The Chopstick Composer

Posted on 10. Dec, 2009 by in Arts and Culture, Thomas Lin

Composer Arthur Kampela isn’t afraid to make musicians work. Especially if they’re master players in the New York Philharmonic.

“They are practicing their asses off right now,” he said last week, over Sri Lankan tea in his Harlem apartment.

The 20 Philharmonic musicians premiering “MACUNAIMA,” Arthur’s commissioned work, on Dec. 17, are grappling with his 70-page score, which demands that they shake maracas, stand up and walk off stage, and beat their priceless instruments like congas. And they do all this while playing a piece that requires the highest technical virtuosity.

“I saw the score while he was working on it, and I told him no classical flutist is going to do this,” said his colleague Margaret Lancaster, a flutist who specializes in new music.

Arthur begrudgingly changed it, but it’s still “very, very challenging,” said Lancaster.

Perhaps it’s because Arthur is a renowned guitarist himself.

The 49-year old Brazilian has been a fixture on the new music scene in New York since the early nineties, when he first arrived in New York City to do graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music. The composer, who wrote his first work at the age of 12, went on to earn a doctorate in composition from Columbia University, and currently teaches both there and at NYU.

Arthur’s work takes advantage of “extended technique,” where musicians use their classical acoustic instruments in unorthodox ways. Play a cello with a chopstick. Use your violin as a drum. Stick your hand inside the grand piano. Arthur himself plays the viola, but held at his chest facing out, as if it’s a guitar.

“Only a guitarist knows how to play the viola,” he said, in half-seriousness.

Where does this new music composer get his inspiration? This time, he got it from the wall of percussion instruments that line his living room. In his opinion, percussionists are natural practitioners of extended technique.

“When you have a percussionist in an orchestra, you say play the zipper and he plays the zipper. He plays the drums, but then he can play this book,” grabbing a book and rifling through its pages, eliciting a muffled flopping.

Unsurprisingly, some of the musicians who are performing his work next week are resistant to his ideas, or just baffled.

“I’ve been receiving emails, ‘Arthur, bar 61, do you really mean really that?’ And I say yes, and they ask me how, and I tell them, and they say, ‘Oh my God,’ and so on,” he said, not entirely displeased.

Arthur’s work, which has been described as “extraordinarily colorful” and “fascinatingly inventive” by the New York Times, provokes and divides audiences. A video of Stephanie Griffin performing his work “Bridges,” which squeals and groans its way to a strangely formal grandeur, garnered comments like, “Why would a good player waste her time on this nonsense?” The artist, who has moved on to working on a new piece commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, has no patience for these naysayers.

The long-haired father of one is more positive about his influences, from Gyorgy Ligeti to Heitor Villa-Lobos, and he in turn is shaping a generation of young composers with his teaching. But the audience for his vibrant and challenging compositions is small, if fervent.

“I’m still waiting to get famous, like Bebel Gilberto,” he said, referring to another New York-based Brazilian musician.

“Her albums sell so many copies,” he said with admiration.

But faced with the suggestion that he might have to make pop records, he’s emphatic.

“Then forget it!”

Comments are closed.