Seattle Symphony Piano Competition: Q&A with Kenji Bunch

The Seattle Symphony's first-ever Piano Competition begins on September 15 with the Recital Round featuring music by Ravel and the premiere of a new commission by Portland-based composer Kenji Bunch. We asked Kenji about his new piece, hearing eight different interpretations on the same day and about growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Free tickets and more information are available here. 

Your new piece, Premonitions, which we commissioned for the Piano Competition, is inspired by a piece about Seattle by early jazz and ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton. How did you discover this great connection to our city and how did it inform your work?

From the beginning, I wanted to write something that somehow had a unique connection to Seattle, and also related to the piano. I knew that Seattle has long been an important hub for jazz and jazz musicians, and it took just a little digging to find this little gem by Jelly Roll Morton. Apparently he would make frequent trips down to Seattle during an extended stay in Vancouver, and gambling was often on his mind, hence the title of his work, Seattle Hunch. Both the title of my piece, Premonitions, and its content pay homage to Seattle Hunch. Morton is an interesting transitional figure between ragtime and stride piano, and there was a lot of fun material in his short, energetic piece from which to draw inspiration.

When you hear your composition performed for the first time on September 15 you will get to hear eight different interpretations by eight different pianists on the same day — what will that feel like?

My hope is that each performance will feel very different, and I think that’s something we can expect. I actually wrote in space for improvisation in the piece. It’s a relatively short work, maybe 5 to 6 minutes long, and a solid minute the piece must be entirely improvised with little direction as to how to do so. My thinking is this: if we’re looking for piano virtuosity in America in the year 2015, why shouldn’t the ability to improvise be considered as a yardstick of that virtuosity? I’m not necessarily looking for the ability to improvise in a fluent, authentically stylistic manner — I’m looking mainly for creativity, courage and charisma. I think it’ll be a fun day!

From when you get up in the morning until you crash at night, what does a typical day look like for you? 

Well, “typical” is not so easy to put a finger on. I’m still an active performing musician (viola) as well as a composer. I also do some teaching, and my wife, pianist Monica Ohuchi, and I run a new music group in Portland called fEARnoMUSIC. Between all of that and running after my two little kids (3 and 10 months), every day is a bit of a scramble. But I would say an ideal work day would look this this: get up at 4:30am, work from about 5–7, make breakfast, get the kids up, and spend the morning together, work from maybe 1–5, dinner and bedtime routine, put in another hour or two in my office, then spend time winding down with Monica and then prepare for the next day.

You are originally from Portland, spent many years in New York City and have recently returned to the Pacific Northwest. What are the things you took for granted growing up here that you didn’t realize until you moved back? 

Great question! While growing up here, I had little understanding of how lucky we all are to live in these parts, just in terms of the natural beauty of our surroundings. But now, having been to nearly every state, I get it. On a similar note, I was so lucky with the music teachers I encountered — certainly my private instructors, and the experience of playing in the Portland Youth Philharmonic, but also some of my school music teachers. I played piano in my middle school stage band, and our band teacher was a former Tonight Show band trumpeter who had such an interesting, unusual perspective to offer us kids. I think I’m still realizing how much those experiences helped me become the musician I am today. And now, of course, there are sadly so few music programs in public schools, and the arts are no longer the cultural priority they were when I was growing up. Maybe someday we’ll see how short-sighted that attitude is.

Posted on August 11, 2015