One of the more interesting contemporary music ensembles on the concert scene will be appear at this year’s Festival of New American Music, California State University, Sacramento’s 10-day celebration of new and contemporary music.
New York-based Yarn/Wire represents a refreshing aspect of contemporary music: the exploration of new arrangements of instruments in a chamber setting. Yarn/Wire pairs two pianists and two percussionists.
That pairing may not be seen often but it is not a far-fetched notion: The piano is, at its most basic level, a keyboard percussion instrument in the family that includes orchestra bells, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone.
Yarn/Wire percussionist Ian Antonio said the instrumentation of two pianos and two percussionists opens up a lot of doors, sonically. “Percussion boasts a nearly infinite sound palette, and pianists have pretty crazy dexterity across the whole range of keyboard instruments – from grand pianos to synthesizers.”
The ensemble was founded in 2005 when Antonio and percussionist Russell Greenberg and pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu were students in the Contemporary Chamber Players ensemble at State University of New York, Stonybrook, a school whose music department prizes contemporary music.
“We just loved working on music together and hanging out after rehearsals,” said Antonio. Their first recital was a shared one with percussion and piano making a successful marriage over Luciano Berio’s “Linea,” a work written for two pianos, vibraphone and marimba.
By all accounts, the recital went well, as did the merging of the four temperaments, and solidified that Yarn/Wire was a workable idea.
“The two percussionist and two pianist configuration actually has quite a bit of repertoire but it lacks dedicated ensembles,” Antonio said. “I think we’re the only one active in the U.S. or maybe even world right now.”
The festival’s artistic director, Keith Bohm, said he likes how Yarn/Wire brings out a different side of the piano.
“Most people, when they hear the piano, they hear it in a melodic setting, but with Yarn/Wire audiences will hear how the piano can move in and out, as a percussion instrument,” said Bohm.
“And they will also see some virtuosic playing, as all of these players have excellent reputations in New York,” Bohm said.
Bohm said that he was excited to book the ensemble, given the standout performance by Antonio and Greenberg at the festival in 2008 as the percussion duo Hunter-Gatherer.
The ensemble will perform twice in Sacramento, first during the festival’s opening gala Nov. 1 and at its own concert a day later.
Among the other musicians the festival will present are Grammy Award-winning pianist Gloria Cheng, the New York-based Vox n Plus ensemble, and local artists the McAllister Keller guitar duo and Citywater.
For its part of the opening gala, Yarn/Wire will perform pieces by composers Alex Mincek and Tyondai Braxton. The Mincek piece is titled “Pendulum VI: Trigger” and is one of the earliest of the group’s commissions.
“It’s become one of our signatures. It doesn’t use esoteric percussion instruments or many extended techniques, but the way Alex works with texture, timbre, and rhythm to create structure is just incredible,” said Antonio.
In the Tyondai work, “Plural WAV,” one of the newer works in the Yarn/Wire performance repertoire, cascading arpeggios interplay with digital delay.
The ensemble headlines the second night of the festival with a performance of Tristan Perich’s “Chalk.”
“This piece is a workout. It’s super fast and about an hour long, but probably has more notes than the rest of our repertoire combined,” said Antonio.
The work uses a number of cyclic patterns that are set against each other and then fuses them with four-channel electronics. It explores the upper ranges of the xylophone, pairing it with piano for what Antonio called a “monolith that is hypnotic and dazzling.”
The group recently finished a residence at the Issue Project room, a performance center in downtown Brooklyn that has built a reputation by commissioning new works. During its residence, the ensemble distinguished itself by tackling the adventurous work of composers Nathan Davis and Pete Swanson. In the Davis work metal pipes are rapped with soft mallets and gongs are paired with prepared piano.
“We’re really dedicated to performing works we’ve come to some sort of deeper understanding with. That means a lot of things – working closely with a work’s composer, setting aside adequate rehearsal time, and performing a work repeatedly,” said Antonio. “Basically, that means spending as much time with each piece as we can.”
To Antonio, time spent with new works affords the ensemble a more refined approach to each piece.
“For us that means changing interpretations, new discoveries and the development of some sort of performance practice,” he said. “It’s great for audiences to hear new music; we just don’t want it to feel new to us.”
He said that Yarn/Wire is influenced by groups such as Steve Reich and Musicians, which has set a standard for performance practice. Yarn/Wire members try to emulate Bang on a Can’s willingness to expand new music programming and Eighth Blackbird’s creation of new works.
“Pretty much every composer, performer or ensemble that works, creates, expands, digs deeper, is a truly inspirational and influence on us,” Antonio said.