Interview: Katherine Young (composer) and Austin Wulliman (violin)

Austin Wulliman (photo by Chelsea Ross) and Katherine Young (photo by Jim Newberry)

ACM’s Andrew Tham recently sat down with composer member Katherine Young and violinist Austin Wulliman to talk about their latest collaboration, Dilligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight.  Using electronic sound installations and an hour’s worth of new music for a variety of string instruments (in a various detunings and preparations), the two collaborators will explore a myriad of details and textures—from the large to the microscopic—in a sound world that they have been developing for over a year.  The work from this partnership between Young and Wulliman will be realized in Chicago on September 27th at the Defibrillator Gallery.

So you guys have been working on this for a year?

Austin Wulliman: Yeah, essentially the work has spanned over a year.  The idea to do it was a year and a half ago, actually.  So we talked about it then and sort of said “okay, we’ll start working on this later” and then gradually figured out when we were going complete and perform it.  We didn’t start with a deadline.

And what was the impetus for the collaboration?

AW: It came out of a place of noticing that I was an increasingly refined classical string quartet player.  Especially playing second violin on a lot of classical repertoire.  I wanted to do something where I could be free to explore sounds and not be responsible to my colleagues.  That’s a great thing about the string quartet: I’m super responsible to them and it’s a give and take.  But I wanted to do something where there was this incredible luxury to just explore sound and find idiomatic gesture and texture in the violin to build a piece from.

So I came to Katie saying “hey, I love your bassoon improvisations, I love your pieces.  I would love to work on a piece with you where I get to do some sort of improvising.”  And there’s some freedom to it, but also I’ve relied on her to create structure and guide the materials and do composer-y things that I don’t know how to do.

Katherine Young: And we hadn’t worked on anything before so a lot of the early phase of the project was… I didn’t know what materials would be exciting for Austin to respond to; what he would find interesting, you know? And if we weren’t working in a traditional notated score–created by composer, handed off to performer kind of format–then how were we going to develop our materials together?

So as a place to start I gave him a bunch of images—photographs and some videos that I had been collecting just sort of randomly—along with a poem and a few other things just to see what got his creative juices flowing.  Then he recorded some improvisations based on some of that material.  The imagery provided us with a point of departure to talk about conceptual things and find a common aesthetic for the project, and be able to articulate it around these images.  We’d be like “what is it about this image and this image that we think have something in common or we find interesting, or where is the connection here?” And we used that to flesh out some conceptual framework for what we wanted to be dealing with in terms of sound.  Also, the improvisations that Austin did provided us with actual specific sounds to start with.

AW: And I think it’s worth noting that those initial improvisations were me responding highly intuitively; just really following my fancy, as it were.  And what was great was that [Katie] found what was essential within these more fanciful things to help guide it towards something that was more distilled and more identifiable and not so untamed.

So the composition itself—well first of all, is all of it composed?

KY: Well, I would refer to it as a work.  The whole thing is a work.  But then there are these pieces that are at different levels on a notational spectrum. . .  Spanning from a piece that’s pretty much fully notated for orchestra and one of the violins to a piece that just has a video for a score.  And then there are some things in the middle.

So then how does the work exist as a whole in one space? You call it an installation, right?

KY: I mean, people might debate whether it’s an installation–it’s sort of an imprecise term.  But there will be eight speakers and there are pre-recorded sounds that I’m arranging for the speakers and those will be playing in the space when the audience enters.  So there will be a sort of installation for about half an hour or so.

And there’s no live input from you.

KY: Right, there’ll just be prerecorded stuff.  And then there will be this performance that lasts about an hour which involves a lot of the same materials; focusing in on different materials from the sort of ecosystem, if you will, of sounds.  The performance has six distinct pieces involving five different instruments for Austin to play.  Each of those are seamless: there won’t be breaks or applause or an intermission.  There’s tape music that segues between all of them.

AW: A metaphor we’ve used before is that what this piece attempts to do is to have this—I like the phrase [Katie] said—“arsenal of gritty sounds.”  And the installation is the entire ecosystem, looking at it as a big picture.  Then what we do is zoom in super close and try to get the listener to do the same and really inhabit each sound and appreciate the identity of each section.

KY: And there’s sort of specific sounds that we’ve picked out for each of the instruments—

AW: Kind of a gestural language for each instrument.

KY: We’ve thought about each instrument as part of this composite vertical spectrum or ecosystem.  We’ve got an electric guitar that’s detuned and recorded for the installation, the viola which Austin [also] plays, and four other violins.  The viola, the guitar, and one of the violins create a composite scordatura.  Then there’s other sort of preparations: one violin’s heavily prepared—two of them are heavily prepared.

AW: One of them is prepared with itself though.

KY: Right.  Really detuned and then put together.

So in the pre-compositional process you guys started with images; do you find yourself using those as a program—as in “this is something that I want to translate musically”—or is it only a starting point?

KY: I’d say more often it provides me with like a metaphor or an idea that kind of helps me articulate a goal for the piece.

