10 Questions With Kristin Kuster

Celebrating Classical Music Month: “We are the custodians of this field that we love and have a responsibility to take care of it for future generations.”

Posted in MusicWorld on September 16, 2015 by

All great composers have that first time they fell in love with the craft ingrained in their memory. For Kristin Kuster, who grew up playing the standard youthful repertoire on the piano in her native Boulder, Colo., it was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” that did it. “I just couldn’t believe it,” recalls Kuster, now an esteemed Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I literally had to turn it off a couple times in the middle just to get my bearings and get my blood pressure down because I was so excited!”

Little did Kuster know that her own compositions would one day inspire rave reviews. Drawing on everything from grand architecture to ghost stories, her work has been described as “colorfully enthralling, lush, and visceral,” and over the past year, there have been plenty of accolades to write home about. She recently received the 2015 Henry Russel Award – one of the highest honors the University of Michigan bestows upon junior faculty. Even more impressive, she is among only four music faculty to receive the award since its inception in 1926. As far as financial support for her music is concerned, it’s been a great year. Kuster received an OPERA America Grant for female composers, made possible through The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which will support the recording of Kuster’s new work, Old Presque Isle. The 75-minute opera, expected to debut in 2016, features a libretto by poet Megan Levad, Assistant Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan.

But as grateful as she is for all the recognition and generous contributions to her work, Kuster has a much bigger mission than simply basking in her own glory. As one of the few women thriving within the world of classical music, she is very vocal about the gender gap, which she has referred to as “abysmal” and “embarrassing.” Indeed, the numbers are alarming. A recent survey by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that looked at the 2014 – 2015 seasons for 21 major American orchestras found that female composers account for only 1.8% of the works performed, and when only looking at works from living composers, they account for 14.8%. To that end, Kuster continues to raise awareness about the issue and is currently working on a foundation to position the next generation of female composers for success.

In celebration of Classical Music Month, BMI spoke to Kuster about the fundamental lessons she teaches her students, being a voice for women in the field, her upcoming opera and her greatest aspirations.

Tell us about your upcoming opera: where did you get the idea for it and what can audiences expect?
Michigan has more lighthouses than any state in our country and many of them are reported to be haunted. Some [of those stories] are true, and some are pretty funny. I’ve read up on a bunch of different haunting stories about this one lighthouse in particular in Old Presque Isle, Michigan. We picked up on one story that the locals claim is untrue, but we thought it would make a really good story. It’s about a woman who goes and marries this lighthouse keeper and finds that she is just so isolated and she hates it. Without giving too much away, their marriage is tumultuous. There are sweet moments, but this isolation way out there on Lake Huron is really something. So we run through their relationship and what it means for her to feel like a woman held captive in this place. It’s going really well. We had a fun idea to actually write it for one tenor lead only, and a men’s chorus that acts a little bit like a Greek chorus. The logging industry was really huge when this lighthouse was built so we’ve got these sailors coming in and out, too, which is fun. The instrumentation is six trumpets and one percussion. Our idea is that the tenor lead role actually sings three roles in one: as our heroine and as our hero, and also from the point of view of the larger new lighthouse, kind of watching the whole thing go down. It’s really a dream role for a tenor.

We’re doing a recording of some of the opera here at the University of Michigan, and we received support for that from OPERA America and also some support from the Office of Research here at U of M. We have Mary Birnbaum, one of the opera staff at Juilliard, and she is helping us with the libretto. We’ll do a couple of readings in the spring and then we’re going to start talking about options for a full production. We’ve been fortunate to receive support from the John Duffy Composer Institute with the Virginia Arts Festival, and they revamped their program. It used to be for young composers to have a two-week boot camp on how to write opera. And just this year, Libby Larsen had taken over as head director and she’s made it so they will continue to support and mentor us for the rest of the process. She is not only a fabulous artist and a great supporter of female composers, but she also has enough experience to know this very stage right now where they are offering us help is where composers need it the most. Sometimes you have this great idea and then maybe you workshop it and then there it stops. We are seeing a lot more organizations supporting new opera, from the beginning to the end and also from the mid-stages to the end — which is really, really exciting. It’s a vibrant art form that we have, and I’m just thrilled that they’re looking more at new works.

I’m curious about your process when it comes to composing. Where do you do your best work, and how do you know when you’re done?
Well, I do my best work in my home studio. And I do a lot of pacing in the house and around the yard. I pace around and think and maybe jot down some notes and then go sit at the piano and kind of do that for a long time. I also do a lot of pre-writing and just thinking before I put any notes on the page. I spend about a month for each piece, just imagining what I want it to be. Basic things — like fast or slow, light or dark, or whatever. And then I just have at it. I know I’m done when I hit the deadline and I send it off [laughs]. I’m not a big reviser anyway. I don’t do major surgeries or revamping that much. I try and just work those issues out in the next piece.

What are some of the most fundamental things you want your students to learn?
That, number one, we’re doing this because we love it, and we love music. So, the first sentence I say in every lesson is, “Let’s look at your music. Show me the spots you’re happy with first.” Because if you’re not sure of what you really love and you can’t say it out loud, how are we going to love it and how are you going to figure out the other things that need some work? And, number two, that you’ve got to work, work, work. When they leave school, they’re not going to have as many people around telling them how great they are. So, in order to gain confidence and self-assurance and willingness to take risks, they need to do that as much as possible while they’re in school while they have our support. And, lastly, that it behooves all of us, in whatever way we can, whether it’s through teaching or philanthropy or even creating your own ensemble and giving performances, to give back to this field. We are the custodians of this field that we love. And we have a responsibility to take care of it for future generations.

