There are many composers who intertwine eclectic influences into one coherent picture, but few people do it as ambitiously and convincingly as New York City based composer Debra Kaye. On IKARUS AMONG THE STARS, she vibrantly explores themes both real and surreal, perpetual and fleeting, nonchalant, and profound.

Today, Debra is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about her love for American roots music, and the full spectrum of emotion she hopes listeners will experience with her work…

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be writing words. My original impulse was for self-expression, and then it became the question of what form that would take – words or music? The verbal, written language was my first language. But music entranced me and showed me a more expansive world, something beyond words. I think musicians are the most fortunate of artists because we can connect with each other through music and our love for it. It’s an artistic as well as a spiritual connection.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

I would love to collaborate with conductor JoAnn Falletta. She has heard my music and connects with it. We came from similar roots at Mannes. We were there at the same time and the teachers were all talking about her. And she’s a woman who has actualized herself in music, in my opinion, to the full degree, and mainly because of the passion, smarts, musicianship, and artistry that she brings to her performances. I would be honored, delighted, and deeply fulfilled to collaborate with her.

What advice would you give to your younger self if given the chance?

Don’t be afraid. Whisk it away.

What emotions do you hope listeners will experience after hearing your work? 

I hope listeners will experience a full spectrum of emotions in the body of my work, and especially in the darker pieces, to come away with a feeling of hope and inspiration. This is how I want to live my life — to experience and try to process my emotions, and find a way through the more difficult times. Music and the arts in general can help accompany us on our emotional journey, create a safe space, and can even be cathartic.

How have your influences changed as you grow as a musician?

Early on, my influences were mostly from classical music — performances of the repertoire or the passion and persona of the artists themselves. But now I find myself influenced by a wide variety of sources, some of them, beyond the realm of music — the real-life counterpoint of a New York city street, random sounds — the knocking of the radiator, water dripping, a walk in the forest, birdsong… the patterns of life itself as I accumulate the chapters. The tenor of the news, politics, one or another world crisis and the ever present and increasing threat of climate change. 

Musically, at this point I’ve also embraced my jazz and popular music side and have an accumulation of influences. Some years after college, I studied jazz piano with Mike Longo, a former musical director to Dizzy Gillespie. He was an excellent teacher. Before even touching the piano, we did a few months of African drumming, counting all kinds of patterns against the 12/8 beat. So I can swing and am happy to be able to improvise and play by ear. I’m a sucker for music with a beat, that is if I like it in the first place. I love American roots music and the uneven beats of Balkan and Greek music. I’ve enjoyed exploring the musical scales from different cultures, which led me to make up my own scales and see what moods I could find in them. Experiencing life through a musical lens opens one to an inexhaustible array of influences.

Where and when are you at your most creative? 

When I am most open. Morning and late afternoon seem to be my hottest times. It doesn’t matter so much where, or maybe it matters a lot, because I tend to be migratory. Being a pianist, when I’m writing for piano I usually spend more time on the instrument. Other than that, it’s me and my laptop. 

When I’m home, I may start out in one chair and move to its neighbor. Throughout the day, I might write from 3 or different 4 spots, but lately, hardly ever at a desk. One of my favorite things is to compose while I’m on a train or a plane. It feels freeing to be in motion, there’s a sense of momentum, an “anything’s possible” kind of feeling.

  • Debra Kaye

    “A new voice on our horizon is felt and heard with [composer] Debra Kaye” (Classical Modern Music Review). Her visceral music has been described as “an eclectic unfolding of creativity” (Gramophone), it ranges from lyrical to grooving, experimental to coloristic but above all, expressive and deeply felt. Kaye is a hybrid and her music reflects it. Born in Motown, currently living in New York City, she moved to Atlanta at an early age. Her life and music reflect a desire to feel, understand, and to integrate opposites.