First there's the name. Kamys. Or, in the preferred form, KAMYS. Clipped, capped, and standing alone, like Liberace or Shostakovich. Then there's the voice: all sax and drums and whiskey and smoke--a been-there-for-the-good-times croak that sounds as much like Janis Joplin as it does like Joe Cocker. And then there's the music: the sacred works, the industrial rock, the irresistible bebop jazz, the lyrical Latin that won him a Jeff Award in '98. And the project he's working on now, the neobaroque "Dark Sonnet" for cello and viola, one of two original Kamys compositions to be performed this weekend at the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park as part of the River Oak Arts/Festival Theatre Sonnets Jubilee.
John Kamys grew up in Chicago. He was a kid who played the piano before he went to kindergarten, came out of movies in love with the scores, and thought it would be nice if life were set to music. He majored in performance of literature at DePaul, learning how to turn fiction into drama, and then knocked around for a while, living and working in Italy. When he returned to the States, he began to back into his current career, a job he says requires, among other things, "the tenacity to chase people down when they owe you money." It's not easy being an independent composer: "They'll nickel-and-dime you to death if you let them," Kamys says. But if you're stopping your car at street-corner pay phones to hum into your own answering machine, music is--as he finally decided in '92--your work. And still, he says, people will ask, "So what do you really do?"
What he mostly does is music for theater.
In the last few years his projects have included Future City Homosexual Tells All, an alternative country-music monologue he wrote and starred in at Chicago's Theatre Building last fall; the score for the Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol; the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet; various productions at the Goodman and Steppenwolf studios; and the Next Theatre Company/Teatro Vista production El Paso Blue, which danced off with the Jeff for best original music. The secret to surviving, he says, is never saying no. When the Oak Park folks requested one piece of music inspired by a sonnet, to be played in part by students, he waded right into the iambic pentameter and predictable rhyme schemes looking for the right one.
"I read a lot of sonnets," Kamys said last week in his Rogers Park home studio. When he came upon Denis Johnson's "Sway"--"Since I find you will no longer love / from bar to bar in terror I shall move"--a little chorus of saxophones struck up in his head and he knew he had it. "There was a real gritty, kind of city quality to that poem. I thought, aha! A saxophone quartet. And drums. I started working on a groove for the baritone saxophone, added some things on top of it--I wanted a smoky street feel--and the next thing you know, you're cookin'." For Kamys, cookin' means emotional punch. "I don't want it to be an intellectual experience," says the creator of ditties like the wonderful instrumental "Loud Sex" (from the play Wrong for Each Other) and "Your Hearse Is Here" (on his CD, Supremacist). "I'm a visceral composer." The pleasure of this sonnet assignment, he says, is that he didn't have to worry about detracting from something happening onstage. "I do a lot of underscoring, where I'm trying to be that invisible character that supports the content of the play. If you notice my work too much, I haven't done a good job. Doing something like this--the music, though based on the poem, is allowed to stand on its own."
"Sway" and "Dark Sonnet" will have their premiere performances in conjunction with a lecture by Lila Kurth of Concordia University at 2 PM Sunday, March 12, at the Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid in Oak Park. Kamys will read Johnson's "Sway"; his musical version will be performed by the Oak Park-River Forest High School saxophone quartet with professional percussionist Bob Garrett. Two members of the Vivace Quartet will play "Dark Sonnet." Admission is $10, $8 for students. Call 708-524-8725 for information on these and related events.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.