Annie Gosfield Writes Music for Heavy Machinery, Radio Static, Noisy Trucks — and Also Musicians


The whine of a violin evokes the high-pitched hum of an industrial saw. Drums beat a pounding tattoo, echoing the rumble of massive equipment. Composer Annie Gosfield‘s “Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery” transports the listener to the floor of a cavernous factory.

Composed for string quartet and percussion ensemble, the work contrasts sensory overload with moments of focused precision, as if honing in on the detailed task of a single worker. The 2001 work is characteristic of Gosfield’s style, which draws sonic inspiration from environments and experiences.

[su_pullquote]Tetractys Composer Portrait: The Music of Annie Gosfield
8 p.m. Nov. 23
First Unitarian Universalist Church[/su_pullquote]

Austin audiences have an opportunity to meet Gosfield and experience a live performance of “Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery” when local concert series Tetractys features Gosfield as part of their Composer Portrait series. Four of her works will be performed by members of the string quartet Invoke and percussionists from the Kraken Quartet. Gosfield will be on hand to discuss each piece and answer audience questions.

A long-time resident of New York City, Gosfield is visiting Austin as part of a residency at University of Texas, where she is teaching composition at the Butler School of Music. The Tetractys concert is just one highlight of her time in Austin. Since she arrived in August, her music has been performed by the UT New Music Ensemble and the new music collective Density 512.

With a career spanning three decades, Gosfield’s work blends recorded samples, electronics, and instrumental sounds. Although she has traveled around the world for performances, commissions, and artist residencies, many works in her catalog feel like a tribute to the urban din of New York, her home since 1992.

With a keen, curious ear and a penchant for collecting sounds, Gosfield views the bustling metropolis around her as an endless source of material. Much like composers who venture into nature to obtain field recordings, Gosfield records and compiles the sounds of urban life. Her 2011 work “Burn Again With a Low Blue Flame,” contains a sampled clip of one such recording, featuring “a giant noisy truck that siphoned water one block from (her) home on a windy night.”

The cacophonous soundscape of heavy industry is another strong influence. Gosfield’s “Detroit Industry: The Goddess Stamps Metal While the Blast Furnace Sings” transports the listener to a pre-WWII assembly line, surrounded by the clash of machinery and the rattling of thousands of metallic parts. Commissioned in 2018, the work honors Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” 27 giant panels that portray factory workers at the Ford Motor Company in the early 1930’s.

In a series of essays she wrote for the New York Times, Gosfield explained: “Some call it noise, I call it inspiration. It’s all raw material to me: the random banging of the radiator, a wildly oscillating car alarm, or the hypnotic churn of a cement truck. Other kids may have loved sing alongs and nursery rhymes, but my cherished childhood musical memories are of broken pianos, Steve Reich, audio collages, and the gentle static hum of a radio drifting out of tune.”

Despite her many years in New York, Gosfield has cultivated a connection with Central Texas since her youth.

“I already knew I loved Austin, because I had spent time here as a teenager,” she says. “My older brother, Lucky Oceans, is a pedal steel guitarist who was a founding member of Asleep at the Wheel. The Austin I remembered was Antone’s, the Broken Spoke, the Split Rail, Armadillo World Headquarters.”

So when friend and UT composition professor Yevgeniy Sharlat invited her to do a residency at the Butler School this year, Gosfield jumped at the opportunity. Although she still “sneak(s) out to a honky tonk now and then,” her time in Austin has been a peaceful respite from the bustle of the Big Apple.

“I managed to snag a very quiet cottage in Hyde Park and rent a car. It’s very pleasant and laid back, different from living in a walk-up apartment on a busy street in New York City,” Gosfield says.

“I’m fascinated by the supermarkets here — huge and cheap. I bought a comal and I’m loving the fresh tortillas,” she continues. “My life in New York feels kind of 19th century urban in comparison (if there were blaring sirens and police cars in the 19th century).”

At UT, Gosfield teaches a course for musicians who are both composers and performers. She also teaches private composition lessons at the Butler School.

“My goal as a teacher is to guide students towards finding their individual voices, while helping them develop the skill and knowledge necessary to create unified, cohesive work,” she says. “I try to emphasize the need for clarity in music, whether it means preparing a legible score, creating clear text or visuals in a graphic score, or developing a keen ear for electronic sound.”

Gosfield’s teaching approach draws upon her multi-faceted background — studying for a time at North Texas State University, then at the University of Southern California followed by playing keyboards in Planet Z, a Los Angeles punk band.

”My own varied experiences as a composer, improviser, band leader, songwriter, and electronic musician all come in handy,” she explains. “It’s great to have a wide playing field when teaching, as opposed to a narrow view of what’s allowed in ‘classical music’.”

In her New York Times essay “Advice to Young Composers,” Gosfield writes: “If you chose to study composition, spend your time in school studying what you can’t learn in a club or a garage.”

To Tetractys executive director Chris Prosser, the pieces featured in the Composer Portrait concert illustrate Gosfield’s broad approach to composition. Works range from “Long Waves and Random Pulses” which pairs violin with jammed radio signals, to “Daughters of the Industrial Revolution,” a tribute to Gosfield’s grandmother, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who labored in a New York sweatshop.

“We try to bring together pieces that have a good amount of variety,” explains Prosser. “We include some pieces that push the audience a little bit, some that are a little more easy to listen to.”

“Ultimately, these were the pieces that we really loved. If it resonates with us, then we want to share it with the local Austin public.”

After the Tetractys concert, Gosfield’s busy residency schedule continues. On December 5, she’ll premiere a work as part of the Butler School’s Electro-Acoustic Recital Series (EARS).

“I’ve been having a blast writing a piece for quarter-tone tuned Disklaviers (electric pianos). Mechanical instruments and player pianos have been a huge influence on me.”

Other projects include a commission inspired by the percussionist Z’EV, a piece for cello, and completing a recording of her opera “War of the Worlds,” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed simultaneously inside at Disney Hall and outside on the LA streets.

It’s easy to imagine Gosfield tackling these from the refuge of her Hyde Park cottage, stocked up on fresh tortillas and tapping away at a keyboard or tinkering with recording equipment.

“As a kid it was my fantasy to live here, so it’s wonderful to come back as an adult and be active with my own music, and see a different side of Austin.”


Dana Wen
Dana Wen
Dana Wen is a pianist and arts writer based in Austin, Texas. She enjoys writing about new music and helping audiences discover their favorite living composers.

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