S is for Steen (S part 1)

Ken Steen is one of the most fun people I have had the pleasure to know. I studied with him for two years at The Hartt School and they were some of the most inspirational and fun lessons I’ve ever had. Before I knew Ken I was a little intimidated by him. His pieces have some really scientific names and interest in natural phenomenon which, can seem really complex and daunting to a young composition student like myself. He’s incredibly tall and broad with a thick beard. I remember getting ready for my first lesson with him and being nervous as I knocked on the door. I don’t know what I was expecting but, Ken answered the door and said “Hellloooo” and I was instantly relieved to see how much a goofball he was (something I very much identify with).

His music is fantastic. He is a master of blending orchestral/instrumental sounds and electronics. I have always had issues with electronics in my own composition. I think this is due to the reductive nature of my writing process (using electronics always feel like adding more) but, Ken has always done a wonderful job blending the timbral sounds of both the acoustic and electronic worlds. The electronics always seem like an extension of the instruments themselves. The first piece of his I heard that really stuck me in terms of electronics was his piece Gravity Reconsidered (chamber version). The piece is essentially a piano concerto with different electronics/triggered sounds being processed from the piano itself. The clouds and fogs timbres the are created through the orchestra, the pianist, and the electronics creates a sense of floating more and more as the piece goes on.

Ken Steen’s music can also be absurd and full of humor. The best example of I can think of is his piece Drawn and Quartered. Drawn and Quartered was written for me to perform on my undergraduate recital. The piece is incredibly challenging and even utilizes rhythms that are simply impossible. The effect created is a performer who is extremely focuses and a little stressed. What makes this so funny is the piece is essentially an exactly notated set of instructions for pulling pasta out of a pot and breaking each strand into four pieces (thus the title). The piece is really fun to play and reminds me so much of not just Ken’s music but of Ken himself.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Continuous Cities

Drawn and Quartered 

Gravity Reconsidered 

Driving me Crazy