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Q&A: Violist and Composer Kenji Bunch

Violist Kenji Bunch Performs '?toufe?'

Lots of folks have made the cross-continental migration from Brooklyn to Portland in recent years. But for composer and violist Kenji Bunch, the upcoming move will be a homecoming.

Bunch is a Portland native and graduate of Wilson High School who got his musical start as a violist in the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP), where he performed for five years before heading to Julliard in New York. After school, he stayed in New York, building an accomplished career as a performer of contemporary work, as well as a reputation as one of the country’s brightest young composers.

Next month, Bunch is moving back to Portland with his wife and collaborator, pianist Monica Ohuchi, and their young daughter to set up the family business in the place where his musical journey began. After more than 20 years away, Bunch says he’s looking forward to reconnecting with the city’s cultural and musical scene.

Composer and Violist Kenji Bunch

Composer and Violist Kenji Bunch

John Kin/OPB

“With my wife Monica being from Seattle, it has always been on our radar to end up somewhere in the Northwest and raise a family here,” says Bunch. “One major reason that we chose Portland was that while we’ve been away in the ‘big city,’ Portland has emerged as this really visible capital internationally in arts and culture. It got to the point where I said, ‘I want to be in on that and see if I can contribute.’ “

Bunch is getting started making contributions to Portland’s music scene even before the moving trucks arrive. This weekend, Camerata PYP, the chamber orchestra of Portland Youth Philharmonic, will feature his piece Supermaximum in the final installment of their Music in the Pearl series at the Wieden+Kennedy building. Bunch and Ohuchi will also appear with the Corvallis Youth Symphony Association in May where they will perform two of his pieces, including the Northwest premiere of his latest piano concerto.

Bunch was in Portland recently and stopped by the OPB studios to talk with Arts & Life about his work, the resurgence of the composer-performer and how his PYP experience influenced his career.

Arts & Life: How did your experience with the Portland Youth Philharmonic help prepare you for your professional career?

Kenji Bunch: I was in no way a child prodigy. I was just a kid. I enjoyed music in the same way I enjoyed playing soccer and watching TV. It was just one of the things I did. But joining the PYP orchestra definitely made me more focused on music over the years, until the point where about my junior year of high school it was clear that it was something I wanted to pursue. The training you get in that orchestra, it’s no exaggeration to say that it really does prepare you for whatever orchestra experience you would find yourself in beyond that.

I went directly from Wilson High School to the Julliard School in New York. That can be a pretty intense place, and right off the bat I was in orchestra with this 8-foot-tall, scary, German conductor — not that tall, but he seemed like it — who had a very old-school, very disciplinarian approach. We were all terrified of him. But I also knew how to be in an orchestra. I knew how to act professionally. I remembered one thing Mr. A. [Maestro Jacob Avshalomov, longtime director of the PYP] would always say, he would tell us to always look at the conductor. If you don’t know where you are, just look up. I remembered those words and I would always be looking at this terrifying German conductor. And he liked it. He would tell the orchestra director that the kid in the back of the viola section seemed to know what he is doing.

I got a lot of good feedback like that over the years and it really meant that the PYP had prepared me for that experience. It’s musical stuff, but it’s also knowing to show up on time and be focused, how to turn pages correctly and how to write notes in your part. It’s little details that other people around you appreciate and it’s those things that you develop in the PYP that might not get noticed by the outsider but are incredibly significant.

A&L: How did you get started composing?

KB: Composing didn’t start for me until I was already at Julliard as a student, about my second year. I had always been kind of interested in composing, particularly after the PYP experience of playing a lot of contemporary 20th-century music, so by the time I was in high school I was really into that [kind of music]. On the weekends my friends would go skiing and, since I don’t ski, I would take the bus downtown and go to the public library and look through all the vinyl records and discover all this neat orchestral music from the 20th century. I’d check out the scores and take it all home and listen to it and follow the scores. I loved that. Even back then I really wanted to become a composer. I didn’t have the theory background to really do it at that point, but the interest was there.

A&L: You compose and perform a lot of your own music. Is that common in the classical music world these days?

KB: Actually that has been going on a lot, at least for the last generation of musicians. There are a ton of people like me who both compose and perform. I think we’re seeing a kind of resurgence of that, kind of this new golden age of the composer-performer returning. There was a long period when that wasn’t as common and there was this hyper-specialization of performers. It wasn’t even that you played the violin, you were a ‘new music violinist’ or an ‘early music violinist,’ you play the piano but you specialize in Chopin or Bach — a very narrow repertoire and focus. So maybe when I started composing it was a little unusual, but nowadays there are so many great composers that are really wonderful musicians themselves and they are out there performing their work. I think it’s really exciting.

