Name: Kyle Bruckmann
Occupation: Composer, oboist
Current release: Kyle Bruckmann's Mesmerics/Hindsight is out via Infrequent Seams.
Recommendations: I don’t know how to make recommendations out of context. What do you already like? What do you need? What are you working on that could potentially benefit from some tangential connections? So I’ll hedge, and answer by scraping off the top of my head several things I’ve found particularly useful over the past interminable year: The nonfiction of Yiyun Li. Another Timbre’s releases of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. Oranssi Pazuzu. The speculative short fiction of Debbie Urbanski. The early recordings of Esplendor Geometrico. The essays of Brian Doyle. Jeremiah Cymerman’s 5049 podcast. Everything Wet Ink Ensemble or Yarn/Wire touches. Walks to our neighborhood farmers’ market. Turning off my phone.
If you enjoyed this interview with Kyle Bruckmann and would like to stay up to date on new releases and tour dates, visit his official homepage. He is also on Facebook, and twitter.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it?
My oboe is the bamboo staff with which the fabled Zen master whacks an earnest young monk upside the head. (I’m the monk, not the master.) Analog synthesis is what I use as an antidote. It lends itself more readily to experimentation, as empiricism and as play, shoving to the foreground imperfectability, impermanence, contingency …
Finding the joy in inhabiting chaotic systems helps me contend better with their inevitability. Thankfully, this feedback-loops around and recalibrates my relationship with the oboe.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
In high school, I was a band geek trying to figure out how to essentially be Minor Threat and Depeche Mode at the same time. What made the results even remotely charming (to the degree they were) was that my friends and I neither had quite the right tools nor knew what the heck we were doing. (I cringe now at much of what we made, and I’m incredibly proud that we made it.) In college, I started fetishizing that process – attempting improbable collisions and intentionally using the wrong tools for the job – which remains a core shtick for me to this day.
But at the time, thanks to the damage I internalized from my simultaneous classical training, I never saw any of that as truly counting as ‘composition’ – I thought I was screwing around, making noise, at best ‘writing songs.’ Only a few years into my post-graduate life in Chicago, mostly through immersion in the free improv scene and belated study of the AACM, did I finally start to catch on that the principled and diligent application of creative agency could take many forms, fully legitimate on their own terms, that weren’t necessarily beholden to Eurocentric ideals of through-composed notation and abusive hierarchical structures. It was only with the founding of Wrack in around 2002 that I dared to start even conceiving of myself as a ‘composer.’
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am still unapologetically emulating others. ‘My voice’ is a tool for remaining in constant conversation with other voices, and only worth bandying about in public insofar as it engages other voices, communities, stories, scenes, lineages, traditions. That engagement can involve evoking, honoring, amplifying, questioning, countering, juxtaposing, re-contextualizing …
Since I see that process-based interactivity as the heart of the matter – the real compositional material I’m manipulating – I’m less worried than some might feel I should be if sonic elements in any given project sound superficially too much like Feldman, or Dolphy, or Tenney, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or Ike Yard, etc. etc.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Demographically, I’m about as dominant paradigm as we get in the U.S. So I wouldn’t consider foregrounding my personal narrative to be remotely interesting or particularly ethical.
But inevitably, my experiences are the lens through which I refract that cultural conversation alluded to above. A dimension that seems to keep cropping up – and that I ran with a bit more than usual in Mesmerics / Hindsight – is the intersection of aesthetic subculture and adolescent identity formation. Fixating on this now is probably affected by quarantine, and is definitely affected by my turning 50 as my daughter turns 13.
I dig into this sub-theme in the album’s liner notes, but I’ll add here that I’m flirting with the treachery of nostalgia. I’m chasing half-heard, mis-remembered sounds – idealized impossibilities from eras that immediately precede both when I was born (’71) and when I cleared puberty, discovered college radio, and planted my freak flag accordingly (’83-‘84).
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Other than under-valuing (and over-GenXing) my work as I described above, I think my earliest challenges were less about creativity than a matter of non-existent business savvy. I’m extremely grateful for the what-the-heck, nothing-to-lose free play of my first several years out of school. But every once in a while I can’t help but wonder what might have been gained from trying fewer things and drilling down further into any of them. What if Lozenge had toured three times as much? What if I’d gotten a PhD? What if I’d figured out the nonprofit game 15 years sooner? What if I’d moved to NY or Berlin instead? What if I’d met Claire Chase when we were apparently both teaching music lessons at the same suburban Chicago church?
Honestly, the challenges now are still much the same: balance, perspective, prioritization and self-care. I’m astounded by the variety and depth of all I get to do, and the cast of brilliant artists I can call friends and with whom I’ve achieved mutual respect. But at this juncture in my life, in order to pursue any one thing more consistently, to a deeper artistic level and a higher profile, I’d have to say no to three others. I thought I’d learned that lesson from COVID, but I apparently have more work to do to manifest it.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
In terms of form and pacing, I suppose I’m stuck on the conventions of the templates I grew up with – the LP side, the 2-3 band rock bill, the recital half, the CD track sequence. But when I think about it in terms of (here we go again) the social dimension, composing is stepping outside of time in order to manipulate another person’s experience of its passage. There’s a rather shocking arrogance in assuming a fellow human will consent to that manipulation (particularly in the context of all the violence Neoliberal Zombie Capitalism does to shatter our attention spans, accelerate our sense of precarity and enforce eternal urgency). If you don’t ‘get’ a painting, you can simply walk away. When it comes to music, particularly in old-school classical modalities, you’re trapped in your uncomfortable seat until those in charge deign to release you.
