Credit: Peter Gannushkin

Violinist, vocalist, and composer Carla Kihlstedt has traversed styles and defied hierarchies for her entire career. She came into her own in the Bay Area in the mid-90s and now lives near Boston, teaching improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music. You may know Kihlstedt as a member of wild San Francisco art-rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, or as a trusted collaborator of veteran experimental guitarist Fred Frith. She maintains the improvising project Minamo with Japanese free-jazz pianist Satoko Fujii, and in the projects that she masterminds she often draws from literature—in 2008 she presented Necessary Monsters, inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kihlstedt’s roots are in classical music, though, and for her MCA concert this weekend she returns to those beginnings, after a fashion. She’s a 2013 participant in the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s ICElab project—which the prestigious group uses to commission new work—and on Saturday she’ll give the Chicago premiere of the nine-part song cycle At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire accompanied by nine members of ICE (including founder and flutist Claire Chase, harpist Bridget Kibbey, percussionist Nathan Davis, and bassoonist Rebekah Keller). Its lyrics are inspired by dreams, both Kihlstedt’s own and those of volunteers who submitted material to a Facebook page she set up.

Carla Kihlstedt and ICE perform “Against Dreaming,” the fifth movement of At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire, at last month’s Ecstatic Music Festival in New York. Watch video of all nine movements.

I’ve been listening to your music for a long time, and I never realized that you had a start with classical music. That was your training, right?

Yep. It was so long ago!

Is that initially what you thought you would be doing? That kind of career?

Yeah, I guess. I started when I was five and I was playing violin—that kind of came first in my family because my grandparents were amateur musicians for whom playing in a string quartet was part of their weekly social life. That’s how they hung out with their friends. They all got together and sight-read Haydn and Beethoven and Mozart string quartets. And actually my Hungarian grandfather’s sister was a professional violinist, and she tried to get all the cousins before me to play violin, and they all either stunk at it or they hated it. I was her last hope, so she gave me a little violin when I was five.

I went to Oberlin Conservatory, mainly because they had a college, and I always had this curiosity about other things that classical music alone and the rigidness of that wasn’t gonna satisfy. Oberlin was the only place I wanted to go, because I could take art classes and philosophy classes and everything else. And then at Oberlin we started an improvisational ensemble, with Ornette Coleman tunes and all kinds of other explorations. And my best friend was a choreographer, and she and I would put pieces together that I would write the soundtrack or do sound design for, and that was kind of the beginning of the end!

According to my teachers, I was headed toward a solo career at best, an orchestral career at worst. But I never wanted to be in an orchestra. It just wasn’t what got me excited about music. I won the concerto competition when I was a senior in college with a Beethoven concerto and ended up writing my own cadenza for it, which of course was a scandal. That shouldn’t be a scandal! That world, as wonderful as it is and as much as I owe to it, it wasn’t for me in the end.

What’s interesting about [At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire] is that I’m coming back to [the classical world] in a way that’s much more personal for me, writing for these guys that are such badass classical players. They can play anything, and they have these great attitudes of total generosity, and they’re ready to do anything you ask them to do, and they’re ready to tell you what they can do that you might not know. It’s really a best-case scenario of all the great things about the classical world and all the great things about a more contemporary way of making music.

You know that the members of ICE have worked with a really diverse group of composers. You or Tyshawn Sorey or whatever—they’re very open. I’ve seen plenty of their performances, and it seems like they relish the challenge of someone coming in and saying, “Can we do this? Is this possible?” It does seem like you’re going back to your classical roots, but I saw the video on the ICE site, and it sounds like your music, you know?

[Laughter.] No matter how hard you try to escape yourself!

I think it’s a good thing! When this was granted, did you think, “Oh, I need to write something more classical”?

The answer to that would depend on what day you’re talking about! It was a year-and-a-half process, which is plenty of time for all your demons and internal voices to jump up and then be quelled. So for sure I had days of thinking, “I really need to use what their strengths are,” and imagine them playing these incredibly complicated Xenakis pieces.

