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with Giuseppe Gavazza

I recently discovered Klimchak because a friend of mine wrote to me: "It would be nice if you had a dialogue with him: he is a legend here in Atlanta.”

So I embarked on the discovery of this true legend. Klimchak is a musician, a performer, a percussionist, an instrument designer/builder/player, a singer, a composer, a virtuoso, an improviser. He uses a multitude of acoustic and electronic instruments, fills the stage with this terrific orchestra that he can play alone, fills the space with an overwhelming presence and saturates the theatre with a cosmos of sounds.

I think his performances should be experienced live. This has never happened to me, but I try to imagine after watching and listening to the different videos I found on the net, and I sincerely hope to have the chance to be present at one of his performances soon. Especially in this mad period when it is proving that live music can only live when is played live.  


Now, Klimchak, I have seven questions for you.


Klimchak photo: Stungun Photography

GG: What is it about music that makes it your chosen art form?


K: I've been playing music since I was 6 years old. I come from a family of percussionists. My father played drums. His father played drums. So it was natural for me to become a drummer as well. I did quit music for a while to go to college. I planned to go to law school but music pulled me back from the brink. And honestly, music is the only thing that lights up sparks in my brain. I have to be very careful not to think about music before going to sleep, or I'll be up and in the studio playing for the next 8 hours. And there's a reason they call it play. . . . Also, music gives me the chance to work with more other artists than any other discipline. I've composed for flaming sculptures, poems about turkey buzzards, and dances about the arctic ice pack. In addition, I've composed for almost all of the works of Shakespeare and numerous films and videos. And that doesn't include working with musicians as disparate as RuPaul and Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra.

GG.This is true: music offers the possibility to share; it is really a participatory activity. Personally, I am more oriented towards speculation about music: I didn't get to music as a child; there were no musicians in the family. I am fascinated by sounds and I like to think about the creative and shared use of the means of expression, starting from the sound here. I perceive music more as an intimate, internal gesture. Indeed I am a part-time performer. I don't like to repeat myself: even though I know that even for music that is completely written every time is different, I wouldn't find it challenging to perform and repeat a completely written page. 

Klimchak performing in the Homegrown Artists Series at the Rialto Center for the Arts, Atlanta, , July 2020

GG: About improvisation. I know that improvisation is truly important to you; assuming a totally free improvisation as 99% and a perfect computer-like performance of a score as 1%, where and how wide is the range in which you feel able to move?


K: Most of my work, both composed and improvised, is written to be performed by me, as a soloist or as part of a group of musicians. So I have to divide this question into two parts, solo and group, each of which has a separate level of improv tolerance/preference. When I play solo, I like to have a score roadmap of some sort. It might be a simple set of instructions for when to play specific instruments and the mood I want to set with each. Or it might be a written score that forms the basis of the performance. But in the performance I allow myself to wander off that roadmap to take in alternate routes and examine alternative musical scenery if I want to. Some of my choices might be because of feedback I'm feeling from the audience. Some might be because I've made a discovery about the composition during the performance. And some might just be whimsy or mood. In any case, I would say that the range for a live solo performance is somewhere between 25% and 75% between computer perfect and free improvisation. There's always a path at the beginning, but I plan in advance to wander off a bit, and in some cases just abandon the path partway through.

When I perform my music as part of a group, the range is significantly slanted toward the 99% free improvisation end. For me, group play is almost always about improvisation. I rarely write complete pieces for a group, but love to do improv within a group. I think of my group work as akin to a conversation. We are listening and talking to each other, learning each other's current moods, our musical histories, our likes and dislikes, and our fluencies on our respective instruments. There may be questions and replies. There may be over-talking, where we're ALL playing at once but still listening to each other. There is both an exploration of the existing subject matter as well as the addition of new material and stories that we can explore together. All of this is designed to propel the conversation forwards, so that it won't become stale for either the performers or the audience. 

