Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Kelley Polar

Kelley Polar’s I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling — the the Croatian-born Juilliard-schooled violist/vocalist/composer’s follow up to 2005’s Love Songs Of The Hanging Gardens — is another great dose of his singular late-night Arthur Russell-meets-Italo Disco revving. This time out, there’s something more intimate and bedroom Europop about the hoarfrost. Well, except when he stocks the dance floor with house tracks like “Rosenband.” We posted the Glassy remix of the I Need You standout a ways back, and you can still hear the original, and more, at MySpace and his site (check out the robo dance opera of “A Feeling Of The All-Thing.”)

In his day-to-day life, Kelley Polar, aka Mike Kelley, is an instructor at Apple Hill Center For Chamber Music in Nelson, New Hampshire as well as a viola player in the Apple Hill Chamber Players. Kelley explains the school’s political mission statement, how to build “inspirational environments,” and his place in the string quartet. He also kindly passed along the Apple Hill Chambers Players’ lovely three-part “Dinny’s Suite,” for the classical minded amongst you. (By the way, his sister’s Blevin Blectum. Cool family.)

STEREOGUM: How long have you been at Apple Hill? First as a student and then an instructor?

KELLEY POLAR: I was a student there when I was 11, and was hired as a guest faculty member in the mid-1990’s. I became one of the Music Directors around five years later. So, quite a while!

STEREOGUM: I read the mission statement over at the site, but can you explain the organization a bit for our readers.

KP: Well, since the late 1980’s, my classical chamber music ensemble (The Apple Hill Chamber Players) has been traveling to areas of the world that have traditionally been known as “conflict areas,” playing concerts on both sides, teaching master classes, and awarding scholarships so that young musicians can travel to our Summer Chamber Music Workshop in New Hampshire. So since I joined the group in the mid-1990’s, I’ve been lucky enough to get to teach and play with classical musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus, the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Burma, Malaysia … it’s a long and incredible list, I’m very lucky. We also expanded this concept domestically here in the US to bring musicians from inner-city areas to play with those from the New Hampshire back woods! The idea, of course, is that music can be the common language by which very different people can get to know each other better as friends.

STEREOGUM: How do you go about building “inspirational environments”? Can you maybe explain a typical Apple Hill-related show? Also, how do you work toward this goal? “Founded as a non-profit organization in 1971, Apple Hill’s mission is Playing for Peace. Dedicated to using music as a tool for conflict resolution, Apple Hill brings together musicians of diverse backgrounds to bridge differences and enhance global awareness.” I’m interested in the nuts and bolts specifics.

KP: Well, chamber music, which consists of a small group of instrumentalists (say, between 3-6 most of the time) does not use a conductor, as an orchestra does, so it is an inherently democratic process. You don’t have anyone telling you what to do or how to play, so the group has to figure out how to make and implement musical decisions as a group. Instead of talking about the conflict, or the differences, or the problems in their countries or communities, we have the musicians sit down together and just tackle the practicalities of making music together. Breathing and moving together, so that the ensemble is good. Playing in tune, which requires constant adjustment to everyone else. Playing at the correct volume. Leading when your part needs to lead, following when your part needs to follow. Everyone has to succeed together in a performance, or no one does. It quickly becomes apparent that listening to your colleagues is perhaps even more important than playing yourself.

We’re not trying to solve the underlying problems — we’re not dialoguing about the Middle Eastern Peace Process, for example, unless people start talking informally. What we are creating is a situation where an Israeli and a Palestinian could meet and have a good experience making beautiful music together. And after that, it isn’t possible to demonize the entire group in that way that is so destructive, because you have immediate proof that it isn’t true. For a fantastic first-hand account of what this feels like, I would love to refer you and your readers here.

These small connections can begin to create large changes — we have one Palestinian violist alumnus who created chamber music groups to play at West Bank checkpoints to, in his words, “change the dynamic” of how people treat each other there. Two other Cypriots started their own workshop on the island to bring together musicians from both communities, now that the borders can be crossed. It’s exciting.

Our live performances take a lot of different forms — we’ve done interactive demonstrations of the Ravel string quartet with 300 Jordanian high school kids, we’ve played concerts at US Consulates and Embassies abroad (the one for two Burmese political prisoners who had just been released is particularly memorable to me), at the Kennedy Center and World Bank, in tiny towns in rural Donegal … anywhere we can play, and people will listen.

STEREOGUM: How are the classes organized? And how many students do you have?

KP: The Summer Chamber Music Workshop is organized into five 10-day sessions, with most of the international students attending two sessions, so they are here for about a month. Each session has around 50 participants and nine faculty members, who also play a concert on our Recital Series. So each of those participants will play in two of the 27 small ensembles formed per session, they’ll rehearse for 3-6 hours a day, and then give a performance at the end of the week.

