Jerome Kitzke is much more than a composer. He is a storyteller. A historian. A poet. Since composing his first piece of music at the age of 15, Kitzke has tapped into each of these to create a wide range of musical masterpieces.
Growing up in South Milwaukee, Kitzke knew from a young age he wanted to be a composer. But it wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts that he began to receive formal training. “When I came to UWM, it was the first time I had lessons,” he says. “I came in with music, but I didn’t know what I was doing from a technical standpoint.”
Kitzke broadened his experience by taking classes in philosophy, visual art and English studies. “It was important to feel like I could have an expansive education alongside the rigorous and study of music theory. By living life on campus, socially and academically, I was learning by doing,” he says.
Part of that learning came through a special relationship with John Downey, who retired as a Professor Emeritus of Music after 35 years of teaching in 1998. “He was a beautiful human being and teacher, brilliant and kind and considerate,” Kitzke says. “I had my own vision, and he never forced his on me. I remember our lessons in his second floor office – his desk was piled high with papers and books. A one-hour lesson would last two hours; we’d talk about religion, politics, relationships, and then he would say, ‘Alright. What have you brought for me today?’ They weren’t just music lessons, but lessons in being human.”
That broad education is evident today in the pieces Kitzke composes. His instrumentals come from stories from life and literature, and he often focuses on the coming-together and clash of the cultures of the Europeans and Natives Americans in American history.
Although Kitzke now lives and works in New York, he gets back to his roots as often as possible. He recently collaborated with Present Music, founded by fellow music alum Kevin Stalheim, on Buffalo Nation (Bison bison), a piece that revealed the storytelling nature of his work.
“The real stories of the nitty gritty genesis of America are the stories that occupy my mind,” he says. “There’s an endless supply of these tales that prick my musical impulses. For me, nothing is just notes on paper; music can move you from one thematic place to another, and can do so even without a text.”