GG:I like thinking of a group musical improvisation as being like a conversation, although with at least one difference: a conversation is not really polyphonic; everyone has to be silent to listen to the other, one has to (should) speak one at a time. Otherwise, the conductor has to disconnect the microphone ...  

Klimchak, Pandora’s Checklist, 2019

GG: About compositions. Composing, writing a score, is a totally different act from performing. Sitting at our desks alone, only consuming our time, is very different from being on a stage in front of an audience that we ask to give us their time.  Does composition make it possible to create pieces that could not be improvised? And vice versa?


K: Composition for me usually involves a level of improvisation at the beginning. I seldom sit with a sheet of paper or a computer and just write. I tend to pick up an instrument (or ten) and play with it to find some material that I want to explore. Then I take that to the paper or laptop and begin the actual process of composing. But during the entire composing process, I keep returning to the instruments to write variations and expand with new material. So for me, improv is baked into the compositional process. And we're not talking about playing a few riffs here. I spend many, many hours, playing as part of every composition that I do. So, in that sense, the improvisation is baked into the composition. That's one of the major reasons that I find it so easy to wander off the score in performance. I have the muscle and brain memory of a huge backlog of rejected material for each piece that can be re-inserted into a performance if I want. Having said all that, I do find that when I compose for film, the composition is fixed due to the time and emotional content that the composition has to give to the film. It's the one area where my goal is an absolutely fixed performance/recording. I suppose that I COULD do a live performance of film music where I improvised around my themes. It's not like my compositional process is different than I outlined about. But the process is so constrained and oriented towards exactness in time and space that I've never done so, and I'm not sure I'd want to in any case.  

GG:I had an academic training: harmony, counterpoint, fugue, instrumentation, orchestration. I am used to composing in silence, imagining sounds, inventing relationships between them even passing through mental exercises that organize forms, structures, patterns (which are often interesting for the composer but not for the listener). Composing, in the sense of conceiving, imagining, designing a sound event is perhaps the best way I know to enjoy time. There is an interesting music for those who compose it, an interesting one for those who play it, an interesting one for those who listen to it. Improvising is perhaps the best compromise for all three.

Klimchak, Kalimba in the Garden, 2020

GG: About live and studio recorded performances. Live performances are nourished by audience feedback: this audience’s breath is not there when recording in a studio. How do you compensate for this absence? Do you think that when we listen to a recording we can feel/listen the difference between these two contexts?


K: I've struggled mightily with this question over most of my career. My whole artistic output is oriented towards live performance. Most of my music is composed for live performance. Almost all of my recorded output is from live performances. I just hate sitting in a studio recording music that is written just for the recording. As a result, I don't do it much. Live recordings are the only ones that have the right feel for me. And yes, I can tell the energy difference between a live and a studio recording, at least for myself. I know that it would be very beneficial to my career if I did more material written for studio recording. Most composers do this... But I have a very hard time doing it. I can do recorded music for other disciplines, mostly for dance and film. But those are both special cases, where the music will accompany a visual that I can watch on a screen while I compose. That to me makes them a performance to a video. So once again, not just me in the recording studio.

GG : Let me return to the previous theme: when composing electronic music, you work directly on sound, you listen in real time to what you are creating. It is profoundly different from writing music for instruments. And it is also different to perform. Maybe it's like writing words: I write a novel that someone will read later. And I can go back to editing letter by letter until I think it's finished. 

Klimchak, practice Jaltarang,theremin, and throat singing, 2019

GG: About collaboration with other musicians. Music is a participatory act. How different is it to play alone or in a group? When playing in a group do you prefer to feel like a leader or a follower? Or do you love to alternate roles?


K: When playing in a group, one has to pay attention to the group dynamic and be aware of the strengths and limitations of each performer. As I said, I think of group work as a dialog or conversation. You and I are having a conversation here. And we're having it in English because I don't speak Italian. So we've settled on a common language. And playing music in a group works the same way.


