Composer, Instrumentalist, and Educator Katherine Young '03 Earns Guggenheim Fellowship

Award supports completion of suite of electroacoustic pieces developed during the pandemic.

May 18, 2021

Erich Burnett

Katherine Young.
Photo credit: Deidre Huckabay

Collaboration lies at the heart of Katherine Young’s creative existence. A bassoonist and composer as well as an educator, she writes for and plays with chamber ensembles and rock bands, classical performers and improvisers. So the isolation that accompanies life in a pandemic left her to focus on solo works and ponder the sense of community she and so many others had suddenly lost.

Now Young’s COVID detour has earned the support of the Guggenheim Foundation, which honored her in April with a 2021 fellowship for composition. The award, presented to established scholars across the artistic spectrum, supports the completion of a series of electroacoustic solo works that explore community, sustainability, and accountability—themes percolating in Young’s brain throughout 2020.

The working title of her project, Mycorrhizae, refers to fungal networks that develop on the roots of plants and assist in absorption of nutrients and repelling environmental stressors. It’s a concept she began to liken to the interconnectedness of human existence, so starkly foregrounded by the pandemic.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional community and the significance of collaboration as an artist and as a person,” says Young, who is completing her first year on the faculty at Emory University, where she teaches composition, improvisation, and electronic music.

The project was initially conceived as four distinct solo works—solo largely out of necessity, as Young initially had no idea what opportunities for collaboration with larger groups might exist. She has since expanded her scope to six pieces composed for six different instruments and electronics. “Each one will be very much its own thing, with its own musical language and sound world that’s very specific to the person I’m making it with,” she says.

More recently, and as pandemic restrictions have begun to ease up, Young seized upon the idea of developing the six completed solo compositions into a single chamber work.

“Once I started thinking about it as an ensemble piece, I started thinking Oh, I want a cello! I want a harp!” So far, saxophone, violin, percussion, and piano also figure into the mix. The final ensemble piece may also include choreography, video, or other components.

“At the time of the proposal, I didn’t even know what would be possible,” she says. “I’ve been working on them simultaneously—and all remotely—over the last year. They began to inform each other, and so now I understand them to be related—part of a network work, if you will.

“What’s exciting to me is that with the fellowship, I have started to allow myself to once again think further into the future, and to imagine bigger projects again.”

At Oberlin, Young completed degrees in bassoon performance and comparative literature. In those days, she recalls, she was more self-assured in the classroom than onstage. “In some ways, I found my creative voice as a reader. I was more confident in that sphere, so my college courses were really important for me.”

Young counts among her fondest Oberlin memories playing chamber music—especially student compositions—and performing with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and other new music groups. “I remember not only playing in CME, but going to CME concerts and hearing some incredible pieces I have not heard live since.”

After Oberlin, she relocated with Oberlin friends to Chicago, where her passions for composition and improvisation took hold. She went on to study under legendary experimental composer Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, then completed a DMA at Northwestern University.

Today, she performs routinely with improvisational groups and longtime projects including the duos Beautifulish (with Sam Scranton) and Architeuthis Walks on Land (with violist, musicologist, and Oberlin alumna Amy Cimini ’03). She’s working on an outdoor sound installation and performance projects with the New York-based new music quartet Yarn/Wire and the Chicago collective Mocrep, and her debut solo album, Further Secret Origins, earned praised from The Wire—which invoked the phrase “bassoon colossus”—and Downbeat. Young’s music has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, Ensemble Dal Niente, and numerous other groups.

In the near future, she plans to join forces on a project with two more Oberlin bassoonists: Ben Roidl-Ward ’15 and Dana Jessen, director of Conservatory Professional Development.

“We bassoonists have a way of finding each other!” she says.

The Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1925 by U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and wife Olga in honor of their late son. Young is one of 184 recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2021 and one of 13 composers to be honored, including Oberlin alumna Nkeiru Okoye ’92.

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