Josten Myburgh talks improvisation, collaboration

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

Perth composer Josten Myburgh, 21, reflects on his 2013 journey to Palermo in new piece ‘a window in Sicily’. The 40-minute work uses field recordings, electronic sounds, and notated and improvised electric guitar and will be presented in collaboration with guitarist Jameson Feakes at this year’s Tilde New Music Festival (January 22-24).

“Its structure is somewhat akin to a huge ‘map’ filled with mostly empty space, which is slowly navigated revealing the very distinct identity of the ‘place’ the piece inhabits,” Josten explains.

“It’s a very measured and patient work; often silent or still, with occasional upwellings. It’s taken us months and months to flesh it out, so I’m really excited to play it in what seems to be its final form.”

Josten, who last year completed his Honours in composition and music technology at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, acquired a Department of Culture and the Arts (Young People and the Arts) grant for his work. The emerging composer takes a minute to talk us through the necessity for collaboration, the process of keeping improvisation fresh at live gigs, and the benefits of participating in a festival.

 

What do you feel is the impact of having your new work heard in a festival environment rather than a standalone premiere gig?

I think it’s the context provided by a hyper-energised program and audience, compared to a normal one-off or regular gig. Your work gets the chance to be heard adjacent to art from different disciplines, to music from seasoned veterans of Australia’s contemporary music scene, and in the midst of a dense program that demands a lot from the listener, but which audiences have all prepared for and are excited to engage with. It’s interesting to see what is brought out of your music by this positioning, and what impression it gives amidst a fairly cross-sectional (in some way or another) view of contemporary music practice in a certain time and location.

Have you found these sorts of festivals function as good networking events for composers?

I’ve played a handful of festivals and conferences before. With the exception of one where I was only able to be around for one night, they’ve all been totally immersive experiences, which enables them to be ridiculously inspiring – though not always for the right reasons. I would say that Cable#8 in Nantes was the best I’ve been involved with by far with its varied, extreme program held in diverse venues across the entire city, whilst the International Computer Music Conference’s barrage of cerebral academic electro-acoustic music was more a wake-up call to the kind of music I definitely didn’t want to be making, sans some individual brilliances. Though, there was some outstanding music at ICMC, my individual tastes aside. These events are always hubs of very excited people gathering in one space around shared interests, which means they’re inevitably amazing at bringing people together, meeting fresh faces and fostering new ideas. They’re essential for showing how strong music scenes can really be and in drawing out the social energy in music that is essential to it arriving at new places.

What sort of opportunity do you feel a festival like Tilde gives to emerging composers, and do you think there’s enough out there in Australia like this to serve you?

I don’t think I like the term ‘serve’. If anything, we owe a lot to the people that put on these concerts and festivals through crowdfunding initiatives (like Tilde did last year) or even at their own expense to try and keep music in Australia diverse, alive and growing. A festival like this is another chance to direct and develop the course of new/experimental music down different courses, and for performers, it’s the chance to be a part of that. I don’t know if there are enough opportunities like this, but if you’re someone who has noticed a gap in representation in the music scene, or sees a niche that needs to be filled, find out whether others have noticed this too and let it be the impetus to building more opportunities like this. Let’s not wait to be ‘served’ – we are all in this together.

When did you first team up with Jameson Feakes?

Jameson and I studied at university together, but you don’t necessarily get a great impression of what people really want to be doing musically in an institutional context. So it took us about three years until we actually started working together after he played in my graduation recital. After playing improvised music in different groups together, we have more recently started to hone in on where it is that our interests cross over. After feeling clear enough on how our voices work together, this duo collaboration has really started to become a thing of its own, and we’re very excited with where we plan to take it throughout 2016.

We have workshopped the piece extensively for the last few months. This has been everything from trying something once and throwing it away, to rehearsing the piece (which is quite open) over and over til we know as much as possible about how we interpret it, and then throwing that away too. Now we’re finally at the stage where it’s quite finalised, in a state which has absorbed almost all of its past incarnations, and where we’re simply practising and fine-tuning it. Our history with the material has given the piece a lot of strength of character.

