Making the Experimental Accessible

Friday, October 23, 2015

(Photo courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center)

Catherine Womak writes about Yellow Barn Music Haul for D Magazine:

When planning an outdoor concert, perhaps it’s not a great idea to center the program around not just one, but two pieces of music titled “It’s Gonna Rain” (by Steve Reich and the Sensational Nightingales respectively). On Thursday evening, as if taunted by the music itself, the Texas skies opened up and a massive rainstorm forced the Nasher’s planned outdoor Soundings concert indoors. Call it prophetic or serendipitous, but the end result was a mesmerizing display of reverberating sounds, an alternative musical experience that was just as fascinating (if not more so) than the one planned.

The consistently evocative and interesting concert series Soundings: New Music at the Nasher opened its sixth season Thursday night with a concert that was supposed to feature Yellow Barn’s Music Haul, an alternative, flexible outdoor concert “hall” that can transform any street corner into a performance venue.

Yellow Barn’s Music Haul is actually a used 17-foot U-Haul truck that has been retrofitted by a team of designers into a sort of traveling pop-up concert hall (think: the classical music equivalent of a food truck). Along with a talented troupe of musicians, the transformed U-Haul truck is wrapping up its inaugural tour this week in Dallas, where it was supposed to have been set up on Flora Street Thursday night for an outdoor Arts District performance (the group did perform outdoors Wednesday night in the Bishop Arts District under friendlier, dryer skies).

The music presented on this tour is typical of what you might expect from the Nasher’s Soundings series. Avant-garde and modern, this is music that some might view as inaccessible, the kind of art music that appeals to jazz geeks, contemporary-art-gallery-goers and music school nerds who never miss an episode of Meet the Composer. The Music Haul concept is interesting because it seeks to make this somewhat esoteric music accessible to a more diverse audience by performing, quite literally, for your average man or woman on the street. While I didn’t get to see it in action outdoors, I’d imagine the schtick works. Who wouldn’t stop, if even for a few minutes, to watch a mesmerizing accordion/violin duet, see an intricate piece of music played entirely on beer and liquor bottles, or watch as a musician performs hand gestures meticulously synchronized to recorded sounds?

On Thursday evening, the Music Haul truck was backed up to the Nasher’s front doors, but the music itself was moved out of the rain and into the museum’s main entry hall. To maintain the feel of a flexible outdoor concert, audience members were handed folding stools as they entered and instructed to position themselves wherever they wanted in the space. The eclectic program opened with music composed and performed by the fantastic concert accordionist Merima Ključo. In her hands, the accordion was transformed, blending beautifully with amplified violin and voice and expanding preconceived notions about the capabilities and qualities of the instrument.

Klujco was joined throughout the evening by percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, sound engineer Julian McBrowne and members of the band Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Together they presented a mesmerizing and eccentric collection of pieces by living contemporary composers. The most recognizable name on the program was that of Steve Reich, whose It’s Gonna Rain, Part I (1965) and Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) were given memorable performances. Repetitive pulsations that would have dissipated in the open air reverberated deafeningly in the museum’s clean, empty space. The sound was intense and completely engrossing, making the music of the gospel quartet that followed it all the more refreshing.

Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia (2010), performed by Ian Rosenbaum, was one highlight of the night. The piece is as much performance art as it is music, and Rosenbaum’s stage presence was completely engrossing as he gestured in perfect synchronization to pre-recorded sounds. Rosenbaum also captured the audience’s attention with a focused, thoughtful performance of Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace, in which he played a prostrate, amplified guitar like a harp and transformed a collection of bottles into a complex instrument.

This was a fascinating and engaging evening of music that thoughtfully intertwined the familiar and the avant-garde. Indoors it was a more intense experience than it likely would have been on Flora Street. But if the goal of this project is to make experimental music more accessible, it will likely succeed wherever it lands, because engrossing performers like Rosenbaum, Kljuco and Rabbit Rabbit will capture audiences’ attention no matter how strange the sounds they make.

The Music Hall Exits the Building

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

(Photo: Zachary Stephens, courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center)

Jeremy Hallock writes for the Dallas Observer:

In The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins plays Mozart over the prison’s public address system and locks himself in the control room. All the prisoners stop what they are doing and listen. They were shocked that it was actually happening, but inspired. And they understood the music. When Seth Knopp brought musicians to play chamber music on a street in a particularly brutal part of Baltimore, it seemed to surprise and inspire people in a similar way.

