The World of Eric Wubbels

I’ve come to this composer through the recommendation of a performer I admire. His name appeared on a concert programme, and being curious I looked him up. His website was a delight, and introduced me not only to a body of work and performances, but to a new community of composers and performers I feel ashamed not to have come across previously. His community is The Wet Ink Ensemble based in New York. It was established some sixteen years ago and now has a repertoire and recorded presence that is impressive. Even more impressive is the quality of their music.

Eric Wubbels - The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire

Eric Wubbels – The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire

All this aside I was attracted instantly to what I could see and hear of a composer’s work that showed a precise and highly inventive handling of timbre and pitch combined with a vigorous rhythmic energy. Listening to the video excerpt of a large-scale piece for violin and piano there was a joyful celebration of a very contemporary play of sounds that caught my attention from the outset. And I wanted to hear it again – immediately. The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire is a twenty-five minute duo that is a remarkable essay in the duet medium where both instruments are intimately joined together to make a vivid display of sounds and fused timbres without bypassing the musical interest (The only other work I have heard that comes close in sheer sonic invention is by Roberto Gerhard, his Gemini for violin and piano).

The title Wubbels has given to his duo is a good instance of how he often takes powerful background ideas to fuel his composition. It comes from The Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), the master work of the Japanese Sōtō Zen Master Eihei Dōgen (1200 – 1253). Musically, the source of the work lies in a cadence in the coda of a Brahms piano piece, what Wubbels describes as ‘a bizarrely symmetrical, contrary motion “wedge” shape that contracts from a perfect fifth to a perfect fourth and inwards to unison.’ His programme note continues, ‘In the context of this piece, the idea of the wedge (i.e. “>”) is converted to a neume that functions on every structural level of the piece, from global trajectories to micro-gestures and even physical motions for the performers. Additionally, the metaphorical implications of this shape (contraction, filtering, focusing in from a wide field to a single point; to stretch it further– tuning; further still— renunciation) structure the unfolding of the material over the course of the form.’ Taking a musical idea into transcendental territory has a ring of George Crumb, even Stockhausen. And on paper there are certain similarities present, particularly in adopting the notational elegance of Crumb.

It’s tempting to look at Wubbels’ CV and take note of his tutors and mentors. Tristan Murail is a traceable source of spectral influences, but Lewis Spratlan and Fred Lerdahl are both of an older generation. In his 70s and 80s Spratlan has become widely acknowledged for his large-scale choral and operatic work. Lerdahl is probably more well-known as a theorist than composer, although I have a score of his fascinating string quartet No.1 (one of three now recorded). Both these composers have had long associations with Columbia University where Wubbels studied. Furthermore his CV gives an intriguing list of influences that include Peter Ablinger, Anthony Braxton and Richard Barratt, although, to my mind, his music couldn’t be sonically more different. These influences are more about spirit and intention than musical mechanisms.

A good link with the violin and piano duo has to be Katachi, a collection of etudes for ensemble and electronics, a piece written expressly for The Wet Ink Ensemble. The title again has Eastern resonances, ‘kata’ meaning pattern or posture, ‘chi’ meaning magical power. There are six etudes in all in which the ensemble is put through what Wubbels describes as ‘a polyphony of gestalts’. The constraints of these postures give ‘a specific kind of acoustic fusion within the ensemble.’ Listening to this you begin to be aware of particular traits and hallmarks of Wubbels that are common to many of his works: unisons and parallel doublings, textural complexity narrowing down to extreme simplicity, short and very intense bars of multiple repetitions, multiphonics, spectral ‘almost-fingered’ string tones, and, most common of all, ‘chimera’ effects, the fusing of several different instrumental timbres into a single untangleable composite whole.

