by Orson Abram
[originally published May 20, 2022]
Ross Karre is a percussionist, artist, and creative director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. He was recently hired as the Associate Professor of Percussion at the Conservatory. Karre graduated from Oberlin in 2005. I sat down with Karre to discuss his new position and return to Oberlin!
OA: I’m really excited to be interviewing you! First off, I want to start off with a simple question; what are you excited about when returning back to Oberlin? What are you expecting in terms of the campus energy and being a professor at the school where you were a student? I assume it must be somewhat uncanny.
RK: I don’t think that the experience will be noticeably uncanny for me, because I have been back a few times, and so much time has elapsed. I’ve had so many experiences since then, artistically, and what I discovered there was a specific type of creative approach to music and I am really grateful for that. Oberlin was quite formative, especially a few specific projects and experiences in 2004 and 2003. But, so much has happened since then that I don’t feel like remotely the same person, so the uncanniness is going to be pretty muted on that level. Instead, what I’m most excited to return to is a creative ‘buzz’ of the Oberlin environment and to support that creative impulse that’s a pervasive part of the DNA of Oberlin. That’s what I’m most excited about and how it fits into my own interests.
You also asked about the difference between my current lifestyle/career and the next one… my day-to-day now is producing concerts and playing in them, and I also have a big teaching component to my life but it’s part-time. It’s part-time at the New School and part-time at the State University of New York in New Paltz and that's a little more classroom-oriented, with a little bit of applied studies and private studio work. I love that and I didn’t know that I loved that until I started teaching at those places) . I think one of the most exciting places to be is a sandbox of creativity where there are these occasional peaks and valleys of intensity, where it feels like a professional environment and there's a lot at stake, like one’s junior or senior recital or a big orchestra concert, big CME (Contemporary Music Ensemble) concert, big OPG (Oberlin Percussion Group) concert with a world premiere; all those things aren’t different from performing them professionally. But, in between, there's so much, so many new experiences that everyone's having at all times that it feels like an almost utopian creative workspace. I have been in lots and lots of creative projects, since graduating, of course, and it’s hard to match the vitality, joy, spirit, and curiosity that one can experience at Oberlin, so my goal is just to make sure that that's primed at all times with as much energy as I can offer. I guess I'm curious if you feel that the place still has that quality to it, or if it's regaining that as people come back in person. I’ll find out when I get there and join that spirit and community of creative people.
OA: Yeah! It definitely feels that now, with junior recitals and senior recitals people can go to- The whole aspect of the physicality of performance is being reignited. Classes in the TIMARA department, for example, are having in-person concerts, and all of this type of energy is coming back. The spirit feels different now regarding that, and I’ve had those experiences you discussed and they have been life-changing already. I think, in a lot of ways, Oberlin still has that creative vitality that you were talking about.
RK: It's really great to hear that! The memories that I have are of circumstances where people came together with no specific plan or even a repertoire choice, but just the desire to do something, and then the conversation about what to do, why to do it, and how to do it was pretty new for everybody. But those are also things (the What, Why, and How) that I do all the time, and I really find a lot of joy in, and so I think, just joining those conversations, asking questions, and being helpful and supportive in those projects is what my main approach will be to start and then we'll go from there.
OA: That's so enlightening and obviously inspiring to hear! I’m very interested in the technological shifts between 2004/2005 and now- technology has completely changed, but in a lot of ways, contemporary music has not stopped being cutting edge. I know you do a lot of work with electronics, so I’m curious: How are you going to do that in a conservatory percussion performance manner; teaching students to work with technology in a different/a more creative way than what they're used to. I'm curious if you can expand upon your approach for that.
