Not a member yet? Join now!
Forgot your password? Click here.
Kyle Bruckmann

Sounding Board Interview: Kyle Bruckmann

In July 2013, Kyle Bruckmann’s Wrack premiered …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, a new piece commissioned as part of CMA’s New Jazz Works program. …Awaits is, in Bruckmann’s words, a “free jazz phantasmagoria,” based—in sensibility, at least—on the early postmodern novels of Thomas Pynchon. Bruckmann, an orchestral oboist by training, cites influences from European classical modernism to 80’s hardcore punk and noise rock, and his projects range from electronically manipulated solo improvisations to the variously free and composed works for Wrack, his mixed septet.

CMA spoke with Kyle about the problems of genre, the challenging inspiration for his new work, and his hate-love relationship with the oboe.

Chamber Music America: I'd like to begin by asking you about the oboe, if you'll permit it. It's an instrument that's not exactly known for its stylistic flexibility, and you don't see it all that often in improvisational contexts. Your compositions, on the other hand, often seem to aspire to a level of 'freedom' and a pretty thorough subversion of genre. Can you talk a little about how the oboe shaped your voice as a musician and your sense of aesthetics?

Kyle Bruckmann: I've got a messy hate-love relationship with my instrument. I'm not sure who chose whom; sometimes I see it as my muse, but more often as a zen master whacking me upside the head with a bamboo pole. The goody-goody teachers' pet in me was definitely attracted to learning that the oboe was very difficult, but I couldn't possibly have known what I was getting myself into–I was nine years old!

The oboe's got a magical role in Western classical music—poignant, plangent, heartbreaking, a reluctant diva. But its pitch and dynamic range is honestly rather limited; it's finicky and fragile, and of course there's the eternal and thankless task of reed making. It requires undivided attention if you hope to maintain any semblance of control. The oboe's less domesticated cousins in most other musical traditions throughout the world, however, play much different roles. They're raw, wild, with a ritual function, deploying hair-raising upper harmonic partials to induce trance and wake the dead.

I stumbled into a rather intense conservatory environment—again, not fully knowing what I was getting myself into—with this bastard instrument in hand. Sure, I was an overachiever, but I was as committed to academics and college radio as to the oboe, and at least as in love with punk as with the classical tradition. I started experimenting with extended techniques and improvisation I think primarily as an attempt to stay sane. By constructing situations where a degree of failure is not only inevitable, but also good, I was able to do an end-run around a perfectionism that was threatening to become crippling. It's inevitable that technique, control, and expressivity are going to grow when you explore their outer limits and push their boundaries.

By constructing situations where a degree of failure is not only inevitable, but also good, I was able to do an end-run around a perfectionism that was threatening to become crippling.

CMA: There seem to be a number of tensions at work in your music and in your identity as a musician—I'm thinking partially of your musical upbringing, but also of the variety of 'hats' you wear now. What is it like moving between such seemingly different musical worlds?

KB: It's an absolute blast, and it's really hard. Creatively, it's what drives me. I believe productive tension—between genres and subcultures, amongst musicians, within myself—is my real compositional material, more so than even sound itself. Different stylistic and performance contexts just serve as frames for the 'betweenness.' It's not that I see no incongruity in careening from Symphony Hall to a filthy warehouse, but more that it's the incongruity itself I find so interesting. It shines a spotlight on the social dimension of music—who's in each venue and why, what they perceive and consume and seek to get out of the experience.

Now, where this diffuse focus can get to be a drag is from a business perspective. I'll be frank that it's only within the past couple of years that I've managed to derive any percentage of my income at all from creative endeavors - before that, composing, improvising, recording and touring all siphoned off the already paltry amount I earned from freelance classical gigs and teaching. Now that the balance is actually tipping somewhat (and with a kid in the picture), it ups the ante dramatically—I feel obliged to make this juggling act sustainable long term.

CMA: Your new work, supported by the CMA New Jazz Works grant, is entitled ...Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire—a reference to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. I can guess at some immediate connections to your work—the postmodern preoccupation with forms and codes, the Bay Area, the whole notion of the "underground"—but could you talk about how that text is informing your composition? What does Pynchon's work mean to you in general?

