PC: Alex Sopp

Austin Wulliman: The News From Utopia

Down the gargantuan fish spine

Austin Wulliman: The News From Utopia

Down the gargantuan fish spine

Those familiar with violinist, composer, and educator Austin Wulliman likely know him as a member of the inimitable JACK Quartet. For those who haven't heard "the news," Austin released his debut compositional solo album The News From Utopia (Bright Shiny Things) in September 2023. After listening to the record more than a few times, I was excited to see that my latest NYC trip lined up with his reimagined album release show at Roulette on 2/15. I've been eager to speak with Austin about his compositional life, and you'll find our transcribed conversation over a coffee in Brooklyn below.

I was in NYC last month because S.E.M. Ensemble performed my pierrot-adjacent quintet, "The man who owned the forrest also owned the racetrack" (2023), as part of their annual composers workshop (hint hint composers, it's every year). A quick concert plug before we get into the interview – S.E.M. is performing my piece again on April 24 (42424) 7 PM at the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side on a program titled “2024: The Year of Czech Music in Reverse.” The program includes compositions by non-Czech nationals for whom the opportunities in the Czech Republic had a major impact (including yours truly), and in reverse, Czech composers by birth, for whom opportunities abroad had an equally pivotal impact. I'm honored to be on this program, which includes music by Petr Kotik, Rudolf Komorous, Petr Bakla, Christian Wolff, and Phill Niblock. Please do say hi if you attend! Admission is free but RSVP's are required.

Anna Heflin: I’m going to kick us off with a funny one. During the album show at Roulette you mentioned how your composition for guitarist Alec Goldfarb and electronics, “Down Pat” (2023), is connected to the frequency of the body. This discovery opened a window into numerous 60 Hz Austin Wulliman special conspiracy theories. (Austin laughs) Let’s dive in!

Austin Wulliman: Number games have been really important to me in how to approach writing. When Alec [Goldfarb] approached me about a piece we started sending music back and forth and key points of mutual reference surfaced. My dad listened to jazz guitarist Pat Metheny a lot and his album The Way Up came to mind. Alec also sent me the epic video of Van Halen doing “Eruption” live and its unhinged amount of overdrive made me think about how the electric guitar is tied to electricity. “Eruption” also reminded me of Fausto Romitelli’s “Trash TV Trance”, which deeply impacted me when I initially heard it at 19. That sound made me feel like my body was plugged into the energy of a TV, that I was part of those strange machinations.

I knew I was going to sample Alec and sculpt those individual notes in “Down Pat”. At the start of a session, I realized that there was something appealing about the sound of the electricity itself at 60 Hz, so I recorded the sound of Alec’s thumb touching the guitar plug. “Trash TV Trance” is at 50 Hz and since number games and the overtone series are key to my process, it got me thinking. 440 Hz, the A we tune to, is an 11th partial of the overtone series that contains 50 Hz and 60 Hz. This lines up with a bigger conspiracy theory. Which, I don’t know if we should call it conspiracy theory or the truth about pitch…

AH: Well, that’s the sounding of a conspiracy theory. (both laugh)

AW: The truth about pitch is that A should be tuned to 432 Hz. I don’t know if I’m laughing anymore or if this is just what I’m doing now compositionally. If you have a 1 Hz fundamental, you can make an overtone series where the 27th partial of a bunch of stacked fifths is 432 Hz. If you have 440 Hz as one kind of A and 432 Hz as another kind of A then you have a great series of contradictions to work with, there’s a cultural thing there too. It’s a part of that conspiracy theory – people say that one of the reasons that A is now 440 Hz is that certain fascist politicians wanted to standardize it because it made their brass bands sound brighter and more powerful as opposed to a darker A. I don’t know if I believe that, but it creates a resonance inside me when I think about all of the multivalent factors that give these frequencies meaning. 

When it comes to making music of my own, I’m interested in finding the line between how we measure pitch as notes and the abstract reality of frequencies and vibrations that move through us, which is a complex and cultural process. 

AH: I have my own theory about the establishment of equal temperament but I’m going to spare us and save it for a research paper. Do you call what you’re doing Just Intonation (JI)?

AW: Sure. For me, the clearest way to talk about it is as ratio-based harmony.

AH: In your album liner notes you mention a modulation process between different kinds of JI tunings. What do you mean by that?

AW: Let me break down the harmonic part. I don’t want to oversimplify what I do as just JI notes, because it’s just an aspect.

AH: Yeah, we’ll get to the other components.

AW: I think about tuning in the same way that I approach pitch in Haydn quartets; each key in a Haydn quartet has a unique flavor. The different parts of the overtone series, or spectral relationships, are capable of containing these distinct characters that can be treated novelistically. Taking this harmonic approach requires me to dig in and understand how I feel about the character of a certain harmony and its relation to another one. Since I’ve been working more in recorded audio and less in live acoustic performance, this shifting also has to do with production techniques related to different harmonic areas. 

