The first MusicNOW concert of the 2016-17 season will feature two world premieres by Chicago-based composers: where the moss glows by Katherine Young, and Monday or Tuesday by Kyle Vegter. Written for strings, winds, electric guitar and percussion, where the moss glows was inspired by a short story by Kelly Link. Both works were commissioned by MusicNOW for this concert, Oct. 10 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The MusicNOW program also will be the concluding event in the Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day celebration of Chicago’s new music scene.
Ahead of the concert, Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, interviewed Katherine Young about where the moss glows:
EO: First of all, thank you so much for being here. We are so looking forward to your piece. Just to kick this off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
KY: I am a composer and bassoonist improviser based in Chicago. I’ve been here for a total of nine years — I left for a few years — but I’ve been back now for six.
EO: How did you come to be interested in composition?
KY: At first I was a performer, so it has all emerged from the perspective of a performer. I studied bassoon performance as an undergrad, and while I loved a lot of aspects of music making, I quickly realized that I wasn’t exactly cut out for classical instrumental performance. It took me a few years to find my way to composition, but I started composing and improvising pretty much at the same time and I’ve continued down that path, working as a performer in improvised contexts and writing for people. Those two practices have developed in tandem.
EO: Do you often write for yourself?
KY: Actually, I play my own music often but it’s usually not fully composed. I’m not very good at reading my own scores and following my own directions, so most of the music of mine that I play is largely improvised. In this piece — for MusicNOW — I did write a bassoon part … for someone else to play.
EO: When you’re starting to think about a piece, does it grow out of improvisation? Or does it vary based on the piece you’re writing?
KY: It definitely varies. In order to incorporate improvisation successfully, you need to be working with improvisers. A lot of my approach will depend on exactly who the performers are that I’m writing for. But I think underneath all of it — or central to what I’m always interested in, whether I’m writing a fully composed piece or I’m improvising with people myself, having nothing pre-determined — is some element of surprise. I’m always hoping to find something through the process of making the piece that not only surprises other people — the listeners or the players — but also surprises me. I hope the piece does something that I don’t expect. I think that’s an idea that maybe fits with an improvisational perspective.
EO: So no matter what the medium is, and no matter where the ideas for the piece came from, there’s always this element of spontaneity that needs to be there in order for the piece to have the Katherine Young spirit.
KY: I think so. And maybe you could say that about most live music, but I really hope to cultivate it somehow. Not that you can script a surprise. So how you do that is a little tricky.
EO: How do you think about that when you’re composing notated music for performers who are not improvisers?
KY: One approach that I’ve taken recently has been to work with very unstable sounds — noises or techniques that maybe don’t immediately speak or have some sort of potential for change within them (like a multiphonic, for example) — and then to compose using those materials in a fairly strict rhythmic or metric context. I’m creating friction between unstable sounds and precise rhythms that means that they don’t always sound like what they look like on the page. I usually have a good idea of what they’ll sound like. I’ve worked hands-on with the sounds with other performers, meeting with them or just myself experimenting — but you put four of those sounds together, and then in a room, and then in a performance, and suddenly there’s potential for things to go in ways that maybe you couldn’t anticipate.
EO: Can you tell us a little bit about your MusicNOW piece?
KY: It’s a piece for eight performers: three strings (violin, viola, cello), three winds (clarinet, bassoon, and tuba), and electric guitar and percussion. The percussion also triggers a few electronic samples. The piece is called where the moss glows and it’s inspired in part by a short story by author Kelly Link. I’m writing a few pieces right now inspired by this particular short story called “The Girl Detective.” In this case, I had this loose narrative structure from the story about a journey to a place that the characters go to, and I used that as a template for the piece and worked somewhat literally to create a similar narrative for the piece and the sounds that I used. Ultimately, there’s an evolving textural backdrop and then rhythms and gestures that coalesce into a dance at a certain point, later dissipating.
EO: where the moss glows is the second piece in a cycle. Can you talk about the cycle and then how this piece fits into that larger context?
KY: where the moss glows is part of a cycle of pieces called Stranger Things Happen, and they’re based on the short story by Kelly Link. The first one I finished is a solo guitar piece called Earhart & the Queen of Spades that premiered this past summer in Darmstadt. This is the second one. The electric guitar music that I wrote for the first piece informed some of the electric guitar writing in where the moss glows. I’m also writing a percussion quartet for Third Coast Percussion that will be a part of the cycle. The idea ultimately is that all of these pieces will be used together in a somewhat improvisational manner. In other words, in their final performance context when they’re all performed together, we might not hear the whole piece performed but we might hear snippets from these three pieces spliced together in different ways by the conductor and the ensemble. There will be a bassoonist and a vocalist who act as central characters or leaders through this process.
