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Composer Kurt Erickson Finds Fertile Ground in a Veteran’s Poem

November 4, 2019

“Here, Bullet” is a direct-to-the-heart poem penned by 52-year-old Brian Turner while serving as an infantry team leader in Iraq. Now, 49-year-old composer Kurt Erickson has set the poem for baritone and pianist, and is pursuing innovative, divergent pathways to bring words and music to the ears and hearts of listeners worldwide.

“Here we are in the 21st century, with these avenues with social media and new platforms, so I’m trying it out,” says Erickson, speaking from the North Bay home he shares with soprano Heidi Moss and their children.

Erickson’s career has been propelled by “a lot of individual commissions and about 11 years of different composer residencies,” but he found commissioning “fundamentally an insufficient process, because it’s usually just one or a few different performances lined up for the piece. You work like crazy over a series of months, you’re researching, writing, rewriting, going to the rehearsal process, your emotions are up and down, and you finally get to the point where, with a little luck and a sympathetic performer, you have a great performance.

“Then the response is, ‘this piece should be performed more,’ but meanwhile, you’d done absolutely nothing to make this a reality, because you’ve been so busy writing the actual piece. And the performers go on to their next concert, and you usually have other pieces you need to line up.

“So I thought, what if I front-end this, line as many people as possible up before I even write a note. What if I waive my commission fee, basically writing a piece for free, and all they have to do is agree to perform the piece publicly. They get to personally commission a piece of music — most people don’t have that opportunity — and in return, I get a multiplicity of performances, in different locales, to audiences I probably wouldn’t have access to. Because, with the magic of the interweb [sic], you can reach out to people.”

About a year ago, Erickson posted the opportunity for “rolling” performances of Here, Bullet, roughly during the period of the 2019–2020 season, on several Facebook sites for singers and musicians. “I hit ‘send,’ and the responses started coming in. The first time, there were 15 or 20 people, then several months later maybe another 15 or 20. People would say, ‘Not only am I interested, but I know this other singer who’s interested,’ or ‘I know an arts organization that’s looking to do exactly what you’re describing.’”

“And I would say, ‘I promise I’ll get you the music by July 1, 2019. I’ll send you scores, I’ll record myself playing it on the piano, I’ll make myself available if you have questions or want to send me rehearsal recordings. If it’s in the area, I’ll attend, and if you need a pianist, I’ll play.’ Because I have 18 or 19 years as a composer and a certain reputation, people jumped on board. It became almost a viral thing, where everybody was helping out and making recommendations. By now, there are 50 or 60 people who have expressed interest, and are trying to figure out how to incorporate the piece in their performance schedules.”

Erickson had also established a reputation as a pianist, with training dating back to lessons as a teenager with Philip Lorenz, who was teaching at Cal State Fresno and had served as assistant to Claudio Arrau. After Lorenz’s death, Erickson moved to San Francisco, where “I started developing my voice in a literary format, writing poetry, while also developing my musical composition voice and improvising [on piano]. I think I have a very strong jazz sensibility, in that I write down traditional scores, but nearly always include some form of structured improvisation.”

He went on to graduate study at the University of Notre Dame, where he pursued his multiple interests in piano, literature, and musicology. Erickson founded a new-music festival there, returned to the Bay Area for a year at Mills, and then got picked for Yale’s summertime Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

Once again eager to create opportunities where they seemed missing, Erickson then set up residencies with three Bay Area Episcopal churches — Grace Cathedral, St. Mark’s in Berkeley, and St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco — where “I was writing both liturgical music and music for their various concert series. I was kind of a generic Protestant, more of a secular humanist, but I realized there was some really incredibly beautiful and complex music” in the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition. His choral experience led to a residency with the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in North Beach, and then to a commission from the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Erickson’s compositions generally follow a clear melodic line, with nods to new-music voicings in the instrumental accompaniment and in lyric innovations. “Minimalism is a great way to cut your teeth in composition, because it’s so direct,” he says, “and that kind of language is not totally out-of-place in a liturgical context. And [his church-connected employers] weren’t asking me to write music they’d already heard. I could infuse their music with my own language, or use some of their elements within my language.”

The late countertenor Brian Asawa and the soprano Ann Moss commissioned work from Erickson, and the latter led to an introduction to his current wife, soprano Heidi Moss (no relation). As two newly single parents with children of identical ages, “it was obvious we were nearly the same person.” The composer also realized “I’d been moving toward art song, and meeting Heidi sort of accelerated things, because she’d already been with Lieder Alive!, and Maxine Bernstein, their director, thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we brought you on as our composer-in-residence. That was 2013, and I’ve never looked back.”

