More than a decade into a singular and seemingly quixotic mission to expand the concert repertoire for a quartet consisting of two pianists and two percussionists – a genre invented by Béla Bartók in his 1937 Sonata for that instrumentation, and furthered by George Crumb in 1974 with Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) – Yarn/Wire has amassed quite the substantial collection of new pieces worth preserving. A 2012 Issue Project Room residency produced several such works, prompting Yarn/Wire and Issue curator Lawrence Kumpf to conceive “Yarn/Wire/Currents,” an ongoing series meant to yield still more pieces, across a broad variety of styles.
That undertaking has helped to make Yarn/Wire – pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu, and percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg – a consistently compelling, increasingly popular concert attraction. For some time, the group’s presence on record lagged well behind, though projects issued on Carrier, Populist, and Wergo all helped to convey the ensemble’s excellence for a broader audience.
In 2015 Yarn/Wire took matters into its own hands, issuing a self-released recording, Yarn/Wire/Currents, Vol. 1, featuring works derived from its concert series, composed by Thomas Meadowcroft, Marianthi Papalexandri, and Christopher Trapani. Three subsequent volumes have followed to date, all available on the quartet’s Bandcamp website.
Until now, most of the pieces produced during Yarn/Wire’s groundbreaking 2012 residency remained unissued, apart from two compositions the group created in collaboration with sound artist Pete Swanson, issued in 2015 on a limited-edition LP, Eliminated Artist, on Issue’s house label, Distributed Objects. But on its newest release, Yarn/Wire/Currents, Vol. 0 (released via Bandcamp on April 28), Yarn/Wire finally releases for the first time works created by Tyondai Braxton, Nathan Davis, and Peter Evans for the 2012 residency.
With no disrespect to any of the superb recordings that preceded it, self-released or otherwise, Vol. 0 is the ideal entry point for anyone not yet acquainted with Yarn/Wire, as well as an essential acquisition for those who follow and admire the group already. The performances are vital: polished and disciplined, yet charged with the thrill of discovery and the buzz of live performance. The recordings are all beautifully managed, consistently spacious yet detailed despite having been recorded in three disparate spaces. And the three works represent markedly different visions of the expansive possibilities intrinsic to the two pianists/two percussionists medium.
Which isn’t to say that every composer adheres strictly to that specific pile of equipment: Braxton’s deviation is spelled out in his work’s title, Music for Ensemble and Pitch Shifter/Delay, which opens with a burbling ripple of pianos and mallet percussion reminiscent of Terry Riley’s classic tape-delay works. Like a compressed gloss on Steve Reich’s elemental Music for 18 Musicians, Braxton’s piece lulls you into hypnotic bliss, then shifts suddenly into a continuous but changed voicing; around two-and-a-half minutes into the piece, for example, a fast crescendo and burbling bongoes herald a brighter, more angular and metallic segment. The metamorphosis continues at a steady pace; the work’s appeal never flags for an instant, and it’s over before you know it.
Nathan Davis, a percussionist long associated with the International Contemporary Ensemble, deploys the Yarn/Wire arsenal with painterly imagination and hands-on authority in de clocher à clocher (“from steeple to steeple”), its title derived from Rimbaud. If there is a downside to this resonant, glowing recording of the Issue Project Room premiere (which I reviewed for The New York Times), it’s only that the listener can only intuit some of Davis’s more esoteric effects: a prepared piano bowed with filament, waved microphones, gongs suspended overhead or hidden offstage. Yet that lack actually serves to underscore how sturdy and sublime Davis’s music is, intrinsically.
Returns, by Peter Evans – a virtuoso trumpeter well versed in contemporary classical music, avant-garde jazz, and free improvisation – is heard here in a version different from its premiere. There, it was introduced with a frenetic duo for Evans’s pocket trumpet and Sam Pluta’s chittering electronics, segueing smoothly into an edgy, juddering Yarn/Wire tour de force. A video of the 2013 premiere is well worth watching, since it provides valuable insights into how certain sonic effects were produced – the two pianists sharing a single instrument, slapping clangorous cymbals, and rubbing their palms together, for instance. But as in the case of Davis’s piece, an audio-only perspective serves to emphasize the rude imagination and architectural assurance of Evans’s composition.
Yarn/Wire performs at the Look and Listen Festival on May 19, and at the Americas Society on May 26.
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.