Meet Finale Composition Contest Finalist Kurt Rohde



Photo by Fernando Benadon

Back in February we announced the three finalists in the Finale National Composition Contest. On December 7 and 8 all three will workshop their final submissions with the Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird in Chicago. The contest will culminate with a concert of all three works for invited guests on December 8. The judges will subsequently select the recipient of the final prize, who will receive an additional cash award and a future public performance by eighth blackbird.

Following our recent introduction to Eric Lindsay, this week we’ll meet fellow finalist Kurt Rohde. Kurt is a composer and violist living in San Francisco where he is an Associate Professor of music composition and theory at the University of California, Davis. You can see his full bio at his website.

Scott Yoho: What inspired you to first compose?

Kurt Rohde: After a year of playing the viola, I remember asking my viola teacher: “Where does this music come from? And she explained that it came from composers. And I thought, “I can do that.”

SY: Were you notating your compositions?

KR: I was just putting notes on staff paper; I had sharps and flats in the same key signatures, but not in the standard order, and the time signatures made no sense – I was really into big numbers: things like 27 over 133. It was much more visual than aural at that point, but I really enjoyed it. If I hadn’t been composing I probably wouldn’t have stuck with playing – just playing alone was not interesting enough.

SY: When did your compositions become music that people might play?

KR: By high school I had taken some music theory classes. It became clear that music theory was this mechanism, like this big tool you could use to understand this type of music I was being taught. It was a common vocabulary. That was very exciting to me, and I think that it was mostly exciting to me as a performer and not as a composer.

SY: So knowing that the notes you were playing outlined a secondary dominant chord was helpful…

KR: Exactly. Because I was playing chamber music in high school, and it was like “Now I can look at the score and see how it all worked together.” But the music I was writing left the realm of purely visual and became something you could actually play and tolerate listening to.

There is a type of music that someone who is 14 -15 years old will really, really like. I couldn’t stop listening to Sibelius, Bruckner, and Vaughan Williams, although I’m sort of back to Sibelius with a vengeance these days. But you know, that type of stuff. I don’t think it’s uncommon [for young composers] to just imitate what they’re listening to at the time.

SY: Were there other big influences in your musical life?

KR: All my composition teachers were characters. It seemed as though they were always trying to get me to do things (now that I’m teaching composition, hearing myself say this is a little bit terrifying) that they wanted me to do, rather than trying to help me figure out things that  I wanted to do, which just seemed sort of strange.

I actually quit composition when I went to graduate school on viola, and I didn’t write for six and half years. It didn’t seem like the music I was writing was really all that important to me at the time, so I just focused on being a violist.

And then I finished grad school and came out to San Francisco, where eventually I hooked up with this guy who I’d never heard of before, Andrew Imbrie, who used to teach at UC Berkeley, and who was easily in his seventies at that point. He found out that I used to be a composer. Over the course of time he convinced me to come and meet with him to play these pieces I hadn’t thought of for years. And we used to just talk about music, not about composition, just about music, and they were these wonderful, hours-long conversations. He got me to be confident to go back and give it another try.

SY: We should all be so lucky to have such mentors in our lives.

KR: Yeah, he was great. He was a great teacher.

SY: Do you recall when you first heard of eighth blackbird?

KR: Yeah I do, because the pianist in that group [Lisa Kaplan) is actually the cousin of the pianist in the chamber music group that I play with in San Francisco. I think I heard them one of the very first times they came to play in San Francisco with Lisa. And I heard them only a few years ago again when they did Pierrot, I think it was, with Lucy Shelton.

SY: This is the second time I’ve run across the term “Pierrot” this week. You’re referring to the Schoenberg piece.

KR: Yes, I’m referring to the piece, Pierrot Lunaire.

SY: And it’s this piece that is being referenced when people describe eighth blackbird’s instrumentation as “Pierrot plus,” where Schoenberg’s soprano has been replaced with percussion [flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion].

KR: Right. It’s just turned out that an instrumentation, or a genre has taken its name from this piece.

SY: And I’m guessing that for you that writing for this instrumentation is not a departure for you.

KR: Actually, it is. I have never written a Pierrot plus. I haven’t written anything for this combination. I’ve sort of avoided it on purpose. A lot of the Peirrot ensemble pieces I hear – I just don’t like them. It’s like they’re missing something.

This could just be about my being a violist – let’s not minimize that. [Laughter]

SY: Does writing for this instrumentation represent a good challenge?

KR: I think it’s a good challenge. I would say that I have also found ways to approach the ensemble in a different way, partially because this ensemble, eighth blackbird, does a lot of different things with the type of playing that they have at their disposal.

SY: Anything else you’d like to say about the contest?

KR: This is sort of an unexpected thrill. When I saw this competition I thought:  I’ll send my music, at the very least they’ll have to listen to it, maybe they’ll eventually want to play a piece of mine sometime down the road.

When I found out I was a finalist, I thought: “Oh, that wasn’t supposed to happen!”

SY: Now you have to write a piece.

KR: Now I have to write a piece! [Laughter]

I’d like to wish Kurt the best of luck and thank him for his time and the laugh-filled interview.

Have a question or comment about the contest or anything else Finale-related? Please share it with us by clicking on “Comments” below!

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