Let’s Ask Andrew Raffo Dewar
Here’s the first in a series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd. The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door. Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.
Andrew Raffo Dewar (b.1975 Rosario, Argentina) is an Assistant Professor in New College at the University of Alabama. He’s a composer, improviser, soprano saxophonist and ethnomusicologist. He’s studied and/or performed with Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Alvin Lucier, and Milo Fine. He has also had a long involvement with Indonesian traditional and experimental music. His work has been performed by the Flux Quartet, the Koto Phase ensemble and Sekar Anu. As an improviser and performer Andrew has shared the stage with a plethora of musicians worldwide, both the celebrated and the little-known.
As a member of his own Interactions Quartet, Andrew will premiere “Strata” (2011), dedicated to Eduardo Serón and inspired by the Argentine artist’s 2008 series of paintings, “La Libertad Es Redonda” (“Freedom is Round”). His description tells us that “Through a combination of improvisation and notation, performers negotiate several “layers” of written material, mixing and matching components that are eventually assembled into nested counterpoint.”
S21: You’re traveling quite a distance to premiere your piece at the Outsound Summit but it’s certainly not the first time you’ve been here. How did you become associated with the San Francisco Bay Area new music community?
I lived in Oakland for roughly two years (2000-2002) before heading off to graduate school at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study with people like Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. My first exposure to the Bay Area community was, if I remember correctly, a two-day workshop with legendary bassist/composer Alan Silva organized by Damon Smith at pianist Scott Looney’s performance space in West Oakland in 2000, which was an excellent experience. After that, I worked regularly — I think it was weekly — in a “guided improvisation” workshop ensemble at Looney’s organized by clarinetist Jacob Lindsay and guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and separate improvisation sessions with violist/composer Jorge Boehringer, which were both situations where I had the opportunity to play with many great Bay Area folks, like trumpeter Liz Albee and many others, which was wonderful. Around that time I was walking by guitarist/composer John Shiurba’s house with my horn, and he happened to be outside watering his garden. He asked me what kind of music I played, and I think the combination of the perplexed look on my face and my inability to answer his question easily is why we connected that day — he invited me in to chat, and when I saw a framed photo of Anthony Braxton on his mantle (whose work I’ve appreciated since my late teens, and who I’ve had the great opportunity to study and perform with) I knew I was “home.”
S21: What is it about our community, and the Bay Area members of your Interactions Quartet, which keeps you coming back?
For me, some of the most interesting and truly experimental music being made today is happening in the Bay Area, and I think it’s because there are so many artists doing their own thing, who don’t feel particularly bound to specific scenes, idioms, historical baggage, etc. I think Tim Perkis’s documentary, “Noisy People,” highlights that quirky and eclectic — but deep — community. Of course there is Mills College, which has been a magnet for decades, but there are also many inventor-types out there that are not only creating new instruments and technologies, but new ways of putting sounds together. I dont know, maybe it’s the open skies of that Old West “pioneer spirit” floating over the hills (or the haze of “manifest destiny”).
As far as this particular quartet of musicians I’ve assembled twice now, which includes percussionist/composer Gino Robair, guitarist/composer John Shiurba, and oboist/composer Kyle Bruckmann, we’re talking about young masters — who wouldn’t want to work with them?! Beyond my enjoyment in the strange and interesting timbral combinations possible with this group, each of those artists are singular in their approach to their instruments, and their mastery of music-making encourages me to work harder. As one of my other mentors, the great soprano saxophonist/composer Steve Lacy told me, the best way to continue to learn and grow is to work with people who are stronger musicians than you are, and that push you into new areas of exploration. This quartet has allowed me to take aesthetic chances, which is where I want to be.
S21: You’re going to be playing in your own ensemble. When you write your own part, does its future playability, by somebody other than you, become a consideration?
To be honest, 90% of my compositions at this point are only performed once, and those are usually the works I play on, so it’s not an issue. The other 10% that have been performed more than once are “future-proof,” written for anyone to play, typically in through-composed standard notation. I think I communicate a lot in rehearsals that isn’t on the page, and in the more graphically-oriented works I have “performance instruction” pages, so things are fairly clearly documented should anyone in the future want to work with the material — but I definitely compose for “now” and not “then.”
S21: I have been to hear your pieces before and looking over the players’ shoulders, I’ve always found some curious graphic on the music stand. And I know there is a visual art inspiration for your new work. How will you incorporate this element this time around?
I do have a fair number of pieces that use alternative or invented notation in different ways, sometimes on its own, sometimes in combination with traditional notation. I’ve also used photographs as structural devices a couple times. In my 2007-08 piece, “Six Lines of Transformation,” I used the visual idea of a palimpsest to create a compositional structure that is layered, erased, and transformed, but which has echoes of the previously sounded materials, and in 2004’s “Music for Eight Bamboo Flutes,” which was recorded in Bali, I used the imagery of dissonant crashing waves on Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra as the conceptual departure point to compose the piece — so there is something for me, I guess, in the use of visual/aural combinations for inspiration.
In this new work, entitled “Strata,” inspired by Argentine painter Eduardo Serón’s series of paintings “Libertad es Redonda” (“freedom is round”), I don’t use any graphic notation or images, it’s all standard notation, but I use his painting (number six in the series) as the organizing structure and inspiration for the piece, though not the image itself. The painting is a piece of concrete art that looks like an off-center, oblong bullseye with four rings, all using wonderful color composition. So, in a somewhat obvious act of translation, I’ve composed a series of 32 “loops” (4×2=8, 8×4=32) divided into four “layers” the four performers choose from, with each layer’s materials being introduced one at a time, until all four layers are in play simultaneously. Because of the bold, clear, and deceptively “simple” materials used in Serón’s painting, I’ve also decided to use “simple” elements — a diatonic scale, consonant harmonies, a somewhat consistent and regular rhythmic pulse, etc.
S21: I’m intrigued by the thought of “nested counterpoint” created from improvisation with written material. What system have you created to make the music resolve into that texture?
The neologic term (I think it is, anyway) I’m using here — “nested counterpoint” — is the way I’m conceptualizing the interactions between the four “layers” of composed material, beginning from a “center” layer and moving outward. You might also call it “indeterminate” or “stochastic” counterpoint, but in this piece, I think “nested” makes the most sense. Because the final form will be different each time it is performed, the structure is what Stockhausen called a “polyvalent” form — Earle Brown’s “Available Forms” being another example in this same tradition. Conceived of as four concentric circles like Seron’s painting, each layer encompasses materials from the previous layers, and all the loops have a formal relationship to one another. So, beginning with the smallest circle in the center, as you move outward, the lines become longer, and the earlier layers’ materials are “nested” within them.