YellowBarnBlog

Improvisation for all

Friday, June 19, 2015

David Weininger writes about Battle Trance's performance for The Boston Globe:

Travis Laplante was 10 when he made what would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of his life. He was a fourth-grader in Woodstock, Vt., and it was time to choose an instrument to play in the school band. He didn’t know what he wanted to play, though he’d thought about the drums since that was obviously the coolest option. So he asked his mother — not, as far as he knew, a terribly musical person.

“I remember her looking at me in the eyes and saying, ‘You know, Travis, I just really love the saxophone,’ ” Laplante says in a phone conversation. “There was something about that — I can’t really talk about it in terms of logic, but I said, OK, Mom, I’m going to play the saxophone.”

It turned out to be an auspicious choice, since Laplante, 32, has built a career as a tenor saxophonist whose musical acuity encompasses both avant-garde classical compositions and free jazz. Yet he seems to move forward, open up new projects, less by conscious choice than by a kind of intuition — almost as if someone else were making the decision through him.

Take the formation of Battle Trance, the saxophone quartet that will be performing at the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Brattleboro on Friday. Late in 2012, Laplante was working a part-time job when he had what he calls “this very strong feeling” that he had to form a band with three other tenor players: Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner.

A quartet of tenor saxophonists would be unusual enough, but for Laplante it wasn’t about the specific instrumentation — it was those three people. This despite the fact that while he “sort of” knew Breiner from New School University, which they had both attended, he had met the other two only in passing. He had no idea what they were like or what their musical proclivities were. But they were, unquestionably, the guys for the band.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Laplante says, laughing, when the basic outlines of this unlikely scenario are repeated back to him. Even he didn’t seem to quite believe it. “There was a side of me that was like, You’ve got to be kidding me – a quartet of tenor saxophones? I’d never thought of that before. It was quite . . . unusual.”

But when he tracked down the other three by e-mail and told them what he wanted to do, they all responded quickly and affirmatively. When they first got together, Laplante didn’t have any music written, nor did he even know precisely what he wanted the band to do.

“I just wanted to get everyone in the room and see what would happen,” he says. “And we ended up mostly talking, getting to know each other, but in a very intimate, vulnerable way where I wanted to express to them what matters to me, in life and in music, and to just have an open conversation to make sure that that resonance, that feeling I had at work, was really true.”

That rehearsal ended with the four of them holding a unison B-flat, the lowest note on the instrument, “for I don’t know how long. A half-hour, maybe 45 minutes. Just to really be together, in sound.” Not long after that, Laplante began writing “Palace of Wind,” the 45-minute work that pretty much forms the entirety of Battle Trance’s repertoire.

Or, as he puts it, “the piece started writing itself.” Almost nothing was written down; Laplante transmitted the music orally to the other three musicians, who memorized it. (A notated score was prepared later.) It was, Laplante says, “the most effortless process I’ve had writing music. . . . It felt like we were on completely fertile ground, and that there was this freshness, or this innocence, to almost everything we were playing.”

“Effortless” is not the word that comes to mind when listening to “Palace of Wind.” The work’s technical and expressive range is astounding: eerie chords with multiphonics, driving repeated notes, screaming melodic lines, and gripping moments of calm. The waves of sound are relentless, as there are almost no breaks in the piece even for the saxophonists to grab a breath; they use a technique known as circular breathing to sustain the piece over its duration.

It may sound forbidding, but when “Palace of Wind” was released last year on the New Amsterdam label, it won a host of plaudits, including mentions for best album of the year. One of the most insightful reviews came from Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller, who wrote about the disc for the music website The Talkhouse (www.thetalkhouse.com): “[T]his is Battle Trance’s first album and they are definitely onto something. . . . There is so much energy here. The newness of ‘Palace of Wind’ lies in the order and structure that contains that energy, and allows it to burst forth into your mind’s sky.”

In addition to performing “Palace of Wind,” Battle Trance will also work with musicians in Yellow Barn’s Young Artists Program on improvisation. It’s tempting to view this as a different side of Laplante’s artistic persona, one that runs through free jazz and the later John Coltrane records he devoured as a teenager. “But the fact is, I believe that everyone is born an improviser,” he says. “That’s something that as we go along in life sometimes gets a little bit closed off.” Part of what he wants to do with the students is “to relieve a certain fear that seems to have been instilled upon many classically trained musicians,” who view improvisation as foreign ground.

“A lot of it is equally about unlearning certain things,” he continues. “Like right now, as a musician, I feel like I have to unlearn as many things as I have to learn — actually undo particular conditioning and habits that I have, particular patterns of my mind, when improvising or playing music in general. So I’m hoping that some of that can be passed on — that it’s actually possible to play your dream. That is possible.”

