Behind the Sound
Flautist and composer Kat Epple tells how she creates her award-winning music.
Author: Carla Bernwood
Kat Epple stands solo onstage, a flute to her lips.
She begins to play, and the ethereal sound floats out over the audience sitting quietly in the dark. Her body is part of the expression of music, moving, bending, curving with the sound as if to push the music out.
It reaches Naples, Fort Myers, Los Angeles, New York, Italy, Spain, Russia and even the Amazon.
Epple’s flute is her passport and her passion. The musician uses it in her travels around the world to explore the people and environments of other countries, cross cultural barriers and connect with kindred musical spirits.
Post travels, she brings her new knowledge—and usually one or more new flutes—home to Southwest Florida, where they become part of her signature musical style, cultivated over a career that spans several decades and musical genres.
“I always wanted to play the flute since before I knew what it was,” says Epple, who is based in Fort Myers. “But I think it was also a lot to do with the mythology of the flute. The Pied Piper. Buddha. So often the storytellers were players and they traveled the world in ancient times. They play music and tell stories and make a living doing that.”
In Fort Myers and Naples, Epple is known primarily as a premier flautist who performs in solo concerts or in the company of other musicians. She has 24 albums to her credit.
In the music world, Epple is known first as a composer who creates and orchestrates original music for film, video, dance performance and television. She’s earned eight Emmy Awards, one Grammy nomination and 10 Addy Awards for music in advertising along the way.
Her compositions range from soundtracks for National Geographic to NASA, documentaries on the Calusa Indians or the search for extraterrestrials by late astronomer Carl Sagan, even music for soap operas like Guiding Light and Another World.
Soap operas were fun to compose for, she says. “You can do any kind of music, as far as mood. They do so many wacky story lines.” Epple’s specialty became what she likes to call “the music for the maniac lurking in the dark.”
It’s a piece of music that conveys a sense of foreboding and fear of what happens next, she says. “They used it over and over again. I actually still get royalties from that.”
Other Epple compositions include Empyrean Dispatch, the theme song for National Public Radio’s Capital Reports, and Contemplation, created for a PBS documentary called King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.
Tunes meet technology
An entire orchestra plays in her small home studio, but it comes from her computer and keyboard. She composes digitally, using computer programs. Epple jokes that she’s become “part musician, part computer software geek.”
It definitely isn’t the way Mozart did it. “I think he would have loved it,” Epple says. “Probably when he was writing he could hear the instruments in his head; this would be a flute, this would be a French horn.” With the computer, you can lay tracks down and try those instruments out. Or perhaps you may decide that, instead, the trumpet would be best, she says.
Epple’s creative process is a union of emotion and intellect. On a commissioned piece, like a soundtrack, the intellect leads the way. When composing for herself, emotion is the impetus.
“For a commission, I really have to get a feel for what the director has in mind for certain emotions or to show certain visuals,” Epple says. “I guess I visualize the scene in my mind and imagine what that music might sound like.”
Sometimes the answers come as she sleeps. “A lot of times in my dreams I have music going on,” Epple says. “So, often, that is part of my inspiration.” She can’t ever recreate it exactly, but it’s a good starting point, Epple says. “I wish you could hear this music in my dreams. It’s music, but you know how dreams are. It’s also visceral and kinetic and visual.”
For her own albums, “I probably compose music according to how it makes me feel,” Epple says. If she intends to play a certain native flute, “I try to feel myself in this place where the flute originates” and then interpret the surroundings musically, she says. “I think some of the best music that I create is when I’m angry, because that never really comes out sounding angry—it just sounds very inspired and passionate.”
Epple composes using both digital technology on the computer and by playing solo flute. For film scores, it nearly always starts with digital composition. For her own album, half the time it starts with the flute and proceeds into digital orchestrations to complement the flute, and the other half “I start with a really cool sound I created on digital technology,” she says.
From that point, it’s trial and error to find the exact instruments to send the musical message. “If I’m at a point where I have the basics down and I’m looking for the voice of the piece, I will try not only a French horn or a violin or an oboe, I will try usually 10 different French horn sounds and the same with the other instruments,” Epple says. “It’s not only about creating the voice that will describe the scene adequately, it’s also technically what sound will stand up and stand out with what I’ve already got.”
For example, “If I already have a string bed of beautiful cellos, violas and violins, I might not choose to use a clarinet, because it’s a little too dark with all the strings,” she says.
Back to basics
Epple grew up in Southern Ohio. “I always knew I wanted to be a musician, but I was always very shy, and never thought of myself as a performing musician—probably up to [the age of] 20 or so. I played mostly for myself.”
