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Composers Who Matter: Andrew Hamilton

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In this new series, Dusted tracks down the most original and compelling young composers of classical music and attempts to explain what their music has to do with our world.

Composers Who Matter: Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton - "Music For People Who Lose People"

Even to adventurous listeners, contemporary classical music can seem like a mysterious netherworld, full of cloistered academics writing inaccessible pieces using arcane processes. The truth, though, is that contemporary classical music has a lot to say about the world we live in. This is the first in a series of profiles of young composers who particularly have a lot to say.

Andrew Hamilton is a young Irish composer whose fantastically weird music is earning plenty of attention throughout Europe, much of it positive, some of it, well...

"Every time I have had a piece done [at Gaudeamus New Music Week in the Netherlands]," Hamilton writes, "I always have a group of angry young Italian composers following me around asking 'Why? Why have you done this?'"

Their confusion is understandable, since Hamilton's music doesn't sit comfortably with most classical music or, for that matter, with music of any kind. It's incredibly repetitive, but it's not comforting--the materials are arranged in intentionally jagged, uneven patterns. It's (mostly) tonal, but it's not pretty. It's familiar, and yet it's disconcertingly strange. And most young composers who use as much repetition as Hamilton does come from the Minimalist tradition, but Hamilton doesn't.

"...[T]he early Minimalist works of [Philip] Glass and [Steve] Reich had a massive influence on me, but I realized, as my teacher Louis Andriessen did much earlier, that, for cultural and psychological reasons, it would be false for me to use repetition in the same way they do or did. So I suppose I use a lot of repetition to create a state of unease, ambiguity, and sometimes joy, and also to laugh at the world."

Hamilton's music presents simple, familiar materials – what sounds like a pop song fragment here, a calypso pattern there--and molds them into something new, by twisting them around in every possible direction, or by repeating them to the point of absurdity. A friend recently described the experience of listening to a piece of Hamilton's by saying he enjoyed it for a few minutes, then became anxious after it continued poking at the same jagged fragments for ten or fifteen more minutes, then began to enjoy it for its sheer audacity.

My friend’s experience makes sense – upon first encounter with Hamilton’s music, the degree to which it flies in the face of most people’s ideas of good taste can be shocking. But, after a while, there comes a point at which the listener stops thinking, “Wow, that’s hard to listen to” and begins to think, “How long can he possibly keep this going?” It’s at that threshold that Hamilton’s music really begins to work its magic.

“I know I often want to push an aspect in a piece to its limits,” Hamilton writes. The idea of a threshold might be linked to the desire I have to transform the... material into something beautiful – the point at which you forget the material and the larger issues and structure of the piece become clear.”

What’s especially strange about the audacity of Hamilton’s music is the way that audacity is achieved. Unlike a lot of contemporary classical music, Hamilton’s isn’t atonal. Instead, he uses mostly consonant materials. His music doesn’t introduce itself with a barrage of dissonant chords; instead, he presents bits of material you feel like you’ve heard before, then repeats them like a tune you can’t get out of your head.

The idea to write in this style came to Hamilton at a fairly early age. “There was a turning point when I wrote a piano quintet when I was 22. The very beginning of the piece was a repeated staccato E major chord with an added seventh. Hearing this small opening section gave me a weirdly ecstatic physical sensation and it was the first time I really liked what I had written so it was through this type of experience that I started writing consonant/tonal material,” he writes.

“I also think I use these types of material as they are familiar objects, in a way comforting, so that it makes the play with structure more audible… I want the listener to be concentrating on this instead of wondering how a sound was produced by an instrument.”

Many areas of modern life feature repetitions of the familiar, from pop songs to commercial jingles to political talking points, and it’s tempting to read Hamilton’s music as some sort of commentary on how it feels to hear something so many times that it becomes absurd. But Hamilton claims this isn’t intended.

“[…]I do not write from an ironic standpoint,” he insists. “Of course, how others perceive the result is totally open and I am happy if the listener comes to their own conclusion as to what the material is saying. This would be my only conscious social or political motivation, to make listeners think for themselves, to encourage inquiry.” Hamilton adds that the repetitions in Samuel Beckett’s work and in the “circular” speech patterns heard in his mother’s hometown in the north of Ireland both influenced his work.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how Hamilton’s music could exist without the disorienting, disjointed repetitions of television and radio and the internet. His music is the soundtrack to a world where everyone wants to sell you something.

Tellingly, though, there’s no analogue in Hamilton’s music to the endless polls and focus groups that characterize advertising and political campaigns. Rather than organizing his music around predetermined patterns of repetitions, “[t]here is no complicated technique at all,” he says. “I simply use my ears. I listen to everything over and over again until it sounds, in my mind, right. Sometimes I will use localized patterns and work with some numbers to create imbalance, but the final decisions are always based on instinct... I am too controlling to let a system make decisions for me. I have to get my hands dirty.”

This quality – this dirty-handedness – is finally the most attractive characteristic of Hamilton’s music, because it ensures that it’s more than a mirror to the world. It has something to do with the crushing cynicism of advertising and politics, but it’s not the drudgery those things are because his music is also so deft and funny. Music for People Who Lose People (MP3) must have been quite an endurance exercise for Ensemble Klang, but it need not be one for us. Much of the color in the piece comes from Hamilton’s amusing use of steel drum and trombone, and the incredibly assertive stuttering repetitions in the piece are only really interrupted twice, about halfway through and near the end, with series of mournful, Beethoven-style piano chords. In between, Music for People Who Lose People is startlingly strange, jagged and convincing.

Hamilton’s MySpace page is here.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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