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Interview with Kevin Joest – announcing release of “Thoughts and Prayers”

Kevin Joest and I are very excited to release the new recording of his piece “Thoughts and Prayers” for trumpet and electronics on September 1st. It was recorded at the NYU Steinhardt Dolan Studio and edited/mixed/and mastered by Mike Tierney. We will be launching a series of interviews, news, and conversations about gun violence leading up to the release of the track. Most importantly, we are very excited to announce that a portion of the proceeds for each purchase of the recording will be donated to certain gun control organizations (of which we will announce soon). 

I had a great time reading Kevin’s responses to my questions and hope you enjoy!

1. What was your inspiration behind writing the piece?

Kate Amrine! I say that a little tongue-in-cheek, but its really true. The impetus for dealing with the concept of “thoughts and prayers” came from Kate. This was the fall of 2017, and we knew we wanted to do something political, but we’d been going back and forth about what specific issues to deal with and how we’d explore them both conceptually and musically. One day, Kate emailed me the link to the Dominique Christina video and was like “WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING WITH THIS.” Maybe 10 minutes later she replied “I want to do ‘thoughts and prayers.’” And I thought “oh. Yes…yes. This is the seed that will blossom into this piece.” I have always heard political rhetoric as sort of a jungle of talk and static that one must machete one’s way through to get to any conceptual essences. The 2016 campaign, subsequent election, and its aftermath turned that static (through the amps of television, news, and social media) to 10 and the content to 1, so I wanted to highlight that idea of the cheapness of talk. While there are only 5 or 6 sources for the tape, they are blended in such a way that only the moments of clarity and substance really are heard. The rest is just voices trying to outspeak each other.

The trumpet music is all derived from Taps. It serves as a requiem to those who were slain in the too-numerous tragedies. It becomes most recognizable toward the end, and the various guises and “reverse-developments” (as the derivations that are least like the original come at the beginning) lend a sense of movement from distortion to clarity, of many voices into one. Taps is a powerful melody with deep ties to a great many people, and to use it was a deliberate choice to elicit the connotations of death, war, sacrifice, and loss, but also gratitude, and of action, and of working to uphold beliefs through those actions. It calls to mind what those who have fallen have sacrificed for, and how our own actions can honor theirs.

The crux of what inspired the piece came from the anger and frustration of inaction. At the root of the gun violence debate, the crisis relief debate, the armed forces debates, etc. is the very real fear that inaction will allow these events to continue happening unchecked. The disparity between the empty chatter of the tape and the ultimate sacrifice alluded to by the trumpet music is bridged by the quotes from Dominique Christina. What is extraordinary is her conviction that the ideas one has and expresses should not be said to be convincing or browbeating. She says “maybe, [if said with enough conviction], these things become instructive, and maybe you find they are also belonging to you.” It’s that sense of belonging as the powerful call to action that inspired the work.  

2. What does gun violence mean to you and why do you feel strongly about it?

My own relationship with guns is very much removed: I didn’t grow up with guns, I’ve never shot a gun, I’ve only ever touched one once, and I do not interact with them really at all. But I was going into middle school the year after the Columbine shooting, and have watched the mass-shooting epidemic grow from there. Here, now, in 2018, there really isn’t a hot-button topic that doesn’t have a horrific tragedy attached to it. Education – school shootings. Taking care of children – Sandy Hook. LGBTQIA rights – Pulse nightclub. Military issues – Fort Hood. Religious issues – Sutherland Springs or Charleston. Racism – police shootings and BLM. And the list goes on… Active shooter drills in elementary schools isn’t really a thing that should be, and yet, there is a terrifying thrust toward a mismanagement of the sanctity of life for political or monetary gain in this country.

More personally, every time these shootings occur, it is almost inevitably a white male who felt like an ‘other’ or who has been taught to abhor ‘other’s. I am a gay man, who married a queer black Jew, and even though we live in the bubble of New York City, I still tend toward trepidation when going outside in this political climate. My spouse is an ‘other’ trifecta, and if I don’t hear from him and it gets to be late, or I know he’s going to be in a place where ‘other’s aren’t as tolerated, I am terrified of *that* phone call.

