Meet Susan Kander, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and niece to musical theater composer John Kander (Kander and Ebb). Kander has been commissioned by such notable ensembles and organizations including: the National Symphony Orchestra; the Kansas City Chorale; Southampton Chamber Music Festival; the Copland Fund and the Columbia Foundation, along with a variety of instrumentalists and chamber groups. Her music has been performed throughout the United States and internationally, including London, Paris, Mexico City, Lima, Birmingham (UK), Vancouver, Cape Town, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, and Guangzhou (China).


 1) How has COVID-19 impacted your work and current projects?

COVID-19 shut down two productions of my chamber opera dwb *driving while black*: the NY premiere at Baruch Performing Arts Center this past March (we were a day away from going into production week) and a production at Urban Arias next spring in Washington D.C. I feel immensely lucky that both productions will happen digitally, with newly made video and film, though COVID still is the limiting factor in how these get made logistically.  At the moment, BPAC is scheduled for several online performances in late October and Urban Arias is aiming for April. 


2) Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?

Yes but of course, not in person. Roberta Gumbel and I had started working on a new opera before COVID and we have made some progress on the libretto but it’s really hard to work in such a complete time void.  Over the past couple of years, I had been writing songs to collect into an album, so that kind of came to the front burner since it’s something I do by myself, though finding texts that light my fire has been interestingly tough in COVID times. 


3) What technology have you used to continue your work in a virtual world?

Apart from Zooming like everyone else, no new technology. However, I’ll need to make demos soon of the songs in the new album when it’s ready to go to press, so I’m contemplating how to do that: wait until people can get together in one room, singer and pianist, or do it the COVID way – piano and voice tracks recorded in different places then mixed. Undecided about that at the moment.


4) How has having a background in theater shaped your approach to composing?

My relationship to theater, and to music as theater, predates memory for me. Though I majored in music, I was a playwright for almost 15 years before turning completely to composing. My compositional relationship to playwrighting is pervasive and multi-faceted.

For me, adding music to language is just a way to be more in control of the text and the emotional life of every single isolated moment of a piece. Without music, a playwright has a very limited ability to control how an actor delivers a line. Punctuation only gets you so far.  You don’t get to give directions on delivery.  You don’t get to tell anyone – actors or audience – how to feel about what just got said. You don’t get to tell anyone the subtext.  In opera, with music you can do all of that on a moment-to-moment scale. Since I imagine my characters and scenes in both aural, emotional, and physical extreme detail, opera is the obvious conduit for downloading what’s in my brain as totally as I can. I am always amazed at the power of ink on the page to communicate what’s in my brain to another person’s brain.  First read-throughs are like magic to me!

In theater, you need to keep the audience in the palm of your hand; it’s this, perhaps, that most informs how I approach writing music – though there are definitely moments where I have built-in ‘wander for a while in your own mind’ passages.  My theater roots have always led me to keep the audience in the frame no matter what I’m trying to do for my own interests, so that listeners feel viscerally involved over time without the music being – that dread word – programmatic. I approach the opening of any piece exactly the way I approached the opening of any play: there has to be a reason someone enters; someone says the first line; a light goes on; a door opens. That first thing that happens ignites a fuse and the drama proceeds from there. 

To be honest, I have frequently over the years written against this ‘inheritance’ to push myself somewhere uncomfortable. But an experience I had a few years ago was illuminating for me. Commissioned by a virtuosic violinist to write a duo for violin and cello, I said to myself okay, now I’m going to write “pure music” (whatever that is); it’s not going to “mean” anything, this guy can do anything, so let’s go crazy. So I wrote a really cool beginning, and loved what I was writing, and then after writing about a minute of music I suddenly lost interest. It took a few days for me to figure out that at that time I needed the piece to be “about” something, anything. Well, that was a summer of terrible news; I was mourning humanity every day, there was no way to write without meaning. When I realized that was the issue, I subtitled the piece For the Littlest Refugees Who Never Reach a Place of Safety – the most explicit title I’ve ever made.  I found I didn’t need to change anything I’d already written – I had, in fact, been writing about this all along! And now I had a way forward and a lesson learned.  


