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Luke Nickel sits in front of a dim light.
photo by Leif Norman

Listen Closely

There’s the hard strike of a piano key.

And then silence. It lingers while you anticipate the next hit. But then a pleasant reprieve—sounds like a bell. Followed by a mysterious gust. Is that what mist would sound like?

It makes composer Luke Nickel [BMus (Comp)/11] happy to know people find his audio works intriguing. “I always think, how can I draw them in? How can I excite their minds a little bit?

But I also hope their minds wander while they listen,” says Nickel.

The 29-year-old music grad, who lives in Bristol, England, and just finished his PhD at Bath Spa University, creates “living scores” that rely not on sheet music but on a musician’s memory.

He’ll send a pianist or string quartet audio files where he voices directions, to be deleted after only one listen. Nickel may instruct them to play a C sharp over and over for two minutes, or to mimic the sound of an imaginary machine.

While conventional composers might hear notes in their head and then be exacting in their capture on paper, Nickel says he envisions a work as “its own planet, with its rules or parameters—and forces that act on it.”

There could be 10 conversations between the two before the musician brings the performance alive. For this process, you have to be good with relinquishing control, says Nickel.

“I think it is a release, for sure.”

He grew up around his mom’s gospel music and his dad’s love of progressive rock. His parents told him he had to take piano lessons for a year before he could pick a different instrument. He chose peaceful options: harp (but it was too expensive) and flute. “The flute music I ended up playing was not that peaceful,” he says.

Nickel was a U of M student when he co-founded Cluster: New Music + Integrated Arts Festival in Winnipeg. Now in its 10th year and billed as Canada’s most dynamic take on contemporary art and sound, the festival merges all forms, from media arts to burlesque dance.

It was during a university class on experimental improv, led by Prof. Gordon Fitzell, that Nickel became interested in different takes on sound. While serving food with classmates for a fundraiser, utensils morphed into instruments as prep became performance with the whirring of food processors and the searing and flambéing of dishes.

He’s not sure what to call this. Sound performance? Music?

“Somewhere in between all of those things.”

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