RK: I think of myself as just joining an already expert and creative crew of faculty and students who are focused on digital literacy. I don't want to be cynical about it, but it's a bit of a liability if one isn't digitally literate. In addition, now more than ever there's a viability to the DIY model. So one’s digital literacy is essentially just an extension of their acoustic literacy now. Before, if there was an OPG concert with a fixed media part, Davidovsky or something, then we would bring in the experts to manage that. We're (you're) going to be the experts. That's a really, really important aspect of the DIY model. The DIY (stands for do it yourself gets stereotyped as being under-resourced or inexpert, but actually it's not quite true. The DIY can also be a choice, and it can be an artistic craft in and of itself, which is that one only does artistically what they can manage within their economy of means within what they know how to do. So my goal is to make sure that the know-how-to-do umbrella is as broad as possible and obviously includes digital work, (but it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone needs to know how to program a really professional sound console, how to program a lightning console, how to do things that tend to be more of an expert thing), But just to understand what those tools are capable of doing, and then have your own little DIY kit that is in your command that's just an extension of your professional craft. It’s not lost on me that the pandemic and everybody hooking in from their dorm rooms and home studios has already offered a lot of savvy and literacy in this space, so now it's just a question of “okay now disconnect it from the zoom now connect it to something else” and what do you want it to sound like between those connections? How do you want this to enhance or alter your voice as an artist? And so as you can tell I'm not approaching it from like a “you need to know how to do this in order to be an artist”, but rather, “this is the tool that can expand your voice. Check it out-let's see what you think of it”.
OA: That’s fascinating to think about from the perspective of the pandemic really being a time and place for that to emerge in especially with performers. I'm also very curious about coming to an institution that had both liberal arts and a conservatory- you were only a conservatory major officially, but you very much associated with the cinema studies department. I'm curious about your experience with that and if that was the place that began your knowledge of and love for technology and the need for technological literacy- was it like using that film equipment that really sparked that? What was it for you that really created that relationship to technology?
RK: So I started understanding the need for being aware of digital technology, not as a craft, for which you need a separate collaborator, that's sometimes the case- but also understanding the same way- I don't know how to play the cello, but I also understand like some of the mechanics of the cello so that, if I have a conversation with a cellist, I'm not harmful to the collaborative conversation. So that's just an awareness thing. My first experience was playing, this is just kind of lucky in a way but, there was a piece that I played in my senior year of high school for timpani and tape and I didn't know that there was the person who should plug all the cables into the speaker. I just did it myself.I remembered from marching band days that you could plug in a microphone to the speaker and then make the metronome sound on the football field. Those were the initial experiences and then we got to have really random Winter term projects, in particular with a pianist and musicologist named Michael Gallope, who was a really important figure in organizing projects at Oberlin while I was there. He asked if we would play this piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen called “Kontakte”. I didn't know this from that, you know, in terms of electronics or the history of Stockhausen's music or the history of that piece, and Christoph Caskel’s percussion legacy and any of that stuff.
Instead, I just thought it was a piece and started learning it and, of course, Michael Rosen (Oberlin Percussion Professor from 1972 to 2021) knew a lot about it and helped me understand how important that piece is with the cycle of works that accompany it from the late 1950s. I learned about spatialized audio, and why we will need to reinforce the sound setups and mix it and blend it and started to get the itch for what an enhanced ,enhanced version of percussion could be.. I’ve always had an also an appreciation for that era of electroacoustic music and specifically Pauline Oliveros’s contribution to that in the early 60s with her piece for David Tudor called “AppleBox Double” (solo percussion and contact microphones) and the gap between those two experiences (2003 when I played “Kontakte” with Michael Gallope and then recording the “Applebox Double” is just kind of a book ends of electronics as just another part of the percussion craft. And there's tons of instrumentalists who aren't professionals who consider electronics as a part of their worlds in that same way; not only people using pedals and looping and things like that, but just that their sound actually doesn't exist acoustically, it only exists by way of modification through digital or analog electronic means; and I think that that.helps to reinforce the fact that this is not a separated craft all the time that's handled by sound engineer experts, but it can be DIY and that can be very creatively liberating.
OA: When you graduated from Oberlin and UCSD, I'm curious how you began to adapt to the New York lifestyle of hustle and bustle and, as you say DIY, and i'm very curious about translating your art into that type of setting and what you are specifically good at, and almost on a way, transitioning back when you begin this job at Oberlin. I’m curious about your process with that, but also what you think/you maybe hope that process will be when you come back here.
