There’s a new composer in town, and she’s already making her mark on the Austin music community.
Nina C. Young is a recently-appointed Assistant Professor of Composition and the Director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Texas’s Butler School of Music. The first woman on UT’s composition faculty, Young’s mere presence brings a welcome change in perspective to both the Butler School and Austin’s rather conservative classical music scene.
Tetractys Composer Portrait: The Music of Nina Young, 8 p.m. Nov. 3, Imagine Art, 2830 Real Street
At just 33, Young has already amassed a formidable list of achievements and awards, including a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Koussevitzky Commission from the Library of Congress, and the 2015-16 Rome Prize in Musical Composition (an honor she shares with such luminaries as Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter). And in only the time since the April announcement of her appointment, she’s netted prestigious commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University.
According to Young, the first thing she did when she arrived in Austin was streamline and update the four electronic music studios at the Butler School. Legacy analog gear — some of it more than 30 years old — was moved to a single room where it is available for students to explore, while redundancies in other systems were removed in order to make room for newer digital equipment that can connect to the computers more effectively. The next dream? A full 8-channel speaker ring for students to rehearse immersive surround-sound compositions.
Young’s passion for music is fueled by a desire to discover and experiment with new sounds. She completed her undergraduate studies at MIT, earning a degree in Ocean Engineering and while taking music courses on the side “for fun,” she remembers.
Yet she credits her composition mentors and the MIT Media Lab for opening her eyes to the world of electronic and computer-created music. It was while at MIT that Young found a way to merge her love of music and performance with her knowledge and appetite for working with technology, and the intersection of those interests has remained a consistent theme in her work.
Young describes her approach to writing music as like artmaking.
“(It’s) some sort of collaged sculptural transformation of the experiences that I’m having at that time and the things that are inspiring me,” she says. “It’s tactile.”
She experiments with a slew of instruments — some of them of her own invention — in order to finding the sonic colors that become the building blocks of her music.
Young’s excitement is infectious as she describes a new project where she discovered a way to convert a snare drum into a makeshift speaker by attaching transducers to the underside of the drum, leaving the performer free to use the top and “play with a robotic version of himself.”
Austinites have an opportunity to hear Young’s music live thanks to contemporary music presenter Tetractys. The show, 8 p.m. Nov. 3 at Imagine Art, is the third installment in the group’s Composer Portrait series that dedicates entire programs to the work of a single living composer.
Tetractys will play Young’s “Sun Propeller” (2012) for violin and electronics, “Memento Mori” (2013) for string quartet, and a completed scene from an opera that Young is still writing—”Making Tellus: An Opera for the Anthropocene.”
“Sun Propeller” draws its inspiration from traditional Tuvan music, and in particular, the unique sound of throat singing. The violin imitates the voices of the throat singers, playing a low drone with overtones resonating above it. “Sun Propeller” also incorporates the imagery of the scientific phenomenon of crepuscular rays, the beams of light that can be seen when sunlight passes through a break in the clouds; “sun propeller” is a direct translation of the Tuvan word for this natural marvel.
The first part of a yet-to-be-completed string quartet, “Memento Mori” came about as Young was reading a book on the history of the sundial. The artisans who crafted these timepieces often included a personal motto regarding the passage of time called a memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”) in their designs. The portion of the quartet that will be performed on Saturday takes its title from a momento mori that translates to “life flies on like an arrow, while it seems to stand still.”
Young uses this as a jumping-off point for both the creative and philosophical aspects of the piece. She borrows the first five notes of J.S. Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” stretching and layering them in different ways, freezing time within the music to focus on the tiny details of the harmonies and timbres.
“Memento Mori”’s emphasis on minute details within the music represents a broader invitation to the listener Young says, to “focus on what lives inside the sound.”
“If we invite focus, the smaller things become more interesting.”
Concertgoers will witness the more experimental side of Young’s work in a scene from her upcoming opera, “Making Tellus.” In what she describes as a word-finding game that’s “like a wishing well but you use rubber bouncy balls,” musicians work together in an improvisatory way to “forge” words as if for the first time.
Young has rigged various metal plates with contact microphones, so when a ball is bounced on them, a note is heard and a syllable simultaneously appears on a screen. Performers take turns bouncing balls and singing the partial words until they finally converge on a completed word.
Young’s music resides somewhere at the intersection of smart, whimsical, thought-provoking, strange, and new. It manages to tackle social issues and scientific questions while introducing innovative sounds seemingly for the pure joy of it. And with its focus more on sound rather than traditional melody and harmonic structure, it’s sure to provoke the same sense of discovery and exploration as it does for Young as she is creating it.