Nick Kanozik is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and book artist, among other things. Born in Munich, Germany, he has lived in Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Kentucky and now California. He holds an MA in Music Composition from Mills College and a BM in Composition from the University of North Texas. He has performed in a variety of ensembles from symphony orchestras, Indonesian gamelans, marching bands, classical and new music chamber groups, jazz combos to electronic/dance collaborations. Additionally, he has performed in theatrical, improvisatory, and intermedia contexts for luminary artists such as David Bithell, Ikue Mori, and Pauline Oliveros. His compositions have been performed by the Eclipse string quartet, the UNT chamber orchestra, the Mills Contemporary Performance Ensemble, and Roscoe Mitchell’s Improvisation Workshop. He currently teaches piano, voice, and clarinet at two music studios in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to teaching he also gives workshops and guest lectures as a volunteer staff member in the Book Art Department at Mills College.
In this interview with editor Alvaro Morales, Nick talks about his experience with interactive art and audience participation, about the merits of traditional and non-traditional music notation and about book art and intermedia works. Also, some thoughts on being an educator and on documenting your work.
Alvaro Morales: Your work often has a theatrical component and/or involves interaction with your audience. What has been their reaction when confronted with work that demands their participation? Has it been what you expected?
Nick Kanozik: For interactive art, namely the sonic books I've created, I have found certain works to be more inviting to an audience than others. In general I feel the book as a form requires less explanation to navigate: we all are familiar with how a book functions. Art objects that fortify our natural inclinations of interaction require little to no explanation. By far the work that was most successful was a light sensitive synthesizer book that I designed. As one touches the pages of the book, the oscillators act immediately ... they squeal in sync with even the slightest touch. I've witnessed both children and adults access this particular object completely intuitively. With other works, for example a synth book in the same series with touch sensitive points, it became very clear that some guidance to activate the potential of the object was needed. It is clear to me that this objects mode of participation was too wide. On the other hand I also enjoy giving an audience a problem that needs to be solved.
I did have an audience participation component of a theatrical work that went slightly awry. During the work which included narration, theatrical conducting, and acoustic instruments, I had one of the actors pass out hand-made booklets during the show (an artistic interpretation of the audiences' after image). I made 60 of them but underestimated the amount of people attending the event. Many audience members had to make a split second choice on whether or not to take the object or continue passing them. Inadvertently this issue strengthened the overall reception of the work. The program notes for this work included "an abundance of nervous energy manifested in performance". I received more than a handful of comments afterward that the "pamphlet situation" was very nerve racking. Part of me felt bad about not making enough, but another part of me enjoyed the confusion that this brought about.
AM: What have you learned in your experience as a teacher? Has your work as an educator influenced your artistic production? If so, how?
NK: I have learned a great deal as an educator. Teaching is by far the best way to understand where ones ideas fit in a larger perspective. If I could sum up what I've learned I'd say teaching truly reveals the complexity of our minds, the surprisingly unique proclivities each of us carries, and the rate in which we can break or develop habits.
I teach piano predominantly; the content of these lessons does not directly inform my art. However in the coming year I plan to develop a color-coded piano pedagogy loosely based off a color-coded reinvention of Euclids’ Elements by Oliver Byrne entitled The Elements of Euclid In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are Used Instead of letters for the Greater Ease of Learners.
Color is one of my most important tools in my art, so too color is an important aspect in how I mark students' pieces in progress. I will highlight overlooked dynamics (hotter colors for louder dynamics and cooler colors for quieter dynamics), I will color code edits (each new edit in a different color provides a clear distinction for students in where to go next), I also use colors and shapes to assist students in memorization ... this experiment works surprising well. One student in particular was having difficultly memorizing a work for a recital; I had the student memorize a succession of colors and shapes that corresponded to the form of a work. It took her one week to accomplish the task that she had been trying to do for several weeks. These example are a just a few of many that I’d like to experiment with.
Going in the other direction, having my art influence the way I teach, I have used boxes to exemplify the relativity of dynamic range with clarinet students. I believe there to be a larger potential with this idea and hope to explore it more.
AM: In your work you have experimented a lot with expanding the limits of traditional western music notation. What do you think of the constraints and possibilities of this traditional system? Would you say it’s possible and/or desirable to rethink the way music is notated?
NK: As much as I lean toward more non-traditional notations, I am of the mind that they should be used only when traditional metric notation fails. This is an ideology I impart in my teaching as well; I am a proponent of the adage "you must know the rules before you can break them". As far as possibilities, traditional notation gives a composer's work a life of its own, you can send your work across the world and there will be far less, if any, issues in the works realization. In short, tradition facilitates accessibility. The more one deviates from tradition, the more difficult it is to communicate to performers. There is a huge gamut of constraints within metric notation. First and foremost tradition favors western tuning for western instruments. For composers that make their own instruments or, in my case, those that utilize found objects to conduct instrumentalists, a re-thinking of notation is a must. Another project of mine that requires flexible notations are three-dimensional scores. I like to share my scores with audience members in some form or fashion, so to me the visual aesthetic of a score is paramount.