RK: Thanks for that question. So in 2008 when the economy crashed the previous time (before the pandemic crash), there was a low in hiring and so I was on an academic track and it didn't work out because a lot of those jobs were frozen and instead I just decided to stay in school and finish an MFA in film. That reinforced a certain kind of attention to just being available as an artist; to be in service of projects. I realized I was always going to be the projection designer for this production or the percussionist for this production, rarely doing anything with solo artistry. That's true. I also only have one album that I've released of solo pieces. Most of my work has been collaborative and supportive. I think that that's also going to be my approach at Oberlin; if students say “hey can I do this thing”, I want to just be the person to support, ask the right questions, and say. “this is how it could be done or it was done at this kind of venue and blah blah blah”,the very practical kind of how-to aspect of it. But also I'm interested in asking why- what's driving this artist and really getting to the core of that, because the other line of my work is always about that: curatorially, fundraising, writing grants, you have to constantly be asking the why and being able to distill that in a clear way.
So when I moved from San Diego after the MFA to New York, it was with the idea that I'll just be available to everybody, for whatever (mostly percussion), so I played 80 concerts a year with International Contemporary Ensemble with the last 11 years basically until the pandemic. And I also started to film concerts and started a little company to do that, and that was my lifestyle for all those years. Gradually, the other layer of curation and administration and creative producing (and then finally teaching) added into it. So that's a little sequence of what happened and the way that manifests at Oberlin is a distillation of all those experiences into a kind of resource; available to everyone. So yeah, I’ve had a lot of conversations with Peter Swendsen (Current Oberlin Conservatory Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Professor of TIMARA) about that and I've had a lot of conversations with Tim Weiss (Conductor of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and Sinfonietta) and the leadership just about the practical considerations, but never leaving the fact that what I think Oberlin does well is make very creative and empathic people; people who know how to join a collaboration compassionately, bring absolutely all of their creativity, but not a lot of ego, and yeah I’m gonna keep that model alive, if possible.
OA: Well, thank you! I'm branching off of you discussing your film company/your film work and I'm curious about how your experience in the Cinema studies department has shaped you as a musician and whether, when you come here, are you going to collaborate with that department as well? What's your philosophy regarding the collaboration of film and percussion as we know it and art (studio art, video art, etc.)?
RK: I have a lot of dreams about it, what it can be, but I'm coming in a little bit patient with just getting the lay of the land and understanding what's possible. The good thing is that Rian Brown-Orso (Cinema Studies Professor) and I are really close friends and we've done a lot of collaborations. So we've talked already- just fun ideas and stuff. My main goal is to make sure that this Percussion studio feels like the right place for all of the people in it, that's my main goal. So I’m going to come in more just listening and understanding what people's goals are, and how I can understand what goals are related to what I know to be some expectations after you graduate, either for graduate school, for professional freelancing, or being a large ensemble and that's my priority. I think, in order to achieve that priority, I have to also create a lot of opportunities for collaboration between the Percussion area and Cinema studies, or the percussion area and visual art, dance, theatre, TIMARA, and that's absolutely desired. So I just want to figure out what is possible- Tom Lopez (TIMARA professor) and Peter and I are already talking about activating the Wurtzel with some percussion activity, or maybe like annual recurring conversations between TIMARA and percussion. Those are just barely-bubbling-to-the-surface conversations, but my focus is really on the 12 to 15 of you all as percussionists in the studio, and growing that studio, not necessarily in size, but in the world's awareness for what the studio is and how awesome an environment it is and what it can be. And by listening to each of you, and checking the temperature/getting the pulse of what your goals are, that will ultimately shape what the department feels like, more so than any of the other top down curricular concepts that I'll be bringing to the table. But, there are some curricular concepts that I'm excited about, but they aren't going to be surprising. Being good at percussion, and I mean that, from a boring technical-chops perspective to an awareness of its history, lineages etc. is critical, and I'm definitely prioritizing that.Supplementing that, when you look at the lineage of the history, you see tons and tons of collaborative history between percussionists and non-percussionists, and I am interested in thinking about expanding the history and lineage that was talked about for many years at Oberlin, from the early 20th century orchestral percussionists and think “okay well, what starts with Christoph Caskel, Sylvio Gualda, Robin Schulkowsky and Steve Schick and that group of people and where else was that happening in the world” and let's chart that and understand it, and then allow that to define a lot of the motivations of what we're doing so that it's never inattentive to history-that's not a goal at all , but truly understanding the context in which that work was made and wondering aloud, “maybe that context is relevant now, because we can do it differently”. It’s not about that kind of star-power cult of identity, it's more just about “what were those artistic contexts? What are they now? How do they inform each other?” and that awareness will actually create new generative ideas. At the core of everything that I'm interested in is creating new things, whether that's a new way to approach “Scheherazade” or a new way to approach crash cymbals. We as percussionists actually have a responsibility to that. We aren't regurgitating anything. We are a generative craft so we'll keep that going and that's really exciting for me.
