Composer Jeff Kaiser is no stranger to Ventura. He’s a man about town, and a man with a good collection of hats.
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the increasingly rich new music scene here knows Kaiser, the composer-musician, who devises elaborate, adventurous and sometimes zany pieces for both conventional and electronic instruments. They know Kaiser, the implementer, who has arranged New Music concerts--including several recent performances in the Performance Studio of the Livery Arts Center.
They may also know Kaiser, the trumpeter who performs with an ad hoc group known as Maha Cuisine Art. Or they might know him as the current president of the L.A. chapter of SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States).
But in recent months, Kaiser has been less visible. Last week, just before heading off to a national SEAMUS conference in Illinois, Kaiser explained, only half-joking, “The Requiem has taken over my life and its tendrils have reached into every portion of my mind.”
Saturday, the fruits of his efforts will be unveiled when Kaiser’s Requiem (Mass for the Dead) is premiered at the Odd Fellow’s Hall (above the Ventura Bookstore).
In a sense, Kaiser’s latest, and most ambitious compositional project, is a summation of his various roles within the cultural fabric of Ventura.
The text was written and adapted from the original Latin text by local poet George Keenen. The electro-acoustic ensemble features bassist Jim Connolly and flutist Rene Janton--with whom Kaiser has collaborated on smaller projects--a choir of 12 vocalists and electronics, with Kaiser conducting.
An unusual project required an unusual space, which came in the form of an invitation from the Ventura Bookstore’s Kent Wygle and Ed Elrod, who sit beneath the mysterious Odd Fellow’s Hall.
“It was just such a wonderful, weird space,” Kaiser said. “We wanted a different space, and this space is definitely different.”
The notion of writing a Requiem has been building in Kaiser since he was an undergraduate at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and first studied the classics.
Kaiser said he admired the flexibility of the form and the way in which composers “would take ownership of that tradition for their era and their generation. Berlioz and Verdi really wrote the romantic ones, and Britten’s War Requiem is phenomenal (in a modern sense). I thought, ‘One of these days, I want to write one of those.’ It’s been bouncing around for awhile and it seemed like now was appropriate.”
There was also a time factor in his writing it this year. “I always told myself I would write a Requiem before I was 30,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t know why.” The performance comes a month before Kaiser cracks the age of 30.
Several months ago Kaiser wasn’t actively pursuing the concept. It was only after a casual conversation with Keenen that the wheels began turning. Kaiser recalled that Keenen “came back the very next day with pages of text.”
Keenen said the meeting took place in the City Bakery, which Keenen owns with his wife Mabel Chase.
“He was in the Bakery and was studying Greek,” Keenen said. It so happens that I know Greek. I translated the Odyssey when I was in high school. The odds of two men who know Greek meeting in a bakery in Ventura--that always flabbergasted me.
“I felt like I was the perfect writer for the kind of thing he was talking about. I was familiar with the whole Roman Catholic literature. As a writer, it was interesting to delve back into that official text. And as someone who left Catholicism a long, long time, it was nice to go back and reclaim it, make it my own in some way.”
After seeing Keenen’s enthusiasm and handiwork, Kaiser said, “We’d better see if we can get the money and do this.”
Enter Kaiser, the facilitator. Securing grants from both the Ventura Arts Council and the Forum of the Arts Endowment (through the Ventura County Museum), and in-kind support from local businesses, Kaiser was on his way to realizing the piece. What remained were decisions on what form his Requiem would take.
“Originally, when George and I were talking about it, the idea was to be more era-specific. We were thinking about the Gulf War aftermath, the refugees, the problems in Bangladesh with the typhoons, and all the things that humans are doing to the earth.
“Shostakovich wrote some notes for a string quartet in which he talked about those in the past who have died under fascists, those who are dying under fascists, and those who will. It’s a real powerful quote, especially from such a composer.”
Which gave him, he said, the idea to have three tenses going on at once.
“This is a prayer for the departed, so the idea was to use the Latin to represent the past tense, then straight English to represent the present, and then to use words broken down into simple syllables to represent the future.”
As ambitious and lateral-thinking as composers can get with their grand designs, pragmatism always rears its head when it comes down to actually getting new music heard. Kaiser points to the sage advice of John Rapson, his professor at Westmont College.
“He always told me, ‘Never do anything that you can’t get done, never write a piece you can’t get performed.’ When you’re in college and feeling ambitious, you think ‘I’m going to write a piece for orchestra.’ The first thing I thought about this when I was writing it was ‘can I get it done?’ ”
For his Requiem, Kaiser began the compositional process by writing in parts for his frequent collaborators Connolly and Janton. He drew on his experience working with church choirs.
From a musical standpoint, Kaiser noted that his score “also brings together a lot of spiritual aspects, and there’s one instrumental section which is a bit humorous. And (the project) brings together a lot of the people I’ve worked with on individual things in one bigger thing. Part of my goal is to help develop a scene here in Ventura. It’s to help myself as well, so that I have something to do here in the future.”
Among Kaiser’s works-in-progress are commissions for a piece for vocalist and piano and also a clarinet piece. Still, there is the matter of braving the waters of the independent composer’s life.
“I just wish I could pay the bills with it,” he said. “I’ve made it for almost two years now doing this. I play at a church on Sundays. I live in a cheesy little apartment and am enjoying myself. And I drink a lot of coffee,” he laughed heartily. “I go over to the Kitchen Cafe and drink coffee almost every day--except lately. I’ve been too busy with the Requiem.”
* WHERE AND WHEN
Requiem, with music by Jeff Kaiser and text by George Keenen, will be performed at the Odd Fellow’s Hall, 518 E. Main St. in Ventura (above the Ventura Bookstore), on Nov. 2 at 4:30 and 8 p.m.