Kate Simko: A picture paints a thousand notes
Kate Simko is a lady who has constantly worked towards to pushing herself musically. Though she makes electronic music and has become well-known within the genre, she has refused to stick to simply making music for rocking the dancefloor (which she’s more than capable of) but has progressed into audio visual compositions, live shows and plenty more besides.
She has a grounding in classical composition and her latest endeavours involve a course at the Royal College of Music and a 40-minute composition, which will be performed at the National Gallery this week. With that in mind, I caught up with Kate to discuss the impending performance.
How have you been juggling your music composition for the film course and preparing for the National Gallery show?
It ended up being its own thing because the music I’m going to do is pretty different from the music I normally make and play, and it’s also different from what I’m doing on the course because there are no moving images. When I took on this project I thought they might cut me some slack because I’m creating this based on inspiration from the paintings, but in the end they said, ‘Sorry that’s a bit too much of a jump!’ It has to be a moving image, so they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s not gonna work’! However, the good thing is, all this music I’m making is perfect for interludes on an album or an ambient EP or album, so it’s all good.
How did the National Gallery show come about in the first place?
It was through the college, they mentioned it casually to me in the Fall. I’m the first DJ that’s been on their books so, because of that, they got to know me and one day they mentioned that they had a connection with the National Gallery. Things settled a little and it didn’t get mentioned again but, every once in a while, I’d be like, ‘Hey, what about that National Gallery thing?’ and they were like, ‘Okay, well we’ve never had anyone do electronic music before but hey, let’s do it!’.
How did you conceive the idea for it, because it’s based on Room 41 at the gallery, isn’t it?
Yes, Room 41. They have other students do it, but usually they compose classical music, so the difference is I’m doing electronic music. This exchange has been going on since 1922, to promote the connection between art and music and the general idea is the composer is given a room – I was given two choices – and they go in and narrow it down to a painting, or a series of paintings, or a theme from that room and write music based on that. So I chose four paintings by [Jean-Baptiste-Camille ] Corot, called ‘The Four Times Of Day’ and I’m doing a 40-minute set, with 10 minutes dedicated to each of the four paintings; Morning, Noon, Evening and Night. I’m really into my decision to do that and I’ve done some research on him, so I can place him historically and… it’s an interesting one because I want to respect the traditions, I want to respect him but I also want to respect myself and not compromise. I’m going to manipulate some classical music but I want to do it in a way that’s not offensive to a purist, so I think it’s really interesting.
What did you find out about Corot that fed into your compositions?
Well, he was born in 1796 and one thing that stood out about him was that he was from a more bourgeois family in Paris, his parents were merchants, so he didn’t have any money problems which gave him the opportunity to travel a lot. He went to Italy, Spain and many other different places… With the paintings, I’m looking at them also as stages in his life; Morning is going to be his early life and his early inspirations – he grew up listening to classical music so the first piece I’m going to do will be the most classical of the four. It has a violin sonata by Brahms that will be manipulated, I have a live violinist to do those parts but then I’m taking the piano accompaniment and giving some parts to the harp player, some to the bass player and the rest I will manipulate with synthesisers to create ambient washes and textures, so it will be live violin with a whole host of other textures. I wrote it while thinking about him as a child listening to this music.
How ‘electronic’ do you plan to go?
That’s my concept at the moment, I have to consider though that there’s no real live PA – they’re used to just having live instruments playing in there, it’s not a sound system. So, although I’ll be playing my stuff, I have to give my bassline to the live bass player, and keep in mind that what’s coming out of the speakers has to be groovy in the mid-range because there’s not going to be any low-end.
How are you feeling about the whole thing?
Good! Every day better – today I knew we were going to talk, so it was a good impetus to get stuff done. I feel good about it because if they’re going to listen to all sets of mine… I realised I should put some stuff of my own in there, so it will be a mix of half new and half stuff I’ve done before, which is completely valid.
Speaking about validity, I know it’s a generalisation but I get the impression that people in the world of classical music, and other genres, look down on electronic music and they call it repetitive, rubbish and so on… What’s your take on that, because you’re doing something that merges the two?