AW: I feel like we worked on couple of different metaphorical levels to get ourselves building towards this huge thing.  We talked about the ecosystem of sound—sort of like a forest in terms of there being these roots in the lower instruments, and the scordatura building up to the higher sounds that inhabit a higher area of the ecosystem.  But then there’s also the metaphor that we talked about at one point of building a cathedral—

KY: —Scaffolding, specifically.

AW: The scaffolding—yeah, sorry, the cathedral is not the main part of it.  Thinking about the scaffolding that you would have to build to make the inside of a cathedral, and using the imagery that we had to make the materials like scaffolding and to create something bigger.

KY: And then to have something that they would hang off of.

AW: Exactly.

KY: One thing that was interesting about this was because we were working together from an early phase we had to really be able to articulate to each other in words what we were trying to do, which often you don’t have to do until the end of a piece.  Maybe when you’re forced to write a program note or talk to a teacher or an audience member.  So it’s been nice because it’s been an opportunity to keep refining and finding more clarity.

And originally the project did not involve an orchestra piece but we’d been working on developing this prepared violin and it was just kind of like “well, I have this chance to write for a large ensemble so let’s go for it”.  And then the process of notating that and really thinking about those sounds helped [them to become] a centerpiece of the whole project.

AW: They guided our process of how we would hone in on specific sounds for specific sections of the piece.  I think that’s where we got this idea—I mean, [Katie’s] idea really—of identity materials.  There are these certain materials that identify each instrument and each movement very strongly.  Because that piece for violin and ensemble has very strong, easily identifiable gesture.

KY: It’s cool because the idea of finding idiomatic sounds for an instrument that you’ve kind of—I mean, we can’t claim to have built these instruments—but we did really change the violins.  And so you’re like “okay, now that we’ve completely changed this instrument and done something new, what is idiomatic to this instrument? What sounds really come out, really speak; what does it like to do? Those became what I focused on in the ensemble piece which we’ve teased out to a lot of parts of this project.

Austin, I wanted to talk to you about as a violinist what this experience has been like for.  Have you done other things like this before?

AW: Not exactly like this, it’s definitely a different collaboration in terms of really being intimately involved in creating materials.  It’s been a real growing experience as far as having a mental command and a large picture view of the piece.  And to have developed what these pieces sound like—two of them entirely by working together and not writing down a single thing about it.  Just talking about the shape of it and being like “oh, you should respond to this in this way, you should use this material to do this.”  In a more intuitive kind of way.

KY: Yeah, it was interesting today: I’d never really done that before.  So, basically we have a video score for one piece [which] we had identified materials to use and Austin had done some improvising with.  And today I felt like I was giving real-time feedback to someone’s improvisation.

AW: Yeah, you were coaching me essentially.

KY: Yeah, it was a new experience.  I had never actually done that.  You listen to somebody improvise and normally—if they’re your friend or they ask you—you might give some general feedback.  But it was interesting to be like “I would have liked that improvisation even more if this had happened.”

That’s something actually a little more akin to theatrical performance, like you’re a director.

KY: Or like dance.  Like, the way choreographers I’ve worked will give dancers materials and movements to work with and then say “okay, try putting these together.”  And “oh, that worked but you should do it longer” or “go back over there.”  And they don’t write things down, it’s all sort of learned by feel and by practice.

Can I ask a question to Austin? Which is do you feel like one: the materials that we have come up with are different in some way than materials that you found notated for you, or two: do you have a different relationship to them because you were involved in that?

AW: I’d say two more than one.  I wouldn’t say the materials are so wildly new, but I have a different relationship to them in that I’ve developed my own range of nuance within the materials that I want to work with that has no relationship to what anyone else has told me about them.  And you often don’t even tell me what to do with that.  You often tend to accept the nuance that I choose when it comes to the materials once we identify them.  And so that’s where I feel the most free.  Like, I’m able to really shape things in real time.

KY: Yeah, interesting. And for me—I mean, I guess there’s always some parts of the piece that are pretty physically demanding—but for the most part the idea of finding idiomatic stuff; things that work for you and that fit with what sort of feels good for you to play—

AW: —Yeah, that was the concept all along.

KY: And that’s something I always want to find in pieces.  But it’s really hard unless you are working with someone.  Because everyone’s different.

AW: Yeah, I mean I’m sure a lot of the stuff I find idiomatic and fun to do other people would be like “that is just a pain in the ass and I hate it.”

Now as a violinist whose main field is contemporary music, after you finish a project like this do you step away from the instrument itself and feel bored?  Like when you go back to the string quartet, for instance.

AW: Not at all.  It’s just a different mode and that was kind of why I wanted to do it, is to explore another mode of creating just to keep myself on my toes, you know? Not that I’m such an experienced or seasoned string quartet player—

KY: Or that you’re such a slacker. [laughs]

AW: Right. [laughs] Neither of those things I think to be true, but I do just like the idea of just exploring this mode and this part of my musical brain.  Especially because of having developed it with [Katie], it’s all under this umbrella of having a full understanding of the piece and being in the piece from the outside, kind of.  So I would say more of what I’m hoping to leave with after we’ve finally done the whole thing is a sense that I have something under my belt as creating.  That’s a brain space that I’ve been working on with Katie for the last year and that’s now a growing part of my musical spectrum of actions.

