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Clogs: Opening Up the Possibilities

By Published: March 20, 2006
AAJ: A piece like that that incorporates a fair bit of improvisation—do you find that it's mutating slowly in performance?

BD: It's different every time. The piece is not difficult; it's not very hard, it's very much a grooving piece. It depends on listening and communication. We have other pieces which are much harder to play. But certain solos will bloom. I'm kind of the bassist in that piece, and I decide when it starts and when it ends.

AAJ: "Death and the Maiden"—another two-part piece.

BD: Right, the one we talked about with the Schubert quote.

AAJ: Yep. The first part is almost a duet between the two of you—Padma, you're on violin here. But there's some one-note bassoon sort of groaning in. This part is pretty Romantic'"there's vibrato on the violin. My notion when I heard it was that that was improvised, and now I know that's true, since you already told me.

PN: Right, the tune [singing it] is Schubert. Anything else is a mutation of that or an extemporization.

AAJ: Now, for the second part, Thomas's percussion enters and the piece turns into a polyrhythmic, knotty sort of hoedown. I'm not sure if everyone is playing in the same time here.

PN: It's all subdivisions of the sixteenth-note. I'm the one who's keeping the one; my G string is always stating the one. Over the top of that, Bryce is doing groups of seven. When the bassoon and drum come in [taps the table], there's a three. So everything is subdivisions of the sixteen.

BD: What were we calling it? "Chamber trance." It ended up being a little more—well, it is a little more hoedown. It's more intense than just trance. It's not like electronic music, or even some of Steve Reich's pieces, which are kind of flat dynamically. That piece, I think, is much more ripping. Maybe it reminds me more of [Estonian composer] Arvo Pärt or something.

PN: I think if you changed the instrumentation to synthesizers, you'd get it sounding like trance. There's something about the acoustic nature of the threes.

BD: Yes, and there's the imperfection of the way we play it—it's not perfect. Which I think is a quality which we like. There's a vitality to the rhythm. When you layer rhythms like that which are actually kind of impossible to play perfectly on top of each other, it gets this kind of tension.

AAJ: I love the sounds of bassoon and oboe so much that it restricts my ability to criticize the players of these instruments. But I love Rachael Elliott's bassoon playing. I think her greatest moment on Lantern might be the song "Compass"—in any case, it's nice to hear her play all over the horn like she does on that one. I love her terseness as a player; she never seems to play more than the necessary note. Tell me what she adds to the group's music.

PN: She's a very fine player. And a good bassoon player who's an improviser—an inventor of music—is kind of a rare creature. So we're very lucky to be working with her.

Padma Newsome, Bryce Dessner

BD: She is a very understated person as well. She puts her will in last; she's the last person always, but she's very quiet and observant. She's extremely musical. She's got lots of skills that you wouldn't know: she's a good keyboard player, she's got perfect pitch. You know, that instrument is just unwieldy to play; it's extremely difficult. She's got great embouchure. She's always in tune.

PN: The last tour we did, when we were touring up north with Belle Orchestra—I heard [a recording of] the Boston gig. In one of them, I think "2:3:5," I'm supposed to be soloing. After hearing myself play, and hearing Rachael's fabulous playing—it was a real eye-opener. I thought, "it's so beautiful, her playing. I should shut up more." [laughing]

AAJ: In the same vein, let's talk about your percussionist Thomas Kozumplik. I particularly like his playing on "Voisins." He's capable of such intricacy and he's got such a lovely feel. Give me an appraisal of his contribution to Clogs.

PN: He's very thinking. So if he is given material to work with, there might be suggestions: "this material might be skins, this material will be metals, this material will be wood." There might be a suggestion like that, in the way one of us might have thought when we were writing it. So he will go away and he will invent a way, an organic way of fusing those together and that requires a lot of time in his room choosing instruments. Very carefully-selected instrumentation. Then he has to learn to make his body do the fused rhythms.

BD: He's really careful about his choice of sounds. He thinks about it like crazy. He's one of these percussionists who practices like twelve hours a day and really cares. He's a very serious musician. He's always played a lot of different kinds of music; his education is really percussion-ensemble playing, a lot of contemporary music like [Iannis] Xenakis and [Paul] Hindemith—all those percussion-ensemble pieces. But he's played jazz and rock stuff. Whenever we present a piece, it takes him hours to even play a note. He's thinking.

PN: It's kind of scary when you present a new piece.

BD: That way he's very different from the normal drummer. A normal drummer will sit down and start banging.

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