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Interview with Karl Korte

img  Tobias Fischer

In recent compositions, such as “Drops of Water” and an upcoming composition using recordings of wind, you’re manipulating sounds of nature to create musical compositions. What inspired you to take this compositional approach?
I became fascinated with the sound of dripping water. (To start with, it was just a leaking faucet.) I began to hear patterns of high and low sounds that began to suggest rhythms and melodies. From there I collected other water sounds which, when manipulated, were turned into all sorts of “pseudo” musical instruments.

Do you find that un-manipulated environmental sounds have an inherent musicality? For instance, are you tempted to let a natural sound progress within the composition for an extended period of time?
I often do mix them. The interplay between “real” and “electronically manufactured” fascinates me. I quote here from my web site:
"For me, one of the most interesting aspects of using the computer as a compositional tool is its powerful ability to extend the vocabulary of existing musical instruments by blurring the distinctions between sounds which have been acoustically ("naturally") created by a musical instrument and those that have been electronically manufactured. For the performer this may mean extending the boundaries between what is physically possible on an acoustic instrument and what is not and for the listener it often means a blurring of such distinctions. If in listening to these compositions one sometimes finds it difficult or impossible to tell where these boundaries lie, at least in part, I consider that I have been successful."

Though he certainly wasn’t the first to come to this realization, John Cage argued that “music” was what we decided it to be. Silences, car horns, people talking, are all arguably musical elements. Do feel that working with the sounds of natural elements has made you hyperaware of the musicality of your surroundings? When you’re composing for traditional instruments, do you often draw inspiration from environmental sounds?
Obviously, in the case of Drops of Water and the yet unnamed Wind piece, the inspiration comes from environmental sources. But also, I recently composed a work for the New York Treble Singers whose conductor, Virgina Davidson, 80th Birthday coincided with mine. The text, by Eve Merriam, is entitled “The Time is Now”. The accompaniment, in addition to the piano part, was created from samples from many different clocks.

I would like to add that I actually have written very few (4) purely electronic works. I am very much aware of the inherent limitations in writing music that require no live performers. Without the “interpretative” contribution of a live performer, all purely electronic compositions are limited in the sense that “they are already what they shall become”.

Are rhythmic/melodic motifs still a very conscious part of the process?

Absolutely, they are often the Genesis for the work.

In your “electronic” compositions, you’ve worked with both tape and digital programs. Do feel that the ease of the digital approach “cheapens” the artistic process? In other words, how crucial to you is “the process” employed in writing a piece?
Conductor Hermann Scherchen in the late 1960’s wrote “Technology, rather than talent, will determine the music of the future. We do not live in an age of great creativity.” The last part of that statement need not concern us since we’ve seen since then that no decade has lacked creative genius. But the idea that technology can be more important than talent is with us still. There probably never will be a completely satisfactory answer to the question “What is this change that emphasizes technology over artistry?

I have spent most of my career attempting to live in both the acoustic and electronic worlds. Probably most aspiring young composers today are, or should be, equally at home in both. But, hopefully, it will not be forgotten that when it comes to composing music for breathing, sometimes perspiring, live human beings, the traditions of hundreds of years have produced masterpieces capable of countless acts of rediscovery and reinterpretation and, at their greatest, represent some of the “highest degrees of group cooperation achieved in Western civilization.” (Paul Henry Lang on the subject of Chamber Music at its best.)

What inspired you to become a composer?
I sort of drifted into it. I was a reasonably good trumpet player (jazz) but did not enjoy playing in front of people that much. I got the real “bug” in the Army. (Believe it or not.) I was in an Army Band that had many very fine musicians as members. Often, instead of heading to the nearest bar, many would stay on base and play chamber music. I found myself writing for them and, as they say, “the rest..........”

In this age of Internet, iPods, and constant sonic bombardment, a young composer has exposure to a seemingly inexhaustible amount of musical languages. A critique that I’ve heard a bit lately is that this wealth of choices leads to a lack of focus within composition. A young composer might, for example, incorporate hip-hop beats, samplers and other eclectic elements into a composition. Do you see that as an asset or a detriment to 21st Century composition?
It may be a detriment. The great composers of the Baroque, Classic, Romantic periods, shared a “lingua Franca” (a commonly accepted musical language) that was almost universally understood and accepted - at least in the west.) This is certainly not the situation today.

That said, it has been said that works of art are messages dispatched to constantly changing addresses. While in the past there was usually never any doubt as to what kind of music would appeal to devout churchgoers or royal palace quests, during much of the 20th century, many composers deviated enough from convention and tradition that audience comprehension dwindled. The message may have been sent but it was no longer addressed. But while the gulfs in art are much harder to bridge than ignore, it has been a positive and welcome change that so many younger composers are now openly and often successfully expressing themselves in ways that are more comprehensible - even attractive -to audiences.

Do you plan to continue with your series of writing for forces of nature? What’s next?

I really can’t answer. I have always had a love/hate relationship with technology. I often say a temporary “good bye” to computers and become totally involved with things like a guitar and a violin.

By Hannis Brown

Karl Korte Discography:
The Guitar Music of Karl Korte (Centaur)
Karl Korte - A retrospective (CRI)
Extensions - A Retrospective of Electro-Acoustic Compositions by Karl Korte

Karl Korte

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