Jeremy Kurtz-Harris


Kurt Muroki: On chamber music, listening to the hall, and being a musician first

[Originally published in the International Society of Bassists's "Bass World" magazine]

Kurt Muroki is one of the few bassists I have met who has taken his love for chamber music and turned it into a significant part of his career. His recent schedule has included concerts with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (he can be heard on their recent Deutsche Grammophon recording Dreams of Fancy, Tales of Loss with mezzo Ewa Podles), performing at the 92nd St. Y with Jamie Laredo and Friends, performing with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, subbing with the New York City Ballet and as principal with the American Symphony Orchestra, performing with the Marlboro Music Festival Orchestra, and performing at Carnegie Hall for a chamber music tribute concert to Elliot Carter. Kurt and I have been exchanging emails over the past year about a variety of topics, and I had been waiting for a chance to follow up on these discussions. On a recent trip to New York, I finally had the opportunity to sit down to talk with Kurt in person at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he recently joined the faculty.

Jeremy Kurtz: What are some of the experiences that have musically inspired you?

Kurt Muroki: My first inspirational bass experience was working with Alois Posch at the Pacific Music Festival. He was the first bassist who really was an inspiration to me, and it was a truly amazing experience. We were playing Beethoven 9, and he was sitting principal. I was lucky—I got to sit next to him. And I have to say, the man played every note—absolutely every note—both musically and with a huge sound. It was on a bass he didn’t even know: it was a bad, hard-to-play Italian bass that he did not care for. He was the most inspirational guy, because he was able to use his amazing gestures and musicality to pull us along in the most natural way, instead of simply directing us with words.

Then he gave us a chamber music coaching of the Dvorak Quintet and he brought the music to life like I’d never experienced. He was one hundred percent inspirational, as a musician and a person. From that time on, I knew I wanted to do chamber music. And from then I knew that I wanted to be a musician, not just a bass player. Being a musician, for me, encompasses everything: sound, technique—everything. If your goal is to be a musician, you remove the limitations the instrument has and replace them with your vision of what the music should be. If you think of yourself as a bass player, you set limitations on what you can do.

JK: When I first met you, you were one of the only bass players I knew who was set on doing chamber music and chamber orchestra for a career, and had the goods to make it happen.

KM: I don’t know if I had “the goods,” it’s just what I really wanted to do. I think that anyone can do it if they really want to do it. But then you have to set yourself up to do it. If you’re auditioning for an orchestra, you have to take certain steps to win the job. If you want to be a chamber musician, you have to set your goals and priorities.

One of my first goals was to attend Marlboro Music Festival [the premiere U.S. chamber music festival], which I finally did in 1998. And after that, I thought about what was next. I wanted to play as much chamber music as possible, so I auditioned for the Chamber Music Society [at Lincoln Center].

JK: You auditioned for CMS 2? [The Chamber Music Society’s program “for outstanding young performers in the early stages of major careers.”]

KM: Exactly. But instead I just was asked to play with the regular CMS from time to time—I filled in whenever Edgar Meyer wasn’t available.

JK: Where else did you play?

KM: I had started playing with International Sejong Soloists in 1992 and continued with them for many years. We toured a lot, and they really emphasized playing perfectly. It was good training. You couldn’t make a mistake! [laughing]

JK: I’m still impressed, because I know how many people get out of music school and are immediately in survival mode—just worried about getting any work. They take as many bad gigs as they can, and it often wears them down. How did you keep your resolve while still making a living?

KM: Oh, I did tons of bad gigs! You just have to decide where you want to be in 10 years, and where you want to be in 20 years, and figure out what you need to do to get there. If you do chamber music, it’s a very limited field, so you either have to work really hard, or you have to get in good with people who matter.

JK: I think a lot of bassists believe that if you make a career out of chamber music, you have to play “Trout” three times a week.

KM: Yeah, that’s absolutely the stereotype.

JK: So how do you find out about good chamber music repertoire and not cycle through the same three or four standard pieces all the time?

KM: You just have to do research. Talk to the librarian of your school or music library and they should be able to help you. Also, talk with bassists around the world, look for recordings, and contact composers—there is a big rift in the availability of new European music in America and vice versa.

JK: So you think there’s a lot of good chamber music out there?

KM: Oh, tons! There’s tons! Onslow, Lachner, Kurtag, Bruch, Pleyel, Hindemith, even Brahms—there’s all kinds of stuff. I don’t even know where to begin. There’s so much out there that we don’t play.

