Kathleen Supové is one of America’s most acclaimed and versatile contemporary music pianists, known for continually redefining what it means to be a pianist and keyboardist/performance artist in today’s world.
After winning top prizes in the Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music, she began her career as a guest artist at the prestigious Darmstadt Festival in Germany. Since then, Ms. Supové has annually presented a series of solo concerts entitled The Exploding Piano. In this series, she has performed and premiered works by a list of established and emerging composers that’s a Who’s Who of contemporary music for piano. She has especially championed music of compelling virtuosity and audience connection. In recent seasons, she has developed The Exploding Piano into a multimedia experience by using electronics, theatrical elements, vocal rants, performance art, staging, and collaboration with artists from other disciplines.
Piano Street talks to Kathleen Supové
Patrick Jovell: You are currently touring with something called the DIGITAL DEBUSSY PROJECT. What can you tell us about that and its background?
Kathleen Supové: Digital Debussy is something I came up with about two and a half years ago. I had noticed that almost every composer I talked with, from any background (classical, indie, jazz, noise), would include Debussy in the list of 2-3 composers that were influential to them. He was the one common denominator!! This combined with my own feverish love for Debussy and my memories of pieces of his I had played as a child. It just seemed like a natural way to start thinking: what would music sound like if Debussy were alive and composing today (and had access to all our technology)? So I asked a group of composers if they would like to write something for piano or piano + electronics that would reflect their personal answer to the question! I got a tremendous array of works from a dozen composers (so far)!
PJ: You are a classically trained pianist. What specifically made you open your mind to contemporary music?
KS: I think I can site two things from my early life: first, the teacher I had as a teenager, Elesa Scott Keeney, gave me a lot of what we Americans call “light classics”: Gershwin, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”, “Malagueña”, etc. It was a point in my studies where normally one would be playing Bach Inventions, easier Beethoven Sonatas. I think it opened up my sensibilities to contemporary American harmonies, which are more rooted in French music, folk music, jazz, blues, etc. This already loosened me from the whole Austro-German thing. Second, in college (Pomona College in Claremont, California), the music department was very oriented toward contemporary music. One of my professors played Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25 in class, and I flipped. I was so taken by the fact that you could put new sounds and materials into old dance forms!! After that, I realized that this was music where you could forge YOUR OWN performing tradition. By then, I was at The Juilliard School, where people were all playing the same music basically!! And trying to play it like everyone else had been playing it for 50 years. (And not that it wasn’t a real education!!) But I could see contemporary music as being so exciting against that backdrop.
PJ: There is an ongoing discussion in music media right now how classical music has to find new ways to produce itself in order to attract new audiences. How can old music become more attractive to new audiences and thus the future?
KS: Or new music, for that matter!!! This is something we think about a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure I have the answer!!! (laughs). The verdict is out on whether “crossover” will have a lasting effect. I guess in general, I would say that demystifying the concert experience seems to have an effect. People actually listen to concert music, they honor it, and find it interesting if they can get to it! I’ve seen this with colleagues of mine playing for young professionals at NYC clubs like Le Poisson Rouge. I’ve also seen it with colleagues playing for formerly incarcerated youths working on getting their high school diplomas (this happened at a New York midtown office building where the students meet; my husband and I used to volunteer there). The best we can do is always try to PRESENT and REPRESENT the music in the most vivid possible ways, have some surprises that you can only get at the live show, and just keep doing it over and over.
PJ: Can you tell us about the steps you take when collaborating with composers writing material for you?
KS: I am mostly a hands-off performer. I want to let composers create the pieces in whatever way they see fit. With the exception of the Digital Debussy project, I generally don’t present them with a concept, and I certainly try not to tell them how to write or what to write. It has happened so many times that the composer has come up with something I never could have dreamt up!! But having said that, I try to be available for whatever they may need from me: tryouts of material, discussion, etc. I think the one thing I have worked on is being able to spot something that would be truly unplayable, but I’m also a person who loves the (eventual) thrill of taking on something that seems impossible and making it possible.
PJ: There is a clear orientation toward superstardom in the classical music world. In some cases to an extent that the star will overshadow the music itself and everything around it.
