Clogs: Opening Up the Possibilities


Sign in to view read count
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.

AAJ: That's very distinctly a two-part piece.

BD: It's definitely that. A mix of two types of behavior.

PN: But there are sneaky stealings—there are sneaky stealings in the second part as well. Some of the vertical, some of the chordal material in the second part. We're not afraid to improvise on other people's music, say, from the classical or romantic period. In my mind, I know that Schubert was a huge improviser. You can tell he's one because he wrote two pieces with this one idea. So in my mind, he's drunk at midnight improvising, going "yeah, man, it's so fucking cool, what I did"—so I figure, why can't we use that material in that way?

AAJ: There's that notion about classical repertory that has gotten confused over the last couple hundred years—people now think it's some static material.

PN: The improvisers were incredible. They were amazing. Bach, Schubert—they were amazing improvisers. That's how Beethoven wrote his sonatas, by improvising. Anyone who played the organ as well—anyone who was an organ player and who was writing for organ. You know these guys were spending the first hour of the church service—while everyone's walking in—improvising on their fugures or their ideas. Like Messiaen.

AAJ: Padma is credited for the lion's share of the composing on the earlier Clogs CDs, but on Lantern, all the pieces except the first two are "composed and developed by Clogs." Does this mean that the group's compositional procedures have changed?

BD: Not really. Padma does write the lion's share, and I usually get credit for a few things. Tom and Rachael contribute a lot, but they don't really ever get composition credit. So we kind of just made an egalitarian decision: "let's not stake our claim to this or that; let's credit it all to the band." Nothing's actually changed about the way that we work.

AAJ: The group's spread out geographically; no one lives in the same city. I'm curious as to how that affects your work.

PN: It's a big challenge. I mean, once we're in the same place, it's all good. But actually getting to the same place is sometimes difficult. Organizing tours is sometimes difficult. But regardless of any of those things, once we're sitting in that room, we're back to our old selves and learning how to play with each other again and getting excited by each other's playing and so on and so forth.

AAJ: All right, enough small talk. I really want to talk about your new CD Lantern exhaustively. This is your fourth album. Superficially, I suppose this is your electric guitar album, Bryce.

BD: Well, Lullaby For Sue [the group's second album from 2003] has a few electric tracks—at least two, maybe three. But yeah, there are maybe ten electric tracks on this one.

PN: But some of this comes from a situation where you're gigging and you're just sick of picking up three instruments.

BD: I'd also gotten really into electric guitar—playing it a lot in my rock band [The National] and then in a lot of new music settings. There are just so many creative possibilities about it. That said it, in Clogs I play a lot of finger-style electric, so it's classical technique.

AAJ: Well, I don't find it jarringly different from your acoustic work; it seems very much of a piece. The album starts off with a piece by Johann Hieronymus Kapsburger—now, my advance copy calls the song "Kapsburger," but that can't be its title?

PN: I think that's what we called it.

BD: No, on the record it's called "Ostinato."

AAJ: I'll admit to not being familiar with Kapsburger's work, but I will guess that it was composed for lute.

BD: Bass lute.

PN: Beautiful, beautiful instrument, and this was his specialty; he was a virtuoso himself. Sixteenth-century.

AAJ: This one has a guest musician—Luca Tarantino on classical guitar.

BD: A baroque guitar, actually.

AAJ: And Bryce, you're on acoustic and electric?

BD: Just electric. There's an electric and a baroque guitar.

AAJ: I thought I heard two acoustic guitars in there.

BD: The baroque guitar is double-chorused, so that might explain what you heard.

AAJ: Fair enough. Is there any reason you start off this record of mostly originals with someone else's piece?

BD: Yeah, there's an interesting story. That piece was not part of the record for quite a long time. Luca's a musician from Italy that I met and worked with at a festival there, and we invited him for a residency in France last year with a French group that we were collaborating with there. We added Luca to the mix. He's just an amazing, interesting musician. I had been writing some music myself—actually, "Fiddlegree" is from this period of time when I was kind of riffing on Renaissance music and the idea of ornamentation. Padma's also dealt with that a lot in his own music. So Luca showed up with this piece and said, "I want you to hear this." He called it baroque minimalism. Because, you know, I did a tour with Philip Glass around this time and was reacting a little bit to that music.

So basically, this song is a set of chords and that's all it is; it's not written out. It's not at all done as a period piece—we did it in a weird way. Electric guitar, the arrangement is totally out, I'm playing these harmonies over Luca. So they sent us the recording from France probably eight or nine months after we did it—it's a live recording, one take—and I thought it was such a lovely opening. And somehow it made everything else on the record make more sense. There's already the Schubert quote on the record and there's this other music we were relating to.

PN: We felt the record was too poised in a way. It felt very poised, so we chucked these others in and it opened the whole record up.

BD: Yeah, it felt like a great opening to me.

PN: Let's go back to what that piece is in its actuality. It's a chord chart. That's it. So there would have been ways they played that that probably we don't know about. But it's an improvising piece. There are lots of ways you could actually play that.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.