Name: Dennis Kuhn
Occupation: Composer, percussionist, educator, founder of Mannheimer Schlagwerk
Current release: Dennis Kuhn is one of four composers – the others being Nik Bärtsch, Markus Reuter and Stephan Thelen - featured on an upcoming album of mallet quartet pieces via Solaire. More information about the release concert and the physical release date can be found on the Solaire Facebook page. [Read our Nik Bärtsch interview, our Markus Reuter interview and our Stephan Thelen interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Dennis Kuhn, stay up to date on his work on Facebook or the Facebook profile of Mannheimer Schlagwerk.
Enjoy a performance of Dennis Kuhn and the Mannheimer Schlagwerk of Markus Reuter's "Sun Trance" below. For one of Dennis's larger orchestral works, listen to "Phais for large orchestra" (live excerpts - Orchestra of the National Theater Mannheim) at Reverb Nation.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My first attempts at composition were on the piano, when I was about 8 years old. But it was more a kind free playing, which I memorized and played repetitively. Then in my father's band as a drummer, which was a kind of happy music band. And then in my rock band during my school years. First blues and pop, then more and more in the direction of what is known today as prog rock. So Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant were already a great role model.
Then during my studies of classical music as an orchestral percussionist I composed my first pieces for mixed ensembles. So it goes through my whole life and also in completely different genres.
Music - that is, sound, noise, harmonies, melodies, resonance, vibration, rhythm - has always fascinated me since I can think, feel and hear. Above all, I am very influenced by rhythm, that's why I became a percussion player and my pieces are mostly heavily rhythmic.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Having been in contact with almost all styles of music since my youth, from beat, jazz, classical, opera, folk, light music, etc ..., and having played a lot of it myself on the drums, it wasn't so easy to find my own voice. And I think I haven't really found it yet. Maybe that isn't really necessary either. I mostly work with the material I find and shape and develop it in my own way. That's also its own language.
So with me there is probably no passage like, for example, the phase of puberty.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
A strong but also very diverse one. Since I am first and foremost a performer of classical and contemporary orchestral and ensemble music, in addition to being a professor of percussion at a University of music and only secondarily a composer, my (multi-artistic) identity shapes and colors my compositional work in the most versatile way.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think challenges have never completely disappeared for me, I still struggle today not to cram too much into one piece. So I try every time and more and more severely to set myself clear restrictions and rules.
I succeed with this sometimes more, sometimes less. But that's not a problem at all, that's just the way it is and it's me.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Hm, but isn't it time that plays an important part in contemporary music, especially minimal music and similar?
For me, every new work I write is a creative learning process. Very often I am impatient and want to let new ideas flow in instead of really savoring the moment in the here and now, which always costs me a lot of strength not to let it happen too soon.
So time, is a challenge that I have to face again and again.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Creating and forming sounds and setting them in motion is just as important as creating melodies rhythmically, for example. But everything can occur at the same time: one and the same melody changing its sound, sound becoming rhythm, rhythm freezing and becoming noise full of sound, and so on …
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Dance theatre and contemporary ballet has always fascinated me. Having worked as a musician in theater for a long time and having met several dance companies and their choreographers, it was quite logical for me to compose music for dance theater. Thus, I created several pieces in close collaboration with choreographers, ranging from pure percussion ensemble and mixed chamber music to electronic works and large symphony orchestra.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My life rhythm has always been very non-regular. Working in the orchestra means no weekends or holidays, many long and short tours and master classes all over the world. A great life with much fun but unfortunately, it's not very family-friendly. You have to arrange things well and your partner has to be very understanding. In my case, however, it works out very well and is based on mutuality.
The little things count. I love to have breakfast with my family in the morning, then I usually disappear into my "realm" and do administrative things like answering mails and letters, a lot of organizational stuff and things that come up in daily life. Later in the day I am at the university teaching or rehearsing. I can only compose when I know I can dedicare at least half the day to it. Of course, I also find my ideas when I'm on the road and make notes, e.g. in my smartphone. But I can only work out the piece and write it down in my studio. Since I'm very slow at it, I also need a lot of time, so preferably a few hours at a time.
Music and art in general, completely influences the way I live my life. When I'm not teaching I may be composing, or organizing concerts, or practicing, or planning master classes and other projects. Very often I also enjoy concerts, classical music or rock, even opera. Visits to museums are just as important for me. All these things are what I need, and I'm sure a lot of them flow unconsciously into my work. Everything actually flows smoothly into each other.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Basically, every premiere of my pieces is an event for me. It is the birth of a creation which has grown over a longer period of time and which was first "lonely" with you alone (never before in public heard or experienced work of art). Of course there are bigger and smaller events among them.
A big one, for example, was the full-length ballet production at the National Theater in Mannheim, "Der Fall Prometheus," a commissioned composition for a 70-piece symphony orchestra, including piano, celesta, synthesizer, harp, electric guitar and electric bass. What was quite special was that this was the orchestra in which I had been a percussionist and timpanist myself for 15 years. Along with Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Puccini, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and many others, my name now also appeared in the repertoire of the NTM, which was a kind of breakthrough for me. On top of that, this dance theater was performed over 10 times. That is rather exceptional for a composer of contemporary music, in fact a luxury!
But also as a percussionist and timpanist I had of course some highlights, e.g. playing in orchestras like the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic and other internationally renowned orchestras. Participation in many festivals such as the Salzburg Festival, Berliner Festspiele or the London BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. I have played under conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Michael Gielen, Daniel Harding, Emilio Pomàrico, Roger Norrington, Sylvain Cambreling, Leonard Slatkin, Neeme Järvi, Georges Prêtre, Matthias Pintscher and have had the opportunity to meet the most extraordinary and fantastic artists and people in the world of music.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I simply need time, a lot of time, to be able to make decisions when composing. And decisions are mostly what composing is about. At least for me it's like that. I'm old school, I can't leave things to the algorithms of a computer, I have to have total control over my music. You have an idea and now you want to implement it. It could be like this, or like this, or even like this. Then you have to decide. This simply takes time for me. It can well be that I take back decisions, even several times, discard them, repeat to proceed then, nevertheless, completely differently. Time is then very most likely my strategy!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I have only a very vague idea. As a teenager, I myself often took shelter in music (consuming) when I had any problems, in order to isolate myself from the world. But I wouldn't call that a cure, just a temporarily escape to a place where I could feel good and work on my pains.
Of course there is music therapy, but I really don't know anything about it.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
The cultural exchange is very important, but it should not be just "cheap or simple" copying.
For example, non-European art and composition techniques can be integrated into one's own (Western) work and thus enrich/enhance creativity. The tradition is also exchange and appropriation, but from the past and this is also important.
A bon-mot falsely attributed to Gustav Mahler is "Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire". So for me, Fire walk with me!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I could listen to music when blind, I could listen to music when dumb, I could listen to music without a sense of taste, but I could not listen to anything when deaf. That's what I'm really scared of!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
It's up to others to decide whether or not my music is political. I've never written my music out of a political impulse, but it's perfectly clear to me that where several people come together, be it to make music, for example, politics arise.
But it's working with rhythms and sounds which fascinates me. There are no messages except the basic idea, and these can of course have programmatic content in addition to purely musical aspects.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music lives on, our bodies do not.