Q&A with Jordan Dykstra and Koen Nutters about
‘In Better Shape Than You Found Me’
“I think of the harmonic content in the piece as living within a fragile,
yet also curious sound world.” (Jordan Dykstra)
“I, for one, like to think of harmony as color rather than function or structure.” (Koen Nutters)
Yuko Zama (YZ): How did your collaboration for this piece begin?
Jordan Dykstra (JD): I approached Koen in the spring of 2020 with the proposal to collaborate on a piece. All I really had in mind was the title but in this title was an approach, a method — to leave the space (or in this case the composition) in better shape than you found it.
At the time I was working on a lot of ambient soundscapes and using field recordings as the basis for their foundation. I remember at one point during the spring I made a field recording of night birds singing in my neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. I believe they were northern mockingbirds and their sound was very energized and tonal. I found out that due to the lack of cars and loud transport on the roads from people in lockdown, native animals all around the world were singing again — or, at the very least, humans weren’t continuing to mask their presence.
The night birds recording became an important beginning element to the form of the piece, it shows up a few times in various ways: filtered, stretched, pitch-shifted, harmonized, etc. As Koen and I began to formulate the different sections a number of musical moments would appear and find roots within the different textural groundwork, the branches of harmony growing in various directions. Gradually, within the five-section form (each with two parts per section), more intricate stability was realized — at times using long tones with Ebow on the piano strings and viola as well as the (often palindromic) 3-note crotale motif.
Koen Nutters (KN): Jordan and I met quite some years ago because of a mutual interest in each other’s work. I then had the pleasure to hang out with him in Amsterdam and to organize a concert of a work for piano, hand-crank siren, and playback which he made for Reinier van Houdt.
In the spring of 2020 I was in New York City to play a concert with And/In (my collaboration with Heather Frasch) and we met again. Afterwards I was staying with Heather in Virginia for a few months during the lockdown so I finally had plenty of time to work on some compositional ideas I’ve had for a while.
When Jordan brought up the idea to send some material back and forth I was working on a piano piece with chords, scales, and lots of long silences, and because I was in the U.S. without upright bass or other equipment I thought I’d just send him what I was working on: a midi rendition of the piano piece. He then added a lot of stuff to it, essentially turning it into a beautiful piece for piano and ensemble. We went back and forth a few times, I gave feedback to fine tune things, added some more scales, and some field recordings as well. And before we knew it we had made an amazing collaborative realization of the piece; which I then retro-composed into a text score.
Later we thought it’d be a good idea to transcribe the piece as it was realized, so it could be performed exactly how it appears on the record. So, Jordan made a more traditional and exact score, which was recently performed by a quartet in Berlin and will be played again in Amsterdam and New York at some point. But that’s only one iteration of it, as far as I’m concerned. The text score gives the possibility to make endless variations with the materials along with the fixed piano score. I’d also still love to hear the solo piano version, which also asks the performer to add certain non-pianistic sounds (which is Jordan’s contribution to the solo version), in a concert situation.
YZ: So, you two worked on this collaboration piece during the pandemic last year. Do you think the confined (or lockdown/social distance/solitary) situation affected you two in some way to make this piece sound how it turned out?
JD: Yes, the whole process for this piece happened during the pandemic. In many ways there is an unavoidable aspect of distance in the resulting sound but I think this distance — whether it be spatial, harmonic, or conceptual — has been living in both Koen’s and my music already for some time. Once we began sending materials back and forth to one another it really developed quite fast, and naturally as well. I think we were both excited to have the time to work on something together and also find a healthy distraction from the noise of the pandemic mess happening all around. Koen, do you remember this feeling from that time?
KN: I was in a very peaceful place during the spring of 2020, both literally and figuratively. And I felt very fortunate to have the time and mind space to work on things. I think there’s different conceptions of distance in the piece we made, but ultimately, for the listener (even myself) I think there is a coherent sound world where sounds relate to each other in a very unforced manner. This world sounds very big though, with objects floating and ringing in the distance, as well as right in front of your ears.
YZ: The entire piece seems to be moving along the fringe of 'harmonies' (or the borderline between the harmonies and pre-harmonies). How do you consider the issue of 'harmonies' in your piece?
JD: I think of the harmonic content in the piece as living within a fragile, yet also curious sound world. The sometimes warbling, sometimes immersive sound design gives the sustain in the viola and pitch-pipe an unstable quality while the quiet piano chords and scales (which reside in their own type of expansive sound world) bring about an intriguing intimacy.
The harmonic content supporting the piano was designed to gently tug at the ground beneath it but, through repetition and slight-of-hand semitone adjustment, open the sonic world to an almost spinning landscape — like a slow-motion revolving stage. I wanted the ensemble arrangement to give the listener the sense that something had evolved behind the scenes but not deter attention away from the piano content at the center.
This piece is not Feldman, but it somehow has a frame of reference to a reductionist (and slowed down, even) version of Morton’s trios, but with a particular form – spatialized sections welcoming contemplation and moving within different arrangements of ensemble voicing. I especially loved adding harmony (both foreshadowing and simultaneously) to Koen’s piano arrangement with the bowed vibraphone; I just can’t get enough of these two instruments together, they have an amazing relationship.
KN: I think Jordan’s sustained notes give a certain grounding to the chords and scales of the piano part which is, in a sense, completely illusory, since I did not work with any absolute harmonic concepts or structures. But his added material is also always ambivalent enough to not force anything into one place, or one perspective. The piano material obviously alludes to the idea of harmony in a very playful way. The chords are more colorful than they are functional, and the scales are always purposefully harmonically ambivalent. The whole piano part was actually fully generated by certain chance operations, and, here and there, slightly adjusted by ear.
So, I’d say we’re rather working with the idea of harmony than with harmony itself. I, for one, like to think of harmony as color rather than function or structure, and I think Jordan would agree with that.
(Interview conducted by Yuko Zama in August 2021)