We are so pleased to have Kyle Soliz join our esteemed roster of Featured Composers. Kyle’s work Radiance is the winner of our most recent 8SW Composer Competition. Currently a senior, pursuing a dual degree in Saxophone performance and Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kyle is already being recognized for his mature and well crafted works. His music is technically challenging, but always with a sense of pacing and scope and keen attention to color. His sense of orchestration and the beauty he is able to create is remarkable.
In Radiance, as well as at least one other work of his I am familiar with, Kyle stresses the importance of the interaction between players and their understanding of one another’s parts. This is what lies at the heart of all great ensemble playing and one cannot be reminded of it often enough.
In this interview, Kyle writes about his heroes in such a compelling way. I hope it will inspire you to learn about and listen to the composers he mentions that you might be less familiar with.
Kyle also gives a realistic picture of the commitment it takes to study music seriously at the collegiate level. I think hearing this from someone who is “in it” is far more useful than hearing it from those of us who are at the other end of it.
Of equal importance though is what Kyle writes about his own musical language and intent. Radiance will be premiered during our 2023-24 season and the New York premiere will take place November, 2023 at the Tenri Cultural Institute. Please enjoy this interview, and make plans to be there!
SG: How did you become interested in composing?
KS: The very first piece I ever wrote was when I was in 6th grade and had downloaded finale notation software and started clicking whatever notes and rhythms I thought looked interesting or that produced interesting shapes on the page. I think I called that piece magma and I haven’t touched it or looked at the computer it was written on since I finished writing it. I’d be shocked if the computer I wrote it on even works still. But I really got into writing music when I was in my junior year of highschool and I started procrastinating my homework more and more frequently. However, to ease my guilt in putting off assignments, I would justify it by saying “oh well I’ve just written this piece in 4 hours so you can’t get mad at me because I’ve still done something somewhat productive!” I did this over 100 times that year and produced something like 90 pieces by the time my senior year of highschool started. At this point I was very interested in composition so I applied to the ILMEA All-State Composition Contest and submitted a very last minute entry written 2 days before the deadline and won an honorable mention. From there I started seriously connecting with composers and slowly started to build a more developed understanding and approach to music as a whole.
SG: How would you describe your musical language? What is your intent?
KS: My musical language came about as an initial fascination with trying to break every rule of tonal harmony, leading to me obsessively avoid perfect 3 note triads because I thought the music would sound too sterile. As a result of this, my musical language has now evolved into one heavily focused on musical fluidity and independence of line. The composer Mark Camphouse once remarked to me in a masterclass that my music reminded him greatly of Strauss’ melodic freedom and rhythmic complexity. I had never studied Strauss to develop my musical language but there is a similarity between my musical language and his, albeit harmonically we are living in two completely different universes. My main musical belief is that all my music must be able to be understood as a conversation, perhaps between performers, musical instruments, the performers and the audience etc… Never is there a moment when the conversation dies; it just pauses, and then resumes. Even in my solo music the conversation is still ongoing, even though it might just be one performer conversing with themselves. Because of this idea of musical conversation, I think everything I write must contain an inherent flowing quality; whether that be the harmonic structure of a piece, the phrase structure, the melodic content, the rhythmic content, the timbral diversity, the emotional roadmap etc… Never should any of my pieces or any of my music feel rigid and tightly bound; it can feel tightly constructed, but it will always retain this sense of free flowing music. (At least that’s what I intend my musical language to be like)
SG: Who are your composer heroes and why?
KS: Toru Takemitsu: He can create almost magical sounds and is by far the best orchestrator of the 2nd half of the 20th century; all of his music has an improvisatory quality that I deeply admire and his music is nearly always accessible on some level to the audience regardless of level of exposure to contemporary music.
Takashi Yoshimatsu: I am a huge fan of Yoshimatsu’s hyper sonorous and resonant sound world/orchestration, especially his symphonies where he is commanding enormous sonic forces to produce such lush and rich sonorities. I also admire the blend between reliance on ostinatos and a constantly developing motif, whether it be the first movement of this 3rd Symphony, or the last movement of his 5th, or the second movement of his 4th, all of them are very captivating for me. I also think he can be incredibly quirky in his lighter orchestration within the scherzo movements of his symphonies, some of which are brilliantly composed.
Maurice Ravel: Ravel is someone who I’ve probably spent the most time studying in regards to his orchestration and approach to his conception of the orchestra, and more specifically, instrumental timbre and blend in general. All of his music is quite rich and very well thought out, which is to be expected given that he often took large amounts of time to complete his pieces. His sense of timbre and rhythmic variety always has been very striking to me, because whenever he decides on an idea that he wants to develop, he always goes as far as possible with developing and elaborating on said idea, and to great effect.
