Acclaimed Kansas City-based composer Jonathan Booker describes his music as existing in a "musical inbetweenness." Drawing from influences as disparate as Kendrick Lamar, Thelonious Monk, Bach and Rage Against the Machine, Booker's music has attracted national and international audiences. In addition to his current role as Composition Graduate Teaching Assistant at UMKC, Booker helped design and implement Literacy Through Music, an initiative that used music to teach literacy to adult ESL students. Enjoy our exclusive interview with Jonathan Booker below.
Introduce yourself. Describe the kind(s) of music your write.
My name is Jonathan Booker and I am a composer currently working on a doctorate at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. I am not quite sure which labels to put on the music I create, not because of any aversion to labels per se, but because composition for me is a process of searching and experimentation.
A lot of my creative interests stem from my own experiences as a listener, especially as I have become increasingly aware of the visual and physical aspects of musical performance. When I listen to a recording of, for example, Itzhak Perlman performing Bach’s D minor Partita, I cannot help but imagine Perlman’s body gently swaying from side to side, his eyes closed with a slight grimace on his face as he contorts his left hand into the necessary fingering positions while his bow pulls and pushes the strings and then floats through the air before the next attack. All of that information works to inform a listening experience that, for me, goes beyond sound and what can be portrayed with musical notes on a page (This type of experience, by the way, is certainly not limited to classical music. I listen to Kendrick Lamar, Thelonious Monk, João Gilberto, Rage Against the Machine, Stars, and numerous others in much the same way.)
It is for these reasons that I often find myself pursuing a sort of musical inbetweenness, which is probably a pretty decent descriptor for my music, and more recently focusing on the relationship of physical gesture and sound. I count myself lucky that this type of work requires me to collaborate from very early stages in the creative process with extremely talented performers, one of the things that I find most creatively fulfilling.
When did you first start composing music? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I began learning to compose in my junior year of college at Seattle Pacific University by essentially completing exercises to build proficiency in a number of compositional techniques. While many of these techniques can apply to a broad range of styles, they were derived largely from the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, so I suppose I would consider each of those composers as early influences. Even prior to that, I was very interested as a pianist, but also in a more generally creative way, in Debussy and Ravel. At the same time, however, I listened to a lot of metal and screamo, including Fear Before the March of Flames, mewithoutYou, and An Albatross, as well as several other bands like Stars, Sigur Rós, Radiohead, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
You recently premiered your composition On Plants and Consciousness in Denmark. What can you tell us about how a premiere like this comes about? What is life like for you leading up to this premiere?
On Plants and Consciousness was co-commissioned in 2015 by Da Camera Chamber Music and Jazz and the Galveston Artist Residency. I composed it while living in Houston and serving as a Young Artist Fellow with Da Camera. Cellist Ben Fried performed this piece very well as a part of this summer’s New Music for Strings Festival, which took place at the Royal Academy of Music–Aarhus and the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
Participating in festivals such as this one are excellent learning experiences and good opportunities for early-career composers to work with performers that may be outside of their immediate communities, as well as to have their music performed for audiences in different locations. I applied to participate in this festival, was lucky enough to get accepted, and even luckier still to work with a great cellist like Ben. This piece has been performed several times in the United States, but this was its European premiere, so it was a lot of fun.
Describe a time when you had a creative block and how did you move through it?
I will go into a bit more detail about something I mentioned previously. For me, composing music is largely a process of exploration and experimentation, an attitude that I am consciously embracing now more than at any previous point in my career. Because I am always working to discover new things and new ways of looking at things, I suppose that I could think about creative block in two ways:
First, you might say that I am at every moment experiencing some sort of creative block. Everything that I have ever written is a failure in some way. There is always something or, more likely, many things that I could and should have done differently in order to craft a better work of art. The reason why those failures exist is because my creative vision at the time was partially blocked, only allowing me to see the paths that lead to whatever aspects of the piece that I later recognize as failures.
Second, failure is an essential and, indeed, beautiful part of the creative process, and is why I embrace the concept of experimentalism. It is not just that I seek to prioritize experimentation during the process of creating pieces of music, but the pieces are themselves experimentations. If I am committed to that philosophy, then creative block becomes a necessary (albeit, no less frustrating) way of seeking out a different path and failure becomes simply an unexpected result.
What can you tell us about your work with Literacy Through Music?
This is another project that I did as a Young Artist Fellow with Da Camera in Houston. The Da Camera Young Artist Program funded this community initiative and provided crucial guidance to me as I designed and implemented it. I partnered with Literacy Advance of Houston to offer a six-week course to adult ESL students, which used music to teach English-language creative writing. At the end of the course, each student produced a poem, all of which were set to music by composer Mark Buller and performed in Houston by mezzo-soprano Teresa Procter and pianist Stephanie Ng.
Jonathan Booker's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). Directed by Ken Loach.
Human Flow (2017). Directed by Ai Weiwei.
Boyhood (2014). Directed by Richard Linklater.
Modern Times (1936). Featuring Charlie Chaplin.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Directed by Michel Gondry.
The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino:
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust: (trans. Lydia Davis)
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver,
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War by Bertolt Brecht