A! Magazine for the Arts

Composer Kenton Coe believes "music is a language" and is meant to be shared with others.

Composer Kenton Coe believes "music is a language" and is meant to be shared with others.

Behind the Music: Composers in the Region

December 26, 2012

Music is all around us in this region, and many of us are familiar with the performers whether they're country, Celtic, classical or rock "n roll; but we often do not think about the people behind the scene - the composers - those unseen men and women behind the scores.

Kenton Coe, Maria Niederberger and Dan Gawthrop are local composers whose music is heard around the world. Coe and Gawthrop are full-time composers who write commissioned works for choral groups, operas, films, orchestras and symphonies. Niederberger, in addition to her commissioned and requested works, teaches theory and composition, training the next generation of composers at East Tennessee State University.

Meet Kenton Coe.

Coe believes that "music is a language, and language is meant to share your thoughts with other people." He says, "I only trust a music that is a language between the composer and the listener: sharing an intellectual and spiritual experience. That music can be as simple as the simplest mountain carol or as complicated as a piece by Elliot Carter. The only way to appreciate music is to listen to it, and listen to it and listen to it."

His earliest influences were the folk and dance music of East Tennessee, followed by Ives, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Hindemith. Coe was born in Johnson City, lived in New York City for 17 years, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris for three years and has returned to Johnson City, Tenn., where he is working on the score for a new documentary by Ross Spears, also from Johnson City, entitled "The Truth About Trees."

"I met Ross through our grandmothers," Coe says. "Ross is 20 years younger, so I didn't know him growing up, but I knew his family. We met on a plane when we were both returning to New York. He was working on his first film for his master's degree and said he'd love for me to write the music for it. I said I'd love to."

That film was "Agee," the story of James Agee, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary.

"We've had a long relationship. Ross is easy to work with and knows what he wants," Coe says.

Coe says the process of writing music that has to mesh with someone else's vision is easy with Spears. "We're on the same wavelength. He will send me clips, we'll talk it out, and then I'll send digital clips to him."

The new documentary, The Truth About Trees," is for PBS, and Coe says they require music continually throughout the film, which means he has to write three hours of music. "It used to be that music was used only to emphasize moments, but it's non-stop now."

"Music can alter the entire tone of a piece of film, no matter what's going on visually, so you have to listen to the director. It's the director's vision and if he doesn't like your work, then he finds someone else to do it." When he wrote the score for "Birds in Peru," a Hollywood film shot in France, he says he thought he'd get to go to Hollywood, but "alas, that didn't happen."

Coe has experience with directors outside of the film industry – he has written several operas.

"First of all, you have to be nuts to write an opera and prepared to devote several years of your time," Coe says. His first opera, "South" took three years to write. It is set in the American South just prior to the Civil War. The last scene is the cannon firing at Fort Sumter. Sponsored by Aaron Copland, he received two fellowships from the MacDowell Colony where he began the opera, which was premiered in 1965 by the Opera of Marseilles under the direction of conductor Jean-Pierre Marty. A new production of "South" was given by the Paris Opera with an opening night gala in the presence of President and Madame Georges Pompidou.

The Paris production Coe describes as a "catastrophe and the worst moment of my musical life. The conductor was the worst. I begged to help to no avail. But it was hard to turn down having the Paris Opera perform my work. It didn't get bad reviews, but it was painful for me. However, it is because of that opera that I'm not selling shoes at Belk's. I am so grateful for the luck that I've had."

That opera led to notice by the Tennessee Commission for the Arts and others, which helped launch his career. His third opera, "Rachel," the love story of Andrew and Rachel Jackson, was originally intended to be a small touring show to celebrate the bicentennial. "Then it was supposed to open the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, but there were a lot of false starts." It eventually was performed by the Knoxville Opera Company.

While operas and film scores take years to write, Coe also writes for symphonies and choirs. He says some of his favorite compositions are "Ischiana" which he wrote for the Baton Rouge Symphony's 40th anniversary, because he was allowed to write for a very large orchestra. Another favorite is "Purcellular" for the City of London's 300th anniversary of Purcell's death, because he wrote it for a large symphony and a jazz trio improvisation. "And I got to meet Princess Margaret. Both commissions were the largest sums I was ever offered, no small inspirational motive," Coe says.

He has just finished a Good Friday anthem commissioned by All-Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif. Based on the Lamentation of Joseph of Arimathea, it is an unaccompanied piece for choir which Coe describes as "sad, lugubrious and almost sensual in a way."

Coe's works have been performed in France, America, England, Germany and Hungary; and "Birds in Peru" played worldwide.

He writes at the piano, but says he is not a very good player and hated his piano lessons when he was young. But he always loved writing music down and was scribbling music when he was 10 or 11. He began studying composition seriously when he was in college. He studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale and says he was a great musician, composer and an inspiration, but not a great teacher. "You'd show him your work and he'd just rewrite it."

Coe says his greatest piece of luck was Nadia Boulanger. "My godmother gave me $500 to go to France to take a six-week class with Nadia. During those six weeks I never felt that she thought I was anything special, but I thought she liked what I did. At the end of the course, she said "I want you to stay and study with me.' I told her I could not afford it, and she arranged for me to get scholarships from the French government. I had to come home first to get clothes and then go back."

He studied in France until the end of 1957. Boulanger was a rough teacher and could be merciless, according to Coe. But she also did not inflict preconceived notions about composing on her students. "When you showed her your work, instead of finishing it like Hindemith, she'd say "Are you sure you meant that?' She also opened so many doors for me and introduced me to everyone in Paris in the "50s and "60s."

Coe's work has been described as inventive, a splendor, stirring, distinctive, among other accolades. Le Figaro had this to say about "South," which may explain why Coe gives this opera so much credit for launching his career. "The Opera of Marseilles has opened with a very great success ... The work is remarkable, the spectacle one of complete beauty ... This most difficult subject would have frightened many a more experienced composer ... Kenton Coe had the courage to risk it and the talent to succeed. Here we have that rare bird, a musician who writes for the voice and not against the voice ... His harmonic language is sober, willfully treated in shades of gray so as to leave the expressive role to the singers. And then, at a given point, to evoke a vision or make even more poignant a tragic instant, the orchestra blossoms and delivers a perfume all the more penetrating for its careful preparation. There are moments in this score, so distinguished and so stylistically pure, which touch the heart."

Coe's language of music strikes a chord with his listeners. Visit www.kentoncoe.com.

>> Meet Dan Gawthrop