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Gaudeamus Award 2019 Nominee

Stefan Maier

The Canadian young music pioneer Stefan Maier (1990) divides his time between solo electronic performances, composing and making sound installations. He writes acoustic works with the same explosive force as his experimental electronic music, but always keeps a strict eye on structure and form.

Maier, in his own words, “stumbled into the doors of the conservatory.” Playing in various grindcore and noise bands, he ended up in a course on composition where he was blown away by the music of the likes of Helmut Lachenmann and Pierluigi Billone. Moving to Berlin to work as the assistant of Rebecca Saunders for two years, he soaked himself in the world of German contemporary composed music. At the same time he went to clubs at night, “as one does in Berlin”, discovering experimental electronic music artists like Thomas Ankersmit and Maryanne Amacher: “The tactility of their sound completely consumed me.”

Influences from contemporary classical, sound art and electronic music blend together in his pieces, which are pregnant with intensity and overwhelming energy, making use of heavily amplified instruments, modular synthesizers and multichannel systems. “That persistent, anxious kind of energy, like something that’s continually vibrating and when you touch it, it transforms dramatically; all the material that I’m drawn to has that unruliness contained within it. What I always want is this feeling that anything can change at any given moment.”

Maier is fascinated by self-organizing electronic systems and the creative misuse of technologies. Walking the thin line between barely controlling a sound and accepting that it has its own inner life. As in his piece Territories III: “Somewhere near the end of that piece, a dog whistle is blown and the live electronics pick that up, resulting in this constantly modulating, high-pitched sound that from that point on is just there. It has a life of its own, irrespective of what the musicians are doing. I don’t control it anymore.”

In Territories III he fleshes out his approach to sound in a conceptual way as well, getting in a dialogue with the famous 20th-century classical pianist Glenn Gould and his radio piece The Idea of the North. “I was reading essays that Gould wrote about leaving the concert hall and focussing on recording only, which he did at the age of 31. For him that was a way of having complete control over his material, unlike the dynamics and unpredictabilities of a live performance. He believed technology would give him that. Nowadays, we’ve realized that technology is not just a passive tool; it’s an active agent. And I feel the same way about instruments.”

Recently, he has started to play more and more solo shows, to experiment freely with electronic sounds. However, he finds that he is still in between worlds: “When I play solo shows, usually I’m too academic, too prim and proper for the noise people. And then I’m too blunt for the new music people. I’m trying to find a middle ground. But what I still spend my time slaving over are these kind of temporal, formal aspects of composition and that puts me squarely in the traditional composer camp.”

When working with performers, it’s the difference in approach that appeals him. “What I’m interested in is creating a situation where the performer is discovering something new about their instrument and their habituated listening. If I cloned myself 20 times, I could just play my pieces with so much bravado and intensity and it would be great, but at the same time it wouldn’t be that interesting, because nothing new would emerge. But it’s difficult, because when you’re working with an ensemble you kind of have to start from the ground up in terms of cultivating an awareness of the specific material unruliness that I’m into. Because it’s not something that we’re taught in conservatories, the appreciation for unpredictable sounds.”