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Composer Portraits: Ashley Fure

Born in 1982, Ashley Fure studied at Oberlin and did her graduate work at Harvard, where her principal teacher was Chaya Czernowin. She received her first professional commissions while still a master’s student, writing both Inescapable (2005) and Susurrus (2006) for eighth blackbird, the latter work already characteristic in its close interweaving of instrumental and electronic sound, as also in its vividness of gesture within what one could call almost literally a “body” of music—an entity with its own shape, substance, and corporeal feel. The piece had several early performances, not only in the U. S. but also in Europe, where Fure attended various courses—notably at IRCAM in 2008-09 and 2010-11. There, she produced Wire & Wool for cello and electronics, which is the earliest piece on tonight’s program, and Tripwire, an interactive gallery installation created in collaboration with the French video artist Jean-Michel Albert. Among works on a larger scale from this period, Cyan (2009) was her first orchestral composition, written for the Marquette Symphony.

Several of Fure’s most recent works are being played tonight, but also notable is Therefore I was (2012) for cello, piano, and percussion, in which the separate sounds of the instruments increasingly emerge from a constantly mutating agglomeration. Ply (2014), an almost hour-long work for electroacoustic music and dancers, choreographed by Yuval Pick, was a further IRCAM project and may be found on YouTube. Fure’s website offers a link to this and other recordings, as well as to score samples.

Since her doctoral graduation, in 2013, Fure has worked here at Columbia for a year and is now assistant professor at Dartmouth.

The notes that follow are the composer’s.

Introduction by Paul Griffiths

Something to Hunt for septet (2014)

i.     Think of a tiger first spotting its prey. The silence of it. The sudden singularity of purpose. Hair bristled, stomach to the grass, unbearably still, until: pounce.

ii.     Much of my work revolves around questions of compulsion and drive. What motivates a sound; what pulls it forward? Can we conjure, outside tonality, that inexplicable sense of craving that seems to tug ti towards do?

iii.     Questions of where to go and why haunt many in my ilk. We, the hyper-mobile, hyper-privileged generation, saturated with choice and yet raised without the bedtime lies of progress, truth, and tribal pride that guided so many before us. Our prey is pre-packaged; our gods are dead. So what do we search for? What do we hunt?

iv.     Something to Hunt is a timbral Shepard tone—a multidimensional but unidirectional thrust that circles back and pushes forth relentlessly, obsessively, until its end. Looking for something. Hungry for meat.

Something to Hunt was commissioned on receipt of a 2012 Darmstadt Stipendienpreis. It was premiered by Dal Niente at the 2014 Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, where it was awarded the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis.

Albatross for large ensemble and electronics (2014)

Sound starts with touch: air bumps air, hair rubs wire, fingers press and pull and pluck. And yet, classical instrumental technique tends to deemphasize the body behind the sound. One is meant to hear the melody, not the fingernails on the keys. Albatross aims to heighten this haptic source of sound. Gestures both heard and seen exaggerate the ensemble’s kinetic presence, drawing focus to the muscular act of music’s making.

Albatross was commissioned by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players for the 2014 Sweet Thunder Festival in San Francisco.

Soma for sextet (2012)

Soma is the second in a series of works engaging a specific psychological referent:  my grandmother, who had advanced Parkinson’s Disease. Despite its surface manifestations, her sickness was not muscular. Her body worked, her brain worked, but the method of passing messages between the two malfunctioned. She knew how she wanted to move, but she could not make her muscles move. She knew what her emotions were, but she could not grasp their cause. She lived inside a radical dissociation—a gap between intention and execution so extreme that the simplest of actions required inordinate effort.

This sense of disconnection pervades Soma. Aberrations in placement, pressure, angle, force, and speed interrupt the correlation between effort and audibility. Limbs wrench wildly where they should neatly sync. Sounds rasp and whisper as they stretch toward tone. The form slides between two aesthetic poles: one pulling the instruments toward exhaustion and stillness; the other anchoring their gestures to an anxious, aggressive ground.  

Soma was commissioned by the Alice and Harry Eiler Foundation on receipt of the Staubach Honorarium. It was premiered by Curious Chamber Players at the 2012 Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, where it received a Stipendienpreis.

Wire & Wool for solo cello and live electronics (2009)

In his essay “The Language of Flowers,” Georges Bataille discusses the twoness of things. Like the mouth, which both speaks and spits, all things have a rational, idealized use and a base one. For Bataille, nothing captures this tension between high and low like flowers, whose seductive upper regions mask a “fantastic vision of roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin.” In Wire & Wool, I explore this twoness in the cello. Mixing techniques that exploit the resonant capacities of the instrument with others that intentionally choke them, I treat the cello both as an elevated, aestheticized object and as a basic amalgam of wood, hair, and glue. Through electronic and acoustic means, I amplify the abrasion that occurs as hair rubs wire; as tuning pegs tighten and pull against the wood. While used to beautify the instrumental tone, these adjustments fatigue the bridge, fray the bow hair, and accelerate the material body’s natural decay. Throughout the piece, I foreground the scars left on the manipulated instrument by the creative act. 

Premiered by Florent Maigrot at IRCAM’s Espace de Projection on March 28th, 2009, Wire & Wool was the culmination of my first year of study at IRCAM.

Etudes from the Anthropocene (2015) World premiere

Many scholars and scientists consider the effect of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere so remarkable as to warrant a new geological era.  They call it: the Anthropocene.  

Etudes from the Anthropocene is a collaboration with my brother, architect Adam Fure. In it we stage a series of human/non-human interactions that explore issues of agency, labor, cause, effect, and the rhythmic shifting from oblivion to panic that marks our collective reckoning with the Anthropocene. Matter in this piece is cast not as a passive, inert substance at the whim of human control but as an active, vital force with its own trajectories and transformations.  Throughout the work, human and non-human forces tangle together, tune to each other and wrench away, in a play of push and pull, tension and release, construction and collapse.

Etudes from the Anthropocene is a distillation, in proscenium form, of a full-scale, immersive installation opera we are currently developing.  That project, called The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, will be premiered by ICE at the 2016 Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. 

We would like to thank Ross Karre, Levy Lorenzo, Ryan Muncy, Nicholas Houfek, and the rest of the incredible ICE organism for their insight, energy, and openness to this project.  It has been a true and enduring collaboration and we cannot wait for more.

Program Notes by Ashley Fure