AH: About the process, I spoke with Alec [Goldfarb] after the show and he shared that you two talked every day for a long time, an unspecified amount of time. 

AW: A long time. (laughs) Alec and I became friends more deeply during that period.

AH: Do you think that this working model is connected to writing for JACK Quartet? How do you feel about writing for artists outside of JACK after this experience?

AW: I’m learning how to be a normal composer. Normal, as in a composer who can deliver a score to someone else. I see a path towards that. 

AH: Is that a path you want?

AW: Yes, I like having different ways of working. I’m keenly interested in going deeper into my own reservoir of interests, while acknowledging that the way I work feeds on learning from the people around me who inspire me. I’ve been writing for JACK Quartet, and that’s built on years of intensive work where we always have an outside influence from composers bringing an influx of energy to what we do. Ideally, it’s an interpretive approach that leans into the creative aspects and moves towards the creative act itself. 

The first time that I realized that I was a creator rather than just a score interpreter was when I worked with Katherine Young in Chicago. We made an album DILIGENCE IS TO MAGIC AS PROGRESS IS TO FLIGHT.

AH: I love a long title.

AW: I love a long title. Katherine showed me how I could improvise in a way to create material for her and she shaped pieces based off of the snippets that I would send her. Going into that project, I didn’t have any idea how that piece was stylistically going to go. It was the same way with Alec’s piece. I studied Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and talked to Alec about guitar records and how he approaches learning musical styles of other cultural traditions to get my wheels turning. 

AH: Could you share more about the process of arranging these works for JACK Quartet?

AW: I wrote the fast acoustic quartet, “The Late Edition,” in a couple of weeks and we read it in the break from another gig. In terms of the amount of time that went into it, it felt like when a piece gets delivered late and we learn it quickly.

AH: Which never happens…

AW: No, no! We always rehearse three months before a concert and the composers turn in their scores super early (laughs). Honestly, half of the time we don’t even know when the due date is. I trust composers to finish pieces when they need to finish them. If they need to finish the week of the concert, the concert will go how it needs to go and I’ll do my best in the time I have. It was kind of similar. There wasn’t a ton of time to learn my music within a full JACK Quartet season. Roulette was a show where they were supposed to play one piece and I dumped an hour of music on them instead! 

I wrote “The Late Edition” based on the superparticular interval of 120:121 while playing fast. It worked because we have such a shared understanding – years of feeling time together and thinking about tuning. 

AH: Which brings me to another point connected to time. I’m very glad that you have healed, but in the fall you broke your wrist and as a result you had an unprecedented amount of time in the midst of a crazy JACK season to prepare for the Roulette show. This came across in the concert through its thoughtfulness and curatorial acumen. What considerations were you taking into account during this healing period when reworking this material from the multilayered solo material on your album into arrangements for JACK? What did your day to day process look like?

AW: I really wanted to include parts of the album that could speak as quartet + polyrhythm. “Blink” was able to be arranged for JACK + Alec. I reshaped “The Docks” and “The News from Utopia” into one big movement. The first piece on the concert, “SYSTEM NOTES,” was always supposed to be performed by JACK on the release show and was finished before my injury. “SYSTEM NOTES” is built on a similar concept to the Rhythmicon, which is nothing new – there’s an overtone series and each partial is tempo locked at a certain speed. The rhythmic relationships and harmonic relationships are fixed at the same ratios. It’s an overture to the concepts of the album. My time day-to-day usually involved several hours early in the morning with just pencil and paper out and then, after some time to meditate (usually a long walk or run), some hours spent in Ableton or Pro Tools manipulating audio and creating polyrhythmic structures or mixing previously recorded audio.

AH: Thinking about speed, I don’t know if it’s intentional but a lot of the material sonically brings trains to mind for me.

AW: There’s always motion and transport in the music. Motion was always a big part of it, the original idea is the opening of “The News from Utopia” – which has a certain tempo and a rising tetrachord with harmonic conflict. It has a chugging, upbeat motion. I sent Chris [Fisher-Lochhead] that material, and he said that it was ‘like the news theme from Utopia.’ So that’s where my title came from. 

Returning to motion, “The Lazy River” was crucial to conceptualizing the big formal units of polyrhythm and harmony. It’s not physical transport per se, but do you know what a lazy river is at a resort? (Anna nods) The material I was working with is inspired by the Brahms G Major String Sextet and the Zadie Smith story of the same name, which has a deep sadness in the way that it’s looking at individual political responsibility, class violence, and much more. People in the story are trying to move forward in time, but time cycles them back to the same sadness and night sky falling over their life.

AH: Your composition, “The Lazy River,” didn’t feel sad to me. Which doesn’t mean that other people had the same emotional response. 

