RR LogoTanya Kalmanovitch - John Cage, Her New Album, A New Book and Much More

Tanya Kalmanovitch Photo OneRecently, Jazz and Classical composer, educator, violist and violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch who makes her home in New York City, returned from Istanbul, Turkey where she and New England Conservatory colleague Anthony Coleman led a workshop concerning music improvisation.

“We did a production of John Cage’s song books, with a pretty diverse cast of Turkish musicians. There were Jazz musicians, free improvisers, a character actor from film and television, a folk singer who specializes in music of the Black Sea region and a Rock musician. It was a diverse group of people interpreting the songs in pretty different ways.

In terms of the Cage songbook production, there were definitely some things that we altered with the Turkish audience in mind, but we did that within the parameters that John Cage offers. At one point with the instructions for one song, he instructs people that whenever possible the lyrics should be translated into the language of the audience. I took that as license to play with language a little bit.

I think the very deliberate use of Turkish music and Turkish musicians in a context where it wouldn’t normally be heard was a way of re-imagining or re-textualizing those works and for teaching there wasn’t anything particularly different. The population of musicians is so good. They are such great musicians, with such a great sense of interest, engagement and involvement, so we just went for it,” says Kalmanvovitch and it is obvious from the tone of her voice that she enjoyed the experience.

The brilliant twentieth century composer, music theorist, writer and artist John Cage has often been referred to as avant-garde and an innovator of indeterminacy in music, that is to say where a portion of the music is not precisely defined, as to the manner in which it is to be performed. He also explored the use of instruments in non-standard ways.

“I had the experience of working with him when I was twenty-one years old or so and although, I didn’t realize it at the time that really affected me and it changed in a sense my musical path. I had been asked to participate in a performance of a piece of his called Atlas Eclipticalis and it can be pretty sprawling. The performances can take many, many hours and the one that we were doing was abridged for a four hour performance. One of the instructions that we had received was we could take long breaks if we needed to and we could wait as long as we wanted to from one note to the next. Coming from a very structured background in Classical music where you have no discretion or very little discretion over matters of fidelity to the score and then having been given a score that was quite precise, but also it had written into it a good deal of chance and variability was compelling to me. I was twenty-one, so I was being provocative and I took a very long break in the performance and I went outside (she laughs lightly).

When we did the recording, it was the same thing. Some of the dots were very small and some of them were very big and those were supposed to help you to determine things like volume and attack and so forth. At some point in the recording John Cage was there and I don’t remember why he did this, but he smiled at me and he beamed at me. He gave me a kiss on the lips and he told me that I was his favorite violist. This delighted me, even though I didn’t know what I had done to deserve this and now twenty years later, I think I can understand what happened at that moment. His music really gave me an option for a radically different way for thinking about the role of performers and texts. For really radically examining the question of what counts as music, I felt pretty chaffed or constrained as a student in a very conservative Classical music school, as I was at the time. I was searching for other ways to imagine a relationship between music and sound. It was through him that I started to amass a vocabulary for thinking and dealing with those sorts of things,” she says. 

Like her mentor, Tanya Kalmanovitch is also an innovator and her students are the beneficiaries. At the New England Conservatory she teaches a course called Entrepreneurial Musician. Three years ago the New England Conservatory gave birth to the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department and Ms. Kalmanovitch was invited to teach one of the mandatory undergraduate sections. All of the juniors at the Conservatory are required to take the course.

“Right away I thought it was a great honor to have that kind of a voice in the school and to be able to speak to such a broad swath of students from the school and not just speak to the students in my own department. I could speak to the students in the Opera department or the Classical music department and so on. What we talk about in a nutshell is everything other than music that goes into making a life in music. I think the thing that makes my approach a little bit distinctive is a lot of people when they talk about these kinds of things will talk about social media, marketing, grants and networking and I start from a pretty inward focus. I try to model a process of self- knowledge and self-discovery. This type of success is so individual and what one of us might consider to be success another one of us might not, and so the first thing that I start with is inaugurating a conversation with ourselves. That is something that I hope the students will keep up in their whole lives. Not a lot of us do that. We don’t usually know what we are thinking or feeling or experiencing.  Tanya Kalmanovitch Photo Two

