Chaz Underriner : landscape and portraiture in the context of experimental music


Chaz Underriner (b. 1987 in Texas, USA) is a composer, intermedia artist and performer based in DeLand, Florida. Chaz’s work explores the notions of landscape and portraiture through the juxtaposition of video projections, audio recordings and live performers.

Chaz has collaborated with numerous choreographers, experimental filmmakers, animators, and writers. As a composer, Chaz has created works for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, chamber and symphony orchestras, jazz combos, choir, and electronics.

Chaz’s work has been programmed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic National Composer’s Intensive, the Proyector International Video Art Festival (Madrid, Spain), the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival (Hawick, Scotland), the International Computer Music Conference, the Impuls Festival (Graz, AU), the Morley College Engine Room Sound Art Exhibition (London, UK), the National Building Museum (Washington DC), the 2012 Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (DE), the Global Composition Conference (Dieburg, DE), Ostrava New Music Days (CZ), Champ dAction’s Laboratorium (Antwerp, BE), the Charlotte New Music Festival (USA), the Louisville New Music Festival (USA), Dogstar Orchestra (Los Angeles), the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival (Texas), and the American College Dance Festival Association Regional Conference (Texas).


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer? 

I started seriously studying music when I was 17, before then I just taught myself electric guitar—playing Led Zeppelin songs, mostly. One significant musical memory I have before that was being woken up by the sound of an electric guitar resonating the walls of my bedroom when I was about 12 years old. My dad, who was a chemical engineer that was a self-taught guitar player and singer, was playing on his giant Marshall amplifier after I had gone to bed. The sound vibrating through the wall was really intriguing. Traveling the world my entire life as a third culture kid, seeing the world, has really had a huge impact on me as an artist. I think traveling—and really trying to see the world—is what makes me want to make multimedia work and spurs my interest in location.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time? 

Of course! What I listen to on a daily basis has changed quite a bit. I’ve done quite a bit of focused listening to recordings of Claudio Monteverdi, Jürg Frey, Morton Feldman, Thelonious Monk, the Miles Davis Second Quintet (ALL of the albums!), Nobuo Uematsu, and more. I consider all of the composers and musicians I listen to do be influential on my work, even if only subliminally.

As for composers that are sort of ‘main influence’—my former teacher Michael Pisaro‘s work has been significant to me for years. I try nowadays to mainly listen to the music I love as sort of separate from my own creative work rather than using any artist as a model for composition. I find it more helpful to think of other artists as inspiration rather than as direct influences, and often these other artists are in mediums other than music such as fiction or film. Haruki Murakami and Jorge Luis Borges are of great interest to me.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works? 

I’m mostly a very top-down thinker when it comes to structure/form in longer works. I like to pre-plan the overall structure and then write different sections of the work in whatever order comes most easily in the creative process. The overall structures for me are mostly quite simple, because I want the structure to deliver the sounds that I’m interested in rather than act more as a compositional parameter with a lot of agency or innovation.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use? 

My creative work and scholarly research schedule is mostly setup around my teaching schedule. It’s not easy to switch between doing teaching/administrative work and creative/research work, so I usually try to give myself 2-3 days to focus mostly on creative work and do all my other work on the remaining days. I haven’t locked in to a new writing schedule yet, but I’m definitely not one of those people who likes to compose for an 8 hour day! I’d much rather compose for 3-4 hours and then let the work simmer a bit until the next working day. I find that the ‘simmering’ time of chewing on a piece to be really helpful in my composing—definitely more helpful than the act of sitting at a piano or computer and writing out pitches and rhythms. For me, the piece sort of coalesces gradually, and the actual notation process is sort of the very last thing to happen, and isn’t that much a part of the actual creative thinking. For years I found the practice of writing notes as really unhelpful for creativity—but gradually, by focusing solely on making sounds, I’ve been able to come back to the practice of writing notes as useful again.

I typically do sketches by hand and then make a full draft of the piece by recording a sketch with electric guitar in Pro Tools. This is particularly helpful for hearing any microtonal things in the composition (and making sure that those microtonal things I’m asking for are more or less playable). After doing a full audio sketch, I edit the notated sketches into a usable draft and then do a full manuscript. For my manuscripts, I create the layout and staves in Photoshop, print them, notate on the staves using pencil and pen, scan my notations, assemble the final score page by page (and system by system), then cleanup any small things in Photoshop. My copywork is an arduous process, but it’s the way I’ve found for making scores I’m satisfied with.

Please describe a recent work.

Floating Gardens is a brief composition concerning boundaries, tuning and incongruity for chamber orchestra. Floating Gardens was written for new music collective wild UP as a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2016 National Composer’s Intensive.

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