Pianist/composer Kathryn Kaye has released four stunningly beautiful albums: Dreaming Still
(2010), Heavy as a Feather
(2011), What the Winter Said
(2013), and Patterns of Sun and Shade
(2015), all of which have been produced by Will Ackerman and recorded at his Imaginary Road Studios. I think her latest release is her best and most evocative recording yet, and I expect it to be on my Favorites List for 2015. Kathryn and I have been in touch over the years, but she still surprised me with several of her answers to my questions. Enjoy!
KP: You recently released Patterns of Sun and Shade, your fourth album. I think it’s your best album yet. Tell us a bit about it.
I think something magical happened in the studio while we were recording this album. The music flowed effortlessly and seemed to dance on and from the piano keys, and the accompanying instrumentalists (who’ve never ceased to amaze me anyway) seemed to play effortlessly as well. Many of the tracks were first-takes, leaving us all smiling and sighing and nodding our heads. It's true that since it was my fourth CD produced by Will Ackerman and recorded at Imaginary Road Studios, we had become comfortable and familiar with each other, but exactly what happened during this recording is something I really can’t put into words.
KP: Where did the title come from?
KK: I'm a very visual person, and have always loved the play of sunlight through leaves and branches, on buildings and sidewalks, on steep cliffs, mountain peaks, and forest paths. The photo on the cover was shot from the deck at my home, and it captured the last touches of the sun behind the Continental Divide. Patterns of Sun and Shade seemed right as the title for the CD, and also for the image on its cover.
KP: It sounds like you live in a rather remote area surrounded by nature. Is that your main source of inspiration?
KK: I'm fortunate to live in the mountains, where there’s a constant display of natural light and beauty. There’s a national forest nearby, and you can walk there for hours at a time without seeing another person. Nature IS my main source of inspiration, renewal, and inner peace.
KP: I was really amazed at the velvety texture of your piano touch on Patterns of Sun and Shade. Is Debussy one of your favorite composers? If not, where did that beautiful sound come from?
KK: THANK YOU! That’s a great compliment, and I'm touched and humbled. Debussy certainly IS one of my favorite composers! Also, when I have an opportunity to play an exceptionally beautiful piano, like the one at Imaginary Road Studios, the instrument seems to invite that kind of touch. I can't resist, and of course, don’t try!
KP: You have recorded all four of your albums at Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studio. How did you get in contact with him originally?
KK: For years, I had been recording my piano compositions at home, with occasional thoughts of recording them professionally someday. A friend mentioned Will Ackerman and his studio in Vermont, and we decided they might be a good fit. Will and I connected musically almost immediately, and still celebrate our work and time together.
KP: You have had a varied musical career. Let’s explore that a bit.
KK: I guess my career has been varied. I've played a number of different instruments in addition to piano---pipe organ, accordion, guitar, autoharp. (I once played organ for a circus, and accordion at tent revivals!) I always sang whenever I got a chance---folksongs, hymns, and later on, German Lieder and opera.
KP: Do you still sing much?
It makes me slightly sad to say that I don't sing much any more. I'm not sure just why. Somehow, in the past few years, the piano has said what I want to say, and words have seemed unnecessary. It's been a long time since I wrote music for voice and another instrument, although I used to do that often. Maybe I'll do that again someday. We'll see.
KP: When and why did you go to Germany to study music?
KK: I was in my late teens when my college German teacher suggested that I consider moving to Germany, where there might be more opportunities to study and sing opera and get involved in classical music of all kinds. While there, I was fortunate to study singing with a wonderful Austrian chamber music singer, and piano with an accomplished teacher and concert pianist. Living in Europe, surrounded by music I'd never, or rarely, heard before, and attending concerts nearly every night (thanks to a student ID) enabled my music to evolve, while at the same time helping me find my own performance style.
KP: Do you teach?
KK: I have great respect for teachers! I taught both piano and voice in the distant past, and was a vocal coach at a German Conservatory for a while. I stopped teaching when performance opportunities increased in Europe, and for a number of reasons, I haven't gone back to it.
KP: Let’s find out more about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
KK: I was born in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, and grew up in a rural community that consisted of a few houses, a country store run by my father, a post office in which my mother was the postmistress, and some railroad tracks that went right through our front yard!
KP: Wow! That sounds like a picturesque place to grow up! How old were you when you started playing the piano? When did you start piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?
KK: I honestly can't remember NOT playing the piano! Relatives say that I played melodies and simple chords on the piano when my hands were very small and my feet couldn’t begin to reach the pedals. I remember listening to children's records on my little red phonograph, and playing and singing the songs from the records. There were no music teachers in the area at that time, so with the exception of a few tips from my older sister, who took lessons on the piano before I was born, I didn't have access to formal training or learn to read music until I entered college.
