Klimchak has long been one of Atlanta’s most distinctive and recognizable creative personalities. As a composer and performer, he specializes in electro-acoustic music for theater, dance and live solo performance — whether on the uniquely versatile Buchla Marimba Lumina, theremin, home-built instruments, found objects and traditional percussion or even utilizing unusual vocal techniques such as Tuvan throat singing. ArtsATL recently spoke with Klimchak about his creative process, from concept to performance. Here is some of what he had to say.
ArtsATL: How do you come up with initial creative ideas?
Klimchak: Actually, in the last four or five years, I’ve had a weird sort of change of how I come up with things. I have started thinking in the gloaming time in the morning, kind of near dawn, and sort of lying in bed for an hour and drifting half asleep, and ideas flow like crazy. Some of them I may actually have dreamed, I can’t really tell, because it’s in this weird sort of netherworld state. I’ve really started solving a lot of big problems that way, problems I’ve been sweating over for days or weeks, and solutions come to me full-blown at that moment. I don’t think of this consciously as my creativity hour, but it’s almost like that time of day is now the time where it totally happens.
ArtsATL: After you conceptualize, then there’s the process of bringing that from concept to reality.
Klimchak: I’ve got to admit, to me that’s the hard thing. A lot of my stuff involves building instruments or creating a way to do that concept. I don’t actually enjoy creating instruments. I deal with it, but I’m not like an instrument builder who [has] that joy in creating this instrument. Once I finally get the thing built, then it’s really fun to actually go through and write for it.
ArtsATL: Then you have to discover the techniques you’ll need for playing the instrument or for a new vocal technique. Do you basically try something, play with it, put it aside then pick it back up and reexamine it, or what?
Klimchak: That’s kind of the process. I find the weird little nuggets and worry them for a while, then something opens up as to where to put that nugget. So then I go back and do more developmental work. Obviously improv is an important part of this because each nugget and the working of it comes about through improv, finding your boundaries and of course listening for mistakes. Mistakes are a wonderful way to find new material.
Gary Burton had this whole theory about improvising on vibes. He felt you sort of played something and got into a trance and sort of drifted off, and then inevitably you would screw up, then when you screwed up you would snap back. So the actual challenge of the piece was to get back on track again and in that 5 or 10 seconds while you were panicking and trying to get back on track, if you could retain that, that would be your nugget, that moment when you’re trying to get from where you are to where you [want to be]. That sort of approach is something I use a lot.
I’m lucky since most of what I write is for myself. If I’m the only performer I don’t have to be real rigid about it. I do tend to leave holes that I can fill myself. I allow myself to do that screw-up-and-recovery thing live because I’m comfortable doing that. But that’s only in that kind of piece.
ArtsATL: But another kind of piece, such as writing something for others to play with you, there’s the element of interaction that’s necessarily involved.
Klimchak: I have a pretty hefty jazz background, [and] the basis of that is interacting with other people. So it’s not like it’s stepping into virgin territory, except in the way that all new pieces and people that you play with are.
ArtsATL: What about cross-disciplinary work?
Klimchak: It’s really an exciting, exciting area where you do cross-discipline stuff with people, begin to trust them and build a rapport, and you each recognize that one of you has expertise in one area but not the other. But you might be able to see the other in a fresh way because you don’t have expertise at it. I try to do that quite a bit. Dance and theater are the two that I tend to work with.
ArtsATL: But clearly, there are many musicians who are totally focused on creating the experience of pure music.
Klimchak: That means they’re great at that, they’re totally obsessed with it and that’s what they do. That’s wonderful for an audience that is interested in that. For an audience [in which] that’s not their whole life, they feel something is missing. My big worry is always there’s a performance element that has a tendency to be missing, because they’re basically thinking about “doing the music” and that’s the only thing they’re thinking about.
You’ve got to communicate your feelings to the audience and that’s a multidimensional thing. In an ideal world the music itself would be enough to do that. With some people it is, but I’m convinced that if classical can be as visual as pop, classical music could be as awesome as it was historically in terms of audience size.
ArtsATL: When it comes down to one most fundamental creative element, what’s at the core for you?
Klimchak: For me it’s perform, perform, perform, and try not to perform the same way more than once or twice. It’s one of the reasons that I’m interested in working with dance and theater, and in music with other musicians, with myself and with different instruments each time. Those all reinforce each other. They keep your creativity up. You can’t settle into old habits ’cause you’re not letting yourself do that.
Sometimes I’ll give performances at the last minute and I have to go into my bag of tricks, but at this point I have a big bag of tricks. But the goal is that first iteration, that discovery of a new thing you’ve never thought of before, ideally that nobody has ever thought of before, and yet you do have to recognize at a certain level that the fact you’ve never done it before counts, too.