Kota Hayton is a multi-disciplinary artist whose works straddles the lines between music, dance and electronics. In addition to being a composer whose works have been performed by the University of Tulsa String Quartet and the UMKC Orchestra, among other ensembles, Hayton is a classically-trained opera singer and performer. We're honored to share an exclusive interview with the artist about his work, collaborations and current and future projects.
Introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
My name is Kota Hayton. I write music, sing, and play guitar and electronics. I’m primarily a composer and opera singer, but I’m also a singer-songwriter and a member of the noise-rock band Ozersk. I grew up performing and listening to various styles of music, including musical theatre, rock, alternative, bluegrass, and jazz; although they may not always have a direct, audible influence, I try to keep my music informed by my experiences in these genres. I wouldn’t say my music has an overarching “sound” to describe, but I often focus on juxtaposition, expression, and motion.
When did you start composing music? Who were your earliest influences?
My earliest memories of writing music are writing songs on my guitar sometime in late-elementary school. When I first started playing guitar, I listened to classic-rock, pop-punk, and pop, so I started off writing music like that (often with poorly written rip-offs of Slash solos). Other than that though, I didn’t really write much until around my Junior year of high school. Around this time, I was interested in musical theatre, singer-songwriters, alternative rock, and my repertoire in choir and jazz band. I was particularly into Sondheim, Andrew Bird, This Will Destroy You, MGMT, and choral composers like Robert Shaw and Eric Whitacre. Around this time, I was writing mostly choral and vocal music that was very imitative of what I sang in choir.
Composition for me didn’t become a very serious endeavor until my senior year. I applied to college intending to study physics or computer-science, so composition took the backseat for much of high school. Once I switched to become a music major though, I began writing much more frequently and began working more with instrumental music. My friend and fellow composer, Matt Magerkurth, had been introducing me to contemporary composers for a few years, but my senior year is when they finally began their slow, but gradual increase of influence. I don’t remember everything he showed me, but I remember being really interested in John Adams and Olivier Messiaen.
Talk about your interest in working across media, especially your collaborative dance project. How did this partnership come about?
As I’ve grown as a musician, I’ve become increasingly interested in the interaction between music and other arts. It began when some friends in high school asked me to write scores for their film projects. Working with the directors to find the right mood and genre for their score was very fun to me, and it sparked an interest in collaboration that carried into college, which then developed into an interest in collaborating with other arts as well. I’m also inspired by composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, who had very close relationships with painters and choreographers that heavily influenced their own music. I love the way different artistic forces converge and interact with each other to create what feels like a single entity; a collaborative project becomes a holistic experience whose individual parts are not experienced separately.
Working with a choreographer was a very educational experience. The partnership was set up through the UMKC Conservatory, with a performance at the Mulberry Room in the West Bottoms. The project included many other composers and choreographers, 11 groups in total. All the composers and choreographers who were interested went to a meeting to share excerpts of their work, and listed those who they would be interested in working with. I was paired with Tianna Morton.
When we first met to discuss ideas, we found we had similar interests in contrast and juxtaposition, which became the focus of our project. Some other groups decided on narratives to tell, which helped to shape a concrete idea the pair could work towards, but our concept was a bit more abstract, and we didn’t exactly know how to succinctly explain our ideas to each other. To make sure we were continually working towards the same goal, we would meet pretty regularly to share our progress, discuss the mood and how we were expressing our concept, and in general refine our ideas as we go. Throughout the process, much of the progress on both ends was inspired by the other’s work, so my music was very informed by what she was doing with the dance, and vice versa. I really appreciated how mutual the influence was and the way the music and dance were equal partners in a larger work, rather than a distinct dance-with-musical-accompaniment dynamic.
What does your composing process look like? What technology or apps do you use, if any?
My process tends to vary quite a bit, but in general, everything starts in my notebook. Inside, I put conceptual ideas, visual sketches that represent sounds and gestures, poetry, various notes and thoughts, or really anything that can get my mind thinking creatively. Once I start actually writing down music, I like starting with pencil and a large pad of manuscript paper. I often work out ideas and materials at the piano, but I’ve made a habit to regularly separate myself from an instrument and just write by ear. Partially to practice training my ear, but also because I actually think it’s interesting to see what happens when my ear is wrong. I try to let myself make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes replace my original intentions.
Once I have a significant amount of material written, I start making a digital score in Sibelius. The amount I write by hand vs. at the computer varies from project to project, but I usually like to do as much by hand as possible. That way, as I input what I’ve written by hand into the computer, I can focus more on formatting the score to look clearer and more professional.
That’s my process for acoustic composition, at least. In my other work, it generally still starts with the notebook, but for electronics, the process is much more experiment/discovery based. I usually start music with electronics by exploring different sounds I can make and how these sounds can interact. From there, I’ll start constructing ways to organize and/or control the sounds into track or performable piece. I tend to use Logic Pro for fixed media and to use their premade synths and instruments, Max MSP for live-electronics (my preferred use of electronics) and to build my own patches and instruments, and WaveLab for processing and manipulating samples. I’ve also recently been delving into making my own electronic instruments like crackleboxes or circuit-bent toys, which I then manipulate further in Max.
As a singer-songwriter, I generally write the text before music. I don’t have much of a process for writing text yet, but I’ve found it helps me to think of the text as poetry I’m adapting into a song, rather than actually writing lyrics. For the music, I mostly start off writing at the piano or with a guitar, then only notate once it’s at least sketched and refine from there. In my noise-rock band, generally one of us comes with at least a mostly finished idea for a song, then together work on ways to build it up together until we think it’s ready.
What inspires you about new classical/experimental music in Kansas City?
The people. There are a lot of incredible people in the scene in KC who are very dedicated to creating music and sharing it with the city. I’m especially inspired by many of my younger peers here. They have this insatiable drive to create opportunities to share what they do and to work with other musicians and artists; collaboration is pretty big here. There’s also an interesting deconstruction of genre going on. A lot of people are working in different genres and are beginning to blur the distinctive lines between them. There are people combining their backgrounds in jazz and electronic music, punk and contemporary-classical, etc.
Wild is the Wind by Carl Phillips
Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins
Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees by Lawrence Weschler (not in catalog, but highly recommend)
Render by Roomful of Teeth
To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors
The Brooklyn Rider Almanac by Brooklyn Rider