It was one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Many of the houses were boarded up with the words “Thou Shalt Not Kill” written on them. In those neighborhoods, the only beauty is typically what people create for themselves. But the music of Bach mesmerized the neighborhood's residents, who stood around and took pictures.

Creative director Seth Knopp kicks off the sixth season of The Nasher’s Soundings series by combining it with Yellow Barn’s Music Haul, a project that puts music halls on streets. Before the performance Thursday night on Flora Street in front of the Nasher, there will be a daytime community performance today and perhaps tomorrow: Follow the Nasher on social media to find out where.

Knopp is artistic director of Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music out of Southeastern Vermont. Yellow Barn’s Music Haul is a traveling concert stage. “It’s the feeling of a concert,” Knopp says. “People don’t have to go through the formality of attending something, something comes to them.” He understands that chamber music excites the senses, creating natural curiosity. Knopp believes this will help people realize that it’s not important to “understand” the music.

In addition to giving impromptu performances in neighborhoods, Yellow Barn’s Music Haul also performs at schools and has more formal events, like the performance Thursday night in front of the Nasher. Each program is different, curated specifically for its site. “We’ve done six concerts incredibly varied in nature,” says Knopp. “Each one has been an incredible learning experience.” Whether listeners knew the composer or not, they seemed transfixed by what they heard, he says.

Knopp knows there are many people who have never been to a classical music concert. “They think they aren’t interested in what they label as classical music,” he says. Some may think they don’t know enough about classical music to attend a concert, but Knopp insists this just isn’t the case. “The only people who need to be educated in the equation are the musicians who are performing,” he says. “It’s their job to make it communicate to anybody. Beethoven didn’t write his music for conservatory graduates and professors, he wrote it for humanity. Bach wrote his sacred music for people in church.”

Yellow Barn’s Music Haul will perform tonight in Bishop Arts. The exact location has not yet been disclosed, but the Nasher will announce it through social media. The program has not yet been finalized, but programs will be handed out during the performance. There may also be another street performance tomorrow during the day.

“This sort of thing has never been done before,” says Knopp. “The idea of rock concerts on these stages has been done.” But the Yellow Barn’s Music Haul doesn’t perform on a flatbed truck; it unfolds into something that really does resemble a music hall on wheels. It tries to create a beautiful setting, the feeling of being in another space, like walking into a music hall. The music begins as the stage is being set up, so there is no anticipation. The performance just starts unfolding.

Knopp came up with the idea when he was across from Carnegie Hall at a piano store one morning. There was rush hour traffic and a piano tuner was banging on a piano. “It’s not the greatest sound in the world,” Knopp says. But throngs of people walking by were curious about the noise. It was something out of context, enough to make them stop and peek into the store. During rush hour traffic on a busy street, it surprised Knopp that a single note being played on a piano could cause so much curiosity.

Somewhat surprisingly, Knopp actually enjoys giving up the cozy setting of a normal music hall. He likes transitioning from programming for a concert stage to a street, realizing an increased need for amplification. If church bells are going to ring during a performance, he has to find a way to make it work with the program. There are contingencies that cannot be planned for, but only a hailstorm has stopped a performance so far. At one performance, the music was echoing off the backs of buildings. “We got this kind of amazing stereophonic delay system,” says Knopp.

Yellow Barn’s Music Haul performances are some of the most moving experiences he’s had. “Conversations happen all the time about elitism,” Knopp says. “About how the arts are for a privileged few.” But as a child, he wanted to make music solely because it spoke to him. And he knows it can speak to anybody.  

Widmann embraces dialogue of past, present

Friday, July 31, 2015

David Weininger writes about Yellow Barn's Composer in Residence Jörg Widmann for The Boston Globe:

As a teenager, Jörg Widmann hung pictures of two musical heroes on the wall of his Munich bedroom: Pierre Boulez and Miles Davis. They make an odd couple at first glance, the allegedly dogmatic serialist and ruler of the French music scene and the famously protean jazz titan who evolved by shedding styles as quickly as he adopted them.