At the very beginning, the great thing about it being 18 months, with a lot of time in between everything, was that the first time I got to meet with them, I just sat in a room with one or two or three of them individually and asked them all my dumb questions. My husband [Matthias Bossi] is a drummer and percussionist, but I’ve never written percussion on a score. So I sat with [ICE percussionist] Nathan [Davis] and said, OK, basic language: How do you want things to look on the page? And then more specifically, what are the different instruments? Like, what are the seven different kinds of gongs you have? What’s the range? All these dumb, remedial questions that there was time and space to ask.

Because it had such a long time to germinate, it’s kind of a combination of things that come from the language that I’ve been developing and their own influence.

I’ve only seen the one clip, which I know was an early rehearsal piece.

Yeah, it was just like an in-progress showing of what we’d been working on that week.

Working with them for that long period, I assume there was a lot of back and forth, getting together with them, doing stuff over Skype. Can you talk about the process?

There wasn’t any remote work, except for the occasional e-mail I would send, either asking them a question about their instrument or “Are you willing to do this?” Like, I’d never written for harp before. I’d played with Zeena Parkins, but I’d never done in-depth, scored writing for harp. But you know, Zeena’s such a wonderful improviser that it’s really easy just to give her a skeleton and say, “Here’s the gist, what do you want to do?” And with Bridget [Kibbey], the [ICE] harp player, a few times with her and with the guitarist I would send them little bits of scores, saying, “Is this possible on your instrument? How does this fit?” But aside from that, it was really just the three workshop periods when we were actually in the same room, and then I’d put it away for a few months and not think about it, and then do some mad scribblings. And then we’d get together again. Of course there’s a piece that didn’t get finished until two days before the concert. There’s always one of those!

Were you composing much at Oberlin? Because a lot of it sounds like it’s come out of the rock and improv stuff that you’ve done over the years. They seem like songs, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense or anything, because I come out of rock. I just wonder if doing stuff that’s more “classical,” is that something you’re not interested in?

I got bitten by the song bug for sure in a pretty big way, because a lot of the groups that really turned me on and changed my whole idea of what music could do and be were—like Art Bears, for example. It’s really about story­telling and has the same kind of dramatic and expansive harmonic language that classical music has, but it’s at the service of these very concise songs. I’ve always liked concise things. When I was a kid and I wrote poetry, there was nothing longer than ten lines. And then of course Sleepytime Gorilla Museum—that’s somewhere between rock and heavy metal and open-ended, through-composed, very textural-­oriented contemporary classical. So I guess I’ve always liked things that don’t quite sit anywhere, which of course is the great problem with my career.

Does it feel rewarding? You started teaching at the New England Conservatory in—was it 2010? It seems like you’re doing OK, and it’s no longer so freaky that someone is going between these worlds. Musicians have done that for a really long time, and it’s only the media or outsiders that think, “You’re not supposed to do that.” But it seems the most natural thing.

Yeah, and some of the institutions are starting to catch on.

ICE is clearly—that’s such a big part of what they do. And now they’re becoming this respected institution. In a way, the world’s catching up with what you do.

And I was chasing other people that did it before me, like Fred Frith, who also has made a career out of anchoring many different influences within his own writing. I don’t feel like a pioneer in that way. I feel like I had great role models.

It seems like so many of your pieces, at least the vocal pieces, start from some kind of image or narrative. Do you think of the story first, or does it kind of come along to fit the feel of the music?

It’s a push-and-pull kind of situation. It depends on the piece, really. With a few exceptions, this piece, because it’s so image based, the images were key to figuring out what the purpose of each song was. The imagery kind of came first. Except that’s not totally true. There were some things really early in the process, when I didn’t have that many submissions yet and I just wanted to explore what the group sounded like and what I could do with it from a writing perspective, there were some things where I just started writing without knowing where it would end up, or at the service of what song or what image. And a lot of that stuff didn’t end up making it into the piece, but some things ended up fitting perfectly in. And then the lyrics are pushed by the rhythm and the rhythm is pushed by the lyrics. It’s a pretty inexact and nonformulaic science. And there’s some hidden dream imagery that I used that no one will know about, layered in the piece just because it’s what I was thinking about.

