Olivia Kieffer

Composer, Percussionist, Educator




Olivia Kieffer is an American composer, percussionist, and educator. She has degrees in percussion from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Georgia State University, where she studied with Allen Otte and Stuart Gerber. Presently she studies music composition at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. Her primary composition teachers are Marc Mellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Jonathan Monhardt.

She taught percussion and World Music and directed the Percussion Ensemble at Reinhardt University from 2009-2017. She was an active composer and performer in Atlanta’s thriving contemporary classical music scene for over a decade, including her work as bandleader and drummer for the 7-piece chamber rock band Clibber Jones Ensemble. In 2017, she was Composer-in-Residence at the Florida International Toy Piano Festival, and at the Mana Saxophone Institute.

Since 2012, her music has been performed nationally and internationally. She has written commissions for the GremlinsDuo; A/B Duo; Bent Frequency Duo; toy pianist Amy O’Dell; the Sensoria Series; percussionists Brandon Dodge, Nathaniel Gworek, and Colleen Phelps; guitarist Nicolas Deuson; saxophonist Michael Hernandez; and most recently, the “Pop Rock in Metal” saxophone quartet consortium.

Her music has been described as “immediately attractive”, “like a knife of light”, and “Honest, to the point, and joyful!”



What does music mean to you personally?

At its deepest level, music is all about friendship. And fun! Music-making should be fun, in all its forms. That’s all I can say, otherwise I will write a book!

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

I think listening to music can be all about unrestrained imagination. And even playing it, sometimes! But no, it is not all about fantasy.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

A high school English teacher (literature, creative writing, poetry - all of it!), who also illustrates children’s books. And I would always play the drums!

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?

No. It is not the age of the audience that matters, it is the age of the mindset. It is the old mindset that will cause problems for the future of classical music. Speaking for Americans, my generation (“Xennials”) are accustomed to building futures for ourselves (vs. inheriting a future), while paying out into a Government system that won’t care for us when we are elderly. So we certainly have not expected to inherit an audience! We must be dedicated to building the audience of the future by playing/ programming/teaching the living breathing music and musicians of today.

What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21 century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

I’m not certain that I know what the role of classical music was! I think music is music, and it will become more and more so. I’m talking about the blending of styles. Here’s why: We live in an age where there is nothing brand new to be made, musically. Everything is a continuation or combination of everything behind us. Perhaps the content is different, but the sounds are the same. Electronic music and elecro-acoustic music; experimental music...that’s the 1950’s. Maybe Minimalism was the last brand new thing to happen. I don’t think that is a bad thing! I think it is wonderful - because now what we have is our personal voice and presence, which IS brand new! And it is what we have to offer the world as composers and performers. Never before have our voices as composers mattered more than they do today! My hope is that “classical music” will simply meld into other musics. Of course, we should always play Beethoven and Bach! I’m not talking about ignoring or forgetting history; quite the opposite. My hope is that the old attitudes about classical music will die out. The role of classical music is to be in the here and now, which naturally includes history. How can it not?

When I say that classical music is searching for new ways or that the classical music is getting a new face, what would come to your mind?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we are seeing the beginnings of a revolution in concert programming. Finally! - not just on an individual scale, but on a mass scale, music organizations are starting to address that they’ve been programming and performing concerts featuring (mostly, or completely!) the music of dead white men. It’s no longer revolutionary or “edgy” to simply program living composers. That should be a given. There are people of color, and women, and people all over the gender and orientation spectrums, who write amazing music. Both historically, and right now. So that is the new face; a representation of ALL the faces.

Do you think that the classical musician today needs to be more creative? Whats the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I think that if someone is a classical musician, then they are already very creative, or they better get there quick! We have to develop diverse skills, as musicians. We rarely just perform or compose for a living. We perform, teach, compose, arrange, do video editing, artist management, sound engineering...you name it. These are all things that require creativity. That’s how we survive and thrive, now and in the future. It’s a blend of hard work, dedication, and resourcefulness. Or, as my mentor says, “Talent, diligence, and hustle!” Nobody plays just classical music. We don’t live in that world! How can we call ourselves classical musicians anymore, when we take part in such a wide variety of music?