But to Widmann, who took up the clarinet when he was 7 and began composing not long after, there was no contradiction. “I was fascinated equally by them,” he said during a recent conversation from his home in Freiburg. In Boulez, who would later become an important mentor, he heard not determinism but “the opposite — what I heard was orgasms of color and freedom of sound.” Listening to Davis and his band playing at Munich’s Philharmonie in the 1980s, Widmann said, “the incredible thing was what he did not play. The notes he did not play were so amazing.”

Widmann’s unique way of resolving seeming contradictions into something new and unexpected is more than a (very German) facet of his personality: It is perhaps the most important characteristic of his work. Widmann’s music is incontestably of this moment, music that could only be written now, and yet no other composer is so deeply engaged in a dialogue with the past, a tradition which the composer, who is the subject of an upcoming residency at the Yellow Barn music school and festival in Putney, Vt., is both a part of, and stands apart from.

He reached this point not solely through his own creations but, as importantly, through his career as a clarinetist and his constant engagement with the masterpieces of the repertoire. Earlier this month he played Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “That’s another piece where, how can I close my doors and say, OK, now it’s time to write something completely different? But of course, it’s my obligation to do something different.

“I’m very interested in a dialogue,” he went on, “but not in a nostalgic way, looking back and saying, well, it was so nice in the past. A dialogue is not always only agreeing with each other. Sometimes it’s a questioning of the other one.”

Take Widmann’s “Hunt Quartet,” his third string quartet, whose title is a clear reference to a Mozart work of the same name. The piece opens in a healthy A major, with clear references to a famous rhythm from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Quickly, though, easy guideposts fall away, harmonies darken, and the music is eventually consumed by noise generated entirely by extended string techniques. The cellist becomes, at least metaphorically, the victim of the “hunt.” A tradition is not erased so much as brought to its extreme conclusion.

One might think the composer of such stuff as the quartet and the recent opera “Babylon” would be an imposing, thorny person. But Widmann, 42, is a warm and generous conversant, laughing often and almost overflowing with enthusiasm about all things musical, as if the passion that ignited him early on has never worn off. He is particularly pleased by the diversity of Yellow Barn programs — curated by artistic director Seth Knopp — since their deft mix of old and new appeals naturally to his own artistic inclination.

He also appreciates the fact that, along with well-known pieces like the “Hunt,” Knopp insisted on including some of Widmann’s more obscure works. None, probably, is more obscure than “Skelett,” a 2004 solo-percussion piece that mischievously upends the idea of a virtuoso solo display. In fact, it doesn’t even have a written score: Widmann conceived of it, he said, after realizing that after concerts, “each time, as [the rest of us] enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the bar, the poor percussionist still has to [take apart] their percussion instruments. And it takes two hours!

“So I wanted to write a piece about that moment,” he continued, as the percussionist grows increasingly frustrated and begins to create “these sounds which you would never use in a regular piece.” Widmann paused, then added, thoughtfully, “I don’t even know if it is a piece.”

Still, he seemed delighted to have the chance to work through it with Eduardo Leandro, Yellow Barn’s percussionist. “Maybe there will be a score at the end. I’m very curious about it myself.”

What the diversity of the programs also makes clear is how varied Widmann’s output is. He is unafraid to radically change direction from work to work. Indeed, he seems driven simultaneously to use whatever materials suit his expressive purpose — tonal, atonal, lyrical, or noisy — and to avoid repeating himself. It is both freedom and obligation, a productive ambivalence that Davis, in particular, would have appreciated.

“I don’t like the idea of doing the same thing all your life, and then somebody calls it ‘style,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I have great respect — there are many people who work like that and really have a language — you hear three notes and then, ‘Well of course, that’s this and this composer’ . . . [But] even when I write a piece and I start the next one, many times it is just the opposite.

“I have two tables, and sometimes I write two contrasting pieces at the same time. When I wrote my orchestra piece ‘Lied,’ it’s a very tonal piece, a Schubert homage, on the other table there was a kind of piano-destruction piece, ‘Hallstudie,’ which is 40 minutes long. The pedal is put down all the time, and until the first normal note is played it’s 15 minutes — until then it’s wood sounds, metal sounds, piano-lid banging. Everything is in reverberation and echo.

“And to me it’s not a contradiction,” Widmann continued. “I just try not to repeat myself.”