I’m playing with the Jupiter Chamber Players in New York City that never repeat anything. They keep doing new pieces that they’ve never done before, and that’s their thing. They keep coming up with great music that I’ve never heard before. 

There is more rep out there than you think. The reason that it’s not well known is that we’re not focused on it. If bassists were all focused on chamber music, then there would be a lot more out there—we would do more research and find more hidden gems. But it’s not a priority in the schools, or in the general population of bass players. I mean, how much of the ISB is dedicated to chamber music? Not very much. When I get Bass World magazine, most of the content is dedicated to solos, orchestra, or jazz.

I think the whole reason that it’s not a focus of ours and why we don’t find a lot of the repertoire has to do with our schooling. When I went to Juilliard, we were not offered any chamber music, even though it was mandatory for the other string players. In fact, the dean of the school said that I would never make it as a chamber musician or soloist, that I should concentrate on my orchestral work, and that Juilliard wasn’t the place for me if chamber and solo music were my goal. I was told that I should think of leaving the school if those were my goals.

In my mind, I think the schools should always offer more chamber music because it teaches you solo and orchestra at the same time: you have to be a soloist, you have to be an orchestral player. Chamber music is the best training for all types of playing.

JK: You studied with Homer Mensch at Juilliard for almost six years. What were some of the main ideas you learned from him?

KM: First of all, my bow grip was the single most valuable thing I walked away with. If I had to sum him up in one word that word would be “control.” It was about how you achieve the control. If you get control over the instrument, then you can do anything you want and the bass does not get in the way.

But it was all about how you have contact with the string, how you maintain contact, and how you utilize every single inch of the bow. It’s not just the start of the note and the finish of the note: it has to do with how you play through the note. I think that was his main concept of sound. It always has to do with every inch.

With the bow, you have to maintain the activity in the fingers: they’re not dead on the stick, and you’re not just pulling. There has to be a constant motion in your fingers, there has to be this constant adjusting to maintain the contact point throughout the stick.

He felt that the bow should cut the string. You should play as though you are cutting the string with the hair, almost like a saw, instead of just pulling the hair across the string.

JK: But always with a clean sound—not pressed?

KM: Very clean and not pressed. The cleanest bass player I’ve ever heard. I never heard a bad note out of him. Also, in my mind, pressed is a term that can be misinterpreted and has been misused quite a bit. He had contact through the string, through the bridge, and through the instrument.

He would pick up any bass, and I never heard a false start, ever. I learned from him that when you have playing issues, it’s about the technique. It’s almost never about the equipment.

One time I had to play a new music piece and I was complaining about my instrument and my bow because I was having trouble playing. He said, “Let me take a look at that.” We were in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, and he came up and started playing. He tried a few notes, and then he started playing [Saint-Saëns’] The Swan up in cello register. I had never heard playing like that before, and I never will. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. His intonation was absolutely perfect, on a bass he’d never picked up before. I started crying, because I’d never heard anything quite like this.

And then he said, “Yeah, this is horrible.” [laughing] And I wanted to say, “How do you do that? How do you sound so great?” There are certain things I still feel that he never really told me. I don’t think that he revealed absolutely everything in his teaching. I think that he demonstrated how to do things, but he never said “this is exactly how I do it.” He never would do that. I think he left room for the bass player to see where they wanted to go.

JK: In some of our recent conversations, you expressed concern about the direction that you feel bass playing is going.

KM: I do feel that there are some things that we lose track of, and this tends to take away from performance. One thing that I feel is becoming more rare is great sound: great colors, richness—a varied sound. I feel that the quality of the sound is becoming more fuzzy, diffuse, and less expressive. There isn’t as much varied color and there isn’t as much varied character in the sound, which ultimately means less range of expression.  People are shying away from vibrato for various reasons. Vibrato and non-vibrato go together the same way forte and piano go together. If you eliminate one, then the range of expression is less. That’s fine if your goal is to play in that manner, but I am a firm believer that vibrato and shifting go hand in hand.

JK: What do you think is causing this?

KM: I think it has a lot to do with who and what impresses us, and that is often from recordings. When you try to mimic recordings, you’re focusing on the sound right out of the instrument rather than what the audience hears in the hall. This is due to the mic placement when making recordings. How would recordings sound if we always placed the mic where an audience member would actually be sitting a hundred feet away in a hall and still played as if the mic were placed right next to the instrument? That’s a big thing for me: the difference in how we need to play to sound good on a recording and sounding good in a hall.

JK: So you’re saying that people are being inspired by recordings, but what is on the recording is not reproducible in a hall, at least not without amplification?

