Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Chaz Underriner

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Chaz Underriner

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.

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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Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Aart Strootman

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Aart Strootman

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 Aart Strootman.

Strootman

Several of this year’s Gaudeamus nominees are also performers – see also Sky Macklay (oboe) and Chaz Underriner (plucked strings) – but in Aart Strootman’s case the line between his work as a composer and his work as a guitarist is harder to draw. In fact his musicking in general stretches far beyond composition’s traditional realm.

Born in 1987, Strootman studied at the Fontys School of Fine Arts, Tilburg, and the University of Utrecht, gaining degrees in music, music theory and musicology. He currently teaches in Tilburg on subjects from music analysis to performance studies. He performs in a guitar duo with Bram Stadhouders, playing self-composed works that blend improvisation and minimalism, and in the band s t a r g a z e – familiar in the UK as the band for last year’s David Bowie tribute prom – as well as several other groups. Not least among these is TEMKO, the ‘minimal-chamber-metal band’ Strootman founded in 2012 as a platform for his own compositions. On top of all of this, he is also an active new music advocate, commissioning works by student composers through the ensemble F.C. Jongbloed that he leads with percussionist Arnold Marinissen; and as a member of the composer collective behind the De Link chamber music series in Tilburg.

Minimalism, and its intersections with rock, is an important part of Strootman’s work: his online presence is threaded through with connections to Steve Reich and Radiohead/Johnny Greenwood, for example. (In one short portrait video on his site he is shown building a custom eight-string guitar signed by Reich and designed to play his music. Another video shows the guitar in action in an outdoor rendition of Electric Counterpoint.) He has also performed alongside Bryce Dessner. An especially intriguing work, although I’ve only been able to find snippets of it, is Tannhäuser, a piece for TEMKO that stretches 90 seconds of the overture to Wagner’s opera into ’34 minutes of minimal grooves’.

Yet Strootman’s work is more than just riffing on riffs. As Tannhäuser suggests, there is a conceptual side to his output too. And not everything is written for his own groups – he has also composed plenty of music for others to play, although full-length examples are frustratingly hard to come by online. Letter Sparks Debate, composed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, is a stripped-down piece of music theatre for clarinet, speaker and cigarette lighters, setting a series of online reactions, comments and hot takes posted in the wake of the attack. Punchy and bare-bones in style, this is a long way from Strootman’s lusher, guitar-based work. In a weird way this feels like quite a ‘British’ piece– it wouldn’t be out of place in a gig at the One Hundred Years Gallery, for example, programmed alongside pieces by Claudia Molitor or Christopher Fox. Perhaps there’s a peculiar Dutch spiral here that comes out of Louis Andriessen, visits Richard Ayres and comes back again.

More than that of the other composers at Gaudeamus this week, Strootman’s work encompasses solo composition, performance and group work. As a result, it’s not easy to pin him down to a single track. However, here’s a helpful Spotify playlist that collects together a substantial chunk of that output.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Sky Macklay

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Sky Macklay

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 Sky Macklay.

Macklay

Composer and oboist (and occasional installation artist) Sky Macklay was born in Minnesota in 1988. She has studied at Luther College and the University of Memphis, and is currently working on her DMA at Columbia University with the distinguished teaching trio of George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas and Fred Lerdahl. An enthusiastic educator herself, she teaches at Columbia and at the Walden School Young Musicians Program in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Her music is widely performed among US ensembles, including ICE, Dal Niente and Yarn/Wire, and her string quartet Many Many Cadences – her Gaudeamus piece – was recorded by the Spektral Quartet on their Grammy-nominated album Serious Business. She herself plays with Ghost Ensemble, and has also appeared with Ensemble Pamplemousse and Counter)induction, and at the MATA Festival.

Macklay stands out from this shortlist in several ways. She’s the only composer of the five without a significant place for guitars in her output. She’s also the only woman – though the Gaudeamus shortlist is judged anonymously, so all else being equal this low representation is a reflection of the number of women entrants as much as anything else. She’s the composer stylistically closest to what we might call the European new music tradition – someone has to be – and she’s the only composer whose works explicitly evoke extra-aesthetic themes. (Chaz Underriner’s landscape studies I take as artistic transfigurations of Texas, rather than works about Texas, though of course this is a fuzzy distinction.)

Macklay addresses her themes with a commendably unflinching eye. Sing Their Names for chorus – a #blacklivesmatter piece like her teacher Haas’s I can’t breathe – sets the names of 51 people of colour killed by police in the USA. Otherwise unadorned, the text cycles through the names, like a memorial plaque, while the music moves gradually from stabbing outbursts, like kicks or gunshots, through a disorientingly dense babble to what the composer describes as ‘a stoic but unified sonic wall of solidarity and mourning’.

While Macklay’s use of names in a list echoes much contemporary memorial practice, in both music and the visual arts, abstracted systems appear often in her work as source material or scaffolding. Lessina Levlin Levlite Levora, a darkly humorous sort of cabaret turn for male voice, violin and electronics on the emotional and physical seduction and trauma of birth control products, is structured around an alphabetical list of contraceptive pills and devices, alongside extracts of their side effects and online testimonies from their users. Many Many Cadences, her Gaudeamus-nominated work, uses a related structural device, but transplanted into a purely musical context: rapid chains of tonal cadences in every major and minor key, which are gradually deconstructed by glissandi and parts dropping out before being partially restored, the internal echo of these over-familiar gestures filling in the blanks of what we hear.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Ethan Braun

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Ethan Braun

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.

