Composer  Kamran  Ince

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Kamran Ince was born in Montana in 1960 to American and Turkish parents. He holds a Doctorate from Eastman School of Music, and currently serves as Professor of Composition at University of Memphis and Co-Director of MIAM (Center for Advanced Research in Music) at the Istanbul Technical University.

The leading orchestras of the world perform his works. Concerts devoted to his music have recently been heard at the Holland Festival, CBC Encounter Series (Toronto), the Istanbul International Music Festival, Estoril Festival (Lisbon), TurkFest (London), and Cultural Influences in Globalization Festival (Ho Chi Minh City). In addition to symphonic and chamber works, his catalogue also includes music for film and ballet. His numerous prizes include the Prix de Rome, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lili Boulanger Prize. His Waves of Talya was named one of the best chamber works of the 20th Century by a living composer in the Chamber Music Magazine. His music is published by Schott Music Corporation.

In October of 1989, Kamran Ince was not quite thirty.  He was having his work Before Infrared played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on one of its regular subscriptions series.  Surrounded by music of Mozart (Piano Concerto #21) and Falla (Nights in the Gardens of Spain) with Alicia De Larrocha, and La Mer of Debussy, it stood its own and was warmly received.  David Zinman conducted. 

Besides what is shown in the box above, he studied with (among others) Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, Samuel Adler, and Barbara Kolb.  [See my Interview with Joseph Schwantner, my Interview with Christopher Rouse, and my Interview with Samuel Adler.]  Now, a quarter-century later, Ince has lived up to his promise, and taken his place in the group of composers whose works are regularly performed and recorded. 

We met for the interview at the end of a long day, and while he was perfectly willing to chat, he was tired and mentioned that as we began . . . . . . .

Kamran Ince:      I’m not that vibrant.  I’m kind of tired.

Bruce Duffie:    Is your music at all tired, or is your music always vibrant?

KI:    [Laughs]  It’s very seldom tired, I would say.  It’s mostly vibrant.  But my music from three or four years ago was much more vibrant.  I’ve just finished a septet for this ensemble in New York.  They’re going to play it next month, and it’s very laid back and very quiet, but yet, it’s contrasted by incredible outbursts of energetic and odd-sounding stuff.  This summer I was listening to Ennio Morricone, the film composer, a lot.  I was affected by these very simple, twisted Italian melodies.  So in this latest piece I was going for something kind of simple, effortless, and kind of timeless.  It sounds so grand. 

BD:    How does someone who is merely twenty-nine years old get a piece played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

KI:    Well, if a conductor wants to do a piece, and if the circumstances work out, then he’ll take it to where he wants to perform it.  Zinman wanted to do it.  Actually he was going to do it in Baltimore last year, but they were on strike, so he’s doing it here and then next year in Baltimore and then New York.

BD:    So he must have heard your music before this, and believed in you?

KI:    Yes, he did hear my music.  He knows my music.

BD:    Is this what a composer has to do
find a conductor who will champion the music?

KI:    Oh, it definitely helps, yes.  Definitely helps, undoubtedly.

BD:    Was this piece on commission, or is this a piece you wrote and submitted?

inceKI:    Actually, no.  I had written another piece called Infrared Only that was for a commission for the New York Youth Symphony.  I wrote it when I was twenty-five, and it was done in New York when I was twenty-six.  It’s a very energetic piece with high action, and I wanted to write a second piece that will somehow take me to that piece.  This way they can go together.  It’s a twenty-minute work, or they can be played separately, as Infrared Only and Before Infrared.

BD:    You’re not going to write third piece and make it a trilogy?

KI:    No.  But so far they have been played separately.  Actually, the Brooklyn Philharmonic will play it together, maybe next year or a year later.  They’re supposed to, anyway.

BD:    Let me get a little background about you.  I assume you didn’t start out composing.  You probably started out playing an instrument?

KI:    Yes.  I started out with cello when I was about ten.

BD:    When did you decide that you wanted to be a creator rather than a re-creator?

KI:    Before that I was playing the mandolin.  This was in Turkey, in Ankara.  I like to improvise.  I was a kid and I didn’t know what I was doing.  But then I started playing cello, and my father saw that I was improvising so he encouraged me.  Then I started doing a little bit more and developed that way.

BD:    You then studied back here in the United States?

