Yellow Barn, the famously intrepid summer chamber music festival based in Putney, Vermont, is raising the concept of “taking the show on the road” to a new level. In October 2015 the center introduced Music Haul, a mobile stage in the back of a truck, which allows Yellow Barn’s musicians to perform virtually anywhere the vehicle can travel.
Having already visited Boston, Baltimore, and Dallas, Music Haul now will undertake its most ambitious voyage yet: “Music No Boundaries: NYC,” a nine-day residency featuring performances in four New York City boroughs, starting at noon on May 24. The itinerary includes a long list of neighborhood parks, plazas… even a Bronx street corner that Yellow Barn artistic director Seth Knopp remembers as being particularly vital.
A dizzying array of musicians, including prominent instrumentalists, vocalists, and ensembles, are volunteering their time and services for the tour. This allowed Knopp to program performances that have the depth and experimental richness familiar from the festival’s summer concerts. The tour will include one indoor performance, at National Sawdust on May 28: a program that includes a rare performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica for solo female voice.
Knopp and Yellow Barn managing director Catherine Stephan spoke to The Log Journal about the tour, its benefits and potential pitfalls, and what you might get from a chance encounter with music on a New York street.
THE LOG JOURNAL: What made you decide that Yellow Barn needed a traveling stage? SETH KNOPP: I was actually meeting with a piano technician right next to Carnegie Hall – I was meeting them to look at pianos for the summer [festival]. I got there around 7:30 in the morning, and it was really busy, as it always is in that part of town. The door was open, and the tuner was doing the usual one note, over and over again. And I noticed that, inevitably, people would stop in their tracks and peer in to see what was going on, simply because there was a sound they didn’t expect to be hearing.
I thought that was kind of interesting, because we walk by a lot of things in our lives that are a lot more interesting than someone plunking an A over and over again. And I thought, if you could take that moment of interest and curiosity, and then in the next minute have something with artistic intentions, I wonder if you could capture somebody’s attention in a way that it’s without planning, without any kind of anticipation? They would just come upon something, and it would capture their interest.
It was just the germ of an idea. And we were having another conversation about marketing, and we were having a conversation about having an ice cream truck that would go around playing recordings of Yellow Barn music, luring people back to our hall. And then the conversation became more about, this is a big-enough undertaking that it needs to have something to do with our fundamental reason for existence. So live music was introduced. And actually, we got to an idea that feels like a shared idea, because so many people have had the idea of having a traveling stage.
Getting to the reality of Music Haul… that was a little more complicated. [laughs]
Where’d the idea for this sort of mammoth mobile residency come from? KNOPP: I think our thought at the beginning was that we wanted to reach a lot of people – to bring music to as many people as possible, and to as many kinds of neighborhoods as possible. The idea of Music Haul is not based on the idea that you expose someone to something, and then they’ll seek out the experience in a “real hall.” We wanted to make this feel like the venue was attractive enough.
In a way, the scope of where we’re going and the kind of repertoire we’re doing was really based on an email I sent out at the very beginning, even before we had an idea of how much we were going to do, to the troupe of YB musicians that have been formed over years and years of the summer festival, and also the residencies that we have during the year.
That was the “this is what we’re doing, are you interested in donating your time and services” email KNOPP: Exactly. And there was such an overwhelming response – we have 76 musicians participating. I’ll give you one example: [soprano] Lucy Shelton said, “I’m in town that week, I want to do as much of this as possible.” People kind of fell in love with the idea, which was a deeply satisfying thing, and made me so proud to be part of a collection of people that are so much about the communicating of what they do that the contractual element doesn’t even come into play for them. We even have people traveling from other cities to do this. And then the inspiration kicked in: “Look at all the ingredients we have to cook with!” There were just so many different places that we wanted to go.
One of our experiences with Music Haul has been that in terms of being exposed to music, that kind of experience is absolutely nondenominational and ethnicity-blind. You could be in one neighborhood that looks one way, and the same number of people stop to listen as you’d have in another neighborhood. It simply doesn’t matter what the demographics are. It’s as if there is something at the DNA level in every human being that actually overrides anything more superficial. And that’s a very moving thing to see happen.
You could be in one neighborhood that looks one way, and the same number of people stop to listen as you’d have in another neighborhood. It simply doesn’t matter what the demographics are. It’s as if there is something at the DNA level in every human being that actually overrides anything more superficial.