I haven’t read the Zadie Smith story, although I skimmed a New Yorker article about it this morning while researching before our conversation. But I had the most fascinating experience of time while listening to your piece “The Lazy River,” which is relevant to the concept of cycling time that you just mentioned. During your concert, I was transported to every instance of myself in Roulette. I remembered all of the people in each of the concerts/rehearsals, where I was sitting, everything in finite detail. My memory isn’t generally vivid while in a conscious state, so this was strange and quite uncanny.

AW: I love that. It’s very in line with one of the philosophical considerations of the Smith story, which is the Heraclitus saying, which approximates to the idea that you can never step in the same river of time twice. There's the idea that we’re passing the same point in time over and over. It’s the same, but different, and we feel the cyclical nature of time. 

AH: It worked for me, on some level.

AW: And you’re right, the music isn’t sad. It’s purposely upbeat.

AH: It’s beautiful.

AW: It’s meant to be the effort of distracting yourself from the veil that’s falling over, over and over. At the end of the movement, the veil sweeps and darkens. For me, that feels scary. Every time I look at the night sky I think about eternity and how I hate the concept of something lasting forever. 

AH: Every night?

AW: When I really look at it, yes, although it’s less intense than it used to be now that I’m not conflicted about religion. I’m at peace with not believing in God and feel less crazy about the idea that I might live forever – a concept that I strongly dislike. In “The Lazy River,” as the boisterous motion of the river is washed away, what's left is the night sky. The darkness of when you close your eyes. 

AH: You set it up well with a method I use too, placing aggro music ahead of the ‘darkness.’ It's like in yoga, when you challenge yourself with rigorous physical poses so that your mind can shut up in meditation. 

AW: Exactly. Oddly enough I was doing yoga every day while writing this material and was thinking about tension and release from that mindset. 

AH: So perhaps now is a good time for the fish question. Are you comfortable sharing your oxy fish spine story? (laughs)

AW: (laughs) Yes, I am.

AH: I’m interested in how brief, extraordinary windows or visions can inspire and propel us over the period of months to create large-scale works in an attempt to communicate their significance or insight.

AW: Chasing that is the most powerful part of writing music. I have these sudden moments when something bigger opens up. I had one last spring, while planning the release show. This was before I broke my wrist. I had a minor surgery and was told to take one of the prescribed oxycontin, because the pain would be bad that first day. I took one to sleep, but it was a terrible mistake because that kind of medication doesn’t fit with me. I was feeling no pain but was completely neurotic. I left the bed at 4 AM after being awake for a very long time and laid on the floor, getting calm by lowering my body temperature. Instead of cycling on mundane thoughts, my mind was an empty black space. The colors were like the set design of Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade when they’re in the temple. I was walking down steep steps with a lot of vertigo and realized that I was inside an enormous fish – and that the steps were the fish’s spine. I mentioned religion before, and Biblical imagery regularly surfaces for me. As I continued descending, I looked up and saw the gargantuan ribcage of the whale/fish. In that moment, the shape of the concert was in my head and key images took hold that influenced the project. Some things changed, I went in a new direction with the acoustic quartets. But the initial impulse remained and carried me through the final weeks. I had never engraved a score before…

AH: Engraving was brutal for me when I started composing.

AW: I don’t have a value attached to the necessity of a score and there are versions of the material without one. But I had to push really hard because I wanted a score. At first I wrote pencil scores then figured out a way to engrave on my iPad with my Apple pencil, which is insanely inefficient. Getting ready for the concert I realized there would be over 100 pages of parts and that I needed software. 

Software is the last step for me. Anything I tried to do creatively once Dorico was open was game over. 

AH: Team Dorico!

In unison: Yes!!

AW: For what I’m doing, it’s the best option. 

AH: Same. What’s next compositionally for you?

AW: A piece that JACK is going to do as part of our Modern Medieval project.

AH: What’s that?

AW: Reimagined medieval music! Chris [Otto] has done several already, taking polyrhythmic structures developed by medieval composers and highlighting those. 

I’m reimagining Guillaume de Machaut’s Hoquetus David, which I love. There’s a crazy peppy recording, out of tune and raunchy – bawdy, even. Machaut takes melodic fragments and combines them in every way, which I’m going to blow up into a polyrhythmic layering. Probably including whistling and some JI chords.

AH: The works.

AW: Exactly. Beyond that, I have ideas on how to incorporate MIDI control into a bigger project building on the electrified body concept. 

AH: Can’t wait to hear it! Is there anything else about the concert or album that you want to share?

AW: I hope there’s room for struggle in the music, a fight with backbone that still wants to sing. In the end the quartet plays 4-6 voice harmonies, which feels like a chorale with a rhythmic structure.

AH: Do you mean ‘fight’ as in the character of the music, technical virtuosity, or both?

AW: Both. It’s in the seeking. For better or worse that’s part of what I find interesting in music – people who are pushing towards something. It can go in an unfriendly direction, which is not my intent. I want to make music that is inviting and challenging.

More posts from this author