October 3, 2012

Interview with Allen Krantz

Allen Krantz, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory and Stanford University, has received acclaim as a composer, solo guitarist, and chamber musician.  His performances throughout the United States have included appearances at Carnegie Hall, Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Phillips Collection in Washington, with his diverse programs often featuring original compositions. 

What part does song-writing play in your overall composing career? How did you start composing songs?

As a guitarist I have played a lot of chamber music which is central to my life. I have written more chamber music than anything else and I coach and perform chamber music. It’s not for any great design on my part, but just because I respond to situations that come along. So when I have a chance to write a song – it is a kind of a chamber music anyway. My favorite composers are Schubert and Schuman, both fantastic song writers who wrote chamber music. The two things compliment each other. I just haven’t had that many opportunities.

The very first piece I wrote when I decided to write music was a song. It was actually the original version of the song that I wrote last year for Lyric Fest. [Allen Krantz’s “Little Elegy with Books and Beasts” is set to Nancy Willard’s poem in memory of Martin Provensen (1916-1987), an illustrator and writer of children’s books, whose poetry and folk stories raised generations of young readers.- IH]

I was about 40 at the time and it took me a long time to grow into composing – even though I have wanted to do it since I was 7. I was afraid to make the plunge as I was raised as a very practical person, and playing guitar seemed impractical enough. Composing seemed hopelessly impractical.

In my mid 30s, I had a mid-life identity crisis and didn’t feel quite right having my identity bound up only with guitar. At that time I had an opportunity to do an American Express commercial and –  all of a sudden – I was writing music for national commercials and getting paid reasonable money for doing it. Writing and producing music for commercials became part of my living in Philly, and so composing began to feel like a real job to me.

Soon, I was asked to write a film score, and violinist Nancy Bean [The Wister Quartet, Philadelphia Orchestra, 1807 & Friends] played violin in this production. Nancy liked the music so much, she asked me to write a piece for an 1807 & Friends concert. And it was my first song, “Little Elegy with Books and Beasts,” for voice, violin and cello. And I said, “Oh my God, this is what I really want to do. I don’t want to do commercials. I want to do this!”

What is your song-writing process like?    

When someone suggests a project or explains about their setting or theme – I get this immediate idea in my head, almost like a spontaneous reaction. I free-associate with it and many times it bears fruit. My first reaction is usually worth following up on.

In the case with Lyric Fest, Suzanne [DuPlantis] said something about the idea of voyages and I immediately thought of On The Road – an American voyage! It seemed like a great idea right away as I find this book by Jack Kerouac very powerful and meaningful.

Tell us more about the inspiration behind this new song you composed for Lyric Fest? 

In the Beat Generation era, post-World War II, there was a group of writers such as Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg associated with a new American writing style.

But people wonder what beat means in this context of the Beat Generation. To some it could mean “exhausted” or “into jazz” expressing the beat energy of bop. But Kerouac was a French Canadian Catholic who was also drawn to Buddhism. To him beat also meant “beatific”. Travelling across the country was a search for the divine and religious ecstasy fueled by jazz and drugs. It was not frivolous, and beat is a very layered word for him.

In my student days, I studied in CA, and so I travelled a lot between East and West coasts. I would drive home on the holidays and I can relate to what they did in the book. I loved this existential voyage which On The Road is all about and it resonates with me.

How did you set this novel into a song? 

I used two paragraphs from the beginning part of the book which are beautiful soliloques (when the narrator character speaks by himself). These words expressed the essence about taking the journey and a hunger for ecstasy and some kind of revelation. It’s intensely American. It is not a poem but it is written in a very poetic style. There is a fantastic rhythm to it, it’s almost like a jazz improvisation and I try to use that energy in my piece.

It took me a couple weeks to write it. It’s about 3 minutes long and it was fun and came easily. I wait till I hear it in rehearsal and it won’t surprise me if I need to play more with some details.

Why did you include the bongo drum into this piece? 

The bongo drum is almost a cliché of the beatniks who were predecessors of the hippies in the 60’s. There is this cliché of them sitting out there reciting poetry and beating a bongo drum, which became almost a symbol of this whole era. In my piece, the pianist [Laura Ward] will occasionally play the bongo with one hand and piano with the other. The singer plays it too, they share the same bongo which is positioned between them.

What about the choice of voice in the song? 

I wrote a piece for mezzo, to be performed by Suzanne DuPlantis. I love Suzanne’s personality, her great sense of humor and great soul. I like her enthusiasm and the way she knows how to have fun with a song.  When I wrote the piece, I was thinking of her because it’s kind of humorous and serious, irreverent and reverent at the same time. I have accompanied Suzanne on guitar and I know that she can handle the jazzy fun part and respond to the underlying deeper part of it as well.

What  do you like to do when you are not teaching, performing or composing?

I love playing tennis, it’s my therapy. I play at least 3-4 times a week.

And I like film a lot. There are too many to give a short answer to what are my favorites, but I like classic cinema, old films.

The history of cinema is relatively young and you can study a film and gain some insights into the studio system of the 30-40’s. In a funny way, this studio system was similar to what the court system was in the Mozart-Haydn era. The studio directors had to deal with studio politics similar to the ways Mozart had to deal with the court system. There were all these rules and they had to find the way to do what they wanted to do within the confines of the stetting. This, to me, is similar to how composers had to play the game and still manage to do what they wanted to do.

Sometimes the tensions between creative freedom and restricting rules produce tremendous results. We complain about the limitations, but in the end they can be your best friend because you are forced to find your own creative response.

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Interviewed by Inna Heasley
October 3, 2012
Philadelphia, PA

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