EO: You’ve explained in your program note that there wasn’t just performative collaboration involved — in terms of learning about sounds — but also this experiential collaboration. You mention various musicians you talked to describing things that they had lost. It seems that there is an extremely personal aspect to this piece that makes it quite special.
KY: An idea that I drew from Kelly Link’s short story is this idea of lost objects. In the story, the central character is looking for her mother, actually, but she’s the Girl Detective so she’s looking for a lot of different things for a lot of people. In this story, which is pretty abstract and definitely non-linear, she travels and moves around through various dream worlds and the underworld, looking for things that people have lost. Rather than trying to literally retell Link’s story with music and theater, I decided that I wanted to work with the performers to create our own world of lost objects that we would work with sonically. So for the guitar piece and for this piece, I asked performers who would be involved in the performances to send me lists of things that they had lost. They could be very personal, profound, significant things — like a loved one or something related to a loved one — but they also could be really mundane things like your keys or your cell phone, which everybody’s lost probably multiple times.
The idea was to develop this big list and then pick those that had sonic and performative potential for the piece. I’ve been interested, as a lot of people are, in working with object percussion or prepared instruments. This was a way to find tools for working with the instruments and making sounds that weren’t just sonic but actually had personal significance to people — to embed, within the musical materials, this level of personal significance and meaning. That doesn’t necessarily have to translate literally to the audience, but my hope is that ultimately, as these pieces accrue and when we see them together and hear them together, that these layers of referentiality might also accrue and prompt connections for people who are listening in their own lives.
EO: In general, you work with a lot of really unusual sounds that are very integral to this sound world that is very you. Could you talk a little about that and some of the sounds that we’re going to hear?
KY: In this case, I had some sounds that worked with “lost object” preparations for the guitar initially and those were some of my starting sounds. So, for instance, if you tap the guitar with keys, it makes a certain kind of sound; if you strum the guitar with some playing cards that have been taped together in a fan, it makes a strumming sound but one that’s slightly different than you would get with a pick. I had some sounds like this that I then tried to find similar sounds or sounds that had connections to those sounds from the other instruments. I built up this vocabulary of sounds across the ensemble.
One of the sounds that you will hear is a fan hitting the music stand, and this is a sort of ribbed, bumpy, attack sound that gets used by different players in the ensemble at different points and has connections to some of the guitar techniques or the percussion techniques. I wanted to give the other instruments an opportunity to make this sound in a way that wouldn’t hurt their instruments. I didn’t want the violinists to have to hit their violins with the fan, so I figured they could hit the music stand and everyone would be happy. So that’s one sound that’s a little, perhaps, unexpected that will pop out to people.
EO: Your piece is being presented as a part of the Ear Taxi Festival, which is a celebration of new music across the city of the Chicago. What has been the effect on your life of living and working and making music in Chicago?
KY: Chicago is a great place to be a musician. You can find people making music in every sort of field and from every sort of angle here. In the last five, six, seven years that I’ve been here, it’s been really exciting to see the new music community really flourish in some new ways. There are a lot of younger ensembles starting and people with a lot of energy making really crazy music. But again, it’s pretty diverse, so you’ve got a lot of different perspectives within the new music community which makes it a really rich place to listen and to perform and to make work. There are also some great new venues that have opened up — as tends to happen in experimental music, venues come and go — but we’ve had some continuity for the last few years, which I think has really helped solidify things for people. It’s a really supportive community of composers and performers and composer-performers and everybody in between.
EO: How has this environment impacted the direction of your work, both as a composer and/or as a performer or as a composer-performer?
KY: One of the great things about being here is that, if for a period of months, I want to focus mostly on writing music, there are people who I can work with to create a new piece. If there’s a period of time where I feel like I really need to spend time with the bassoon and improvisation, I can go into that world. So I can bounce back and forth as I need to between different modes of making music here, and there are always other options that I have yet to have time to explore. The diversity of the options here allows me to pursue whatever I might be interested in at any given moment.
EO: What’s on the horizon?
KY: The next thing that I’m going to do is work on this piece for Third Coast — the percussion quartet that is part of this cycle — and then the whole project will be premiered in the fall of next year by [Ensemble] Dal Niente. I’ll be working on how exactly all of these pieces are going to go together. I’m also hoping to revise a string trio for this British ensemble called Distractfold. I’m going to spend some time in the spring working on recording some new music with my longtime duo collaborator Amy Cimini — she’s a violist based in San Diego — and we’re going to hopefully make a new record.