Birthed in music school by graduate students at Stony Brook University, the wildly innovative, shapeshifting piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire has been pushing the sound envelope with its heady deconstruction of classical-contemporary chamber music, minimalism, and improvisation since 2005.
With initial inspiration from pieces by Steve Reich, Béla Bartók, George Crumb, and Luciano Berio continuing to resonate even now, the group – percussionists Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio, and pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu – has ascended to the forefront of the new-music landscape, collaborating with pioneering composers who represent a broad variety of musical approaches.
Now, John Zorn has tapped Yarn/Wire for a five-night residency at the Stone, in its present base at the New School. As co-founding percussionist Greenberg tells it, the quartet will explore more improvisational leanings alongside a handpicked bevy of likeminded adventurers January 29-February 2. National Sawdust Log caught up with Greenberg by phone to talk origins and inspirations, the intersection of the new-music and DIY rock scenes, recording for the Northern Spy label, the Stone residency, and what the future holds for this band.
NATIONAL SAWDUST: I know John Zorn schedules Stone residencies far in advance. How did it go down with Yarn/Wire’s stint?
RUSSELL GREENBERG: It must’ve been a year and a half ago – I think it was summer 2017 that he just emailed me and said, “Hey, I’ve got these dates available. Does Yarn/Wire want to do something?” We didn’t really know what we were going to do at that point, but we knew that Yarn/Wire was going to have a residency. It wasn’t until maybe the beginning of 2018 that we started figuring out what we were going to do.
Did you have an association with Zorn already, or did he just reach out to you out of the blue?
We’ve met once or twice and just talked about music before, so I think we know some of the same people. I think he had heard of us through various concerts that we’ve done and he just reached out. It’s a way of probably diversifying who he gets in the Stone and I think it was a good fit.
You’re performing with quite an eclectic lineup over the residency. How did you go about choosing your collaborators, and who will be performing?
When he asked, there were two ways that we could go, we thought, or maybe three. One would be to play repertoire that we’ve commissioned in the past, and just have five nights of Yarn/Wire and the music that we’ve commissioned. Another way we could have gone is had each member of the group either put together a night or do a solo set. When we were thinking about that, we were like, “That would be more traditional, just a straight-up concert type of thing,” which we always do. I’ve played the Stone in a couple of other configurations before, like in bands and improvisation, and so has Ian. So, we were like, “What if we did stuff that’s more in keeping with our past experiences at the Stone, and take chances with projects that we don’t really have other opportunities to do?” We decided to do something different, so we thought we would split each night and we would focus on a particular collaborator each night. And in some cases that means that the collaborator will also perform.
The first two nights, it’s this group, Popebama, who do theatrical work and electroacoustic. They’re going to play a set, and we’re going to play a piece each by each of the members, Dennis [Sullivan] and Erin [Rogers]. Then the [previous] night is Rick Burkhardt, and he does a similar kind of theatrical work. He wrote a piece for us last year and we’re going to play that, and then he’s going to do a set of songs. In a way those are the most traditional, but then the three remaining nights we really pushed things.
We’re working with Annie Lewandowski, who performs as Powerdove, and she did this album last year [bitter banquet] that I actually played on and helped with some of the original tracks. We’re essentially doing an arrangement of her album, which is pretty awesome, and she’s going to sing with us. It’s really beautiful. It’s not like anything else that we’ve done: essentially improvising and creating a new version of her songs. She’s done it with some other people… I think she did a version with Fred Frith, and Sarah Hennies has played some of it with her. She’s using it as a modular kind of improvisation around her songs, and it’s working really well.
We thought we would push our comfort zone, so playing stuff like hers, and then a new piece with Travis Laplante, which is all structural improvisation. And same thing with Katie Young and Weston [Olencki] – that’s just a big open improvisation for 45 minutes to an hour that we have been working on together. We’ve been rehearsing since the beginning of the month, and it’s been a really fruitful and super-satisfying way of working that we’ve never got to do before.
Travis Laplante and Katherine Young do come from a more improvisational background. Was branching out into that realm something you’ve always wanted to do?
A little bit, yeah. It was the opportunity. It’s not like there’s a presenter behind it all, so it was all self-driven by the group. We’ve known Travis for a long time, and same with Katie Young. We were like, “If we ever have the opportunity to work together on something – I don’t know what that would be – that would be great.” Then this opportunity just came up and we were like, “Okay, we have a venue, we have a space.” In a way, we’re using the Stone residency as almost a beginning to maybe a collaborative future, which is really cool.
Yarn/Wire has an elaborate setup – I’m thinking the Stone isn’t equipped with enough space to accommodate all of your gear. Will the residency be seeing an instrumentally abbreviated version of the group?