For this, at the very beginning, because I’d never written for a group this big—I mean, Necessary Monsters was seven people and this is ten, and there were instruments I’d never written for. So at the beginning I was giving myself little assignments, homework assignments, like, “Write a trio for bassoon, clarinet, and flute, and whether you use it or not doesn’t matter.” Just to kick-start my own confidence. Like, OK, I can actually do this.

I know I phrased that question like, “What comes first, lyrics or music,” but I think I meant more, “How driven by the narrative is each project?” It seems like a lot of them are built around some kind of literary inspiration or idea you’ve been sitting with. I’m curious if there’s times where it doesn’t happen, where you just sit down and …

I hate the blank page with nothing on it. When my sister [Rya] and I were little, my grandmother had this whole art studio in her basement, and we’d sit across the table from each other with these big stacks of paper and a whole bunch of pens, and Rya, who’s fast at everything, would just grab pens and start spewing out these great drawings. And I would look at the first page and have nothing on it and be totally petrified. You know, that first stroke, and I go, “What am I gonna do?”

For me, it might be that part of my attachment to having a narrative come first is that it eases me into the project. It gives my mind an anchor to hang my ideas on. And I also just like reacting—I like reacting to other people’s ideas and taking one idea and looking at it from a whole bunch of different facets.

Since you moved [to Massachusetts], is it getting harder to tour? Do you feel like some of the more bandlike projects are more on the periphery?

For sure, it’s harder to tour. But we have a great situation where Matthias’s parents live here on Cape Cod, so we can leave [our daughter] Tallulah home and go to Europe for ten days if we need to. She gets mad at me when I get home, but she has a great time while I’m gone. So we have a really great support system in place to keep some amount of touring. But I used to tour ten months a year, and that doesn’t even sound appealing to me anymore. It sounds pretty nightmarish. Though it wasn’t while I was doing it—I loved it.

Now we’ve been superproductive. We’re still trying to figure out where our community is here. In the last couple years, we started Rabbit Rabbit Radio, I did this commission, Matthias has started a company called Ridiculon with his friend Jon [Evans], and they’re writing great video game music and doing lots of crazy and promising musical endeavors. It’s been a lonely couple years, honestly, but a superproductive couple years. So that’s our next challenge. I spent 17 years out in the Bay Area, so I had such a great community, and I for sure miss it. I miss Sleepytime [Gorilla Museum], I miss those guys, I miss that culture. But there’s so much else that works about where we are.

So Tin Hat still exists, it’s just more of a—

Kind of! Tin Hat’s a challenged organization, but only because we live so far away from each other. But we’re doing some shows coming up, actually—we just put out that E.E. Cummings record this year. And the big exception to your previous question about whether things always have a story impulse first—the big exception right now is Causing a Tiger. It’s truly the most spontaneous group I’m in. Shahzad [Ismaily] and Matthias, we never rehearse. It’s all totally improvised now. I go out onstage with a notebook full of lyrics and maybe a book or two of people whose words I like, and sometimes I improvise the words and sometimes I choose from what’s on the stand in front of me, and we never know what’s gonna happen, and that is so exciting and so thrilling and it’s always totally unpredictable—unlike a lot of the other supercrafted stuff I do. But our challenge is always to make it feel really structured, formally succinct, and cohesive.

I know you’ve got a long history of improvising on the violin—Minamo, a bunch of other stuff—so improvising vocal melodies is kind of a new frontier. Or have you done that a lot before?

I haven’t done it a lot. The first real time was with Causing a Tiger, when we did a tour maybe a year and a half ago, and Shahzad forbade me to play violin. Right before that we made this record—Shahzad came to the Cape and we borrowed a farmhouse from family members of Matthias’s that no one was living in and we set up two mikes, totally lo-fi situation, and I used my violin pedal board because Shahzad had forbidden me to play violin. He’s like, “It’s too easy for you.” So I put my vocals through my violin effects and we just messed around and it was so much fun, and then we kinda took that on the road. And that was always totally terrifying and really fun. And Shahzad’s great at that, at saying, “OK, what’s gonna keep us collectively on the edge of our seats together?”