Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.
Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.
One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.
In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.
A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.
Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.
Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists? What were you all doing before it? Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?
Russell Greenberg: I don’t think any of us thought we would do this. I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take. Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together. I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together. It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group. It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.
Laura Barger: We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about. That’s how things got started. There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.
RG: Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well. They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more. It kind of grew from that.
FJO: Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.
Ning Yu: No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined. Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.
FJO: Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this. Russell said that he always wanted to play new music. I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that. What you were doing musically before starting this?
Ian Antonio: I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music. I still love orchestral music. But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.
FJO: Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.
LB: I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists. I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed. I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff. I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music. So that’s what I wanted to do.
NY: Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters. During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates. When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music. There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.
FJO: You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play. But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists. There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.
RG: When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that. So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—
LB: —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—
RG: –So we started playing that stuff. But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.
LB: Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.
RG: It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.
IA: I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear. We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van. It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff. Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.
RG: When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of. So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could. But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.
IA: Or flexible.
RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed. In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version. After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves. We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now. And that’s been really exciting.
FJO: So how do you find composers that you want to work with? Are they recommended? Do you hear stuff? How do you put your feelers out? What’s your process for discovering something new?
NY: I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more. I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?” And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”
IA: It’s largely people we know.
LB: The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places. But in New York, there’s so much happening. Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.
Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.
RG: I agree with what you guys are saying. If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years. So you start with what you know. Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit. People would suggest things, like Ning said. For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way. Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting. That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time. I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.” It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.
NY: The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”
RG: Like Beethoven. If he was alive, we would have asked him.
FJO: I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble. So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you. How does that work? If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?
IA: I don’t think that’s ever happened. We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it. This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea. The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.
RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like. So the matter of taste starts coming up. I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.
LB: And it’s hard for pieces that are already written. We can’t really do that.
We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.
RG: We can’t just play every piece that comes to us. We don’t have a venue. There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece. So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time. When we were students, time was unlimited almost. But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.
IA: Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything. But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it. It excludes it before it begins.
FJO: It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.
IA: I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.
A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.
FJO: That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you. I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.
IA: Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.
NY: We do acquire a lot of new things.
LB: Small things.
NY: Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?
LB: Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.
FJO: So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.
RG: I would like to, if I could.
IA: It’s a money thing.
RG: We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo. We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut. But a set of chimes is a couple grand.
IA: Seven thousand dollars.
RG: Set of timpani, same. So, context is everything. If we get a grant to do it, yeah. We’ll get some chimes. I’d love to get some chimes.
Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.
FJO: But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time. But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together? What’s a typical week?
LB: It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going. But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks. And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone. So I would say we spend a lot of time together.
NY: I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other. Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends. And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour. So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.
FJO: And the amount of time spent here in this studio?
RG: We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks. Some weeks more, some weeks less.
FJO: If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier. Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up. Right?
IA: No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff. But it’s limited to two checked bags. We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.
NY: Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need. Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.
FJO: So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible? What isn’t possible? I’m curious about that process. How long does it take? How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece? How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance? What have been the extremes?
If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.
RG: Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you. In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that. But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare. But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen. We’re going to play the premiere. They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again. It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep. And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.
IA: And we like to play pieces we like.
RG: Yeah, that’s a given.
IA: It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.
NY: Depending on the composer, the process is also very different. Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow. Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind. Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years. It all varies quite a bit. But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well. So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting. And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.
FJO: You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.
Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.
LB: Yes. I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece. Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them. We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing. We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation. Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style. He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.
IA: Fully engraved.
NY: Beautiful, and ready to go.
FJO: And you never met him.
LB: Well, not at that stage.
RG: But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.” So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.
LB: Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right. So you and the composer have to find what that sound is. What do you want? How does this work? And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.
RG: We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it. Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.
IA: Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years. It was just kind of an oral tradition.
FJO: I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it. Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you. But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere. Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements. So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?
RG: We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.