Give me a glimpse into the programming process. How did you match up repertoire with locations? KNOPP: There were partnerships that were formed from every-which direction. Some of them came from a certain location: Symphony Space, Carnegie Hall. Some of them from the fact that we wanted to have a certain program at a place that seemed appropriate. There’s a children’s museum of art and storytelling that we wanted to have because it would be the perfect place for that program. So then we had to go and look at the location and see if it was physically possible for Music Haul to come and unfold the stage, and comfortable for people to come and listen.
This was a very different programming experience for me. I think Catherine wore out a pair of shoes going to places, and knows New York better than some New Yorkers. We’re in Brooklyn for eight hours on the 27th for Smorgasbord Saturdays – that was a place I think a couple of our musicians had suggested. So we had input from a lot of different places.
What kind of hazards are there to planning and executing an undertaking like this, to make it fulfilling for both players and listeners? KNOPP: In terms of the pitfalls, the practicality, we feel that we [directors] need to stay at a distance from Music Haul. Especially when it’s not live musicians, we’re just playing off the speakers, there’s this thought that people on the street are used to being stopped, people trying to sell them something… If we distance ourselves from the truck, so people have no idea that it belongs to us, they are much more likely to stop and listen and have their own experience.
The same thing is true with live musicians. We feel like this truck, in a way, takes the presenter out of the middle, and allows the musicians who are playing to have direct relationships with the audience. And it’s also because the audience can leave at any point – it’s completely up to them. They can be self-selecting, which means it’s truly their experience. They decide to stay because of what they hear, not because of what they expect to hear. And people who wouldn’t ordinarily stop for this because they might be fearful of going someplace they’ve never gone before, or not understanding the protocol, or even know when it begins or ends – that whole fear is taken away.
Then there are all the physical things we have to deal with when we’re scoping out things, which Catherine knows a lot about…
CATHERINE STEPHAN: For a while when we were scouting, I was literally always looking at the ground: Are there potholes here? Is there a bench that’s going to mean we can’t open the door? I kept forgetting to look up for trees, which would interfere with the canopy. [Laughs] The mental checklist when you’re driving around and looking for possibilities has definitely grown over time.
The truck has a full-stage version and a half-stage version, which allows us to tuck into a curb lane. So, for example, a lot of our New York City street permits are just to be in the curb lane somewhere. And then we can do the full-stage version in plazas and parks and playgrounds.
One thing that really stands out in the programming is the chance to hear Tony Arnold sing Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica at National Sawdust. KNOPP: You’ve hit on the one indoor performance that we’re doing. We wanted to do one indoor performance, because we wanted people to understand the fundamental essence of Yellow Barn. That’s a program that we did, I think, two years ago, with a little bit of tweaking.
Personally, I’ll tell you that that piece – from a programming aspect, this tour aside – has been something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. On the surface of it, that piece was meant by Schulhoff to be a cabaret piece – on the front of the score he writes, “For Men Only.” It’s a difficult piece to program, not for reasons that the audience would be somehow scandalized or uncomfortable, but more, how do you place it in the program, other than having it be a sort of talent-show program with one thing after the next? You put it in there for the thrill of it. And I’d always wanted to find a way of doing it that had another meaning.
So it’s set in this way that I hope makes it more about what we’ve lost when we lose the people that we lose in these tragedies. It’s with Reich and Wagner, and it’s meant to have kind of a different impact.
What would you want a listener to take away from the experience of a Music Haul performance, whether they stop and listen for five minutes or two hours? KNOPP: Music is invisible, and it can bring something beautiful to an inner city neighborhood, it can bring a soul to a downtown financial district. It can bring us to what most makes us human – all in a moment, all in a flash of sound. And I kind of feel that to hear music in that way can remind us that what we can see and touch and name is just a very small part of our world. It has power in that moment to rebuild us, inside and out.
I think it’s a wonderful thing to witness how music, in a way, needs no explaining. And hopefully, what they’ll come away with is just having had an experience that somehow deepens them, or it changes their day, their moment, and it puts them in touch with something that wasn’t there a moment ago. It’s a pretty simple thing, but for me it’s an important one.
The Yellow Barn Music Haul visits New York City May 24-June 1; see www.musichaul.org for complete, up-to-the-minute listings and advisories.
Interview has been edited and condensed. David Weininger writes the Classical Notes column for the Boston Globe, where he also contributes features and reviews. He’s also written for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, and the website of Boston NPR station WBUR. A graduate of Oberlin College, he holds a master’s degree from Boston University. He lives in the Boston area with his family. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org.