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this may be the most ethically compromised review you’ll ever read: Yarn/Wire at FRANKIE presented by Monday Evening Concerts

courtesy of Yarn/Wire

Yarn/Wire is a quartet composed of two percussionists (Sae Hashimoto and Russell Greenberg) and two pianists (Laura Barger and Julia Den Boer). They presented two beautiful concerts earlier this month in large warehouse space FRANKIE in the Arts District, presented by Jonathan Hepfer and Monday Evening Concerts. 

Yarn/Wire is also my favorite chamber ensemble. I have attended their summer Institute twice. I have my own 2pno/2perc ensemble based largely on the work they’ve done, taking advantage of their large commissioned body of work. I have another mostly-piano ensemble in which ALL of the members have attended the Institute. They have played my music, and I have played theirs.

I also work (as Associate Producer) for Monday Evening Concerts, the longest running new music ensemble in Los Angeles, about to enter its 85th year, and helped produce these programs (and run live sound). I’ve known Jonathan Hepfer from our overlapping stays at CalArts, since 2017.

Though I’ve never made any claims otherwise, I feel like it’s only right that I tell you that this may be the most ethically compromised review you’ll ever read. I tend to get involved with lots of new music orgs here in Los Angeles, so to find a concert that I’m completely agnostic to is a bit of a challenge. But even so, it’s almost funny to find myself this intertwined in a production.

So, in order to ease any (assuredly mostly self-directed) claims of unfair bias, the format of this review will need to change. Instead of offering an opinion, I’ll take you through a bit of my day as I work through the two concerts.

The audience were seated in a round, surrounding the ensemble, with speakers at the perimeter of the room facing inward, and around the ensemble facing outward. The first concert began with a work by Tyondai Braxton in which (in its recorded version) it is difficult to discern who is playing what, when, and where. Its title gives you hints (“music for ensemble and pitch shifter/delay”) and when seen live (here in a rare performance and its West Coast premiere), you can see how much the electronics are playing with the ensemble – not under, or against. The program notes (which hilariously are written by me) note how the live processing fills in the gaps horizontally (hocketing against the instrumentalists) and vertically (filling in registers, especially low ones, that the musicians themselves are not playing). I love the ambiguity of what is “played” and what is processed in the recorded version of this piece, and my goal as the live sound engineer in presenting it was to try to replicate that experience for the audience that would most likely be hearing it for the first time.

After a moment for applause, the piano lids were closed with small microphones placed inside; Sarah Davachi’s “Feedback Studies for Percussion” relies on the performers’ ability to manually balance their own sounds constructed by overtone reinforcement and acoustic feedback, aided secondarily by the microphones at each instrument. The closed piano lids create an acoustic chamber, in which certain resonant frequencies are encouraged to gather by the size and shape of the open space in the pianos. This, combined with the ringing metals played by the percussionists, creates a composite mass of sound that, at its best, is just on the edge of spilling over into “too much.” The performance functions on multiple parameters of this feeling of “spilling over”; I was told, as the live sound engineer, to push the sound as loud as I could before feeding back. The performers are doing this ‘manually’ as well, using their ears and pacing sensibilities to keep the machine whirring without letting the built up energy expire or crest too quickly. There is even a physical analogue to this in the ringing metals; gongs and some other large metal idiophones have a kinetic actuation point; you hit it a little too hard, and overtones spill out of the instrument and the quality of the sound changes drastically. There is a feeling of control, balance and sustain, coupled somehow non-paradoxically with a sense of “leaning forward” through its roughly 20-minute run time.

Andrew McIntosh’s “Little Jimmy” closes the program, a delicately constructed piece obituarizing the trees in and around the Little Jimmy campsite in the Angeles National Forest on Mt. Islip. The field recordings used in the piece are part of the collective memory of Little Jimmy which burned in the 2020 Bobcat Fire; the psithurism here is one of few ways left to experience the trees (that word is “the sound of the wind through leaves”, a word I must have picked up from from McIntosh himself). “Little Jimmy” loves high metals and scraped stones, pairing them alternatingly with a marching 16th note piano statement, and bowed metals. The piece exists in a mirror form, at the heart of which sits a slowly-unfolding hum of bowed piano which grows over ten minutes into a roar, with Yarn/Wire wailing on bell plates and the lowest notes on the piano. After the dust settles, we think we hear birds and the wind through the trees again. The field recordings exist sometimes at the edge of audibility; before the concert, I asked McIntosh how I should balance the field recordings to the quartet, to which he said “like it’s a quintet” and walked away.

The second concert began two hours after the sunlight had left the room; the large globe lights above the audience were dimmed, the centre lights completely shut off, with four paper lanterns added surrounding the ensemble to provide local light. The atmosphere seemed to pull the audience in closer to listen to the first piece of the second program, Klaus Lang’s “Molten Trees.” This is a favorite Yarn/Wire commission of mine; superballed bass drums punctuated by antiphonal claves is just somehow a perfect sound. It begins the piece, which then gives way to a forest of triangles, then a continual exploration of sustained sounds. The warbling of a vibraphone motor, the hum of an e-bow on piano string, the hammering chords on a piano all work to create a cloth of different textures; the sections of “Molten Trees” change slowly enough to draw your attention into the details, how the rhythm of one sustain is just barely faster than the other. How the chime attacks blend together smoothly while the drier piano material continues to run on top. Somehow, in glacially moving chunks of sound, each interaction between instrumentalists creates a vibrant composite inner rhythm. Then, click, claves return. It is an unbelievably effective marker of a recapitulation; it is a little baffling at how much like “home” that material feels after listening to sound masses of different densities and textures for twenty minutes.

Sarah Hennies’ “Primers” closes both the program, and Yarn/Wire’s residency in Los Angeles. The program note, which, again, sorry, was written by me, explains: “Primers, like much of Sarah Hennies’ music of this time, is constructed in clean, discrete durational blocks which intersect, overlap, interrupt and dovetail. A hocketing musical gesture in one half of the ensemble persists, unchangingly, yet somehow still feels vibrant when the other half interrupts three minutes later. Frankly a masterwork in pacing and structure, Primers is simultaneously placid and rapid, slow and frenetic, unchanging yet continuously evolving. Primers invites both detailed listening and zoning out, and delivers a musical line which simultaneously intrigues, perplexes and captivates the listener.“ Yet another West Coast premiere (the fourth of the night), this piece was foundational to the programming of the evening since the very beginning of the production cycle; other pieces were added and stricken from the list, but Hennies was included since day one, months ago. My program note gives away some of my incredulity at the effective simplicity of the material, the piece works remarkably well; perhaps because of its simple construction, not in spite of it. The same musical material persists unchangingly for minutes at a time, giving you just enough time to wonder what’s coming next, yet still shock when it does. 

I heard a few concert-goers expound afterwards, with the recurring thought that putting Hennies and Lang on the same program may have been a programming error, and may have taxed the audience with its similarities. To me, this pairing was brilliant; both pieces share an affection for long stretches of material, registral extremes, and love of dry, percussive events. However, its shared characteristics may cloud each piece’s strong individual identities; where one stays on a single sound for minutes at a time, the other constantly morphs through added layers. Where one revels in continuous gridded rhythm, the other explores motion through dovetailing lines of music. The friction in this juxtaposition shows you how different two pieces with the same ingredients could be; the push of two opposing magnets that you know should belong together, I mean they look the same, don’t they?

pc: Jonathan Hefper


​DECEMBER 9, 2023 | 4PM and 8PM