Interview in Fanfare Magazine

Posted By on June 4, 2010

I have a feature interview in the May/June edition of Fanfare Magazine. I think readers would find it to be very interesting!
Here is a copy of it:

A Conversation with Hornist-composer
Kerry Turner
In Fanfare 33:4, I enthusiastically recommended a new Albany SACD showcasing works by Kerry Turner,
a longtime member of the American Horn Quartet and assistant principal horn of the Luxembourg
Philharmonic who has also produced a steady stream of compositions. The music on the SACD, whose
overall title is Karankawa (after the concert overture that leads off the program), shows that Turner has a
sure hand with orchestration. Naturally, he also writes very well for brass instruments, as you might expect
from a horn player; the disc also contains works for orchestra with horn quartet, solo tuba, and solo horn.
Not long ago, the American-born Turner called me from his home in Luxembourg to chat about horn
playing and composing in the early 21st century.
My first question was how playing in a horn quartet differs from playing in an orchestra. “A horn quartet,
especially the American Horn Quartet, is really like a turbo jet engine,” he said. “The players play with
such a quality and so well together after all these years, that when we perform it’s like taking off in top gear
in a race car, and we don’t stop. With every single note we are 100-percent on until the end of the hourand-
45-minute recital. That’s a different kettle of fish from playing in an orchestra. There are different
types of embouchure you use in an orchestra for Mahler or Mozart or whatever, and you have long periods
of rest and then a little solo. It’s very different. My wife went on the last American Horn Quartet tour with
me, and she says, ‘When you’re in this quartet it’s like you’re Superman, and when you come back to the
regular work you’re Clark Kent.’ In the quartet we have to perform virtuosic music at high intensity; in the
orchestra, for the most part, you just put your notes in the right place at the right time.”
I asked Turner how easily he, as an American-trained musician, initially fit into the Luxembourg
Philharmonic. Are there national styles of horn playing anymore? Indeed there are, he said. “It’s true that
the world is getting smaller with CDs and also with the hornists around the world being in contact with
each other; that’s brought a lot of styles together. But there’s still a detectable London style, there are
famous sounds in Vienna and Berlin, and in the United States you’re divided between the Chicago camp
and the New York camp. Then there’s a Hollywood sound too. In the rest of the world that’s not in Europe
or America, particularly Japan and South America, they end up choosing a school to go with. Japan has
100-percent adopted the German way of playing the horn. For a while in Paris they were playing in an
American style, but that’s changed in the past few years. Here in the Luxembourg Philharmonic, we have
three North Americans, all trained in North America, and a Hungarian, which represents another famous
horn school. I would say that you have a very American sound in Luxembourg. We’re probably one of the
most New York-sounding horn sections in Europe.”
At his Web site, Turner reveals that he also sings tenor in a semi-professional octet. I asked him if singing
carries over into his work as a horn player, and how playing the horn affects his approach to singing, if it
does at all. “My teacher was Hermann Baumann,” Turner replied, “and he was also a singer; his whole
philosophy was that you play the horn as you sing. He believed in a strong correlation with singing: Listen
to how singers turn phrases and breathe, and horn players can emulate this. I was Hermann Baumann’s fan
when I was very young, long before I studied with him, so I’ve had this in my mind for a long time. He
plays like a tenor in an opera, very bravura and well sung. In the horn quartet you hear us ‘singing’ a lot,
even with big vibrato, because we’re carrying a lyrical melody.”
I asked Turner to speak from the perspective of a composer, then, and consider what makes music sit well
on the horn or another brass instrument—what does the horn do well, and what gives it trouble? “The thing
about horn that’s so amazing,” he said, “is that, particularly in the Romantic times, they discovered that the
horn can cover a wide range of emotions, and that carries into the famous Hollywood film scores, from
Korngold to John Williams; they’ve had spectacular horn lines, not only lyrical melodies that touch the
heart, but stuff that’s very heroic. Listen to Jurassic Park, or Heldenleben to put it on the concert stage.
They give you a real adrenaline rush. I just completed a symphony where I have eight horns playing in a
chorale style, because eight horns have a dark, beautiful sound, almost like a Russian Orthodox choir. Then
when they play heroic passages it’s thrilling, and they can get across very intense emotions too. And there
are special effects you can use, like flutter tongue and stopped bells. In Karankawa, when the canons go off
to represent the big battle, I have a sound like people screaming—through the horns.” All well and good,
but I wondered whether Turner intentionally writes music that will make the players jump through hoops,
or if he tries to make life easier for them, having had to play enough hard music by other people? “Despite
what people may think, I do not try to make people jump through hoops,” he insists. “But when I play my
own music I’m shocked by how hard it is. It’s no more difficult than études that horn players learn in
school, but it’s true that some of those are incredibly difficult. I don’t write in a super-modern style, which
is a whole different approach. I try to put less in, so players can rest a couple of bars before the next lick. I
also try to write long phrases so they don’t sit there for a while and then just play a couple of notes, which
is hard for horn players to do. I also know the dangers of jumping from low notes to high notes, so I try to
give them a good approach. For other instruments, I’ve really done my best for people to be able to read the
music for the first time off the page. Orchestras don’t have a lot of time to play new works; they get one
reading and one rehearsal and then a performance. I want it to be a decent reading, so it can’t be
remarkably difficult. That’s different from writing really intricate and challenging chamber music for good
players; I always have to send a recording of the piece to the ensemble so they can hear the final product,
because they can’t quite get it in the first reading. Sometimes my creative side overruns my practical side,
and I try to keep that in balance.”
I brought up a comment he’d posted on his Web site, on the page about his inspirations, where he wrote, “I
truly feel that the art of modern composition is going down the wrong path.” I asked him to elaborate.
