The American composer Ashley Fure writes music of a flickering and gorgeous intensity. Recently, she was in Marseille doing research for an upcoming work. We chatted via Skype about happy sonic accidents, alternative careers, and the state of diversity activism in new music.
VAN: What are you up to in Marseille right now?
Ashley Fure: I’m working on a string quartet. It’s a co-commission from IRCAM and GMEM, which is the electronic music institute based here. The premiere is in May. They have these incredible new studios, and I’m like the first invited composer they’ve had since, and—there are actually windows in the studio. They’re so often underground, these electronic music dungeons. So it’s a pleasure.
What is the research exactly?
We’re using lots of transducers, what IRCAM is calling their “augmented string quartet.” But we’re using it in a way that it’s not necessarily intended to be used. That’s the research: how to break it for our purposes and find happy accidents.
How is it meant to be used, and how are you using it?
Traditionally the transducers are attached to the back of the instruments, they sort of use the acoustic body to project prepared sound files or real time techniques. I was pretty interested to explore feedback systems with this setup: see what would happen if I attached a mike close to this tiny little speaker close to the instrument.
It turned out, with the attached transducer, that the feedback was a bit too volatile. We couldn’t really control it in a way that was gesturally interesting. So I detached the fixed transducer and grabbed it in my hand and started moving it across the instrument like a bow. And I realized that, with some other interventions along the path, from microphone back into transducer, we actually were able to create this really lyric engine for the feedback. It’s completely controlled by the physical movements of the players, they basically use the transducer as a bow. You get this really palpable filtration, depending on exactly how and where the contact happens. There’s this kind of intimate exploration of the body of the instrument.
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In a profile of you in the New York Times, there is one sentence about how graduate school “had its frustrations” for you. Why was that?
The summer after my first year of grad school, at Harvard, I came over to Europe to do the festival circuit for the first time. And I felt a little grossed out by that particular scene, to be totally honest, though I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that. As a young person, it felt like everybody on the festival circuit was clawing for attention and people were only writing music to get the next commission. It felt myopic and insular, really navel-gazing. I was frustrated by the interactions I was having with players, and even the interactions I was having with my own music. I couldn’t quite get the thing I was looking for.
Then I started working in the electronic music studio at Harvard. I had always been interested in working with chaotic timbres, and noise, but trying to get at those sounds I was looking for through extended techniques and notation was really dissatisfying. I didn’t have the capacity to write them down intricately enough, and I also didn’t have the skills in eliciting that kind of investment from players to really get the sounds that I wanted. Once I got into the studio, it was like, “Screw them. Give me microphones and objects.” I was able to reach a density and a specificity in these chaotic timbres that had eluded me until I got my hands dirty myself.
Were you ever at the point with composing where you considered doing something else and if so, what was it?
Yeah [laughs]. That summer I actually spent an obscene amount of money to enter a program in international conflict resolution at Tufts University. I wrote this huge paper about U.S.-Iranian miscommunications—I had done classes in international politics at Oberlin, so when I thought about my exit strategy, it was always a bit more politically related. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna leave. You either figure it out or you’re gonna leave.” I was about to jet.
But then I had one last commission to write. And the commission happened to be my first piece with electronics. And that’s kind of what brought me back, what brought me into the studio, and ended up kind of healing that whole thing.
In your essay “Reflections on Risk: On Speaking Out,” for Gender Relations at Darmstadt, you mentioned warnings that friends gave you about addressing gender equality in new music: “You don’t want to be that girl.” Have you had adverse reactions to that piece or were their warnings justified in any way?
I think a lot of the potential adverse consequences of that association are not things that are going to be super evident to me, on a one to one person level. I can’t really speak to grumblings behind the scenes or what people actually think. There was a phase right after Darmstadt where I was feeling a little uncomfortable with being identified so much with the topic; I’m a little over that now. I mean, gender equality is not a radical notion in the West, this is not an extreme position or an interesting idea—frankly, I’m totally embarrassed to have to stand up here and pretend like I’m spearheading some kind of novel movement. If that’s actually the scene I’m in, where I’m going to be somehow erased from the trajectory I’m on because I bring up something as banal as this, then so be it.
