Kenji Bunch has received worldwide acclaim from audiences, performers, and critics alike for his unique brand of “New American” music, which he describes as follows: “With the emergence of a New American Cuisine in the culinary world, we see a renewed interest in honoring and elevating classic dishes of American regional cuisine by combining locally sourced ingredients, the techniques of classical European traditions, and the artistic imagination unique to each chef. In this spirit, with my music I draw inspiration from the locally sourced sounds I hear around me and the uniquely American art forms they come from, then combine these elements with the techniques of my classical training into my own personal vocabulary that strives to honor our past while suggesting new possibilities for the future.”
His symphonic works have been performed by over fifty American orchestras, and his genre-defying chamber works have been heard in premiere venues on six continents. His music is regularly broadcast on national radio, including NPR, BBC, and NHK, and has been recorded on labels including DELOS, Sony/BMG, EMI Classics, Koch, Kleos Classics, RCA, Naxos, Pony Canyon, GENUIN, Capstone, MSR Classics, Innova, ARS, Crystal, and Bulging Disc Records.
As a composer, his residencies include Mobile Symphony (Meet The Composer Music Alive), Spoleto USA, Bravo! Vail, Sound Encounters, the Chintimini Chamber Music Festival, and the Craftsbury Chamber Players. He also served for two years as the composer in residence for Young Concert Artists, Inc. He has also collaborated extensively in the dance world with renown choreographers David Parsons, Nai-Ni Chen, Kate Skarpetowska, Paul Vasterling, and Darrell Grand Moultrie.
Mr. Bunch was recently appointed the Artistic Director of Portland, Oregon-based new music group fEarNoMusic, following a highly successful all-Bunch retrospective performed by the ensemble in April, 2014. Other concerts devoted to his chamber music have been given at the Stamford Music Festival in England, the Perpignan Conservatory in the south of France, and the Landgoedconcerten Oranjewoud Festival in The Netherlands. Recent projects include the world premiere of his Piano Concerto ( 2011) with pianist Monica Ohuchi and the Colorado Symphony. In October, 2011, he appeared as the soloist with the American Composers Orchestra in the premiere of his viola concerto The Devil's Box, in Carnegie Hall. In 2013, electric violin virtuoso Tracy Silverman premiered Embrace, his theatrical “flash mob” concerto, with eight consortium orchestras around the country. That same year, the Alias Chamber Ensemble released “Boiling Point,” a CD of Mr. Bunch’s chamber works on the DELOS label.
Mr. Bunch maintains an active performing career, and is widely recognized for performing his own groundbreaking works for viola (recorded on his recent CD Unleashed!). A founding member of the Flux Quartet (1996-2002) and Ne(x)tworks (2003-2011), Mr. Bunch is a veteran of the New York new music world. A multifaceted musician with a deep interest in vernacular American music and improvisation, he also plays bluegrass fiddle and is a frequent guest performer, recording artist, and arranger with many prominent rock, jazz, folk, and alternative/experimental artists.
Mr. Bunch studied at the Juilliard School, receiving his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in viola with Toby Appel, and in composition with Robert Beaser. Upon graduation, he received the William Schuman Prize for Outstanding Leadership in Music, the school’s highest honor. Other composing mentors include Eric Ewazen and Stanley Wolfe. After 22 successful years in New York City, he returned in 2013 to his native Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, concert pianist Monica Ohuchi, daughter Emmaline, and rescued pitbull mix, Coffee.
Q: Where can I find sheet music for your works?
A: Nearly my entire catalog is published through Bill Holab Music (www.billholabmusic.com). If you visit that site, you’ll find an online store with clear directions on how to purchase or rent my music.
The one exception is my work Velocity for flute and piano, which is handled by The Theodore Presser Company and can be found here: http://www.presser.com/downloads/414-41193/bunch.htm
Q: I heard an arrangement you wrote of one of my favorite songs. How can I get the music for this?
A: Arrangements of other composers’ works are a bit of a different animal. These are mostly done as “work for hire,” for specific projects, which means I don’t control any of the rights to the usage of the arrangements, and therefore can’t sell or distribute them to anyone else. If I do secure the permission to reuse any of my own arrangements, I’ll make them available.
Q: I’m interested in commissioning a new work from you. How do I go about this, and what are your fees?
A: Thanks for your interest! I need to focus on the artistic side of things, so I really prefer not to negotiate my own commission terms. However, I’m always interested in considering new projects of all shapes and sizes, even though I may be booked in advance with work for up to a year or more. The best way to approach this is to contact Bill Holab Music (www.billholabmusic.com) and discuss the terms directly with them.
If you’d like some general information about the commissioning process before you enter this discussion, www.meetthecomposer.org is an excellent resource.
Q: Are you available for appearances and/or residencies to discuss your works?
A: Absolutely- please visit the “bookings” page for more information.
Q: Do you teach privately?
A: Yes, I give private lessons to students of all ages on several subjects including viola, composition, and improvisation.
Please refer to the “teaching” page for more information.
Q: Do you actively perform, and, if so, can I book you for a performance of your music?
A: Yes. I am currently available for tours and performances of my music (as well as other music!) in the following configurations:
Duo with Monica Ohuchi, piano
Kenji Bunch Quartet (piano quartet)
Kenji Bunch’s String Circle (folk-inspired string ensemble)
Kenji Bunch and His Bluegrass All-Stars (bluegrass band)
Please visit the “bookings” page for more information.
Q: Where are you from?
A: Portland, Oregon- born and raised and very proud of it. I lived in New York City for 22 years (Brooklyn for the past 10) and moved my family back to Portland in the summer of 2013. NYC will always be in my blood, and is a place I dearly love, but we're happy to return to our Northwest roots to raise a family.
