Spiritual America: Interview with William Brittelle / by Liquid Music

By Lauren McNee

Liquid Music's season opener is t-minus 23 days away. On October 14, Liquid Music will present Spiritual America featuring composer William Brittelle and the indie rock duo Wye Oak, with special guest violinist, composer, arranger and songwriter Michi WianckoSpiritual America features a series of new electro-acoustic art songs that explore themes of secular spirituality in American culture through the personal lens of love, loss, youth and longing.

As we're gearing up for what is sure to be an electrifying first show of the season, Brittelle had time to answer a few questions about post-genre electro-acoustic music, American spirituality and road tripping across the U.S. 

"Spiritual America is conceptually very human—beautiful, haunting, sad and seeking—and the musical component moves you to these emotional places."                                                            —Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music Curator on Spiritual America                                                                                                                                                                                        
 photo by Stephen Taylor

photo by Stephen Taylor

Tell us your story. How did you get interested in contemporary music and how did that lead to composing post electro-acoustic works?

I’ve always been drawn to different kinds of music. While studying music in school, I was very interested in contemporary compositional ideas - things that were happening that very moment, which, at the time, included kind of the tale end of Fluxus, free-jazz, etc. Growing up in a small southern town, I felt fairly alienated from my environment, and that continued to a certain extent into my collegiate and post-collegiate studies. Connecting with experimental music was a way of connecting with a world outside of the conservative dome I was living in. After dropping out of graduate school, however, I found myself very attracted to pop, hip-hop, and punk music, I think as a way of reconnecting with society and railing against my training. This led to me starting a punk band and touring, booking rock clubs, etc, but I soon found that the rock world is equally, if not more constricting that the world of classical conservatories. So, in my late 20’s, I began the quest to unite my influences and write music true to my background, interests, and abilities.

You describe your work as post electro acoustic music. Do you consider your music to be a reaction to electro acoustic music versus a new form of a pre-existing genre, as implied by the term "neo"? How does this fit in with the ideology of the label you co-founded, New Amsterdam Records?

The term I usually use (at least for now) is post-genre electro-acoustic music. Post-genre is meant to signify that the music isn’t actively participating in any kind of genre tradition and shouldn’t be viewed as some kind of reaction against or for classical, rock, etc. I feel like, at this point, using genre information to understand certain kinds of music is misleading and ineffective. So, in that sense, post-genre is the absence of genre, a call for viewing music in more individualistic terms. I see a parallel actually in the post-gender movement, a tendency towards wanting to see things as they are, as being truly unique, and resisting the urge to use shorthand or past experiences to come to the table with certain biases or expectations. It certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t shades of rock or classical or experimental music in what I’m doing, but I don’t think the story of the music are those shades, the story is something more personal, more emotional.

NewAm’s core objective is representing music that doesn’t fall cleanly into existing genre-bounds, so, in that sense, this music certainly fits the bill.

How did you enter into a collaboration with Wye Oak? What attracted you to their sound and how do you think it fits with the theme of secular spirituality in America?

The initial impetus for the project came from a discussion with the North Carolina Symphony about creating a work exploring my background, the fact that I was raised in a small town in an extremely religious environment. I’d always been extremely attracted to Jenn’s voice, and as the project developed, I became more and more certain that Wye Oak was a perfect match for this project. Getting to know Andy and Jenn has been wonderful and their ability to bring in elements that aren’t on the page is vital to this kind of project.

In terms of fitting in with the theme, I think Jenn’s voice embodies a sense of longing . Her singing has this magical effect, something my son would call “sad happiness”. I think the core of the project is that “sad happy” sense of emotional longing, the sense that there is something out there, beyond the walls of what’s immediately available to you, something are both intensely attracted to and scared shitless of - which basically describes my emotions upon first coming to New York!

  photo by Stephen Taylor

photo by Stephen Taylor

Composer/violinist Michi Wiancko is also featured as a special guest in this program. Tell us about Michi and why you wanted to work with her on this project. How is her music complimentary to Spiritual America?

Michi is a dear friend, and we worked together previously on a collaborative show. Not only is she a world class violinist, but she’s a wonderful composer/arranger as well, and her ability to create on the fly and work with musicians of non-classical backgrounds is really unique.

Talk to us about the cultural aesthetics behind Spiritual America. What inspired you to develop this project and how does the music embody your vision?

Yes, so, as I mentioned, this project started with a discussion with the North Carolina Symphony. I’ve been getting increasingly interested in experimental and aggressive music as of late, and this project felt, in part, like a way to balance that out. A way to connect with something intensely personal, and, hopefully, universal. I spent the first 15 years of my life in the south, and, to a certain extent, I think I’ve lived my adult life walled off from that experience. I never see the people I grew up with, I never go back there. It feels like a different universe, like a past life, especially the religious dogma I was fed as a child and am now repelled by. It occurred to me about a year ago that there was an element missing from my life, a sense of grounding, a sense of having roots, and I think that’s due in large part to the denial of my youth. There were a lot of wonderful and meaningful things about growing up the way I did, and my experience certainly wasn’t unique. So the project is, in a sense, a way for me to connect the kid me with the adult me, to round things out, to break down the wall and reintegrate my youth into my general emotional being.

The Liquid Music/Walker Art Center presentation of Spiritual America is one of four offerings this season, along with the Alabama Symphony, North Carolina Symphony and Baltimore Symphony. What makes this show unique?

This is the first and only chamber version of this project, and will include some new material. Since the other shows are orchestral-based, this show will be much more “band” oriented and feature more improv. Because we only have 8 musicians on stage (versus upwards of forty or fifty for the full orchestra version) everyone, including me, will be called on to do a lot more!

What projects are you working on post Spiritual America?

Well Spiritual America is ongoing, and will probably be in development for another year or two. I’m also working on an experimental electronic album called “Alive in the Electric Snow Dream” which will be paired with my first book of poetry called “Spectral Peaks”, a new piece about the electronic musician Arca for the Seattle Symphony, and a project about LSD with my friend Elia Rediger for the Basel Sinfonietta.

And lastly, in the vein of Spiritual America, if you were going on a cross country road trip across the US, what three things would you need with you, and why?

Let’s see, good food because I can’t eat at Arby’s, my wife because I’d be super bored without her, and an atlas so I didn’t have to bring my ****** phone:)

Spiritual America Trailer

The Show

Wye Oak and William Brittelle: Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko
Sponsored by First & First                            
Co-presented with the Walker Art Center

Wed Oct 14, 2015
Doors at 6:30p | Music at 7:30p         
Aria, Minneapolis                        

Order online or call the SPCO Ticket Office at 651.291.1144
$25 ($22 for LM subscribers and Walker members) 

World Premiere - Michi Wiancko           
Shriek Suite - Wye Oak, arr. by Wiancko and Brittelle
     The Tower
     I Know the Law
     Sick Talk
Selections from Spiritual America - Brittelle
     We are not Ancient
     Spiritual America
     Canyons Curved Burgundy/Acid Rain on the Mirrored Dome
     Pink Jail
     Topaz Were the Waves