How do you think that the world of classical can get closer to closing the gender gap?
Well, we need a lot of work on that front. And what’s interesting is, we’ve seen a big shift in the last, I’d say, four or five years. I think it’s because of social media. These conversations about the fact that the gap exists are happening consistently. People are no longer afraid to talk about it. That’s the starting point. And at the same time, we need solutions — big ones and easy ones. The easy solution is that anyone who has any kind of decision-making power can certainly make a choice to proactively seek out women composers and their music. And it’s not that hard. You can just Google it. But all it takes is someone who wants to do a little bit of extra work, and care enough to consciously choose to up the numbers. That’s the easiest thing. The other thing it takes is more initiative and more money — scholarships and funding for these women to get educations and go out and filter into the classical world. The number of female composers who have active presences in our field is a lot higher than it was when I was in school, yet at the same time, it’s still pretty slim. Even if you looked at small community orchestras, if they put a woman on the stage, all the kids in that community will say, “Hey, this is something I can do.” And my generation — I just turned 42 this summer — we had very little of that.

You weren’t always so outspoken about gender in your field from what I read. What was the turning point?
Well, it was always on my mind. I was always aware when I was the only woman in the room. But, I was just uncomfortable with saying anything about it. There were also certain messages in those days — don’t talk about this stuff because people don’t want to talk about it and you could ruin your career. And it took me another 20 years to realize, “You know what? If there’s an issue that by talking about it, it’s going to ruin my career, that is the one issue that I need to talk about.” So the turning point was when I came back to teach at Michigan. This was the fall of 2008, and I started doing more residencies across the country at schools all over the place, and there just were so few female students. It was palpable. And then the more I started looking at programming of seasons and people who are winning awards and all kinds of things, the data just became so glaringly obvious that I thought, “Well, if I don’t talk about this, who’s going to talk about it?” A lot of other people are keeping their mouths shut, which is okay. You have to work within your comfort zone, and there are lots of people who advocate for these kinds of issues very quietly, in their own way.

What’s the gender balance like today in your classes and department?
It varies. We do a pretty good job, considering that we work in a state where the law says that we cannot take gender into consideration in admissions. I’ve been here seven years now, and in that time, what we’re seeing is a really nice increase in the number of women who are applying. So, in that sense, inevitably we’re going to have more women that we accept just by luck. But, at the same time, it ebbs and flows. We have some years where we do better than others. I don’t know the exact numbers of the incoming factors that we have now, but we average anywhere from about a quarter to a third, almost half, women. When you get a master’s student, they’re only here for two years, so those numbers change constantly depending on who graduates.

What is the vision for the foundation you’re building?
We’re in the very beginning stages, but we’re very excited about it and our goal is to model it after the Javits Fellowship, so that the foundation will fund graduate educations for female and minority composers to the institute of their choice. All these students are so awesome and they deserve to be able to go to whatever school best fits their personality, their goals, and their musical aesthetic. But I believe that the more students we get into schools, particularly at the graduate level, the better. This is where they really commit to making this their career, they form relationships with their peers and their professors, and ultimately filter into the community and our culture in beautiful ways.

When you were coming up, were there women in classical music that you could look up to and be mentored by?
We had visiting composers come through. I can think of about fifteen over the course of my eleven years of education, but it was kind of a drive-thru situation. They would come in and you might have a lesson or a seminar or a master class or something, and then that was it. In those days, I remember I had a lesson with Jennifer Higdon. This must have been 2000. And she asks me, “Hey, what’s it like being at this school as a woman?” And I absolutely dismissed the question. I said, “It’s fine,” because those were the years that I was not willing to engage in the discourse. So I regret that a little bit. And now she and I talk about it all the time, which is really lovely, and she’s so forthcoming with all kinds of wisdom.

Tell me about your relationship to BMI. How do you feel that it helps you?
I love BMI because Ralph Jackson and Deirdre Chadwick are always willing to help, when you need advice or have questions, on top of the fact that they are just lovely human beings. They also are very practical in their advice, and supportive — practical in the sense of, “Here’s what you’re asking me, these are the people I think you could talk to, and these are some of the questions that might help you if you meet with these people.” The Student Composer Awards that they run are so great because there’s no application fee, it’s anonymous, and it’s just a real clean, good way to do it. It’s all about what’s on the page, which is awesome.

What’s your biggest dream, career-wise?
I’m living it right now. I love that I have a steady stream of people asking me to write for them, of all varied kinds of ensembles, and soloists. And I love my teaching job. I hate winter a lot. If our students weren’t so awesome here at Michigan, I might have moved to a milder climate by now. But, I adore it and I love my colleagues, and I’m just having the time of my life. My teaching philosophy is also to remind these kids, “We’re not running NASA here.” Billions of dollars aren’t at stake. Lives aren’t at stake. Our joy and our souls and our hearts and our selves are at stake, which are very high stakes. However, I think that our field could also use a little bit of lightening up. It’s hard and it’s tough, but it’s also really, really fun.