Kirsten Volness

Kirsten Volness
WSW: When did you start composing?
KV: As a little kid, I overdubbed myself singing and harmonizing melodies on my tape player; in high school, I arranged all sorts of music for drumline (Chick Corea, Soul Coughing, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails). But, it wasn’t until college that I started composing. After dabbling with some music notation software (MusicTime!), I realized that I enjoyed the hours I spent making weird MIDI tracks more than the hours I spent practicing. Judith Lang Zaimont’s orchestration class at the University of Minnesota sealed the deal. She gave us the option of composing our own projects and encouraged me to study with her my senior year. It was wonderful to have such an uncompromising and encouraging (female) teacher as a role model. I sent the two pieces I had written and my final orchestration project to the University of Michigan with my grad school application (including a post-it note apologizing for not having recordings due to never having had anything performed) and miraculously got in—otherwise I may not be a composer today!

WSW: Do you play an instrument or sing?
KV: I’ve played piano my entire life, tenor sax and percussion as a teenager, and have been singing (in public) the past few years with the Tenderloin Opera Company, a homeless advocacy group in Providence. Composing took over my life for a while, but I’m performing a lot more now with Hotel Elefant (NYC-based new music ensemble) and my ambient sci-trance band Meridian Project (we do multimedia planetarium performances combining music, projections, and current research in astrophysics and cosmology).

WSW: What do you do in your free time?
KV: I surround myself with living things! Relaxing or adventuring outdoors with my boyfriend, dog and cat, tending the sunroom garden full of plants, making food for friends, volunteering, games and conversation: all of these things keep me happy and grounded.

WSW: What was your objective when you composed the quintet/Can you tell us a little about the quintet?
KV: I wrote Tower of the Winds in 2004, my first year in Ann Arbor. I was really interested in mythology and art history at the time, so each distinct section of the piece is evocative of one of the eight winds (Boreas, Zephyr, etc.) carved into the Horlogion of Andronikos in Athens. The woodwind quintet has such a unique sound—that blend and clash of timbres—that it allowed me to experiment and create different characters and moods while testing out some new-to-me compositional tricks.

WSW: Which composer do you admire?
KV: Since we recently lost a legend, my thoughts immediately lead to Pete Seeger. His musical life was full of extra-musical meaning and experience, whether advocating for his beliefs or creating community by inviting audiences to sing together. I admire his tenacity in younger years (McCarthy-era) and his enduring gentle spirit. Above all, his legacy provides proof that art can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and make the world a better place.

For a list of Kirsten’s upcoming events, check out her website:

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