Musically At Home in the Land of Fountains and BBQ

Wow – I’ve hiked Arches, I’ve been hit by an 18-wheeler in Atoka, Oklahoma, I’ve ordered a steak in Lincoln, Nebraska, I’ve been photographed in a cowboy hat in the Badlands, I’ve scoured the Little Bighorn battlefield, and the Memphis pyramid and St. Louis arch are overly familiar landmarks for me, but somehow in all my travels across this country I seem to have missed Kansas City – postminimalism capitol of the world – until this week. I was down there lecturing at the conservatory at UMKC (Mikel Rouse, alumnus) and hearing the newEar ensemble play my Chicago Spiral, and most of all scoping out the place with my co-director David McIntire for next year’s minimalism conference. What a clean, affluent looking city! Fountain city of America, boasting more big fountains than any world city beside Rome, and they were everywhere. I had no idea there was an art museum as impressive as the Kemper between Philadelphia and California south of Chicago. But what excited me most was the enthusiasm for minimalism and its offshoots at UMKC, and the expert grad-student/faculty crew David has assembled to get things rolling.

We’ve got grad student Jedd Schneider, singer and musicologist, who’s written an analytical paper on M.C. Maguire’s A Short History of Lounge, and whose contribution to the conference will be a paper on the operas of Michael Gordon. We’ve got Scott Unrein, the Harold Budd of the midwest, who keeps coming up with minimalist CDs I didn’t know existed. We’ve got pianist Andy Lee, who’s playing music by Bill Duckworth. We’ve got musicologist Andrew Granade, who’s writing a book on how Harry Partch’s hobo years, and the image of the hobo in American culture, influenced Partch’s music. Most amazing of all, the UMKC conservatory has a brand-new dean, conductor Peter Witte (only three weeks on the job), who reads my blog (hi, Peter!) and who knew about this conference even before he applied for the job, and who’s fully committed to it. What a cast. And David and I are such Virgil Thomson freaks (he’s promised to show me the great man’s grave an hour north of KC) that we joked all week about how we were going to slip a panel about Virgil onto the program.

I also met amazing electronic composer/motorcycle enthusiast Paul Rudy, whom students had raved about to me, and who shares my penchant for native American spirituality. Paul makes incredibly beautiful music from musical tones and environmental sounds of widely varying recognizability, and I’ve uploaded his CD-length work In lake’ch* (Mayan for “I am another yourself”) to PostClassic Radio. Paul and I devoutly agreed that there’s no line between art and entertainment, and that all good art is entertaining – though he holds the theory, which impressed me, that art = entertainment + ambiguity; in other words, if it’s completely unambiguous, it’s merely entertainment, but the more ambiguity you add in, the more the listener has to mentally participate to parse what’s going on, the more it becomes art. I like it. 

And so now I’m so charged up that it kills me that the conference is still a year away. We’re featuring Charlemagne Palestine, Tom Johnson, my old friend Robert Carl (keynote speaker, having freshly completed a book on In C), and Mikel Rouse. I spend a lot of time feeling like my view of music is a minority within a minority within a minority, but some of my gigs out there in the heartland lately have made me think that, actually, much of America and I are right in sync, and it’s only the dying Northeast that’s nostalgically gazing into the past. We talked a lot all week about how, if you’re a composer who made out like a bandit in the world of orchestral modernism, then of course you cling to modernism with all your might. But if you didn’t really make it in that world – and a lot of those composers ended up out west in KC and other less visible places – you just shrug, move on, and stay abreast of the times. As Paul Rudy said, “We’re going through a big paradigm shift, and I want to be on the front end of that shift, not the back end.” Amen to that. Still, also at UMKC are orchestral star Chen Yi and high-tech composer Jim Mobberley, whom David credits with for department’s incredibly open-minded aesthetic attitudes. There was also independent KC composer Brad Fowler (hi Brad!), whose music I haven’t heard yet, but look forward to. Suffice it to say that for a few days I was surrounded by simpatico aesthetic allies, a situation I could never get here in the Hudson Valley. I felt more at home than I have in years. This minimalism conference is going to be an incredible trip.

*By the way, I’ve also been adding other new music to PostClassic Radio lately by Joseph Pehrson, Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble, Rodney Sharman, Carl Stone, the Rara Avis Duo, Mark Hagerty, Guy Klucevsek, Cynthia Folio, James Tenney, and Bernard Gann. If you haven’t listened lately, lots o’ new content.


  1. says

    I believe it is actually Paris (not Rome) that is said to have more fountains than KC. In fact, it used to be known as “the Paris of the Midwest.”
    Thanks for giving this city such a nice plug!
    KG replies: Wikipedia says that KC is called “the Paris of the Plains,” but that Rome has more fountains:
    Of course, Wikipedia is often wrong. This is more official:–discoveries/kc-fountains/index.aspx

  2. says

    Another great composer in Kansas City is Brad Cox. His style is an eclectic mix of world, jazz, and zaniness. He and his wife, dancer and choreographer Jennifer Owens, have formed a contemporary music and dance company that utilizes a mix of highly talented Kansas City musicians, notably Nathan Granner, Beau Bledsoe, Lidia Kaminska, Sam Wisman, Jeff Harshbarger, and Krystle Warren.
    Next time you are in the area, you should try to attend a performance. It is sublime.

  3. Carl Stone says

    I am grateful to any who mentions me and BBQ in the same column.
    KG replies: Any time. Man, have we got a conference for you!

  4. Robert E. Harris says

    I’m glad you liked KC. It is a wonderful town. We are not into contemporary music in a big way, but we hear a bit from time to time. I look forward to hearing some of the contemporary ensembles play.
    The Kemper Museum also has convenient parking and the best restrooms in town. The Nelson-Atkins is a good traditional art museum with a nice collection. The KC Symphony is one of those under-rated ensembles that this country is full of, and they do play a bit on new music now and then. The Conservatory produces one or two operas a year, usually with intelligent staging and direction. (The KC Lyric Opera does four per year. We’ll see what they have done with La Boheme in a few days.)
    The baseball and football teams are not very good, though.
    We drive the 125 miles from Columbia to KC many times a year for music and museums (and barbecue!)
    KC is one of the reasons we don’t follow our daughter’s plea, “Mom and Dad, sell your house and move to Albuquerque. I can buy you a house.”