Palace of Wind

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Since many of the techniques used in Palace of Wind are nearly impossible to notate in traditional form, the piece was transmitted via oral tradition. The rehearsals were much like martial arts training: intricate sounds were rigorously copied and repeated by the ensemble members until they perfected the techniques. Many hours were spent building the sheer strength required to sustain continuous circular breathing for extended periods. Likewise, a steady focus on physicality was required to repeat rapid note patterns for long periods without sacrificing speed. Palace of Wind is such a demanding composition that there is a high risk of physically burning out before the piece concludes, as once it begins there is no opportunity for rest or even a quick drink of water. There was also extensive training in dissolving the distinct individual identities of the players into the greater collective sound: The band did various long-tone exercises, similar to group meditation, the purpose being to blend together into one sound, so that the origin of the collective sound's components is completely impossible to discern - even by the members of the ensemble.

Palace of Wind does embrace both the cerebral nature of composition and the visceral act of performance, but immediately locates itself, the musicians, and the audience in a purely spiritual space. It is a new kind of music and therefore modern, and yet it's absolutely primordial, the transformative act of human beings blowing air through tubes and producing something timeless.

"Mesmerizing...a floating tapestry of fascinating textures made up of tiny musical motifs, and a music that throbs with tension between stillness and agitation, density and light."—The New York Times

Read a conversation with Travis Laplante

Find out what others are saying about Battle Trance and Palace of Wind at Travis Laplante's website

O Moon of Alabama: A Kurt Weill Cabaret

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Actor and creator Walter Van Dyk speaks about the work he will do at Yellow Barn during an Artist Residency this May:

The idea really started way back in 1980 when I saw Alvin Epstein and Martha Schlamme perform Kurt Weill together at the Loeb Drama Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alvin had just directed me in the American Repertory Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and I also stayed on to do Brecht and Weill's  Happy End in the same season. It took about 10 years before I decided to put my own compilation show of Weill's songs together, and it kicked off a relationship with performing Weill songs over the past 20 years. 

Originally the Kurt Weill Cabaret which I devised was with a pianist and three other actor/singers, and the first performance took place on the London fringe in a suitably grotty pub theatre. We received such excellent notices by the London press that we ended up being asked to perform it by David Thacker at the Young Vic and taking it to Amsterdam for a three week run at the Stadsschouwburg.

After we disbanded, I met Liza Sadovy when we performed a German cabaret together called Send for Mr. Plim by Mischa Spoliansky (a contemporary of Kurt Weill's). At the time, I had said to Liza that I wanted to revive the Kurt Weill, and would she be interested in joining me as a duo. To my delight, she accepted and we ended up performing it in the West End, and also most recently in the UK at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Every time Liza and I come back to the show, we enjoy discovering new layers. As we've always performed the evening with just a pianist, we were completely thrilled at Seth Knopp's suggestion of doing this compilation show of Kurt Weill songs with a full ensemble comprising nine Yellow Barn musicians. Michael Haslam, our pianist and collaborator over the years, is currently making arrangements of all the songs specifically for this ensemble of musicians. We are all extremely excited at the prospect of mounting this performance of O Moon of Alabama: A Kurt Weill Cabaret in the United States, first in Putney and then in Dallas. We hope that as many people will come from miles around to celebrate and appreciate these stunning songs by one of the truly great cabaret composers, Kurt Weill.

Find out more about this residency performance

Song list:

Overture to The Threepenny Opera
Mack The Knife from Threepenny Opera
Barbara Song from Threepenny Opera
Liebeslied from Threepenny Opera
Tango Ballad Threepenny Opera
Alabama Song from The Rise and Fall of the House of Mahagonny
Herr Jacob Schmidt from Mahagonny
Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera
My Ship from Lady in the Dark
September Song from Knickerbocker Holiday
That's Him from One Touch of Venus
Tchaikovsky from  Lady in the Dark
Moon Faced—Starry Eyed from Street Scene
Surabaya Johnny from Happy End
Lonely House from Street Scene
Sailor's Tango from Happy End
Bilbau Song from Happy End

 

From Vermont and Baltimore, to Dallas

Sunday, February 1, 2015

FD, the lifestyle magazine of the Dallas Morning News, profiles Yellow Barn's Artistic Director, Seth Knopp, who also serves as Artistic Director of Soundings: New Music at the Nasher. Now in its fifth season, Soundings is the cornerstone of an ongoing collaboration between the Nasher and Yellow Barn.

View the printed version of this article as a PDF

If you put together the words serious music and Dallas, the first things you may think of are the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the acoustically perfect Meyerson, or the Dallas Opera in the lipstick-red Winspear.

Try to think a little differently.

You can be in the Arts District and skirt the glamour of the big venues and their more traditional programming. Seth Knopp, of the chamber music and piano faculties of the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Putney, Vermont, is a pianist. He is also a distinctly un-Dallas-like fellow. Soulful, Jewish, intellectual: He’d be more at home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side or in Brooklyn than in Dallas’ glitz. But since 2010, Knopp has been the man behind the most innovative, quirky music series in this city. Soundings: New Music at the Nasher blends the tried and true with the avant-garde — and it continues to play to packed houses. In November, the superb young cellist Alisa Weilerstein played solo works by Bach and then 20th-century masters. This month, and in April and May, “Music From Yellow Barn” will involve percussion and string quartets, the harmonious and the dissonant.

