Two weeks ago, I visited a pair of dynamic, hardworking Chicago musicians in their studio. I was intrigued to see violinist Austin Wulliman (known for his work with Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente) and composer/bassoonist Katherine Young (known as a great improviser and increasingly in-demand composer) working together in an entirely new context. The pair was preparing to reveal Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight, the result of more than a year and a half’s worth of improvisation, sound creation, and collaboration. The immersive, fifty-minute piece would find its first home in the Defibrillator Gallery for a weeklong residency and culminating performance.
The instruments Wulliman would use for the performance—a prepared viola, two prepared violins, and a “normal” violin—were scattered throughout the small, windowless electronic music studio where the pair had holed up for the day. Young was stationed at the computer with an enormous array of sound samples arranged on the screen in front of her. Although they were at the end of a long day in the studio, the pair spoke with great energy about their upcoming performance. It was evident that their long-term, close collaboration had led to great mutual admiration and a wide array of new experiences for both of them.
When I asked Wulliman what was new for him in the collaborative process with Young, he answered: “Basically everything.”
“That was the intention going into it,” he explained. “When I approached Katie about this over a year and a half ago, I wanted to do something where I had the freedom to explore sounds with somebody who’s great at that.”
Wulliman saw the collaboration with Young as a chance to embark on sonic explorations that performers aren’t often afforded in the context of a fully notated score. Young began their collaboration by sending Wulliman videos and photographs for him to respond to with improvisations, and from this jumping-off place the pair began to develop a common language of sounds that would comprise Diligence. “This has been by far the most I’ve been in the workshop with somebody,” Wulliman said enthusiastically. “I feel like we made the materials together. I’ve always been in the room helping to make the sounds; Katie has always led the way in terms of shaping things, and guiding it becoming a piece.”
The collaborative process revealed exciting new territory for Young as well. “It’s been really exciting to be able to spend this much time with sounds that I am not responsible for producing in the moment,” she said, referring to her work as a performing bassoonist. “I’ve been able to get outside of the closeness of having this instrument that [I’m] so connected to. I can say, ‘What if you do this thing, Austin?’ It’s hard to ask yourself those questions in terms of your own instrument. You feel it’s not possible. You think you know what’s possible, with your own instrument. It’s been exciting and has freed me up to think more about structure.”
The result of this collaboration, revealed September 27 at Defibrillator Gallery, was a subtle, sensual performance that enveloped the audience in an ever-changing ecosystem of sound and color. Many moments of Diligence were surprising, even revelatory: Wulliman tearing into a growling prepared G string with cadenza-like fervor, blending hushed bridge sounds with the surrounding tape part, or turning wild pizzicato textures into a virtuosic anti-caprice.
What made Diligence so satisfying was that it brought the greatest strengths of both composer and performer into bold relief. Young’s compositional hallmarks—her visceral approach to sound; her organic use of repetition, structure, and pacing; her attentiveness to the smallest details of timbre; her adventurousness in using instruments in unexpected ways—made the work feel like a living thing, breathing and unfolding as the evening progressed. And Wulliman’s strongest characteristics as a performer—his intensity of focus, his absolute commitment to each musical gesture—made listeners feel that the pair’s collaborative vision was being fully embodied in each moment.
As the performance ended and the packed gallery gave a series of enthusiastic ovations, an unexpected quote came to mind: Mother Teresa’s adage that “we can do no great things; only small things with great love.” In our contemporary music landscape, long-term collaborations can be logistically and financially difficult to achieve. We live in a culture where bigger is better, where more is more. Composers and performers are often required to write, learn, and perform music on tight timetables, and without a great deal of time for inquiry and reflection. Diligence, then, was a particularly rare treat: the chance to enter a sonic world created by two gifted musicians over a long period of time; the chance to hear sounds that were crafted intentionally, gradually, and with great love.