Jörg Widmann's Composer Portrait: August 4

Complete schedule of works by Jörg Widmann: August 3 - August 8

Monday | 8:00pm
Skelett (2004)
North American Premiere
With works by Bartók, Manoury, and Schubert

Tuesday | 8:00
Air for horn solo (2005)
United States Premiere
Elf Humoresken (2007)
Skelett (2004)
Duos for violin and cello "Heidelberg edition" (2008)
Fantasie for clarinet solo (1993)

Wednesday | 8:00
Jagdquartett (2003)
With works by Adès, Mozart, Debussy, and Couperin

Thursday | 8:00
Liebeslied (2010)
North American Premiere
With works by Stravinsky, Carter, and Schoenberg

Friday | 8:00
Tränen der Musen (1993)
North American Premiere
Ikarische Klage (1999)
With works by Wood and Janáček

Saturday Matinee | 12:30
Fünf Bruchstücke (1997)
Versuch über die Fuge (2005)
With works by Dvořák and Schumann

Season Finale | 8:00
…umdüstert… (1999-2000)
With works by Donatoni, Mozart, Britten, and Harvey

Haunted by Shakespeare's witches?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Matthew Guerrieri writes for The Boston Globe:

On Tuesday, Yellow Barn presents a free concert, a thank you to the residents of the chamber music center’s hometown of Putney, Vt. The concert includes an echo of a rather grimmer homecoming: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D (Op. 70, No. 1), called the “Ghost” Trio because of the eerie nature of its slow movement — which, it has often (if not uncontroversially) been speculated, was originally created for an operatic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” an adaptation abandoned after Beethoven’s librettist begged off the project, put off by the story’s unremitting darkness. (In 2001, Beethoven’s few sketches were fashioned into a reconstructed “Macbeth” overture by Dutch composer Albert Willem Holsbergen.)

The play’s First Folio printing included indications for a few songs — probably numbers by Robert Johnson, who also wrote music for “The Tempest”; by the 1700s, “Macbeth” was performed with incidental music so common it was called the “Famous Music,” attributed to everyone from Matthew Locke to Henry Purcell, but most likely by a singer and composer named Richard Leveridge. But Shakespeare himself specified comparatively little music in the original script. Leveridge’s contributions date from the Restoration era; even Johnson’s songs were probably interpolated only some years after the play’s premiere, for a performance at court. Apart from some brief fanfares to establish royal and martial atmosphere, “Macbeth,” it seems, was conceived as a musically austere experience.

That music for the play proliferated around its most exotic characters — Johnson’s songs and Leveridge’s settings were in service of scenes featuring the three witches — is also significant. Music was a stand-by for Elizabethan scenes of witchcraft and sorcery, with awkward dancing and sudden, reedy instrumental blasts reinforcing witches’ unearthliness and melancholic menace. It may have been a later addition, but for a lean staging of “Macbeth” to suddenly erupt into a masque-like musical number would have been discontinuous and inappropriate in all the right ways.

Over time, the witches and their music came to be a pleasurable highlight rather than a disconcerting dissonance. Joseph Addison, writing in 1711, complained of some fellow audience members who chatted throughout the rest of “Macbeth” waiting only for the witches, who they complimented as “charming creatures” — a far cry from the infernal figures who promise to “charm the air to give a sound.” The “Ghost” Trio, perhaps, preserves a hint of that sorcery, but Beethoven’s version of Macbeth’s trumpets — “Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death” — was destined to remain unwritten.

Find out about Yellow Barn's free concert for the community on Tuesday, July 28

Discovering an immersive art installation

Monday, July 13, 2015

An immersive interdisciplinary installation

Catherine Wagner, Artist
Thomas Kelley, Architect
Eric Nathan, Composer
Loretta Gargan, Landscape Architect

From the premiere installation of LUMEN for "Cinque Mostre: Time and Again” at the American Academy in Rome
On Saturday, July 11, 2015, Yellow Barn presented Eric Nathan's Omaggio a Gesualdo, preceded by the musical element from LUMEN. Following the performance Yellow Barn installed LUMEN in its entirety at the Brooks House in Downtown Brattleboro (see map), where it will be on view until July 26. This is its first installation since appearing at the American Academy in Rome last year. Visitors are welcome between the hours of 9am and 9pm, Monday-Saturday.
LISTEN below to a recording of LUMEN/Omaggio from the July 11th performance.
The following essay is reprinted from the catalog accompanying the exhibition “Cinque Mostre: Time and Again” at the American Academy in Rome, January 30, 2014 – March 2, 2014.