KI:    Yes.  I actually started in Turkey.  I went to the conservatory after elementary school.  That’s how the system works there.  Then you go through university, and when I was in university I transferred to Oberlin.  I finished there and then I went to Eastman School of Music where I got my doctorate two years ago.

BD:    When you’re sitting down to write a piece, are you at the stage yet where everything is under your control, or are there still times when that pencil really is controlling your hand and you follow it?

KI:    No, I am in control.  Actually, that problem sometimes exists for composers.  When they compose at the piano, then they write where their fingers take them.  But I have total control.  Sometimes you get so passionate that you may not think about things too much and do something more intuitive.  I like to do it intuitively.  I like to compose.  I believe in intuition and passion. 

BD:    Are you ever surprised where your composition winds up?

KI:    How do you mean?

BD:    When you start writing, do you know how it’s going to sound when you get to the end?

KI:    In some cases I know a general shape, and in other cases, no.  I start out with a striking idea from myself, and then that kind of takes me, and I discover as I go along.  That’s the exciting thing for me most of the time, because if I knew what was going to happen, it would be boring for me to spend all those hours.  This way I can go to bed and wake up still thinking about it.

BD:    Is the act of composing something that is laborious?

KI:    Sometimes, it can be, yes.  Sometimes you may not necessarily want to, but you must create every day for three or four hours.  That’s what I do.  I guess some people can create for seven or eight hours, but that’s my limit pretty much, four hours or so.  But every day you must do it because you’re working with deadlines.  That’s your work; you must do it every day.  Sometimes you are very excited, and other days you may not be as excited, but you know you have to work.  But yet, what comes out might still be even more exciting, even if you weren’t excited while doing it.  [Laughs]

BD:    You spend every day composing.  Do you have any other form of employment, or are you living on your commissions?

KI:    Yes, I’m living on my grants and commissions, etcetera.

BD:    I assume you are getting enough of them, then, to hold body and soul together?

KI:    For the time being, yes.

BD:    Are you getting, perhaps, too many, so that you turn some down?

KI:    No, no.

BD:    So anything that comes to you, you will accept?

KI:    Oh, yes!  I do.

BD:    If someone comes to you with a commission for a trio for piccolo, ocarina, and tuba, you will do it?

KI:    Uh!  [Laughs]  If they pay a lot of money, yes, I’ll do it.

BD:    Really???  You’d be able to crank your musical mind into a mode that you’re not familiar with, or not even enthusiastic about?

KI:    Maybe there’s something.  Maybe there’s something to pairing the piccolo and tuba that I don’t know.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Don
’t forget the ocarina!

KI:    What is that instrument?  I don’t know it.

BD:    [Surprised]  Oh!  So you’d have to learn a little bit.  It’s like a sweet potato with holes in it.

KI:    [Laughs] Oh, okay.  Well yes, I think I would even do that!  Sure.  I don’t think even money is important.  I think I will do it if I have the time, and if I can fit it in somewhere.

inceBD:    When you get a commission, do you know in advance about how long it will take to complete the work?

KI:    I have an idea.  The more you write commissioned pieces, the more you know how long it takes you to write them.  But coming back to the money point, sometimes something that I really like may not involve much money, and I’ll do it because I really like it.

BD:    In your young career, have you already written for all forms
chamber, symphony, band, etcetera?

KI:    Yes.  Well no, I haven’t written for bands.

BD:    String quartet?

KI:    When I was fourteen or fifteen I wrote for string quartet, but that was obviously a learning piece.  I have written for orchestra, chamber, piano, two instruments, piano and something else, etcetera.

BD:    Does it help if you play the instrument yourself, to get some better ideas or compositional techniques needed on the paper?

KI:    No, not at all.  Actually, sometimes it’s better that you not play the instrument because you’re not as conditioned to think in certain ways.  When you were learning on an instrument you don’t take chances necessarily, but with an instrument you don’t know, you take more chances.  Writing for the orchestra and for all these different ensembles, you develop a knowledge for all the instruments, really.  You know what they can do and what they can’t do, and what they’re best at.

BD:    Are you mostly concerned with simply the end product, the sound that comes out?  Is that really all that concerns you, rather than the technique of producing that sound?

KI:    You mean whether I’m more concerned with the process or the result?

BD:    Mm-hm.

KI:    Of course, the result.  I don’t care what the process is. 

BD:    You don’t care if the cello player stands on his head, and then bows the back of the instrument?

KI:    Oh, no!  I wouldn’t ask them to do awkward things.  I don’t believe in that.  I thought you were talking musically.