So this is a responsibility I take very seriously, and my only answer is to keep it firmly in mind and work with as much humility and integrity as I can muster. And while this is a theoretical stance that I fully realize requires tremendous privilege to assert, I do see a core purpose of music-making to be the conscious act of defiantly, joyfully sharing time that is wholly unproductive in the beady, blood-red eyes of The Market.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Collaboration is extremely important to me. I snuck up on composing with the mindset of a performer, and via improvisation; I compose in order to have interesting means of playing together with my friends.
Which, admittedly, makes this occasion particularly weird: releasing a double album of heavily edited solo electronics. But one of the key reasons I made it was to meditate on the various isolations the last year and a half have entailed.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
For several years pre-COVID, the rickety balancing act of my work/life was skewed heavily towards the role of the performer: around 3-5 performances a week, constantly shifting schedules, scrambling from rehearsal to lesson to gig and back, and getting home around midnight most nights. Any desperate semblance of routine focused on maintaining the baseline chops and reed-making required of a viable oboist.
Right now, my role as an educator is running the show – I’m teaching oboe students at five Northern CA colleges, and holding down the rough equivalent of a full-time lectureship at one of them. Five days a week, I get up at 6:00, make breakfast for my family, drop my daughter off at school, sit on my butt in the car for an hour or so, and then teach all day. Attempted routine goes mostly towards lesson plans and grading. As my gigs are finally starting to creep back into existence, it’s glaringly apparent that I’m not practicing nearly enough, and it’s starting to freak me out. It turns out I love the teaching – I honestly find it rather sacred to be bearing witness for this generation – and returning to doing so in person has been more energizing than I would have predicted. But this current grind isn’t sustainable long term.
I’ve really never had the luxury of a routine practice with regard to creative work. (There was one summer that I landed a grant big enough – psychologically, if not actually monetarily – that I scheduled big chunks of non-negotiable daily composing time.) I’ve gotten fairly resourceful at a bricolage-heavy process, stealing moments in fits and starts, stockpiling ideas, fragments, and off-the-cuff recordings, and then diving straight into assemblage when windfalls of open time suddenly arrive.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
In 2012, my quintet Wrack played at OT301 in Amsterdam. It wasn’t The Big Gig – the anchor that made the whole trip almost break even. But it was near the end of a tour that was, at last, my first opportunity to experience the European free jazz circuit that had long sustained so many colleagues, and my biggest undertaking to date as a bandleader.
The crowd was modest, but it included a handful of musicians I had admired deeply for years. The soundman was Wilf from Dog Faced Hermans, high on the shortlist of Bands that Changed My Life. The other set was a Fred Lonberg-Holm project, and I enjoyed the surreality of crossing paths with a comrade from back home on the other side of the world.
What hit me hard that night was the simultaneous realization of “wait, is this all it is after all? If I’ve arrived, is this the best I can hope for?” and “this is plenty – this is actually all that I need.” My heroes were becoming my peers, I was paying my friends, I was getting away with it, I was just about to return home to my family, and The Brass Ring melted a bit before my eyes to reveal the creative community and intimate scale of connection that had been the whole point all along.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
My sense is that it’s the same things that make life tolerable and enable us to be more fully human: exercise and rest, a social support network of loved ones, mutual aid within a tight-knit community, exiting the Infosphere and inhabiting my body, cultivating agency and a sense of purpose for myself and those around me …
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
It relates to what I said above regarding sharing time – how desperately so many of us need to step aside and slow down. Quarantine has also really brought home for me just how diminished music is without physical proximity; I’d like to think that (safely) re-prioritizing the togetherness of music, rather than its commodification and spectacle, can play a role in healing our cultural trauma.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I’m particularly wary about this given my complicated relationship to jazz.
I’d argue that one can’t (and shouldn't) engage with any form of American music without acknowledging how intricately it’s woven into the fabric. But I’m not Black, and I haven’t jumped through practically any of the hoops that come with a traditional jazz lineage, pursued through grassroots and/or institutional means. And yet I can’t imagine doing most of what I now do creatively – even within ostensibly ‘classical’ frameworks – without the inspiration of progenitors including Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Marshall Allen, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis…
I know I’ve stepped in it in the past, cheaply slapping on twice-removed stylistic signifiers for the wrong reasons, however wry I intended it to be. During the heyday of Wrack, I believe I did a better job of honoring deep structures and giving credit where it was due. My focus lately is on righting the scales as best I can from the positions of relative privilege and influence I’ve gradually infiltrated in academia and arts administration.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I really cherish the physical sensuality of hearing, and I love savoring sound – complex textures, finely grained timbral variation, psychoacoustic phenomena. I’m similarly extremist when it comes to taste, seeking out strong flavors, unfamiliar cuisines, intense spices, single malt scotches.
When I’m trying to connect with audiences who aren’t necessarily new music aficionados, I’ll often challenge/invite them to try to approach music as they might food. How strange is it that so many people will gleefully take unfamiliar and even somewhat painful substances into their bodies, but reject simply listening to something they haven’t heard before?
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I admire those who can make overtly political art well, but I can’t. I do see my work, however, as always being obliquely political. I’m most interested in music-making as social experiment, both at the micro (what happens during the real-time collaborative act amongst players and listeners) and macro (what we do with it culturally, using it to explore and assert to each other what we value) level.
I found my moral compass early on with significant help from the communitarian, DIY ethos of punk rock, and I subscribe to the rather utopian theory that collective improvisation can serve as a laboratory for humans actually working together – and treating each other – particularly well.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
You’ve stumped me – I’m not entirely sure it can. It’s certainly a more useful medium for me, but now I’m tempted to go ask my poet friends “what can words express that music may not?”