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.

I’m going to miss Soundcloud

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It seems that Soundcloud is about to disappear: the sound-sharing website has only a few weeks, possibly months, of money left in the coffers and, if current reports are to be believed, once that has run out it will disappear. There are reports of backups being made, by archive.org and even individuals, but time will tell how accessible and/or user-friendly those might end up.

On NewMusicBox today, bassist Gahlord Dewald has posted an overview of why musicians might share their music, and what other services, besides Soundcloud, might serve people in the future. I really just want to add to that to say what value Soundcloud has had for me as a writer/investigator into new music over the last few years.

And that is: enormous. When I first noticed a few years ago that composers and performers were putting their works up on Soundcloud it was a tremendously exciting moment. Until then, it had been possible to access bootlegged new music, live recordings and so on through chatrooms and personal contacts; but from a research point of view it was a laborious process that required a certain amount of pleading. Now with Soundcloud – and for some reason this seemed to be the breakout platform everyone was using – I could search for things proactively, at my own pace and according to my needs. Asked to write a programme note about composer x? Chances were, if she was under, say, 45, I could find a bunch of her work on Soundcloud. Wanted to explore who was on this year’s Gaudeamus shortlist, or currently at Schloss Solitude, or making waves at Darmstadt – again, Soundcloud. When Riot Ensemble ran its most recent call for scores, the overwhelming majority of our 279 applicants had posted their portfolio works on Soundcloud. For a generation of composers, I got the sense that Soundcloud had become a default setting – and in that respect it was becoming a transformative technology for the visibility and reception of new music, and especially that by composers too young or too weird to have record deals or broadcasts. This was undoubtedly new, and very healthy. Sites like Soundcloud have made it easier to know what composers in their 30s are up to these days than composers in their 50s or 60s, who may be locked into more traditional modes of dissemination for their work.

Now, when Soundcloud is gone no doubt something will arrive in its place. Still more likely, though, several things will arrive at once. And some will already be here: Bandcamp is covering some of that territory, and I’ve even heard talk of retreating back to MySpace. And this will mean fragmentation across platforms, with all the inconsistencies, annoyances and break-ups of putative communities that that entails. You can’t follow a thread of likes between platforms, for example. You can’t easily curate a playlist of recommendations.

Soundcloud wasn’t perfect, and there wasn’t anything inherently special about its offering. (Although I did like its feature that tracks would continue to play even if you clicked to a new page. This seems so intuitive it always surprises me when it doesn’t happen on other sites.) But it had become something of a norm, a standard. And when those disappear everyone will be back to square one. I’m going to miss it.

Update: … If, that is, those reports can be believed. Since I posted this, a Facebook reader alerted me to this post on the Soundcloud blog, from 14 July and written by Soundcloud co-founder Alex Ljung, which claims that ‘Soundcloud is here to stay. … The music you love on SoundCloud isn’t going away, the music you shared or uploaded isn’t going away, because SoundCloud is not going away. Not in 50 days, not in 80 days or anytime in the foreseeable future. Your music is safe.’ I’m still wary, especially in the fragile world of Internet economics, that there’s rarely smoke without fire, but let’s hope this post’s claims are true.

On Birtwistle, Deep Time and over-production

One thing I like about Harrison Birtwistle is that, rarely among composers of a more radical bent, he never feels he has to apologise for writing for orchestra. His orchestras feel and sound like orchestras – although often cleverly reimagined – and his ideas are scaled to the orchestra’s size. There’s something thrilling about seeing a Birtwistle orchestra come to life in all its many facets – the high-tensile strings, the jabbering winds, the pit-and-pendulum percussion, the deep-diving brass – and being shown the clear and essential role for every instrument in a massive poem of time and space.

And the orchestra for Deep Time is Mahlerian in size, including double tubas, double contrabass clarinets, upright piano, soprano sax, quadruple brass and more. There’s something to be said for just listening to a brilliant compositional mind hold all of that in play and never once let it stop making sense. (The clarity of the Staatskappelle Berlin’s playing, and Barenboim’s conducting have to take some credit here too.)

Others have deconstructed and dismantled the orchestra more thoroughly than this, but Birtwistle is not interested in modding this elite musical machine. No extended techniques, no musique concrète instrumentale, no discourses of failure or compromise; just orchestral music making the old-fashioned way. I offer this as a point very much in Birtwistle’s favour: there is much to be said for saying new things with old words, and few do it as well as he.

Yet it does also present a problem, since those new things Birtwistle is saying are no longer as new as they once were, even if they may speak as well as they always did. Deep Time is undoubtedly a highly crafted piece of work, yet for all its accomplishment it never felt as rawly inspired as The Triumph of Time or Earth Dances, its two precursors in a now-completed orchestral trilogy. ‘All the familiar fingerprints, polished nicely’ was Philip Clark’s immediate response on Twitter, and even after listening a second time it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Why does this piece need to be in the world, I wondered. No reason, necessarily; it filled its time well enough, and far better than most. Yet I couldn’t help but think back nostalgically to those days when Birtwistle’s music blowtorched through the British musical establishment; less perfectly formed, undoubtedly, but more urgent. We live in an age of colossal cultural excess, in which the production of new works parallels our mania for consumption. As Birtwistle’s giant orchestra told its giant tale I still had to wonder: for what?

Watch Barenboim and the Staatskappelle Berlin play Deep Time at the Proms through iPlayer, until 15 August.