GL: What was your musical background before the hurdy gurdy?
JK: It was long and varied really. My brother
was in a rock band in the 1960's and he was really a great inspiration to me (this would have been in the mid 1960's).
I decided I wanted to get in a rock band myself, so I started playing bass guitar when I was in the 8th grade. Then I
heard the legendary, groundbreaking 'Switched on Bach' by Walter Carlos where he would play Bach on the synthesizer, and I realized
that instead of playing rock & roll patterns on the bass, I could actually play melodies on the bass. That turned
me on to Bach. Then I wanted to play violin in my freshman year of high school, and I heard the concertos by Bach for multiple harpsichords
& orchestra. By then I was totally hooked and I wanted to do classical music, mostly Baroque stuff. It wasn't until
2000, about 30 years later, that I decided to get a hurdy gurdy, once I had heard of it.
GL: Thanks for the background.
What first ignited your interest in the hurdy gurdy?
JK: That's an interesting story. As a music historian I've always
been really interested in unusual keyboard and string instruments, and also winds. Anything historical, but especially keyboards
& strings. That's what turned me on to the harpsichord and clavichord. As I began to study more in the 1990's
about rare string instruments, I was led to the nyckelharpa, which is a very precious instrument to me, and then I did a little
more research and found that the direct relative of the nyckelharpa is the hurdy gurdy. Somewhere in my studies, before
I even got to that point, I knew there was an instrument back there that you turned the crank, and there was a wheel and all sorts
of different sounds that you could get. But it wasn't until after I started to play the nyckelharpa in 1997 that I did a bit
more background work on that and discovered this direct relative to the nyckelharpa, the hurdy gurdy. That really spurred my
interest. I got a music program that had sample clips of different instruments, including the hurdy gurdy, and that was it for
me! I was totally hooked. Shortly after that I made your acquaintance and the rest is history.
GL: When you first
started playing the hurdy gurdy, what did you find to be the most difficult aspect of the instrument?
JK: It's actually
twofold. First of all the trompette. That's the most artistically challenging aspect of the instrument, there's
no question about that! I'm always trying to get different rhythmic effects with the trompette. The other aspect
I discovered was very difficult about the hurdy is when you're doing the breaking in period, the second octave is difficult to get
the sounds that you want with the lower octave. It's a twofold process of me learning how to break the instrument in and
really getting that right sound in there. In terms of actual playing technique I feel that the second octave is harder as well
because the keys are so close together. Sometimes you can do rapid passages like that, but to do composers like Haydn
and Bach, you really have to have a light touch on the second octave.
GL: Let's talk about your work playing
the hurdy gurdy. Describe your average workweek, what's your most frequent performance venue?
JK: I do a lot
of lectures, mostly at libraries and senior centers. I've included not only the nyckelharpa, but also the hurdy
gurdy as a part of my lecturing, and I'll give mini-concerts on the hurdy gurdy. With the hurdy gurdy especially, I like to
talk about the history of stringed instruments, and show the people, and then play several selections on it. I'm playing the
hurdy gurdy in my lectures about three to five times a day. In addition to that I have orchestral performances, like my recent
one with the Northbrook symphony. I'd like to have more of that, where I appear as a concert artist. I also compose a
great deal for the hurdy gurdy. I have some concertos inspired by winter, and I'm using the hurdy gurdy with a small string
orchestra with that. I'm really trying to explore the different orchestral possibilities of the hurdy gurdy.
GL: Let's go back to your lectures. How do audiences generally respond to the hurdy gurdy in a lecture setting?
Initially there was a little bit of a surprise, because they had never seen an instrument like this. I always get the most incredible
'oohs' and 'aaahs' and 'what's that?' as I take it out of the case. I realize that many people arent' familiar with this instrument
at all, so I thought a good strategy would be to play music that they already know. Particularly music that has a Celtic sound,
like a bagpipe. I play Amazing Grace, Scotland the Brave, Scarborough Faire, Greensleeves, and then around the holidays
I like to throw in We Three Kings and Joy To The World, and people just love it. I always tell them it's like discovering
an old friend in a new way. The old friend being the familiar song, but played a new way with the hurdy gurdy. There's
a festive quality about it, particularly when I use the trompette, that people really just love. Overall it's been a very positive
GL: Interest insight into your repertoire, thank you for that. What other sorts of venues do you
play? I know that you recently performed at an art show.