5) Has it been a challenge for you, being a woman in a trade that has been dominated by men in the past?

Yes. “All the rest is commentary.” – Rabbi Hillel  (In the past?)


6) As a composer, you have the opportunity to hear many of your works performed by incredible ensembles. Has there been a moment in your career that surprised or inspired you while watching one of your works performed?

I am always shocked and thrilled by the incredible performers I have gotten to work with! They make music with their bodies and minds and hearts better than I do anything – tie my shoes, brush my teeth, you name it. I never get used to it. I, myself, was a serviceable pianist growing up, but hated performing. Having nurtured a violinist as he grew up and joined the ranks of these amazing performers, I learned concretely how technique exists to achieve a musical end, and that’s the thing I never get used to when I watch and hear these players. Because of the way I write, often individual beats are loaded with meaning, and the ability of these performers to convey that meaning through their instruments – voice included – always takes my breath away.  Just to take a recent example is the way Hannah Collins, cellist, and Mike Compitello, percussionist – New Morse Code as they are known together – create a super dramatic, dynamic, ever-changing sound-world to support Roberta Gumbel, soprano and librettist, in the chamber opera dwb driving while black*.  They are, together and separately, additional characters in the drama; their playing has to provide a huge amount of the emotional life of the piece. A world of feeling has to go into one pizz, or one glockenspiel strike, one cello slide or one foot stomp, and they bring it. Hannah plays foot tambourine and toy piano in addition to cello, and Mike plays over 20 instruments with hands and both feet. They articulate and give dimension to the swiftly moving narrative and ever-changing score, while at the same time supporting the singer the way great collaborative players do. They are doing so many things at once with their bodies and minds and hearts!  It slays me every time.


7) You have quite the range in your many compositions. How do you tackle an opera versus a chamber or orchestral work? Are there similarities in composing for these different mediums?

For me, opera is human life on an almost heartbeat-by-heartbeat basis, and it stimulates both my musical and my emotional imagination in ways that are both exciting and very comfortable to me. I live in that theatrical space very happily. But I also need to write Other Stuff and often, not always, what I’m writing has a relationship in my own head to the theater or dance even though no one else knows that. (I suspect lots and lots of composers work that way to some degree or other.) 

One piece, My Lucky, for solo piano, is a fantasia that’s actually directly derived from a very famous soliloquy, Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot. Two extended song cycles with chamber ensemble outline the life, in many movements, of a single character; they can be programmed as mono-operas or as chamber music. A couple of pieces are experiments in using chamber music to take a deep look at particular characters, even requiring text to be spoken: The Lunch Counter, a music play in seven movements for solo bassoon, in which the player speaks briefly before each movement, setting a scene; and Postcards from America, for oboe and piano, which involves reading a ‘postcard’ before each of the movements.

I was commissioned to write an extended ‘song cycle’ for violin and piano, which became Hermestänze, a marvelous experience for me, composing 14 wildly different movements to deliver one of the most multi-faceted characters in all of history. 

But I also love being free of any pre-existing demands or purpose. For non-text-based music, sometimes I start with a physical/musical gesture that I can toss around in purely musical adventures as in the Six Bagatelles for solo piano, Etude for Two People and One Thing, and Once. Upon. A Time. With these pieces, I enjoy just getting into my own head and invite the audience to come inside.  


8) dwb (driving while back) is a very timely work with the current Black Lives Matter movement. How has this piece and experience working with Roberta Gumbel impacted you and your composing process going forward?

Since I am myself a playwright, I had never sought a collaborator for operas. dwb was my first time working with a librettist other than myself and it grew out of a long friendship, not out of a search for a collaborator. But working with Roberta was a revelation. I loved talking to her about every little thing, imagining characters and scenes together. Her long experience as a performer means she knows the art form from being the singer on the stage, which only adds dimension to the sort of scene sculpting that a libretto has to do. I’m happy to say, we’re working on our second project together.  


