A few moments with Nina C. Young

*NinaCYoung2015-04We are thrilled to announce that Nina C. Young will be our 2016 Composer in Residence!  During the course of 2016 we will give the UK premiere of a number of Nina’s works, alongside a co-comission (with Ensemble Échapeé) of a new viola concerto. Nina’s has a unique background in engineering, and she describes her music as being obsessed with sound itself.  Her careful sensitivity to timbre and the vibrant immediacy of her music have been widely commented on, but it is the way these details fuse with her wonderful sense of storytelling and form that really drew us to her music.

Nina is the current holder of the Rome Prize, and so we are hugely excited about bringing more of her music to the UK, and grateful that she took the time to sit down with our Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum to answer some questions!

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Hi, Nina!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us.  I believe you are currently in Rome, where you’re living for a year with the American Academy.  Can you tell us a bit about what life there is like?

Nina C. Young: Thank you so much for having me!  I am overwhelmed with gratitude and surprise (still) at being one of the two composers selected for the 2015-16 Rome Prize (Christopher Cerrone is the other composer, and you should totally check out his work).  The American Academy in Rome (AAR) is pretty much the best place ever.  The 28+ other fellows (in artistic and scholarly disciplines) and I have been granted the most precious thing – the gift of time.  Here we are given the opportunity to press pause on our busy lives (sort of, the internet makes this a little trickier) and focus on our own projects and growth in an supportive and welcoming environment that takes care of all of life’s time-consuming essentials.  However, this is not a typical artist-colony in the middle of nowhere.  Instead, we live in a magnificent complex that perches itself on a hill looking out upon The Eternal City – this offers endless sources of inspiration and distraction.  We are really well taken care of – living a cushy existence with two decadent meals served per day (by the Alice Waters initiated Rome Sustainable Food Project), ample private living and studio space, and weekly housekeeping.  Oh yeah, and there is a bar on premises, which obviously gets well used by all.  I suppose the biggest hurdle here is diving my time between my musical projects, vibrant conversations with my colleagues, the hefty list of activities and opportunities offered by the AAR, and the treasures (both obvious and hidden) of Rome.  With a little less than half the year-long residency under my belt, I can already tell that this is a life changing experience that will offer artistic fodder for decades to come.    

AHN: Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds, and I suppose we are even more aware of this in new/unfamiliar places.  Do sounds influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

NCY: I adore sounds and am endlessly intrigued by them.  Every moment presents itself as some sort of sonic experience and my mind is constantly collecting and cataloging the sounds of my environment and how they resonate in different locations.  While this provides a great deal of mental entertainment, it has also encouraged quite a bit of insomnia!  Anyhow, I try to spend time focusing and taking mental sonic “photographs” (though sometimes, I just use a recorder) and save this memory data for use in my music.   I like this famous Stravinsky quote, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.”  I don’t consciously steal/borrow from the repertoire, but I certainly harvest the sounds of my environment and then translate them into the seeds of my work.

AHN: Even though you are a young composer, your music struck me from the first time I heard it as having a very strong and distinctive voice. Do you think you have a ‘personal style’ of composing? Could you describe your own style to us?

NCY: Thanks, Aaron, I am humbled by your comments, as I am a great admirer of your work, too.  I would say that my “style” of composition is constantly evolving, though, as hinted above, it’s primary focus is sound itself.  I have a background in tech (my undergrad was in ocean engineering), and my artistic focus in composition straddles the worlds of acoustic and electroacoustic music.  Within my own practice, these worlds are seamlessly entwined and have resulted in a personal musical voice that draws equally from elements of the classical canon, modernism, spectralism, American experimentalism, minimalism, electronic music, and popular idioms.  I am always striving to create unique sonic environments that can be appreciated by a wide variety of audiences while challenging stylistic boundaries, auditory perception, and notions of temporality. 

I write instrumental, electronic, and mixed music, but my working methods in all three are very similar.  The process is always concerned with the sculpting of sound and the creation of an auditory experience that is constantly leading the listener into new sonic areas.  When I’m writing for purely acoustic combinations of instruments, I try to employ methods that are influenced by electronic studio production techniques.  I’ll often start pieces by improvising on my laptop with recordings which I’ll then process until I find that particular sonic “seed” that sprout to create a piece.  This will get integrated with sound experiments using my voice, the piano, my violin, and various other instruments.  Eventually I’ll start to write things down, always in full score.  Orchestration is an integral and often primary element of my compositional process.  I find it akin to working in an electronic production environment in which I am always aware of balancing the horizontal frequency spectrum.  Every instrument has its own natural resonance and filtering characteristics – when you begin to combine these different effects, an infinite world of sonic possibilities evolves!  Lately, I’ve also become very concerned with rhythm and its relationship to form.  I think that’s something you can hear evolving in my pieces over the last several years.

AHN: As our Composer-in-Residence next year you’ll write a co-commissioned Viola concerto for Riot Ensemble (with Stephen Upshaw) and Ensemble Échappé (with Jocelin Pan).  Can you tell us a bit about how you start a new piece?  What will it be like to write for two different soloists?

NCY: I’m really excited about this project, especially because I think the “concerto” is a challenging form.  I’ve taken a strong liking to the trompe l’oeil optical illusions of the Italian painters of the late Quattrocento.  A really powerful example of this is in the “dome” of the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio in Rome.  In this viola concerto, EarPlay, I will use the relationship between the soloist and the ensemble to explore sonic and spatial equivalents to this optical illusion.

