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frequently asked questions

"Kahla" or "Kayla"?

"Kayla" (as in "day").

Are you related to Alan Pierson?

No; we were close friends at Eastman and we collaborated on a number of things (most importantly, co-founding Ossia and Alarm Will Sound), but our shared last name is a coincidence!

What drew you to music?

I had a variety of musicians and artists around me from birth, most importantly my mother. I didn't go to elementary school (I wasn't formally homeschooled, just encouraged in my own appetites for knowledge and experimentation). I got to figure out music, math, and reading all together, learning to love patterns and the beauty of structure.

When did you start composing?

If composing is 'focused experiments with sound,' those are some of my earliest memories of playing by myself with rocks and water as a toddler. If it's 'fixing ideas in music notation,' that started at age five or so; if it's 'performance of one's music in public,' age eight. If it's 'starting composition lessons,' age 16 (but by that point, I was identifying primarily as a composer).

What instrument do you play?

I work as a composer and not as a performer, but during my training as a composer, I did study voice. I got to sing in some incredible choral groups (especially Eastman Chorale and the Tanglewood Young Artists Chorus), and I love and miss choral singing. Whenever I'm rehearsing one of my choral pieces with a new group, I'm always secretly aching to jump in and sing with them!

What's your work process? / How do composing and making audio differ?

I compose with pen and paper; after I've got a scrawled copy of the piece, I start making the final version using notation software.

When I make audio, as opposed to notated music, my guiding self-label is 'organic.' I don't use any computer-generated sounds; my source sounds are acoustic recordings (of instruments, voices, water, mechanical sounds, etc.). I usually record these sounds myself. I often layer them densely, and I often process them in various ways, but the sounds originate from the physical world and the result has an organic quality, more like deeply intensified reality than like total abstraction.

Making audio and composing are very different. Making audio is self-contained (I don't need to explain anything to anyone else) and very experimental, with no fixed process. Notating music, on the other hand, is communication: there's a clear path from hearing the music to fixing it on paper in a form that's as easy as possible for other people to realize. And even that hearing itself isn't self-contained, because I'm hearing in terms of specific instruments' capabilites and sonorities. Essentially: composing is about speaking through instruments/voices and communicating with the humans who will realize a score, whereas audio-making is about pure focus on sound.

What kind of music do you write?

Like many composers these days, I don't think genre labels map neatly onto my music, but here are some broader labels:

I write 'fluid' music (I'm interested in gesture, flexible motion, and propulsion; and I'm usually not interested in steady rhythms or a perceivable beat).

I write 'physical' music (I'm interested in gravity, symmetry, balance, and behaviors of physical systems — sometimes making up explicit rules for how gravity works in a given piece).

I write 'sensual' music. Harder to sum up in a sentence, but the label is both important to me and misunderstood. For example, I was once part of a panel discussion that turned to the issue of reviewers having described pieces by me and another young female as "sensual" or "seductive." My colleagues found this troubling; I find it fantastic. For me, physical, sensory and sensual impulses combine to inform and fuel creative impulse, so I love it when strangers hear this in my music. Talking about these connections can be an interesting challenge because the discussion can get simplistic and reductive, especially in our generally soundbite-oriented and sex-negative culture. It's still rare in this culture to talk about sexuality as a source of power, especially creative power, without stereotypes and simplifications.

I write 'clear' music. I'm interested in musical structures that clearly make sense to the ear, and I'm interested in lush texture but not in frenetic activity or density for their own sake. My goal is music that's clear in the way flowing water is clear — clarity combined with ever-shifting motion and momentum.

How do I encourage a child who's interested in composing?

I wasn't formally trained as a child, and as an adult I haven't taught beginning musicians, but what I can address is the process of encouraging self-directed learning and curiosity.

Today, kids can absorb an amazingly wide range of music as long as they have internet and/or library access, and as long as they get the message that the exploration itself is exciting — that all kinds of music, western/European and otherwise, are interesting and valid. 

A very useful process for kids who are interested in composing is learning music theory and getting fluent enough with music notation that they can notate their ideas freely. There's no substitute for that process (and specifically, I believe reliance on playing directly into notation software can be limiting and misleading for developing composers, especially in that it forces them into a rhythmic grid rather than letting them naturally scribble and hear in terms of gestures and flow).

Also valuable is listening to all kinds of music live, watching how particular instruments actually work and learning to hear the possibilities each instrument's sounds evoke in one's own head.