Why is collaboration important in composing new works?

It’s vital – I’m not interested in writing music for ‘the guitar’ or ‘the bassoon’, etc.. Every musician is a completely different person, and I want to write for that person specifically if they’re the one who will play the piece. I find creative processes where this doesn’t get a chance to happen at best a bit frustrating, and at worst uninspiring. This doesn’t mean that I think someone other than Jameson can’t or shouldn’t play ‘a window in Sicily’. But the process of creating the piece is imbued with Jameson’s perspective and it’s that energy produced through us interacting with the piece together that makes it something that neither of us could’ve made alone – it’s something more than both of us.

You have quite a number of gigs coming up in the next few weeks – do you find when you play events back to back, your improvisation forms patterns and in turn compromises itself? How does one prepare to perform improvisation and keep it original at every new gig?

Musician Keith Rowe once said: ‘When you go to hear a Haydn string quartet, there are no surprises, are there? In terms of newness. People listen for the exquisite exposition of the quartet. They have a Haydn-esque quality to them, they’re always Haydn’. He relates this to improvisation, saying embracing that there is ‘room for repeating something’ might be important and that we should not necesserily always be concerned with newness when a certain arrangement of people makes strong music in one particularly identifiable way. Inevitably, there will be things that pop up that I’ve done or heard before in improvisation. But I prefer to focus on the unique situation created in the particular context of a performance and try to make something that engages that uniqueness, rather than thinking about where the current performance sits in my overall trajectory. Even if two particular gigs end up being almost exactly the same, that in itself could be quite interesting – but I’m playing with a different line-up and different instruments and set-ups for each of my three improvised shows, so I think this will sort itself out.

 

For more about the Tilde New Music festival from January 22-24, click here. To check out Josten’s other gigs, click here.
Josten‘chronicle’ I. Josten Myburgh, 2014. Score for solo clarinet in Eb. From the composer: “This piece borrows its structure from the first two minutes of a video by an acquaintance of mine, Jon Poczciwinski, called The Chronicles of Pimple Joe (Part 1). This video be longs to a genre called YouTube Poop, which is defined by Professor Michael Wesch as consisting of ‘absurdist remixes that ape and mock the lowest technical and aesthetic standards of remix culture to comment on remix culture itself’. When performed, the piece essentially distils some form of order out of digital chaos. It returns the digitally ravaged video to the form it originated from, that being a single person communicating with an audience”.
JostenSleeping in the Undertow. Josten Myburgh, words by Josh Wells. Score for SATB choir. From the composer: “Upon viewing a concert by Bradyworks in Perth, the poet who wrote the text on which this work is based remarked that, despite his great familiarity with music that is experimental, improvised, confronting or unusual, he still found the guttural outbursts and strained multiphonics of Thomas Buckner to be quite a challenging listen (this was, of course, a positive remark!). I was in the process of writing this work, and figured it would only be fitting for me to ask the choir to read a line of the poem in this manner. Though it might seem disconnected from the preceding impressionistic sound world, I always felt that the impressionist movement was one of the strongest early statements of a prioritisation of sonority over function, which governs much of the contemporary music that I am interested
in”.
Josten
blessed, Very blessed. Josten Myburgh. Score for piano, contrabass, percussion, choir and electronics. From the composer: “When I was living south of the river last year, the uncompromising brick wall pictured on the cover page of this score is something I used to drive past whenever I was heading into the markets or the city. For whatever reason, I felt an attachment to its austerity; the unadorned façade, with no windows, doors, and (up until recently) not even any graffiti seemed surreal and in some ways signifying of the uniquely unglamorous/‘artless’ landscape of this suburb. Since noticing the wall, I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition of Joseph Beuys in Berlin and walk through the 20 tons of tallow fat that constitute ‘Unschlitt’, a series of sculptures cast from the useless corner of a pedestrian underpass – ‘a testament to empty space slowly being wasted’. My homage to the wall is my way of trying to look at a similar idea, passing through the veil of all of the memories that belong to this area which I now only visit to pick up things I left behind at my old home”.
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