Kevin Kaska '94: Taking the High Road to Hollywood
By Mark Small
Composer John WIlliams (left) and Kevin Kaska '94
Like many who earn a film scoring degree from Berklee, Kevin Kaska '94 hopes one day to hear his music accompanying a feature on the big screen. Unlike many of his peers, though, Kaska hasn't left Boston for Los Angeles yet. His approach to getting there involves writing concert music and having it performed and/or recorded by such esteemed orchestras as the New York Pops, the London Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Royal Scottish National orchestras, and others. As vice president of Denouement Records, an independent classical label, Kaska has already compiled an impressive stack of CDs, many featuring his compositions. (For more about the label, visit www.denouementrecords.com). It might seem as though Kaska is taking the high road, but he feels it could lead him to film work in Hollywood.
Kaska says, "I have heard from established composers that Hollywood is interested in importing a composer who has had luck elsewhere. It seems that many film composers who are in the inner circle were successful somewhere else first. Danny Elfman was the guitarist for Oingo Boingo, Hans Zimmer was known in Germany for his pop synthesizer work, and Howard Shore was music director for Saturday Night Live. I am trying to develop my name as a concert composer. If I can build a reputation for that, maybe someone in Hollywood will import me to compose a score for a big action film."
Growing up in Seattle, Washington, Kaska, a pianist, became interested in arranging music for orchestra. He noted the work of the arrangers on the recordings he liked and sought mentoring from a well-known arranger in his area. "I studied with Vic Schoen when I was in high school," Kaska says. "Vic had written arrangements for the Andrews Sisters, Patti Page, Pat Boone, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope, and wrote music for movies. He taught me a lot. I got a scholarship to study commercial arranging at Berklee, but when I got here, I found that I already knew a lot about that."
In fact, Kaska had learned so much before coming to Berklee that he tested out of several arranging courses and qualified for a directed studies program in arranging with Associate Professor Dennis Grillo during his first year. After discussing his musical goals with various faculty members, Kaska decided to pursue a film-scoring degree.
Soon after graduating, Kaska had the good fortune to meet Ronald Feldman, assistant conductor of the Boston Pops. "I was familiar with the arrangers the Pops had used and was able to really talk shop with him," Kaska said. "He ended up asking me to write a medley of Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes for full orchestra. I spent about three months on it and put in all the bells and whistles that I could think of."
The effort paid off. John Williams, renowned film composer and then-conductor of the Boston Pops, approved Kaska's score and scheduled it for a performance. He later told Feldman, "This kid is wise beyond his years." Kaska began to work for the Boston Pops correcting mistakes in the instrumental parts and fixing arrangements for guest artists. As instructive as that experience was, Kaska feels that the most important lessons he learned working there came from spending so much time around a great orchestra. Attending numerous rehearsals taught him a great deal about instrumental balance and the expectations for those who write for the orchestra. Another perk was the chance to strike up a friendship with John Williams.
The connection with Williams has been inspiring for Kaska, who ranks the maestro among the greatest living composers. "I still see John when he comes to Boston to conduct the orchestra, and I call him on the phone once in a while," Kaska said. "He stays very focused on his own music and generally doesn't teach or give lectures. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him."
A notable release on Denouement Records is a project Kaska, Williams, and Feldman collaborated on featuring the premieres of Williams's Essay for Strings and Trumpet Concerto, and Kaska's A Long Way: Three Songs and Harp Concerto. The disc was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra with Feldman conducting.
While Kaska's duties at the label take time away from composing, the label is a great vehicle for him and other local composers such as Associate Professor Louis Stewart and former Composition Department Chair Jack Jarrett to get their music heard. So far, the label has released five CDs, and 10 more orchestra projects are in the works, as is a national distribution deal.
Kaska's accessible, melodic style is on target with listeners and performers. He has received commissions for major works from Ann Hobson Pilot (harpist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and the Eroica Trio. At the 2001 premiere of Kaska's Triple Concerto for the Eroica Trio with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the audience was so enthusiastic that it applauded after each movement.
"A problem with classical music today," says Kaska. "is that a lot of older repertoire seems stale and many contemporary composers lose the audience with dissonance. New music is hard to grasp for the average concertgoer. I made the decision to write tonal, accessible music."
Kaska has developed a personal style that is readily appealing, yet has enough depth to satisfy "serious" music listeners. While Kaska says he has a "hunger" to get to Hollywood, he seems to have all a rising young composer could hope for in Boston. In addition to commissions for new pieces and running his record label, Kaska also conducts the Metropolitan Orchestra. "I have good work here, exciting developments at my label, and ties to London that I want to see through," he says. To date, over 40 orchestras have played his music. So while Kaska waits to see if the high road he's on will ultimately lead to Hollywood, the scenery he's glimpsed along the way has been quite satisfying.