Composer as Storyteller: Interview with Michael Kaulkin, SFCA Composer-in-Residence

May 13, 2018

What’s it like to move music from your head to the page, then have someone else take it from the page to the concert hall? How do you coalesce a nebulous theme into a singular idea, then evolve that idea into a discrete piece?  What do coding and composing have in common? Below, Michael Kaulkin—SFCA 2017-18 Composer-in-Residence—discusses linguistics, storytelling, computing, and his own compositional process.

SFCA: You’ve composed for all kinds of ensembles, both instrumental and vocal. What’s unique about writing for voices?

Composer-in-Residence Michael Kaulkin

Michael Kaulkin: Inherently, writing choral music is different because the text plays such a huge role. It answers a lot of questions for youthe form and structure of the piece, how it’s going to begin and end, what overall feeling it’s going to have. On the other hand, when you’re writing for an instrumental ensemble, say a string quartet, you’re totally on your own, which can be really daunting. The scariest thing in the world is a blank canvas.

It’s also different because, though I’m generally not a performer, the voice is the instrument I know best. I sing all the parts when I’m composing as a way of getting to know my own work, and I do think about things that are important to singers“can I do this all on one breath? Can I get to this note from that note, on this vowel, at this dynamic?” I think about all that as much as counterpoint, voice-leading, etc.

When the text is so integral to the development of a piece, how do you go about choosing it?

It’s different every time, and honestly my life would be simpler if someone would just pick one out and say “please set this text!” But of course, that can be a disaster, because the vast majority of poetry is not suitable for musical setting. I’m sure a lot of composers would disagree, but I am extremely picky about this.

I have a musical theater background, and I tend to tell stories through music. In general, the more parameters there are, the easier it is, which is one of the reasons I’m drawn to very theatrical texts. There’s a great quote from Stephen Sondheim about the freedom that paradoxically comes with a lot of constraints:

“If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.”

When it comes to composing for the Choral Artists, there’s a theme to each concert, which gives me some direction to go in. I’m very happy with that arrangement, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I struggled a bit with the December concert on the Reformation, since that’s not a world I’ve paid that much attention to, so I had to do research to find the right text. On the other hand, the Yiddish piece for the spring was much closer to home, so that was easier, because I happen to be something of an “armchair Yiddish-ist.”

Speaking of those two pieces, the Reformation piece “The Noble Art of Music” is a brief and brilliant fanfare built off a Martin Luther quote about the importance of the arts, while the spring’s “Ballad of the Lost Lamb” is a charmingly meandering Yiddish parable about a lost sheep.

This upcoming concert, “More Pianos than Bathtubs,” explores American song through parlor music, hymns, rounds, gospel tunes, and more. What’s in store from you?

I studied in Hungary for several years and had a front-row view of the tradition of folk song collecting fostered there by Bartók, Kodály and others in the early 20th century, so given the concert’s theme of American traditional music, I knew I would base the piece on some hopefully obscure folk song collected in the field here in the U.S.

Kaulkin in Hungary, photo courtesy of the artist


Fortunately the Kodály Center at Holy Names University has an online repository of collected and transcribed American folksongsmany with original field recordingswhere I was able to find “Fare Ye Well, My Darling,” recorded in South Carolina in the 1930s.

I imagine the song to be from the Civil War era. It’s about a soldier leaving home to go join the fight, and his wife/girlfriend’s reaction. Again, I look at song texts from a dramaturgical point of view, and this one is very character-driven.  In building these four verses into a piece, I thought a lot about who these people are and what they want, and hopefully the result is a nuanced and emotionally varied piece of musical storytelling.

I imagine a lot of that will probably come down to the choir’s interpretation of the piece. Handing over your music to a performer is always an act of trustwhat’s it like to hear a work you’ve written sung by actual people for the first time?

It’s always thrilling, even if it’s full of clams and not ready yet. I use Sibelius [music notation software] to compose, which has the ability to play back what I write on a reasonably good synthesizer, but it’s still not real, and it’s not very musical. Even so, I get used to the computerized version when I’m hearing it over and over again, and then there’s something both delightful and disconcerting about hearing the work coming through real voices in rehearsal.

Alsoboth the computer and the human playback immediately reveal the places where what I’ve written isn’t conveying what I had in mind. It happens all the time that I have a very clear picture in my head, but it’s a mystery to everyone else, even with the score and the text and the translation. It’s a treat to be working with a local choir where I can get that direct feedback and work with [SFCA Artistic Director] Magen in real time to find the best possible interpretation of the piece.

And finallyin addition to composing, you’re also a longtime web developer. You even built a platform where composer can self-publish their scores online, Swirly Music. For you, is there a connection between coding and composing?

Oh, definitely. I personally don’t buy into the math/music connection that people talk about, but there’s absolutely a connection to computer science – it’s all just languages, communication and syntax and grammar. Both are taking established elements and putting them together to make something new. The web developer in me treats composing as problem-solving in the same way that I’d solve a technical problem. I can be obsessive in the same way for both. And with both, I spend hours making fussy little changes, de-bugging a website or a score to make it more functional or just cleaner and tighter.

It’s also the perspective you take while you’re building what you’re building. I’ve single-handedly made large corporate websites, and people ask me how I keep track of everything. Well, I’ve also written longer works for chorus & orchestra, and both require the ability to see the big picture and the little picture simultaneously, to hold the micro and the macro in balance. The processes inform each other.

Oakland composer Michael Kaulkin’s choral, orchestral and chamber music has been performed around the world, including by numerous Bay Area ensembles. He studied at both the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, and currently juggles positions as Assistant Music Director of San Francisco’s Calling All Choir and on the Musicianship and Composition faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Pre-College Division.

His new work, Fare Ye Well, My Darlin’, will premiere in June at SFCA’S More Pianos Than Bathtubs, which revisits a time in America’s history when every living room was filled with song.