Gaudeamus nominee Stefan Maier: ‘I embrace the unpredictability of sound’

For its 69th edition Gaudeamus Music Week again nominated five composers under 30 for its coveted Award. Some 300 scores were submitted by 95 composers from 29 different countries. The jury (Gerhard Stäbler, Yannis Kyriakides and Clara Ianotta) selected Nicholas Morrish (1989) from Great Britain; Scott Rubin (1989) and Kelley Sheehan (1989) from the United States, and Remy Siu (1990) and Stefan Maier (1990) from Canada. Remarkably all five nominees have an Anglo-Saxon background. Were there no aspiring composers from other parts of the world, one wonders.

Stefan Maier

Stefan Maier

Anyway, the festival offers a diverse range of music, music installations and music theatre, ranging from the multimedia project Zamenhof: Breaking the Codes by the Polish artist in residence Jerzy Bielski through the performative sound installation Senses Working Overtime to the world première of Bird, that the Finnish composer Sebastian Hilli wrote for Asko|Schönberg – fulfilling the commission attached to the Gaudeamus Award 2018.

Many of today’s composers move freely between genres, styles and disciplines, not seldom blurring the boundaries between composer and performer. This holds definitely for Stefan Maier, whose compositions, installations, and performances ‘examine emergent and historical sound technologies’, to use his own words. He likes to ‘highlight material instability and unruliness’, to ‘explore the flows of sonic matter through sound systems, instruments, software, and bodies’. He seeks to ‘uncover alternate modes of authorship and listening possible within specific technologically-mediated situations’.

Maier applied for the Gaudeamus Award 2019 with Bellows, Territories III and Thicket; the first two will actually be performed. ‘I guess I’ve always followed the Gaudeamus competition since I got into composition’, he says. ‘It’s always exposed me to exciting new voices, so I thought I’d see if I could do it myself. I hope and expect to hear a lot of great music and to meet interesting people. I look forward to meeting my co-nominees, getting acquainted with their music, but also to seeing and performing alongside friends.’

How do you see the relationship between performer/composer?

‘That’s a complex question for  me — and it has changed significantly over the past years. I have always been interested in the intrinsic dynamism of the performance of classical music — the fact that interpretation, ensemble dynamics, and even the acoustic signatures of the performance space transform and enliven works.’

‘So I don’t really believe in a straight through-line from composer to interpreter: it’s always a complex trajectory, muddied by instruments, technology, individual agency, material resistance, it’s totally non-linear. This has always been central in my work, especially with the use of extremely chaotic sounds/hyper-specific extended-techniques. I’m drawn towards contingency within the inner-life of materials — materials that have certain “infinity” properties, such that the sounds are always changing and are unpredictable for performers.’

‘The performer is encouraged to engage this unpredictability and, indeed, revel in it. My attention to this has opened more and more over the years — especially since working with feedback systems, as e.g. in Bellows and in my live-electronics work.’

‘With Bellows, basically the entire structure is determined by acoustic feedback in the performance space. Its acoustic signature literally determines most parameters of the work. For example, there’s a listening score for the ensemble so that when the feedback generates a certain tone, then the ensemble imitates it, etcetera. It’s super open and contingent, way more so than in my more traditional ensemble writing. And that’s precisely what I find to be most interesting about it!’

‘With works like Bellows, the traditional relationship between composer and performer is destabilized. — Yes, I’m making a ton of decisions to facilitate ensemble dynamics and form and other composerly concerns, so I’m still in the picture — but it’s also about highlighting the “material intelligence” of the sounds taking on the role of the composer in a way.’

‘Sometimes that results in stuff that I’m not happy with, but now that my practice has evolved to include a studio/electronic music/improvisation practice, I feel that if I want a super specific thing, I can just work on it in my studio. Live performance, then, becomes something else for me – something far more indeterminate!’

In the festival Maier will perform with pianist Vicky Chow in a new work called Rare Earth. ‘I’ll be playing modular synthesizer. I will also be playing organ/electronics for Bellows, alongside my collaborator Ragnhild May, who co-authored that work.’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Gaudeamus nominee Stefan Maier: ‘I embrace the unpredictability of sound’

  1. Pingback: Whoever said modern music is humourless and cerebral? Kelley Sheehan wins Gaudeamus Award 2019 | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

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