U. of I. composer chosen for Kronos Quartet project

 Illinois composer Erin Gee was chosen to create a new piece of music for Kronos

Illinois composer Erin Gee was chosen to create a new piece of music for Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future project. Gee will travel to India this spring to record insect and bird sounds as inspiration for her composition. Photo by Jonah Sutherland

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Composer Erin Gee , a professor of composition-theory in the University of Illinois School of Music , is one of 10 composers selected to participate in Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future project in 2017.

Over the course of five seasons, Kronos Quartet is commissioning 50 composers to create music to help young amateur and early career professional string quartets develop their skills. Each of the compositions will be premiered by Kronos Quartet, a renowned and influential string quartet. Gee met the members of Kronos Quartet after a performance at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and they expressed interest in her work.

“I’m very honored to be part of that group. It’s a really striking group of musicians,” Gee said of the group of composers chosen for the 2017 season.

Gee is a composer and vocalist, creating works for orchestra, opera, vocal ensemble, chamber ensemble and string quartet. She has been awarded a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Rome Prize, and the UNESCO Picasso-Miró for her work.

She has received international attention for her “Mouthpiece” series of compositions for solo voice, which uses nontraditional vocal techniques, making the voice an instrument of sound production rather than of language. The pieces use a diverse array of vocal sounds – such as pops, clicks, sung tones and whistles – rather than words.

Gee’s piece and the other compositions for Fifty for the Future will be made available free of charge to young performers, along with recordings and educational resources. The goal is to allow emerging musicians to immerse themselves in contemporary string quartet music and to develop their playing through working with varying levels of difficulty within the repertoire.

“It’s really nice to increase the repertoire for young string quartets,” Gee said.

Gee’s composition will be a piece she is creating in conjunction with the Shillim Foundation , a U.S. organization that is a sister organization to the Shillim Institute in India. The two organizations work together to promote conservation through collaborations between artists and conservationists. Shillim is a wilderness retreat in the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hotspot for biodiversity.

Gee will travel to India this spring with a sound engineer to take field recordings that will serve as inspiration for her composition. Gee said she is excited to hear the insects and bird song, and expects her work to be influenced by them.

“I am really excited to work with the sounds other species make in a similar way to how I work with the sounds my mouth makes. I’ll be working with the vocalizations of other species in the same way I’m working with my vocalizations through the ‘Mouthpiece’ series,” Gee said.

She is among the first group of artists and conservationists who will gather for a short residency at Shillim. Gee said she is looking forward to finding inspiration in the others’ work and also in exploring the overlap of science, creativity and the arts.

She was selected to participate in the Shillim residency through her association with Martin Brody, a composer and music professor at Wellesley College and a co-director of the Shillim Foundation. Brody served as an arts director at the American Academy in Rome when Gee won its Rome Prize – a highly competitive fellowship for artists and scholars – in 2007-08.

“She really stood out as extraordinarily original, gifted and expressive, and a precise composer. Her work is in some ways very delicate and very wild at the same time. It’s so imaginative,” Brody said. “I thought she would be great for this Shillim project because she is a very exploratory artist. She thinks about things in her own way, but very deeply. She’s really open to being influenced by a new environment and a new situation.”

“I’m incredibly excited to start writing the piece, but on the other hand, I want to wait to experience the stimuli,” Gee said. “It may influence ways to bring about the sound and to experience the voice of other species.”

Kronos Quartet will perform the pieces from this season’s 10 composers in spring 2018.

Gee’s piece will also be part of a website and a book by the Shillim Foundation to present the experiences and creations of the artists, as well as the ecological lessons learned from conservationists working there.