it’s like, why ask a question if you already know the answer? I’ve never left, so what do I know? Maybe I’ll come crying back in another five years. For now, though, I’m not planning on living here permanently for the foreseeable future.

PLE: Aren’t you about the only jazz tubist in the Twin Cities? (Certainly the only free jazz tubist.) What are we going to do without you?

SK: The instrument doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with it.

PLE: Finally, something I’ve always wanted to ask: One of your compositions is called “You’ve Been Promoted to Kriho.” What’s the meaning of Kriho?

SK: It’s the last name of a co-worker at a job I used to have (an overnight security job, where I devoured Style and Idea at my desk). She had been working there for so long, the joke was that she had her own title.

Who knew what a tuba could do?
Visit Stefan's website to hear "You've Been Promoted to Kriho" and more.

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