Interview with Dustin Katzin

Here is the rest of the The Tech’s interview with student composer Dustin Katzin, whose orchestral work Schrodinger’s Cat premiered at last Friday’s MITSO concert. If you missed the first part of the interview, read it here: http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N25/katzin.html. Interview conducted by Bogdan Fedeles.

The Tech: You play many different musical instruments.  How did you pick which instrument to play?  I guess piano came first?

Dustin Katzin:  Piano came first.  I started when I was five and took lessons from then until now.  I started out with the middle school band and I originally wanted to play saxophone because I thought it was the coolest thing but my band director said I should start out with clarinet.  I’m not sure why, but I guess if you play clarinet you can learn how to play saxophone.  As soon as I could, I switched to sax.  The band director suggested I switch to bassoon, and I was like “What, that’s not cool or jazzy.”  I ended up staying with clarinet and then playing bassoon at the request of the band director.  Since I [already] played piano, I started playing percussion and then I just shuffled around through MITSO through the four years which is really nice.

TT:  So you played mostly percussion in MITSO or also clarinet?

DK:  The first couple years, I was shuffled around a lot more.  It wouldn’t be uncommon to have a concert where I played clarinet first then bassoon and then percussion and call it a day. As time went on, I started specializing more and realized that clarinet, besides piano, was my favorite instrument to play.  I got a lot of respect for percussion while I was here.  People think cymbals are easy…far from it.  If you’re a little bit off everyone in the audience knows.

TT:  I guess this gave you a lot of experience for writing for an orchestra…

DK:  Exactly! I chose MITSO so I could be exposed to strings.  The nice thing is that if you watch how they bow, you see how their phrasing works and what they can and can’t do.

TT:  This is important, indeed since many composers write orchestral music without considering the actual performers. So now let’s talk a little bit about music.  Who are your favorite composers?

DK:  My favorite composer is John Williams.  I mentioned that I loved jazz when I was younger.  When Star Wars: Episode I came out, I found one track it was called “Anakin’s Theme.”  I listened to it once and then kept repeating it.  It was the first time I saw what orchestral music could be. Williams has always been my favorite.  I’ve found some of his scores and studied them; that’s been kind of my default orchestration.  He’s definitely the number one.  I’m definitely a fan of more traditional composers like Tchaikovsky, Mallard, Ravel.  Recently Copland has been pretty influential also.  Another composer is Nobuo Uematsu from the Final Fantasy game series.  The biggest thing for me is the effect on the audience.  My conception of music is dramatic, is theater.  If I were writing three hundred years ago I guess I would be doing opera.

TT:  You talked a lot about John Williams, and for sure the beginning of that march in “The Cat Lives” is very reminiscent of some of his film music orchestration.

DK:  That’s why I wrote that part first.  I was using him, almost exclusively, as a source of inspiration during the early stages. I knew how to do happy.  It took a lot more effort to figure out the unsettled music and the sad music. Then, the happy ending needed a lot of revision.  That was the last thing I did—cut out some filler parts and add things that worked better.

TT:  Originality is something that a lot of the contemporary composers are looking for.  In my opinion, they try to achieve that at the expense of making the music accessible.  How do you stay original?

DK:  One general trend is to go to complicated musical ideas like atonal and twelve tone music.  You take a sequence of twelve notes, reverse it, and mess around with the sequence.  I don’t think anyone can decode it, and go “Wow! You went to the sixth column of the matrix and went backwards”.  The big danger for me was being too gimmicky.  It was already a pretty bold thing to have two endings.  The really hard thing was to make sure that both were similar in quality and that I would be happy with both endings.

TT:  What’s next?  What are the projects you’re working on now?

DK:  I haven’t started yet but I will be writing a piano concerto next.  I’m not sure I should give away exactly what it is in case someone does it before me.

TT:  Are you thinking of a traditional piano concerto?

DK:  I really like the romantic style, but I want it to be a mixture of style. Definitely some Prokofiev elements. I think it’ll expand my horizons.  I will be drawing from a physics concept.  There will be three types of music for this one.  Maybe I will get back to you and let you know what they are once I’ve gotten something written.

TT:  Have you written a lot of piano pieces?

DK:  Small things for classes.  The concerto will be challenging.  Maybe it would be worth starting with a short 2 or 3 minute piece just to warm up.  I guess the reason why I wanted to do a piano concerto is that when I’m improvising at the piano I find similar motifs coming out and similar ideas and so those could be a good basis for something.

TT:  In terms of motivation for music, a lot of romantic era composers dedicated their music to their (potential) girlfriends. Have you ever written music dedicated to a special someone in your life?

DK:  (laughs) Not yet. We’ll see one day. I dedicated “Schrodinger’s Cat” to MITSO and Adam Boyles, but in a different way, obviously. But no less special.

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