JK: Were you trained traditionally in music?
KW: I was the type that began piano lessons at age five and I then continued piano studies through undergrad years. I loved sight-reading. I studied composition by reading books, etc and had a few lessons in high school before majoring in composition in undergrad and grad school.
JK: When did you first compose a piece of music? What is your earliest opus?
KW: Pianists are always improvising – and there were many improvised pieces that (fortunately) did not get written down. There was a really bad Beethovenesque piano sonata which I kept trying to notate, but I couldn’t get past the second theme section – I got hung up on the transition/modulation. My first claim to fame was a woodwind quintet that I wrote in junior year of high school at the request of an English teacher. It was five movements, each one related to one of the five elements (air, water, etc.) and was performed as part of the school’s “Literary Showcase”.
JK: When did you first use computers for composing music (notation software, etc.)?
KW: I first started notating (with Finale) in the early ‘90s. Until then, many evenings were spend with ink and liquid paper.
JK: Who are the living composers (in Chicago and/or abroad) that you feel deserve more attention?
All living composers deserve more attention! Except for John Williams.
JK: What is good and bad about the new music scene here in Chicago?
KW: It’s actually grown a lot within the last 20 years — more performances of quality by more quality performers. There are many more possibilities now than “when I was young”. Any scene can be too inbred and too parochial, and Chicago can be that way, of course. Everyone has to promote their own stuff — it would be great to have more interaction between different performing groups and different universities: The University of Chicago could have concerts of music by DePaul and Northwestern composers and vice-versa.
JK: What is your opinion about the intersection of political ideas and new music?
KW: I think it is a very important part of any art form — the final product should not be a political diatribe, of course, but political ideas can be a meaningful part of a new work.
JK: Do you think it is futile for composers to be socially engaged?
KW: It may be futile for anyone to be socially engaged (“you can’t stop the wars”, etc.) But I think it can be a very meaningful part of being alive - I think it is important for the composer to be socially engaged outside of the music, not just as part of the aesthetic.
JK: Do you consider your work to be political in any way?
KW: Actually, most of my early works (from 1968 – 1978) were overtly political — concerned with the war in Vietnam, the Kent State and Jackson State tragedies, nuclear testing on Amchitka island, etc. It was almost impossible to avoid these issues at that time, and they could provide an emotional program for works. Most of my works now are concerned with more individual and personal issues and political ideas are way in the background. However, I think the sounds of the 60s are always with me.
JK: Describe your compositional process at the current time.
KW: I usually still begin at the piano — it’s where I imagine best -- - I usually start with isolated fragments which produce sonorities I want to concentrate on and then sketch out those ideas (in an almost unreadable fashion) with pencil and paper — all of this is revised and developed numerous times at the computer. Part of this process is helped greatly by getting away and doing something different such as reading (usually novels), biking, etc. I don’t listen to midi versions much — they don’t help me. But looking at the score as notated by computer does help me. My formal concerns are usually variation oriented, and also make use of symmetrical structures.
JK: What is your prediction for the use of computers in the future of music?
KW: Not hard to say that they will only become more necessary/significant in the production of musical works and the production of sound itself.
I’m also sure there will be backlashes and people will try to go “unplugged”.
JK: If you had to pick one work, or collection of works by a single composer to bring with you to a desert island, what would it be?
KW: This is always so difficult - I often pack for vacation with too many scores, recordings, etc. , and many remain in the suitcase. My pick for this question changes every time I am asked. For today, it’s Berio’s Sinfonia.
JK: What is your advice to young composers studying today, what do they absolutely need to know?
KW: Maintain the balance between getting to know yourself (personal growth) and external musical influence — both are of extreme importance. And the process never stops. Keep going.