Gyorgy Ligeti: Ligeti is someone that I’ve admired for a while because his music is built off of a simple structural design that gradually dives deeper and deeper into complexity, both sonically, rhythmically, and timbrally (with his orchestral and ensemble music). His control over all the various elements of composed music is something that I continually am fascinated by as some of his most complex and famous pieces were all completely written by hand, meaning there were very few moments of writing a fully formed idea, he always was planning his musical roadmaps; and they started as fully formed musical ideas.
Alberto Ginastera: Ginastera for me is someone who has an unbelievable understanding of the orchestra and how to utilize exactly what he needs to express the sound and music he wants. The first piece I ever heard of his was his Harp Concerto, and that completely blew me away; I’d never heard a harp used in that way before, nor orchestration so crisp and biting in the first movement. Not only is his orchestration excellent, it also feeds into and adds to the amount of expression contained within his music; the best example of this in my mind is the Theme for Cello and Harp from the Variaciones Concertantes; it really feels like 2 people having a deeply intimate conversation where one person is spilling their heart out and the other is responding in kind.
Lili Boulanger: She was one of the first composers I came across in highschool where I was always fascinated by how sonorous her music was, and how tightly constructed much of it was despite feeling incredibly improvisatory. She also is someone who was writing incredible music, both in quality and quantity when she was still a teenager! For me that’s a remarkable feat and something that I always think about when writing; is there a childlike innocence to this piece I’m working on? If not then lets add some; does it feel improvisatory? If not then let’s make some edits; does this section feel like a young composer discovering what is possible for them to write in music? Etc…
Unsuk Chin: Chin for me is the most important living composer and all of her music perpetually fascinates me in the best ways. It’s all so vivid and emotionally dense; always full of life and constantly developing throughout the course of the piece with the most creative orchestration. Her opera, Alice in Wonderland was the first piece of hers that I ever listened to and to this day is still my favorite because of just how incredible Chin’s ability is to make an old story come alive in new ways with brilliantly composed music that really captures the essence of the madness in Alice in Wonderland. I also have been spending increasing amounts of time studying her scores and in turn that has inspired me to move further and further away from using a computer notation software and return to writing only by hand as she does. And as a result my music has changed and at least to me, feels more alive and genuine in conveying my musical desires.
SG: Do you consider yourself primarily a composer or a saxophonist?
KS: Saxophonist who composes; I think performing and composing feed into and greatly influence each other.
SG: How does being an instrumental performance major/a saxophonist influence you as a composer and vice versa?
KS: In absolutely every single piece I’ve ever written (since I started composing seriously) I have always thought about whatever phrase I’ve written or section I’ve just completed from a performer’s viewpoint. How would I play this? Is this reasonable to ask an ensemble to do? Will the ensemble members understand the construction of this section? Will they understand the message of the music? If I can’t say YES or immediately answer in the affirmative for these questions, that always signifies to me that the musical section in question needs more carving, more refinement, more polishing, so that what I wish to convey becomes more clearly understood. I also view my own work like how I would a performer receiving a new piece for the first time. Is this clearly and easily readable? Is the notation clear and precise? Are there score notes for techniques or fingerings that are specific to this piece? Are there good page turns? Is the part up to professional standards from a professional composer? Does the spelling of pitches and chords make sense? Is there any explanation for the message/concept/idea behind the piece? Etc…
Viewing composition from a performers lens also gives me an excellent set of boundaries regarding what is generally always playable, what is starting to push the limit of players’ abilities (i.e. the performers would need to be very good amateurs or young professional musicians in training) and what would only be acceptable to write for professional performers/soloists/professional ensembles (pieces that are catered to the skill level of specific professional musicians). Because I see myself primarily as a saxophone player who spends quite a bit of time in ensemble rehearsal settings, that reality has also worked its way into my compositional philosophy where I build my compositions via small musical elements that when viewed on their own would be equivalent to what a musician might see in their part during rehearsal; but when developed beyond just the initial idea, those small elements grow into a tightly knit patchwork that really only makes sense and sonically solidifies when everything fits together just right. (Sometimes I like to think about a piece I’m writing as if it were made of tiny musical lego pieces and I’m trying to find the best way to build this musical structure while using only a few different types of lego pieces.)
SG: COVID has obviously profoundly impacted those of us in the performing arts, especially wind players. We certainly had to improvise a lot with remote learning and finding ways to keep our craft going and growing. Was there an upside for you as a developing composer?
