A CONVERSATION WITH KENJI BUNCH
The following is a transcript of a recent conversation I had with my 8-yr. old pit bull, Coffee. A longtime associate and frequent collaborator, Coffee is also the President and CEO of Bulging Disc Records. In a corporate world still largely dominated by Caucasian males, this is no small achievement for a Canine female.
Coffee: It was, what- five years ago that we did our first interview for your website?
KB: Wow… yes, I believe it was. Time sure flies.
Coffee: It certainly does. Back then, I remember we talked about the musical influences and interests that have shaped your work. Do you think your answer would be different now, a few years down the road?
KB: That’s an interesting question. I think, hopefully, we all evolve over time- or at least, we inevitably change over time, whether or not it can be seen as evolution. I think, for me anyway, I’ve really focused the work I do a lot in the last several years- so maybe my answers would be a little different.
Five years ago, I was just starting to perform my own compositions publicly. Prior to that, I made a point of keeping my playing and composing careers quite separate. These days, I’d say the overwhelming majority of the work I do involves, in some way, me performing my own music.
I also used to keep my interest in folk music (bluegrass fiddle, etc.) kind of sequestered away from my work in the “classical” world. Now, I often combine that influence into the music I write and perform.
So, to get back to your question, I still like to think I have an open enough mind to be receptive to potential inspiration from any source- musical or otherwise- but I’ve focused my career more today, and I think a list of what influences me currently might reflect that streamlining.
Coffee: Why do you think you used to compartmentalize your parallel careers? And what would lead you to, as you say, “streamlining” them today?
KB: On a basic level, I think it came from an insecurity that made me feel like I had to somehow prove myself in each of those fields without using any recognition for my achievements in other areas to give me a boost, if that makes any sense.
I think early on, since I didn’t really start writing until I was in college studying the viola, it was important to me to establish an identity as a composer that didn’t rely on, or involve my participation as a performer. This worked pretty well, but it may have gone too far in the other direction, because there were times when people assumed I had stopped playing the viola. That actually made me kind of sad, because I love the viola and I’ve always felt it’s a big part of my identity. I also truly love performing and would never walk away from it unless I had to.
I realized that I had developed an identity as a composer, but my identity as a performer was less clear. I specialized in new music, with the Flux Quartet (1996-2002) and Ne(x)tworks (2004-2011), but also enjoyed traditional classical music and bluegrass. That’s not too different from many working performers these days, who need a versatile skill set to be marketable. But I realized I was maybe missing an opportunity to put myself out there in a more unique way, and fortunately I’ve had those opportunities in the last few years, as I’ve been able to present my own compositions myself.
Coffee: I see. How about non-musical interests? How do you enjoy spending your time away from your work?
KB: What time away from my work? I’m only half joking. The weird thing about a career as a composer is that sometimes it’s very hard to tell when you start working and when you stop. Sometimes I do my best work just sitting on a subway train or lying in bed trying to get to sleep. The brain seems to have its own work hours that we have little control over.
And maybe because of that, I enjoy activities that allow my brain to be creative- or relaxed enough to let creative thoughts enter. I think that’s why I enjoy cooking so much- I find it really encourages the same kind of creative thinking that composing does. I also enjoy long-distance running. Long runs free and relax my mind in a way that I imagine is similar to meditation. Also, I like the physical and psychological challenges of completing a long run. Sometimes you deal with a lot of physical discomfort, as well as plenty of doubt and negative thoughts, and working through those issues gives me more confidence to see through the challenges of completing a new piece of music.
Coffee: Did I hear correctly that you like to play basketball?
KB: That is indeed correct. I’m a pretty terrible ball player, but I really love the game. I love all sports- football, tennis, etc. But I find basketball to be very similar to chamber music- or better yet, to playing with a small ensemble or band (bluegrass or otherwise) that involves improvisation. The game is wonderfully simple, but within the context of that simplicity, there are so many variables that present themselves and require constantly evolving contingency plans.
Coffee: What’s next for you? Say we do this again in another five years… where do you see yourself in terms of the work you’ll be doing?
KB: Well, as you know, a lot can happen in five years! Just look at our work together with Bulging Disc Records and “Unleashed!” I would never have dreamed you’d be running a record label, and I would record an album of my own original music for solo viola. But we did it- with a lot of help from some extremely talented people, like Sean [producer Sean McClowry], and Amy [graphic designer Amy Iwazumi of Amy I Productions- who also designed this website!].
Coffee: We did it- you’re right! What do you think our next record will feature?
KB: Well, the overarching goal with “Unleashed!” was to present what I feel is the incredible versatility of the viola- which is why it was entirely solo viola with no looping, overdubbing, or other funny stuff. The way I see it, anybody can play around with a loop pedal and a laptop, but I wanted to really honor the acoustic instrument by itself.
Now that I’ve done that, maybe I would add some other elements to our next record- possibly overdubbing another track or two at times, maybe adding vocals, even a guest performer or two- like Monica [pianist Monica Ohuchi]. But the focus will still be on the viola. I want to continue to challenge myself to play things that may seem difficult or unexpected on the viola. I figure, if I’m going to push the envelope of viola technique with my writing, I had better be able to walk the walk and back it up with my playing.
Coffee: Did you say “walk?!”
KB: Oh, right… okay, I’m guessing we’re done talking now. Let’s go!