When Eugene Ballet premieres its new full-length interpretation of “The Snow Queen” at the Hult Center next spring, its dancers will perform to all-new music by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.
That’s a giant leap forward, both for the ballet – which has never before commissioned a full-length musical score – and for Bunch, who has never before composed such a long piece of music.
“I have never done a full-fledged, evening-length orchestral ballet score,” he said in a recent visit to his home studio. “That is definitely a bucket-list item for a composer.”
Bunch, 43, grew up in Portland, where he played viola for five years in the Portland Youth Symphony and attended Wilson High School. From there he went to the Juilliard School in New York, where he majored in viola and composition. He stayed on in New York for two decades after graduation, performing and teaching and working as a composer, steadily making himself a name in the classical music world.
It was while Bunch was at Juilliard that he became friends with Brian McWhorter, a high-energy trumpet player who was also studying composition there.
“We were both students at Juilliard and we shared an interest in breaking out of the conventional composer/performer dynamic,” says McWhorter. “We were both composers and performers – and we were enamored with bringing some semblance of improvisation to classical music. I think that shared interest naturally brought us together, and we explored a lot of music from the experimental art music scene.”
A Kenji Bunch sampler on YouTube
McWhorter, who is now a professor of trumpet at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, is also co-founder and conductor of Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra that has played for Eugene Ballet performances since 2012. And it was McWhorter who suggested to EBC artistic director Toni Pimble that Bunch would be a great choice to compose the “Snow Queen” score.
“Kenji has a playful sensibility with his music that I enjoy a lot,” McWhorter says. “And I’m not alone. His music is very colorful, rhythmic, and he finds creative ways to set moods that are perfect for a narrative. He seemed a perfect fit for this project and I knew that Toni would like what he came up with.”
While students in New York, the two musicians began performing around the city, sometimes doing work so aggressively experimental that they left their audiences behind. This bland 1999 review from the Village Voice was about their performance as part of the Non-Sequitur Festival there:
Kenji Bunch and Brian McWhorter showed found film footage of a ’50s-era man dressed in an apron and making eggnog, while playing a desultory modal improv on viola, trumpet, and electronics that didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything.
These days, Bunch’s reviews are more enthusiastic. The New York Times has called him “a composer to watch,” and Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, included Bunch’s 2006 chamber opera “Confessions of the Woman in the Dunes” in his list of significant contemporary works in his book “The Rest is Noise.”
In a world that is largely hostile or indifferent to contemporary orchestral music, Bunch has managed to woo audiences without pandering. His work is richly complex without being off-putting. He works with pop influences without making his work sound cheap and easy.
Bunch likes to cook, and when we first began discussing “The Snow Queen” he immediately brought up food as a metaphor for his music.
“I think a lot about food,” he said. “I like to cook, and I like eating and just thinking about food. And I see a lot of parallels with cooking. I get my best ideas in the kitchen.”
Much of his music, he said, is like new American cuisine.
“Chefs with classical training apply those techniques to regional dishes – and comfort food dishes – and revitalize it with their own unique approach,” he said. “I am drawn to the music of my surroundings. I listen to a lot of popular American music. Folk music. I like to play fiddle. I have written a lot of things with inspiration from fiddle and folk music.”
Except for this: None of that is happening in his score for “Snow Queen.”
“In this case, that didn’t seem to fit the project,” he said. “‘The Snow Queen’ is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, and is set in a time and place that, while somewhat vague, is clearly far removed from present day America. I wanted to capture an Old World aesthetic that both supported the story and honored the long tradition of evening-length orchestral narrative ballet scores, so my influences here are closer to Prokofiev and Stravinsky than American folk or jazz idioms. I’ve spent most of my life performing and listening to this music, so it feels very comfortable to find a personal vocabulary in that tradition.”
The Snow Queen project is a challenge even for an accomplished composer. Turning out two hours of fresh, inspired music takes a lot of work.
“It’s just a ton of music,” he said. “It’s about two hours of orchestral music. The longest thing I’ve written up until now – my third symphony – is just about 35 minutes. And writing fast music is incredibly hard.”
Bunch works when he can, fitting in composition time around his jobs teaching viola and composition and being the parent of two girls.
One of his favorite times to compose music is in the early morning.
As early as 5 a.m. some days, Bunch heads with his dog Coffee, a sweet-natured rescued pit bull, to a small but tidy studio – it measures just eight by 12 feet – that he constructed just outside the family home, which sits in a beautiful forested section of southeast Portland near Tryon State Natural Area. On the back wall hangs a series of stringed instruments: a violin, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin, a five-string banjo, a Fender electric guitar, a ukelele.
“Once in a while I’ll grab one of those and use it in a recording,” he said. Like most composers these days, he does the bulk of his work on a computer, which can, at the press of a button, kick out a MIDI-controlled performance of his complex score. This is both good news and bad news: The composer gets to hear the music played without hiring dozens of musicians, but the MIDI instruments are so electronic sounding that you really can’t tell a violin from a flute, and Bunch apologizes before letting me hear a passage of his new “Snow Queen” score.
And for good reason. For my unpracticed ear, the music – while certainly interesting and moving – was a bit lost in the artificial sound quality of the MIDI performance. It’s like someone is playing the parts using random stops on a cheap electric organ.
Bunch’s deadline for the completed score is the end of this year. At that point, McWhorter’s Orchestra Next plans to play and record the entire two-hour composition; Pimble will use that recording as she begins to work with her dancers on the choreography.
There’s a lot riding on Bunch here. The ballet has had one previous bad experience with a commissioned work, whose composer didn’t deliver on time. Bunch, though, looks perfectly confident he can finish the new “Show Queen” on time for Pimble and her dancers to create a new ballet.
“I am closing in on the end of the first of two acts,” he said. “It started really slow, but the further I get into it, the more momentum there is.”
This is the third story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble, and Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson.
“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.
See more at EugeneBallet.com.