With bassoonist Rachael Elliott and percussionist Thomas Kozumplik on temporary hiatus, Clogs pares down to a duo, leaving guitarist Bryce Dessner and violinist/violist Padma Newsome as the driving force behind its new release, Stick Music. While violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Erik Friedlander and percussionist Tim Feeney add worthwhile guest appearances, Stick Music is really about the interaction and musical friendship that Dessner and Newsome share, one that has been evolving in leaps and bounds since Clogs' first recording, '01's Thom's Night Out.
A celebration of all things string, Stick Music furthers the unique musical language that has earmarked Clogs' music since its inception. While there are other ensembles with whom Clogs can be groupedmost notably the neo-classicists Rachael's, Ethel and even, to a certain extent, Kronos Quartetthe fact is that Clogs has developed a personal vernacular, a discrete concept that differentiates it and makes using other artists as reference points meaningless. Clogs is, quite simply, a group like no other.
This time around, with the emphasis on strings, one might expect a more romantic chamber music setting, but with instruments plucked, bowed, struck and otherwise treated, this is unquestionably Clogs' darkest and most difficult recording to date. The closest things get to conventional is on "Lady Go," where Newsome's gentle vocal is augmented by haunting guitar and rich strings to create a poignant miniature.
Still, one of Clogs' most distinguishing characteristics has always been its ability to draw the listener into ambiences that might otherwise be considered challenging. "Pencil Stick" has some precedence in the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, with Newsome's strings and Dessner's prepared guitar creating a hypnotic repetition that evolves gradually, as new themes are introduced. "Beating Stick" is a different look at minimalism, this time with bows hitting the strings rather than scraping across them, creating a percussive piece that ebbs and flows, with a forward motion all its own.
Clogs creates music that is intensely visual, as much experienced, as much felt, as it is heard. "River Stick" begins with swirling strings that evoke images of insects fluttering around a body of water, an image that continues as Dessner's guitar enters and takes the listener on a virtual trip. The strings shift, becoming more evocative as they run the gamut from swelling bass notes to shrill harmonics, all the while interacting to create an image that is, in the end, highly personal.
Clogs has always been considered a cooperative band, as compositions are evolved by the players through live performance, rehearsal and jam sessions. But at the core of Clogs is Newsome, whose compositions are unquestionably the germination for what is to come. With Stick Music Newsome may have made his most cogent and compelling statement to date: a recording that redefines the roles and capabilities of string instruments, and redefines the concept of composition itself, where melody, texture and rhythm coalesce to create a strange yet completely approachable aural landscape.
Personnel: Bryce Dessner (guitar, prepared guitar), Padma Newsome (violin, viola, vocals, prepared guitar)
With additional performances by: Jennifer Choi (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Tim Feeney (percussion)