BD:    Even if it produces just the sound you want?

KI:    Standing on the head?  What kind of sound would that be?

BD:    I have no idea, but you’re the composer.  [Both laugh]  I’m creating a few hypothetical situations.

KI:    Like for instance going into the piano you can get great sounds, and yes, I’ve used that many times.

BD:    I’m looking for the compositional process, which is hard to pin down.

KI:    Yes.  As I said, I start with an idea, and then I develop from there.  You must work every day, but sometimes when I have the time, I say I cannot work.  I must somehow re-group, come back and view what I was doing from an independent point of view after a couple of days passed.  Then, maybe, whatever was going to come after or how I was going to develop the idea has ripened in my mind.  Then I’ll go back to it.  There’s times like that, too.  There’s even times where I find it very useful not to compose for, let’s say, a month.

BD:    To clear your mind?

KI:    Oh yes, because a lot of times you get into a routine.  You are able to pull back and look at it, but sometimes you need more time to pull back and refresh what you are and regroup that creative power.  Maybe every two years I find myself needing to rest for a month.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece and you get all of the notes down and you’re polishing and you’re tinkering, how do you know when to put the pencil down and say, “It is finished.  It is ready to go.”?

KI:    I don’t do any sketches.  What I write down, that’s the last score on the paper because I don’t like to copy afterwards, either.  I work with a very dark pencil, so whatever I write down is permanent for the time being, and if I want to change it, I can go back and totally erase it.

BD:    So you try to get it complete in your mind before it goes on the paper?

KI:    Yes, I do.  Sometimes it works very well, and sometimes I must later on come back and insert things or take out things or maybe erase totally.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise a score once it’s been played?

KI:    No, I haven’t really done that.  Sometimes if it’s chamber music and you know the group pretty well
or even if you don’t know them and they perform it for the first timeyou see that some things don’t work.  Right on the spot as they’re rehearsing you say, “Okay, why don’t you try this, or try that, or do this?”  If those work, then yes, I go back and change them after the performance.  Also with tempos that’s very possible, too.

BD:    Are there ever times when the performers find things in your score that you didn’t know were there
little hidden brilliances or something like that?

KI:    Well, not really hidden brilliances, but more like hidden feelings that I may not have felt.  Sometimes that happens.  I was talking to John Corigliano the other day in the ballroom here at Orchestra Hall, and he analyzed this piece and then came out with some things.  [Note: Corigliano was at that time Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  See my Interviews with John Corigliano.]  For instance, apparently the piece starts with one note and then slowly other notes get added.  Apparently I used eleven notes and don’t use the twelfth note.  When the melody comes in, then I use the twelfth note in the bass.  This is something I hadn’t thought of.

BD:    So you don’t work from theory; the theory comes afterward?

KI:    Exactly.  When I was doing my masters, I had to write a thesis on my piano concerto, and I found things that I could not believe.  They were really incredible!

BD:    Good things or bad things?

KI:    Very good things.  I couldn’t believe how everything clicked, and how everything made sense.  Corigliano was saying that he did the same thing with a piece of his, and the same thing happened.

BD:    So it’s more intuition than technique?

KI:    Yes.  My intuition is translated through my technique onto the paper.  I don’t say before I sit down, “Okay, I’ll use these, these, these, these pitches, and then I will never use these pitches,” or, “I’ll use this rhythm strictly, and then I’ll mathematically permutate that and do things.”  I don’t work that way, but some composers do.  I don’t like that.  It’s not exciting for me.

BD:    Composing the way you compose is exciting for you?

KI:    Yes.  It is exciting, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the great, big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

KI:    Maybe it is to take them to places that we cannot explain or to make them feel things that we cannot put our fingers on, such as emotions.  Music can whip so many things in me and I’m sure in other people, too
— places, times, memories, déjà vus, unexplainable moods, joy, happiness, excitement, that secret world.

inceBD:    Is it your secret world that we are going into, or are you taking us into the secret world?

KI:    No, it is my world.  Of course it’s probably part of the secret world, but it’s my world.  Every composer’s world, every individual’s world, is part of the whole world.

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a lineage of composers stretching back through the centuries?

KI:    Oh, sure.  Oh, sure, definitely!  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  [Laughs]

BD:    Are you pleased with the way this particular piece is sounding with this particular orchestra?

KI:    Yes, very much so, because there’s a lot of brass and there’s a lot of bright woodwinds.

