Music on wheels rolls into Boston

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Malcolm Gay, staff writer for The Boston Globe, introduces Yellow Barn Music Haul in advance of the 2016 Boston tour:

On a stage that unspooled from a converted U-Haul, the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet rehearsed in Cambridge Friday.

The 17-foot U-Haul truck sat parked in an empty field, ringed by trees. With the touch of a button, a roof-mounted winch whirred into action, unspooling cable as a fan-shaped stage lowered like a drawbridge from the rear. The U-Haul’s modified rear doors acted as a band shell, flanking the stage to project sound, and a custom-made sail, supported by deep-sea fishing rods, projected as a visor from above.

Fifteen minutes later and the vehicle, dubbed the Music Haul, was a fully functioning stage — a 21st-century gypsy caravan that will bring live performances to the streets and schools of Greater Boston, Sunday through Tuesday.

“It really is more boat than truck,” said Catherine Stephan, executive director of the Yellow Barn music center. “We got to know RV dealerships really well.”

The musical equivalent of a food truck, Music Haul is the brainchild of Yellow Barn, an acclaimed center for chamber music tucked away in the hills of southeastern Vermont.

“It’s supposed to be as close to magic as possible,” said architect John Rossi, one of the traveling venue’s principal designers. “As much as we could take a U-Haul truck and make its transformation seem effortless and smooth, and actually even beautiful, that’s what we wanted to do.”

“We exist in the world as musicians that is in a way so finely controlled and tuned,” said Yellow Barn’s artistic director, Seth Knopp. “Music Haul removes some of the ceremony, which can be a barrier for people who are not often exposed to that world. There’s an element of taking something out of its accustomed place and allowing it to take people by surprise.”

After a pit stop in New Hampshire, the Music Haul spent Friday in Cambridge, where the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet used its stage to rehearse Schubert’s devilish Quartet in G Major before the Boston tour kicks off Sunday with concerts scheduled in the South End, Dorchester, and Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park. Later stops include performances at Harvard Square and the State House.

The tour is built around performances at three area schools, where Yellow Barn alumni musicians will perform from the six-person stage as students arrive in the morning, and they will give presentations during recess.

“They’re on their playground,” said Stephan, who added that the kids can decide whether they participate. “They can go play if they want to...and because they all choose to be there you’ve got their attention.”

Yellow Barn alumni will also take the stage at other venues around town, providing open-mic-style performances that include a range of classical music and jazz, with pieces by Claude Debussy, Felix Mendelssohn, György Ligeti, and Iannis Xenakis.

“It’s almost like a microcosm of Yellow Barn,” said Daniel Chong, first violinist in the Parker Quartet. “It’s the care and love for great music and performers, and delivering them to people in a way that’s both surprising and engaging.”

Founded in 1969 by cellist David Wells and his wife, pianist Janet Wells, Yellow Barn hosts scores of musicians each summer at its Vermont campus, where they practice, share ideas, and perform about 20 concerts over a five-week season at their primary music hall, Big Barn, in Putney. The music center, which shares a campus with the Greenwood School, also offers artist residencies and a young artists program.

Stephan said the Music Haul was an extension of Yellow Barn’s founding ethos.

“The mission is the same,” she said, adding that the $90,000 project was paid for in part by a Fresh Sound Foundation grant. “Either you know something about the music walking in, or you don’t. Either way, we want to give people a different type of experience.”

In designing the Music Haul, Rossi and his team divided the truck’s storage area into two parts, transforming the fore section into a greenroom with windows, seating for six, and a table, while the aft portion stores instruments and lighting, converting to a curtained area during performances.

“The truck becomes the backstage,” said Rossi, who worked on the project with boat designer Bill Lincoln. “The drive has always been to simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Rossi, whose business, Visible Good, designs crates that unfold to become emergency relief structures for disaster areas, said Music Haul shares certain design elements with his boxed buildings, which are known as Rapid Deployment Modules.

“The crazy little disaster-relief military medical shelter is the thing that probably had the most influence on this, versus any architecture with a capital ‘A,’ ” Rossi said.

Knopp said when it comes to Music Haul, which is also equipped with marine speakers to blast Yellow Barn recordings en route, a key element is in the wonderment afforded by surprise.