KP: That’s really amazing! Your touch is so fluid and natural, so I thought you’d had lessons from a very early age. Did you teach yourself classics or pick out pop music by ear?
KK: Until I was seventeen, I learned everything by ear. Classical pianist/composers that I loved, along with my teachers in college and in Germany, were the ones who helped me develop the touch you mentioned. I think playing pipe organ influenced my touch on the piano keys as well.
KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your music teacher(s) or anyone else?
KK: I was never encouraged to compose---in fact, while in college I very nervously played one of my compositions for a music instructor who immediately announced that the music was terrible! Probably it WAS, although I still remember the song I played for her, and have considered re-working it to see if it could be turned into something a bit less awful. . .
KP: I guess the last laugh is on her, huh? Or was the piece really that awful?
KK: I do smile about it sometimes! Let's just say the piece, without a lot of revision, wouldn't win any prizes!
KP: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
KK: I often "made up" songs as a child, and I can't recall the very first song I wrote back then. When I was seven, my older brother gave me a recording of excerpts from the opera Carmen. It was the first opera music I’d ever heard, and I was fascinated. I rounded up a few school friends and told them we were going to “make an opera,” and that all they had to do was sing the words and phrases they normally would speak. They thought this was a ridiculous idea, and wouldn't cooperate at all. So, my first and only attempt at writing an opera was a failure.
KP: That’s pretty funny! Were you a music major in college?
I was an English major at first, then an art major, and finally, a music major. Early in my college musical training, I switched from piano to pipe organ based on the advice of a professor who became, and continues to be, a special person in my musical life. Encouraged by two other wonderful professors in the music department, I also studied voice.
KP: What inspired you to start recording your own music?
KK: I started recording my music many, many years ago, even before I moved to Germany. Then, in the past 10-15 years, I discovered that there was a great deal of music in my head and hands, and fortunately, it just keeps coming! I feel truly blessed by this.
KP: Do you perform in concerts very often?
KK: I'm just beginning to perform again, after a long break during which I went back to college and obtained a doctorate in a completely different field. I've been practicing in another profession for years, but I’ve never stopped playing and composing music.
KP: Wow! You’re just full of surprises! Do you use music in your practice at all or do you keep the two separate?
KK: I try to keep them separate, but I'm discovering that the internet makes it harder and harder to do.
KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?
KK: So MANY! Debussy, of course, and Faure, Satie, Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss. The list goes on and on, but the folksongs and hymns from my past are always close to my heart. I love their simplicity, their often haunting melodies, the way they convey hope, sorrow, longing, peace---sometimes all in the same song!
KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?
KK: Life. Nature. The way one can lose oneself in the notes until they develop a life of their own.
KP: Have you done any composing for films and/or TV?
KK: I'd love to do this! One of the tracks from my first album, Dreaming Still, was used in a film a few years ago. I don't remember the name of the film, or whether it was a success, but "August Light" was played in the background during a wedding party scene. I hope I'll get an opportunity to write music specifically for film someday.
KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?
KK: There are two that come to mind:
The first was when I was 18 years old and played pipe organ in a master class taught by the famous French organist, Andre Marchal. After I finished playing a long, complicated piece by French composer Jean Langlais, Marchal rose from his chair, took both my hands in his, and said with tears in his eyes, "You must never stop playing." He said he had no critical comments at all. I think my feet didn't touch the ground for at least a week afterwards!
A second moment occurred a little over four years ago in Ackerman's studio, when he heard me play the piano for the first time, and at the end of the song, said over and over, "I had no idea."
KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?
KK: I'm not sure it's a philosophy, but I do believe that there’s hope, that even in the presence of emotional and/or physical pain, we can find a place within us that can be calm and joyful, and which will never disappear completely.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
KK: Again, so MANY! French and German classical and romantic composers, and some contemporary composers like Arvo Páart, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein. There’d never be room or time to list all of them!
KP: Who are your favorite performers?
KK: I can't possibly list them. There simply are too many, and they change from time to time.
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
1) For a peaceful world.
2) That I'll be able to live the days that are left for me with grace, strength, love, forgiveness, and gratitude.
3) That my music will touch others and make a positive, even if only small, difference in their lives.
KP: What’s up next for you?
KK: I have another recording that's awaiting some additional instrumentation, followed by mixing and mastering. I'm also hoping to perform in Europe this fall.
Many thanks to Kathryn Kaye for taking the time to chat! For more information about Kathryn and her music, be sure to visit her website
and her Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com .