3. Have you written other politically inspired works in the past?

Directly, no, this one is the first, but this is not to say all of my music is without politics. Artists, to be moving and communicative and effective, I think need to first be humans; to be human is to know what is happening in the world around you. History teaches us the connections and catalysts for events, and the series’ of events that lead to certain outcomes, with every outcome being a springboard for the next event. In some ways an artist’s job is to see these connections in real time and fuse them together to comment on them in a way that is meaningful to others, often using more than words. Thus, while none of my previous works have dealt with political issues as directly and obviously as Thoughts & Prayers, all of my work is responsorial to a need that is seen in the world, even if that need is someone who needs to sit and let something new and different and beautiful wash over them.

4. So this piece is for trumpet and electronics. Tell us about what is in the electronics track and how you put it together.

This piece was a lot of firsts for me, and this is the first time I’ve successfully used electronics. The idea for the track came from my own perceptions of what media sounds like – just noise. I wanted pockets of clarity, and fragments of understanding, but by and large the track’s words become unintelligible chatter. All the audio was pulled from YouTube and spliced in basic GarageBand. I did some very basic mixing and leveling, but overall it is raw audio. This partially stems from a desire to keep the noise unrefined, but also from my limited experience and knowledge of the program and mixing techniques. The “channel change sound” – that aggressive burst of TV snow – was added in the mixing process after we found a bit of bad splicing on my part. I’m a big fan of taking blemishes and, if they can’t be eliminated, magnifying them so they’re intentional. We liked the sound so much it got reincorporated into the track in multiple places.

It was also my first time scoring for tape, so navigating what needed to be in the score to help Kate play along with it was a tricky process, and I am forever grateful to her for her patience in working with me on how much of what information needed to be in the score and where. The tape part in the score is a series of cues, labelled with durations, mostly in the form of “tape mumblings” and a time value – 5”, 10” etc. The long silent sections where the speaking happens are also denoted in this way. Kate performs with a running timer to be accurate every time.

5. Some people say that it is wrong or ill advised to mix politics and music. What do you think about that and how does that play into your idea of what a 21st century musician is?

I think this is very much a multi-faceted question, and there’s a lot of elements that come into play here. For starters, since before the beginning of modern humans, music has been used by politics to achieve ends for which it may not have been originally intended. Kings and emperors going back to the primordial pagan religions have used music to enchant their followers and subjects. It’s why we have patriotic songs, marches, church hymns & chants, etc. It’s why the tune of the national anthem of the United States originated as an English drinking song, even as the rewritten words are deeply patriotic. Music has always been used as propaganda; those that say they should not mix are clearly not paying attention.

For this piece in particular, its intention is political. It takes a stance and makes its statement on its issue and is very much about it’s one thing. Music written in this way is, I think, necessary for a self-critical society. Some of the most profound works of music are in reaction to current socio-political events, issues or questions, and I think the making of music (or art) as a form of reaction can be transformative, can invite others into that space that they find is belonging to them, as Christina says. I adore music that is escapist, that is completely overwhelming and forcibly shoves everything else from your mind. I think escapism, though tantalizing, can lead to ignoring that which is the source of all art – life. As I said earlier, an artist must first be a human. When this is the case, politics are part of of that humanity and will mix with the music sooner or later. In this way, the 21st-century musician is much like the 18th-century musician, and Thoughts and Prayers finds a kindred spirit in Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony when Beethoven rips off the dedication to Napoleon. The ways in which the 21st-century musician has changed are the same ways in which the 21st century has changed all of us. In the West, we are richer and control more resources than any other group of humans in history. We travel at high speeds, we are instantaneously connected around the globe, we carry computers in our pockets more powerful than those that took the astronauts to the moon 50 years ago. We know more about everything and this includes politics. So many of the pressing crises that we face today aren’t newly happening, their stories are being globally told in real time for the first time. It is a new society connecting digitally the world over even as brick and mortar countries are holeing up behind their nationalist and isolationist policies. To be an artist in the 21st century is to have the entire world a few keystrokes away and be able to draw on its influence. Most of my job isn’t coming up with inspiration, its drawing boundaries, and sifting through the terabytes of information available to me at any given moment to pick the exact bits that will serve my purposes. Making a statement that will be heard and find belonging in the torrent is singularly difficult for this generation of music makers – it can’t just be collage anymore, it has to be as original as everyone else’s.

Here are two live clips from the premiere of the piece:


Thank you Kevin for answering these questions and we can’t wait to share “Thoughts and Prayers” with you in 1 month on September 1st!

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