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.
Sitting in Bing Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, I found myself experiencing a unique insight into Hungarian culture at The Vision of Moholy-Nagy and Contemporary Music. The performance was timed to coincide with the Moholy-Nagy exhibition Future Present at LACMA. In all fairness, there was a dose of German culture mixed in too, since the ideals of the Bauhaus school (of which the Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was a prominent figure) were a resonating theme throughout the evening. The performers came from all over: Hungary, yes, but also Los Angeles and New York. True to the Bauhaus movement, different approaches to music, technology, and art were combined, necessitating the concert to be a multi-disciplinary event – even the walk to the theater involved passing some pretty spectacular sculptures and architecture.
The concert began with the fearless Gőz–Kurtág–Lukács Trio, who performed various selections of electro-acoustic works on cimbalom, trombone/bass trumpet/seashells, and synthesizer/computer, with mesmerizing visualizations by Szabolcs Kerestes. Partly through-composed and partly improvised, these works were a collective microcosm of the Hungarian classical electronic music scene, a creatively vital genre during the repressive decades of state socialism. Their performance transported me to a meditative, almost spiritual state, yet somehow simultaneously rooted me with technical, detailed focus. I was entranced by the immaculate, reverberant textures, ranging from pointillist and chaotic to celestial and broadly gestural. The accompanying visualizations featured rapidly moving lines, shapes, and colors, and were directly responsive to live sound. The exception to this rule was György Ligeti’s graphic score to Artikulation, which was comically incredible to watch on a big screen with surround sound.
Lukas Ligeti, who recently moved to Southern California for a new teaching position at UCI, was the featured composer after intermission. The art of the Bauhaus movement, and of Moholy-Nagy, seems to have a marked influence on Ligeti’s music, which showed impressive breadth, experimentation, and proportional symmetry. He presented three works with varying instrumentation and compositional approaches. The first, Language: PROUN: music (2016), had its west coast premiere by soprano Ariadne Grief and wild Up members Matthew Barbier (trombone), Matthew Cook (vibraphone), Derek Stein (cello), and Andrew Tholl (violin). The piece itself is a reaction to Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition Future Present, and follows the Bauhaus tradition in its unconventional exploration of balance and symmetry (however, this is done on Ligeti’s own terms). While in many cases text is made to fit the cadences of music, Ligeti turns the usual plot on its head by allowing the natural rhythm of freely-flowing speech to entirely dictate the music. Continuing on with the natural progression of this idea, the instrumentalists follow the cadences led by the soprano, which Ariadne Grief accomplished with radiant, playful sincerity.
Next was Thinking Songs (2015), a fiercely virtuosic five-movement work for solo marimba. Few marimbists could have pulled it off like Ji Hye Jung – she not only played it perfectly, but also somehow made it look easy (in fact, she danced through the hardest parts). The technical expertise required for movements such as Four-Part Invention and Dance was matched by a musical expressivity that was stunning to behold. The composition itself took us an incredible musical journey: exploiting timbral possibilities with different mallets in Dance, slow-moving lines in Lamento, technical impossibilities manifested into reality in Four-Part Invention, playful exploration of prepared marimba in Scherzo, and quasi-minimalist shifting accents in Two-Part Invention.
Closing the show were three works for Notebook, an ensemble founded by Ligeti to explore the intersection between composition and improvisation. These pieces featured not one but two electric guitars (Eyal Maoz and Tom McNalley), trombone (Rick Parker), violin (Amma Savery), saxophone (Daniel Blake), synthesizer (Ricardo Gallo), and the composer on drums. The performance was pure fun, with an exploratory energy that reconfirmed the experimental and playful side to Ligeti’s musical personality.
From Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music comes a new CD by Michael Jon Fink titled From a Folio, featuring Derek Stein on cello and the composer at the piano. Michael Jon Fink has a distinguished 30+ year career as a composer and his music has been performed at the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as a number of other venues and festivals throughout the United States and Europe. The long arc of his composing career has allowed Michael Jon Fink to refine his style of understated eloquence through simple musical materials, and From a Folio is a fine example of just how much this can achieve.
All of the tracks on this CD are short – running from two to a little over three minutes. All but one of the tracks use the same combination of spare piano rhythms accompanied by the cello. The first track, Invocation, is typical – the piano provides a steady, purposeful line of single notes in a rising, repeating sequence. The cello follows the piano, but in an unexpected register – high but not shrill – and the cello ends each passage on a sustained tone that compliments piano figure. This simple structure is unhurried and restful. Good control of intonation and pitch by Derek Stein is critical – the cello is almost never heard in its lower, warmer ranges.
Heiroglyph is next and this has a more mysterious feeling in the piano passages. The rhythms are a series of straightforward, deliberate notes. The cello follows with soft, sustained tones that add to the enigmatic atmosphere. Melos follows and here the piano weaves its line of single notes around very simple cello tones. More complexity is heard in the piano as this piece unfolds, but by the finish it has resumed its restrained character.
Aftersong, on track 4, is a completely different piece consisting of just the cello in a series of slow, dramatic tones that have been recorded separately but are heard together in this track. This has a sense of lonely isolation and is played with great feeling by Derek Stein who also performs with Gnarwhallaby and wildUp, two Los Angeles groups known for a much more animated and energetic sound – this CD is impressive evidence of a softer, more introspective side to his playing.
The remaining tracks – From a Folio, Over and Exit – return to the original combination of piano and cello. From a Folio, track 5, suggests a questioning feel in the quiet piano chords. The cello answers by way of single, sustained tones that are masterfully infused with emotion. Over is a more solemn piece, with a tinge of sadness. Exit, the last track, opens with a series of luminous piano notes that seem to hang suspended in the air. The cello shortly picks up the same notes, sustaining them while the piano replies in quiet counterpoint. The cello, again in a high register, repeats the opening theme as the piano adds a few short arpeggios. The solitary sound of the cello plays out as the track concludes.
From a Folio is the perfect title for this CD. Each piece is one of a series of brilliant jewels as if cut from the same stone. From a Folio by Michael Jon Fink is music that is simple, yet essential – an elegant vessel of deep expression.
From a Folio CB0039, is available from Cold Blue Music starting October 14, 2014
Ashley Walters and Derek Stein, cellos, and Ryan Nestor, percussion, performed Nicholas Deyoe’s piece Erstickend at WasteLAnd’s concert back in April at Art Share. It was such a cool piece and killer performance that I thought it deserved to be heard/seen on here.
WasteLAnd’s second season at Art Share starts next Friday, September 19, with Justin DeHart performing John Luther Adams’ The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies. Details are at wastelandmusic.org.