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Composer Spotlight: Keeril Makan

We are proud to announce that all of Keeril Makan’s chamber works are now available through PSNY! Keeril’s been having a great year: a recent essay in the New York Times, a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship, upcoming performances across the country, and a forthcoming portrait album on Mode Records, including six works available on PSNY: Mercury Songbirds, Afterglow, Husk, Becoming Unknown, and After Forgetting, all performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. We had a chance to catch up with Keeril to talk about his compositional process, the influence of his meditation practice, and his relationship with tonality, which is much more complicated than you might think.

  “The rhythm of my life is determined by the process of composition,” says Makan: this might be a familiar sentiment to many composers. But to be completely subsumed in the creative process, for each day to inform a composition, is something unique to Makan; he writes one work at a time, generating musical ideas from nothingness. Nothingness, or “Mu” in Japanese, is a concept borrowed from Zen: it is the condition of reality that is unknowable, that does not exist. Makan’s works emanate from a place of nothingness, constructing new sonic spaces one element at a time; they explore stillness, rather than the paralysis of non-movement. Makan’s work has always been pre-occupied by the same formal concepts: “drones, pulse/energy, and stillness”, but as a result of his explorations into “Mu”, the “quality of the stillness has changed.”

Makan’s chamber music, especially his works for solo instrumentalists, offer the performer a remarkable level of control over her performance practice. One such piece, “Resonance Alloy”, for solo percussion, was written for Makan’s close friend, David Shively. “We’re often taught,” Makan comments, that “percussion is all about the subtleties of color and timbre.” But for most performers and audiences, this doesn’t often hold true; “you hit a cymbal and it sounds like a cymbal. […] The best way to get the sounds that I liked out of instruments, I discovered, was by putting them in an unstable relationship with each other.”

 “Resonance Alloy,” then, becomes a meditation on (in)stability, timbre, and performance both for the performer and for the audience. The ethics of Makan’s solo works, also including “Mu” (for violin/viola), “Zones d’Accord” (for cello), and “Voice Within Voice” (for baritone saxophone) focus on bringing the attention to the materiality, temporality, and physicality of instruments. Not in service of musical Modernism or formalist experimentation (as in the music of Helmut Lachenmann, for example), but rather in the service of a radically subjective, personal approach to being in the world through sound.

 “The solo pieces are the most direct example of the way I work, but I think most everything comes about in the same way: an exploration of sound, of the musical instruments we’ve inherited, and a structuring of time that reflects my current experience.”

 If Makan’s chamber works seem like they have undergone some kind of constant evolution through the past ten years or so, it’s because they have: the goal for Makan is to write music that is true to his experience, and open to change. In this sense, he is one of the rare composers who is completely honest about his aesthetic compositional goals, informed by his daily life rather than by tradition, guilt, or fantasy. This may stem from his meditation practice; he comments, “part of what my practice has helped me with is acceptance, and openness, to change. My tastes do not stay the same over time. It would be more convenient if I was consistent, but I’m not. If I’m being aware of my experience, I will notice how different I am now from how I used to be.”

 “I learned the hard way that I am not a formalist. My mind is naturally and somewhat compulsively drawn to patterns and formal structures, but when I try to compose from that standpoint, the music is totally sterile. My mind and body need to be more aligned in the compositional process…”

Makan’s works can be sampled with the Soundcloud player above, and also heard on his forthcoming album on Mode; “Target”, released on Starkland records; and “In Sound”, released on Tzadik Records. 

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