A conversation with composer Kurt Erickson: From Fresno State to national acclaim, a champion of art song
A few months ago, composer Kurt Erickson returned to the university that sent him out into the world. The Fresno State Art Song Festival — held in February this year as a digital event, thanks to the pandemic, but normally a robust in-person event organized by Fresno State music professor Maria Briggs — welcomed Erickson as its guest composer. It was a full circle, in a sense, considering how much time he’d spent in the music department as a student pursuing his craft.
Pictured above: Kurt Erickson with his wife, the noted singer Heidi Moss Erickson.
Pictured above: Kurt Erickson with his wife, the noted singer Heidi Moss Erickson.
I didn’t get a chance to write about Erickson during the festival itself, but I wanted to catch you up on his accomplishments. Here’s our conversation.
Q: Tell us about your career since you graduated from Fresno State.
A: These days I call the San Francisco Bay Area home, teaching at a small college in Sacramento and serving as composer-in-residence with San Francisco’s Lieder Alive! Over the course of my career I’ve served 12 years worth of multi-year composer residencies, writing commissioned works for orchestra, opera companies, choral groups, colleges and universities, dance companies, and of course singers and art song organizations.
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As a piano-obsessed undergraduate student at Cal State Fresno, I don’t think I could have imagined myself with a thriving career in the arts as a … composer! It wasn’t on my radar and it wasn’t anything I explicitly training for, yet I now see in retrospect that my disparate interests in performance, literature, poetry, the humanities in general, and psychology were the perfect breeding grounds for what would later develop into the life I now lead as a working composer.
Q: When did you graduate? Who were some of the professors who made an impact on you?
A: The instructors I worked with back in the early 1990’s were wonderful people possessing profound artistic insights. Pianist Philip Lorenz was a huge impact on my life; he was the model of an elite artist working on an international level. Choral Director Dr. Gary Unruh was an inspiring presence — the performances he would conjure from us in the collective magic of a live performance while on tour in carefully picked architectural spaces were profoundly impactful for a sheltered kid growing up in the Central Valley. Then of course Dr. Bruce Thornton in the Humanities and Comparative Literature side of the college – I was basically his undergraduate groupie, signing up for his classes without any concern towards degree advancement.
These faculty members were like minor gods to me, and I soaked up all I could from them. It’s very comforting and gives me great pride to see present day faculty members Ben Boone, Ken Froelich, and Maria Biggs inspiring the next generation of students.
Q: Your art song “Here, Bullet” won First Prize in the prestigious 2020 NATS Art Song Competition in 2020. The title and subject belies the image of an “art song” as something light and frilly. Can you talk about your song and how you came to write it?
A gritty and visceral art song: ‘Here, Bullet’
A: “Here, Bullet” is a collection of firsthand poetic accounts of the Iraq War written by internationally renowned poet and US Armed Services veteran Brian Turner, himself a former Fresno native (I didn’t know this when I started the project!). The poems are gritty, raw, visceral, and look unflinchingly at the horrors of war in the 21st Century. But there are also moments of tenderness, beauty, even gratitude which makes the reading even more powerful. I now count Brian as a friend and we have plans for future collaborations, including an opera. The days of writing frilly art songs are or should be long gone.
Q: What exactly is the definition of an art song?
A: I wish I knew!! There are dictionary definitions of course but art making is pretty fluid in the 21st Century and it’s healthy to look for new approaches to writing in pre-existing genres and forms. My working definition is this: a short 3-5 minute typically sung vocal work accompanied by a keyboard instrument where the composer attempts to amplify or comment on the text in subtle and unique ways that are separate from what you’d find in commercial music. That definition works well about 95% of the time, but it’s often the profoundly interesting exceptions that don’t fit this description but help propel the art form forward in new and exciting ways.
Q: What is the value of an event like the Fresno State Art Song Festival and how does it benefit the participants?
A: This festival is a treasure. It’s so rare to have an opportunity to spend an intense period of time working with nationally and internationally renowned faculty immersed in one specific genre of music. This kind of deep dive gives students and community members the kind of context you just don’t get elsewhere. To have this event here in Fresno is a real feather in the cap of the cultural life in the Central Valley.
A selection from Kurt Erickson’s song set ‘Four Andalusian Love Songs’
Q: You gave a lecture on “Writing for the Voice and a Life Working With Singers.” Can you give us one or two highlights?
A: I’ve had a number of truly unique experiences in the vocal world, from my ongoing multi year composer residency with San Francisco’s Lieder Alive! (I believe the only one of its kind in North America), to winning the recent NATS Art Song Competition, to my partnership with my wife, renowned singer/pedagogue/voice scientist Heidi Moss Erickson. It’s probably impossible to convey how surreal it feels when you are minding your own business in your kitchen and suddenly hear your music being sung in a Zoom lesson by a singer in New York or Peru that your wife is teaching upstairs. There’s no script for this sort of thing.
To have personal and professional relationships with singers at the highest level of their career on a daily basis is a rare and beautiful thing.
Q: You helped judge the composition competition applicants. What were you looking for in the entries?
A: Judging competitions is always such a difficult proposition. When introduced to works for the first time I’m drawing from my experiences as a composer, a pianist, a poetry and literature fan, and as an audience member. I’m looking for answers to the questions: “Does this piece ‘work’ as a musical composition? Is this piece an effective merging of the poetry and music? Is the vocal line effectively and expressively written with the text? Is the piano part effectively and expressively written to both support the singer as well as the artistic intentions of the poetry?”
Art songs are like mini-opera scenes: they require a subtle balance between story, text, and music. When done right, the overall effect can be enormous.
Q: Fill in the blank: “Mom and Dad, I want to be an art-song composer when I grow up, and I can assure you that ______________________”
A: What a scary thought!!
I’m going to cheat a little and reframe this statement:
“Mom and Dad, I want to be a musician when I grow up and I realize this will entail a lot of hard work and delayed gratification. I’m going to work like crazy and I know that I’ll have to be creative both as I hone my craft and as I create and seek out income opportunities. I understand that I’ll have less financial security than my peers and I realize that in all likelihood I’ll be working a multiplicity of different jobs (many as an independent contractor) to approximate full-time income that most people earn in one job. I’m OK with this — it’s what I want to do with my life and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I really love art song, but I’ll keep an open mind as my career and interests develop”.
I wish I could say I possessed this level-headed approach when I was starting out, but I’m sure I didn’t. Composers, like entrepreneurs, need a little useful delusion to propel them forward in the face of great obstacles. Nevertheless, statements like this need to be acknowledged and articulated by anyone looking to pursue a career in the arts.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: Dr. Maria Biggs talked about creating a cultural environment in Fresno where students and young people don’t have to leave to experience great art. I love this approach. Cultural events like this take us one step closer to this reality.