This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Ash Fure is at a transitional point as a composer, she is currently exploring musical experiences outside of the concert music context. Something To Hunt is her debut album featuring select concert music that she's written over the past ten years released by Sound American accompanied by a book with extensive writings about her music from her collaborators. While this is her debut album, it reflects more of where she's been than where she's going. At the same time, she feels that the works featured on Something To Hunt give a glimpse into what she's striving for as a composer; she can hear her muscles flexing.
I GO BY ASH
Before we get into it, first things first. I’ve heard her referred to as Ashley and Ash so I asked which she prefers. "Folks close to me in my life have always called me Ash; it was only in my professional and academic life that people reverted to the 80s candypop version of the name. I've recently started trying to nip that habit in the bud."
Ash Fure has always been shrouded in a bit of mystery to me. This is largely because I’ve never heard her music live, which I should be clear has not been due to a lack of interest. But I’ve heard about it and read about it a lot before listening to her debut album. The general consensus from my perspective has been; you had to be there. That it is an immersive experience centered around community.
THE DIGITAL FORMAT
I felt that the works on Something To Hunt worked extremely well in the digital album format, that they weren’t simply a footprint of the performances, but a multisensory experience in and of themselves. But I haven’t heard them live, was I missing something? “What you’re pointing to is that for me the aim is always that really tactile and social experience of being together, that drives me,” says Ash Fure. “A lot of the works on Something To Hunt are somehow preparatory sketches in my mind; a place for me to gain a kind of muscle strength that could allow me to enact these more multisensory spaces.”
Part of the question regarding this album for me was ‘why now?’. I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to hear these works and the ability to revisit the recording in the future. But the framework of understanding Fure’s music as something that had to be experienced in person to understand remained. What changed? “This disc is coming about because Sound American and Nate Wooley in particular came to me and said ‘Ash, we want to put this out in the world’. Part of the reason I think I wouldn't have gotten there without that outside motivation is because I always thought of these concert pieces as a step toward the more immersive work I make now. They were a part of me gaining the strength and institutional resources I needed to make the work I make now, not an end in themselves," says Ash. “So I think I had a similar question to the one you're asking now - 'what would an album format feel like?' Once we started the recording process, though, I was hooked. I realized that for these earlier concert pieces, a bunch of crazy good microphones on crazy good musicians in a contained environment served them really well. I think headphones give listeners a really different invitation into my relationship to sound - which stems from tactility and hyperproximity. When I compose, my hands are on things. The sounding bodies are three inches from my ear. At that scale, that closeness, there is a vitality, richness and fragility in these sonic phenomena that is actually really hard to carry through a concert hall, even with amplification.”
MY LISTENING EXPERIENCE
This circled back to my listening experience. I was lying down alone with my good headphones on in the dark (my preferred album listening mode) and experienced the music as a body meditation. During the track Shiver Lung the breathing that marks the beginning opened up a space for me to subconsciously become hyperaware of my breath. I didn’t notice this until the end, when the bottom dropped out, and my breath joined the track and my heartbeat felt loud and spinning. The experience echoed one of my favorite activities, float tanks. Enveloping, intense and womblike. And I don’t think it would have been the same experience in a concert setting because I was more relaxed at home and heard the works as Ash intended in the recording. Paying attention to where things resonated and getting interested in their sensations is where a lot of fascination was held for me.
I brought up these general observations in my conversation with Ash Fure. “Headphones are an intimate experience, they get the skull into the amplifications of the sounds. The sound passes through the body in a really different way than when it’s coming just through the air,” says Ash. “They offer a different kind of physicality and as you say, stripping away the visuals of a string quartet sitting on a stage might allow folks even deeper access to focus and microdetail. This, again is why the earlier concert pieces on this disc take better to an album than my more recent work, where the physical movement of the performers and their visual choreography are really integral to the sonic phenomena.”
The deep embodiment of sound points to the threads connecting the concert music featured on Something To Hunt and Fure’s current projects. But there are distinctions. “This is a part of the quandary right now. It’s a part of my practice that I’m trying to figure out; in many ways I feel that the multisensory work I do now is more inviting, generous and accessible because it offers all of these ways into the experience. In concert music, if you feel like you’re invited into the space of contemporary music and have gone through the confidence barrier that a lot of those concert halls put up then I think you can get a lot out of it. But there are a lot of barriers of entry to the sound that happens inside of a concert music format. At the same time, it’s really hard to document site-specific work. So it has this other edge which makes it more exclusive in its ephemerality. I’m working on it and figuring out how to bring that work to as many people as possible.”
SOMETHING TO HUNT
Ash Fure feels that the works on Something To Hunt chart her own compositional evolution. The most recent project that she did before COVID-19 was a huge show in Berlin in January 2020, which was the culmination of a year’s research there. The research involved the 3-D printed megaphones that Ash developed for Filament with Matter Design. Over the course of her year in Berlin, Ash cast a group of performer-collaborators to work on three large projects with her. “Some were singers who could move, some came more from the performance art world. They all had a body awareness and an understanding of proximity; this real ability to attend to the energetics of the room and to consider that an orchestrational factor. That kind of body awareness I had been really hungry for coming through the classical music world. A lot of the virtuosity that’s built into that conservatory training...it’s just not the kind of virtuosity I feel like my practice needs right now. I’m really trying to open my soundworld to performers who carry other kinds of intelligences and other skill sets into the experience,” says Ash. “That means changing the way I’m notating and thinking about time and texture. It means finding custom instruments. Those sub-woofers that you hear on Shiver Lung...you don’t need to be able to play Bach on marimba to excel at those. They require a lot of engagement but they don’t require that barrier to entry that a lot of the earlier work I made or a lot of contemporary music requires.”
