Ashley Fure on Learning From What You Hate
The avant-garde composer and academic on drawing inspiration from nature, creating new notation and her teaching philosophy
Ashley Fure is an American composer and installation artist whose work explores the kinetic source of sound. Born in Michigan, she studied at Oberlin College before earning her Ph.D in music composition from Harvard University, and in 2015 she joined the Dartmouth College music department as an assistant professor. Fure has been widely praised for her work in recent years: She was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship from Columbia University, among myriad other academic prizes and recognitions.
Fure’s enthralling compositions have been commissioned by ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Klangforum, and her latest intermedia project, The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, which she created with her brother, architect Adam Fure, confronts the rising levels of ecological anxiety in our current world, celebrating its American premiere in October 2017. In this excerpt from her conversation with Aaron Gonsher for Red Bull Radio’s Fireside Chat, the avant-garde artist discusses challenging Western notation and how to let your auditory freak flag fly.
What are sounds from your surroundings growing up that you still think about?
So I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right on the shores of Lake Superior, which is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It’s oceanic and glacially pure and it’s freezing cold. Both visually and orally it really marked my childhood.
There’s a kind of synthesthetic strain particularly in the installation and the multi-media work I’ve been doing lately, and there’s something deeply synthesthetic about watching the water as obsessively as I did as a kid. I both grew up swimming like crazy in that water, but also watching it obsessively and just taking it in slowly at different times of day.
The other thing that’s really striking about the Upper Peninsula is that we get crazy amounts of snow and the cool thing about snow is that it’s actually highly sound absorbent. Some of the most silent places I’ve ever been in my life are in the woods in the Upper Peninsula on a sunny day, when there’s no wind and you’re wrapped in snow and you’re far enough from a highway and from the water that you just don’t hear anything. So I think something about that kind of cocooned silence really fascinated me as a kid and marks my work still.
What was your musical environment like, separate from the natural world, when you were growing up?
My dad was a big Bob Dylan head, he followed him around the country in the ’60s, and my mother was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. So that’s what I was getting from my parents. It was actually Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen, singing “Famous Blue Raincoat,” at super peak volume. Whenever I hear that album, I’m five years old again, watching my mother frantically vacuum behind her hoard of crazy children.
When did you start making music?
When I was just about to turn five, we moved to where I spent the rest of my childhood, a town called Marquette. And so that summer, when I was four, my parents bought this old beat-up upright piano that they got from a church for like 40 bucks. I remember hounding my parents about piano lessons. They thought I was too young and they couldn’t really afford it, but then my grandpa stepped in, and he paid for lessons for the first couple years. So I started then and I kept doing it. At that age it meant improvising and memorizing and performing my little piano recitals. But there was never a distinction for me between learning other people’s music and writing my own. It was sort of feeding the same urge towards sound, I think.
I learn more from what I hate than what I love.
When you were playing on the piano and improvising or taking lessons, did you already have a sense of the delineation between noise and more controlled or “correct” forms of activating the piano as an instrument?
Well, I didn’t study composition until I was 16, when I went away to a fine arts boarding school, so I wasn’t getting a lot of direct feedback. I think when I look back on that early work, and some of the work I was writing when I first got to Interlochen, I see a similar energy arc or that there’s a volatility or a wildness that maybe carries towards my later work, but I really was just writing on the keyboard. I didn’t have access to other instruments or other humans playing it, it was really just me.
Do you think that not growing up around an orchestra meant that you didn’t have preconceived notions about what a composer had to be doing in the context of these performative set-ups?
I do. I’m living in Rome at the moment and from what I understand of the way composition is taught in Italy, it’s this rigorous modeling. So you learn a style, you learn to speak in the style, you learn the next style, you learn to speak in that style, and you get these rules ingrained in you. And of course, I was as immersed in tonality as anyone else growing up in the ’80s in terms of the way it influenced pop music or the piano music I was learning from the classical era or the common era of tonality.
But I wasn’t learning. I wasn’t getting my wrist slapped or being told that I was composing in a wrong way or a right way even. It was really just this outlet. I had real dominion over the sounds that I was drawn to. And I’m sure that that marked my relationship to sound, but also my distaste for rules in general and my suspicion of abstract codes and ordinances invading the aesthetic or the space that I’m working in.
Oberlin was a really exciting environment to experiment in because I felt like I could try anything.
How did that distaste for rules play out when you were going to a more formal school for a composition?
Well, I was lucky. During those Interlochen years, I was being exposed to a whole body of 20th century music I had never heard. But I also got to write for my friends and people on instruments, I got to write a big orchestra piece and a big string piece, and it was really wild to have access to other bodies playing music, not just my own hands.
When I got to Oberlin,I had some great teachers and that’s when I heard Helmut Lachenmann for the first time. Oberlin at the time was actually a really experimental place. It was one of the few undergraduate institutions in the country that really guarded a much more compositional aesthetic that was open to the influences of the European avant-garde and American experimentalism. So that was a really exciting environment to experiment, because I felt like I could try anything.
