Eric Wubbels (Komponist)
Musikwissenschaftler Michael Zwenzner im Gespräch mit Eric Wubbels
EW: My name is Eric Wubbels. I’m a composer and pianist. I mostly work in New York, but have lived for the last 4 or 5 years or so in western Massachusetts, on the border of Massachusetts and Vermont in the United States. I work as a composer and as a member of the Wet Ink Ensemble. It’s one of my main affiliations, which I’ve done for going on 20 years now (which is wild), but also tours with smaller chamber groups and projects, a piano trio formation and several other collaborations with improvisers and other amazing musicians, mostly from the New York scene.
MZ: How close is your relationship with European music life, and how has it developed since the beginnings of your career? You now have received the Ernst-von-Siemens Composer’s Prize, as I noticed. So how has this been for you?
EW: My involvement with 20th and 21st century music goes back a long way. And I was just a huge fan in my early years in training of the kind of postwar European tradition and the great composers, you know, coming from there. Ligeti and Messiaen were huge influences for me. And then once I got into graduate school, the spectralists and a lot of the composers, coming out of Vienna and around, the sort of circle of Beat Furrer and Peter Ablinger and Bernhard Lang, they were all big influences for me early on and I have always been very interested in the life and the various scenes of European contemporary music. And as an American, you know, we have our own scene. But I think it was always an interesting thing for myself and my Wet Ink colleagues in particular, we always felt a little bit in between. We were in America, but we weren’t fully engaged with the American aesthetic. That was maybe the dominant aesthetic. And so it was really helpful for us to be able to check in with Europe and see what people were doing there and to take influence and just to sort of feel connected to some aspects of that. But I think also beneficial to be not fully immersed in that either. And so to feel like we had this freedom to take a little bit from here, take a little bit from there and sort of find a position aesthetically that felt fresh and interesting to us. But I think I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel to Europe a fair amount and to have connections and projects and collaborators there. I think that’s been really wonderful and artistically nourishing for me and also it’s just great to have that additional perspective. There’s a lot of diversity aesthetically out there. And so I think it encourages you to not feel like there’s only one possibility or one right answer and you just, you know, do your thing.
MZ: How strong do you refer to the American tradition of experimental music?
EW: It is obviously one of the things that I think we can really be proud of. But it has several branches to it. And I think that’s also really interesting. There’s a tradition–depending on how you think about it–of like maybe DIY or outside of institutional music. So that could be running from Ives through Harry Partch, through any number of branches from there, which could lead to Steve Reich and Philip Glass or could lead to some people who are much less mainstream than that. And then, you know, minimalism and much more experimental music, all of these things are communities and traditions and lineages in this country that I think are really interesting. And again, for myself, now that I teach a little bit as well looking at students, I think it’s so different than the landscape that the teachers of my generation went through where things were just very, very ideological and very polar. It was this versus that, or at least that’s the impression. And I feel like they really came up in this situation where you had to choose your side and really fight. And a part of me misses that ability to argue from a common set of assumptions. On the other hand, I am really glad that that’s not the case now and that things are just wide open. There’s so many things that you could do, so many different ways in which you could develop an approach to thinking about sound and composition. And even what your relationship to composition is is something that is now a variable. If you want there to be more composition or less composition in a piece, I think that’s really interesting and very productive. As people learn more and more about that and engage more seriously with improvisation as a practice and open up the world of new music more and more to the social world and the tradition and the technologies that improvisers have developed. All of that, I think, is great. But in the end, it just sort of leaves you in the situation now where I feel like basically anything is possible. So what do you want to do?
MZ: Maybe next you can give me just some basic information about your piece.
