Grant Recipients John Cage Award Music/Sound 2022

Petr Kotik

A portrait of Petr Kotik in front of a blurred city street. He wears a grey trench coat, a navy blue sweater, a red and green scarf, and black and orange glasses.
Photo by Matt Carr.
  • Composer, Conductor, Flute Player
  • Born 1942, Prague, Czech Republic
  • Lives in Brooklyn, NY
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  • Additional Information
  • semensemble.org
  • newmusicostrava.cz
  • Recipient of Grants to Artists, Music/Sound, 1996

Biography

Born in the Czech Republic and based in the U.S. since 1969, Petr Kotik is an independent composer, conductor, and flutist. Although he studied composition privately in Prague and later in Vienna, as a composer, he is primarily self-taught. Since he started composing in the early 1960s, Kotik has been working with controlled chance and graphically designed forms. He is also widely recognized as a performer and conductor, presenting music of his own as well as that of composers with whom he has been associated.  

Kotik has composed solos, chamber operas, and works for ensemble, orchestra, and electronics. Among his best-known compositions are Wednesdays at RW on Spring Street (2019-2020), a concert for violin and orchestra; Master-Pieces (2014-2018), a chamber opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein; William William (2016), a chamber opera with a libretto adapted from texts by Shakespeare and Nathalie Babel; String Quartets No. 1 (2007) and No. 2 (2012); The Plains at Gordium (2004) for percussion; Variations for 3 Orchestras (2003-2005); Music in Two Movements (1998- 2003) for large orchestra; Letters to Olga (1989-1991), with text by Václav Havel; Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1978-1982) for voices with texts by R. Buckminster Fuller; There Is Singularly Nothing (1971-1973) and Many Many Women (1975-1978), works for voices and instruments with texts by Gertrude Stein; the live-electronic Kontrabandt (1967), commissioned by WDR Cologne; Spontano (1964), dedicated to Frederic Rzewski, for piano and instruments; and Music for 3, In Memoriam Jan Rychlík (1964).

Notable performances of Kotik's compositions include Wednesdays at RW on Spring Street, performed by violinist Hana Kotková at Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, Ostrava, Czech Republic (2019); String Quartet No. 2 at the “Beyond Cage” Festival, New York, NY (2012); the premiere of Variations for 3 Orchestras at MaerzMusik Festival, Berlin, Germany (2004); and the premiere performances of the six-hour Many Many Women at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, NY (1979).

Kotik’s recordings include The Plains at Gordium, performed by Talujon and released by Unseen Worlds (2021); eponymous CDs released by Czech Music Information Centre (2014) and Ear-Rational Records (1990); and Many Many Women, released by Labor Records as a five-LP set (1981) and re-released by Dog W/A Bone as a 3-CD set (2000).

Kotik received a Grants to Artists award in 1996. He has also received the Czech Music Council Award (2017); the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic Award for the Lifelong Contribution to the Field of Music (2017); a New York State Council on the Arts Grant (2014); a DAAD Berlin Artist in Residence (2004); and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1975).

Kotik was trained as a flutist at The Prague Conservatory and Academy of the Performing Arts in Prague. At the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, he studied techniques of composition with Hanns Jelinek and Karl Schiske. While still a student at the conservatory, he founded and directed the Musica viva pragensis, Prague's first new music ensemble. Later, after returning from Vienna, he founded and directed the QUaX Ensemble, which performed experimental music, live electronics, and performance art. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Kotik—together with Julius Eastman and Jan Williams—founded S.E.M. Ensemble (SEM). SEM expanded into an orchestra in 1992, when it presented the “Tribute to John Cage” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. After a series of prestigious engagements in the Czech Republic in the 1990s—such as performances by SEM Orchestra at the Prague Spring International Music Festival (1995), “Music of Extended Duration” Festival (1997), and “Music in Space. Compositions for Three Orchestras” at Prague Castle (1999)—in 2001, Kotik founded the biennial Ostrava Days Institute and Festival. In 2012, this expanded into the new biennial opera festival New Opera Days Ostrava (NODO). Kotik continues to direct SEM, Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, and NODO.

Artist Statement

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs, different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything...” - Richard Feynman, Winner of The Nobel Prize in Physics 1965

Many years ago, I ceased to explain my work. I stopped the effort to rationally describe my music or explain the programming of my performances. Working on a project, it often takes a while to come to a decision, but when I cross this threshold, I will not stop, change, or cancel, despite occasional objections of being unrealistic. As an artist, my evolution followed a path from performing to composing. Organizing concerts has always been a part of composing for me. In retrospect, I can see how first being an accomplished performer helped me to attain a sense of independence when I started to compose. It gave me a degree of confidence, letting me brush aside pressures that accompany everyone who creates work that does not fit in anywhere. But, of course, one cannot do it alone. Where would I be without those with whom I have been closely associated—early on in Prague and later in the U.S.? These collaborations and associations provided the right support and guidance: going forward, not looking left or right, and not worrying about any problems that might come in the future. It confirmed my disposition to focus on music and only music and brought to the surface my ingrained distaste for consciously pleasing anyone. I feel greatly honored to receive the John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

A photograph of Petr Kotik performing, conducting a large ensemble in front of him. Behind him, a crowd of audience members watch. The room is high ceilinged with four chandeliers, white walls, and light blue panels.
Petr Kotik conducting the S.E.M. Ensemble at Bohemian National Hall, New York, 2021. Photo by Michael Yu.
Excerpt from Many Many Women, 1975-1978. Performers: the S.E.M. Ensemble.
A scanned image of a black score on a white background
Score excerpt from William William, chambera opera with libretto adapted from texts by Shakespeare and Nathalie Babel, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
A scanned image of a black score on a white background
Score excerpt from Variations for 3 Orchestras, 2003-2005. Courtesy of the artist.
Wilsie Bridge, 1986-87. Performers: the S.E.M. Ensemble and the UB Percussion Ensemble.
A scanned image of a black score on a white background
Score excerpt from Music for 3, In Memoriam Jan Rychlík, 1964. Courtesy of the artist.
A scanned image of a black score on a white background
Score excerpt from Congo, 1962. Courtesy of the artist.