Was there a particular piece while you there that was especially influential on pushing your perceptions of sound?
I encountered Lachenmann there for the first time. We were exposed to quite a bit of his work there. But his work stood in contrast to what I thought were a lot of the other kind of mathematically controlled systematic music that was also very much in vogue at a place like Oberlin, or at the time.
And I was really resistant to that kind of hyper-formalist work and hyper-systematic approaches to the organization of material and rhythmic processes or pitch processes. I learn more from what I hate than what I love in some ways.
What was turning you off about the hyper-formality?
To me, a lot of the scores, the pictures were just there to articulate the form. They didn’t really have a lot of influence or impact on the temporal flow or the proportions in any meaningful way.
So it was a hierarchy I was resistant to in the sense of sound that didn’t have agency, it was just there to mark mathematical processes. But it also was this sense that the sound itself, pitches articulating complex processes, just weren’t that interesting to me. It restricted these complex beautiful organically influenced shapes and architecture.
So I wanted to work with wilder matter that resisted those types of complex forms, because you can’t give them names and put them in matrices and throw them in open music and kind of make some very convincing structure. And so, you have to find other ways of working with that kind of matter.
The sounds I’m drawn to, they resist notation, they don’t take well to symbols.
Is there a time, in one of your earlier works, where you felt like you were listening back and could hear that kind of sound with the agency that you’re describing?
That breakthrough happened for me for the first time when I was 22, when I was working in an electronic music studio in grad school. It was revolutionary because, as I was explaining, the sounds I’m drawn to, they resist notation, they don’t take well to symbols. Western notation is really good at pitch and rhythm, which were the primary parameters of those hyper-complex approaches to form. But it’s terrible at describing any kind of morphological timbre or any kind of thing that is always changing.
It doesn’t flatten to a symbol well, so I had a very elaborate language of trying to convey noise through choreographic notations, but I wasn’t getting what I wanted from players. I wanted this really specific friction sound that had these interior pixels that unfolded in this really specific rate and I just couldn’t get it from them.
So when I got into the studio and I didn’t have to deal with humans and other players and I just had good microphones, so much of what was lost in translation just came back in really full color into my work. I brought in every object I wanted, every instrument I wanted, I spent hours and hours and hours recording what would turn into a seven minute piece.
Also around this time, I was exposed to spectral theory for the first time, and so again in the spirit of trying to understand what turns me on, I would get these noises, find them, and then I would analyze them with sonograms and figure out why am I drawn to it – what is it about the gestural arc of it, the harmonic content of it, the lyrical unfolding of it?
And with a sonogram, it’s all there in this beautiful transparency. So when you look at a sonogram you’re not seeing noise, you’re seeing very specific instantiations of acoustic energy that unfold in different ways across the envelope of time and across the register.
Susurrus was the first piece I did in the studio and the around that era I also wrote a piece called Névé which was for a big oil drum, a big 55 gallon trash can with a cover on top and instruments around it. Névé was an interesting experiment because I started to realize that I’m attracted to all these ephemeral phenomena and their mysterious arrival. But when I capture them on a microphone, then just put them on tape, it’s a little bit easy, so I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could capture them live.
When these pieces are being performed now, what are the collaborative techniques that you use to translate these concepts to a diverse set of players for them to be able to capture what you want this to sound like outside of formal notation?
A good example is a more recent piece I played called Shiver Lung One and Two which are both extracts from a bigger installation opera that I created with my brother Adam Fure. To make that score, I collaborated with a graphic designer. I showed her all of the movements and she created really gorgeous symbols that are so much more communicative than a triangle note head or a square note head or the other vocabulary of symbols that point towards noise. Her symbols are actually showing bodies doing different things.
There’s a team of people, so it’s required for players to have a one-on-one session, because a lot of the nuance of how to shape the arc needs to be communicated from somebody who’s been in it deep with me before.
I wish that 22nd century music will go from brain to brain somehow in a more direct path.
Has that experience inspired you to continue seeking out new forms of compositional notation?
Absolutely. Notation is a hassle. I wish that 22nd century music will go from brain to brain somehow in a more direct path. I really loved working with a graphic designer – it was interesting because she doesn’t read music, she just brought the sensibility of graphic design, which thinks about emphasis and the conveyance of efficient information in a really different way. So that was really fun.
Different instruments require me to collaborate in different ways, but now with my scores I always have to include sound excerpts. I usually make a full maquette actually, mapping in time the whole form of the piece. It’s messy and not nearly as nuanced as the performance will be live and it doesn’t map directly to the score in every detail but it gives players a good sense of the energy arc I’m interested in.
Could you set the scene of what it looked like when someone walked into the space for your most recent piece, The Force of Things?
The full scale premiere of The Force of Things happened at Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey at Montclair State University, and they have this incredible space. We cut off the normal seats from the audience and we had the audience onstage with us. Kasser is wild because it actually has 150 feet of theatrical grid, so the wings have grid over them. We were able to use this and we created a warehouse space which was 150 feet long and 50 feet deep.
