Humor and Rebellion: The Composer/ Violinist/ Singer Carla Kihlstedt

by Carolin Pook –

„There is a certain amount of what someone else would call dissonance that to me just feels satisfying, and not dissonant at all.“

When I heard Carla Kihlstedt for the first time in my early twenties (‚2 foot yard‘, 2003 Tzadik records), that is exactly what struck me. For the first time, I was listening to a real contemporary artist that somehow made noise and dissonance sound as beautiful as I always imagined it could be. Combined with simple, folky songs and words and an unpretentious, awake, sometimes innocent voice, it was a truly new and unique world that opened up in front of my ears.

But Carla Kihlstedt is not only a composer, she also truly knows what it means to interpret music. Her classical background, years of researching and studying other composers works, trying to emotionally and intellectually understand what was created by another human being, makes her a sought after interpreter, and in the past few years more and more as a singer. What she admires about a skillful interpreter is „the difference between hearing someone play a piece that they play perfectly well and hearing someone play a piece where they use it to transcend their own experience in a very subtle but at the same time very profound way. Music doesn’t mean anything without players who are deeply feeling it.“ At this year’s moers festival, Carla will be the interpreter of Jeremy Flower’s song cycle „The Real Me“.


Carla Kihlstedt @ moers festival 2010 (with Fred Frith‘ Cosa Brava, Photo: Oliver Heisch)

„I really love collaborating, and I was always drawn more to emotionally dramatic composers“ she tells me, and also explains why she might not even bring her violin to Moers this time: „Jeremy Flower’s material is so emotional, it really needs clarity and focus from a singer.“ For Carla, singing was at first just an extension of playing the violin. „At some point after college, I got very curious and found there is something profound in using the voice, and started to sing and play violin at the same time. My first voice teacher really was my violin, in a poetic way I started to draw parellels between bow movement and breathing.“

After years of touring intensively as both a violinist and singer with many different bands, her own or some of her favorite musicians, including Fred Frith, Tom Waits or Ben Goldberg, she is currently living on Cape Cod with her partner and collaborator Matthias Bossi and their two children, while sometimes naturally struggling to find time to create music. Her own experience made the subject of Jeremy Flower’s song cycle -midlife and aging- something to easily relate to. „Jeremy has written about it in a very poignant and poetic way. It was not difficult for me to step into it and really be able to bring something personal to his songs. And then there is this wonderful and sonically inspiring mix of the lushness of a chamber group and the darkness of a rock band.“

For composing her own music, what motivates her most and moves her music forward is harmony. And so the piano naturally was the most intuitive tool to explore that world of harmony. „As a kid, I would just sit down at the piano and improvise. I think what I played was harmonically pensive and abstract. In a way, my idea of improvising and composing always kind of had an overlap.“


Carla Kihlstedt (Photo: Peter Gannushkin/

Being a composer and improviser myself I am always curious to hear about my colleague’s process and inspiration. Carla’s description is something I can relate to very well. „I wish I could tell you that I actually had a process that was the same every time or at all reliable. There is a tendency in the way that I work, but when I’m doing it feels like the first time I’ve ever done it.“

Her risk-taking way of creating music -alone or together with others- thrives from a deeply rooted search for a human element in whatever she does. The topics of her projects are always something that invites her to go deeper into the human experience. „I need to start with a seed of meaning. It can be an image or a set of words or an actual message that I’m trying to convey.“

From my own experience I know that for the composing process, finding these ideas or seeds of meaning isn’t always easy and sometimes happens all of a sudden at unpredictable moments. Musical ideas can be born out of silence, out of listening to other composers, or out of a seemingly trivial daily situation. Like that moment right before you fall asleep and are too tired to get up and write it down. For Carla, „there are times when you’re craving input and then at other times you just need to cut yourself off from what is most important and just listen to your own inner ear. It allows you to grow. I’ve done a lot of both.“

These are the topics she talks about to her students at New England Conservatory. And because being truly creative means to be truly human, the more we talk about music, the more comfortable we become with constantly contradicting ourselves as part of the creative process. Or as Carla would put it: „Everything I say has a built in equally valid contradiction.“

And she loves Hungarian composers such as György Ligeti, György Kurtág and Béla Bartók. „There is something about the combination of transparency, emotional clarity, humor, but artistic seriousness that totally resonates with me.“

I agree with her, and if you add some feminine beauty, rebellion and 21st century I could say the same about Carla Kihlstedt.

Video of Carla Kihlstedt, performing solo at New England Conservatory, Sept 2011, courtesy YouTube channel New England Conservatory

(Featured image: Peter Gannushkin)

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