KM: It depends on many factors: who is playing, how it was recorded, how big the hall is, etc. Without a mic or pickup, some recordings are reproducible to a certain extent, but you would have to play completely differently than how you would play for a recording. A new trend is to play classical solos amplified the same way as if making a recording. Adding a sound system alters our perception of the actual sound that the instrument makes. Why does an old Italian instrument sound different from an old French instrument? I feel that the sound has a direct relationship with art, culture, style, and music. This also alters the connection between the performer and the audience.

It also depends on the type of music and if it were meant to be amplified. If I were to go and hear a great artist such as Leon Fleisher in concert playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, I’d much rather hear him play live without any amplification to really hear his sound and his nuance. Maybe there are those who would rather hear him amplified, but for me it is a no-brainer. So why then would I not hold the same to be true when I go and hear the Bottesini Concerto No. 2? I even prefer hearing jazz bass senza pickup or mic. I think that the bass is and should be held at the same standards as the piano or any other instrument for that matter. Again, these are my own personal preferences, which in turn influence my playing and help keep my musical goals in line.

An example of how our sound concept has changed based on the recording factor: take oboe playing—how has the sound of the oboe changed in the last 100 years? It used to be an instrument that added a huge amount of variation, color, and timbre to the sound of an orchestra. Now the goal is to blend in with the rest of the winds. I think that a large portion of the change came from wanting to get a more unified orchestra sound on recordings.

It don’t want to say that it is bad—I just find it sad that we limit our range of expression more and more. You can only play so loud and still sound good on a recording. If you played with that same dynamic range in a hall, it wouldn’t work. If your top dynamic is mezzo forte, then your pianississimo won’t be nearly as effective. I realize that this is not for everyone, but my personal goal is to get the best sound and the widest range of colors, dynamics, and expression in a hall that I can without a mic.

JK: So how does this affect orchestral bass sections?

KM: As a bass section, what percentage of time is it that we actually think about

what the audience is hearing out in the hall? A lot of what we focus on has to do with what we’re doing and hearing right around us, not about what’s happening out

there in the audience.

JK: That’s obviously very hard to figure out from the stage. What’s the process for working that out?

KM: You have to train yourself to be able to hear the hall and to listen to the hall from the stage. I do it by imagining myself sitting in the back row, and considering what I would want to hear coming out of the bass section. You have to watch a lot of concerts and see how bass sections play and listen to how they sound. You have to ask yourself, “How are people playing? Where’s the energy coming from in their bow stroke? Is their bow straight? How much contact? Where are they in relationship to the bridge? How much pressure are they using? How much bow speed? How is their timing? Does their playing style match the music?” All of that stuff. If you watch, then you can say, “This is what I’m hearing, this is what they’re doing; this is what I’m hearing, that’s what they’re doing.”

And then, if you understand how they are playing and you hear the response—because the sound is the response from their technique and musicality—then you can say, “Ok, so if I want to adjust my sound in this way, then what would I change in my playing to get what I want?”

JK: So that’s the education?

KM: That’s how I trained myself. I would also ask, “What is it that could make this bass section that I am listening to better?” If you’re listening to a bass section—a good bass section or a great one—what could be better about it? You can only be as good as your goal. If you say, “I want to play like these guys,” you’re limiting yourself. You’re saying that you want to be as good as them, not realizing that it puts a limitation on growth. You can be as good as them, but what’s the next step? You always have to be thinking about what that next level is. What are they doing that could be better? No section is perfect.

We’re always saying, “This person is great! This person sounds wonderful. Wow, look at the way they can get around the bass!” But what is it that could be even better? What’s the next step? If I were that person, what is the next step? Always making sure that you’re looking towards that next step: that’s basically it. I personally feel that if I put the music first before everything, then I have no limitations.

JK: What would your ideal bass section be like?

KM: In a very basic level, you just have to get a bunch of great musicians together who are willing to put fear aside. Great musicians play with intent. Fear—this is different from being nervous—is the one thing that stops us from being great, puts limitations on what we can do, makes us tense, and kills feeling and rhythm. Great musicians who are afraid of being judged or of not fitting in have to fight that fear at every turn.

I think the best bass section should be both collaborative and inspirational to each other in the way that will get their idea—the music’s, the orchestra’s, the conductor’s, or whatever the orchestra’s unified musical ideas are—out to the audience. It’s really how we listen and react to the phrasing of the whole orchestra. Timing is one big issue for me as well. Knowing when to follow and when to lead as a section is crucial.