KS: For me as a composer, I was able to explore music production, mixing, mastering, and electronic music in general while I was off campus at home for a year; and for me, that was very enlightening. I learned an enormous amount about DAWs, mixing techniques, mixing philosophies, many of which are applicable towards orchestration within an ensemble and how spread the sonorities of my piece are at any given moment. (Are the low frequencies more prominent than the high? Is my frequency spectrum of this particular moment in the piece balanced? Do I want it to be balanced? etc…) It also led to me doing an enormous amount of listening to just about anything and everything that I saw recommended to me by youtube or spotify, everything from R&B, Hip Hop, to Latin Jazz, Bebop, to the cliff edge radical contemporary music within the past 22 years. That listening was very important because it was the first time I really was practicing the idea that “you can take anything seriously, pick it apart, see how it works; there is always something for you to learn from looking at any genre of music this way”, and it’s something all musicians should be doing.
SG: What are the advantages and disadvantages to focusing both on composition and instrumental performance as an undergraduate? What advice do you have for high school students interested in studying music seriously in college?
KS: First thing is that you need to determine if you are serious about your instrument and music, or if its a lingering feeling from highschool of just really liking band, marching or concert or otherwise. Because liking band will not get you through music school. After a certain point (for me it was the end of 1st semester sophomore year), doing music because you like it is no longer a good enough reason. You must have a constant commitment to your instrument and a strong desire to continue working at gaining as much knowledge of your musical focus and control over your instrument as you can. Another thing is that I am currently completing a dual degree in music composition and saxophone performance, which I decided to pursue because I felt that I just had so much music to write that simply taking composition lessons wasn’t going to be enough for all the questions and curiosity I had regarding the composition of music. I always feel a need to think about my next piece or how I’m going to write it. It’s fun to sometimes sit down and go “let’s play some pretty chords, or find a nice melody” but composition is so much deeper than that and once again it will not be enough to do it simply because you like it, you must have a deeper and more insatiable desire to pursue this.
For example, this semester at college I am playing only Tenor Saxophone in my ensembles, which totals to about 20 hours a week on tenor, just within ensembles. I also spend about 3 hours a day practicing on either Alto or Soprano Saxophone, depending on what repertoire I’m playing and what upcoming performances or lessons I have. I spend 7 hours in rehearsals on Mondays on top of my regular class schedule, practice for 3 hours a day at least on Tuesday, in addition to 2.5 hours of rehearsal in the graduate sax quartet, another 3-4 hours practicing on top of the 2.5 hours of rehearsal in wind symphony on Wednesday, another 3-4 hours on Thursday, on top of the 2.5 hours in rehearsal and later coaching with Professor Richtmeyer, and then spend 4 hours practicing on top of the 2 hours of quartet rehearsal on Friday morning. Saturday is my free day and I usually only play for about 2 hours, and I have a 2 hour rehearsal with the grad sax quartet on Sunday evening. So in total, that’s about 33-34 hours of playing a week. Now add in the requirements for my composition degree and I’m spending up to 40 hours (in a busy week) just composing. In total I’m spending nearly 75 hours out of a 168 hour week doing music related things at a high level of concentration. There would be no way I could function with this much musical demand on me if I was just doing it because I like it. I feel a need to continuously play and write music and that is exactly what I do.
Also, make sure to spend time away from your instrument and outside of a practice room. Music is about the expression of people’s lives, thoughts, emotions, and wildest stretches of their imagination and if you don’t go out and live, experience anything, or imagine beyond your wildest dreams, what will you have to express?
Kyle Soliz is a composer and saxophonist pursuing a dual degree in instrumental performance and music composition at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). His music is a fresh blend of old and new, with musical influences from Reynold Tharp, Toru Takemitsu, Jennifer Higdon, Thomas Ades, Takashi Yoshimatsu, and Unsuk Chin. Kyle is currently studying saxophone with World-Renowned International Saxophone Soloist and Pedagogue Debra Richtmeyer, and previous teachers include Wayne Richards, Soprano Saxophone Chair of the Chicago Saxophone Quartet and Joseph Connor, Lecturer of Music at UW Eau-Claire. He is currently studying composition with Reynold Tharp, and previous teachers include Stephen Taylor and Sever Tipei. He was the first prize winner in the Senior Division of Webster University’s Community Music School 2022 Young Composers Competition.
As a Saxophonist Kyle has performed at the Yamaha National Chamber Music Festival, in masterclasses for Kenneth Tse, Nathan Nabb, Timothy Mcallister, Taimur Sullivan, Phil Pierick, received an honorable mention in the 2022 UIUC Concerto Competition, was the recipient of the 2021-2022 UIUC Woodwind Achievement award in addition to performing Gershwin’s American in Paris with the UIUC Philharmonia Orchestra in May of 2022. Recent premieres include Coalescence written for the Illinois Modern Ensemble and premiered on November 9th, and the world premiere performances of 6 works for Saxophone on October 24th. The upcoming premiere of his new work Dreamscape for String Quintet will take place on December 4th.