William Brittelle is an American composer whose music draws from multiple musical traditions, with pieces spanning orchestral works, genre-defying art-songs, and a broad catalogue of electro-acoustic music. In addition, he is co-founder of the post-genre record label New Amsterdam Records. leoemercer speaks to him about post-genre music, the rate of change in life and music, and developing a hyperpersonal style.
How did your record label New Amsterdam begin?
I used to be in a rock band, but I blew out my voice and so came back to composing. I worked on Mohair Time Warp, which I wrote over a two year period, drawing upon many different musical worlds. When I was finished I didn’t really have an outlet for it. I’d met Judd Greenstein at a NOW Ensemble concert, and we immediately connected. He told me that he’d started this community-based record label. We started talking, along with composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, and over dinner a while later we decided we wanted to launch something together. We relaunched New Amsterdam on January 1st 2008, made a more formal business model, hired a publicist, worked on distribution. It was initially more of a communal organisation, and we have gradually transitioned into more of a traditional business structure.
Are the three of you still very much involved?
We’re still co-artistic directors, so we help guide artistic decision making. But we have a new executive director who’s head of the business side and the non-profit side, and then we have a label manager who runs the record label, and a development manager and a few other people. So our role these days is more artistic.
Do you miss that? Or are you happy to focus just on art?
With any of the art I do, especially the more ambitious projects, there’s always an element of administration. There’s almost always an element of administration to any art that’s worth making, because it doesn’t fit immediately into a set of available resources. I don’t feel a strong divide between art and administration in what I do, it feels like a spectrum of activity. Of course making art can be more fun at times, and it can be more stressful. I like having a mix of work, but try to approach all of it as being interconnected.
There’s almost always an element of administration to any art that’s worth making, because it doesn’t fit immediately into a set of available resources.
There’s a focus now on the idea of entrepreneurship in music, as if that’s some sort of new concept. But I feel like composers have always done this. You fight for the right to do your music your own way – not because you want to go into business, but because your art guides your process and you want to do what’s required to represent the music in the way you believe it should be represented. That’s what drove Judd, Sarah and me to found New Amsterdam – we didn’t feel as though we had this outlet yet.
There’s a weird paradox in that: you create a space for other composers, but that means those composers don’t have to do that administration that implies they’re thinking outside the box themselves..
That’s true… I hope what we’ve created is a platform, an area of support, for people to go on their own journey. A lot of our artists have their own nonprofit institutions. They do a lot of work on their own, and we can only provide a certain kind of support for people as a record label. But it’s nice to know that at least you’re not wandering through the desert by yourself, especially because with this kind of music it’s not easy to get grants but it’s also not commercially viable. You end up in this nether region.
What are your favourite currents from the catalogue?
The Will Mason Ensemble record Because of the Huge Night seemed to flow under the radar, but I think it’s pretty fantastic. We have a new artist – Amir ElSaffar – who’ll be releasing something next year. He’s a jazz trumpeter with really varied influences, I think his music is really fantastic. I feel really excited about everything that we’re doing. I just feel proud of all of them as they all represent people trying to say something really hyperpersonal with their music.
‘Hypersonal’ is interesting – your music does sound like as it has a unique, personal range of influences. Is there something that draws you to making music which is hyperpersonal?
For me, school was a massive struggle. I dropped out of composition grad school, in large part because there was this external expectation that music was supposed to go a certain way. There was the hierarchy of ideas, this notion of high and low, of certain things being allowed and others not. I grew up in the south (in America), in a very small town. I wasn’t even aware of the presence of the concept of high culture. The music that was meaningful to me was hair metal, and a lot of stuff that was later treated as completely out of bounds and a joke. And that started to bother me – I felt as though I was in some ways judging who I was when I was younger. It’s not to say that hair music is a massive influence, it’s just that the idea of making quality judgements because of style feels really disturbing and elitist to me. Music serves its own purposes. Classical has its own ritual – sitting down, listening attentively. Rock and jazz do too. I don’t consider myself a classical, rock or jazz musician – I’ve spent so much time in those three different worlds, so I do all three. It would seem crazy to me to approach it any other way than to be honest to who I am and what my influences are. My last record was read sometimes as a classical artist saying you should be allowed to have synths or EDM influencing classical. That wasn’t my intent. I just want to create something that is honest. It’s not just my intention to mix genres – that’s looking at things backwards.
