Composer earns Guggenheim

Mikel Kuehn, composer
who won Guggenheim. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)

As a composer, Mikel Kuehn loves the sounds of instruments, and not just the sounds musicians learn when
they’re in high school band.
The Bowling Green State University composition teacher loves the odd squeaks, and scrapes, the odd bowing
that elicits ethereal high notes or the overblowing that allows a wind instrument to play two notes at
once. All are natural, acoustic sounds, just not the usual ones.
Laughing, he said "that’s not the way it’s supposed to sound," could be the subtitle for his
body of work.
Kuehn uses those effects "combining them into a tapestry that’s really rich" to conjure a new,
distinctly beautiful spectrum of sound.
Not satisfied with that, Kuehn will feed those tones into a computer and "manipulate the sounds in
some manner using software programming and then spit that out in the speakers … to create an orchestral
Kuehn has been exploring this realm of electro-acoustic music for more than 25 years since he studied
composition at the University of North Texas.
Kuehn has just received a Guggenheim Fellowship which will allow him to record an album of his work.
Though his pieces have appeared on recordings with other composers’ works, this will be the first
recording devoted to his work alone. It will be released on the New York-based New Focus label, which
has distribution through Naxos, the largest classical music label in the world.
The pieces will range from compositions for solo viola and solo bass clarinet, each paired with
electronics, to a work for a dozen saxophones and live electronics. Some pieces have already been
recorded; others are still being composed.
A major element will be "Undercurrents," written for 14 players and given its premiere
performance last October by Ensemble Dal Niente at the New Music Festival at BGSU. Though recorded at
the festival, Kuehn hopes to give it a definitive studio recording as soon as he can bring all the
instrumentalists and conductor together.
Kuehn got his start in music in Texas where he played percussion in school band. At age 13 he moved to
southern California. He credits the strong musical education he got in Texas schools with the success he
had in California, including playing timpani with the all-state ensemble. But the music he loved was
jazz, and he ended up studying with Michael Carney at California State University.
Through him Kuehn started playing vibraphone. In 1985 he headed back to Texas to study at North Texas,
where his father taught. But when he got there he found out he couldn’t audition for one of the school’s
famous Jazz Lab Bands. There was no room for a vibraphone, though he could have played Latin percussion.
That’s not what he was interested in.
Given he was testing out of almost all the jazz courses, he sought the advice of his friend and a former
teacher, John Beasley, who had played with Miles Davis.
With Beasley’s encouragement, Kuehn became a composition major where he would learn about orchestration
and structure that he could put into practice in jazz.
Then he attended a concert that featured the modern music classic Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and
Percussion and a piece by Luciano Berio. "After that, I wanted to be a composer. I never looked
"My music isn’t something that sounds like jazz, although the technique that goes into making it and
philosophy comes directly from jazz," Kuehn said.
His trail from jazz to contemporary composition, he said, is not unusual. Jazz musicians tend to have the
open-mindedness and experimental nature that fits with new music. While the blending of classical music
techniques and jazz is not new, those intersections are occurring more and more.
Younger composers cross between rhythm ‘n’ blues and jazz and "intense new music."
"A lot of it is pretty easy to digest," Kuehn said. "It’s good for everybody because it
invites people to listen to contemporary music without feeling elitist. Really it’s all just