It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.
First up is Ethan Braun.
American composer Ethan Braun was born in 1987 and lives in Los Angeles. He studied at UCLA, Peabody and the Royal Conservatory, The Hague before completing his studies with a DMA at Yale University.
Braun’s concert music has been performed in the US, Europe, Argentina and China – groups he has written for include Asko|Schoenberg Ensemble, Slagwerk Den Haag, New York Youth Symphony and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. He has also released electroacoustic music on the (now defunct) LA label Khalija. Finally, he is events director for the San Francisco/New York concert series Permutations.
Beyond composition, he has research interests in Hendrix, Coltrane and Stockhausen – especially the role of radio in the latter’s music and supposed extraterrestrial origin, the subject of Braun’s DMA thesis.
If one thing binds Coltrane, Hendrix and Stockhausen it is a love of sonic intensity, often as a means to spiritual or quasi-spiritual experience. I don’t know about Braun’s spiritual side (he has said ‘I’m against this idea of composing as a romantic struggle to channel some divine music’), but his work shows an affection for single-minded, piercing affect: the microtonally, irrepressibly rising chords of Ascending; the almost monochrome panels of the percussion sextet Triptych. Yet this is balanced – as it often is in the music of Coltrane, Hendrix and Stockhausen – with a sense of theatre, of surprise. Witness the entry of the Chinese singer for the last third of Ascending, for example, or the steep curve of Triptych from Drumming-like opening into a long, bowed crotale coda.
Guitars are clearly going to be a thing in Utrecht this year. Two nominees – Aart Strootman and Chaz Underriner – are guitarists themselves. Braun isn’t, but is here thanks to a piece for electric guitar quartet, Discipline. Starting with the tuning used by Joni Mitchell on her song Woodstock – a grungily resonant C–G–B flat–E flat–F–B flat – Braun has composed a six-minute study in natural harmonics and strict counterpoint. It’s the combination of those chiming, buzzing strings and the compositional strictures that give the piece its title that really make this work for me. Again that singular commitment to a compositional idea, but tempered here with a sound that these ears – raised on Thurston, Lee et al. – find irresistible.