JK: Yes, I do a lot of art shows; I enjoy them a great deal.
The vibes at art shows are really great, because everything is so creative. People are there for creativity, and it takes my
playing to a different level because I love to get carried away by that 'wave'. It's a lot of fun. I'm also doing
some historical societies. For example there's the wonderful Charles Gates Dawes house. He was Vice President
under Calvin Coolidge, and his house is maintained by the Evanston Historical Society (in case your readers want to Google that).
It's just an amazing home, and I play there every Christmas. It's very festive and they really decorate this beautiful old Victorian
mansion. So I do a lot of art shows, historical societies, men's groups, women's clubs, senior centers, and libraries.
GL: Interesting, so let's talk about those audiences. Do they respond differently to the hurdy gurdy than
the lecture audiences?
JK: They really do. I think that with the lecture audiences it's understood that it's
a lecture. Even though I don't put this on them, they seem to feel obligated to sit and listen as though they're
in a classical concert hall, which is fine. But then at a Christmas party or art show, people will clap their hands and
sometimes dance a little bit. They come up close and look at it while I'm playing, I think it's more of the festival type
setting. I like both kinds of venues. I think the most conservative audience is the concert hall audience.
I think on a scale from 'most conservative' to most laid back, it would be the concert setting, then lectures, then mens & women's
groups, and then the most relaxed being art shows, historic societies, and that sort of thing.
GL: It sounds like the art
show & Christmas fair crowds are much more interactive with your performance.
JK: Very interactive! I see the little
child in people really activated in grown ups. They get so enamored with the hurdy gurdy, and they want to touch the wheel.
I remember this one woman who really wanted to touch the wheel, and I said to her 'please don't do that'. I could see the little
kid in her just really took over and she so wanted to touch the wheel. I think even the adults even have a sense of wonderment
as they get up close to it.
GL: So what happened? Did she pull it off? Did she get in there on the wheel,
or were you able to thwart her advances?
JK: (laughs) I tell you what, she got in there underneath the wheel cover and I had
to stop and tell her 'please don't touch that'. She asked 'why not?' And I said 'well, you know as a string player about
rosin and finger grease and everything', and she said 'oh, OK'. She got pretty far! I think another 1 or 2 seconds more
and I would have had to call you about a wheel service.
GL: I think that's the one complaint we deal with most often too.
People aim for that wheel, as though they psychically know that it's off limits therefore they must touch it at all costs!
Oh yeah! What I often do, particularly at art shows and festivals, I'll play with the wheel cover off so people can see the wheel
go round, and they're pretty fascinated by that.
GL: While we're on the topic of performing, what would you say is your
worst hurdy gurdy experience in front of an audience?
JK: Boy, that's a good question. I can give you several.
Do you want like five of them, with the least leading up to the worst one? Or the worst one first?
GL: I leave it to your
JK: I'll start with the worst one. What really comes to mind is when the economy first
tanked, I was given this job to play at a fundraising event for one of Chicago's major ensembles. At first I was thrilled, but
as the evening approached I began to get a little more of a foreboding feeling. I think the reason for that was I heard down
through the grape vine 'we're not sure how this is going to go' and 'people don't want to give'. To make a long story short,
by the time that fateful evening occurred we were running two hours late, the auction wasn't going anywhere, and then they were supposed
to bring on the entertainment who was supposed to make everyone forget about their problems; that was me. They liked the nyckelharpa
alright, I think they liked my piano playing alright, but I brought out the hurdy gurdy. There were several conductors in the
audience, several string players, and I think people just weren't in a receptive mood. Let's just say I think the laughing
and hissing in the background wasn't because they were getting into the music. I don't really ascribe that to the
hurdy gurdy, I ascribe it more to the bad times that we were all going through. No one was in a good mood. Looking
back on it, I probably wasn't playing to the right audience, they probably would have liked a cellist or concert pianist more. Another one where I was playing to a pre concert lecture one time, and someone called out 'What a funky instrument that is'.
I had to stop and put on my scholarly face, and say "if you want to call an instrument with over 81 moving parts funky, and something
that was central to the Catholic church funky, and something the Queen Elizabeth the first was reputed to have played as funky", and
I kept listing all these things, then I said "be my guest, but music historians don't use the word 'funky' unless we're talking
about Motown from the 1960's. We all laughed about that, but be that as it may the person who called it 'funky' kept referring
to it as 'funky' later on.