We don’t have two pianos, so we’re making everything for one piano. And then sometimes it’s going to be piano four-hands, and sometimes it’s going to be piano and then a synthesizer. We’re definitely taking the limitations into consideration—but I think Ian and I are still going to have to rent a truck to bring all the percussion for the whole week. There’s no way around it.
Let’s talk the beginnings of the band. How did Yarn/Wire form initially?
We met in grad school. We were all at music school in Stony Brook University. We kind of cut our teeth on some Steve Reich. There’s a piece called Sextet that is not for exactly our ensemble, obviously, but core members of the group came from that Sextet experience. We worked on existing repertoire for the first maybe year or two, then after that there’s not that much for our personnel. So pretty much from the beginning, we’ve been searching out collaborators and composers to work with. It was always like, “Let’s commission people; let’s work with our friends to write music.”
As we’ve gone, we found different ways of working with different types of musicians. Working with Travis is a completely different experience than another composer. We’ve worked with people like Mark Fell, who is in an even different kind of musical zone. We like to push ourselves to see how we can change as musicians.
You mentioned Steve Reich. What else did you bond over, as far as composers and recordings?
It was more just like learning how to play together less than recordings necessarily. There’s a piece by Bartók, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, that was really important at the beginning, and then a piece by George Crumb, Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening. That was also really important. There’s another one by Luciano Berio called Linea. I think those three pieces helped us—and they actually still help us. They helped us learn how to play together and learn to play chamber music. They are such deep pieces that, even to this day, when we start rehearsing we learn new things about how we play together, how to interpret music. In the end, that’s what we’re always looking for in music, stuff that can keep giving to us as performers.
At Stony Brook you crossed paths with many composers who went on to write works Yarn/Wire has performed. There’s quite a breeding ground there.
The piano and the percussion departments in particular at Stony Brook are really, really strong, and they have this history of innovative, contemporary music. I think all of us knew that when we started going to school there. The vibe out there was supportive of experimental and exploratory music, and it still continues to this day. I can’t really pinpoint people necessarily, other than the class of percussionists and pianists that were around and bringing in their ideas. People know different composers, and know different musicians outside of school, too, and would bring those experiences in.
Did you have the idea of the two pianos and two percussionists lineup right off the bat—you were inspired by the pieces you mention, and you just knew that was the dynamic you were seeking?
It was actually 100 percent that we liked playing with each other, and we’re like, “There’s four of us and there happens to be a little bit of repertoire already for this, so let’s just pursue this configuration.” Some groups go in and they’re like, “let’s start a string quartet.” We weren’t like that. It was really about the people, and to this day, three of us are original members, still.
How has the quartet evolved since inception?
Musically, I think we’ve gone from interpreting scores and existing music to, I would say, being kind of quasi-creators along with the composers that we work with. We now, pretty much – I would say 90 percent of the time – play music that we’ve commissioned and have worked hand-in-hand with the composers on. So we feel this real close connection to the music that we’re making, and to the people who make it. That’s a really big shift, because when you’re studying music, it is all about the importance of the composer, and there’s a distance between you and the music in some way. I really don’t feel much distance between us and the music anymore, because we’ve made it with the composers nine times out of ten. Musically, that’s really cool. Even the Stone series points to that, because now we’re improvising with the composers who are creating this stuff, too, so it’s an even deeper relationship. It makes us play different, and makes us kind of reevaluate our craft and our performance practice, which is really pretty special.
Personally, we’ve all changed because we’re older [laughs] and we have personal and family issues to deal with, and that makes us reevaluate where each of us is in his and her career, and how it all fits together in our lives. We’re really fortunate to be able to have a healthy work and life balance. That’s not something that I would have even thought about talking about a couple of years ago, so it’s great. [Laughs]
Do you have different kinds of leeway with particular composers who have written pieces for you, such as Pete Swanson or Tyondai Braxton? Is there room for improvisation and experimentation, or do you adhere to the composed piece and don’t stray?
That’s one of the biggest things that has freed us up lately. You mentioned Pete Swanson—we totally crafted that with him. He had a bunch of ideas and we would try and find a way to implement them, but then when he heard new things, we would work back and forth to figure it out.
Even someone like, let’s say, Alex Mincek, who wrote a recent piece for us – even something like that, that’s totally through-composed and written down on paper, he will come into rehearsal and see if something’s working or not. And myself or Ian or Laura or Ning might be like, “Hey, Alex, this isn’t working. Can I do this instead?” And he’ll be like, “Yeah, great, let’s make the change.” So it doesn’t really feel like we’re constrained by anything anymore. It feels like whether it’s improvisation and we’re conversing with the composer or it’s a through-composed piece, we always have some kind of input in the creative process in order to make it, A) sound good, which is the most important thing, and B), work for us as individuals and as the group.