EW: So this piece, diagrams of the ear, is part of a series that I have called Auditory Scene Analysis, which is a fun series for me. It sort of occupies a particular function in my overall body of work, which is where I get kind of nerdy and scientific and really interested in hearing from a kind of technical perspective. But I think they are some of my pieces that are actually the least heavy and serious. They’re sort of my lighter pieces on some level, because I think there’s something interesting about taking this idea of thinking about hearing, thinking about listening, thinking about the physiology and the neurology and the psychology of listening but then treating that very much with just a sense of curiosity. And let’s see what happens if we throw this crazy thing out there. Like, how do I react to that? And so on some level, it’s sort of about designing and creating these situations where something is sort of posing a bunch of questions to hearing or to listening and then just seeing how we react. And in some cases things are more or less direct. The first piece in this series is for large ensemble, has a narrator who’s sort of talking about what’s happening the entire time. It was very explicit, but on some level also maybe not as obvious as it sounds, based on what the narrator is saying. In this new piece for Yarn Wire, I think I was really excited about the possibilities of that instrumentation and also about these musicians who I know very well including their capabilities. The tradition of percussion within the realm of orchestral music, even going back to the 19th century and before, it’s the place where we’re allowed to bring in noise into this framework which otherwise is all about pitch. And so it’s sort of this one place where we allow this other element in, which can stand for all kinds of things, which can have all kinds of meanings. It can represent all sorts of things. But for me, it’s just really interesting, that that category all of a sudden exists and percussion is sort of the thing that is there at first to occupy it. And then as that develops over the course of the 20th century into the 21st with the piano and percussion quartet, as pianists are now also playing keyboards or synthesizers or laptops, all of a sudden this instrumentation is basically an electroacoustic instrumentation. And so that’s really interesting. And all of these musicians have developed facility and technique in being extremely versatile in the moment, with any a given piece, of going back and forth between very technical classical technique of percussion or piano and then switching to completely different things, maybe they’re playing a spring reverb or a laptop part, or a synth part, or triggering samples, something like that. So that was something that I immediately latched on to for this piece, starting to think about the possibilities. And so when I started to think about, maybe this is a piece that’s about the ear. What are the structures of the ear? What are sort of interesting ways in which you can take that field of ear physiology and functions of hearing and start to play with it within this instrumentation. And so I started thinking about the shapes of things in the ear. So spirals like the cochlea and these long membranes and the eardrum, which is almost like a tympani or, you know, all these things that we have as instruments that are in some ways based on physiological structures of the ear. You can just start to play with them. And when you put them in the context where you’re thinking about the ear and about all these things, my sense in writing this piece was that all these different objects on the stage would just start to turn into ears.
EW: You would look at them and say, oh, is that an ear? Is that an ear? You know, the spiral…, now the spring coils are ears, now the pianos are ears when the pedal is down. Helmholtz, he talks about the ear and its function is basically like a piano with the pedal depressed. That’s how the ear responds to sound. And so you’ll hear that in the piece. You’ll see speaker cones removed from loudspeakers and used as instruments. Timpani, in analogy with the tympanic membrane or the eardrum, all of a sudden they become ears and then they go back to being timpani and it sort of switches back and forth. So it’s a piece in which I had a lot of fun with those ideas and with those images and just tried to make a number of sort of sound situations that create a very strong, very focused image of sound that sort of causes you to reflect on your own hearing. And you hopefully sort of come away with questions or say: it made me sort of reflect back on how strange all of this is. It’s just so strange.
MZ: How did you work there? What was the setup there?
EW: So technically, for the keyboard players, they each have a grand piano, and then they each have a keyboard. And so one pianist has a small midi keyboard which is triggering samples which are very, very basic. In one case, the pianist is triggering just a click which is one sample. I did just like a one-zero. You just send it to a speaker and the speaker cone goes in and out. That’s it. And then sine waves. So again very elemental, very basic simple things which are meant just to sort of provoke responses. The other keyboard player has a more traditional secondary piano sound, but is using a software that allows you to retune the instrument. So I’m using that to access a particular tuning space where it gives me access to intervals that have a very precise beating speed, which I can use to line up with other things the percussionists are doing that try to replicate the border at the low end of our frequency range where pitch starts to turn into rhythm, which it of course doesn’t in reality. There’s just this border in our perceptual system that is not a real border. But for us as human beings, once things dip below a certain point, we stop hearing pitch and we start hearing rhythm instead. So I want to access that very specific zone in a very precise way. And so using the retuning allows me to do that. And then for the percussion, they have a mixture of electronic and acoustic pairs of instruments. So opera gongs, coil springs, a spring reverb, speaker cones, tam-tams, a whole bunch of interesting complex, sonorous objects.
MZ: Next I would like to ask you: to what extent can or may what you do in your profession serve as an encouragement to an audience? What could an audience ideally take away from a performance of your piece? It’s not an easy question, I know, but maybe you have some ideas.
EW: You know, I think one of the things that is a really interesting facet of being a creative artist is the idea of aesthetic and language and how that works within a community. And so as a composer, there’s a lot of pressure, both conscious and subconscious, to develop a personal style. To have that style actually fit within a certain range of acceptable styles. And to cultivate a relationship where you know your audience expects a certain thing from you and you continue to provide that to them. I think that’s the model of having a successful career. But I think that there’s another imperative that you also have to deal with as an artist, which is to continually push yourself to generate new ideas. And to find new things in sound or in art or new ideas, you know, whatever it is that you’re interested in. And to take risks is a part of that. So it is possible to have a career where you minimize risk. But I think that, for many artists and myself included, is not the most rewarding version of the life. But, you know, risk is risk. And when you take a risk that means you could fail or that you could do something that people think doesn’t work or that they don’t like.
