Sites of Formation 2012

Yarn/Wire's Currents Series

Peter Margasak

One of the most maddening, self-destructive tendencies in contemporary classical music—for lack of a better term—is that new compositions are frequently created to keep the funding cycle spinning. There’s money available to ensembles to commission new music, but too often a new piece is performed once and then it molders until it is forgotten. Pieces that would clearly benefit from repeated performances are given one, less-than-surehanded, account to fulfill the requirements of a grant. This process often guarantees that the work of a composer will reach very few listeners and that the performers haven’t spent enough time with the music to really get to its essence. There are exceptions, of course, even when funding isn’t the driving force of a commission. When an ensemble gets to perform a specific work repeatedly, they usually play it with more authority and depth, and more people get to experience it. Sound recordings and video of such premieres are common, but most of the time they function as mere documentation never put out into the world.

Suggested Listening

Yarn/Wire: Currents,Vols. 0–6 (Self-Released, 2015–2020)

As a music journalist, it’s frustrating to preview a concert when there’s no way to know what the pieces will sound like. That will always be the case with a premiere, but why does it often take years before a new composition will get recorded and released. That long process rarely does anyone any good, occasionally calcifying a piece of music prematurely and robbing it of its energy in the real world. Classical music clings to its sense of tradition, but that means it can be incredibly slow. That’s something the members of New York’s Yarn/Wire were thinking about a decade ago, when the young ensemble was named artists-in-residence at Issue Project Room (IPR). The unusual two-piano, two-percussion line-up of the quartet, which formed in 2005, limited its potential repertoire, so the group—originally comprised of percussionists Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio and pianists Laura Barger and Daniel Schlosberg—turned to friends and close colleagues to write it music. The group’s terrific 2010 debut album, Tone Builders, included music by fellow New Yorkers, including Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, Alex Mincek, and Eric Wubbels of Wet Ink Ensemble—to which Antonio also belonged—along with a handful of other composers the group had gone to school with.

By the time of the Issue Project Room residency, the quartet was looking to expand its repertoire. They began reaching out to composers outside of their immediate orbit, and that first year found them performing new work created by and in collaboration with Pete Swanson, Nathan Davis, Tristan Perich, Elizabeth Adams, Christopher Burns, Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, Tyondai Braxton, and Peter Evans. People like Braxton, Swanson, and Perich existed on the periphery of new music, if they didn’t dwell outside of it altogether, and that eagerness to push beyond convention and tradition became a hallmark of Yarn/Wire.

The following year, the ensemble began thinking about the music it had developed and performed at IPR. “After seeing and hearing our documentation, it became clear that an outgrowth of the type of activity that we did at Issue [Project Room] could continue, but we wanted to expand its reach,” says Greenberg. “People could be into it. Here is where the Currents concept came into being.” He cites the ongoing series of documentation from Germany’s prestigious Donaueschingen Festival released by Col Legno as a key inspiration for disseminating Yarn/Wire’s work. “You could hear live premieres on CD of composers at various parts of their career,” he says, explaining that he first heard the music of future Y/W collaborator Enno Poppe through the series. “We wanted to get music out into the world quicker than the process would be if we searched for a label, went to a studio, pressed it, and distributed it.”

At the time, Bandcamp was beginning to gain traction as a significant platform for digital music, breaking down resistance to non-physical media for classical listeners. “It was the perfect platform for DIY audio distribution (like a virtual amoeba almost),” says Greenberg. “The goal was never to make money, so having streams be free was great. It served a dual purpose—getting the music out there and eliminating a paywall.” In 2013 the quartet—which by then included pianist Ning Yu following stints by Schlosberg and Jacob Rhodebeck—returned to IPR for the 2013–14 season, where it premiered a number of new commissions, all of which were recorded. “In the next few months as we were coming up with the next batch of commissions, it became clear to me that there could be some sort of framework that tied this sort of activity together. It was like: ‘Why are we doing these commissions, and do they live beyond the premiere moment since not many other groups can currently play them?” 

In March of 2015, all of that work and brainstorming yielded the first installment of the Currents series, featuring music by Thomas Meadowcroft, Marianthi Papalexandri, and Christopher Trapani which had been performed at Issue in 2013 and 2014. The three pieces were free to stream or download, and a CD-R with a simple but elegant cardboard slipcase was sold to those who preferred physical media. “The discs would be documents of our commissioning activities,” explains Greenberg. “With the exception of a few works, all of these pieces were funded by Yarn/Wire’s budget without external support.” Two more volumes followed that same year, featuring exciting work by Ann Cleare and Øyvind Torvund (Vol. 2) and David Bird, Sam Pluta, and Mark Fell (Vol. 3), with some of the material continuing to push against new music orthodoxy. In fact, the span of the project has seen a subtle erosion of such lines throughout the contemporary music world, as musicians affiliated with experimental music have become increasingly involved in writing for new music ensembles, whether it’s Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) developing work for Third Coast Percussion or Jeff Parker writing for Ensemble Dal Niente. 

Still, Y/W are committed to experimentation, focusing primarily on younger, lesser-known composers, even if an Alvin Lucier commission turned up on Vol. 4. Catherine Lamb, Michelle Lou, Olivia Block, Sarah Hennies, Klaus Lang, and Anthony Vine are the other composers whose music fills out the series, and in 2017 the group released three pieces on Vol. 0, retroactively sharing music they performed during that initial residency at IPR by Tyondai Braxton, Peter Evans, and Nathan Davis. More recently they’ve begun sharing video of some of those performances on its Bandcamp page. As with so many artists, the pandemic stifled and delayed planned work, and the series has been quiet since
Vol. 6 was released in March of 2020. (The group launched its online series “Feedback” during this period, creating an ongoing series of video interviews with composers and fellow musicians.) Still, not only have recordings of the past work made their way into the world quickly, but many of the works have been performed multiple times. Greenberg also adds that many of the pieces have forced the group—which now includes percussionist Sae Hashimoto replacing Antonio and pianist Julia den Boer joining the fold for the current season—to adapt and grow. 

“I remember Ann Cleare’s piece was a total new world that it took us a while to conquer,” he says, “Not only musically, but aesthetically and technically.” The group is in the planning stages with the next two volumes of the series, which includes new commissions from Zeno Baldi, DM R, Victoria Cheah, Paul Pinto, Sarah Davachi, and Kelley Sheehan. Of course, the Currents series is just one thread of Yarn/Wire’s work, which has recently included recordings of commissions by Annea Lockwood, Enno Poppe, and in January the ensemble saw the release of Parallel Prints, a daring work by Swiss composer Marcel Zaes. This spring the group will share more of its ongoing collaborations with Andrew McIntosh.

Greenberg remains enthusiastic about Currents, with a host of performances optimistically slated for 2022. But there are bigger ramifications to the work. “I think the fact that the project is entirely self-driven means we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves for who we commission. There’s a danger in that, to be sure, but what’s the fun of playing music that people tell you to play? Also, while not explicitly stated in the past, this is a vehicle that we can use to have conversations about what contemporary music is, who is ‘allowed’ in, and all those kinds of issues.”

Yarn/Wire's Currents Series