In California in the 1970s, she was as well known for being a synthesizer player in a band called Emerald Web.
Epple backed off the electronics, not so much that she was tired of them, but she wanted to get back to nature, she says. “Most artists kind of swing as a pendulum. I think that was a healthy direction to go for a little while.”
Epple started focusing on all the world flutes. “Playing a flute like these world flutes is mostly spirit and flow, less brain,” she says. “The sound is first of all one of the most primal sounds. It’s probably the first musical instrument after voice and percussion. So it’s very spiritual. It can touch. It can touch people from almost any culture, because nearly every single culture has some form of flute.”
If you don’t have a language in common with someone, the flute can help you bond, she says. “They suddenly trust you and don’t consider you an outsider so much anymore. When you play the music and you touched somebody’s heart or soul, it is a very quick way of communicating peace and your intentions. The flute has been a really, really good passport.”
In good company
Epple has about 200 flutes. “Many of them I collected as I travel,” she says. They include Celtic and African, a Native American medicine flute made of cedar, a bamboo flute from Bali, and the bawu, a reed instrument from Southeast Asia. Others are made of applewood and even bird bone.
Her live solo performances include the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Spain; a concert tour of Russia; the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Naples Winter Wine Festival; and concerts at the Hollywood Palace, L.A. and in Venice, Italy.
She often performed at art openings for her dear friend, the late artist Robert Rauschenberg, a contemporary art icon who lived on Captiva Island. After his death on May 12, 2008, she performed in tribute at his public memorial in Fort Myers, as well as in October of that year at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
At the Met museum, she sat next to former President Bill Clinton, who with his wife, current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were longtime friends of Rauschenberg. The former president was a surprise speaker at the Met memorial. Afterwards, “he and I had a 40-minute conversation, one on one,” Epple says. “He talked about his saxophone collection. I talked about my flute collection.”
Epple is known for creating original new age/jazz/world/orchestral music, but as for which genre represents her most, Epple believes the most important requirement in any musical style is that it be genuine. “And I think that is the thing that all of them have in common,” she says. “The music that I play doesn’t come from ego and it doesn’t come purely from intellect. It comes from a place of being real.”
Epple’s most recent musical adventures include performing in December as part of a band called Sonic Combine with the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. at Art Basel Miami. She and bandmates Lawrence Voytek, Laurence Getford and John King accompanied 13 dancers dressed in unitards designed by Rauschenberg. “It was amazing,” Epple says. “Merce Cunningham and Bob were such close friends. This is their legacy tour.” The group will join the dance company again at its ending performance on New Year’s Eve, and may perform on another date during the tour, she says.
Epple also recorded an album and performed live in January in Anaheim, Calif., with the Devin Townsend Project, led by Canadian musician and record producer Devin Townsend.
The album, Ghost, will premiere in November at an historic old cathedral in London, where the music video is also being shot. Epple will be there.
“He’s actually known for heavy metal,” she says of Townsend. But she called the new album “more spiritual. More jazz.”
The two connected when Townsend sent her an e-mail about three years ago as a fan, thanking her for her music. “You’re the reason I became a musician,” he told her. It turns out he grew up listening to her music from her previous band, Emerald Web. When he offered to send her some of his music with the possibility of collaborating, she said “sure,” not knowing what she would receive. “But then he sent me the tracks,” Epple says. “They were incredible. Just incredible music.”
Things to come
What’s next on her list?
“I’d like to score music for a major motion picture,” she says. “I think I really am ready to do that now. I think for a lot of musicians that would be something that they’d want to do, but they wouldn’t realize what a daunting, huge task that can be. You have to be confident enough in your own style, because everyone has opinions about how it should be done. And you have to be very flexible, too.”
Epple also wants to travel more with the Worldwide Peace Marker Project, creating a network of international artists who are committed to working toward peace. She is U.S. ambassador for the project, founded by the artist Tiite of Cape Coral.
There are already markers in the United States, Canada, Germany, Bosnia, Japan, Turkey and Cambodia. More are scheduled to be installed in Lebanon, Israel, Panama, Vietnam, Italy, Croatia, Nepal, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
“It’s growing. The movement is growing,” Epple says.
Most recent CDs (2010)
Kat Epple, D.L. Turner – flutes and harp
Kat Epple, Frank Smith – flutes and acoustic guitar
Kat Epple, Lawrence Voytek, Laurence Getford – flutes, original created instruments, electronics, keyboard, percussion and vocals
For more about Kat Epple, discography, soundtracks, blog, live performances, etc., visit www.katepple.com.