On Yarn/Wire’s “Currents” Series

By · Title Image © Bobby Fisher · Date 06/01/2017

The setup itself, two pianists and two percussionists, is not conventional. Yet it formed naturally, without a deliberate plan. This naturalness elucidates why giving a title to each member of Yarn/Wire is perhaps misleading: there’s a fluidity to the quartet that shatters and belittles the relevance of the principles imposed on being a pianist or percussionist. Pianists Ning Yu and Laura Barger deviate from the traditional melodic purpose; their sharp, punctuated jabs on the keys intertwine with Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio’s percussion. And then Yarn/Wire’s fluidity in a logistical regard came in the finale of a University of Michigan concert last year, after winning the university’s M-Prize Chamber Competition. Antonio walked over to a rock kit at the front-center of the stage; as he gradually cascaded rolls across the toms, the other three members surrounded him, each whacking a cymbal, all in a precise slew of rhythmic intervals.

Photo Lou Bunk
Photo Lou Bunk

Yarn/Wire solidified after Barger, Greenberg, and Antonio’s doctoral recital at Stony Brook University, where they developed a repertoire out of asking college friends to write compositions for them. Yu joined in 2011, and a year later the quartet was commissioned by Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room to be 2012 Artist-in-Residence, which spawned collaborations with eight different composers. The residency was the basis for Yarn/Wire’s multi-volume series “Currents,” four albums of live recordings (not all of which were ISSUE concerts) released between 2015-16. Technically their fifth and latest, though, is entitled “Vol. 0.”

At the time of our conversation, Yarn/Wire had just gotten back from a residency at City University in London; in addition to collaborating with students, they’d worked on a new version of composer Aaron Einbond’s “The Kind of Problem a City Is” during their stay. Back home the four were preparing for this year’s Look & Listen Festival, where they were to perform a piece by Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, who specifically requested Yarn/Wire. I was listening to “Vol. 0” on the train ride to their converted-warehouse practice space in Queens, where I met Greenberg and Antonio. Not too far outside the car’s window a bird was doing circular swoops above marshy waters; but the sharp, unpredictable clanks in Peter Evans’ piece “Returns” wrought the bird’s dance—what would’ve looked quaint in silence—instead catastrophic and parlous.

The three compositions on “Vol. 0” were premiered prior to those on “Vol. 1.” Both Evans’s piece and Nathan Davis’s “De Clocher á Clocher” were recorded in 2013; and Tyondai Braxton’s “Music for Ensemble and Pitch Shifter/Delay” was premiered that year as well, though the album’s recording is from a 2017 performance. “The 2017 [version] is our ‘good’ recording of it; with the premiere recording, the acoustics weren’t that great, so we thought we should do it justice.” Not only were these three pieces, according to Greenberg, collectively “the instigator for everything after,” but the inclusion of the 2017 Braxton recording shows the “Currents” project coming full circle, which gives new meaning to the volume’s chosen digit.

Braxton alters the four members’ respective outputs by running them through a delay system built in Ableton. His delay clones the first note, then the pitch-shifter turns the clones into a descending scale: entire melodic sequences are generated, each from a single press on the piano. “It runs with a click track when we do it in live performance,” said Antonio. “When we recorded, Russell did all the setup of the session, the mixing, the editing.” “But in live performance we have mics on everything and [Braxton] runs it through an Ableton session,” said Greenberg; he also mentioned how Yarn/Wire had incorporated Ableton into their work prior to Braxton. “We’ve used it not for live effects but for sampler-based stuff, so if we have a MIDI keyboard it’ll be running samples or running sounds, but we hadn’t done it in a live-effects situation—until that piece. It’s tricky live because there’s so much bleed, so having this opportunity to record it and isolate things was really good.”

While I initially thought that “Music for Ensemble” used effects pedals, Antonio clarified how they have used them previously. In Øyvind Torvund’s “Untitled School” from “Currents Vol. 2,” they use contact mics on water bottles and cymbals running through whammy pedals. Compared to Braxton’s, Torvund’s piece is “a lot dirtier,” said Greenberg. “In Ty’s piece, he has a minor second down and a major third pitch-shifting—whereas Øyvind’s piece is just whammy down, to create this glissando effect.”

Photo Bradley Buehring
Photo Bradley Buehring

In addition to pedals, sometimes Barger and Yu play samplers to help broaden the sonic possibilities. “It’s funny, the instrumentation of our group,” said Antonio. “The percussion is a radically expansive timbral world, and I think composers are often like, ‘Pianos are a traditional instrument.’ We’re using a sampler as a way to do a similar thing, sonically, that the percussion is doing: expand the world of piano, in a way.” Because all these live effects are played in real-time rather than played and archived beforehand, they’re a culminating effort at, according to Greenberg, “connecting the acoustic with the synthetic/electronic world.”

Musical expansion reveals Yarn/Wire’s constant evolution; it’s further revealed in a gesture as simple—yet drastic—as having their performance pieces sometimes renamed. “It had another name, he’s renamed it, just because all these pieces continue to develop,” Greenberg said of Braxton’s “Music For Ensemble.” But the forms of repertoire development aren’t limited to renaming.

“Almost every piece that we’ve commissioned has gone through some sort of development after the premiere performance,” explained Greenberg. “Sometimes, pieces have been edited down, and made more concise, like Thomas Meadowcroft’s ‘Walkman Antiquarian’ [which appears on ‘Currents Vol. 1’], or Chiyoko Szlavnics’ ‘Mind is Moving.’ Other pieces have added repeats, or even new music. In other cases, smaller but still significant changes happen in rehearsal when we work with the composer. For instance, if a passage doesn’t sound quite right, we will work with the composer to find solutions. These changes can include notes, instruments, tempi, phrasing, or editing of music. Then, the ‘final’ edition of the score will reflect these changes. In every case, as pieces evolve, they get better and better. That’s the point of the revisions, after all.”

Such permeability between composer and performer is uncommon. It shows classical collaboration reaching an ideal form, where there’s no separation. The dynamic is symbiotic, since Yarn/Wire are recognized by their collaborators as an entity with a distinct sound, as the quartet realize the distinct compositional processes of their collaborators in the rehearsal space and onstage. The membership of Yarn/Wire flows beyond Greenberg, Antonio, Barger, and Yu, in that whomever they commission is literally deciding how they sound and how they evolve as a group. There’s unspoken trust between the two parties. Still, they make themselves vulnerable to the unknown: Where will Yarn/Wire be taken?

Photo RG
Photo RG

And then, do these collaborations necessarily have defined finitude? No. In truly honoring their ethos, a Yarn/Wire piece doesn’t exist in a definitively finalized state. Hence “Currents,” a series intended to present the states their repertoire was in at fixed points in time. To elucidate the process of continual development, I asked Greenberg if they might be interested in releasing new recordings of compositions that were already released previously. “New recordings are always a possibility for revised works, but it isn’t something we’ve done yet because there’s too much music to record already!” ¶