KB: I love his utter audacity, his exasperating flamboyance, his uncanny ability to fire on so many different cylinders simultaneously. In the course of a single page, he can screech from the most puerile potty-mouth silliness into stomach-turning perversion, and then blindside you with exquisite lyricism. I resonate with his skepticism and obsession with paranoia and conspiracy systems. He's merciless about jamming his finger into the sockets of imperialism, American racism, and the unfathomable Shadow of the Northern European psyche—matters that, as a white guy with a German heritage who's had the privilege and access to colonize jazz, I feel duty-bound to stare square in the face now and then.

The specific inspiration for this piece actually spans his first three novels. I started off intending to stick with V. and Lot 49, but have sprawled into Gravity's Rainbow. I've doubtless bitten off more than I can chew. I'm definitely not aspiring to depict them in any narrative sense—that'd be a fool's errand, and contrary to their spirit. I'm trying to honor their overarching feel in the most abstract way I can. My anchor, though, is quite literal. I got hooked by his absurd conceit of having characters burst into song. The books are littered with fake lyrics—ribald, hysterical, filled with punning groaners—pure doggerel. And they tend to have very explicit stylistic weight: show tunes, sea shanties, drinking songs, vaudeville—you pretty much know exactly how they're supposed to sound. It didn't take long before I started hearing them as a cracked funhouse mirror Great American Songbook. So I've been setting those lyrics, writing fake songs. And I'm imagining them evolving or devolving into a parallel universe jazz tradition—analogous to the way Gershwin and Cole Porter became the trans-coded DNA for bebop.

CMA: Is this the first time you've worked with an extra-musical text, at least in an explicit way?

KB: I've lifted track titles from Borges and Barthelme, but that was superficial and post hoc. This is definitely a first for me, and it's been really fascinating. In part, there's simply the creative advantage of having a self-imposed constraint—the canvas isn't quite so terribly blank. But I've been surprised to find how permissive the process has also been. I've had to consciously decide to trust the texts to demand their melodies, no matter how ridiculous or bluntly idiomatic. The real challenge is negotiating an appropriate relationship to irony. I have to compose music sufficiently preposterous to do justice to the source material, but without becoming jokey or losing sight of the jaw-dropping glints the ineffable Pynchon also somehow throws into the mix. It cracks me up that I set out thinking I was going to write a 'real' jazz piece, and it turns out that what actually counts as 'classic' for me is more about 1980s Downtown maximalism, Berio's Sinfonia and my old hero Charles Ives.

CMA: What is the composition process for Wrack like? How do you integrate the 'voices' of the other ensemble members?

KB: Well, I wouldn't compare myself to Ellington for a second, but his secret is at the core of jazz's mandate. It should be, has been, and still can be at work within classical music as well (I'm going to choose to bypass for now just how much it makes me squirm to use those two labels at all, much less without quotation marks and a litany of caveats), but it's harder to maintain when the visual modality is ascendant and The Score gets too much in way. You love your friends, you know and respect their playing, you give them lots of space, and you try to only write down things they wouldn't improvise of their own accord anyway. And what you do write had better enhance what they improvise - sometimes with a setting custom-tailored to make them look good, sometimes by throwing them curveballs.

CMA: You've likened your compositions to Zen koans and puzzles; they're designed to encourage remarkable collaborative moments between you and the other members of the ensemble. This is to some extent a question of improvised music in general, but how does the audience figure into the equation? What changes when you take a piece like this from the rehearsal space or studio to the stage?

KB: I think the challenge is honestly more to not lose what happens onstage when you move to the studio. It's related to the end-run around perfectionism I hinted at above. The puzzles and procedural games are designed to goad players into taking risks by explicitly granting them permission to fumble. It's music that not only can't truly be perfected, but shouldn't be. The act of performance is visceral, playful, and more than a little slapstick; I think the fun we're having juggling puppies while riding flaming unicycles through a labyrinth is immediately obvious to audiences. They're entirely in on the joke, watching it unfold in real time, and it's never going to happen precisely that way again. I really don't know how to be any more inclusive than that while making the ugly sounds I love.

…Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire was funded by CMA’s New Jazz Works program, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

2015 Chamber Music America