Photo from a rehearsal for the free improvisation ensemble called Sound and Fury. Credits: Stefan Prins, who took the photo, the Sound and Fury Ensemble, and the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber Dresden.
Vasily Ratmansky is a Ukrainian/American composer pursuing his masters degree at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden. Working in commission and workshop settings with ensembles such as Unheard-Of// Ensemble, PanSonus, Manhattan School of Music Composers' Orchestra, Yarn/Wire, and William Lang from Loadbang, he is a member of the InfraSound Ensemble not only as a performer and composer, but as the video editor for their online releases.
While studying in high school, Vasily took a class in higher music, one of the requirements of which was composing three pieces. This, he explains, was his official introduction to notated music, but he used to improvise throughout all of his childhood. "[During my] final year I took a couple of lessons from professor at Juilliard, Daniel Ott, and also participated in a summer program," the composer says. If before composition was a hobby, after that experience Vasily decided to continue his passion in college.
Ratmansky applied to Manhattan School of Music, the institution he ended up choosing, almost right before the deadline, when someone recommended the school. "I did an audition, where you have to write a piece overnight," he recalls. "They give you a topic right before — our topic was number 21 — [and] I [wrote] 21 notes and a phrase." There, Vasily studied with Susan Botti and Reiko Fueting and was able to explore the world of classical music and work on improvisation at the same time.
"At MSM what was super interesting was the diverse faculty. Susan Botti is an American composer, and Reiko Fueting is a German composer, so you already have these two dichotomies of European and American music."
What perhaps was one of the biggest influences on the composer's musical style was David Adamcyk's electronic music class. "I remember when I was a freshman there was this composer, Zak Argabrite, and I was just stunned by his music," Vasily tells the audience. "He had a piece where he hijacked a Barbie doll head and he would press random buttons on [the] Arduino and it would make these weird sounds." After that, the young musician was set on creating theater pieces that explore what it means to perform, compose, and listen to an audience member because it also reflects, in his words, what it means to be alive and exist in the society.
After completing his undergraduate degree at MSM, Vasily was recommended to pursue a Master's at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber by his professor Reiko Fueting, who also finished his education there. "Stefan Prins, [one of the professors], does a lot of electronic[s] and concentrates on the modern implications of surveillance and having this readily available technology, [which is why] I wanted to study with him," the composer shares. "I am really excited to have the opportunity to explore the abstract aspect of pure sound composition."
At the time of Composium's fireside chat with Ratmansky, he hadn't participated in any of his classes, but mentioned one meeting about a performance that he was going to be a part of. In terms of his expectations, the musician talks about how he anticipates a lot more freedom of composition in that there are more events happening. "There's more of a sense of people performing each other's music and composers also getting to perform and make music outside of their studios," he conveys, which he thinks is because there isn't a designated performance program, so more emphasis is placed on music creators performing as well.
One of the main reasons why Vasily chose to pursue his graduate degree right after MSM was because he wanted to find a new musical environment to compose. "Germany has a really big lineage of music composition, [and] it's a great opportunity to get your music known somewhere else and get to compose for new people."
Arriving in Dresden and meeting with composers, Ratmansky realized that even conversations about music are different to that in the U.S. "I asked a question in slightly broken German-English just to break the ice: 'What compositional styles do you compose in?' and they were shocked by the word style," he laughs. It turns out that the emphasis is the idea of finding your own artistic voice, which is similar in America, but when asked this question, composers often try to fit their style into pre-existing ones.
"[In Germany] it seems like every piece is a new piece; it has a new process, therefore you can't really put it in[to] a style."
Not trying to fit his music into a specific compositional style, Ratmansky describes that a lot of his recent works have been dealing with the idea of technology and the body. Currently, he is writing a piece that is designed to be performed at home. "You turn on your MaxMSP, a music coding program, and you type away, and the computer tells you what to type," the composer continues. "You also sing into it and the computer, depending on what you type into it, manipulates your voice; there's also a camera pointed at you, so you always have a view of yourself performing." This concept allows you to be both a performer and an audience of your music.
"For the maxMSP piece, the idea of collaboration changed — now I'm not collaborating with a person, [but] with myself. There are two selves now: one that is the performer and one that is the composer."
Photo of a still from a video Vasily made for the InfraSound Ensemble. The piece being performed is Frederic Rzewski's Chains. Credits: the InfraSound ensemble
Given the current coronavirus situation, Vasily and his InfraSound Ensemble had to move their live concert to perform online. Because of that, he wrote music specifically for Zoom performers, which he recounts as a bizarre experience due to not being able to collaborate with people in the same room. "[The piece] utilized a bunch of devices that are placed around the environment; I had around 10 devices, and the other two performers had around four or five," he elaborates.
The official premiere of the piece will happen in February with InfraSound's first concert of the 2021 season. It will be a Zoom spectacle with the guiding themes of the Kingfisher bird and the Fisher King tale. Alongside Vasily's piece, there will also be works by Nicole DeMaio, Tyler Neidermayer, Laura Bibbs and an arrangement of Joanna Newsom by Stefanie Proulx.
Speaking on how he interacts with technology, the composer lists two ways: the augmentation of the body, and post-recording. "Stefan Prins talks about this idea of presthetique. For example, you sing into a microphone, the sound changes — that is live processing, and the other is post-recording processing, [where] there is a recording and you [can] do whatever you want [with] it," Vasily says. The biggest change has been the accessibility of music and the accessibility of it through headphones specifically.
"I think a lot of people are grappling with the idea of sound sources," Ratmansky notices, mentioning Cathy van Eck, whose work incorporates making sound sources their own performers, depending on where and how she places them. The young musician himself has two pieces (written for a speaker and a singer) in which he tries to create a person through electronics and speakers. It primarily focuses on the separation of the voice, and throughout the constant repetition of the name throughout the piece, the speaker gets the human character.
"Usually [in] my process there are a lot of notes. Not even music notes, just words I write down in different notebooks.. it's really chaotic."
Vasily also grapples with the idea of music notation, as his process often consists of singing his ideas and then either transcribing or manipulating them. He has been pondering on writing a piece that would utilize a video score. A human can't possibly play along to this transcription since it passes at groundbreaking speed and the brain can't perceive pitches that fast. This concept is especially appealing to the young composer because there is this time element when comparing it to the typical score that you can always return to and play back.
Ratmansky shares that his first compositions were mostly improvisations that he'd make in GarageBand and post on SoundCloud right away. "The act of posting them on [the platform] was what made them pieces, because I shared them — they weren't just private recordings," Vasily tells everyone at the end of the fireside chat. "I think giving yourself the challenge of sharing it: that is something every young composer should do."
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