“Because it’s unexpected, people will not have preconceptions, and they won’t feel the fear of ignorance in the face of an experience they’ve never had before,” he said. “Without that expectation, you have a kind of vulnerability, an openness, that one needs to listen in the best possible way.”

Yellow Barn mounts illuminating residency

Thursday, July 28, 2016

David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:

To a degree unusual among high-caliber gatherings, Vermont’s Yellow Barn festival insists on the centrality of the contemporary in the summer music landscape. Of crucial significance is its annual composer residency, a part of the Yellow Barn tradition that has, in recent years, included Philippe Hersant, Brett Dean, and, most recently, Jörg Widmann.

The idea extends beyond simply programming a large fraction of one composer’s oeuvre. As important is the opportunity created to put more familiar repertoire in dialogue with something seemingly alien, thus throwing new light on both.

This year’s festival has upped the ante by bringing to Yellow Barn’s idyllic environs a composer both distinguished and largely unknown in this country. Stefano Gervasoni, 54, studied with several masters of European modernism, among them Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and György Ligeti. Yet though he holds academic positions at the prestigious Paris Conservatory and in his native Bergamo, Italy, his music is largely a cipher in the US. Yellow Barn’s Composer Portrait concert (Aug. 2) offers a rare opportunity to hear a full evening of his works. Further compositions will be distributed through the concerts that follow, in the company of pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Fauré, among others.

Knopp, speaking from the festival’s home in Putney, said that he’d heard about Gervasoni’s music from percussionist Eduardo Leandro, a Yellow Barn faculty member since 2010. Listening to a selection of his works piqued Knopp’s curiosity, though he wondered if it was just personal interest rather than something on which to base an entire residency. Then he discovered that while Gervasoni may not have established a huge profile in America, “many of the young participants revere him.”

How to begin talking about such unfamiliar fare? One could start with Gervasoni’s relationship to the traditions that he sees himself standing both within and outside of. Two works to be performed at Yellow Barn give some indication of this complex interaction: “descdesesasf,” a 1995 string trio, and “Luce ignota della sera,” a short piece for piano and electronics composed in 2015.

Both are homages to Schumann, bringing his music into a creative counterpoint with other artists. Material for the trio is derived from a motif in one of Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke.” At one point the music stops so that the three musicians can quietly recite “Aschenglorie,” a grimly un-nerving late poem by Paul Celan. “Luce ignota” integrates a four-hand piece by Schumann with an excerpt from Gervasoni’s “Prédicatif,” itself a homage to Nono. The electronics confer on this strange meeting a halo both enticing and unsettling, as if the encounter were recalibrating the internal vibrations of Gervasoni’s musical sources, producing what note the composer in a program note calls “scraps of sound that unite and become confused, in a world heard microscopically, ideally beyond reality.”

Those words, though intended to describe “Luce ignota,” could also describe the artistic permeation that occurs in “descdesesasf.” They also point, albeit in an indirect way, to an important characteristic of Gervasoni’s work more generally. The sounds he uses bear at least a family resemblance to those of other composers, especially Lachenmann. Yet his works also have an airiness, a sense of breath and even light, that sets them apart from his mentors’ more frictional creations.

“There’s a kind of density to Gervasoni’s music,” Knopp put it. “Not so much texturally, but it gives me the feeling of very dense music that has experienced the big bang. You have things that are floating away from each other that once belonged together. And he has a way about writing where you feel there’s a cohesion, always, in spite of that.

“There is a lyricism that’s there, even in a single sound,” he said elsewhere. “The difficulty in realizing what he wants is the separation, the space between things, and you have to be able to hear from very high up. It’s like looking at the earth from outer space.”

At one point during the conversation Knopp mentioned that he had been “talking around” Gervasoni’s music, and that he looked forward to his residency in large part because that, and that alone, would be his chance to truly know it.

“I wish I could tell you more about it,” he said. “But I kind of feel like to know him, you have to hear more of it in person. There are other composers where you can tell about the piece through a performance that may or may not be doing it justice. But his music is very much performance dependent. It’s so refined and difficult enough that it really depends on us to do well by it.”

