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.
Art Share LA in the heart of downtown Los Angeles was the site on Friday May 15, 2015 of Tactile Sound, a concert of new music featuring the wasteLAnd musicians, Trio Kobayashi and other assorted soloists and guests. A good size crowd filled the roomy spaces of the comfortable Art Share venue.
The first piece on the program was The Flypaper by Steven Kazuo Takasugi. The stage was populated by Elise Roy, flute, and Stephanie Aston, listed as a soprano, but who appeared holding a flute. Microphones were positioned very near the flutes and speakers were placed in front and behind the audience. A single recorded voice was heard coming from the speakers, and this consisted of stretches of disjointed speech in what sounded like a man speaking in German. The flutes were heard initially as rushing air, with no tones produced and the recorded voice faded away, seeming to recede to the back of the room. The valves of the flutes were heard opening and closing, still without any tone being produced – a technique that continued throughout the piece. This sound was amplified and the effect was similar to hearing the dripping of water in a leaky basement. The use of the flute as an amplified percussive instrument was unexpected, challenging the listener’s expectation – but this was exactly on target with the Tactile Sound theme. The voice returned, in English this time, as the clicks and pops increased there was an undercurrent of mysterious discomfort that stopped just short of threatening, providing the connection to title of the piece. The Flypaper is a remarkable combination of electronics and conventional instruments used in unconventional ways. Steven Kazuo Takasugi was in attendance and received a warm round of applause.
Invisibility by Liza Lim followed and this was a solo cello piece performed by Ashley Walters. For this piece Ms. Walters used a bow with the hair strands wrapped rope-like around the bow stick. This produced a lovely combination of warm cello sounds and sustained, yet scratchy tones that were often rough but never crude. The overall effect was one of complexity, a mix of the alien and the familiar and clearly ‘tactile’. There was a vague sense of anxiety running through the piece and this was heightened with the unorthodox bow. It sometimes seemed that more than one instrument was in the room; the playing always sounded assured and under control. Midway through Ms. Walters picked up a conventional bow and the sounds became noticeably smoother with more individual notes. This section contained perhaps a bit more dynamic range – very light at times, and much stronger at others, especially in the lower registers. There were some smooth and harmonious stretches here that provided a good contrast to the opening sections. Towards the end of the piece both bows were used – one in each hand – to produce an intriguing mix of sounds that was at once both rough and soothing. Any remaining doubts about the virtuosity of Ms. Walters were dispelled by the enthusiastic applause that followed. Invisibility, like The Flypaper before it, is a piece that challenges the expectations of the listener in new and unusual ways.
The world premiere of eiszeiten by Richard Barrett was next, and this featured the playing of Trio Kobayashi – horn, trombone and tuba. The piece began with the sound of air rushing through the horns and tongued so as to create a kind of pinging sound. This was picked up and amplified through the speakers and the effect was like hearing the cold wind blowing. These sounds eventually morphed into tones from each horn, forming sustained chords that were somewhat high in pitch and dissonant at times, producing an otherworldly feel. The harmonies here were indefinably unorthodox – reminiscent of train horns that are close in pitch, and not quite forming a conventional interval. Powerful tutti chords were heard and these became more traditional in character as they gained in strength. The electronics emitted a deep bass drone and the players joined at approximately the same pitch with some zero-beating becoming audible at times. The brass then began to play passages of moving notes and this brought a sense of movement to the texture. The electronics replied with a loud dissonant chord – in full 1950s Sci-Fi mode – and the brass added a syncopated line that enhanced the alien feel of this section. The electronic sounds suddenly ceased and the brass trio played the piece to a close. Eiszeiten, which translates to Ice Ages, certainly evokes a cold, alien landscape and the integration of the electronics with the playing of Trio Kobayashi was precise and effective.
CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II by Eleanor Hovda followed, performed by Justin DeHart. This is the second piece of a five piece set, and was inspired by the rigors of cross country skiing as experienced by the composer. The graphical score, in fact, includes a series of marks and squiggles that resemble ski tracks. For this performance two cymbals were mounted on a single pedestal. The audience was asked to hum or sing a sustained tone as heard from the cymbals as they were bowed by DeHart. The sound produced by the bowing was generally high in pitch but full of overtones and this nicely suggested a cold, sunny day in a white landscape, with a stinging headwind blowing. The vertical motion of the bowing across the edge of the cymbals was itself was reminiscent of ski poles pumping up and down as the skier moved through a frozen landscape. The humming from the audience was mostly tentative, but added a smooth timbre and seemed to amplify the sounds coming from the cymbals. As the piece progressed the tempo slowed and the sound felt more labored, as if the skier was becoming fatigued. Towards the end the volume also decreased until there was just a low humming heard from the audience as the piece concluded. CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II is an artful work that produces the maximum effect from minimal musical forces yet delivers a vivid imagery to the mind of the listener.
After the intermission, Trio Kobayashi returned to play Tones and Noise II by Dustin Donahue. This began with a low roaring from the stage speakers, sounding very much like a rocket exhaust at close range. The horns joined in, playing syncopated notes that provided an interesting contrast to the noise texture. The roaring became intermittent and the brass passages more animated as if we were in the presence of a large beast or mechanism. The roaring noise was renewed and perceived as coming from different directions through the speakers on both sides of the audience. The brass parts became louder and longer, as if combining with and matching the roar. The feeling was that of being inside a rocket in space, hearing the blast of the engines and the sounds of mechanical automata as portrayed by the brass. Tones and Noise II is an intriguing piece that manages to work effectively on the imagination by using amplified noise and simple brass figures.
The final piece of the concert was the world premiere of Saxony by James Tenney in a version for brass quintet. James Tenney, an influential West Coast composer and educator, died in 2006, but this piece from among his unperformed works was selected for premiere at this concert. Trio Kobayashi was joined by two trumpet players – Jonah Levy and Aaron Smith – to complete the ensemble. Saxony opened with a low, sustained tone in the tuba, matched by the electronics coming through the speakers. At length the trombone entered, doubling the tuba and noticeably changing the timbre of the chord. The trombone moved up what sounded like a third and the horn entered changing the timbre yet again. All the tones were sustained and this anchoring of the sound by the low brass seemed almost Wagnarian – certainly German – and in keeping with title. The piece proceeded in this way, the trumpets adding their parts, piling pitches on top of pitches within the chord, all combining to create a powerful sound. The intonation here was critical and the ensemble held together admirably. When all the players were engaged, a series of trills in each horn added pleasing new colors and shortly after, each horn began to play a series of short phrases that added an agreeable variety to the texture. The piece then reversed – the tones tapering downward and the trumpets going tacet. The sound became lower and more cohesive, producing some lovely chords. When only the trombone, tuba and electronics remained, the sound became lush and warm. The piece concluded by slow diminuendo with the remaining horns laying out until only the tuba held the bottom note. When the sound finally ceased the audience remained silent for a good 15 seconds, a tribute perhaps more notable than the enthusiastic applause which followed. Saxony is masterful work that extracts considerable emotional impact from its minimal structure and pitch palette.
Trio Kobayashi is:
Alan Fogle – Horn
Matt Barbier – Trombone
Luke Storm – Tuba