But playing alone has no real limits. There's no danger that I will become incomprehensible to myself or forget my own limits on a particular instruments. At the same time, there's much less of a chance of a big surprise in a solo situation since all of the source material comes from me. But playing together, you could surprise me with an Italian idiomatic phrase that doesn't exist in English, which I'd have to adjust to, which might cause you to have to adjust to my response and so on down the line.


As for leading or following, it makes no real difference to me, because, it's always a group of equals performing together.

GG: You wrote: “There's no danger that I will become incomprehensible to myself or forget my own limits.” Lucky you!! This sometimes happens to me … 

Klimchak, Shoe gaze theremin, 2019

GG: About collaboration with other artists. How does working with other arts, such as dance or theatre, change your approach to musical performance?


K: Collaboration in a cross-disciplinary manner, really changes the rules of musical performance, as well as the composition that precedes it.  


For a start, there is a often a disciplinary language barrier. My collaborators don't know as much about music as I do and I don't know as much about their discipline as they do. Each new project entails a different way of working. I usually start on the firm ground of emotional content. “What does this scene mean to you?” or “What do you want the audience to feel here?” Similar questions will allow us to build a vocabulary that we can use to work towards the performance.


I once did a full-length dance piece where we communicated entirely in colors. “This section feels more red to me.” Seems really strange now, but at the time, that was the only way we found common ground. Our musical and dance languages never converged, but colors seemed to do the trick.

GG: Sometimes, I did a sort of underscore for some old, silent, slow and non-narrative films: in this case, I improvised by merging a palette of audio files with some non-intrusive live intervention.  

Klimchak at the In-Between Series (16 April 2018, Gallery at Avalon Island)

GG: Performing is an essential part of what music means to you. But now, with Covid, there is virtually no live performance in American. How are you adjusting to that?


K: Lack of performing has really hit me hard. I had booked a five-week tour across the US in April, which had to be cancelled. I haven't played a public live show in many months. Recently, I have been making video performances. Video performance does have many of the same qualities as other live performance.  There is the feel of the improvised performance, of walking the tightrope with no net, of coming up with new ideas, in the middle of the show, and following them to a new strange place, all in front of an internet audience.

GG: The current situation imposes new ways of making music. It is a stimulating challenge that will add something, but I hope we will soon return to the reality of live performances. 


Klimchak is a composer known for his use of electronics & homebuilt instruments. His work has been seen in dance, theater and solo performances around the world.

In 2011, he was given a grant by Idea Capital to make a series of compositions for home-built percussion instruments with lights incorporated in them. They were performed in 2012/2013 as flash percussion performances, titled Klimchak’s Lebeato Lounge. In March, 2015, Klimchak premiered his solo show, CooksNotes, in which he makes music on kitchen implements while cooking dinner for the audience.

Klimchak regularly improvises solo shows in which he plays compositions on a about dozen different instruments. Favorite performances this year include Safety Harbor Art and Music Center in Florida, the Free World Festival in New Jersey, the Rialto Theater in Georgia, the Far Out Nashville Festival in Tennessee, the SoundWave Festival in California, and a special Halloween Show for the Festival of Ghouls in Tennessee. Featured instruments include Theremin, Tuvan throat singing, homebuilt percussion instruments, flutes, toy piano, synthesizers and a variety of bells, chimes, bowls and whatnot suspended in water.


Klimchak lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


Giuseppe Gavazza, laureate of the University of Turin, studied Composition, Direction, Piano, Musicology and Electronic Music  and graduated from  the Conservatory of Milan. He has collaborated for many years with European research centres; since 1999 he is resident composer at the ACROE-ICA Polytechnique Grenoble. In 2018 he obtained a PhD on  the subject: Physical modelling as a tool for musical composition. Gavazza teaches Composition at the Conservatory of Music in Cuneo and permanent researcher at AAU Cresson Grenoble. His compositions have successfully participated in international composition competitions, are published by international publishers, recorded on CDs and broadcast on international radio broadcasts.

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