STEREOGUM: Your bio over at the Apple Hill says you studied viola with Lenny Matczynski, Jeff Irvine and Karen Tuttle and that you have degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Juilliard. So, how long have you been studying viola? Are your old teachers into Kelley Polar?

KP: I’ve studied viola ever since I was 17, and violin before that, since I was around 3. I switched from violin because they needed more violists in my youth orchestra. None of my old teachers (except for one) has any idea that Kelley Polar even exists, which is fine with me, quite frankly. As for the one that does know, I think the verdict may still be out.

STEREOGUM: Are the Apple Hill folks fans?

KP: My colleagues in the Apple Hill Chamber Players are fans and very supportive, they’ve all moonlighted as members of the Kelley Polar Quartet at some point! Rupert, our cellist, plays the solo on the first track of the new album, A Feeling of the All-Thing. Other than the three of them, however, I mostly keep the two worlds separate, then Kelley Polar can be as out of control as he wants, and Mike Kelley can go and play Haydn quartets at school outreach concerts for elementary school kids.

STEREOGUM: You also taught electronic music at Juilliard. Can you explain that a bit? How was it different/similar than Apple Hill?

KP: Apple Hill is awesome and progressive and fulfilling, and Juilliard is an evil black hole that sucks art and life and happiness away from everyone that has any kind of sensitivity. How’s that? But Juilliard did have two nice little electronic music studios that no one ever used (besides the two awesome underutilized electronic music teachers, Tchaikovsky and Paranosic), so in exchange for T.A.ing the Intro to Electronic Music class for the undergrads, I got a magical, magical Key to them, and that’s actually where I could finally start making electronic music the way I wanted to. I recorded a bunch of the Metro Area string parts there.

STEREOGUM: The bio also says you’re “president of Trifecta Music for Film, a New-York based production company.” Can you explain your role there?

KP: That must be an old bio. The company did well in the internet boom times but was dissolved at the peak of my New York debauchery, right before I moved to the woods, when I came to our Times Square penthouse office and found it padlocked by federal marshals. It wasn’t my fault.

STEREOGUM: Ha ha. Did it overlap with your other work?

KP: It enabled me to learn a whole lot of useful techniques, but making fake Britney Spears music for Tampax commercials … it gets old. The money’s good, though.

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Here are KP’s anecdotal, scene-coloring composition notes for “Dinny’s Suite.” The MP3s follow.

“It was one of our first tours of Ireland, and we had been performing and teaching classical music around the Donegal/Derry area, sponsored by the latter’s Classical Music Society. We asked one student’s mother where she would recommend we go to hear some traditional Irish music, and she replied instantly that we should find where Dinny McLaughlin would be playing. It was a small and beautiful pub in Buncrana, and we went there that night.

Dinny held court in the small musician’s alcove with his superb trio. When left alone by the crowd for a moment, they would display their consummate technical and artistic skill. The violinist in our quartet, Elise, trained at the finest schools from Juilliard to Guildhall, remained fixated on Dinny’s bowarm for the night, as it danced and bounced in an exquisitely controlled, but completely relaxed, fashion. She remarked more than once that her professors would have done well to study it. I was struck by the breadth of colors he could draw from the violin — an air of dark violet, a shimmering golden jig, each tune having it’s own vivid character. Years later, I still recall details of this fine evening, from Dinny’s gentle or raucous support of singing patrons, to his kind encouragement when he found I could play a few tunes. I had attended seisuns from San Francisco to New York to Boston, but this one was the best, and still is, in my mind.

Dinny created a feeling, effortlessly, that I believe must be cultivated by creators in our society today; that one must strive to make art at the highest level, with integrity, discipline, and love — while, just as importantly, maintaining a feeling of inclusiveness, approachability, and humility. It is an important lesson that he teaches me again each time I see him play, or to tell you the truth, just when we are lucky enough to get to hang out with him. Everyone in our quartet listened eagerly over and over to Play it By Ear, which was generously signed and sent to us, and I wanted to return the favor by writing Dinny’s Suite, a piece for us classical players inspired by Dinny’s music on the album.

I’m happy to say that the reaction to the piece was great, and we decided to perform it on several other tours. I’m looking forward this year to telling Dinny that his tunes (albeit delivered by us stodgy classical types!) have been heard and enjoyed by audiences across the US, and in Algeria, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and West Bank/Palestine. In each place I have tried to give proper homage to this amazing player and the great work he does, as well as to the wonderful Irish musical tradition and, personally, my most favorite part of the world, Donegal!”

Apple Hill Chamber Players – Dinny’s Suite 1 – “Donegal” (MP3)
Apple Hill Chamber Players – Dinny’s Suite 2 – “Blind Mary” (MP3)
Apple Hill Chamber Players – Dinny’s Suite 3 – “The Spring Of Peace” (MP3)

I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling is out via Environ.

Tags: Kelley Polar