A member of the 2020-21 cohort of the Arts, Science + Culture Initiative Graduate Fellows, Maria Kaoutzani is a fourth-year PhD candidate in music composition. I had the opportunity to connect with Maria while she was stuck back home in Greece. We talked about her academic research, composing music as part of a collective, and what it’s like to be working in a field that relies so heavily on having a live audience when there are none to be had now or for the foreseeable future.
NB: Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from and how did you wind up at the University of Chicago?
MK: I am originally from Cyprus, a tiny island in the Mediterranean. I grew up here and fell in love with music. I used to play the violin, and then I took up the guitar, the piano, I sang in choir. And as many Cypriots do, I moved to the UK to do my undergraduate degree. I went to the University of York, but I hated it, it was so cold. I graduated with a bachelor's in music with a focus on music analysis but then I randomly took a class in composition and discovered I liked it a lot—I was bad at performing so I wanted to find something else to do because I really loved music. I applied for an MA in composition in the U.S. and was accepted to NYU and thought, what better place to be in and grow in than New York City? The city was, I think, a school of its own, hearing so many different things, so much different music that wasn’t the classical music that I was so used to playing and composing.
At NYU I met two of my closest friends and favorite composers, Gemma Peacocke and Shelley Washington. Together we are in a collective called Kinds of Kings. It was basically friends getting together and finding ways to support one another. I knew that I wanted to do a PhD, because in my field it’s very hard to be a freelancer. Being in academia is a way to stay connected to like-minded people and have a job that allows you to be artistic, allows you to create and explore. I applied to UChicago after meeting Augusta Read Thomas. And when I visited campus, the department felt like a good, friendly atmosphere to be in as an artist, a composer, and as a human. So that’s how I found myself in Chicago.
What do you need to do to earn a PhD in Music Composition at UChicago?
Well, it really varies from school to school largely. In our department, it’s still very academic and you have to take lots of courses in musicology, or music history, or music theory. And since our dissertation is a substantial piece of music, as they call it, either in length or in size of the ensemble, they ask us to do what’s called the minor field paper, which is like a shorter dissertation on a different musical topic, it can be theory or history. I am doing mine on ethnomusicology.
What is your research about?
I interviewed many immigrant composers who are from my generation and studying now in the U.S., asking them about their experiences, how immigration affected them and their work, if they came here because they had no other opportunities in their country, why they want to stay here. I have to admit I did [this research] for selfish reasons because I get to talk to all these people and see if we have similar stories and experiences.
I saw that you are working collectively with Kinds of Kings and Eighth Blackbird on a concerto for the Cincinnatti Orchestra. I’m curious how you compose collectively. I always imagined composing as an independent and isolated process.
I have to be very honest: I have no idea. This is the first time we’re doing it. And it’s not a very common thing. There are three of us in the collective and we all have very different styles. What we discussed is that we would agree on certain musical themes that would reappear throughout the work and each of us can do what we want with them. We have a shared drive so we can see each other’s work in progress. So, we can say, oh I like this idea, I can use it as a motif, so I can find a little block of inspiration that I can then develop in my own way. It’s going… okay so far (laughs).
It seems quite experimental, to be working in that way.
You definitely see your work in a different light. You have to really think, “what is the essence of my work? What is the essence of this idea?” Because when you see it handled and developed by someone else, you discover all these new possibilities that you could never imagine. This project will definitely help us bond as a collective. As a musical result, I’m sure it will be interesting, but will you be able to tell who came up with which idea? I’m a bit worried about that. The audience shouldn’t be able to distinguish between composers, it should be seamless, and that’s the hardest part. It’s a huge opportunity for us to work with an orchestra and with Eighth Blackbird. They are amazing and so much fun to work with.
How have you been filling that void of live music and live performances in the last ten months? Have you been able to, or has it been a lost cause?
There are many little concerts that are streamed, and I “went” to those. It’s not the same. At first, I would get really sad, and I couldn’t sit through the whole thing. But, you know, then I got this e-commission, which forced me to be in touch with people and that really helped. And I started writing a solo voice piece. It was easy because I would just sit on the floor and sing and explore solo voice with crystal glasses that are bowed. The piece became a sort of diary. It helped me cope with the situation.
I realized when we were in quarantine that my job is not as lonely or isolated as I used to think it was. I thought in the beginning that life wouldn’t be any different. I mean, I am always in my house, by myself writing music. But that wasn’t the case! As composers, we don’t know everything and I always have all these questions. I’d be writing for saxophone and I would need to go grab a beer with someone who plays saxophone and say, “okay, tell me if this is possible…” That kind of thing. So there was always this human interaction, and learning, and playing, and having fun, and going to that person’s concert and going to get a drink afterward. That social aspect is huge. They say you need to network, and it always seemed like a chore, but now that we can’t do it, I realize that it was fun!
You mentioned writing for saxophone. What instruments do you write for? What is your working method like, and what are your instrumental preferences?
I love writing for voice. It’s an instrument we all have—I know it’s a cliche answer, but it’s a cliche for a reason! It’s just so personal, and I love the low register of sopranos and high register of altos. There’s that strength but also the humanity that comes out. I also really love literature and poetry, and I’m very much inspired by that, so whenever I have to write something for voice, it’s always going to be with some kind of text.
Do you work with excerpts? Or you write your own?
I take excerpts and collage them. I love to work like that. Different people have different methods to deal with text. I like collaging the words to create new meanings, like a puzzle. I also love theater and opera. So bringing all that in, even if you’re writing for one voice, for one person standing in front of an audience of people. It’s just all those things are channeled through that person. It’s really great to think about it. It’s fun.
What are your impressions so far with the ASCI Fellows program?
It was so interesting to hear, or to even start hearing, how other people work in their disciplines. I feel like my department is so disconnected. There’s one Fellow who studies liquid crystals, and I’m still trying to figure out what that is, but it was so, can you say, triggering to the imagination? Just so different and challenging. I haven’t had to think about particles since high school! We had to interview each other and introduce one another to the cohort for the first session, and I had to interview Jonathan [Salmerón-Hernández, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering] and it was a half-hour of each of us saying, “wait, what do you do exactly?” We could not get it. But you meet these great people who are extremely smart and like-minded and curious. Even people who are closer to my discipline, I feel they do such interesting work, and I think that I might leave the fellowship with some new collaborators. They don’t know it, yet.
Have you given some thought about how you might use the fellowship funding?
I don’t know if we’ll be able to travel by the summer, but I do have an idea for a project. I want to come back home and work with a videographer and a dancer here. I’ve collaborated with so many people but never with someone from my own country. It’s going to be a strange experience but it will help me create, or recreate a network here. I think it will be useful in the future and quite nice emotionally. But I’m not sure, yet, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, so a day at a time for now.
You can find audio of Maria’s pieces here: https://soundcloud.com/mariakaoutzani