Michael Kurek, an American composer on the faculty at Vanderbilt University, is the recipient of multiple awards such as the Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has served on the Classical Nominations Committee for the GRAMMY’s, and has traveled all over the world for performances of his work. Today, Kurek is our next featured artist in The Inside Story, a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists and composers. Read on to find out his guilty pleasure…
When did you realize you wanted to be a composer?
When I was about four years old, I used to go out to the swing set in our backyard and hang upside down by my knees from the horizontal bar across one end of it’s A-frame and make up my own tunes – just melodies, not lyrics. I realized even then that I enjoyed making my own musical ideas as much as listening to someone else’s. Over time, that realization led to writing for school groups and the high-school band. I had known years earlier that music would in some way be my life, but I think it was somewhere during high school that I specifically hoped my vocation would be in composition.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I have been a “foodie” since long before the word was coined or there was a Food Network. I started baking bread and pies as a child of eight with help from my mother, who was a children’s book illustrator. I moved as an adult into cooking all kinds of international cuisines using, as much as possible, authentic and fresh ingredients. I grow my own herbs, and my pantry includes imported Italian flour and other rare ingredients, and I make my own sausage from scratch, just to give a few examples. One of my signature appetizers is crawfish-and-goat-cheese pot stickers with basil-marsala cream sauce. Speaking of marsala, a lot of people request my special pumpkin soup in the fall, made with roasted pumpkin puree and homemade chicken stock, fresh sage, homemade sausage, mushrooms, and marsala wine, sprinkled with fresh parmesan cheese and served with fresh bread and a good red wine. My signature dessert is a tropical carrot cake, which is a luscious carrot cake made from scratch but not only with carrots but pineapple, macadamia nuts, and fresh coconut in the batter, with a coconut-milk and cream-cheese frosting. My wife Crystal’s favorite of my desserts is my “Chocolate Mink,” a flourless dark chocolate soufflé in individual ramekins, as light as air but with a major chocolate hit.
If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?
I have traveled to many countries where my music was being played and love sampling all the food, of course. But for composing in, say, a little, secluded cottage for a year or two, I would probably choose the lake district of England, or an idyllic little English village – Rye is one of my favorite. Long walks in the English countryside or wandering the moors like Jane Eyre would be fantastic for conceiving music, which I always do in my head and by singing rather than at a piano or computer. My wife and I are both great Anglophiles and addicted to English literature and BBC dramas. However, The Sea Knows came out of my experiences by the ocean, so I’d also have to spend some time in Cornwall, perhaps walking or riding a horse along the beach like Ross Poldark.
What was your favorite musical moment on the album?
If I may stretch the question a bit, the same “moment” happened during each of the recording sessions. I am an experienced audio engineer and producer, as well as the composer on this album and was producing this CD myself. So I was very concerned with setting up my microphones and getting the right sound and enough takes to have a good take for every part of each piece. But there was a moment in each session when the artistry of the performers coming through the headphones was so stunning, so breathtaking, that I lost all consciousness of the producer’s mentality and had to regain my composure before we could go on. This album is truly a collaboration because the playing by all of these world-class players was so exquisite that it is hard to say whether the music or the performances themselves will be most responsible for whatever success it enjoys.
What does this album mean to you personally?
This album is a milestone for me, in the sense that I have not made a CD in ten years, and I like to think this one represents, at last, the mature and seasoned composer with a sure hand and who has a clear artistic vision and mission, as described in the liner notes and in the philosophical statement on my website. In short, I have always believed that classical music could still be written as it was by the early 20th-century melodists — with full integrity of classical craft, yet lovable by people far outside the ivory tower. Each of those composers (among them Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Vaughan-Williams, and later Barber) had an unmistakably unique and personal voice and, in many cases, have outlived their Modernist contemporaries, at least in the concert repertoire that is actually performed now. I have, as a matter of social consciousness, a strong desire to write music that can enrich and touch the wider public with something beautiful and which simply represents what I myself would like to hear if I was sitting in an audience. I also hope and believe that this album may have finally accomplished one of my other life goals, to write music that people can love and want play and hear many times, not only once or twice.
Is there a specific feeling you want listeners to tune into when hearing your work?
I don’t want to tell listeners what to hear, generally, but the common feedback I get from listeners to the works on this album is that the music is almost deceptively enjoyable, due to its melodies, and very emotional, yes, but by the end of each work also contemplative in spirit, calling forth the listener’s deeply personal or long-lost feelings – perhaps something interior from a dream or from early childhood that has been crushed by the weight of the world but longs to be rediscovered. There aren’t really words for that, but the sea knows what it is!