I’ve known Adam [Downey, co-owner of Northern Spy] from this band Seaven Teares. Our self-released stuff we put out because a lot of times this music doesn’t get out there, and we just thought we should release things if we can record them and get it out. But Alex’s piece was a Chamber Music America commission. so we were like, “We’re going to go into the studio and really produce it.”
When we were thinking about labels to approach, I was like, “Well, you know, thinking a little bit outside of the box, I think there could be some interest with the Northern Spy audience – whatever that might be – and whoever likes our stuff anyway is still going to find out about it.” We just thought it would be a cool experiment and a cool pairing, because it is kind of unexpected, actually.
Northern Spy is all over the map musically, so it makes sense. You arrived at this position that it would bring your music to a different audience that Yarn/Wire isn’t normally accustomed to.
That—or another way of putting it is people who I think would like it would have access to it because it’s on Northern Spy, and if we go with another label then people wouldn’t find out about it.
You self-released your Currents volumes. What was the idea behind that DIY approach?
In the late nineties, early two thousands, maybe even before, there was a music festival called Donaueschingen that takes place in Germany and for as long as I can remember, they’ve released live documentation of their concerts. When I was in college, I remember going to Amoeba Records, and there would be this section of the Donaueschingen concerts. It was before you could really get stuff streaming really easily, so it was a way for the world to find out about a lot of new music during this festival.
When we started commissioning and working with people in this kind of close way – it actually kind of started at Issue Project Room and then moved on from there – I was like, “This could be a way for people to find out about composers who are doing really interesting stuff that they might not find out about otherwise.” There was a kind of direct inspiration from that series. And the reason we make it pay what you will or free or streaming is because really the goal is just to have the music out there. It turned out that it became a series, and now it’s a major part of what we do. But the beginning was just a desire to get people’s music out there.
Yarn/Wire members have been active the new-music community but have also logged time in the DIY scene: you in Seaven Teares, and Ian was a longtime member of Zs. How different are the two landscapes?
I don’t know if I can speak for Ian, but maybe I’ll try a little bit… I can speak for myself, for sure. I know making music with Seaven Teares and other bands I’ve been in, doing improvisation, and having done stuff with Toby Driver in the past, it’s all kind of part of just who I am as a musician, and so I am just trying to play what I think works in a given situation. I think the thing that’s different is—well, there’s cultural and economic differences, and that’s really the only difference. It’s like, “Are you being presented by a presenter, or are you playing at Death by Audio?”
That doesn’t put any value for me on what anything is, because I value it all the same. But from an external position, that’s really the biggest difference. So since Yarn/Wire is a nonprofit organization, we’re able to fundraise and have grants support our larger projects and things like that. Artistically, I think when I get to do Seaven Teares or anything like that, I feel just as involved – if not more so sometimes – than performances that Yarn/Wire does. Having both has been useful and fruitful for me, and I think everyone else who does that kind of thing. I think we all feel really fortunate to be able to do both, then spend time on our craft, making everything sound really good. It all feels pretty fluid.
Do all of four of you do both Yarn/Wire and the occasional DIY rock show?
When the opportunity’s there and it fits in a schedule, yeah, totally. We’ve continued to do this, and more personal time constraints happen; it’s harder to do as much as we all once did. But I think we’re all still very active just performing in whatever scenarios present themselves.
Beyond the Stone residency, what does Yarn/Wire have in the works?
We have a new piece coming up in February by Wang Lu at Miller Theater. She’s doing a Composer Portrait concert, so that’s going to be cool. We’re doing a fair amount of travel – we’re going up to Boston [to perform music by Klaus Lang at the Institute of Contemporary Art] – and then we’re actually going to reprise Travis’s piece at Roulette in May. There’s going to be some development between the Stone and that show.
After that, we have this institute at Stony Brook University in the summer. We proposed to them a couple of years ago that we could invite composers and performers to learn the music that we’ve commissioned and worked on, and Stony Brook agreed. So we host this two-week institute every summer now and show younger musicians a different way of working. Last year’s Currents pieces will be released on February 15, with music by Michelle Lou and Klaus Lang, and this year’s Currents concert is in May, and will feature a new piece by Sarah Hennies and the NYC premiere of a piece by Olivia Block.
Yarn/Wire performs in the Stone series at the New School Jan. 29-Feb. 2 at 8:30pm; thestonenyc.com
Brad Cohan is a music journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Observer,Village Voice, Time Out New York,Vice, and Noisey.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.