Is trying to be inclusive of as many genres as possible as a sort of methodological intention now?
It’s more… it involves a lot of meditation, trying to get beyond that conceptual impulse. I think it’s tempting to think about what’s happening in music – especially classical – in terms of what’s taboo, and to try to target that. But to me that’s really dangerous. That’s a place I’ve written from in the past, and I don’t wanna write from any more. In order to say something that is really meaningful – to communicate an emotional message that really hits home with people – I think it’s important to get at the deeper emotional motivations for what you’re saying musically. I don’t think just creating a genre clash as an aim is necessarily an effective way to communicate a deeper emotional message. But if there is a genre mix that happens on your journey to that emotional message, that’s great.
I’m teaching a class on post-genre music at the moment and been trying to articulate a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking about genre. I feel like generally people are underestimating the effect of the rate of change, especially technologically, and what happens when you give people the opportunity to expose themselves to all kinds of thought, art, music at any point in time. We have access to any kind of information instantaneously and the effect that’s going have on our society and the arts is going to be very extreme. Right now I feel classical musicians (and musicians more generally) are still trying to to contextualise these ideas in the framework of genres, trying to put work that’s created into artificial constructs that maybe sort of did work once but now completely don’t work at all.
…people are underestimating the effect of the rate of change, especially technologically, and what happens when you give people the opportunity to expose themselves to all kinds of thought, art, music…
Are there any traditional genre forms you want to do? It feels like your work tends to arise naturally out of the things around you in a nontraditional way.
I guess my answer three or four years ago would have been orchestral music, and I’m very lucky to have been writing a lot of that since, and I love it. But now that’s happening, that’s it – I don’t have a desire to write a percussion quartet or wind quartet. I did just write a solo violin piece for my friend Michi Wiancko, and I’m pumped about that – it’s different as I know her closely, and it’s more about exploring that personal relationship with her.
What was the idea behind your piece for string quartet and electronics called Future Shock? Why did you call it that?
I’d read a bit of Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock. I didn’t really love it, but I was drawn to the concept, that when things in society begin to move too quickly, people begin to lose the ability to process change, to navigate it, and you start to feel helpless in the advent of newer technology. I also wanted to write something that was more aggressive rhythmically, partly because I was feeling more aggressive emotionally – I was feeling the desire to really stretch my chamber writing more. A string quartet is a good opportunity to that. People know each other. You can get away with stuff you can’t in a larger ensemble.
It’s got a drive, a momentousness – there are few pieces of classical music that make you want to dance, but this…
It’s funny you say that. I cannot not-move when people play it, especially when they have really rehearsed it, and are digging into it. It feels very strange to sit down.
Do live performances of your work look like a normal classical concert?
I don’t think this piece has ever been performed in a conventional classical setting! Maybe the Kitchen in New York is the closest, but even that is more of a black box theatre. But it’s also in a circumstance where people were sitting down. I can think of one performance by JACK quartet where we were in a club. That’s one of the challenges – there aren’t venues that are made specifically to represent this sort of music in the way that there are venues to represent rock music.
What would be the ideal venue for this sort of music?
The sound would have to be good. Definitely booze. Some sort of communal experience. But at the same time there’s a lot of nuance to the music and I wouldn’t want that to get lost either.
If people were talking would that upset you?
I don’t know. I guess it would. I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t care that much. I would care if they weren’t paying attention, just because i think being bored is the worst thing an audience can be. But if they were talking about how much they liked the piece…!!
Your music for the environmental documentary The Colorado – How does that work? What is it composed of?
