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William Kuo

In his music, the Canadian composer William Kuo (1990) is concerned with the sonic integrity of sounds. He lets them slowly evolve over time or puts them in different contexts. Kuo strives to open the infinite richness of sound to renew the experience of listening: “The way you experience music is deeply related to how you perceive time. For myself as someone who loves music, it’s always really refreshing when you can experience different ways of listening. That’s what I hope to provide to other people as well.”

One of his newest pieces, Regulation (2017), is an example of that. “In the piece I used the sound of an audience cheering during a stadium concert. The piece is actually about the importance of context. That really is my main focus. With Regulation I’ve taken that focus on context out of the music itself, out of the parameters of music, and into a social context: music as a collective experience. In this case it is an experience outside of the western classical tradition. I have never been to a pop concert in a stadium, but it’s a fascination of mine. A part of me finds it interesting that it is an experience that I’ll never have as a composer. I’ll never be in a stadium where there’s a bunch of people singing along with my music, but I can contextualize something that I’ll never experience. In this piece an audience can listen back to another type of audience.” But Kuo’s goal is not to use the sound as an explicit reference per se: “The performers thought it was the sound of people screaming from fear, that they were running away from Godzilla or something. I find it interesting that it can be perceived that way. The sound of people cheering can be heard as the complete opposite.”

Regulation is the outcome of a new language Kuo is exploring since 2014. He decided to follow that route after his visit to the summer course in Darmstadt: “It had a profound impact on how I approached form and it made me listen differently. I am now less afraid of sustaining single sounds, letting them be for an extended period of time. It can take a while to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of a sound, its sonic integrity. You realize different things at the ten-second or ten-minute mark.”

The first piece Kuo wrote after his trip to Darmstadt was brim, veer (2014), a composition exploring different modes of time. “I had a lot of trouble creating global form and wanted to find a solution that would allow me to create listening situations that I couldn’t predict. I came up with a system that allowed me to construct the rhythmic blueprint of the piece, on which I would later map different sounds. In that way I could replace sounds but keep the same temporal relationships. I could change their contexts and experiment with the ways they relate to one another.”

Kuo’s search for this new language extends into the companion pieces geht auf wie eine Blume (2016) and flieht wie ein Schatten (2016). Both titles come from Martin Luther’s German Bible translation from 1534, intended for people to read the book in their own language. “Analogously,” as Kuo writes, these pieces are “a translation of my musical influences into a language I have yet to fully comprehend.” He is constantly exploring the boundaries of his compositional language and trying to find new words for his vocabulary: “I start with the sound world I’m looking for. Most of the time I begin with what I consider a compositional obstacle I’m trying to overcome. That can be something rhythmical, or how to organize time in my music, use instruments or incorporate sounds that I’ve never used before.”