Kevin Puts and a modern twist on Theme and Variations

Kevin Puts is a modern composer who is able to take musical elements from the Western classical tradition and bring it to the modern musical scene. This is seen in many of his works from the orchestration, harmonic motion, instrumentation, to the form of the pieces. One particular characteristic of Puts’ music is his modern interpretation of theme and variations. According to Merriam-Webster theme and variations is defined as “A standard form of musical composition consisting of a simple usually harmonized melody presented first in its original unadorned form then repeated several or many times with varied treatment so based on the theme that at least some semblance of its general melodic or harmonic form is evident.” This definition is very similar to the way Puts approaches many of his works. Puts says, “Almost all of my recent projects involve the transformation of a theme or melody by placing it in a variety of what could be called “expressive contexts.” Puts goes on to describe these “expressive contexts” through the way he alters the melody by changing the character, texture, and instrumentation. Puts says “I try to tell a musical story by placing these ideas within the context of a continuous narrative. … I begin to imagine the original theme as the “main character” of the story.” A piece Puts explores theme and variations is in his work Chorus of Light.

            In Chorus of Light, the piece begins with metallic sounds from the percussion and in the high ranges of flutes and clarinets. These ideas gradually come together to form the melody of the work. Once this main theme is established, Puts begins to traverse different musical ideas to always keep the listener engaged and wondering where the music will go next. The theme is moved from the high woodwinds to an oboe solo with percussion providing a light shimmer above the soloist. Throughout this section, the texture is thinned out by incorporating low reeds, trumpets, flutes, and piccolos before ascending through the horns and trumpets. The theme is then presented in a fanfare-like character with the trumpets, french horns, and chimes, providing another shift in character of the original theme. Through the use of more variations, Puts shifts the overall character again to a darker, heavier mood in the french horns that develops once more by introducing a new color – the human voice. With the introduction of singing, Puts allows the listener to be encompassed by a new timbre. Once the voice section concludes, Puts moves the melody through the woodwinds and brass similarly to earlier sections of the work. However, since he is always altering the melody it is recognizable but not an exact replica of earlier material. 

            Puts is able to create his own unique compositional sound by taking a musical form that has been used all through Western classical music. By changing different aspects of the melody, Puts is able to create very unique moments in his works that show a strong link to the classical musical heritage while also creating a modern sound in his compositions. The techniques used by Puts are very effective in creating dynamic, evolving works that give unique senses of direction, harmonic tension, and aural spatiality. 

Trice Mayhall


“Chorus of Light”. Youtube Video, 11:57. Posted by “Showa Wind Symphony – Topic”, March 1, 2018.

Cooper, Patrick G. 2017. “Kevin Puts” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.

Puts, Kevin. “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?” NPR. August 05, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2019.

“Official Website of Composer Kevin Puts.” Opera Silent Night [Official Website]. Accessed March 12, 2019.

“Official Website of Composer Kevin Puts.” Opera Silent Night [Official Website]. Accessed March 12, 2019.

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