Next Tuesday, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valilutto, Matt Barbier, Brian Walsh, and Derek Stein) will be performing an adventurous program at Monk Space, including two world premieres and some recent commissions. I interviewed Matt Barbier (trombone) about the program, the future of gnarwhallaby, commissioning, and more. Here’s what he said:
On June 5, you’ll be performing “Lullaby 4” by Nicholas Deyoe, world premieres by Olga Rayeva and Daniel Tacke, and recent commissions by Elise Roy and Richard Barrett. Can you tell us a bit about the works on the program?
It’s a fairly personal program for us in a lot of ways, especially at the group’s current juncture. Nick’s piece was the first major work written for our iteration of the quartet and what we made our Carnegie debut with, so it’s always been a very special piece that’s at the core of our repertoire and the work that is most closely tied to us as individual players. Dan’s piece is quite exciting for us because we’ve played a pre-exising work of his that had no trombone, but did have voice (the change to trombone is questionable), so we’re looking forward to being able to have a work of his that we all play. His piece is based on Morton Feldman’s Half a minute, it’s all I’ve time for, which is an actual 30 second piece Feldman wrote for the original group that we’ve enjoyed playing over the years, but can be a little odd to program. We look forward to playing something that is based on it, but has a little more room to breathe. Elise’s piece is a bit like Nick’s in the sense that it was written by a friend who we’ve all known quite a while, however we mostly know Elise from performing with her (she’s a very good flutist on top of her great composing). Because of this, her approach to us is from a very different angle than Nick and a very different type of familiarity, but we look forward to them sharing that space. Olga’s piece is a bit of wild card for us. I met Olga when she was a fellow at the Villa Aurora and she came to a concert I gave that included Michelle Lou’s colossal HoneyDripper and really enjoyed it. From there we started conversing a little bit and she asked to write us a piece. It’s really excitingly out and feels, in certain ways, to tie to some of the more ethereal works written for the early Polish group, who, I think, everyone in the group feels a kinship (or fondness?) for. Richard’s piece is probably our ‘biggest’ commission to date and something that was in the works for quite a while. We’re big fans of his music and have been discussing doing a concert of his music for a long time. The idea of getting a new piece came up a few times and so I ended up just asking and he was, very kindly, interested in writing quite a large piece for four people in jumpsuits. His piece is in four movements, each based on an important jazz artist for him: Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Miles Davis.
Were all the works you’ll be performing on this program gnarwhallaby commissions? What do you enjoy most about commissioning new works?
Everything on the program was written for us by people we know, or got to know in the process. Commissioning new works for gnarwhallaby has been an especially rewarding process because our group exists as the third iteration of an ensemble founded in Poland in the late 1960’s and we’ve tried to be very cognizant of the instrumentation’s history when contributing new works. The Warsztat Muzyczny had a very particular bend to their own commissions and the Quartet Avance did a lot to keep the repertoire alive while adding their set of works that related but also reflected the generation that they were of. It’s been an exciting challenge to find composers whose music fits into that progression but also reflects our own interests, particularly as the first American group.
How did you get started as an ensemble? Has the group’s goals and/or focus changed since you formed in 2011?
Our origins come from CalArts where we were all students. We weren’t there together but everyone overlapped as MFAs (Brian’s last year was Matt’s first, Matt’s 2nd was Derek’s first, and Derek’s 2nd was Richard’s first). I (Matt) had a very keen interest in this one specific piece by Gorecki, which Brian, Derek, and I all played together before Richard arrived, and that interest led to finding a treasure trove of other works (over 60). At first our focus was to primarily revive that repertoire and occasionally add new pieces. However, over time our focus has really shifted to a much heavier focus on new works by people we like to work in close collaboration with.
What are your thoughts about how gnarwhallaby’s repertoire fits within the existing canon, either in the context of your particular instrumentation or in the wider context of chamber music?
It’s a fun group in a lot of ways given that we’ve got three instruments that can be quite loud and one that can only be…moderate? So our instrumentation has kind of violated some understood orchestration rules from it’s very origin, while also functioning as a micro orchestra. It has a very traditional but also somewhat unique place in the canon in terms of the way the ensemble functions. A huge portion of our repertoire functions as the clarinet, cello, and trombone as a meta instrument that fits with the piano. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it is something that happens quite consistently from a wide range of composers so one wonders if it is something inherent to the nature of the group. On the personal side (as a trombonist that is), it fits in the canon in a very unique way because of this. Many composers (whether related to range, touch, velocity, color, etc.) demand that the trombone not only do things that’s not quite in it’s understood nature to do, but do them as well as the other three instruments. So it’s fairly unique in the canon of brass music that you’re being held against very idiomatic writing for instruments that do very different things than your own.
What’s in store for the future of the band?
Well we’re entering quite a new and kind of terrifying stage. Very shortly Richard will be leaving LA to get a doctorate at Cornell so we’ll have to sort out a new mode of existing and this will be our last show for a little while. We’re all quite close friends and we rehearse a lot over long periods of time. And drink lots of coffee. So we’ll have to, sadly, find a new mode. We’re planning Exhibit B, however. It’ll include music by Nicholas Deyoe, Michelle Lou, Andrew Greenwald, and Adriana Holszky. We’re also planning some more large scale concerts, including the full Barrett cycle.
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.