I didn’t get into music to be in business, for me it was the opposite of that. I didn’t want to be involved in something where the bottom line was profit. I wanted the bottom line to be, maybe spiritual profit. I didn’t really see a business approach with being compatible with music, but I was also fourteen or something then. Thankfully we grow up and we develop brains and we have experiences that teach us to be more flexible and capacious in our understanding of the world. One of the things that happened to me with this class is coming to terms with dissolving these binaries between music and business or the evil corporate world or soul numbing work or day jobs and music jobs. I started to ask my students what it means for us to act as musicians in every aspect of our lives. What does it mean to be a musician when you are teaching a group of beginning recorder players in elementary school if you are coming from a position of being a very serious young performer who is oriented towards orchestral performance or if you are a really serious Jazz musician who has a vision of yourself as being an artist? A lot of the work that we do as musicians can be disappointing. There can be a disappointment in the professional world when you get out of school. You are involved in intensive study of artistic practice, only to land in a world where there is an ever shrinking pool of opportunities to express that. There are a couple of attitudes that you can take towards that. There is a depressing one, there is nothing to do and so we might as well just quit. Then there is the other attitude, which most professional development manuals and most people who are addressing these problems tend to take (which is) in the age of the internet there are more opportunities than ever to have your voice heard, but there are also fewer opportunities to be paid for it. I try to teach students to have a very robust and personal sense of what their music is and what it means to them and who they are as musicians, so that they can carry that into every situation in which they find themselves. That ends up fueling you when you have a really strong sense of the meaning of music and its purpose. When you have crystal clear language that you can use to describe that, it is an incredible gift. I ask students to interrogate the supposed binaries, the distinction between real artist music work and then the things that you are doing for money or work as a musician and a day job and the difference between art and business. I try to ask people what it might mean to be a musician in every aspect of their lives. In some cases that means that students end up exploring career paths that they might not have thought of,” says Tanya Kalmanovitch.

This year Tanya Kalmanovitch stepped down from her position as Assistant Chair of the Department of Contemporary Improvisation, a position she had occupied for the past four years, so she can now focus on other areas such as developing more as a writer, however she continues to teach at the New England Conservatory.

“I have a couple of book projects in the works and I like administrative work a lot. I like that ability to take something and be able to operate in it from a bigger picture perspective. I find that really satisfying and I think I want to apply that more to the bigger picture of my own career,” she explains.

As for being a writer, “I am going to write a book that is a distillation of the different kinds of conversations that we have in the Entrepreneurial Musician classes. It will be targeted at professional musicians, young professional performers and conservatory students. I am hoping that it will be equally readable by anyone with an interest in music. Ultimately the book is going to be about the meaning of music in society and what it is that being a musician can teach us.

Most of the conversations that go on these days about the relevance of music are either overly celebratory and thus don’t really zero in on some of the more troubling questions that face those of us who continue to make our living as musicians, because trust me, it is really a shrinking income pool. That is happening all of the time and it has been happening all of the time. I think being a professional musician is very much a historical kind of a concept that had a time and a place and it did not always exist like this. There are shifting forms of patronage. When I did my PhD work in musicology we looked at structures a lot and you will see these stories repeated all over the world at various points in history.”

Tanya Kalmanovitch also tells us, “I have a new recording that will be coming out for the first time in eons, so that is exciting. It is a trio with Anthony Coleman and Ted Reichman. They are musicians that I know from New York, but they are also part of the faculty of NEC as well.  We do these themed concerts a couple of times per year in our department. We will bring in the full program of music and we will comment or explore in some way a body of repertoire or a genre or an idea. I found myself working with them often to come up with an idea to respond to one of these concerts. Over the course of a year or two we built up this little body of work and we realized that we had something quite special. We recorded in this beautiful concert hall in Boston, Jordan Hall and we are just about to mix it. Then we will send it out into the world.”

Please visit the Tanya Kalmanovitch website

Interviewed by Joe Montague

Photos courtesy of Tanya Kalmanovitch protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved

This interview is protected by copyright © and may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved

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