This year, we’re going to be bringing you perspectives from some of the performers you’ll be seeing on stage at Great Noise Ensemble’s concerts. Every performer has reasons to love (or hate) the music we’re performing and the process of performing it, whether it’s their affinity for the composer’s works, the process of preparing them for a concert, or simply their own personal history. We’re starting off the year with a perspective from someone you actually hear a lot from already, but Katherine Kellert isn’t just in charge of our marketing and concert production, she’s also GNE’s clarinetist. Here’s why she’s excited about performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians on our upcoming September 9th concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring.

I’m what you might call a “hard sell” on the new music front. I know, I know, it doesn’t make much sense for a member of a new music group to make that claim, but hear me out. Most of the performing I do outside Great Noise Ensemble has far more to do with other areas of the spectrum for pretty good reason—I spend a lot of time in theater pits and occasionally orchestra sections, and my tastes tend to run more toward rock and roll and show tunes than alt-classical. I can be deeply suspicious of the more academic works that are out there, all musical burps and flatulence and which require dedicated study to decipher and understand. I’m a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get kind of girl, and it sometimes takes a lot for me to give new things a try. However, I have to say that’s changed a bit since I started playing with Great Noise Ensemble, and I pretty much have composer Steve Reich to thank for that in a very direct way.

In 2005, when I heard from a friend that a random guy she knew was starting a new music group, I was intrigued, but only passively so. After some thought and a shrug of my shoulders, I sent a message to the email she provided and got back an enthusiastic reply from some guy named Armando that I’d never met—come to rehearsals, bring your friends, we’re going to be doing some really cool stuff, the standard things you’d expect to hear from a young enthusiast with a startup group. Was I interested in maybe playing that really gnarly John Adams clarinet concerto, or maybe some Steve Reich?, he asked, naming a couple of pieces that I knew and one I’d never heard before.

If I wasn’t enthusiastic before, all of the sudden my ears perked right up.

I should probably explain that I come from a pretty standard musical background, and growing up in the Deep South in Birmingham, Alabama, most of the “new music” I heard and experience I had came from the school band room. I played in the marching band as well as the concert band, which was quite a bit better than average (and in fact, in hindsight, better than most college groups) and of course the regional youth orchestras and the church orchestra for weekly services. I was a also better than average clarinet player even for my school, so I ended up doing lots of of honors bands and clinics, including one that would unexpectedly profoundly change my young perceptions of music.

I showed up to a local clarinet symposium as a young high school kid to play in the clarinet choir, and found myself looking at one of the stranger pieces of music I’d ever seen at the time: there were all of these repeated eighth notes, sections and sections and pages and pages of them. I could barely keep track of them and wondered what in the world it was supposed to sound like. The guy’s name wasn’t too weird, Steve Reich, and I thought to myself that it probably had to be cool if New York was in the title. (It was, of course, his famous work New York Counterpoint, which the director of the choir had decided to have us perform completely live instead of as it’s usually done, with one live clarinet and prerecorded track.) When the conductor gave that first downbeat, I can honestly tell you that my world shifted entirely into another frame. My stand partner, a veteran local clarinetist, got the grins at my drop-jawed expression as I listened, completely oblivious to the part I was supposed to playing with her—she knew this was a game changer. By the time we’d reached the end of the first section, I knew I had to know more about this guy, this kind of music. By the end of the piece I was totally and forever hooked—anybody that could take a couple of measures of repeated notes and write them to make them groove that way, and that hard, deserved a more intense examination.

In my college years, it was Steve Reich’s name and that experience that drew me to the Contemporary Ensemble at the University of Alabama led by conductor Gerald Welker, who would become a profound influence in my musical life. He introduced me to ever broader vistas of “contemporary” works by Olivier Messaien, Harrison Birtwistle, Terry Riley, and of course Reich and many others through those and other ensemble rehearsals as well as conversations and loans of scores and recordings which blew the doors off of anything I thought I knew about music and composition. By the time I transferred to a different school (Arizona State University) in my junior year, I knew I liked “new music” at least in theory, even if not all of it grooved quite as well as some of those sections of New York Counterpoint, and I had enough of an open mind to try some of the newest, craziest stuff coming out that was championed by my teacher there (and one of the best in the performance business, Robert Spring, who to this day inspires me to dare to try music that would scare the pants off most traditional performers.) I’m sure I was an exasperating student, intensely curious but unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to this music that intimidated me so badly, and I was certainly surrounded by performers who did so daily and remain an inspiration in terms of preparation, commitment, and meticulous performance. More to the point, all of these things were the fertilizer for the seed that had been planted in my mind and in my heart when my little teenage ears heard those repeated motives in an Alabama band room: fast forward to years later and my first rehearsal with GNE, and my mind was ready.

All of that history basically boils down to this: Steve Reich’s music was the gateway drug that led me to a love of all of the music I now perform with Great Noise Ensemble. And a powerful gateway drug it is too—there are sections of Music for 18 Musicians that quite literally grab me and shake me bodily (section VI and VII particularly): my head bobs, my feet tap, I shimmy in my chair. I’m sure it’s very entertaining to watch, but I can’t help it nor would I if I could. And if that’s what it does to a hard sell you can tell it’s powerful stuff. Because of the interest his music gave me, I’ve learned that there are more kinds of amazing new music out there to play than just the academic, brainiac stuff that used to kind of drive me crazy in college, that there are composers who write music that grabs my attention and speaks to me very deeply using the very vocabularies I had somehow thought classical somehow missed in translation, from the hard rocking sounds of Marc Mellits to the beautiful and zen flow of many of John Luther Adams’s works. If it weren’t for the genius of Steve Reich I might never have had that door in my mind opened.

For me, new music is one of the most powerful art forms I can participate in. The things I love to play most and best are the ones that inspire deep love, burning passion, righteous anger and burning rage to change the world, and those are usually the things written by my contemporaries and those who taught them. This is music that deeply challenges me as a performer, simulates my mind, incites rage and passion and righteous anger, and speaks deeply to the times we live in and the deep, dark and beautiful depths and brilliant luminous heights our souls are capable of plumbing and ascending to. I’ve never felt more alive or more expressive in my work than at the end of a committed performance that tries my mind, body, and soul as this music does. It expects more from me both as a performer and a listener than passive acceptance, demanding rigorous thought and existential consideration, and has been the seed of profound learning on the same level as all great visual art and literature.

So, for that, I owe you my thanks in this year of your 75th birthday Mr. Reich—you’ve given me a very precious gift and for that I will always, always be thankful.

Katherine Kellert is Great Noise Ensemble’s clarinetist and Managing Director. You can find out more about her at Great Noise Ensemble’s website and follow her Twitter feed: @katiekellert. You’ll be able to see her perform Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Great Noise Ensemble on Friday, September 9th, 2011 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring.