Petr Kotík – Part 1

Petr Kotík

Petr Kotík is a Prague-born composer and conductor based in New York. He is the founder and artistic director of the S.E.M. Ensemble, a group that performs modern classical music, both by Kotík himself and others including John Cage and La Monte Young. In 1999 he established the Ostrava Centre for New Music, which runs the biennial Ostrava Days institute and festival in the north Moravian city.

Petr Kotík
When we met at his office in Brooklyn, I first asked Petr Kotík about his family background.

“My family is, has been and was mostly visual artists. My grandfather was Pravoslav Kotík, my father was Jan Kotík [both renowned painters], and both of my grown-up sons are artists. That is from my father’s side, I would say.

“On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a trained musician and at the same time studied mathematics. In the end, after the first world war, he decided for some reason – probably a good reason – not to pursue a musical career and started a very successful accounting firm.

“But anyway, before the war he was active as a conductor. In fact, that’s where he met my grandmother at a theatre – he was an opera conductor. And for some time he was assistant to [Austrian composer and conductor Alexander] Zemlinsky in Prague, for a year I think, in 1910.

“So I had more or less both things in my family, music and visual art. My grandfather gave me piano lessons, maybe unfortunately, because I was not really a very good student and I never learned the piano very well, although probably adequately for what I was doing later.

“One of the very important aspects of my music background is that I was taken by my parents very early to concerts. And my grandfather always made a point of preparing me for concerts, so to speak, as people used to do in the 19th century. We would be sitting on a bench at the piano and he would play scores and try to explain the music to me. It didn’t make any sense to me at that age, but nevertheless the experience must have left something in me, like a respect for the score and music all that.”

Kotík studied at the Prague Conservatory and later at the Vienna Music Academy. From 1961 to 1964 he led the group Musica Viva Pragensis before establishing the QUAX Ensemble in 1966. In 1969 – a year after the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring movement – he decided it was time to leave Czechoslovakia. He recalls that move today, nearly four decades later.

“It was for working reasons, it was for professional reasons, it was because I realised that I couldn’t continue my work in the Czech Republic without becoming a martyr. I intuitively knew that it just…would be over. I intuitively knew that I cannot, at the age of 27…I simply don’t have time, I simply don’t have time to deal with all the obstacles which suddenly were in the way of my work, as it appeared in late 1969.

“I had not planned to leave. In fact, I remember to the horror of my family I was trying to buy a mini-bus for my ensemble, the QUAX Ensemble, in the summer of ’69, because it would be a great advantage for our tours.

Ostrava Days music festival
“But then came September and I was forbidden with my ensemble to go to West Berlin, to perform at a festival which was actually set up for my group and for a similar group from London. Suddenly I found myself in the situation I was in when I was 19, 20, in 1961, 1962 – we had the same obstacles, the same problems, and I was utterly uninterested in dealing with it, from any point of view.

“Fortunately I had an invitation to join an institution in Buffalo, New York. So I came over, with the decision not to return. That decision was of course pending on the ability of my then wife Charlotta to come with our son. If she hadn’t been permitted to come then obviously I would have returned. But she came, and the rest is history (laughs).”

The institution that threw the composer and conductor a lifeline was the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Buffalo. There Kotík received a two-year fellowship and was required, like all the center’s creative associates, to perform one original work a year. Before long, however, he had left to form the S.E.M. Ensemble, which he leads to this day.

“I found the artistic direction and the repertoire and the music we were doing quite disappointing. I was quite depressed. I thought, my goodness, I was doing things which were much more interesting than here in Prague.

“Luckily I found other members of the group, maybe not disappointed to the same extent, but also not quite satisfied with the situation. So we formed a group within a group, right after my arrival. I arrived in November ’69 and our first concert was March ’70. We started to do our own thing.

“This is actually my reaction to disappointments or disagreements with my surroundings. Instead of fighting for change and making noise and screaming and yelling, I turn around and do my own thing. I think the energy is much better spent this way.

“So I founded a group which we named S.E.M. Ensemble, a name which has no meaning. Obviously we started with nothing, very small, not many people paid much attention to us. And here we are, many years later, while the center is gone.”

Next week, in the second of two editions of the Arts dedicated to Petr Kotík, the composer and conductor discusses getting Václav Havel’s permission to put his Letters to Olga to music, the Ostrava Days music festival – and why he thinks Prague is a musical “garbage heap”.