By Jackson Cooper
NEW YORK — Heavy rainclouds and sporadic downpours created a gloomy atmosphere here during the day on July 15. In the evening, the sky cleared to welcome a new “storm” that descended on the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse and never let up until the final note was struck.
The source of this tempest was one of classical music’s most promising groups. the New York City-based quartet Yarn/Wire, which appeared as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The musicians — Ian Antonio, Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, and Ning Yu — came casually dressed for their program of inventive contemporary fare.
Formed in 2005, the group consists of two pianists (the women) and two percussionists (the men). What especially distinguishes Yarn/Wire is how well the musicians interact as a group. There is no one leader, and each player depends on the others through subtle communication. They formed the ensemble while students at Stony Brook University and performed traditional repertoire written for this odd instrumentation. “[We] then became interested in the idea of commissioning new works,” says Barger. Spawning new music remains Yarn/Wire’s primary mission.
The quartet offered the world premieres of three commissioned works on its July 15 program — two by French composers and the third by a Japanese who has spent time working in France.
The Kaplan Penthouse is the only place where Yarn/Wire could have performed in the festival. Avery Fisher Hall is much too big and City Center too deep, but the Penthouse provided the intimacy required to experience this display of musical genius — by composers and performers alike.
Chairs formed a semicircle around two baby grand Steinways and an array of percussion instruments, some old (traditional timpani), some new (a six-foot piece of sheet metal hung by the window), some borrowed (six empty wine bottles laid out on a music stand) and some blue (shakers that created a sound akin to a human whimper). None of this went unused.
Tristan Murail’s Travel Notes employed most of the percussion instruments combined with spastic, Liszt-like piano glissandos. The piece begins with a game of call-and-response between the players. Five to ten seconds often occur between musical ideas, and we assume we will not hear them again. However, later in the piece, edging towards the climax, Murail brings back these instrumental introductions, combining them with more driving rhythms to create tension. This evokes an image of a lonely traveler trapped in one place. Perhaps these Travel Notes are from the barren wastelands of Nevada or New Mexico or California, as the mood shifts from odd to increasingly unsettling. The piece will stay with me for creating that image of a long drive when the gas tank is close to empty and there’s no one in sight to help you.
Le monde des ronds et des carrés by Japanese composer Misato Mochizuki, who attended the performance, is a prime example of how to write for your performers. Mochizuki wrote the piece with an understanding of not only the instrument’s abilities but also those of her performers. In her work, she pushes the musicians to extremes, exploring themes of ritual and repetition and sounds that evolve from a single repeated note. In essence, Mochizuki is exploring the very human idea of what happens when we break ritual and scramble to find a new order. The piece began and built on a note struck by Antonio on a bell. He walked around the penthouse, striking the bell in meditative concentration. Building off the ringing note, the climax of the work had all of the members in a drum-off on a single drum kit. The result was exhilarating.
The highest compliment I can pay Raphaël Cendo’s Direct Action, the final piece on the program, is that it could be the soundtrack for one of my worst nightmares. Cendo utilizes piano and percussion in a sort of musical cross-pollination: The pianists pluck and hit the wires of the Steinway with cups; the percussionists use cello bows on sheet metal and gongs; aluminum foil is placed in the piano to create a rattling musical sound; and so on. These horrific yet beautiful sounds, so inventive and creatively produced, stirred a physical reaction in me. It was truly a disturbing experience.
Jackson Cooper writes for CVNC, an online arts journal in North Carolina. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the Conductor’s Guild. He is a student at UNC-Greensboro and serves on the board of PARK Productions in Pittsburgh.