WROCLAW, POLAND — With her right hand on her hip, Agata Zubel stood in front of a large black music stand, listening intently to the conversation between the members of eighth blackbird, a six-piece Chicago-based ensemble working on the contemporary classical piece “Madrigal,” by the French composer Christophe Bertrand.
As the musicians discussed whether to use a metronome — in the form of an app on the smartphone of their pianist, Lisa Kaplan — Ms. Zubel made notes on her sheet music. The group was rehearsing for the Wratislavia Cantans, an international festival of oratorio and cantata music held each September in Wroclaw, Poland.
As the musicians began playing — without metronome — Ms. Zubel started singing: a high-pitched vocal line, in French. The cacophony of sounds — from cello, flute, piano, clarinet, violin and percussion — resembled a musical version of spring gone awry, with shifting quick high notes and booming sporadic percussion. As the last note reverberated across the rehearsal room, the musicians relaxed and smiled at one another. Ms. Zubel laughed. “So much work for such a short piece,” she said.
The 37-year-old Ms. Zubel has, in a relatively short career so far, become one of Europe’s most accomplished and internationally successful contemporary classical composers and vocalists. In 2013 her composition “Not I” for chamber ensemble, electronic instruments and voice was deemed the best of the year by the International Music Council’s International Rostrum of Composers. The recorded performance of that piece, with Austria’s Klangforum Wien, was listed as one of the New Yorker’s Top Ten notable performances and recordings for 2014.
She has been commissioned to write pieces for global festivals and orchestras from Seattle to Tel Aviv. Her discography includes over a dozen albums, including “Dream Lake,” with the Finnish pianist Joonas Ahonen, and “Stories Nowhere From,” an album of experimental electronic music with the pianist and composer Cezary Duchnowski that will be released Nov. 6. The duo, who have worked together for years, perform as ElettroVoce.
In October, Ms. Zubel, who is married to a fellow Polish composer, Michal Moc, began a three-month fellowship in Austria, where she will be composing an opera for the Klangforum Wien. The group will also perform “Not I” at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England in November.
In January, she will perform at New York’s Ferus Festival, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will premiere her commissioned work “Chapter 13,” based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” Next May the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris will premiere a new instrumental electronic piece by her, and in October the Seattle Symphony will perform an orchestral piece she is writing for the company.
“She will do everything possible to bring the music to life and she is such an incredible stage animal, just to be on stage with her is an experience,” said Mikhail Shmidt, a violinist with both the Seattle Chamber Players and the Seattle Symphony, and a longtime friend.
One of her best-known pieces was a work for the Seattle Chamber Players entitled “Cascando.” The piece, written a decade ago, has become something of a calling card for her and has been performed by groups across the globe. Since then, Ms. Zubel has become a very good friend of the Chamber Players.“Sometimes,” Mr. Shmidt said with a laugh, “I feel like we almost subconsciously are creating our seasons with some kind of possibilities that she would come here.”
Jeffrey Zeigler, a cellist formerly with the Kronos Quartet who performed with Ms. Zubel at the Ferus Festival last spring, said that as a performer, Ms. Zubel had “that ‘thing,’ that ‘it,’ that quality where you walk in a room and go, ‘Wow, that was good.”’ “I don’t care if you like a completely different style of music, you, too, would be engaged by her artistry,” he added.
Though Ms. Zubel did not come from a musical family — her mother works in nanotechnology — she was drawn to music from an early age. She recalled that in her kindergarten in Wroclaw there was a piano that none of the children were allowed to touch during class. But in the afternoons, when many of her classmates had gone home, she and fellow students were allowed to play on it.
“I remember other children would ask their parents to pick them up early,” she recalled, “I always begged my mom to come very, very late, as it was the only time I could play the piano.”
Music lessons began when she was about 7, and though she started on the violin, her teacher noticed she had a good sense of rhythm and switched her to percussion. Unlike a piano or a violin, which is limited to specific sounds it can make, percussion music, she said, can be anything. “Whatever you want can be an instrument,” she said. “It can really open your mind and your imagination for the world of sound.”
Having won a children’s competition for composition when she was 10, Ms. Zubel was inspired to take her musical writing seriously. Later, while studying composition at the Karol Lipinski Academy of Music in Wroclaw, she discovered her voice as a singer. Asked to write a piece for a contemporary female vocalist who was coming to Wroclaw to perform, Ms. Zubel composed the experimental electronic piece “Parlando.” Later, in an academy musical showcase, she could not find anyone else to perform the piece and so decided to sing it herself.
“It was a very nice and strange moment after this concert: My composer colleagues went crazy, they started writing pieces for me to sing,” she recalled recently over tea in a café near Wroclaw’s new National Forum of Music.
That experience, she said, made her think that it might be important to train her voice — an idea that, as a percussionist, intrigued her. “This is a very small and very tiny instrument which is here to produce thousands of different beautiful sounds,” she said, “even if they are somehow strange and even if you are not used to it as a musical sound.”
The combination of being a composer and a vocalist is not only rare in classical contemporary music, but it also makes Ms. Zubel interesting to work with, fellow musicians say. “She is like a virtuosa performer,” Mr. Zeigler, the cellist, said. “In classical music, to actually have classical composers writing compositions on paper, that is a very unusual thing, and she does everything at such a high level. She is a special talent, for sure.”
Matthew Duvall, the percussionist of eighth blackbird, agreed. He first saw Ms. Zubel perform in Chicago a few years ago during the Contempo Festival, where she will perform again in February.
“A lot of vocalists have really remarkable instruments and really great stage presence, but she has a deeper sense of musicianship,” he said. “The reason I was excited about working with her, regardless of what she does — be it violin, piano, harmonica or voice — is she was clearly an intuitive chamber musician.” That intuition also comes across in her composing, which she does from her home office with a pencil and paper. She has a doctoral degree in composition and teaches the discipline at her alma mater in Wroclaw.
She acknowledged that contemporary classical music did not have broad appeal, but that it was music that reflected the here and now — not unlike classical music from previous centuries.
“This is art of my time,” she said.