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Clogs: Opening Up the Possibilities

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Take the music of Steve Reich, Moondog, Guillaume de Machaut, Bell Orchestre, Sigur Ros, Penguin Café Orchestra, Eric Satie, Godspeed You Black Emperor and the Rachel's and toss it all into a blender. Purée well.

Now you've got something that, well, really sounds nothing like Clogs, the remarkable new-music quartet made up of Padma Newsome (viola/violin/melodica/piano/voice), Bryce Dessner (guitar/ukulele), Rachael Elliott (bassoon/melodica) and Thomas Kozumplik (percussion). The four Clogs met in the late nineties as students of the Yale School of Music and have produced four CDs so far, all on the Brassland label: Thom's Night Out (2001), Lullaby for Sue (2003), Stick Music (2004), and the brand-new Lantern—arguably the group's best effort so far. It's entirely factual to call Clogs a new-music chamber ensemble; this appellation does nothing whatsoever to prepare the listener for their musically-impeccable mixture of composition and improvisation incorporating chamber suppleness, time-signature fearlessness, compositional exploration and accessibility, and plain old beauty. I met with Newsome and Dessner in New York's City Bakery in January to discuss all things Clogs.


Thomas Kozumplik, Rachael Elliott, Padma Newsome, Bryce Dessner



All About Jazz: Both of you come from classical music backgrounds, I believe. I suppose your material can be described as a sort of chamber music, but by dint of composing all your own material, you've stepped outside of any repertory realm of classical or modern composed music. Tell me what got this group together and what your intentions were at that point. Did you have any specific notion of what sort of music you wanted to make?

Padma Newsome: I actually had a dream about this ensemble. The dream was basically stating what kind of approach was right for the ensemble. There were a couple of people I already knew that I was interested in working with. We were almost at the end of our schooling times, actually—and even though we were at school, we were always making music anyhow outside of school, outside of university. So the idea was to work with people who were readers and improvisers, primarily. Also, the music would be our own music. So that's where it started, and the next challenge was finding the right people and actually getting the music up and running—finding the music that would be our own signature. Wait, I'm going to restate that: the function is not to find music that's its own signature, but once you've written a bunch, that music starts to tell you a little bit about the kind of ensemble it needs, or the other music that needs to be written for it. So after about two years, we basically had a sense of what kind of music we liked. Initially, we were just scrounging around for music.

Bryce Dessner: We didn't even organize concerts at the beginning. We just had some rehearsals, and spent a year kind of making stuff up. Padma actually had some stuff written for other things he'd done, so we took some of that and wrote some other new pieces. There's a piece on the first record [Thom's Night Out] called "Sadness and Obsession" that's basically free improv. I was doing a little bit of that free stuff in New York, getting involved with the downtown scene a little bit. Anyway, we kind of collected stuff. Now, after having made the fourth record [the new Lantern], we sort have have defined our own boundaries. Previously, we've gone a little bit poppy, we've gone pretty far into contemporary classical. We've done a concert of Clogs with orchestra, we've done projects with really great improvisers—we've moved around a bit. Now, I feel like we've defined our boundaries. People do look at it like it's a really idiosyncratic kind of band; we don't really fit in anywhere.

AAJ: You certainly don't fit into the record store I was just at. I wasn't sure what category you'd be filed under.

BD: I"ve seen us in "experimental music," I've seen us under "jazz," I've seen us under "new music" listed with the composers. As often as not, it's under "pop"—filed with the rock music.

AAJ: I don't hear outrageous amounts of improvisation in your music, which is only to say that your pieces sound arranged and don't seem designed as vehicles for Rachael Elliott to, say, just blow on bassoon. But when I hear the music, I get the feeling this is the sort of material that develops initially out of group improvisation. That's just my impression. How do you compose?

PN: There's a range of the extent to which the material is composed. There's a range. Sometimes it's a full piece, and sometimes it's only snippets. Actually, you might be a little bit surprised how much is improvised and how much is not improvised. With the new record, I'm always fascinated by how Rachael has managed to do these secondary lines of beauty underneath the soloing instruments of some sort of other—actually, we've reached a notion about improvisation that we've actually spent a couple of years defining. A lot of improvisation is accumulation of ideas already played and then choice. You already know that this material works, because you've improvised it before; you already know its role in a musical organism of some sort. You know what has worked previously.

BD: There are some interesting examples on Lantern. Take "Death and the Maiden." The entire opening—well, it starts with a quote from Schubert, the opening chords on the guitar and the violin melody. But then the entire opening is improvised; it's one take, one long improv. Then the second half of the tune is completely written by Padma; it's scored.

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