Cats in the Kitchen

By Katherine Pioli

Catalyst pays a visit to the kitchen of Utah-based composer Phillip Bimstein, to discuss a new composition for flute, oboe, felines and appliances.

by Katherine Pioli 

Phillip Bimstein, an internationally recognized musicianand composer, has been interviewed on Estonian public radio. His work has beenperformed for audiences in Korea and toured with a London-based modern dancetroupe. But the place Bimstein calls home is none other than our little stateof Utah.


The concert debut of Bimstein’s latest composition,"Cats in the Kitchen," in April is a perfect opportunity to discovera talented local artist. It is a classical piece in three movements for oboeand flute; what gives the work its original flair, distinctly Bimsteinianfeeling and creative title are the sound recordings of cats and kitchenimplements mixed in with the traditional form.


Bimstein’s use of ordinary sounds  to complement his more traditionalmusic derives from a very early, instinctual fascination with the world ofsound. Long before he dreamed of studying music or making it his career,Bimstein found himself curiously attracted to the sound of a flushing toiletand other such common household noises. In high school, Bimstein begandeveloping his interest into miniature musical experiments for the amusement offriends.


When Bimstein entered college, he chose to study music atChicago’s Conservatory of Music and from there he went on to study film scoringat UCLA. At these schools he established a foundation of formal, classicaltraining that still guides his music today.


Yet even with his university training, Bimstein could notforget what first attracted him to music, the incredible variety and beauty ofsound. Today, he remains a musician with eclectic tastes, listening toeverything from new wave to alt-rock. His local performing groups-Blue Haikuand Red Rock Rondo- capture a more folksy, alternative style. And "Cats inthe Kitchen," while a classically structured oboe and flute duet, shows aclear return to his pre-college, experimental roots.


On a recent morning, I met with Phillip Bimstein in hisSalt Lake City home. The day was sunny and clear, and we sat in the sun-soakedfront room joined by Xip (pronounced Zip), one of his three cats. None of thethree cats currently living with Phil are on the recording, but the egg beats,oven creaks, toaster dings and other kitchen noises all came, he assures me,from within his own home.


"When I made eggs in the morning I would put mymicrophone down on the counter while I cracked eggs and whipped them up. That’sactually how the piece starts. It was great because it had this natural beat toit," Bimstein says. "Then I put the eggs in the frying pan andrecorded the scraping of the spatula and so forth."


Of course, with a room as full of tools and props as thekitchen, eggs are not the only sound-props featured. Bimstein’s creativeimagination found useful tones and rhythms in all sorts of places. "Thesink – I got a lot of sounds out of the sink. I got the toaster oven and thesound of the cat food going into the cat bowl. The second movement starts outwith that."


It may seem odd to have a piece of music built aroundcats and kitchen noises, but it was not something produced on a whim. Combiningfound sounds, and even spoken interviews, with music is a technique Bimsteinhas used since 1990-when he produced "Garland Hirshi’s Cows." Thatfirst sound and text piece featured the cows of Bimstein’s neighbor mooing andringing their cow bells. The piece became a huge success, performed live atLincoln Center in New York and broadcast on the air with NPR. After that,Bimstein continued to produce other works interwoven with sounds and voicesfrom his community and surrounding wild spaces.


The opportunity to create "Cats in the Kitchen"came about when a colleague of Bimstein’s, assistant professor Michele Fialafrom Western Kentucky University, who had performed some of Bimstein’s earlierwork, contacted him with a proposition to write a new piece. Her proposal gaveBimstein the chance to dig up some ideas that had been turning in his mind forsome time. "One [idea] that I had for a long while included kitchensounds-knives, forks, drawers opening and closing, water boiling.  Then I also had this newer idea of asong based on cat sounds," says Bimstein.


He suggested the idea of combining the two sets of soundsin one piece, and Fiala agreed. "[Michele] loves cats and loves to cook soshe went for [it]," he says.


To explain strange works like these to those who havenever heard of such music, Bimstein uses the term "alternativeclassical," a name which borrows from popular music vocabulary of the’90s. "At the time I began composing in this style alternative rock waspopular, so I borrowed the alternative part. I applied that term to classicalmusic because I am using formal training and a formal understanding," hesays. "Although the music shows my affections for anything from hip-hop topop to techno." 


These alternative pieces certainly stretch the limits ofclassical music. But these days artists are allowed to push the limit. Bimsteinadmits that the acceptance he has found for his work, even within professionalspheres, encourages him to explore new, creative methods of expression. Thebroadening acceptance of such music has been particularly apparent to Bimsteinas a member of the board for the American Music Center in New York, anorganization founded to promote and disperse the work of new Americancomposers. Bimstein felt for a long time that it only served composers whofollowed traditional styles. Now, that is changing. "Over the last 10 orso years [the American Music Center] has become more [accepting of] anythingthat is artistic and creative. It is very experimental. I am grateful for thosewalls coming down, and my music definitely benefits. I don’t limit myself tothe language and styles that classical composers used to limit themselvesto," says Bimstein. 


For those of us in Utah and elsewhere who are looking forsuch newly emerging musical styles, Phillip Bimstein’s work is a great place tostart. His creativity with found sounds and his obvious skill as a composersatisfy a wide range of musical interests from alternative all the way toclassical.  


Katherine Pioli is a CATALYST intern. She graduated fromBryn Mawr with a major in English literature and a minor in modern dance. Inthe summer she fights fires in Wyoming’s national parks. We wish we could keepher all year ’round.





This article was originally published on April 1, 2008.