John Clare interviewed Katherine in 2005 for a two-part program on Nevada Public Radio’s 20/20 Hearing. This is a transcription of that interview.
JC: Katherine Murdock is a talented composer, and a good friend. She was my first college professor.
JC: It’s a great pleasure to welcome Katherine Murdock to 20/20 Hearing. I happen to know that you collect postcards, so it may not be so odd to have a piece called Postcards from the Center. Tell me a little bit about this work.
KM: I was commissioned to write a piece for a Kansas Arts Festival that Jim Jones here at Wichita State organized. He wanted it to be a multi-media work, and there was some discussion of having it done in schools for kids. I thought about it, and at first I had the idea of doing some diary of a Plains woman with narrator or something like that. Then I thought, no, that might be too heavy duty, too serious for schools. Then it occurred to me that I had this, well I thought it was a huge postcard collection, but it’s nothing compared to what I have now. I collect postcards of where I’ve been and where I’ve lived. I realized that I had this huge wad of Kansas postcards, so I dug them out. A lot of them have titles, so I got the idea of using the titles on these postcards as movement titles; they could make slides of the postcards and show them on a screen as they were playing the movements. I chose five of them and wrote this piece around the Kansas postcard titles.
JC: Do you like to sit at the keyboard? Do you like to. . . ? The process of creativity is a very hard topic, but to actually physically compose? Do you like to take a walk out in the yard? Or do you sit at the keyboard and improvise a little? Tell me a little about the physicality of composing.
KM: I really like to tap into the physical element of composing. Even though I’m not really a performer, or not any more any way. Before I got my computer and learned Finale, I used to compose at the keyboard. It really depends on the idiom I’m using. If the piece is fairly tonal and I can sing it, a lot of the time I’ll just walk around – I use my voice a lot as well as the keyboard. Now that I’m computerized, I use Finale but really as a giant music word processor. I have an electronic keyboard next to my computer. I’m not hooked up to MIDI. I’m not exactly a Luddite, but I’m not exactly really on top of technology. I don’t use MIDI: I use the keyboard to find pitches and get ideas. More and more, it’s in my head. Driving in my car is another good place. I’ve started many pieces in the car. I think that composers – I’m interested in writing music for live performance. When I go to a concert, it’s very evident the physical nature of performance. One thing I do, I visually imagine people playing my music. I imagine what they’ll look like playing this particular gesture or that gesture. If it’s an ensemble, what it looks like with all of them playing as opposed to one of them playing. So it’s kind of an eclectic process. Another thing I do, when I am first into writing a piece – which is usually in the summer because of my teaching schedule – when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, I usually lie around for quite a while. I visualize or think of my piece, and I find it really inspiring just having come out of the dream or sleep state helps me hook in with what I’m doing before I go downstairs and start working at the computer or the keyboard.
JC: Do the titles come first sometimes? Or are they inspired afterwards? They’re very witty. I just listened to the band piece Memories, Dreams and Reflections with “Are We There Yet?” There’s some very punny stuff.
KM: I find it really helpful to have a title first. There’s precedent to that. I know my teacher Joseph Schwanter used to say that he wouldn’t start a piece without a title. I find it really helps me to clarify what I am doing. It inspires me. It helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me clarify the musical ideas and sometimes gives form to the piece. I almost always have the titles first. When I get a title, particularly a multi-movement work like the woodwind quintet I wrote for trumpet and woodwind quintet. I was in a motel room in Green River, Utah, and in the middle of the night, it hit me what I wanted to do with this piece: the movement titles [Between Friends] just fell into place. That made it a lot easier when I got home to write the piece: it just fell into place.
JC: What if we looked in your studio – what would we see? What are you working on? What’s going on right now?
KM: I’m writing grants to try to get a composer here for our festival, and I’m grading papers. I don’t know what I’m writing next. I finished a piece over Christmas for Jim Jones. It’s an unaccompanied clarinet piece with crotales – he has to play crotales as well as clarinet, just little drone things. Hit the thing and then play a bunch of clarinet stuff He’s retiring this year, and he asked me to write a piece for his last performance as a WSU faculty member which will be at the Contemporary Festival. He wanted a piece called Swan Song, so I wrote him a piece called Swan Song. It’s a sort of sad but pretty kind of piece; it’s very “clarinetty.” He says it’s very idiomatic. To me, idiomatic is good. Even though I write hard pieces, I try to write pieces that are idiomatic for the instruments.