KS: Word! I think you’re talking about the “real” classical world, like touring pianists, violinists that play very traditional classical stuff night at night, year after year, yes? And…yes! But read the next part of my answer…
PJ (continued): In other genres the performers act anonymously. In your line of performing you have rather become the artefact yourself. Can you give us your thoughts on the relationship between the performer and the music?
KS: I have mixed feelings about it. It sounds, above, like I’m complaining about classical musicians. I’m thinking that I don’t object to their being superstars, I guess I have more of an issue with them playing the same repertoire over and over, some of them seem so dynamic and contemporary in every way except the music they play!
I think that being some kind of cultural icon can also get people’s attention and draw them in to actually experience the music! It’s probably a fine line. We also live in a multisensory age: I think it’s impossible to ignore the visual aspect of experiencing art, even pure musical art.
One of the most touching compliments I ever received was when I was in Rome performing a new piece. I was wearing this really wonderful mini skirt that has Andy Warhol-Mona Lisas on it. It caused a bit of a stir, people found it amusing, but a friend of the composer said to me something like: “yes, but the thing is: once you start playing, you forget all about it and just think of the music.” I would like to try and live up to that ideal.
Video from a performance at the Google Headquarters in New York City:
More about Kathleen Supové
Kathleen Supové isn’t ordinary in any way. From her sunset-tinged red hair to her penchant for doing almost anything on stage, she has striven to set herself apart from traditional musicians. She sees most musicians as gatekeepers of tradition, and she doesn’t want to be that way. Her unconventional ideas began when she was a child and started to pretend she was a one-person television variety show. Because she was a fantastic pianist, she would consider herself “the entertainment” that occurs on such shows during on-air commercial breaks. Ms. Supové continued to play recitals where she would, as with her “paranoid” persona, come on stage in unusual ways. In one such recent performance, her clothing was described by a critic as “hooker-chic vinyl and leather,” which is a far cry from standard, black concert attire. To Ms. Supové, everyone who’s on a stage at any time is playing a role; she commented in a recent interview that musicians most often don the mantle of “librarian,” which she found disagreeable.
Even after she ceased her play-time concerts, she continued on the path of irreverence and unconventionality. Her father brought her to a local teacher named Elesa Scott Keeney. Keeney was prone to showy displays on the piano and, as Ms. Supové describes her, wasn’t wearing “old-lady dresses” the way most doddering piano teachers of that era were. She even thought Keeney might have had a secret life. Keeney developed not only Ms. Supové’s classical chops but also her appreciation for light-hearted pop and show music.
Ms. Supové says that her studies with Keeney were seminal in her development as an unconventional performer. She began to eschew the masterworks of the classical and romantic periods to concentrate on avant-garde compositions, the more unusual, the better. At this point, she has completely abandoned anything that is not avant-garde. In fact, she champions works that might never be played were she not to intercede. To Ms. Supové, this kind of co-creation is an essential part of her musical makeup. Her favorite compositions have paired her with computers, pre-recorded speeches, doctored pianos, and even Indian table drums. Like a bizarre, female Glenn Gould, she mutters nearly incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness observations about string theory.
All of this, of course, can threaten to overshadow the music itself and make the performance all about the performer. Traditional pianists speak of developing a rapport with the composer and his or her intent. Ms. Supové will, of course, take it a step further and the music has become the ultimate tool for her self-expression. Interestingly, her artistic persona has not damaged her critical reception, which has been largely enthusiastic. Critics hail her interpretative brilliance and desire to be more inclusive than reclusive on stage. Even when she’s gigging with her art-rock band Doctor Nerve or doing free-form hip-hop with young, urban performers, she stays true to her mantra of inclusion.
In 2004, Ms. Supové released Infusion on the Koch International Classics label, featuring four contemporary solo works for piano and electronics. It is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and other digital sales outlets. Other recordings can be found on the Tzadik, CRI, Innova, New World, Neuma, Bridge, Centaur, OO, and XI labels.
Ms. Supové has an undergraduate degree from Pomona College and a masters degree from the Juiliard School. Her teachers, in addition to Keeney, have included Karl Kohn and Russell Sherman. Ms. Supové lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, internationally acclaimed composer Randall Woolf, and a lovable, if painfully shy, black cat named Frankie.