Well, the main reason I’m here in London – and I went to great lengths to move overseas and get the visa – is because the attitude at the Royal College of Music was so much more open to my background in electronic music than anywhere I had looked at in the States. I looked at one of the top programs in LA, one in New York and they really didn’t consider everything I’d done… the Royal College allowed me to submit everything in my portfolio and accepted me as a composer based on that and I did not have to do a classical score whereas, in the States for film composition, you have to show classical scores and they wouldn’t even count my electronic work. I can’t speak for every institution here, but the Royal College have been amazing, and the National Gallery, last time I met them I said, ‘Thank you for having me, I know it’s a little bit outside the box, I hope it’s not causing any problems for you’ and they were saying, ‘No, no, thank you. We’re happy to do something new!’ They’re all young and happy to have something fresh, and have been super supportive. They’re just waiting for more stuff to come along.
Do you think it’s indicative of how things are shifting, in general, with electronic music?
I do actually, 10 years ago dance music wasn’t on the radio as much and now, people like Daft Punk are interviewed on the BBC in the evening, next to a rock musician or a folk musician and treated with the same respect. It’s become more mainstream and personally I think electronic music, especially stuff without words, is easy for classical lovers to get into because it’s really similar in some ways. I have to say, I overhear a lot of the students at the college talking about fabric and this, that and the other. A lot of them love electronic music, more so than music where someone’s expressing themselves through lyrics sometimes. Classical music is about listening and letting your mind go off and the music is telling the story and electronic music is similar in that way – at least the younger generation are into it, it seems.
Things are changing fast, I mean Calvin Harris won an Ivor Novello award for his songwriting the other day..
Here in the UK, I can’t believe it, I’m hearing so much Swedish House Mafia, Armand Van Helden, Hot Natured on the radio, it’s amazing! It’s really blowing up, it’s definitely a lot more mainstream here than it is in Chicago.
What have you really enjoyed most about your studies so far?
For sure learning how to write for orchestra. I’ve studied music theory before and I’ve listened to orchestral music, but honestly I didn’t know the ranges of the different instruments. To be honest with you, I didn’t even know exactly which instruments you put together or how, I didn’t know the rules – how many instruments typically play in an orchestra, or when would you put a flute with an oboe or a clarinet or which one sounds the best in a certain situation. Or strings, for example, the different rules regarding how they work… it’s just been amazing, it’s like learning a new set of synthesisers that are super amazing.
How much has that fed back into your electronic music productions?
Over the summer I have two recording sessions, where I’m going to be recording live strings, so I think what will end up happening is, all the stuff I’ve worked on will end up going into an album of some sort. It’s really helped me rethink everything, I think I’m going to go back to where I was before which was really making the music I want to make, sometimes for the dancefloor. I just want to make an album of all the music I want to make, with longer melodies not just two-bar hooks. I want to make something with a longer story – and some dance tracks, too. I’ll probably sample things out of my work for the Royal College, I was thinking earlier that I’ll go back and probably find two-bar hooks out of the stuff I’ve been recording, I have tonnes of stuff I could make from this.
Where do your ambitions lie with music and your studies?
Feature films, I want to do feature-length, big films. Right now, I’m working on a series, which one of my professors has invited me to work on and remix. It’s a six-part series that’ll be on the BBC, I’m really excited! This kind of thing is already amazing, but I would really love to do features films – just to one day sit in a movie theatre and be like, ‘Wow, this is my music’ – that’s what I really want.
What’s the name of the BBC series you’re working on?
It’s called Sacred Journeys, it’s about people going on a pilgrimage, with a narrator exploring different religions in different regions. The first one will be India then there’s Israel, Mecca – it will be beautiful, the cinematography looks amazing, they’re trying to have a 21st Century angle to it, which is why they keep referencing electronic music and why I’m really happy to be involved.
What’s happening dance music-wise?
I have a release coming out on No.19 in July, there’s a Kerri Chandler remix and a Tevo Howard remix. Then Tevo and I are finishing our album, we only have one more track – he’s been so patient, I had to tell I couldn’t work on it until June. We’re so close to finishing, just hours away, which is exciting.
Kate Simko performs at the National Gallery on Friday 24th May as part of the Belle Shenkman Music Programme, for more information click on the following link – www.nationalgallery.org.uk
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Kate Simko, National Gallery, Royal College of Music
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