October 15, 2012

After the Fire, Quarries Dynamited

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Katherine Young

Katherine Young, the Access Contemporary Music bassoonist who composed and performed a piece inspired by the Driehaus Museum last weekend. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

The woman The Wire called a “bassoon colossus” treated us and our visitors here on Saturday to live performances of a work inspired by the Driehaus Museum’s unique architecture and history. Katherine Young was one of four Chicago-based Access Contemporary Music artists who wrote and performed works inspired by individual buildings participating in Open House Chicago 2012.

After the performance, Katherine agreed to share her artistic vision with us here on the blog. And so, without further ado…

After the fire, quarries dynamited
for bassoon and fixed media

by Katherine Young

It struck me immediately when I first stepped inside the Nickerson Mansion: every surface—every square inch of wall, ceiling, and floor—has been attended to. In every room, distinct and expressive materials cover the surfaces. The number of different materials used to construct and decorate this mansion is remarkable (excessive?). The Driehaus Museum brochure lists a few: silk, mahogany, walnut, glass, Lincrusta, bronze, polished limestone, crystal, leather, shells, oak, satinwood, ebonized cherry, sandstone, and, of course, marble.

It’s not just about quantity, however. The materials used throughout the house offer a myriad of textures in their unrefined states. But these woods and metals and stones have not been left alone—they have all been touched and manipulated by elaborate processes and handiwork: printing, staining, welding, carving, molding, and shaping into distinct patterns. Many of these patterns and designs reflect the natural world from which their materials were mined, but it is a natural world that has been re-formed by human hands. Geometric patterns such as the tiling on fireplaces, as well as more fluid designs inspired by plants growth or natural folds of cloth, evoke refinement, symmetry, order, and wealth.

Although built and furnished with materials of the natural world, this building never lets its visitors, residents, or workers forget that it is man-made. Throughout the house, symmetry rules—to such an extent that the designers added false doors to maintain proportional appearances, and although most rooms contain a fireplace, only the one in the third floor sewing room is not perfectly symmetrical.

The diversity and wealth of physical materials and textures used in this house’s construction and decoration, as well as the very human insistence on symmetry and order informed my composition, in terms of materials and form. As I dug for more and different sounds to include in my sampled and instrumental palettes, I turned also to the history of the Nickerson Mansion, exploring through my sound world the intersection of the building’s material textures and details from its history.


Composer and bassoonist Katherine Young creates acoustic and electro-acoustic music that uses curious timbres, expressive noises, and kinetic structures to explore the dramatic materiality of sound, constantly shifting ensemble energies, and the tension between the familiar and the strange. Recent projects include a string quartet based on the opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, a premiere by Talea Ensemble, as well as commissions from Issue Project Room, choreographer Daria Fain, and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn. Katherine has documented her work on numerous recordings, including a 2009 solo bassoon release, which garnered praise in The Wire (“Bassoon colossus”) and Downbeat (“seriously bold leaps for the bassoon”).

As an improviser, Katherine has toured with Anthony Braxton, recorded with Hans Joachim Irmler from Faust and F.M. Einheit from Einsturzende Neubauten. Active collaborations also include: chamber music collective Till by Turning, the duo Architeuthis Walks on Land with violist Amy Cimini, and her quartet Pretty Monsters—which just released its debut full length. Katherine is currently a DM candidate in composition at Northwestern University, working with Lee Hyla, Hans Thomalla, and Jay Alan Yim.

For more about Katherine, visit her website, www.katherineyoung.info. For upcoming concerts, her blog is http://www.katherineyoung.blogspot.com.

The three photos above are all details of the Driehaus Museum’s interiors, by Steve Hall of Hedrich Blessing, 2008.

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