Q: Yeah, I know that, but I mean, you know… what are you?
A: Excuse me?
Q: What kind of a name is “Kenji Bunch?”
A: Oh, I get it. Kenji is a Japanese name. My mother is Japanese, and my father is an American of English/Scottish descent, which is where “Bunch” comes from.
Q: Oh, I see! Do you speak Japanese?
A: No, but I'm fluent in half-Japanese.
A CONVERSATION WITH KENJI BUNCH
The following is a transcript of a recent conversation I had with my 8-yr. old pit bull, Coffee. A longtime associate and frequent collaborator, Coffee is also the President and CEO of Bulging Disc Records. In a corporate world still largely dominated by Caucasian males, this is no small achievement for a Canine female.
Coffee: It was, what- five years ago that we did our first interview for your website?
KB: Wow… yes, I believe it was. Time sure flies.
Coffee: It certainly does. Back then, I remember we talked about the musical influences and interests that have shaped your work. Do you think your answer would be different now, a few years down the road?
KB: That’s an interesting question. I think, hopefully, we all evolve over time- or at least, we inevitably change over time, whether or not it can be seen as evolution. I think, for me anyway, I’ve really focused the work I do a lot in the last several years- so maybe my answers would be a little different.
Five years ago, I was just starting to perform my own compositions publicly. Prior to that, I made a point of keeping my playing and composing careers quite separate. These days, I’d say the overwhelming majority of the work I do involves, in some way, me performing my own music.
I also used to keep my interest in folk music (bluegrass fiddle, etc.) kind of sequestered away from my work in the “classical” world. Now, I often combine that influence into the music I write and perform.
So, to get back to your question, I still like to think I have an open enough mind to be receptive to potential inspiration from any source- musical or otherwise- but I’ve focused my career more today, and I think a list of what influences me currently might reflect that streamlining.
Coffee: Why do you think you used to compartmentalize your parallel careers? And what would lead you to, as you say, “streamlining” them today?
KB: On a basic level, I think it came from an insecurity that made me feel like I had to somehow prove myself in each of those fields without using any recognition for my achievements in other areas to give me a boost, if that makes any sense.
I think early on, since I didn’t really start writing until I was in college studying the viola, it was important to me to establish an identity as a composer that didn’t rely on, or involve my participation as a performer. This worked pretty well, but it may have gone too far in the other direction, because there were times when people assumed I had stopped playing the viola. That actually made me kind of sad, because I love the viola and I’ve always felt it’s a big part of my identity. I also truly love performing and would never walk away from it unless I had to.
I realized that I had developed an identity as a composer, but my identity as a performer was less clear. I specialized in new music, with the Flux Quartet (1996-2002) and Ne(x)tworks (2004-2011), but also enjoyed traditional classical music and bluegrass. That’s not too different from many working performers these days, who need a versatile skill set to be marketable. But I realized I was maybe missing an opportunity to put myself out there in a more unique way, and fortunately I’ve had those opportunities in the last few years, as I’ve been able to present my own compositions myself.
Coffee: I see. How about non-musical interests? How do you enjoy spending your time away from your work?
KB: What time away from my work? I’m only half joking. The weird thing about a career as a composer is that sometimes it’s very hard to tell when you start working and when you stop. Sometimes I do my best work just sitting on a subway train or lying in bed trying to get to sleep. The brain seems to have its own work hours that we have little control over.
And maybe because of that, I enjoy activities that allow my brain to be creative- or relaxed enough to let creative thoughts enter. I think that’s why I enjoy cooking so much- I find it really encourages the same kind of creative thinking that composing does. I also enjoy long-distance running. Long runs free and relax my mind in a way that I imagine is similar to meditation. Also, I like the physical and psychological challenges of completing a long run. Sometimes you deal with a lot of physical discomfort, as well as plenty of doubt and negative thoughts, and working through those issues gives me more confidence to see through the challenges of completing a new piece of music.
Coffee: Did I hear correctly that you like to play basketball?
KB: That is indeed correct. I’m a pretty terrible ball player, but I really love the game. I love all sports- football, tennis, etc. But I find basketball to be very similar to chamber music- or better yet, to playing with a small ensemble or band (bluegrass or otherwise) that involves improvisation. The game is wonderfully simple, but within the context of that simplicity, there are so many variables that present themselves and require constantly evolving contingency plans.
Coffee: What’s next for you? Say we do this again in another five years… where do you see yourself in terms of the work you’ll be doing?
KB: Well, as you know, a lot can happen in five years! Just look at our work together with Bulging Disc Records and “Unleashed!” I would never have dreamed you’d be running a record label, and I would record an album of my own original music for solo viola. But we did it- with a lot of help from some extremely talented people, like Sean [producer Sean McClowry], and Amy [graphic designer Amy Iwazumi of Amy I Productions- who also designed this website!].
Coffee: We did it- you’re right! What do you think our next record will feature?
KB: Well, the overarching goal with “Unleashed!” was to present what I feel is the incredible versatility of the viola- which is why it was entirely solo viola with no looping, overdubbing, or other funny stuff. The way I see it, anybody can play around with a loop pedal and a laptop, but I wanted to really honor the acoustic instrument by itself.
Now that I’ve done that, maybe I would add some other elements to our next record- possibly overdubbing another track or two at times, maybe adding vocals, even a guest performer or two- like Monica [pianist Monica Ohuchi]. But the focus will still be on the viola. I want to continue to challenge myself to play things that may seem difficult or unexpected on the viola. I figure, if I’m going to push the envelope of viola technique with my writing, I had better be able to walk the walk and back it up with my playing.
Coffee: Did you say “walk?!”
KB: Oh, right… okay, I’m guessing we’re done talking now. Let’s go!