BD:    If you get a commission for a group that is not technically so proficient, would you write something that is moving but yet technically easier?

KI:    Oh, yes, sure!  But I am very pleased with the performance here.  David Zinman is doing a super job.  He’s great.  He’s so precise.

BD:    You’ve got several commissions that you’re working on now.  How far ahead are the deadlines that you’ve already agreed?

KI:    Maybe middle of ‘91.

BD:    Is that a good feeling to know that in the middle of ‘91 you’ll have this piece completed and hear it performed?

KI:    Yes.  It will be a good feeling if I’m really pleased with the piece, which I hope to be.

BD:    Is there ever a case where you get part way in the piece and decide it’s no good and just scrap it?

KI:    No.  I never felt that way, but if I did feel that way, I would do it, I think.  On the other hand, you go through periods with every piece, and afterwards you’re not necessarily terribly impressed by it as when you were writing it.  But that’s true about all art work.  After some time passes you reconsider.  Then with some pieces you’re much more pleased and you’re really proud of them, and some pieces you’re not as much.  Maybe that’s exciting, too.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours?

KI:    I would like the audience to be involved with every measure of the music, and be somehow moved or not moved.  I hope they have some kind of reaction to every measure of the music.  I my music I would like to keep the attention of the audience at every moment, and somehow grab them with that world and take them through it, and then let them breathe only at the end.

BD:    Is it supposed to be an artistic enrichment, or is it supposed to be entertaining?

KI:    Definitely artistic enrichment, but they’re entertained in the process, which I’m sure they will be if it’s an artistic enrichment. 

BD:    Where is this delicate balance between the art and the entertainment?

KI:    Who knows?  Obviously there’s some entertainment and artistic enrichment in all classical music.  One would think that if they’re entertained, if they really like the piece, they’re enriched.  They’ve gone into this world, and I have made them think things they may not have thought and felt before.  Would you call that entertainment?  It would be, I guess.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re an American, or you’re Turkish, or what?

inceKI:    I’m both.  My mother’s American and my father’s Turkish.  I live half my life there and half my life here.  I’m living in America, so I’m an American.

BD:    Is there anything particularly Turkish that wends its way through your music?

KI:    No.  Subconsciously I have an affinity for contrasts, so that comes from not only Turkish music, but this bi-cultural-ness that I am, having been exposed to two drastically different cultures.

BD:    Is it at all difficult to put these two drastically different cultures together?

KI:    I’ve been coping with that within myself all my life within myself, not just in my music. Actually it gives me an advantage, and an edge to my music, probably.  But as far as my personality and my inner worlds, I’ve finally come in terms with that.  I’m bi-cultural and I’m finally comfortable with that.  But also I lived a year in Italy, in Rome, which was a very odd thing.  I had the Prix de Rome, the Rome Prize, and that was very hard.  I was born here in America, and I left to go to Turkey when I was seven.  When I got there, all the kids made fun of me.  They called me
the American.  I went to school and felt comfortable, then I came back here when I was twenty.

BD:    Then here you were
the Turk?

KI:    For a while, yes, and I couldn’t adjust.  Then finally I did, and finally I felt at home in America.  I liked everything about it.  Then I went to Italy for a year.  I was mostly an American in Italy, but somehow, being in Europe I was close to Turkey there.  I felt like I was no one, basically, because a year is a kind of odd time.  Are you a tourist?  Are you Italian?  What are you?  You don’t speak the language well.  By the time you get used to it, you leave.  Then I came back to America, and now, finally, I think I’m back into feeling and being very comfortable as an American.

BD:    Let me take you back to Turkey just for a minute.  What is the cultural life like in Ankara?

KI:    I was also in Izmir, too.  Ankara is the capital.  It’s very organized.  They have a good orchestra.  They have opera.  They have great theaters.  Theater is something very strong in Turkey.

BD:    Is the opera done in Turkish, or in the language that it’s written?

KI:    Mostly in Turkish, unless it’s in Italian.

BD:    Is Italian close to the Turkish language?

KI:    Not at all.  I guess they want to please the singers or something like that.  [Laughs]  In Ankara there are all the embassies and everything.  My mother’s American, so we spoke two languages at home.  But life is not bad in Ankara.

BD:    Thank you so much for coming to Chicago and for speaking with me.

KI:    Yes.  Great, great.  You do a great job!


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 13, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1995 and 2000; on WNUR in 2009 and 2010, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.