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Barely Dry Ink (1): Nyokabi Kariũki

During the many concerts at the Gaudeamus Festival 2022, multiple new works whose ink has only just dried will be played. We talk to a number of composers who tell us about the compositions that they have written for us. First, our programme assistant Niamh Leneghan spoke with Nyokabi Kariũki. Her latest EP peace places: Kenyan memories will be adapted and performed with the Cello Octet Amsterdam, Alev Lenz and Matt Evans on Saturday 10th September at TivoliVredenburg.

As a reminder that we’re still in a pandemic, I met with Nyokabi Kariũki over a zoom call whilst she was isolating in Berlin with a Covid infection. During our chat we discussed her new EP, the commissioning process and what we can expect at her Gaudeamus Festival performance this year.

New York based, Kenyan composer Nyokabi Kariũki set herself a challenge with her latest EP, experimenting with unexplored electronic techniques and field recordings. She has taken this challenge one step further when invited to translate this into a live performance for Gaudeamus festival. Prior to the commissioning opportunity, Kariũki tells me, she was unsure of how to approach performing her latest work live, and so she was very excited when Gaudeamus inquired about an adaptation for a string ensemble. Gaudeamus’ commission has enabled her to view the various elements of the EP from yet another, unexplored angle – by transforming the work to meet the dynamics of a cello octet.

On why she chose the Cello Octet Amsterdam ensemble to bring her compositions to life, Kariũki explains: “Eight cellos is loud and intense, but I love the cello and the range is so incredible. There’s something very delicate about this EP, so in a way I’m excited to explore that side of the cellos and see how I can balance the attack that they have with the softness that they can also produce.”

Much like the distinctly unique tracks on the EP, she tells me that when adapting for the cello, each piece also calls for its own approach. The versatility of the cello ensemble will be reflected through the various characters within the EP’s storyline, with some instances of fixed notation, as well as parts that call for more improvisation by the performers. To help tackle the cross-atlantic collaborative nature of the commissioning project, Kariũki has taken New York based percussionist Matt Evans on board, to allow for some live rehearsals in the lead up to the performance. This fixed element means that “once all locked in with Matt, then the octet can come and fit into that framework; I think that’s the easiest way to go about it.” Alongside the cello octet and percussion, Kariũki will play mbira and sing together with singer Alev Lenz, with the EP’s electronic soundscapes and field recordings shaping the performance.

As a result of the pandemic and the new compositional techniques she has discovered along the way, Kariũki tells me about her current ‘performance identity crisis’, now that electronics is a component of her expression as well. The introduction to using electronics for her practice happened while completing her bachelor studies in composition during lockdown, as she didn’t like the idea of only handing in pieces of paper for her final course: “It’s meant to be a performance! That’s what’s in it for you as a composer, to hear performances of your work. So, as a result I was just thinking about the medium of how the work is going to be consumed; that’s how I ended up gravitating towards electronics.” Expanding from this, she began making a sound journal with field recordings, and then created music or soundworlds around these recordings. This project led her to the concept for her latest EP, with each track based around different places and sounds in Kenya. However, since the creative process occurred at a time of restricted travel, Kariũki was transported from her bedroom to her native Kenyan places and soundworlds from old videos on her phone and stories from friends.

Even in regards to collecting field recordings, Kariũki takes care to be as authentic and natural as she can, reluctant to continuously mine her environment for material. In a relatable analogy, she compares this feeling to when she used to travel blog and create Instagram content: “At some point it became more based on what I was going to post being ‘instagramable’ and so even going out with friends, you’re thinking of what picture you will take. It got sort of less fun because of that and it felt weird to always see things as some sort of opportunity. So I sort of feel this way about field recordings as well; I don’t want to feel like everything is an opportunity to capture… If you get it you get it, if you don’t you don’t. It’s just whatever that comes.”

We are delighted to welcome Nyokabi Kariũki on her first visit to Utrecht and premiere peace places: Kenyan memories on the Gaudeamus stage, alongside Cello Octet Amsterdam this September!