It was his new wife, Moss, who bought her new husband Brian Turner’s book of poetry, also titled Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005). Erickson had been looking for material from Islamic or Middle Eastern poets, as an alternative to “everything we’ve seen on TV about the most conservative elements of Islamic culture. But here was a guy writing while he was on patrol in Iraq, taunting the bullet, but really afraid of what the bullet represents. He’s saying one thing, but he’s scared shitless about it. It’s so timely, because what do we have for war poetry set to music? You have Britten’s War Requiem, Walt Whitman settings, some Vietnam-related settings, but nothing really topical in the 21st Century. And there are veterans all around us, including where I’m teachin [[at Cosumnes River College]. It’s not a distant memory.”

Erickson quickly heard the music in the book’s title poem, noting that, “Writing that is more to the point and direct is easier to set. I tend to be kind of Schubert-like, in that I’m looking for that phrase, that word that is kind of the essence of the poem, which I can use to kind of amplify it.”

The key line is referenced in Erickson’s program notes for the piece: “The music starts tentatively, picks up at measure eight with an ostinato in the piano part mirroring the language in the poetry, ‘Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,’ crystalizing in a musical gesture, the fear and crazed excitement, which drives the piece to the very end. The descriptive beauty of the poetry is highly charged (‘Here is bone and gristle and flesh ... Here is the clavicle snapped wish ... that insane puncture into heat and blood’). I sought a musical language steeped in expressive dissonance coupled with an angular vocal line, to pair with the beauty and horror of the verses.”

The composer points out that, “I set out to work with living poets, authors, and playwrights. I worked with a wonderful poet named David Rigsbee, a protégé of Carolyn Kizer, I worked with Aaron Loeb [on a one-act comedic opera], and I’d set poems by Mary Oliver.” Erickson still writes his own poems, but “I like to keep them personal; I read them to my wife. It’s a tremendous release, unsullied, and I don’t have to worry about, do I want to sell this.”

The monetary rewards of his new form of commissioning are yet to be totaled. “It’s a calculated risk on my part,” he admits, “but these performances are opening up opportunities I wouldn’t normally have access to. I have two people writing about the piece in their doctoral dissertations ... looking at the entrepreneurial aspect of it. I’ve got people who’ve already talked about inviting me over to their colleges to give a talk. This piece, and some others, are going to be published with Classical Vocal Reprints. There will be articles in Classical Singer magazine and Sparks and Wiry Cries [an art-song magazine]. So these are mechanisms that get the word out.”

Response from musical participants is equally stunning. ““I’ve got somewhere over 25 singers from the U.S., Canada, and Europe planning performances this season.". The first full premiere took place in early September, in Nashville, Tennessee, in a recital [by baritone Joshua Alan Lindsay] which was dramatically linked with remembrance. A colleague at Biola University will perform it on his faculty voice recital on Nov. 9, and there are six or seven more in November, and a bunch more in February. Just yesterday I heard from a singer at Deutsche Oper Berlin who’ll perform it there, I think with [pianist] John Parr. There are four or five singers who are on active duty, or just retired, and one said he’d sing it in uniform. I think that’s really cool!”

To further networking between interested parties, Erickson established a Facebook page, Kurt Erickson’s Here, Bullet for Baritone and Piano. Singers post information about their performances there, and Lindsay live-streamed his Nashville premiere of the piece. “As I was watching it,” reports the composer, “I noticed there were other singers watching, and some of them commented and sent me messages.” Erickson accompanied baritone Omari Tau for a YouTube performance of the piece, which he forwarded to poet Turner. “I was a little nervous to show it to him,” the composer admits, “and luckily, he loved it! He sent me the longest email, and he’s been posting the video on his social media pages. And we’re actually collaborating on a new work together — possibly an opera. He’s really interested in stories not just about war, but how it affects loved ones and civilians.

Also in the works is a new piece by Erickson for Lieder Alive!’s Neue Lieder series, to be debuted in May 2020 by his soprano wife Moss, violinist Dawn Harms, and cellist Emil Miland. The program will include compositions by Tarik O’Regan and Gordon Getty. A few months ago, Erickson became aware of singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier’s parallel collaborations with veterans and their families, which led to her Grammy-nominated In the Black recording, Rifles & Rosary Beads. “Reaching out to her,” says the composer, “is definitely on my to-do list.”

NB: This article has been amended to clarify Kurt Erickson's biography and Erickson has also clarified some of his quotations. Also, the publisher Classical Vocal Reprints was originally misidentified as Classical Voice Reprints. We regret the error.

 

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.