The Walls and the Windows

Vanessa Ague

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Andrea Guterres’ music grows out of vibrant electro-acoustic soundscapes. The Australian-born composer and classical guitarist’s pieces center storytelling and human connection, often involving collaboration across artistic mediums. Recent pieces like 40 Ways of Being a Woman bridge eerie electronic hums with potent text to meditate on gender; others, like Okiku, sculpt frenzied atmospheres out of classical guitar pulses, fluttering recorders, and whirring synthesized handbells to reflect on the connection between human consciousness, spirituality, and physicality.

These visceral compositions surround and mesmerize, which is, at its heart, what draws Guterres to music. “Music in particular has the potential to really immerse you in a feeling or experience, something I try to cultivate in all my compositions,” Guterres writes over email.

Her 2022 Hildegard Commission piece The Walls and the Windows, which centers around two dark Cavafy poems, is all about immersion. The 2022 Hildegard Commission winners were asked to write works that used Cavafy’s poetry, and that prompt drew Guterres to the program. “Literary and text-based works inspire me the most,” she writes, and as she developed her piece, she looked to Cavafy’s words to drive the direction of the music. Using the texts, Pierrot-plus instrumentation, and National Sawdust’s Meyer Sound spatialized sound system, Guterres sought to make music that dealt with fate and hope. 

Photo by Jill Steinberg, taken at our 2023 Hildegard Commission Concert

Though she composes quite often now, classical guitar was Guterres’ first introduction to music. In her third year studying guitar at university, she took a composition elective and immediately fell in love with the art of writing music. Through composition, she could explore a wide range of views and perspectives, using music as a means to tell stories and to reflect on our world.

While composition came to Guterres during college, she remembers some moments of composing as a kid, even if she didn’t know what she was doing at the time. Around age nine, she was taking piano lessons, learning scales, and Mozart sonatas. But she liked to sit at the piano and play her own melodies, spending hours at the piano improvising—“much to the dismay of my family,” she writes.

In composing, Guterres likes to experiment, just like during those bygone days. That adventurous attitude comes across in all her music, including her recent Hildegard commission. To write the piece, she worked with mentor Angélica Negrón, who helped her find new ways to hear her work. “My mentorship sessions with Angélica were hugely helpful in getting out of my own head and seeing my composition from a different perspective,” she writes.

"Using the texts, Pierrot-plus instrumentation, and National Sawdust’s Meyer Sound spatialized sound system, Guterres sought to make music that dealt with fate and hope."

The process of writing the piece began with plotting music to coincide with the narrative arc of Cavafy’s poems. The two poems she chose, “Walls” and “The Windows,” each tell stories of the experience of being surrounded or trapped. The protagonist in “Walls” notes the walls that have suddenly arisen around him, lamenting that they have been built, while, in Guterres’ interpretation, “The Windows” describes the fear of leaving this tiny, closed space. She looks deep into these ideas in her composition. “In my piece,” she writes, “the walls and the windows became a metaphor for the self-destructive nature of human beings in relation to climate change and ongoing conflict. The walls signify having unwittingly trapped ourselves in our own fate, while the windows offer a glimpse of hope which we may or may not take.”

Photo by Jill Steinberg, taken at the 2023 Hildegard Commission Concert

As she composed, she focused on balancing acoustics and electronics. She first wrote her music in a software program that simulated Wave Field Synthesis, which is a spatial audio rendering technique, to prepare for the live version of the piece, which would employ National Sawdust’s spacial sound system. She didn’t know what exactly that translation would look like as she composed, but the venue’s sound engineer Garth MacAleavey helped her make the transformation, and in the end, “the spacialization sounded great,” she writes. 

The current that unites Guterres’ works is her commitment to find her voice and to experiment with ideas and techniques that come her way. Her advice to other composers? “It's important to find out what your "thing" is, whether that's spatializing sound or making music from recordings of water,” she writes. “Experimenting freely without being critical is important in order to find that ‘thing.’”

About Vanessa Ague

Vanessa Ague is a violinist and critic who writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.