Lassus, Led Zeppelin, and Ligeti: Composer Kevin Laskey’s Unique Art of Blended Genres
Kevin Laskey won the New Voices Project prize in 2014 as a first-year graduate student. His winning piece, Sonnet 73: Chorale and Explication, inventively combined relatively traditional choral writing with elements of improvisation and spoken text. Since then he has continued to explore different genres of music, often using multiple styles within a single piece. Bridging gaps between musical styles has been a preoccupation of Kevin’s since Middle School, when he wrote an essay comparing his two favorite musicians: Aaron Copland and jazz drummer Buddy Rich!
Kevin has maintained an active career since 2014, writing for a range of new music ensembles and working closely with other musicians in the new music world. He holds a Ph.D. in music composition from the University Pennsylvania, an MA in composition from Stony Brook University, and a BA in music from Princeton University, where he was awarded the Edward R. Cone award in music, and the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. He is currently serving on the faculty of West Chester University near Philadelphia.
“In the midst of all of that searching and experimenting, it meant a lot to get a vote of confidence from San Francisco Choral Artists.”
What are some career highlights (commissions, premieres, publications, reviews) since winning the NVP prize?
Since winning the New Voices Project, I’ve had opportunities to write for a number of wonderful performers including PRISM Quartet, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Daedalus Quartet, Bearthoven, and pianist Amy Williams. Last year, I put together a 70-minute extravaganza of a piece called Almanac, featuring vocal sextet Variant 6, chamber ensemble Warp Trio, and a jazz quartet led by saxophonist Kevin Sun. It was an incredible experience getting some of my favorite musicians—all with very different backgrounds and practices—in the same room and figuring out ways to make music together. Stay tuned for a studio recording!
How have you changed as a composer since winning the NVP prize?
When I won the New Voices Project prize, I was in my first year of graduate school in composition, and really still figuring out what I wanted to write and how to find a voice among all of the different kinds of music I loved playing and listening to. Looking back on that year, I was definitely trying on different compositional “costumes.” There was the choral costume, a postmodern big band costume, a jazzy chamber music costume, a folky musical theater costume, etc. In the midst of all of that searching and experimenting, it meant a lot to get a vote of confidence from San Francisco Choral Artists.
Since then, I feel I’ve learned to embrace all of the different kinds of music that I love, and to figure out ways of having different styles live within a single piece. In a piece like Another News Cycle for the trio Bearthoven, I found a way to combine slippery, high-modernist rhythms with a punk rock intensity. My favorite movement of Almanac draws inspiration from music by Orlando de Lassus, Conlon Nancarrow, Judy Collins, Herbie Hancock, Led Zeppelin, György Ligeti, and Olivier Messiaen, but I feel that it hangs together as its own “thing.”
What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on a new evening-length project with vocalist Molly Netter, an incredible soprano and champion of both early and new music. We met working on Almanac. The piece combines curious arrangements of English songs from the 16th and 17th centuries with new songs based on texts by American poet Jill Osier. Both Osier’s poems and the older English songs use the natural world as a window into one’s own psyche. The vocal parts are written for Molly’s unique practice, merging elements of Baroque opera, contemporary improvisation, cabaret performance, and new music. I’m also excited to reconvene an old jazz piano trio of mine to be the backing band!
How is the current pandemic situation affecting your life and career?
I’ve had performances, recording sessions, and artist residencies cancelled, but overall, I’m really privileged to be in a secure financial situation. I have a good teaching job at West Chester University outside of Philadelphia, and I feel that the department has done a really good job supporting the students and faculty during this time. In addition to working on the project with Molly, I’ve been using this time to build up my music production chops—working with synthesizers and samplers to write music with other media. I’ve recently done a new podcast theme, and am currently working on my first feature-length film score for a socially-distanced filmed musical!
What do you like to do outside of composing when you need a break?
The big one is taking long walks with my wife Julia and our dog Shosti (short for Shostakovich). Some of our favorite places to walk in the Philly area are Wissahickon Valley Park (we saw a bald eagle there a couple of months back), the Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Delaware Canal State Park, and Ralph Stover State Park. I also really like to cook and have been getting a number of new cookbooks. Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat even gave me some new insights into teaching music theory and composition!
Beyond that, Julia and I are also avid TV-watchers. Recent favorites include Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and GLOW, and we just finished watching the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time. P-Valley and The Great are next in the queue.