Kansas City composer Christina Butera's work is surprising and evocative, mixing found sounds and electroacoustic elements with more traditional instrumentation. Her creative reach even extends to music she composes for the Javanese and Balinese gamelan. Currently a UMKC doctoral student in composition, Butera's work has been performed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. We are excited to share an interview with Butera about her creative process, her Johnson County Library recommendations, as well as samples of her music.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
Hi! My name is Christina, and while I am originally from New Jersey, I now live and work in Kansas City, MO. I am a doctoral student in composition at UMKC. I am the TA in the recording studio at the conservatory, which means part of my job involves attending and recording conservatory concerts and recitals. I also teach as an adjunct instructor at Kansas City Kansas Community College in the Audio Engineering department. My typical day involves a mix of attending my own classes at UMKC and traveling to KCKCC to teach. This is sometimes followed by recording a conservatory event at night. After that, I go home, cook dinner, have some coffee or wine (depending on my mood) and compose. I am a night owl at heart, and this is often when I feel most energized. As a result, I end up doing much of my composing late at night.
Delve a little into your own process of composing. What may surprise a listener of your music about how you create it? What tools do you use?
My process is always evolving. I almost always start by collecting my materials and figuring out how to organize them. If I am composing for a specific ensemble, I begin sorting out what types of timbres, gestures, harmonies, and/or melodic lines I am interested in using. If I am working on an electronic piece, I collect my materials by collecting sounds, which often influence and shape the resulting piece. After I have my materials, I map out the structure of the piece, usually in some visual form. I begin by composing into that structure and, in time, almost always end up deviating from or completely abandoning it.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a composer? Who inspired you early on to create new music and what were your earliest compositions like?
Honestly, I wanted to become a composer as soon as I realized I could major in it in college. My clarinet teacher was always training me to be a professional musician, and I never questioned it. I was writing music on the side for fun, without a teacher. I would write music for my friends and me to play, which lead to a lot of clarinet and piano music. I knew I wanted to go to college to study music, and when I began looking into music programs for performance, I came across undergraduate composition programs. I never really thought about pursuing it as a career until then. All I can say is that my earliest compositions were very tonal and contrapuntal (and full of backwards stems, unmarked meter changes, and accidental key changes.… College helped with that).
In addition to your solo, electroacoustic and ensemble work, you have also written for the Balinese and Javanese gamelans. How did you become acquainted with these instruments? How did your creative process change as a result of working with them?
I became acquainted with gamelan at Bucknell University, where I did my undergrad. I played in the Javanese gamelan there and had the honor of writing a piece for them. When I moved on to Bowling Green State University, I played in their Balinese gamelan and worked with them on another piece. Gamelan is an entirely different experience from playing in Western ensembles. The tuning, musical structure, rehearsal methods, and ensemble hierarchy were all new to me. These aspects definitely infiltrated and influenced my creative process as I was working on these pieces. I incorporated traditional techniques and interlocking ornamentations into non-traditional elements of rhythm and harmony. I also worked with a structure that was cyclical rather than linear, which lead me to compose from the inside out. The use of interlocking patterns is definitely something that has permeated many of my pieces since then.
What do you love most about incorporating electronic elements into your compositions?
Incorporating electronic elements into my compositions essentially opens up the entire world to me. I am a timbral composer, and working with electronics means I have every timbre imaginable at my disposal. It is exciting, liberating, and intimidating all at the same time.
Who or what inspires you now?
I find inspiration in different things every day. Often times, it’s my family, Sicilian folk traditions, my musical peers, or even just everyday events. At this moment, I’m inspired by the impending fall. Nothing make me feel creatively charged like the beautiful colors and crisp air of fall.
Christina's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This was my favorite book in high school. It is a great coming of age story for younger readers.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I love Foer’s books, and I particularly loved this one. I think it sometimes gets overlooked now because the movie was not so great. I assure you, it’s a wonderful book, especially for people who may be going through a tough time.
Kansas City Jazz, From Ragtime to Bebop: A History by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix
Written by our very own Chuck Haddix, this book comes from an expert in local Kansas City history and jazz. It is a wealth of information in the form of an entertaining narrative, which is so rare in academic books. If you are interested in this city’s place in jazz history, check it out!