So my approach to that in general has been just to say: it’s okay, I’m going to try, I’m going to take risks. I enjoy that. And then whatever happens happens. Obviously, I’ll do my best to make sure that the risks that I’m taking have been thought a lot about, and they’re interesting to me. But I want it to be the case that I can’t totally be sure that it will work. Maybe you never can. So in this piece, there’s also lots of instances of that. There’s a lot of moments that I really wanted to do. And I thought: oh, I don’t know if that’ll work. For example, one of the pianists has to sing very softly in response to these very, very strong sounds. And it’s a very maybe poetic moment. And I hadn’t even talked with her yet about whether or not she’s comfortable with doing it, but I think it’ll be very beautiful, or I imagine that it could be, but maybe it won’t work. We’ll see. And there’s a number of things like that in this piece. There’s moments in the piece where the sounds are so high that some people won’t be able to hear them. But some people will. And I’m really interested in that experience of like, you know, sound has this very particular thing where within a certain range, the audience starts to have completely different experiences of the sounds.
For some people, it’s very, very intense. And some people they hear nothing at all! It’s based on how much hearing loss you have in your high frequencies. So I think that’s totally interesting as a social experience. How will that be in context? I don’t know, hopefully people won’t think I’m an asshole for like doing that or take it the wrong way, but that’s a risk. But I’m just trying, you know, by context to make it seem interesting. Let’s see what happens. If we do this and that, you know, I think of experimentalism again, something we have a huge tradition of in the US, but also something that within certain aesthetic worlds is maybe looked down on saying: Well, why would you have to do an experiment in the context of a piece? You should do experiments and then make a piece with the results. But so I think there’s something where you have to just embrace the idea that is aesthetically valid to take an experimental modality and bring that into a concert space and say, here is a situation and there is no way to know fully how it will be until we have a concert. And that’s worth doing even so.
MZ: You could certainly say that we are living in dark times. and I would like to ask you how you deal with this as a composer. What is your personal crisis mode at the moment, looking at the development in politics and culture all over the world? Is this something that you would like to keep apart from your artistic work, or how does it come into play somehow? Maybe intentionally, maybe not. What’s your, attitude there?
EW: For me, it’s a really important question. I think one thing that I’ve seen a lot of in recent years among younger people but not only younger people, which I completely understand and sympathize with, is a desire to address things like climate change or political things very directly and just write a piece where it’s explicitly about some aspect of X, Y, or Z. But the piece is just a piece of chamber music or a concert, you know? And again, I completely understand and sympathize with that impulse and that feeling that, you know, this is our life as an artist. This is what we do. This is the only way we have to speak and to address those things, maybe. So we do it. But I think there’s something that to me has been unsatisfying about that and the times that I’ve thought about doing it myself. So what I’ve tried to do recently is to think about the structural aspects of my practice and about the fact that when we’re talking about social dynamics and political issues that everything that we do as composers and musicians has social and political dimensions, in addition to climate impacting dimensions. And when we organize and turn our attention to those aspects, within our own practice, in the same way that we do when we’re thinking of ourselves as political actors or social actors in a society, we might want to make some changes to the ways in which we act, as artists within our own practice, politically, socially. So I have several projects at the moment where I just have spent a long time working very closely with musicians, and over the course of that process have developed really deep personal relationships with them. And that, to me, has started to feel more and more central, that’s more and more what I want my life as an artist to be, that is: the process of making a piece of music generates and sustains and builds community. That we look around the landscape and find people who are sympathetic and that resonate with us, and that it makes us feel hopeful and positive to be together and to work together rather than having a kind of transactional, career based relationship or something where it’s like: oh, well, if I do this with you, then I’ll get here or I can get a lot of money from doing this thing, and that will benefit me. [00:21:06] But to sort of say that to the extent possible–obviously we need to make a living–but to sort of try to prioritize that less and prioritize more this aspect of music having a social and a political meaning, and that we can align our choices and the things that we want or would want socially and politically with the choices that we’re making artistically about how we make music, how we make pieces, who we perform, what are the dynamics of the concert situation? So I have several projects that are sort of really trying to address those things in a small, subtle way. And I’m trying a bunch of things out and have done things like spending several months up here in this area where I live now, going to the woods and collecting wild plants and ingredients and saving them and, you know, making vinegar and all of these things that take a very long time. And then with the goal that five months from now we’ll have a concert in New York where I’ll bring everything down and serve this meal to people at the end of the concert, which is a representation of this place. It’s a representation of bringing everyone in onto the same level, trying to minimize the hierarchy of composer and performer and audience, and just inviting everyone into a similar space where it just feels like we’re all in my living room together. Or it’s more like a house or a domestic situation than a concert hall as an ersatz-cathedral or, you know, sacred space [00:22:31] It’s a sort of secular-sacred rather than a sacred-sacred. So I think those are some of the ways in which I’ve tried to think about it. And again, I don’t blame anyone for writing for orchestra, but for me, I choose not to, and it’s because of that. It just doesn’t feel like it aligns with what I think is most important for me right now as an artist and what feels sort of politically sustainable–especially in the US, I think Europe is different. Orchestras in the US are not in a sustainable place. And I prefer to put my energies towards working with people that I have really close relationships with and I care about. And all of that stuff informs the music. And yeah, it just enriches my life to work in that way.