Chaz Underriner’s main source of inspiration is not other music or art, but reality. His multidisciplinary works, with a strong emphasis on field recordings and video, have an effect on its audience that’s similar to the sometimes confusing and overwhelming multisensory experience that real life can be.
His ambitious multi-channel Landscape Series is an attempt to translate landscapes into music, based on his studies in the practice of mimesis. ‘I’m trying to change the idea of landscape from a two-dimensional static image to a multimedia experience.’ Underriner often finds its inspiration close to home, as in Landscape: Texas Plains, an ode to the highways of Texas.
‘Texas is a huge state. I don’t know how many of The Netherlands could fit into Texas, but a lot. And so these highways sometimes take about four and a half hours to cross. It’s very flat so you just have a very slowly changing landscape and it’s very hypnotic to drive. I’ve tried to write chamber music that evokes that same sensation.’
This does not, however, mean that Underriner’s motivations are purely documentary. ‘I’m very influenced by the magical realists in literature. Like how Haruki Murakami will set up a situation that feels like reality, and then add these mysterious, fantastical elements that are not explained. To my mind, nobody’s really done a similar thing in music or with intermedia art. If music deals with reality, it’s kind of secondary. There’s a gap there that nobody has really explored yet.’
Producing works that range from purely acoustic compositions to audiovisual installations which involve virtually no traditional notation, Underriner questions the borders between the composer and the media artist. ‘Well, I’m an American composer, which means that I can do whatever the hell I want, right? (laughs) For a long time I felt very uncomfortable writing notes. I was just focused on only sounds. Only now am I coming back around to feeling more comfortable with the abstraction of a note as a part of a piece, because it’s just an efficient way to communicate with performers. But from a creative standpoint I find it very problematic to only be limited to the notes. My focus is my conceptual framework. The medium itself is less relevant.’
Finding this focus has been essential to Underriner’s development so far. ‘I did my undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas and my master’s at the California School of Arts, both places where they have so many different specialities. African drumming, gamelan, animation, you can work with dancers, you can do experimental music, you can do free jazz… So the challenge was to focus on things that interest me the most. That doesn’t mean that in my life I don’t also do other creative things. I play some jazz, I do free improvisation. But for my personal creative work, I have to keep focused – kind of like a survival instinct, almost.’
For Underriner, being nominated for the Gaudeamus Award is a next step in his research. ‘I mainly want to get a response from audiences, musicians and visual artists about my Landscape works and how they experience them. To see if they’re really doing what I think they’re doing. Especially to an audience on a completely other side of the world, since these pieces are so steeped in a very local experience of landscape.’
Photo © Anna van Kooij