It’s still so hard to play second violin in a Mozart quartet, though.  That’s always going to be interesting…  So hard.

KY: Ahh, I want to talk more about that someday.  [laughs] I don’t understand what’s hard about it but you can tell me later.

AW: That’s a whole… Whole topic, yeah.

Katie, what about you as a composer? After writing this do you feel like “I can never write for solo acoustic violin ever again; there’s always so many other things—

KY: —Well I definitely need a little time before I write for the violin again, ideally [laughs].  Although there’s a violinist in England who wants to work with me on a project but we decided I should wait a little while.

Well, what’s been really nice for me is in this project I’ve been able to put to use a lot of skills that I’ve developed not necessarily intentionally but just through doing it, as a collaborator and an improviser.  Working particularly with Amy [in] Architeuthis Walks on Land, we do something similar.  We improvise, we find sounds that we like, we find moments that worked, and then we’re like “okay, pause: let’s flesh those out and develop and try to articulate to each other some kind of structure or idea that has the right amount of specificity and the right amount of openness.   [Something] we can return to that doesn’t impose too much structure [where] we feel like we are hemmed in or not able to take a different route if we want to at some point.  So that’s something that she and I have been doing for almost a decade and I’ve never really gotten to work with anybody else like that.

Also, that’s how I think about my own solo music at this point.  I try to find these sounds and for me as a bassoonist, I’ve no interest at this point in playing things that are uncomfortable or hurt.  And maybe that limits some of the stuff I do, but I just want it to feel good to play.  And I’ve found certain sounds that feel really natural for me.  So it’s been fun to be able to work with a lot of those same goals but not have to be playing.  To be outside of it a little more and think about the concepts or maybe the structures from a perspective—I don’t know, more of a traditionally compositional perspective.

I’ve kind of had the best of both worlds where I get to be really close to the sounds and feel like I really understand what’s going on.  I’ve also learned a lot about the violin, so that’s invaluable.  And then I can get into the sounds and also step back and have all this freedom to move between different perspectives on the materials, which has been really cool.

And another way I’ve had a whole other perspective on the sounds is by putting together all the electronics.  So I’m, like, sitting in the studio listening to hundreds of samples of Austin going “kheee.  Kheee.”  [laughs]

Well it’s funny because that strangely acts as its own metaphor for the piece in that you’re zooming in on all these different aspects.  You have this whole world and then here you are serving these different roles within that.

KY: Yeah.

I happened to see the first iteration of Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight where Austin performed with the chamber orchestra at Northwestern.  It was a really strange experience for me.  It was super quiet; I didn’t feel grounded.  But it’s interesting because you were talking about how you find these elements and then you zoom in on them and that’s exactly what—like, as a listener you have to zoom in.  It’s like you have to do research, you have to use a microscope.

AW: Well, it’ll probably be a different perspective on the piece in a small room.

Yeah, and that was what I was going to ask: that space compared to the space you’re going to perform it in?

KY: It’s interesting because I’ve had the thought a few times in recent months where I currently am less interested in hearing acoustic instruments than I have ever been before.  Especially in a big room.  I want to have the sounds, I want to feel them, you know? I want them to be close.  That’s part of what I get out of amplifying stuff.  And not that I want everything to be loud, obviously, but I want to feel the sound.  I mean, I think I want to hear acoustic instruments right next to them.  I want to sit in the middle of the string quartet.  That’s just where I’m at right now.

I think it will be really different in the small space.  I think you’ll get that closeness without having to do quite the work but it’s interesting; if you’re up for the work maybe it’s a cool experience to have to sort of listen in.

I think it depends where you were.  Me, I was pretty close up.  But if you’re in the way back of the auditorium you just can’t do anything about it.  But it’s also interesting because today I was listening to the recording and even that experience—

KY: [laughs]—It’s a really weird recording.

AW: Definitely a weird recording. [laughs]

But it can be more engaging, strangely.  You know?

KY: Did you listen to it in headphones?


KY: Because I played that piece this summer when I was at a festival for a group and I felt like it really suffered being played in a slightly noisy room with the windows open and from the speakers as opposed to listening to it in a pretty close space.  So even just through how you listen to the recording I think you can have a similarly different experience.

I guess I’m not the type of person who would say you can only listen to a piece through one particular media because, like you’re saying, you had an interesting experience in a big room.  So I’m not sure if I would ever say “there’s only one way that this piece can be played or listened to.”

AW: In a certain sense that’s unimaginative, then.  Too controlling.

KY: Yeah, and that’s just not how I operate.  But I think it will really be a different experience in a small room.  And it’s great that we get to be in there for a whole week so we can really—

AW: —Shape it to the space.

KY: Yeah.