When the audience enters they don’t have a sense at that moment of how big the rest of the space is and they find wrapped around them these sort of hung soft goods made of a type of silicone called Dragon Skin which is typically used in horror movies.
We were drawn to that material because it has %1,000 elasticity – it can stretch to ten times itself before it snaps – and also because it has this very slippery referentiality to it. So depending on how it’s lit or how it’s cast, it can seem like still water or like folds of flesh or like a weird alien jellyfish – it’s very alive in terms of the references that are embedded in it.
So the piece begins and they’re standing – it’s this kind of anti-chamber or ritualistic preparation of the body in there. And then at some point they’re led into the central zone where they see more of these hung soft hides around them, but they’re allowed to sit in that central space and they also see extending out from that center zone, kind of far off into the distance, this web of aircraft cables.
So, just metal braided wire that are kind of stretching up over these styrofoam structures and peering off into the distance, and they go up at all these different angles and tangle web-like around the audience. Those things seem infrastructural at first, but then they are revealed to be instrumental. Those aircraft cables are actually big elaborate monochord instruments that are 75 feet long and create the most insane multiphonics I’ve ever heard in my life.
What do you like about the feint of something appearing infrastructural but actually being instrumental?
In a 55 minute piece there’s all sorts of renewal required to keep resetting the perceptual appetites of the audience. And for me, undoing the presumptions of the audience to reveal a different capacity in an object they had categorized a certain way is one way of resetting their wonder, to keep a kind of heightened engagement with the piece and with the aesthetic world that they’re in.
The Force of Things has no words, it has no characters, it has no images that are figural, so it’s a highly abstract and a highly visceral space, but one of the temporal arcs in the experience is really thinking about alienation and location or orientation and disorientation. The knowing and not knowing is, for me, a compositional parameter just like volume is or just like harmonic expanse is.
When teaching, my running mantra is “Fly your auditory freak flag.”
In general, when you’re teaching, what are your educational ideologies? What are you trying to impart to your students that is either a reaction to something that you have learned yourself as part of your education, or something that you want to get them out of?
I was hired [at Dartmouth] to help shepherd in a new curriculum which was focused on sonic arts, which is one of the pathways you can use through the music major at Dartmouth. And so I teach the intro class to that, which is a mixture – half a history of experimental music over the past 50 years, with a particular focus on how technology has shaped auditory culture and practices, and half a practicum on composing with microphones and software. Most of their course work is creative, they’re actually composing from day one.
The running mantra that I keep going back to in that course is “Fly your auditory freak flag.” I try to get them to allow themselves to be weirder than they think they are, and to be turned on by stranger things than they might consider as part of their musical identity. So it’s about exposure from all sorts of different angles, and all sorts of different extremes.
But what I watch happen there, and what I get really excited about, is when they expand their understanding or their openness towards what it is that art can do to us. A lot of them walk in thinking music is supposed to entertain us, or it’s supposed to be beautiful, or it’s supposed to be what we fall asleep to or what we dance to. But by the end of this course, they’re making sound pieces that do something else, they hit a different part of us, they’re after maybe a less categorizable realm of experience, and it’s fun to watch them move towards that terrain.
What do your parents think of the music that you’re making? When you were talking about your upbringing, it sounds like what you’re doing now doesn’t match up to what they were giving you.
Composing is a really weird thing to do. For me it was actually my ticket out of this small town. I had this bizarrely practical side – that's how I got a scholarship to go to Interlochen, how I got a scholarship to go to Oberlin and how I got a scholarship to go to Harvard. When I came out of Marquette, I loved music, but I just thought it was my ticket out and I would eventually start doing something more useful for the world. And then I ended up getting a scholarship to college, but I still thought, “I’ll do it, that’s how I’ll get through college, but I’ll do something more useful for the world.”
I’ve always had this identity crisis about the abstraction of the work I make, and how esoteric it is. I had a lot of guilt about what it meant to be an artist, and the indulgence, or what seemed to me at the time as indulgence. That manifested in a couple of pretty extreme crises where I tried to leave composition, but I always ended up coming back. One of those crises was right before I got into the electronic music studios, so my first year of grad school.
I was just like, “This is not where I want to be, what I want to be doing.” So I thought at the time I didn’t want to be a composer, but then I fell in love. It was Virginia Woolf and all these artists from different disciplines that really reawakened my need to make. It was Virginia Woolf who taught me you can go down to get out. So if there’s this version of accessibility which is, let’s make everything as palatable as possible so the most people can understand it, that’s one way to get out towards the universal. But Virginia Woolf just goes so deeply inside the heads of her characters that she hits the universal, but way, way down in the singular.
Somehow that induced in me this faith that the better I get at what I do, the deeper I get into my sound, the more people it will be able to touch. I can get to the out that’s haunting me, if I just go deeper and deeper into the work itself. The Force of Things was this really wild experience for me, because it did what I so deeply hoped it could, which was that it was so radically open to so many different types of people. Family members who’d been following my work for a long time, were like, “Oh my God, I get it now. Holy wow.” They had no words, but they finally understood.