On March 19, 2013 Pope Francis was inaugurated as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, signaling a crucial break from the weight of the past and an eye for a hopeful future. His first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), disseminated throughout the Catholic world, is infused with the overwhelming potential for humans to flourish during timorous times. He states with a modicum of severity, “[I]n the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.”[1]

Inspired by the new Pope’s affinity for light as a metaphor for change, LUMEN aims to abstract and re-contextualize an act of spiritual contemplation. Driven by a secular regard for the Pope’s palpable sense of hope, renewal, and greater acceptance of outsiders, the installation sited in the Cryptoporticus at the American Academy in Rome incorporates a minimalist redesign of the pew, a long bench with a prayer stand typically used in a church for seating a collective. As a multimedia installation, the rows of white pews are planted with beds of thyme that invite the viewer to participate in an multisensory installation.  These multiple elements are coupled with a musical score choreographed to play in dialogue with the projection of shifting light.

Upon entering the Cryptoporticus the procession begins. The white of the painted brick walls establishes a visual corridor remnant of a single-point perspective.  The rows of sleek white pews, topped with thyme, glow and enliven the space to create a conversation between two and three dimensions. Looking further, the viewer’s eyes track a video of moving light as sound initiates the immersive experience. Each element of LUMEN functions individually and as part of the larger whole. Like the congregation of persons who come together to bear witness at an event, the parts sing as a group.

The minimalist design of the pew recalls the monumental shift in art, philosophy, and consciousness exemplified by modernist artists such as Donald Judd. The original design placed emphasis on several factors that include posture, close attention, and orientation towards an object-relic. Taking a utilitarian approach to form and finish, the redesigned pew’s standard elements are at once familiar and not. The traditional time worn wood of the bench that is etched in our collective memory is now given over to a pure white lacquer finish that transcends the patina of time and brings the sculpture into a contemporary context. Form and function establish the objecthood of this elegant icon, while the remembrance sparked by familiarity initiates connection to inner spirituality. While the pew remains iconic in scale and orientation, it no longer demands the observer to acknowledge any singular belief, but rather commences a new and open contemplation.

To deepen the experience, the prayer stand of the pew has been replaced with a thyme garden that initiates the first act of the immersive environment: smell. As memory is most deeply recalled through the olfactory sense, the scent of this herb is one that transcends time. As Marina Heilmeyer, author of Ancient Herbs, recounts, “What truly mattered in antiquity, however, was the scent of thyme rising from altars to please the gods. The intensity of this aroma, heightened by burning, may also account for its name, because the Greek word thymon refers not only to this plant but also to heart, flame, vital energy, passion, and smoke.”[2]

The video is a six-minute meditative loop of gradually shiftng light. The camera remains absolutely motionless as a slight, illuminated line maps where two walls meet. It comes together; it separates; it vanishes only to reappear anew. The ceiling of the room can be seen as an almost-black joint forming a room that appears to be at once approaching and receding. The slightest shift of magnitude in the band of light throws the room jumping between shades of gray. As this band moves back and forth, the grays of the walls seem to react in their own volition, flowing between deep, cool and light hues. The pacing is hypnotic on a level akin to watching the sun rise or set; one cannot look away. Like that ritual of the constancy of the Earth’s rotation, we are reminded of the permanence of light. In the last seconds, as the source of illumination closes with comparative rapidity, something unexpected happens in the wake of the receding light: the room begins to brighten. The deep shadows that were cast in the wake of the blast of light soften and give way to a glow as the last hint of brightness flits in a line.

The accompanying composition brings to the installation a haunting suite of strings and ambient shifts that aims to invite the viewer to become a participatory member engaged through mind and spirit. Listening to the light slide back and forth is at once both calming and exhilarating—sitting through multiple loop-cycles, one cannot help but create narratives guided by mystery and change. The unknown is presented, explored, and left for perpetual contemplation by the viewer.

LUMEN presents an invitation: to share in a space that transcends history and physicality. The vast experiential differences between this installation and the rites it draws upon are left to the participant. The interaction between the viewer and the installation begs contemplation without the imposition of a specified authority. Through an interdisciplinary approach to installation, LUMEN revaluates contemporary spirituality in the production of culture.

—Peter Cochrane


[2] Marina Heilmeyer from Ancient Herbs. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.