“That statement came from sitting in a symphony orchestra for 26 years,” he said. “In Europe we do a lot of
modern composers. A lot of the orchestras were, until recently, highly state-funded, so they have some
autonomy from the audience. So every two weeks or so we’ll play a modern piece. Now, compare it to
going to an art gallery. If a person goes to a gallery and sees a painting he thinks is ugly or difficult or a
controversial scene, he’s not forced to sit there for 20 minutes and stare at it. But in the concert hall you
can’t leave in the middle of 20 minutes of something that’s aggressive or ugly or very difficult to listen to.
I’ve watched composers come in to record their works; the orchestra players have sunk their teeth into it,
and walked away saying, ‘That isn’t very good.’ The only person who enjoyed it was the composer
himself. Many years ago I entered some of my works in composition contests in Europe and Japan. They
didn’t ask for a recording; they just wanted to see the score. One of the pieces was Karankawa. They didn’t
even make the second round. I figured, OK, that’s the way a competition is. Later, I was performing Six
Lives of Jack McBride for tenor, horn, violin, and piano five times around the Cologne area. The pianist
was a professor of composition at an academy nearby, and he went on the radio and said, ‘When you open
up Turner’s scores, they look very simple, not complex or mathematical.’ Well, you don’t get it at the first
look. But when you play it, it springs alive. He also talked about how something else looks on the page, and
it struck me that he was talking like a visual artist. But music is about how it sounds, not how it looks.
These people are judging new works according to how they look, not how they sound. Well, ask the
audience what they like. In large cities, they like to hear the absolute avant-garde, and it’s fantastic they
have that. But inspired music that’s true to its own heart and music that deals with mankind’s soul in 2010
is being called trite or plagiarist. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe composition has been hijacked by
professors in their ivory towers. Every time I give that speech I get extremely positive feedback.”
So, putting his opinions into practice, he produced the four works on the new CD, pieces that were written
in the mid 1990s. “I was going through a dark period then,” he admits. “But I had good friends who told me
to keep writing; they commissioned things from me, so I did it, but for the most part these scores stayed in
my cellar untouched for 10 years. Once in a while I’d get it out and say, ‘Karankawa, that’s the best work
I’ve ever done.’ But I was too busy to promote it. Finally, Dariusz Wisniewski, the conductor on the CD,
gave me the inspiration to bring these into the world. Most of the people involved in this production
donated their service for free because they believed in the project, even printing the music. I took my time,
writing these by hand on manuscript paper with pencil and eraser. I feel there’s a very human touch to these
pieces, and you can hear me and other people in the music. It’s not computer-generated. There’s a little
experimentation with minimalism and atonality, but basically these are tonal works, with a bit of a Copland
sound because that’s my heritage. Here in Europe the Copland/Bernstein sound is very exotic and they like
it, and when they commission me that’s what they want to hear. Karankawa is probably the piece that’s
going to burst off the CD into the orchestral world. It’s eight minutes, very powerful, and it’s got a great
story and memorable melodies.”
The rest of the disc is devoted to concertante works; oddly, Turner is not the soloist in the Concerto for
Low Horn, even though it’s listed in his repertoire. “Charles Putnam is the low horn player in the American
Horn Quartet, and in the world of horn players, Charlie Putnam is well known as one of the leading horn
players,” Turner said. “I do play the part, and I thought I would record it, but as the recording date
approached, I decided to sit back and act as director of the project, and just play in the Introduction and
Main Event (as a member of the American Horn Quartet). Except for the Concerto for Low Horn, these
pieces haven’t been played at all, so I had to spend time correcting parts. Charlie said he’d do the concerto
for free, so I ate humble pie and let him do it. I decided to hand it over to somebody who’s a low horn
The soloist in Turner’s Tuba Concerto is the composer’s brother Kyle. “He’s one of the leading tuba
players in the United States,” Turner says. “He was interim tubist in the New York Philharmonic for three
years, and he reached a level of playing that was extremely high. He started playing a piece of mine that
was actually a cello sonata, and played it on his CD. At the same time, he was looking at this piece, which
was originally a bass trombone concerto, and he said, ‘This would be a great tuba concerto.’ So when the
time came to choose who I wanted on the album, the trombonist who commissioned it was in Thailand
actually playing it there the same week we were recording in Warsaw, so he couldn’t do it. So I asked my
brother Kyle to come over and do it on the tuba. He is a natural, lyrical soloist, and this piece fit him very
well. He’s a freelancer now, playing one gig after another, so he finished a concert with the American
Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, took a taxi straight to the airport, fell asleep on the plane, came right
to the concert hall in Warsaw and started playing, and when we were done it took him a while to realize he
was in Warsaw.”
Turner hopes that the notice he should receive for this CD will help him launch into the concert hall his
most ambitious composition to date. “I worked for two years on my symphony,” he said. “It’s a huge work,
with a chorus in the last movement, and an offstage Baroque ensemble. I was waiting for a commission that
never came, but I’d never asked for a commission, so I finally decided at the advice of my friends to write
the thing. Now I have a MIDI file along with the score; it’s brand new and just out, and I was hoping to
launch this CD as my debut in the orchestral world so people can hear how I write for orchestra, and then
after that say, ‘OK, here’s the symphony, which is the most sophisticated work I’ve ever written.’ So I’ll be
looking to have that recorded, and I have a couple of bites for the world premiere in the next couple of
years.” Given the work’s dimensions and the composer’s ambitions for it, the subject is not surprising. Said
Turner, “It’s about the Holy Grail.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:5 (May/June 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.

About the author


Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.

You must be logged in to post a comment.