Knopp, 55, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, a math professor, was besotted with music; his mother was an amateur pianist. He studied with the master pianists Leonard Shure and Leon Fleisher and, while in Philadelphia, played classical cocktail piano at a restaurant near the University of Pennsylvania campus. By 1987 he was ensconced in Baltimore; in 1998 he took over Yellow Barn. The center for chamber-music study and concerts was founded in 1969, and now hosts more than 4,000 people who come to hear more than 100 musicians yearly. Just last month, Yellow Barn was presented a prestigious honor, for the second time, with a telling name: the Adventurous Programming Award from Chamber Music America and the American Society of Composers and Publishers. All this — plus classes, studios, workshops and residencies — amid 100 rolling, idyllic acres in southeastern Vermont. (Yellow Barn’s eight studios are there on the campus of the Greenwood School, for boys with dyslexia and other learning differences. It also makes use of the Big Barn performance space, in downtown Putney, just three miles away.) Knopp is Yellow Barn’s artistic director.

He certainly obsesses over music. “One reason to do [it],” Knopp says, “is to understand life better and to bring you in touch with other people. But it’s also a fact that music is a window to the world.” That missionary zeal is part of what brought Knopp together with Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center. Yellow Barn and Nasher patrons Charles and Jessie Price — the music supporters keep a low philanthropic profile in Dallas, very much off the radar — made the connection. “I indicated,” says Strick, “that we needed a brilliant programmer to organize” a new-music program. “Charles suggested Seth, whom he’d met years earlier when Seth performed in a concert at the Nasher.” When Soundings began, both Strick and Knopp had no idea whether people would come. Now, the 200-seat Nasher auditorium, about the size of Yellow Barn’s main Big Barn performance space, is usually sold out for each program, well in advance. The concerts, says Strick, “engage and challenge audiences in [the Nasher’s] intimate space — something Dallas is clearly eager to experience.” No matter where it’s heard, Knopp is building audiences and making people realize there is no reason to fear new music. In fact, he doesn’t think about his programs geographically: His only goal is that the performers and their audiences “lose themselves in their listening.” He says he loves the Texas openness about collaborations between groups, the cross-pollination that comes out of — and then feeds back into — a sense of community. A different kind of community is, of course, the very essence of the chamber works and other small groupings that the Nasher presents, nothing so large as a full-scale orchestral program. For Knopp, acutely alert to the transcendent power of music, the greatest pleasure comes in these small groups. What he likes best is working with singers, and in May he will collaborate with the soprano Lucy Shelton in a performance of Arnold Schönberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, on a program that will also include theater and cabaret songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Yet for all the public aspects of music and music-making, Knopp remains, like many performers, instinctively private. For the public, he relishes performing Beethoven — but in the solitude of his own room, it’s Bach and Chopin. He performs and has teaching residencies all over: Toronto, Austin, Chicago and Washington state have been recent stops. At home in Baltimore, he administers, creates programs and works with chamber ensembles and pianists at Peabody. I ask how long he can go without practicing, especially when he’s on the road. Three days without playing for himself, he says, induces twitchiness. “Practicing becomes a home. It’s not a chore. It’s where you find yourself. When I’m at the piano, I know that’s where I’m meant to be.”

By Willard Spiegelman

Yellow Barn’s 2015 Summer Artwork

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Eric Aho, Figures in a Landscape, 2014, 50×60", oil on canvas, Courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

Figures in a Landscape is a recollection of a walk through a bright, wide field with friends in late summer. The “figures” in this painting are enveloped by the surrounding landscape, an integral part of it like the grasses in the foreground.

—Eric Aho

Eric Aho (b. 1966) is an American painter known for his gestural, abstracted canvases evoking natural forms and color. Aho’s paintings arise from direct experiences in the landscape and are then developed primarily in the studio from memory.

Aho studied at the Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London, England and received a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. In 1989 he participated in the first exchange of scholars in over thirty years between the U.S. and Cuba. He completed his graduate work at the Lahti Art Institute in Finland supported by a Fulbright Fellowship in 1991-92 and an American-Scandinavian Foundation grant in 1993.

His work is included in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. Aho was elected National Academician of the National Academy Museum in 2009. He lives and works in Saxtons River, Vermont. DC Moore Gallery in New York has represented his work since 2009 and will present an exhibition of new paintings in October 2015.

Find out about the 2015 Summer Season

Yellow Barn in the Boston Globe's "Top Ten of 2014"

Sunday, December 28, 2014

On August 3, 2014 Yellow Barn's 45th Summer Season came to a close with an unannounced performance of All The Things You Are for piano left hand alone performed by Leon Fleisher as a gift for Yellow Barn musicians and audience members. This magical moment appeared in the Boston Globe's "Top Ten Performances of 2014" alongside performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Handel & Haydn Society.

Read Jeremy Eichler's feature article about Yellow Barn and its season finale

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