Do you think we musicians can do something to attract young generation into the classical music concerts? How will you proceed?

Yes! I think we can bring people into our personal experience with music, first globally (via the internet and video), and then locally. Documenting our process in some way that folks can experience first or second hand is one idea. Regardless of how or what you do - it’s about connecting. People want to see what we are doing, and how we are doing it. With the internet, sharing our music is so easy! The days of the composer (or performer, or orchestra) on a pedestal - Academic, far away, aloof, and beyond knowing - are over. We are engaged; that’s part of why we make art. Music is what lifts us out of our loneliness, and toward a spirit of sharing. So when we are genuine about our work, and we bring this part of ourselves to others, people will want to come hear our music. The next step is creating an environment where young people feel comfortable and welcome. There is a perception that you have to be wealthy and well-dressed and white and musically literate to attend a classical music concert. This type of thinking is archaic, yet continuously reinforced. I argue that when a young person wants to see a concert, it is not about manufactured appearances. It is about genuine love for the music.

Tell us about your creative process. Do you have your favorite piece(written by you)? How did you start working on it?

One of my favorite pieces is one that I wrote for my band, the Clibber Jones Ensemble. It’s called “I Am the Avalanche”. It’s a sort of prog-rock fantasy in 5 continuous movements. I wrote the music, but everyone in the band shaped it and made it better. It was just a whole lot of fun! My composing process starts out pretty simple - I dink around on the keyboard or toy piano or marimba or guitar (whatever’s around!) until I come up with something I like. Or maybe I will hear a melody fragment or a bass line from music totally different than what I’m writing, and that will be an inspiration. Sometimes I start out by planning out ideas. But I rarely start out with a form. A teacher once said to me that I am an “intuitive composer”. I’m glad there’s a name for it! I also steal a ton from my toy piano miniatures. Some of them are almost straight improvisations, but all of them were written in a very short period of time - an hour or less. A recent example: I transcribed by ear this little wacky toy piano solo of mine, called “Craspy, the Crispy Claspered Clown”, and I turned that inside out and every which way, and it turned into the last movement of my new saxophone quartet, “Pop Rock in Metal.” The unifying theme is: something very small turns into something very big!

We, Moving Classics TV, love the combination of classical music with different disciplines: music and painting, music and cinematography, music and digital art, music and poetry. What do you think about these combinations?

I think they are great! I don’t seek out this work very often, but I enjoy being an audience for it.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Talk to people! Go to concerts! Ask people what they like to listen to. Most roads will lead to classical music if you keep walking for long enough. There are great performances going on every day, right outside your window. And if you live out in the country, where there’s no music happening, get on the internet, find something, get in the car, and GO.

Now it is a common practice in the media to talk that the classical music is getting into the consumption business, do you agree? We are speaking about the supply and demand rules and how to sell your “product” in your case your compositions. How do you see it?

Music has always been written for money. I don’t see things as any different now!

Do you have expectations what regards your listeners, your audience?

I have no expectations. However, if before a concert the audience were to ask me what they should listen for in my music, I would tell them this: It is all about feel. Emotions, surely, but mostly, the physical feeling - rhythm. And listen for how everything bounces off of everything, usually in the most joyful manner!

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I’m writing “My Children Move Like Water”, which is a song cycle commissioned by and written for Nicolas Deuson (guitar) and Jonathan Pilkington (tenor). I am also working on a commission for a wind ensemble piece, for the Mid America Freedom Band. In both of these projects, I certainly am experimenting! The song cycle is my first time writing for voice. The Freedom Band piece will include video, and some moments of extended techniques for the instrumentalists, both of which will be a first for me as well. I think that all composing and collaboration is an experiment, in one way or another. With creative endeavors, I like to think of John Cage’s words: “I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.” In my case, often enough, I don’t need to try!