OA: Great! Thank you, I think we're wrapping up now, so as a very different question than what we've been discussing, I’m curious, what's inspiring you right now? Are you being inspired by any visual art, music, films, etc, and if so, share, please.
RK: Thanks for that question, wow! So many things. I'm really inspired by the fact that New York City and it's contemporary music scene is back in a major way. There’s a lot of great things happening right now. We just finished a project of Du Yun’s opera (Oberlin Alum!) with the lead singer of Deerhoof, Satomi as the lead cast member… fantastic. So that was really a great experience. The artist Autumn Knight is a really close collaborator now, and we've done several projects and they are by far the most engaging (socially, politically, artistically, technologically) that I've done, so definitely if you're writing in the Grape, plug for Autumn Knight, an incredible artist. The other things that are exciting to me is a completely different approach to to the ethics of gathering and collaboration that is inspired by the last three years of struggle,challenge, Reformation, and reparations, and I feel like people have a much deeper ,more honest awareness, for themselves-self awareness- and how that is manifesting in their artistic expressions or through some collaborations. It's a really cool environment to work in right now, so I hope that's true and Oberlin, and if not I'll do my best to support that.
OA: Great! Another question just popped up in my mind right now- What do you do outside percussion? I know that's a very kind of typical question, but i'm also curious whether your very meticulous and detailed philosophy of your own artistry etc., permeates in the other things of what you do like such as this film company, you were talking about etc.?
RK: It definitely does. The common principles are really related to a service-based approach to art. Like I said, I'm not initiating a lot of new projects, but I facilitate a lot of new artistic projects and bring a lot of creativity to that whenever that's desired. I think the generosity of creativity- not overstaying my welcome in a space or being too too loud in a space of collaboration- but just being available to it and really attentive, responsive, is really true in my percussion playing, but it's impossible for it not to be true in the video part of what I do. Sometimes I also feel like video is still new or sometimes I feel like less of an expert, because I am less of an expert of video than percussion. So I feel more, (I don't know what the word would be for like playful or childish or some sort of immature version of a craft) compared to the thing I've been doing for over 30 years. That's an interesting discussion, too, I think in terms of the differences, but otherwise, everyday, my Google calendar is just like this this this this this this this, sometimes it's videos, some days it’s conversations like this, sometimes percussion and each day has that kind of mesh and I'm the same creative person in each of those. I just change the language, like I talk about a Mike Balter Rattan Handles in one and an SDI cable in another, and I joke with that with my colleagues, but it's not that different for them. Levy Lorenzo, Nathan Davis, several of my colleagues are constantly jumping between different expertise or creative spaces and you kind of switch language, but the core of a generous service-based approach to work is always there.
OA: Well, I think it's 5:30! Thank you so much for spending your time with me. I hope you got as much out of this as I did; this was really enlightening and thank you!
RK: Of course! Yeah, happy to chat and I look forward to working together in August.
OA: Very soon! Thanks!
RK: See you soon! Bye.