IA: The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently. We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated. I don’t know what that will be like.
LB: I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.
Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.
RG: When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing. That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it. That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.
FJO: Getting back to choices of composers. You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it. You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women. You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?
LB: I think we’re aware of all those things. We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music. So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to. It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.
IA: Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece. Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with? That’s been maybe the primary driver.
RG: There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm. And again, we can’t really answer that.
FJO: One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California. I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him. Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.
RG: I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer. He lives in L.A. I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed. Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers. So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking. That’s how that came about. It was a personal connection.
FJO: And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is. So how did that work out?
IA: He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.
NY: And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.
LB: Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.
NY: And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality. At least that’s how it sounded to me.
FJO: We talked about working with a composer more than once. Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you. This is a luxury. We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources. You basically only get their first attempt. I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion. There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.
NY: I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours. For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us. He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.
RG: That’s his second piece for us.
IA: I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing. It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces. I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration. He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.
RG: A good idea.
IA: Yeah. Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it. He knows our desire is there.
RG: It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people. How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces? Like four or five years.
IA: Six years.
RG: That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person. Your interests change.
LB: We’ve changed, too.
RG: We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older. And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!
NY: The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.
FJO: Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before. I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.
LB: Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday. He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy. But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.
IA: It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do. And he probably has six hours of us on video.
RG: Most of that should just get tossed.
NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?”
LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”
NY: Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this? We could start at point A, and then go to point B.” He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that. And I’ll see you in two weeks.” Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting. Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?” So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.
IA: It was really fluid.
RG: Figuring out the connections. This is one that we don’t use a score for. We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated. It was awesome.
IA: I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.
LB: And maybe more material.
IA: Yeah, there could be.
FJO: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece. This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand. With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them. But you move around, all of you.
LB: Absolutely, yeah.
FJO: So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.
LB: It’s very difficult to get that right.
NY: With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.
FJO: So things you can do versus things you can’t do. Things you feel uncomfortable doing. Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?
RG: Get bloody.
LB: We would never want to injure ourselves.
NY: Or the piano.
LB: There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do. However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano. Then we might do it. But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.
We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.
RG: If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable. We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.
FJO: You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.
IA: And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.
FJO: So do any of you write your own pieces?
RG: I think we’ve all written stuff.
LB: When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day. My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer. In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.
I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.
IA: I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.
NY: So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music. Not really.
FJO: I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.” He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are. And I think that he really made a very persuasive case. And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.” Is that true?
IA: Well, they certainly stood the test of time. You can’t argue with that point.
FJO: So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets? Could it stand the test of time? Will it stand the test of time? Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?
RG: Can we even answer that? I don’t know. I’ll be dead.
IA: If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world? Who knows anything? There are pieces that feel good to me. But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.
LB: I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument. So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.
RG: There are a lot of political things behind that question. What kind of music are we talking about? What’s the history of that music? Where are we now? Who gets to hear that music? It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first. Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask. What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps. To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.
LB: Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon? Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition. If people feel that way, that’s fine. I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.
RG: Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces? How were those other pieces developed? Were they just developed by themselves? We don’t actually know one hundred percent. So maybe we are following in that tradition. But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.
Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.
IA: One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days. That piece is from the early ‘70s. Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made. Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations. I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time. There’s also that which you can’t really compare.
NY: It’s not a value thing. It’s simply a performance practice question.
RG: It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing. To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.
LB: I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time. And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition. You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings. You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact! In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?
IA: It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.
NY: I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow. And then writing to us. They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces. So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.
It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.
RG: When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets. I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs. So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did. I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again. It is a way for people to have access to that music. It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out. You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want. But it doesn’t even matter. Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff. And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool. But that’s beside the point. The point is that more people have access to it. And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about. All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing. We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.
FJO: Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places. You’ve come full circle.
IA: We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.
LB: We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.
IA: They’re non-premieres.
Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.