Composer, improviser, and bassoonist Katherine Young takes an adventurous, creative, and extremely hardworking approach to her career. She seems at home in a variety of musical communities: from the DIY band scene in Brooklyn to the improvised-music scene in Chicago to the academic composition department at Northwestern where she now studies. To help me prepare for our interview, Young handed me an impressive stack of CDs. Most were released on small boutique labels; one cover was beautifully hand-stitched by Young herself. Each of the represented projects—Young as solo bassoonist, her improvising duo project Architeuthis Walks on Land, her rock/experimental quartet Pretty Monsters—has toured in the United States and in Europe.
Young cites Anthony Braxton, with whom she studied at Wesleyan, as a profound influence on how she has developed a body of work. “Working with Anthony was very influential in this ethos of how you see a project through,” she says. “He both demonstrated, and would explicitly say: you write a piece, you get it performed, you make a record, you tour it, and then you’ve done the project. You don’t write a piece, get it performed once, and call it a day. This comes from the idea of being a performer, and getting your music out in the world.”
Young’s approach to the bassoon, which is on fascinating display in her 2009 solo record Further Secret Origins, is as physical as it is conceptual. With this record, it’s clear that Young’s years of work as an improviser have led to a highly detailed and expressive map of the bassoon’s sonic possibilities. The percussive clacks of the keys, the multiphonic capacities of the reed, the resonance of breath—Young deploys these varied colors like a great orchestrator. Being an active bassoonist not only helps Young “keep [her] feet on the ground,” but also provides a place to experiment with sound. “Developing the sounds that I use on the bassoon, especially with amplification and pedals, is really informing my current interests as a composer,” she explains. “Teasing out these small sounds and making them big. Maintaining an active relationship with an instrument gives you a laboratory to explore sounds very immediately.”
In some of her current work, Young is experimenting with how extra-musical elements—like a collection of photographs, a poetic text, or even the opening scene of Once Upon A Time in the West—can be a “foundational part” of the composition process. In two upcoming large-scale collaborations with violinist Austin Wulliman and artist Deniz Gul, Young is experimenting with how to make these elements “not just this inspirational flash at the beginning of the process of composing, but rather, [something that] informs the whole piece.”
Her collaboration with Gul, a Turkish artist, is allowing Young to explore a long-standing interest in transcription. The piece began with a series of found interviews which Gul then transcribed into a poetic text and then used as the basis for a sculptural installation. Now, the installation will be the inspiration for Young’s improvised sound.
Although Young’s growing profile as a composer means that she is working more within traditional commissioning structures—including upcoming pieces for Northwestern’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, Spektral Quartet, Fonema Consort, and Distractfold—working directly with the musicians she’s writing for continues to be of primary importance for her. “I think the collaborative ethos of being a performer is still incredibly important to my process of composition,” Young explained. “Working closely with other people, involving multiple perspectives—a lot of my current work is very collaborative.”
For a composer like Young, who often allows for improvisation and somewhat open parameters in her work, this relationship is particularly essential. “Part of the goal for me is finding the right balance between specificity and openness, for whatever group it is, whatever the performance practice will be. When you’re working with a group of people, different structures and different specificity will work better than others.” In each project, Young is renegotiating the boundaries between performance and composition. “In some ways,” she says, “it’s just about getting to know people.”