The Rambler

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Chaz Underriner

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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.

Today is the turn of Chaz Underriner.

Composer, intermedia artist and performer – on guitar, lute and theorbo – Chaz Underriner was born in Texas in 1987. He studied at California Institute of the Arts with Michael Pisaro and Anne LeBaron, returning to his home state to study for his PhD at University of North Texas, where his teachers were Joseph Klein, Panayiotis Kokoras, David Stout and Jon Nelson. He currently lives in Dallas. His music is known in both the US and Europe, where it has been performed at the Proyector International Video Art Festival (Madrid), INM Darmstadt, Impuls Festival (Graz) and elsewhere.

As a performer Underriner has performed at REDCAT’s Sofia Gubaidulina festival (Los Angeles, 2011), Deep Camp Festival, Ostrava Music Days and elsewhere, and has appeared on several recordings. Most notable perhaps of these so far is his reinterpretation on Edition Wandelweiser Records of works by Anastassis Phillipokopoulos, in which three of the Greek composer’s simple melodic Songs are reborn at glacial pace as vast, almost featureless landscapes.

The simile is deliberate. The bulk of Underriner’s compositional work falls into one of two series. The second of these, begun in 2014, is the Landscape Series and comprises five pieces to date (the first is the Nocturne Series, 2012–14, and comprises seven pieces).

In the Landscape Series, the idea of landscape is explored through field recordings, video and chamber music in various combinations; Landscape Series 1 is the composite work that brings together the five individual works composed so far – Backroads for video and 8-channel audio; Landscape: Graz for video, field recording and koto; Landscape: Texas Plains for violin, electric guitar and double bass; Landscape: Clarinet Trio; and Landscape: Trombone Quartet. It’s possible to get a sense of how Underriner has woven these individual pieces into a single 72-minute tapestry from the score, in which each original work is clearly identified, and in which the amount of cutting and splicing that has taken place can be made out.

Stylistically, the videos make use of very long shots – horizontal pans in the case of Graz, dashboard camera footage of road trips across Texas in the case of Backroads – and the overlaying of footage. In Graz (as can be seen in the extracts shown in the following video) the overlays are extensive and give the video its particularly strange visual character. In the case of Backroads crossfades between layers of footage are more occasional; here the focus is more on the hypnotic effect of the eternally unspooling road ahead. The field recordings are not aligned with the video – they are recorded and mixed separately – but they are appropriate: birdsong and tarmac roar for the Texas drive; street, fairground and bar noises for Graz. The final element, live instruments (or sine waves in the case of Backroads), is comprised largely of drones, short, repeating plucked motifs, very close harmonies and beating patterns; a sort of abstraction (or, alternatively, live realisation) of the flat textures and extended timespans of the video and field recording elements.

Underriner describes the theme of the Landscape Series as ‘the translation of the notion of landscape from that of a two-dimensional static image (as in 19-century landscape painting) into a multiplicity of environmental experiences’. Although, as he admits, these pieces are ‘steeped in a very local experience of landscape’, they also speak to more general preoccupations in the worlds of contemporary art and music: of the expression of space as time, of journey forms, of intense subjectivity, of the representation of the real. Backroads in particular has a kind of hypnotic effect, of a landscape that is self-similar enough to be essentially static and 2D, but that is paradoxically in constant motion: a multidimensional, multimedia form of painting, almost – but always impermanent, unravelling, exhausting and renewing – that seems deeply in touch with its times.

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