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FIVE MINUTES | On Cutting The Musical Path With Gary Kulesha

By Tyler Versluis on August 2, 2016

Gary Kulesha (Photo courtesy of the composer)
The creative process is not as uniform as you might think. Composition in the 21st-century is extremely eclectic, with composers writing concert music, electroacoustic music, film and television scores, video game soundtracks, and some even abandoning written notation for the recording studio or the improvisation scene. With this series, we push some of Toronto’s best composers to the centre stage and pry into their creative practice. This series of short interviews asks all composers the same three questions. (Photo: Christopher Wahl)

Born and living mostly in Toronto since 1954, Gary Kulesha can recall a time when Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and when condos didn’t blanch out most of the lakefront. As a composer, Kulesha’s music is distinguished by astringency and internal coherency, occasionally relenting to a primordial abstractness that punctuates several of his works (seek out Kulesha’s pulverising Concerto for Cello for an example of this). Kulesha answered my questions with his typical precision and candour. This is what he has to say…



Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello (1971) “I wrote this work when I was 16. It sat on a shelf for 20 years before being premiered, after which it became one of my most performed works. There are many things wrong with it, but I still believe it is a strong piece.”

Pro et Contra for Violin and Cello (1995)
“24 years after the Trio, I made my closest approach to traditional European modernism in this work. My flirtation with modernism culminated in my First Symphony in 1998 and Syllables of Unknown Meaning in 2000, after which my language took a different turn.”

From the Diary of Virginia Woolf for Soprano and Orchestra (2016)
“21 years after Pro et Contra, my language has evolved yet again in this newest work, which I completed literally one day before receiving the request to answer these questions. This is a new direction for me both
in language and in orchestration.”

#1. How do you write your music?

I always write with pencil on paper. I typically create a score template with Finale and print several empty pages. Then I write with a pencil. In 1985, I began working with a sequencer called Cakewalk, which has since evolved into Sonar. Once I complete a significant portion of work with pencil, I literally perform the work into Sonar, using sampled sounds in Kontakt 5. Once the work is complete, I transfer the MIDI file into Finale and refine the notation. I do not play back from Finale. I have composed only one piece directly into Finale, the scherzo to my oboe trio. I was travelling and had a deadline. I was not unhappy with the results, but that was due to the nature of music — the rhythmic staccato nature of the sounds was quite acceptable in Finale. I could not do that with most works.

I sketch by improvising at the piano. I do not notate anything until a substantial duration of the idea is clear to me, typically at least 30 seconds of music. Then I write spontaneously until that portion of the idea is exhausted, whereupon I quit and walk away. At some point during the composition of the work, typically about a quarter of the way through, I go back and analyse what I have written to make more systematic use of the materials later in the piece. Sometimes I have to revise a passage heavily, but typically I do not, as there is a serious danger of overworking the material, like a sculptor over-working clay, losing its elasticity. If the passage needs that much revising, it is probably not the right music.

I have dabbled in music technology my whole life. In the mid-80s, I used a DOS programme called Personal Composer, which had LISP interpreter. I learned rudimentary LISP and did some experimentation. I also used an excellent DOS programme called Sound Globs which created music through defined probability curves. I tried Ravel, MetaSynth on the Mac, and, most recently, have played around with the freeware version of MAX called Pd. So far, I have not found any way to apply any of these technologies to my actual creative work. I remain curious, though.

#2. When do you write your music?

There is no pattern. I do not write in the morning, as I am a night person, but other than that, I write whenever it strikes me. I do find I get into cycles, working in the late evening for a few weeks, then working during the afternoon for a few weeks. But I do not work daily. For me, the most important creative time is the time in between actual composition sessions. I need to think both consciously and unconsciously about the work. The difficulty at my stage is not creating music, it is creating the “right” music, and for that, I need separation from the actual act of composition. When the “correct” path appears to me, I know immediately and find time to compose.

I find that my other activities interfere terribly with writing. I need a clear period of several days to work, and cannot be creative working a few minutes after coming home from teaching or rehearsing. This is in contrast to my habits when I was younger when I could work anytime, anywhere.

#3. In classical music, there is the concept of a “canon” of music, which is used by classical music establishments to monitor repertoire and assign a qualitative value to works. How valuable is this “classical canon” to you as a contemporary composer? (Both the music forming the classical canon itself and the concept of a canon)

The traditional Western Art Music canon is very important to me, as it shaped me as an artist. It set standards for a particular form of musical expression which continues to matter to me. Pursuing the paradigms established by the canon is not the only way to make music. But they are the paradigms I choose to embrace. This is not to say that the canon of Western Art Music is the only body of music which I enjoy and which has impacted me. I have a great love of jazz and pop music, which I still listen to regularly, and which have deeply impacted my work. All of these musics are “valuable” to me as they create a syntax for listeners. A composer can choose “for” or “against” the expectations created by history, but the music they create will be understood against some kind of existing syntax. Orson Scott Card, the sci-fi writer, imagined a “music” which did not reference any kind of history, but this could exist only in a novella where the author did not actually have to create the sounds. (Unaccompanied Sonata, 1979 — it will be interesting to see what they do about the “music” in the upcoming film adaptation. I strongly suspect it will be bad electroacoustic music.)

As to the existence of the canon, while it seems to be growing less important for broad audiences, I believe it will always have a place. Because of this, I feel that, if any of my work has any actual value, it will make a contribution. Western Art Music exists, after all, to shine a light on the otherwise unknowable things in the human psyche. I am an artist because I am inexplicably but irresistibly drawn to do this.


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