Ethan Braun is a man of discipline. He embarks on his compositions by drawing up a set of rules for himself, and then follows them to the letter. It’s his way of bypassing his own thought processes and discovering what happens.
It can’t be a coincidence then that Braun’s work that was nominated for the Gaudeamus Award has precisely that title: Discipline. ‘I wanted to call it that as a reminder to keep on writing, to get away from any hang-ups I had. I’m against this idea of composing as a romantic struggle to channel some divine music, spewing out some likely overwrought thing. I just have to make certain rules, and to decide I will not do certain things and I will do certain other things. That’s it. A nice part about working that way is that it often seems to let in things that I hadn’t expected.’
In the case of Discipline, he tuned four guitars to the tuning of Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock and led them through a series of chords built entirely of natural harmonics and created according to the rules of counterpoint. Similarly, for The Semblance of a Garden, he wrote a short melody that gradually melts into overtones and harmonics, based on an acoustic analysis of the hall where it would be performed. ‘There’s a mathematical quality to it, which is funny because I was always terrible at math. But I like the simplicity of that kind of work. Having mapped something out keeps me from making unnecessary decisions. I’m too damned cerebral. Without some kind of line for myself to follow, I get lost in my own head.’
Before adopting his current rigorous way of composing, Braun found himself overwhelmed by the history of contemporary classical music. ‘I was down with everything, and that was my problem. I needed to stop worrying about, you know, if my harmonies are sufficiently microtonal or if there was a sufficient amount of noise in my music. There are all these ethos, it seemed to me, to which, as a young composer, I was very impressionable. As opposed to saying: now, I understand that they are there, but what kind of decision can I make given all of that?’
‘There’s this wonderful book by Raymond Queneau, Exercices de style, where he writes 99 permutations of the same, little, very boring story. The book simply demonstrates a series of possible options – the 99 different styles – no one leading to another. There’s a great sense of humor to working that way. Perhaps one doesn’t hear much humor in my music, though I’ve always found that having a laugh while I work beats out a lot of nonsense.’ Similarly, for Braun, composing is an exercise and a path of discovery. ‘It’s like something Luciano Berio once said, that the best analysis of music is another piece of music. Writing music as a form of study.’
‘Composing and the sound are a bit different to me. I’m always very clear in my head about the sound that I want. I had a sound ‘vision’ when I was sitting in a doctor’s office when I was 20 years old. It just flashed by and was gone. That was the sound, a sort of ideal sound that I needed to figure out how to make. And since then I’ve been trying to get there. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded at all. I’ve gotten a little better. But most of the work process has been finding a way to stop worrying about how I get to that sound.’
Photo © Anna van Kooij