Ash and her collaborators performed a version of her new piece in July 2019 and the full version of the work in Berlin in January. The July 2019 performance took place in a gigantic water tank in Berlin. “It’s like concentric cylinders of massive brick. Even without the megaphones there’s an 18 second reverb in there. With the megaphones it’s super surreal. So the crowd came and moved through. It was this whole choreographed sonic architecture; that version of the piece was called High Rise,” says Ash. “We did a full version of it in January (2020) at CTM Festival in Berlin. At that festival I was performing on subwoofers live, it was in this iconic venue Berghain. It has the greatest sound system literally on the planet. I was there performing on subs and the megaphonists was dispersed all over the warehouse space interacting with the crowd and as we got ready to start the piece they slowly coalesced on the stage with me and the thing started. Those megaphones do this thing we’re talking about of sending sound straight to the skin of the audience. They’re super directional so even if you’re 15 feet away if you’re in the stream of the bell it feels like the voices are right there. They were distributing the connection from a distance out across the crowd.”
DIFFERENT KINDS OF INTELLIGENCE
Making music accessible to performers isn’t something that I’m currently hearing a lot of people talking about. There’s a tradition of it, Oliveros comes to mind, but Fure and Oliveros use sound and time very differently. “It’s not just an act of service. It’s really for the work. I need other types of intelligences, intuitions, experiences, histories and wisdoms. I’m working on another big show right now, also with Lilleth Glimcher and we’re really thinking about different tiers or orbits of performers. I’m working on different ways that I can communicate with these different groups of performers distinctly. Oliveros is a great reference and somebody whose work I respect deeply, but there is still a temporal architecture that I’m making in these bigger pieces. There’s a structure to the experience. It makes it trickier actually,” says Ash. “How do I find the openness I need to invite spontaneous energetic encounters to emerge and still do with sound and time what I want to do with sound and time and what I want to do to the audience. So far my solutions have been multilayered. There's something holding the temporal architecture, and that acts as a scaffolding on which the performers can climb and play. In Filament, the conductor and the scored orchestra holds that structure, and the megaphonists are out in the audience performing a series of textural fields that are in sync with the orchestral material but can be deployed live, off book, and away from the baton of the conductor. In Hive Rise, myself playing live and the electroacoustic score were the scaffolding that held the 45-minute long form and on that these performers could just play and be alive in the spirit of the piece with these material tools we had given them to draw from. The hope is there’s enough room for them to have agency without the power dynamics which are commonly in place with notated music.”
I had planned on asking Ash about the relationship between her music and the words that describe it before speaking with her. I was particularly interested in speaking with her about the perception that music which veers from tonal language can evade description. “For me there’s a link between certain syntactic structures that come with scale based music where you think about motives and phrases,” says Ash. “You can point to modulations and such. I try to get at a different kind of embodied listening that doesn’t invite that type of language and analytical listening. So there’s a little bit there too when I say that I’m trying to frustrate language. It’s about complex timbres and morphology, syntax requires space between bits or silence between words. A lot of the things I make blend and bleed from one thing to the next and they don’t quite let you name a beginning and slice an end.”
Ash Fure’s music evades scale based descriptions but when pondering structure in her music, look to Beethoven. “I’m really interested in what sounds can do over time to a body, to a mind, to a space,” says Ash. “And there’s something kind of Beethovenian about that; that drama and architecture.”
We get a sense of that architecture listening to this momentous album, released by Sound American. “I want to say I’m really grateful to Sound American,” says Ash. “It’s a little funny to me, this album right now. In some ways it’s taken me a long time to crawl my way out of concert music. I’ve really had a hunger to work in a more multisensory scale for a long time. I’m in transition, I aspire to be in transition for my entire life. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care for the collaborators deeply who helped me make this earlier work. You know? They helped me learn something so specific.”
OPENING UP TO THE WORLD
I pointed out that she kept saying that she moved to the multisensory but I would argue that this album, even as an audio recording and perhaps even more so than the concert version, is a multisensory experience. It’s very embodied. “I love that! And in some ways these pieces are a microcosm of the macrocosm I aspire to. It’s all in there, you can hear my muscle working and you can hear it all coming together,” says Ash. “I see this album with love, even if it’s more of a retrospective than a statement of where I am now or where I’m going. For Nate and Sound American, I think it’s an act of generosity for them to share this music with the world. Like you said, to make it more accessible for those who haven’t heard it live, and that’s the spirit that I want to open it up into the world with.”
Ash Fure’s practice sits at the nexus of experimental music and experiential art. Described by the New Yorker as “staggeringly original” and “the most purely visceral music-theatre outing of the year,” Ash’s full-bodied listening environments offer space for social reckoning through the political, poetic, and erotic multiplicities in sound. A finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Ash also received a Lincoln Center Emerging Artists Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rome Prize in Music Composition, a DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Prize, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant for Artists, a Fulbright Fellowship to France, a Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship from Columbia University. Notable recent projects include Hive Rise: for Subs and Megas (2020), a migratory performance installation premiered at Berghain/CTM; Filament: for Trio, Orchestra, and Moving Voices (2018) commissioned by the New York Philharmonic; and The Force of Things (2017), an immersive installation opera that wrestles with the rising tide of eco-dread around us. Ash holds a PhD in Music Composition from Harvard University and is an Associate Professor of Music at Dartmouth College.