JC: Does it sometimes help inspire the music that you know a performer?
KM: Oh certainly. Absolutely. The way my career has worked out, for the most part, even in the beginning, most of my pieces I’ve known for whom I was writing. That has really helped me: not only knowing the quality of the person’s playing or singing but also a little bit about their personality and what kind of thing they like to do I find inspiring. When you set off to write a piece, there are all of these possibilities: you could write it for anything and you could write anything for anything. One of the things that we need to do is to narrow down the possibilities. Having a commission gives you some direction: this is going to be for saxophone and piano, and it’s going to be 10 minutes long because that’s what she needs. Going from there, the quality of the player and what kind of technical things they can do and a little bit about what kinds of things they like to do. With Jean [Lansing, WSU saxophone professor emeritus] I’ve known her for so long that I have kind of an idea about that, and that helps me to organize my thoughts as well.
JC: Tell me a little bit about the idea of working with and trying to help lead creative minds and that idea of the creation of music.
KM: Wow. There are people who say you can’t teach composition, and I don’t really agree with that. I think you can teach a lot of technical things that are like tools or resources for composers to give them something to do when they get stuck. I think that in working with my students, in some ways I’m part cheerleader, I’m part shrink. I do try to teach them basic things. We look at music, I make them listen to music. I even give them exercises and things to help them develop technical things. The most important thing, I feel, is keeping them going. A lot of times, it’s hard just to get them to write. “Oh I haven’t written anything this week” and, “Oh I haven’t written anything this week” and this goes on. . . just to keep them writing and feeling like what they’re doing is important. There’s a lot of discouragement in trying to be an artist of any type, it’s really a formidable kind of thing and just to be their mentor or their cheerleader. One thing I do is provide opportunities to have their music played so that they can work with performers and so that they can hear their music. That is the best teacher: doing it and then hearing it and going through the process with the performers. When they get the parts and say, “I can’t read this,” or “What does this mean?” or “You don’t have enough beats in this measure” – things like that are the real world. They can hear their work. You improve by doing it and hearing it and then fixing it. Things that didn’t work, chalk that up to experience. Things that did work go into your style, your bag of tricks that you like to do. That’s a primary thing. To get a grade, they have to have something performed. I provide student composer recitals for them. We always have student pieces on the Contemporary Music Festival by some of the better, upper division students and grad students. Just to provide a creative environment where students are not afraid to fail, to try things and fail.
JC: I interviewed Penderewski recently, and I was asking him about the importance of conducting, not only his works but other works, and I was really humbled when he said, “You know I enjoy conducting and I think it’s very important: you need to know everything.” He said, “In my works, when I’m conducting it gives me a more personal sense, and I can communicate what’s not on the page. Often it’s hard to put everything on the page.” I thought, oh my god, Penderewski’s saying it’s hard to compose and communicate everything.
KM: It is. It is. Some of it’s just kind of nuts and bolts stuff like they’ll come in and say, “I can’t notate this rhythm: it goes like this,” and then I’ll help them try to figure out how to notate it or something like that. It’s very basic. But then a lot of times we work on notation, we work on the nuts and bolts of communication. One thing I do in my teaching that maybe some other people don’t is acknowledge the spiritual aspect of composition or any kind of art and the psychological side of it and how all of that gets mushed in with what you’re doing. Also the intuitive aspect of it – the subconsciouos of it, things that are not quantifiable. For some students that’s maybe not the best approach, and for some students it is. I’d say that one thing – Walter Mays and I both teach composition here – and we both realize that not everyone. . . that I am not the best teacher for every student. I’ve had people go on to Walter; he’s had people come to me who weren’t working out with him. The approach was just not right. If someone wants something that is more technically oriented, I’m probably not the best person. If someone wants something that’s more – oh, I don’t know, artsy fartsy I suppose you could say – maybe I am. . the kind of personal side. If someone is really hung up on technique and not being all that expressive, maybe I am the better person to be with. It just depends on what the student needs.