I’m looking forward to writing this piece for two fantastic violists and ensembles.  The idea for the project came from the long-term collaboration that I have had with Jocelin Pan (who is also the co-Artistic director of Ensemble Échappé) – we met at Tanglewood back in 2013 and have been working together ever since.  In fact, the initial impetus for our ensemble was as a result of conversation that Jocelin and I had with Jeffrey Milarsky (EÉ’s conductor) about how to make this concerto come to life.   I have a really intimate knowledge of Jocelin’s approach to the viola and this will certainly have a big influence on the music.  The fact that this is a co-commission is even more exciting.  I’m really curious and enthusiastic to see how piece expresses itself through the interpretations by two different, stellar groups.  I’m hoping to get to know Stephen Upshaw before I begin really working on the piece, as I like to incorporate musician’s personalities into the music I write.  It’s always more fun to write for friends!

AHN: As you mention, you were involved in founding Ensemble Échappé.  What will your ongoing role with the ensemble be, and what are you hoping to accomplish with these players?

NCY: Jocelin Pan and I are the founding members and Co-Artistic Directors of Ensemble Échappé, a New York City based sinfonietta.  We basically gathered together a group of friends who are exceptional soloists and collaborative musicians that love working together to explore diverse sonic palettes.  We are really trying to showcase a wide swath of stylist approaches by not rooting ourselves in a set aesthetic camp.  Our goal is simply to share great music with our audience.

In addition to my role as Artistic Director, I am currently serving as Composer-in-Residence with Ensemble Échappé (2015-17) and am spearheading a commissioning initiative to promote a dialogue between the musicians and living composers.  The musicians are not only collaborators, but also rotate as solo artists.  This season (our 1st!) we have selected repertoire that highlights individual ensemble members (such as percussionist Sam Budish in Andy Akiho’s LIgNEouS, harpist Emily Levin in Carter’s Mosaic, Jocelin Pan in Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden).  Staring next season, we want to begin showcasing our solo talents with specially commissioned concerti.  EÉ’s is first commissioning Doug and Brad Balliett to write a bassoon – double bass duo concerto for themselves, The Brothers Balliett, to be premiered during our 2016 season opener.  Our next spotlight will be EarPlay (later to be premiered by you, the Riot Ensemble!) and a new concerto by Jonathan Dawe for pianist Conor Hanick.

AHN: It all sounds totally fantastic.  As we finish, could you tell us a bit more about the music you are writing in Rome?

NCY: I’m working on a wide variety of projects; I’m really trying to take advantage of the opportunity to replenish my well of artistic fodder while utilizing this undistributed time to write music that maybe falls outside of my typical comfort zone.  Upon arriving in Rome I finished a bassoon pocket concert for Brad Balliett and the Metropolis Ensemble’s Multiphonics show that was premiered at (Le) Poisson Rouge in NY in October.  I’m writing a short solo piece for a series commissioned by cellist Anssi Karttunen of Columbia-affiliated composers (Taylor Brook, Zosha Di Castri, Bryan Jacobs, Yoshiaki Onishi) that have been involved in his Creative Dialogues Symposium over the past several years.  He’ll premiere the piece in February in Paris at Columbia’s Reid Hall.  I’m involved in another group project spearheaded by Marilyn Nonken.  She has commissioned a series of solo piano pieces that use the same tuning as Grisey’s Vortex Temporum (one of my all-time favorite pieces).  The other composers are Richard Carrick, Marcos Balter, Edmund Campion, Christopher Trapani, Victoria Cheah, and Brian Erickson.

An exciting new work came to fruition upon arriving in Rome.   Miro Magloire, the artistic director and choreographer of the New Chamber Ballet, and I decided to collaborate on a Rome-based music-dance project.  Miro came to the Academy with dancers Elizabeth Hudec Brown and Daniela Giannuzzi in early December. Together we created a new location-specific piece (working title Temenos) for dancers, violin, and electronics that will be premiered at the Bramante Tempietto on March 3, 2016 as part of the AAR’s Cinque Mostre curated by Ilaria Gianni.

I came to Rome to write the music (commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation) for my multimedia cantata Making Tellus: A Mandala for the Anthropocene, a collaboration with The Nouveau Classical Project (NCP); impresario, pianist, and producer Sugar Vendil, and bass-vocalist/librettist Andrew R. Munn.  Imagine collecting an ice-core sample from a glacier. This cross-section contains thousands of years of information – data that depicts the history of Earth’s climate. With this information, scientists become chroniclers as they discover and tell the story of our planet.  In Making Tellus the artistic team creates a metaphorical sample of human time and tells of our species’ experience in sculpting the Earth, pointing to the many processes that have led to our new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene. Our goal is to deepen the public understanding of the Anthropocene and its implications through a marriage of arts, technology, and environmental activism.  Making Tellus is an evening-length interdisciplinary performance piece that invites audiences to meditate on their role in writing Earth’s story. The work presents moments, both historical and contemporary, that illuminate our complex and ever-shifting relationships within Earth’s ecological and geological systems.  The music is scored for solo bass voice, female vocal trio, chamber ensemble, and mixed electronics.  In performance, the work incorporates costumes by sustainable fashion designer Titania Inglis, generative video projection by new media artist R. Luke DuBois, staged choreography by Miro Magloire, and a set piece kinetic sound sculpture that I’ll design.  This is a fascinating project to work on in Rome, a city whose every corner is a cross-section of thousands of years of human history.

AHN: Thanks so much, Nina.  We can’t wait to hear all of it!