JK: You mentioned to me once that you went through a period in college when you had trouble getting into the music and didn’t practice for awhile. Do you have any advice for others who are flatlining—feeling burnout, or having trouble getting into the music?

KM: There’s always going to be a reason why you flatline. And the key is knowing what that reason is. “What is holding me back?”

You know, I don’t feel like I ever have that feeling of being stuck any more. I realized that you have to change the way you think about it, because what’s holding you back is either going to be something technical or something musical—or some other thing in your life that’s affecting the inspiration. Usually, for me, it was that I felt that I did not know what that next step was to help myself improve And I had to figure out what that next step was.

And for me, ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, if there is a problem, the issue has to do with the music: that I don’t know what I want to do, musically. I might like how I’m playing a piece, but I’m not absolutely sure what I want to do with every single note and every single phrase. Many times, we get stuck in knowing how to phrase.

Like the beginning of the [Schubert] ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata: you can approach it so many different ways. For me, I was playing that over and over and over again, and I was trying to make the phrase long [sings first eight notes, implying that the phrase keeps going]. And I just got frustrated because it just didn’t feel right. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

Then I realized, “Oh, Schubert is starting out with a short phrase.” [Sings just the first four notes.] That’s the end of the short phrase.

In order for that to make sense, I said to myself, “What do I know about short phrases, and what do I know about long phrases?” So, I started listening to recordings of classical, pop, jazz—everything. Listen to short phrases, listen to long phrases.

What is it about the short phrase that makes the phrase short? It’s the freedom. The short phrase is short because it has freedom. If you have a long phrase that’s very free, it’s not a long phrase: it’s a bunch of short phrases. If you have a short phrase that’s very rigid, it’s not a short phrase, because it doesn’t have shape to it. So you give a short phrase freedom—not necessarily rhythm—but freedom to expand and contract a little bit, dynamically and rhythmically. Then the long phrases are much more secure, rhythmically, and have a much longer shape to them. It gives you contrast between the short and long phrases, and the problem is solved. I used to force the music to do what I wanted it to do, now I try to see what the music wants.

Things like that help keep me asking, “What is holding me back from being able to express myself musically?”

Maybe I’m a little too romantic in the way that I approach things, but romanticism is freedom. In that sense, I can feel as though I’m constantly learning. If I hold myself back, if I control myself emotionally and musically, then I don’t think I’d be able to understand the music as much.

On the other hand, take Bach, for example—if you start adding stuff to Bach right away, and say, “I’m going to play this piece and this is how it should be,” then I’m saying how the piece should be—not asking, “What is the music saying or wanting to express?”

JK: You’re adding something on top of it . . .

KM: Exactly. For me, I always start off in Bach with no expression, just rhythm. I try to decide what’s vertical and what’s horizontal. Then I can add expression based on that, but I never try to force anything on to it when I’m starting. I think every student should do that. Experience Bach for what Bach is, and then see how I can help that along, musically.

JK: What is inspiring you these days?

KM: My wife, Rachel Calin, who is my favorite bassist, both in sound and musically, and who keeps me in line. Asking great musicians how they practice and prepare and then getting great answers. Also the music, musicians, and composers, past and present, and art in general.

To name a very few of the musicians and composers who most recently gave me inspiration both from live concerts and recordings: Guarneri Quartet, Jamie Laredo, Ray Brown, Richard Goode, Sasha Schneider, Ewa Podles. Composers: Carter, Davidovsky, Kurtag, Bach, Berg, and Mozart. I’d have to say that the number one musical inspiration in my entire life has to be David Soyer, founding cellist of the Guarneri quartet.

What inspires me as well are great artists and their art as well as playing chamber music with great musicians who always allow me to realize and incorporate something I’ve never seen before. In order to be a good musician you need to work with the best people possible.

What inspires me is listening to some old recordings, but not many—I try not to listen to recordings very much because they give me a preconceived notion as to how the pieces should go. I’d rather look at the score first before listening.

And always experimenting—that’s very inspirational to me—the never-ending process of learning and growing. But number one is the music.

Bach cello suites­—you can play them two hundred different ways as long as it makes sense from the musician’s and audience’s point of view (you convince the audience that your way is the right way). You can do any bowing you want—as long as it makes sense, musically. You can do any phrasing you want—as long as it makes sense musically. If you’re convincing to the audience, you’ve done your job.

How many people are convincing to the audience when they play a Bach suite on the bass? Very few. A lot of times we say, “Oh, that’s good.” But it’s very rare that we say, “Oh my gosh—that changed my life.” Very few times do we actually get to that point. That’s what inspires me: wanting to get to that point.