With Shimmering Desert, all the text is sampled from old promotional videos advertising the Salton Sea, chopped up and processed. But it is performable live. There is a tape part with it. And other than the text sampling, everything else is live triggered electronics. One thing I did here was create mockups of the vocal parts using synthesizers, and the choir would work to emulate that sound. Then in Colossus, the piece about the hoover dam, there’s no sampling. It’s all live text, and no electronics, along with a processed guitar.
Do you feel that there is a trajectory you’re following as your body of work grows?
It is what it is, but if I had to guess, it’s more of a pendulum. It’s opening up to new things, then seeing those things sort of melt and becoming less referential of existing styles. With Dream Has No Sacrifice, that was in part about trying to be open to things – I felt as I was writing that in order to tell the story I wanted to tell I had to push further and further out into more extreme worlds. But in the project I’m working on now, it feels much more about creating a sound world of its own, one that’s less referential, and in which the language is more focussed and has a clearer narrative to it. But I’m also getting more interested in creating experiences, as opposed to recordings or performances. I’m interested in sensory deprivation and mind-altering substances of various kinds. I feel like I’m going in a more immersive, experiential direction.
I was going to be recording something this spring, but I’ve now decided I want to write it for sensory deprivation tank instead. These are basically tanks where it’s completely black, quiet, and filled with salinated water that you float in. It’s enforced extreme meditation, and takes on psychedelic qualities. Your body starts to acclimate to having absolutely no sensory input – it’s almost like lucid dreaming, or hallucination, or a psychedelic drug. I’m really interested in presenting music in this situation, without thinking about what’s on your phones, or whose sitting next to you. Pre-recorded for surround sound, never performed live, written for the experience in that environment.
I think you can get away with some things musically in that careful listening environment where you can’t escape what’s happening. The project I was working on was called Alive In The Electric Snowdream, and is about the apocalypse. I was working on this music and it made sense to me – but I kept playing it to people and it made no sense to them, because the rate of change is so fast. It’s like twice as fast as Dream Has No Sacrifice, moving from idea to idea so quickly. Each piece is only like 1-2 minutes long, it’s kind of like post-genre Webern – so fast and pointillistic! Even my wife said she has no idea what this is.
But I’m pretty convinced there’s something there if I can find the right circumstance. I feel there’s this impulse in post-genre music about putting things in a club. But I feel just as disgruntled in a club – I don’t like standing in clubs for 2 hours, and I’m not a massive drinker. What I want so desperately is for music to provide connection to a deeper reality in a way that helps us de-conceptualize the way we experience the world, and connect to something larger and more basic. I’m finding that more and more difficult to do in either a club or classical hall. I think that’s in part because of the nature of the material I’m doing, and the pacing of it is really different to the pacing we’re used to in those environments.
What I want so desperately is for music to provide connection to a deeper reality in a way that helps us de-conceptualize the way we experience the world, and connect to something larger and more basic…
How’ve you found your reception of your work? Would you like more recognition?
I think earlier in my life it was really important – but at this point, what’s important to me is having a platform to say what I want say in the way I want to say it, and to the degree that’s possible I’m satisfied. I feel I’m in a big transition right now compositionally from existing in the world of opportunities that are presented to me, to creating the opportunities I want to have. No one is exactly coming up to me to say “We want to commission you to write a 30 minute piece for sensory deprivation tank!”. I feel like I’ve been on the road, people have been really nice and generous, and there’s a right turn coming up and it’s time for me to take that turn. It feels inevitable. I remember reading about Schoenberg when he realised he needed to do 12-tone music, and there being a sense of inevitability. This comes from realising that I’m losing faith in both the album and concert as format. Also, I need more visual components – I want to work with dance, I want to work out in the desert and make art in locations where people have to journey for four days to where the art is presented. Doing art that way could end up being terrible for my career or it could be great, I’ve no idea. But if I’m trying to represent what I want to represent emotionally I really have no choice. My priority is just developing support for what I want to do. For whatever reason I don’t feel particularly concerned with critical response – whereas I used to be very sensitive to this. Its great to get a great review, but it’s more meaningful to have a conversation where someone is having an emotional response.