This notion of acoustic chimera shows the influence of a fascinating psycho-musical study by Albert S. Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis : the Perceptual Organisation of Sound. This book has also given the title to a developing series of Wubbels’ instrumental works. The first is a composition for 18 instruments, narrator and electronic sounds. This has The Wet Ink Ensemble at full-stretch, very much in the territory of Ensemble Modern as a chamber orchestra. I found this music quite compelling and immediately sought out a copy of the Bregman book from my university Department of Health Sciences where there were at least six copies. At over 700 pages it is a serious read, but it contains within in it the theoretical basis of creating sound and how sound is created and shaped in the world around us. Wubbels’ musical translation and appropriation of some of Bregman’s concepts is fascinating. Auditory Scene Analysis I begins with a virtuoso sequence of solos that gradually mask or ‘over-paint’ (to use the term Wolfgang Rihm has taken from Gerhardt Richter) becoming eventually sheer bands of noise. Wonderfully, this complexity is engrossing, which I can only put down to closely observing and carrying out some of the aspects of Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis.

Eric Wubbels - Alpabeta for piano duet and peercussion

Eric Wubbels – Alpabeta for piano duet and peercussion

Another work that owes something to acoustic research is Alphabeta for piano duet and two percussionists composed for the ensemble Yarn / Wire. Here, in Wubbels’ programme note, he describes an “alphabet” being defined by matching a limited number of percussion sounds with their piano “equivalents” (a low-resolution copy of the pitch content of the percussion sound, analyzed in software). He says ‘This flattening out of the richness of the percussion timbres into equal-tempered piano chords is for me both reductive (due to the extreme loss of information) and illuminating (as the connection between the two is actually perceptible, even so).’ The music consists of episodes that string these basic units together in a series of increasingly elaborate contexts, built on abstracted metaphors of “song,” “speech,” and “music”. It is a compelling and surprising piece.

Eric Wubbels - Shiverer for flute and piano

Eric Wubbels – Shiverer for flute and piano

Thinking out form through experimentation and novel representations of timbre gives Wubbels’ scores such a very particular character. One relatively early work is Shiverer (2007) for flute and piano (with some preparation), a brilliant essay in working with unisons. He says in an interview about the piece: ‘It’s one of the first pieces in which I consciously took unison as the compositional material. The parts are not tremendously difficult to play individually, but when combined into very precise hocket, heterophony, or unison there’s suddenly a negotiation that has to take place between the two players that I find very interesting. They really have to reach a state of group concentrated awareness, listening carefully to one another and making decisions in the moment as a kind of joint-mind. And if there’s any disagreement, in most parts of the piece it’s immediately audible. It’s quite challenging.’ The music features on a recently released CD called Duos with Piano by the Wet Ink Ensemble. This includes the violin and piano duo mentioned above, a work for (one or two) saxophones (in unison) and piano (This is this is this is), and a Contraposition for trombone and piano. Interestingly, the CD as a media download or in physical form comes with PDFs of the scores to each work. As a composer  committed to self-publishing I find this is a refreshing and welcome addition: Wubbels’ scores are often very striking to read and do not include the kind of speculative rhythmics that can make new music so problematic. I like the use of red ink for dynamics and particular timbre effects.

Eric Wubbels  - Psychomechanochronometer for solo piano

Eric Wubbels – Psychomechanochronometer for solo piano

It was really unfortunate that BBC Radio 3 listeners didn’t get to hear the scheduled broadcast of Psychomechanochronometer performed by Richard Uttley at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2016. This virtuoso piano work, lasting about 15 minutes, was entrancing in its clarity and purpose. Its music starts for me where some of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos zodiac pieces leave off. Do compare the two examples above and below. You feel the whole piano is being sounded; vast arpeggiations, elaborate ornaments, glittering chords, insistent repetitions often of a single note, and some beautiful effects from prepared pitches placed throughout the piano’s pitch compass. The playing directions call for a mechanical accuracy, perhaps something akin to Nancarrow’s player piano.

George Crumb - Makrokosmos Book 1

George Crumb – Makrokosmos Book 1

There is such a wealth of new American music that is gradually coming our way as listeners. Wubbels is just one member of a significant group of performer / composers that I’m sure are going to make their presence felt beyond New York City. Listen out for other Wet Inkers: Kate Soper, Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta.



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