Thanks to acclaimed composer and musician Kenji Bunch, who spoke to David Gold’s 20th Century Music History class on Wednesday, January 6 via Zoom.
Hailed as “one of America’s most engaging, influential, and prolific composers,” Kenji Bunch’s work for chamber ensembles, orchestra, and ballet often incorporates elements of hip hop, jazz, bluegrass and funk. More than 60 American orchestras have performed Bunch’s music, and his film credits include The Bellman Equationand The Argentum Prophecies. Since 2014, he has served as Artistic Director of Fear No Music, and he teaches viola, composition and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and the Portland Youth Philharmonic.
As part of his discussion with students, Bunch said he began playing violin and piano when he was 5 before “getting fired” by his violin teacher when he was 12. “That was humbling,” he said. “I wanted to get into the youth orchestra in town and the conductor told me, ‘we don’t need any violins, but if you switch to viola we can use you immediately.’”
After switching to viola, Bunch said “something clicked,” and when he was in high school his love of music grew. He received conservatory training at The Juilliard School in New York City, where he began his career. He recalled some of his early compositions including a commission to write a piece entitled “Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra.” “That got my name out there and I was super fortunate that things snowballed from there for me both as a violist and composer,” he said.
In a Q&A with students, Bunch cited Bartok as his primary musical influence. “He was always a big hero for me,” said Bunch. “As I got older, I began to realize how he influenced my approach to what I do. His focus on musicology and elevating folk music into concert music has always stayed with me. In my own work, I’ll take the music that I hear around me now and work that into my concert music.”
Bunch said that he was also influenced by composer Morton Feldman, and he was fortunate to premiere Feldman’s epic six-hour String Quartet no. 2 as a founding member of the Flux Quartet. “The piece was ridiculously long, but it kind of changed my life in certain ways and opened my mind,” he said. “It really centers you and becomes meditative. It changed my perspective on listening.”
Bunch played the students one of his own compositions, “Boiling Point,” which was influenced by Feldman’s repeating cell style and also incorporates rock elements into the context of classical music.
He answered questions about what it’s like to be a composer during the pandemic, how he manages his time, and whether he’s ever doubted himself as a composer. “Doubt never really goes away,” he said. “You have to realize that this career is not a steady climb; it’s extremely up and down. Recognizing and weathering those down moments is what will make you successful.”
He also reflected on whether it’s important to have an identifiable sound or style as a composer. “Sometimes, I think too much emphasis is placed on having your music have a certain sound — like a brand,” he said. “What I’m interested in is telling stories and finding the best and most authentic way of telling that story.”