9) Of your many popular works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?

I love the one I’m with!  That said, dwb with its severe limitations – one singer and two very busy instrumentalists – pushed me harder than anything had before. I am extremely proud of my work to help bring Roberta’s libretto into 4-D. (With big nods to both Roberta and New Morse Code who are all superhuman creative participants!) At the other end of the stick, I want to add I’m particularly proud of the orchestration for large forces in Miranda’s Waltz. It gives me great pleasure when musicians really enjoy playing something of mine, which was very much the case with that piece both at the Kennedy Center and in Melbourne.


10) What would you say to other artists/musicians who are craving ensemble work, and want to continue to perform as part of their mental health during this pandemic?

My heart goes out to them all. I, myself, crave being in a room with live music. We all do!  I know some performers and ensembles that are giving outdoor concerts, or streaming live-but-audience-less concerts. The sticky wicket is that artists/musicians need to perform for their mental health, but they also need to be paid for their physical well-being. It would not be good for the old saw, “They do it for the love of it” to rise up and settle in people’s minds again.

I think, I hope, that even though the digital performance has come in on a semi-white horse to offer something otherwise unattainable, when live performance is safe again I look forward to an explosion of demand and appreciation. May it be so!!!


Susan Kander – a MacDowell Colony Fellow – has been commissioned by such notable ensembles and organizations including: the National Symphony Orchestra; the Kansas City Chorale; Southampton Chamber Music Festival; the Copland Fund and the Columbia Foundation, along with a variety of instrumentalists and chamber groups. Her music has been performed throughout the United States and internationally, including London, Paris, Mexico City, Lima, Birmingham (UK), Vancouver, Cape Town, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, and Guangzhou (China). After attending Harvard University and earning a BA in music, Kander embarked on a career as a playwright until “coming home to music” in the mid-1990s. In 2015, after busily composing for 20 years, she decided to “blow things up” by finally going to graduate school. She attended the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase (New York) where she studied with Du Yun and Huang Ruo, and earned her MM in composition while writing a variety of new works for orchestra and chamber ensemble.

In the opera world, Kander’s commissioners include the Minnesota Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Opera Columbus. In 2012, the Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City co-commissioned and premiered Kander’s adaptation of The Giver, which is based after Lois Lowry’s seminal dystopian novel. The 85-minute chamber opera subsequently received its third production in January 2015 at the Tulsa Opera. Kander’s opera One False Move (conceived and commissioned by Paula Winans at Lyric Opera of Kansas City) deals with the issue of “mean girls” and “school bullying,” and has been presented by opera companies, schools, colleges, and choruses. Her work, She Never Lost a Passenger, also commissioned by Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has introduced children across the US to the American historical figure of Harriet Tubman and her vital role in the Underground Rail Road. In April 2016, her chamber opera The News from Poems (based on the life of influential American 20th-century Modernist poet William Carlos Williams) was presented in a concert reading at the National Opera Center in New York City.

Kander’s work Miranda’s Waltz (scored for narrator and orchestra, and commissioned and premiered in 2009 by the National Symphony Orchestra) received its Australian premiere in May 2017 and was live-streamed worldwide from Melbourne by the Australian Discovery Orchestra. Kevin Purcell conducted. Afterward, Purcell and the ensemble took Miranda’s Waltz to Rotterdam as a featured work at the 2017 Classical NEXT Conference.

Kander’s music can be found on Soundcloud and YouTube; and her chamber works have been recorded by MSR Classics, Navona and Loose Cans Music. Her most recent disc “Hermestänze” (MSR Classics MS1578), was described by Fanfare Magazine as a release that “proves [Kander] to be a composer of vivid imagination and skill…21st-century music enthusiasts won’t want to miss this one!”