Ted King-Smith

Monday, Nov. 30, 2015
Tagged As: classical, New Music

As a composer, the palette Ted King-Smith draws from is surprising and diverse. Incorporating elements of contemporary classical, jazz, improvisation and ambient and electronic textures, King-Smith's work is infused with energy, emotion and humor. In addition to his duties as a composer and saxophonist, King-Smith is also an educator and member of the Mnemozyne Quartet and FuseBox New Music Collective. Enjoy our interview with Ted in which he discusses his morning routine, improvisation's role in his work, and the importance of sunsets.


Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?

Hello! The name’s Ted. I’m a composer, educator, and saxophonist living in KCMO. I’ve been living in KC for the past two years and have become infatuated with the city! Before coming to KC I was born in Minnesota, raised in upstate New York outside Woodstock, and have since then lived in Connecticut, Washington state, and the Washington DC metro. My musical background is rooted in the jazz and band tradition, and in the past 2-3 years I’ve been combining these with elements of electronic music.

I’m currently living in South Waldo and love the neighborhood. For work I am an adjunct instructor at KCKCC teaching music technology and multimedia, and work part-time at the music and media desk at the UMKC Miller Nichols Library while completing my DMA at UMKC. My day starts with a cup of coffee from my French press and probably 30 minutes of morning peace and quiet. I’ve found that certain pieces come to me in the morning, particularly with coffee, and the habit has stuck even if I’m not writing. From there the rest of the day is a blur of composing, listening, reading (right now it’s Steven King’s Dark Tower series), email, school, teaching, and a healthy dose of procrastination. I’m also a member of the Mnemozyne Quartet and FuseBox New Music, so I’ll often have rehearsals and meetings throughout the week as well.

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 messy. And by that I mean that what I start out intending to compose is usually abandoned or unrecognizable in the final version. I’ll usually start thinking about a piece far in advance, likely a year. During this time I’ll consider what forces I’m writing for, what is expected and what isn’t, and some non-musical idea to help guide the material. In the past one of these aspects helps formulate a concrete idea for a piece, which of course may or may not be relevant once the notes are on the page, and so far this pattern continues. Ultimately to me the most important element of music is the aural result, rather than the process or the inspiration. So once I actually start writing I focus intensely on the linear progression of the piece, especially what I call “musical momentum,” and let that determine the work.

As far as surprises go, I think my music already goes to some surprising places on its own. However, much of the musical material in my music for the past 2-3 years has been largely based on improvisations. Back in 2011-2013 I improvised a great deal but never really released them to the outside world. Once I develop the non-musical idea for a piece I’ll often sift through these improvisations for a small musical germ or two and then transform it into a more complete musical idea. The middle section of Winter’s Summer for instance was originally an improvisation, and after some editing and expansion became what it is now. Performing with Mnemosyne has also really honed in my improvising too so that now I will often improvise much of the material for a piece in one sitting and then change it as needed.

My most often used tools for composing are Logic X, Native Instruments, Paul Stretch, Michael Norris Spectral plugins, and a Zoom H2n recorder. When I’m not working with electronics I’ll use Finale and a piano as well.

Listening to your music one can hear so many different influences, especially jazz and be-bop, and even these are at times layered on top of more ambient and electronic textures (“Winter’s Summer” and “Soundtrack for an Open Road”, for example). How is your music a response to your own work/living environments? How does living in Kansas City influence your music?

I’m fascinated with combining various musical elements from multiple genres, styles, or aesthetics together to make something completely new or different than the original(s). Often this results in something that suggests one style, but is layered with something else that contradicts that assumption.

I’ve also been training to hear pitch in noise for the past few years. I have perfect (sometimes almost perfect) pitch, which is incredibly helpful in a traditional music setting. Since I’ve started to use electronics and noise in my music I’ve wanted to close the gap between note and noise through pitch, or frequency in electronic music, and I’m now feeling more confident with it. Often I’ll hear music playing that accidentally fits into some kind of noise going on simultaneously, which I find both humorous and inspiring. I whole-heartedly suggest more people try listening to all of their environment next time they’re in a coffee shop, or even listening to music in general. Listen for how sounds fit or how they don’t.

I think since moving to Kansas City I’ve rediscovered my roots in jazz. Charlie Parker was a huge inspiration for me as a budding jazz saxophonist in high school. I’ve since moved on to different musical endeavors, but the music has stuck with me none the less. In addition to jazz I’ve become fascinated with the sounds of transportation. Head down to the crossroads or the west bottoms and you’ll hear plenty of cars, trains, and planes! I think those sounds are also representative of Kansas City’s industrial past, an element which I think is becoming a celebrated symbol as many neighborhoods are being revived on the Missouri side.

As a member of Kansas City’s FuseBox Collective, you actively advocate for new composers and performers. Talk about the challenges you see with building audiences for new music in Kansas City.

I think that one of the biggest challenges with building audiences here, and in any city really, is that all musicians are now competing for audiences with technology rather than just other performances or events. When you have a device in your pocket that is capable of delivering virtually ANY form of entertainment, high-brow or low, the question becomes: why do you go out? To me, art and music should be a kind of break from normality, something that makes you stop and consider what you see or hear. How you respond to that is of course your own decision, and I’m always curious to hear reactions both positive and negative.  Thus I think our response as creators should be to encourage an intimate and communal environment where there are no assumptions of musical or artistic knowledge and the performance is one that engages the observer more actively. The Debussy Project was FuseBox’s first attempt at creating an event like this, with the works being performed live in an unusual environment for music, and it certainly won’t be our last.

Going forward I hope to see more opportunities for performances that go beyond the norm. First Fridays and the large presence of art in this city is a prime example that Kansas City is hungry for art and entertainment beyond our devices. Why not do the same in music?

Who or what inspires you now?

In general it’s stories, text or visual. I really enjoy seeing how storytellers create drama and keep you attached to the plot. Otherwise right now, and probably for the next year or so, it’s the sky. At the moment I am working on a collaborative multimedia work about the sky titled Celestial Metamorphosis, and I have plans for the next few months to continue on the subject. Two experiences in my life are particularly present in my mind right now:

When I was 13 I was on a flight to Australia and unable to sleep. The plane was being chased by the rising sun so for over 2-hours I watched the sunrise over the Pacific and saw the light spectrum (blue, green, violet, etc.) slowly come to life.

A particularly volatile sunset I saw in Pullman, Washington involving a violent and ominous thunderstorm, a lightning fire, and clouds with colors ranging from sky blue to burnt orange, and blood red to black.

Reviewed by Bryan V.
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