Which came first, the string quartet or the String Quartet? There’s semantic and historical interest in the answer. It’s fair to say that the String Quartet, as a compositional genre, began with Haydn. Though he didn’t write the first stand-alone piece for two solo violins, viola, and cello (that appears to have been Haydn’s older Viennese contemporary Georg Christoph Wagenseil), he did institute it as a form and create some of its most enduring works. The practice of the four strings playing together was not new in the 18th century. It was common for string orchestra works to be played with just one musician per part (the separate notational line for the contrabass did not come into widespread practice until the 19th century), and composers in the Baroque era wrote many pieces that can be seen as proto-string quartets: chamber sonatas for the four strings for which the harpsichord was optional.
Haydn himself didn’t set out with the concept of writing string quartet pieces. The composer, a violinist, would often play chamber music at the castle of the Baron Carl Joseph Edler von Fürnberg, in an ensemble with the Baron’s priest and steward, plus a cellist. The Baron asked Haydn to write some new music that the group could play. And so the String Quartet began, like so many other enduring breakthroughs, out of circumstance and accident.
This matters because compositional forms and structures are inextricably intertwined with the instruments and ensembles for which they are written. Baroque counterpoint is to a substantial extent an exploration of tuning and keyboard technology, symphonies take advantage of the number of instruments in the orchestra, and the new virtuosity and complexity of 20th-century music is a story of the discovery of new instrumental techniques.
And that’s why the ensemble Yarn/Wire matters. It is one of a number of accomplished new music groups on the contemporary scene, and it’s made up of the unique instrumentation of two pianists (Laura Barger and Ning Yu) and two percussionists (Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg). Before Yarn/Wire, there were three notable compositions for this grouping: Bartók’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion, Berio’s Linea, and Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III). After nine years (the ensemble is celebrating its tenth anniversary this 2015 – 16 season), its repertoire list approached seventy pieces, almost sixty of which were written in the 21st century, with thirty-nine (as of this writing) either commissioned by or composed expressly for Yarn/Wire. By existing and playing, Yarn/Wire is creating the two pianos/percussion genre in classical music.
This all started—as Greenberg told me in an interview at the ensemble’s rehearsal studio—at Stony Brook University, where Barger, Antonio, and Greenberg were in graduate school. Along with pianist Daniel Schlosberg (Yu joined in 2011), they began playing the Bartók, Berio, and Crumb pieces, while also exploring Steve Reich’s works for differing instrumentation. Playing led to further interest, then to public performances; praxis led to breakthroughs, and at some point an ensemble (and a genre) was born.
Since there was so little music actually available, the members went about looking for composers who would like to write for them. Part of that process was educating composers as to just what they could do with the unusual instrumentation. Composers learn some orchestration as a matter of course, but it takes specific study with musicians to not only learn the subtle specifics of what each instrument can do, but the most effective way to notate those instructions. The array of percussion instruments that surrounds the musicians in their studio is a testament to just how many details there are to cover. Yu spoke of how the group spent time with younger composers, showing them the possibilities, and even mentioned working on a piece with an experienced composer who came into the studio and with almost every instrument at hand wanted to hear, “How does that sound when you hit it like this?”
At ten years, this collaborative process is in full flower. The bloom burst with the group’s residency at ISSUE Project Room, in 2012. Those not fortunate enough to catch that series of performances of new and commissioned work can catch up with Yarn/Wire’s three volumes of Currents recordings, which captured music performed in those concerts
The recordings are a mix of the live ISSUE events and studio recordings, but all of them come together as both a tidy and impressive survey of contemporary music and also as an ongoing practice and process: substantial windows into the the new musical possibilities that Yarn/Wire is both promoting and pioneering.
The three volumes are uniformly fascinating and exciting, with playing that is precise and full of purpose. They make for one of the outstanding new music releases of the past few years, and show Yarn/Wire at its best.
They also show why Yarn/Wire matters. Considered as a percussion ensemble—and the piano is fairly seen as a percussion instrument—and viewing the landscape of contemporary music, there are numerous percussion ensembles—Sō Percussion, Mantra Percussion, Iktus, Red Fish Blue Fish—playing what is now the enormous repertoire of 20th-and 21st-century percussion music: Xenakis, Cage, Reich, and more. Loud and quiet, striking objects in time, producing complex timbres, laying out repetitive processes, these are commonplace features (welcomely so) of the contemporary music scene.
Reich’s Marimba Phase is on the Yarn/Wire repertoire list, but it really doesn’t indicate what the ensemble plays or where it’s going. The three Currents volumes have the playful, digital age impressionism of Thomas Meadowcroft’s Walkman Antiquarian; Christopher Trapani’s tense, mysterious, microtonal Writing Against Time; Ann Cleare’s gnashing I should live in wires for leaving you behind; the Carl Stalling-like electronic transformations in Sam Pluta’s Seven Systems; and Mark Fell’s pulsating core, self, oscillation, not avant-garde dance music but dance music for the avant-garde.
This music, together with a new piece, Mind is Moving . . . , by Chiyoko Szlavnics, which the group played at National Sawdust in December, and the world premieres of Alex Mincek’s Images of Duration (In homage to Ellsworth Kelly) and Torrent (with the Mivos Quartet), which it played at Mincek’s February Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theatre, stands alone as a new body of work in the classical tradition. Working with Yarn/Wire, composers have clearly taken advantage of the musicians’ skills and the possibilities of combining the complex timbres of percussion instruments with the harmonies and sustained notes (not to mention extended techniques) of the piano. Particularly exciting is that Michael Gordon is preparing an evening-length work for them, Material. Yarn/Wire will play the world premiere at Miller on May 11, for Gordon’s Composer Portrait.
While all of this music is in an array of styles, it is remarkable how much of the music uses silence and wide, empty spaces. The fundamental action in the group’s playing is that someone is striking something—maybe a drum head with a stick, or a piano key with a finger (and in turn a hammer a string). The fundamental result of that action is attack and decay, exactly like the use of percussion instruments in the common practice period of classical music. Yarn/Wire can play pulse-grid minimalism as well as any other contemporary group, and they have, but the music they are helping create is in this curious way more classical, more traditional. Yarn/Wire has somehow stripped away decades of accepted practice for how percussion music is supposed to go—repetitive and beat heavy—and, by starting with the basics, opened up an entirely new path for composers.
This seems to implicitly suit them, as if they are exercising unspoken values every time they work with a composer. Talking about the long tradition of classical music, Antonio said he would like to someday arrange Stravinsky’s Petrushka for the group, while Barger added that she would love to do The Nutcracker. It’s the next best thing to asking Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky for some new music.