It is both possible and desirable to rethink standard notations. As our sonic vocabulary increases so do the means by which we represent them on the page. Synthesized sounds and their respective scores are a prime example of this. One important thing to remember is that tradition evolves e.g. a Bartok pizzicato used to be an experimental notation and is now considered standard. The same could be said for other extended techniques and proportional notations.
AM: There is a strong visual component in your work. What sparked your interest in visual art, book art and intermedia works?
NK: Writing music has always been coupled with a visual component for me; my pre-composition process is filled with contour drawings, colors, and shapes.
My interest in visual art began as an undergrad. I was working in the library at the University of North Texas. A patron was looking over my shoulder at a doodle for a piece and exclaimed, "I want that". It was then that I realized that my precomposition materials could also be considered interesting, or even beautiful. After acquiring the tools and years of practice, I am now presenting my visual compositions as works in and of themselves. Some are sonic sketches, others more meticulously written works that I've performed.
I began working with book forms during my master's degree at Mills College. Book art was a very natural transition. Originally my intent was to learn skills to bind all of my sketches, a practical venture in organizing. I began improvising with book forms, binding techniques, and book alterations. I also conceptualized how a book functions through the eyes of a composer and musician. This led to the development of the workshop series "Sonically Minded Books" with the intent to promote sonic pairings within book art … there's a great deal of potential.
My interest in intermedia was sparked somewhere in between visual art and book art. I enjoy working in theatrical settings, with dancers, with tech gurus et al. These days I consider myself a sound artist with each medium is not necessarily consistent from work to work. Sound is always there for me: it was my first language.
AM: Your work is a very unique mix of disciplines and ideas, can you share with us who are some of the people whose work you look to for inspiration?
NK: A notable influence which addresses many of my interests stems from a preservation project at the University of North Texas. I preserved and created an index for published and unpublished materials for "Source Music of the Avant Garde". This was a seminal resource depicting the zeitgeist of the late sixties to the early seventies. It included experimental scores, theatrical works, performance art, and many other pieces that blur artistic boundaries. All were innovatively published across 11 issues. In particular I was drawn to the complex and obscure scores of Jerry Hunt, Max Neuhaus, Harold Budd, and Nelson Howe. In addition to these inspirations, my compositions have adapted theatrical and notational techniques used by Maricio Kagel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Bithell, and Christian Wolf. Other influences include Leonardo da Vinci, Alexandre Scriabin, and Baruch da Spinoza.
AM: Looking at the extremely thorough documentation that often accompanies your work, complete with comprehensive schematics, diagrams and meticulous definitions, there seems to be a scientific aspect in the way you present and approach your work. Where would you say this comes from? Is it a conscious effort to be thorough and methodical or is it the way you naturally approach your work?
NK: My obsession with documentation and specificity is natural; it's the way I function. I am positive that it comes from a combination of my father, a highly analytical chemical engineer, and my mother, a creative antique dealer and florist. I also believe anxiety plays a role with my compulsion to document. If I cannot look back at a performance or if I forgot to turn on a video camera for instance, it ruins my week. Anxiety is my greatest ally in making art: it provides a motivation that will never be satisfied.
I absolutely love massive amounts of information. If it’s presented in a graph or map or matrix, I'm in heaven. As far as a scientific approach, I read non-fiction exclusively and will often gravitate toward books about entomology, embryology, or other scientific texts that include charts attempting to classify nature.
To me documentation of a work is equally as important as the actual presentation of it. Especially in this era, if a work is not filmed, recorded, or accompanied with a physical document, the work can disappear as if it never happened. I once created a 20 foot by 15 foot yarn score for three bass players. The video was lost, the score was dictated and, POOF, the work is completely gone. The ability to document is a skill in and of itself and I have honed this ability along the way. Experimental sonic works in particular can be far too ephemeral for my liking.
AM: What topics are you interested in exploring in the future?
NK: My to do list in the next five years:
- Create a lexicon that describes my visual language
- Produce a color-coded teaching guide for piano students (as mentioned in a previous question)
- Further explore the psychological aspects of color in general
- Create a gigantic three-dimensional score that viewers could walk through
- Fully explore my shtick to conduct instrumentalists with boxes and jars (I would love to write this for an orchestra. Though I believe this to be highly impractical, I'll try it anyway)
- Write a book about book art
- Collaborate with a screenwriter to make a short film about an alchemist
If I had funding:
- Curate a sonic library museum in which artists can submit works for display
- To receive a masters in psychology with an emphasis in music therapy
- To collaborate with a geneticist ... I have an idea.