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Phil Kline Interview

Posted on 19 April 2009. © Copyright 2004-2021 Composition:Today

C:T talks to composer Phil Kline whose latest work for ETHEL, SPACE, was premiered at Alice Tully Hall and will be performed by ETHEL at Kennedy Center, Washington DC, in early May.

Phil Kline
Tell us something about your background.

Raised in Akron, Ohio, played in rock bands and listened to lots of records, Stravinsky and Hendrix...went to Columbia, studied literature and music history and listened to a lot more records, graduated and moved downtown, started a rock band, met a lot of interesting co-conspirators.

How did you start composing?

Serious play and experimentation with tape recorders yielded boxes full of multi-track reels that I haven't listened to in many years. I'm not sure I want to--the reels may not even be playable any more! I have a feeling what's in there is very weird and intense, lots of loops, phasings and radio collages. Somewhere around 1988-89 I built a large orchestra of boomboxes and started doing performances pieces. That's what I consider the beginning of my work if I were to list things. Then a few years later Bang on a Can commissioned me to write an instrumental piece and I started writing scores.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

If I'm not hearing what I need to hear, I try to write it. Passion is my main passion, but I'm also fond of repose.

Tell us about your piece SPACE and your relationship with ETHEL

I met Ethel at the airport information desk. She was asking the same question I was going to ask. We've travelled a lot together since then. SPACE is just another point on that continuum.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

It's often a notion of geometry, space or texture. Or sometimes...feeling. I often start by telling myself I'm a bad composer but a good arranger and editor, so as soon as I have some notes on the page, I'm no longer composing but arranging and editing. It's all lies, of course.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

In his poetry class, My teacher David Shapiro tought me to let my work be open to any influence - philosophy, science, television, love, graffiti - not just the work of other poets. That gibes with my tendency to feel things analogically and I think it applies to my musical projects.

What is your musical philosophy?

Anything goes.

As Bruce Lee said:
"Styles tend to separate man because they have their own doctrines, and the doctrines became the gospel that you cannot change. but if you do not have a style, you just say here i am, as a human being, how can i express myself totally and completely."

Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?

I don't know about influence, but for one person, I think, but...Charles Ives for transcendence, love of place and space...Glenn Branca for an intensity I can only aspire to...Brian Eno for ecstasy with slow tape loops, Steve Reich for ecstasy with fast tape loops...Philip Glass...and Stravinsky, always.

What's the craziest idea for a piece you've ever had?

There's the one for an infinite number of boomboxes to be played in the streets around the world every December. And I want to make an opera based on a Beckett novel that would have no characters or singers, and require erecting a building.

Which work are you most proud of and why?

It's like asking who's your favorite child. Maybe Unsilent Night, because it grew up, left the house on its own and travelled the world. I never had to push it. And my new piano sonata, The Long Winter, because I really had to work hard to get the expression out of the piano, which is not my instrument. So there you go, my oldest child and my youngest. I'm very proud of SPACE, which is one of those pieces that almost floated out of me. I can hear it, but I hardly remember writing it.

What does the future hold for you?

Several operas. A solo violin sonata. Lots of love songs. Playing guitar for my daughter.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced (look for The Del-Byzanteens!)
For more about ETHEL, visit

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2021

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