But, for the most part, the energy I’ve received back from both top down and bottom up directions on this stuff has been extremely positive. And that’s why I think it’s continuing to snowball the way it is. As a community, we’re long overdue in confronting our demographics in a focused, concerted way, and a lot of us sense that. People seem ready to deal with it. So let’s deal with it already.
At the end of the essay, you called on cis white male composers to take up the bulk of the time-intensive activism, “leaving space for female, trans, queer and composers of color to produce work that stretches the canon from within.” With initiatives such as #HearAllComposers, it seems like men are participating and making an effort. What do you think?
Cue snarky comment about Twitter activism. Look, I’m sure every 140-character post counts, but there are a few more energy intensive ways I can think of for folks to pitch in. One of the big things that could happen really fast and that a lot of us could collaborate on is the need to self-audit. We need a big data dump that gives us statistics of breakdowns along gender, race, and class lines, and the way resources are being spent: from every major festival, ensemble, CD that gets published. We need to get those numbers in a central platform, so we can all have a look at them, see how we feel about them, and see how to go about affecting the situation. We all have this sense that there aren’t that many women around, but let’s get the numbers on the table. Let’s start from a concrete place, as opposed to existing in a feeling of frustration that doesn’t have a lot of hard facts behind it.
You also discussed a German radio review of your Opera for Objects “The Force of Things” at Darmstadt that had the title “Flying Vaginas.” I listened to that again recently, and it occurred to me that while the title is blatantly sexist, the rest of the piece is a fairly earnest if misguided attempt to interpret your work. You’ve said elsewhere that you don’t want to give the audience a single narrative in your pieces—that multiple interpretations are possible. So when does an interpretation cross the line from being simply not what you intended to being offensive?
It crosses the line when it puts female genitalia in the title or anywhere in the text. I can’t even. You can throw that guy a bone and think about it in good faith; I would actually love it if you grabbed a mint tea with him and spent the hours to explain and unravel how it’s offensive. But while I agree that conversation needs to be had with that person, it is not my responsibility to have it. It’s one of the places where I think cis white males’ contribution to this movement needs to happen. White boys gotta help white boys figure this shit out!
Compared to your pieces “Something to Hunt” and “SOMA,” your “Bound to the Bow,” a recent orchestra piece, seemed more traditionally dramatic. Where did that come from?
A lot of the electroacoustic material I used in that piece was actually material I developed for a 50-minute collaboration with a choreographer I did called “Ply,” from 2014. This one little machine is the sound source for all of the electroacoustic material—it’s basically a broken fan. My dad helped me claw off the cage of a big table fan with some wire cutters [laughs]. I put rubber bands on it, and as it’s spinning, these rubber bands are flicking around it. In some cases it sounds like this insane bluegrass player with 27 arms or something.
“Bound to the Bow,” which is the 15-minute condensation of “Ply,” traverses the same material from the same kinetic source. But because it’s a more compact form, it turns into something with more of a dramatic orchestral spine to it. There’s a genealogical, cellular thing, growing into the whole crazy machine that breaks down in the end. There’s a material unity that relates to some of the ways that the orchestra has been treated.
When you work with these sounds and noises, as opposed to pitches, how do you go about imagining the result?
There’s still very much the same abstract, imaginative step that happens for people using pitches and rhythms. There’ll be an image that a source material leads me towards, and then I’ll do imaginative drawing, text writing, grasping in the dark, figuring out what the piece is going to be. Then there’s a phase of this tactile material investigation where I record hours of myself on instruments improvising. Then I’m listening through those recordings and cutting up, analyzing, using sonograms to figure out what the harmonic content, the lyric content, inside of these chaotic sounds is. And usually by the end, I have a mockup on the computer that is collaged together from all of these test sounds, that helps me understand and figure out proportions and issues of form. I don’t necessarily have all the instruments in my arsenal, although now that I have a grownup job and house I have more than I used to [laughs].
How’s your grownup job—teaching at Dartmouth—going?
It’s great. It’s a lot to balance. I’m doing some undergraduate teaching right now, and I have some Masters students in my programs. They each give different things back. With the Masters students I get to have a higher level conversation, but they’re also much more complex and tortured. With my undergraduates it’s amazing how you can play them Maryanne Amacher on really good speakers and have their eyes pop out. They’re so new to the sound. Many of them have lived in this very restricted Spotify playlist their entire lives, so it’s amazing to watch them experience the magic of stepping outside of that playlist. ¶
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