A&L: What do you think has caused this shift? Is it a generational thing?

KB: I do have a theory. It think it’s all connected to a certain DIY mentality. Musicians used to wait for the right opportunities to come up to do things. If you wanted to have a CD, you had to wait to go through a label and have this elaborate process. If it happens it’s this miracle and if not, you just keep trudging along until something happens. Now, if you want to make a recording, you do it yourself.

We saw a few people start to do that as early as the ‘60s and ‘70s — people like Steve Reiche and Phillip Glass. They wanted to play their music so they created the Phillip Glass ensemble or the Steve Reich players or whatever and they would just get out and play their stuff. I think that influenced this younger generation who don’t really see this line between composing and performing.

They also don’t see a line between styles, which I think started to change when I was a student. We used to use this silly word a lot — ‘crossover’ — and it’s silly because it’s kind of an antiquated term in that if you use it now, you show your age and it shows a lack of understanding of what’s really going on. There’s nothing to cross over anymore. People just do what they hear. The music they write is just the sum of their listening experiences that have influenced them and those can come from anywhere now.

A&L: What’s the inspiration for you to compose and perform your own music?

KB: I think it’s to hear work that you can create. For the first 10 years of my career I never played any of my own music and I only wrote music for other people. I played a lot of new music — I was in a string quartet for six years, called the Flux Quartet, that focused only on new music. I enjoyed playing other people’s music and I enjoyed other people playing my music, but I kept them pretty separate.

And then over the years I just realized that wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t only OK but it was also really fun to play my own music and I began heading more and more in that direction. These days, as a performer, I am mostly working on my own stuff — either my own music for solo viola or viola and piano with my wife Monica. I also wrote a concerto for amplified viola and orchestra that I performed last year. So I’m interested in developing this repertoire for my instrument based on my experience.

A&L: Camerata PYP will be performing your piece Supermaximum at their upcoming concert. What is the story behind that piece?

KB: People often ask me how I get inspired to write music and the truth is I have no idea. All I know is that I should always be prepared to be inspired by whatever I encounter. I was in the car with my wife and we were listening to an audiobook on a drive up to Vermont from Brooklyn; it was a potboiler mystery kind of thing. Super-maximum was the term for the highest level of incarceration security in the country. 

I don’t remember much else about that book, but I do remember that word — I wanted to call this piece Supermaximum, but I didn’t know why. It got me thinking about the idea of incarceration and it led me to the music of chain gang singing in the prison camps in the Jim Crow South. It’s a rare example of a group of people who are enduring this inhumane treatment and they chose to respond not with violence, but with art. That seemed so interesting to me.

So in this piece Supermaximum I use a lot of chain gang singing influences, and I take that music and transport it into something else that’s uplifting and transcends the circumstance as if to suggest that it’s these people being uplifted from this horrible situation. Maybe the word then turns into an equation of the more you have to endure, the more inhumanity you experience, the more compassion necessary to uplift you, so it ends with this super-maximum joyfulness that lifts these people out of their situation.

I think it’s kind of perfect for a younger group because they will have a good feel for the energy and the rhythm in the piece.

A&L: This is the second time a PYP orchestra has performed one of your pieces. How does it feel to close that circle?

KB: I have had a few youth orchestras throughout the country perform my music before and it’s great, but there is always something special about coming back to Portland and having the PYP play my music. I genuinely feel that I have been fortunate in what I have been able to do in my career. I’ve gone all over the world, I’ve done things I never dreamed I would be able to do, and I live in the artistic capital of the country and one of the artistic capitals of the world. But there is nothing more rewarding than coming back to Portland and having musicians from my hometown playing stuff I wrote. It really connects me back to when I was here and I wanted so badly to do stuff like this. So to actually have it happen, it really does have this feeling of a dream being realized.

Kenji Bunch violist composer Portland Youth Philharmonic

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Violist Kenji Bunch Performs '?toufe?'

Kenji Bunch is known for infusing a variety of musical influences in classical compositions. In '?toufe?', a piece he wrote as a tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, you can hear the sounds of Delta blues, Cajun fiddle and even an electric guitar-like wail toward the end.