Do you see this moment as comparable to Schoenberg’s?
I don’t mean to compare the effect of his journey to the effect of mine – even if mine turns out to be poignant, it will be poignant in my own music, not in the story of capital-M music. Music is so splintered right now, and the days of someone making a decision about what they’re doing, and that having huge ramifications across the whole world of classical music – that feels egotistical to me. Also, the idea of classical progress has ended, and the idea that it’s getting better. It wasn’t getting better or worse, just more complex, and more conceptual. I’m really into the idea of not really approaching it that way at all.
Maybe it’s because your music is so changeable that you don’t have to worry about that anymore – now you can worry about other things?
My relationship with approval changed when I had a family. I used to have a really extreme approach, like an emotional void that was vulnerable to approval of what I was doing artistically. It was as though if I had approval I’d have a more meaningful relationship with the world. Now I just need the opportunity to say what I want say musically. Anything else beyond that is just icing. In part, honestly, when I made Television Landscape, that was the end of that. When I listen to that, I like the music, but it’s a document of who I was at the time, and how I felt like music had to be a vehicle for emotional meaning in my life. When I was writing that music I was thinking a lot about “what are people gonna think about this”. I wanted and needed that to be successful from a critical standpoint – when that didn’t happen in the way that I wanted it to, I was forced to reckon with that. What’s the point of making something to get that certain response if that response is out of your control? I recognize that the decisions I made in the making of that record to make it more popular were decisions that actively made it less unique and less meaningful. In the original Batman, the joker falls in this big vat of acid. It turns his face into a clown face, and in order to look normal he has to wear normal skinned make up. That record was like that – I was putting on People-Makeup to make what I was doing more palatable. In school all my teachers were very aggressive about the way my music moved from one idea to another, and I would never develop themes in any way. I had no desire to take a theme, invert it, turn it backwards, etc – it just wasn’t my language. So I feel after trying to do that and putting everything I had into my project in human facepaint I’ve given that up, and it’s very freeing. It takes the risk out of it. I don’t need it. I’m not trying to fulfil an emotional need. And that means there’s less control in other people’s hands.
Are there other people who you feel have the same musical impulses as yourself?
One composer I’ve worked with doing some arrangements is Oneohtrix Point Never. I’m a huge fan of his music and him in general, and feel a real kinship to way he puts music together in his composition style. He has no bounds to what music he’s able to string together into a narrative, but it always feels like there’s an emotional core to what he’s doing. It’s never “he’s just doing that for the hell of it”, there’s always some sort of driving purpose. And I feel the same way with Arca. I haven’t had a chance to work with him, but I did write a three movement piece called Love Letter to Arca for the Seattle Symphony! Also, Sarah Kirkland Snider. Especially for my current project of electro-acoustic pieces, Spiritual America, I find I’m turning to her music a lot as a guide. She’s able to create album-long emotional worlds that are intoxicating, strong emotional thread, step into the space.
Lastly, I read somewhere you write poetry too?
I always have. My music has always had that component. Mohair Time Warp was all based on poetry I had written. Usually when I have writer’s block I just write poetry. I had 2 years of writers block before Dream Has No Sacrifice so I just wrote poetry, basically a whole book. I find before I work on a big musical project I’m writing a lot of text beforehand, and that tends to inform what’s next.
What does it read like? Is it a word-version of what you do in your music?
Yeah! Its called Spectral Peaks, those moments where you experience this alternate reality in the flow of your everyday life. I really love writing poetry, especially compared with orchestral music which has so many different layers. There are so many steps to the process of getting it performed, and even afterwards it doesn’t feel like the definitive experience. With poetry you write it and edit it and it’s done and it’s simple – there aren’t musicians asking you where the parts are!
For more information about Brittelle and his music, please visit his website.