An artist at Yellow Barn

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Yellow Barn welcomes Peter Bruun, artist, educator, curator, and community activist, as a resident artist on Yellow Barn's campus at the Greenwood School. Since 2014 Peter has devoted his life to creating and launching New Day Campaign. This summer his four weeks on campus provide a framework for new pathways, both revisiting and creating pieces, linked by the shared, palpable urgency to create that permeates Yellow Barn.

A full-time member of the community, Peter has been visiting rehearsals and attending performances, sketching and recording his thoughts at his blog Below is his entry "Introduction". We invite you to share in his process, leave a comment, and come to the Big Barn to hear the works that he is exploring in his blog.

I do not know the name of the piece I was listening to in an instructional class with pianists when I began this sketch — a composition with pianos, bells, and whistling. But I want to share something of my artistic and thematic interest in this post:

Most of the images in this blog (if not all) are from a sketchbook I have brought with me to Yellow Barn — a sketchbook to initiate whatever my next project is to be. While ostensibly inspired by the music and musicians here at Yellow Barn, it is perhaps more accurate to say my time here is an excuse and milieu to get me started. A fine setting, for musical relationship is key to Yellow Barn, and for months I’ve been wanting to explore relationship in my work.

For many years, my abiding fascination has been singular identity — my own and others. The work I’ve made has derived from self-portraiture — the key words here being “derived from,” for my self is largely absent from any end product; self-portraiture has been a way in to the more universal subject of “self” overall.

But that focus on identity has changed, and I am now intent in relationships, as my own personal relationships become less definable and more… confusing. I more and more experience pain and love as flip-sides of the same coin, and in my work am trying to come to terms not only with this, but also with the ambiguity of relationship period. I’m not sure how exactly my drawings are doing that, but it feels as thought that’s the terrain I’m just beginning to mine.

Significant is the figurative basis of these new sketches (no longer am I looking at my head in the mirror as the jumping point) — figures I sketch while sitting in rehearsals here at Yellow Barn. What more intense a relationship to have as a spring board than that between musicians, jointly sharing in interpretation of beautiful and melancholic and mysterious music?

So this sketch — in ways I’ve yet to fathom — drives into this space of relationship. The work has both a private and public life, of course, and meaning for me may not be meaning for you, and that’s fine. So — please accept the above sketch and all others in these posts as an offering for consideration, and my words an invitation to connecting.

—Peter Bruun

Yellow Barn Video Library

Monday, May 30, 2016

Watch over 100 concert videos and documentaries online.

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Jörg Widmann at Yellow Barn

Monday, May 30, 2016

Since the 1970s, composers of all nationalities have enriched Yellow Barn's summer season with their music, the work they do with musicians, and interactions with audiences. In 2015, Yellow Barn welcomed renowned German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. His residency week offered multiple performances of his music, including performances by the composer, and opened the door for ongoing friendship and collaboration.

In April 2016, Jörg will return to Yellow Barn to develop the North American premiere of his song cycle Das Heisse Herz with baritone William Sharp and pianist Seth Knopp in advance of a three-day residency with Yellow Barn's Dallas partner, the Nasher Sculpture Center, for the concert series Soundings: New Music at the Nasher.

Read the Boston Globe's profile of Jörg Widmann's residency week at Yellow Barn

The Cult of the Work

Saturday, May 14, 2016

This post is the first of two, reflecting on our residency, Faithful to the Spirit. I want to preface this by thanking the boys and faculty of the Greenwood School. There is a quote attributed to Einstein: "If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough." Preparing the talk for Greenwood helped crystallise a number of complex ideas. The boys at Greenwood were so perceptive in their comments during our visit there. In particular there was one boy, with longish blond hair whom, after 30 minutes or so of discussion, astonished all of us musicians with his eloquence at articulating what our residency was about – far better than what we could muster.

Marisa Gupta

The Cult of the Work

During our talks in Putney (at the Greenwood School and for the general audience) we framed the discussion in terms of an issue raised by various commentators: whether music is an object or an activity. It is, of course, an activity. However we have, in certain ways, taken steps towards turning it into an object (through musical scores and recordings). In doing so all kinds of "rules" have been created – many of which we are unaware of; our residency was about becoming aware of and re-thinking these "rules".

Our residency was not centered around the study of period recordings, but on the questioning of a philosophical view in which music is thought of as a body of work. Recordings provide us with an historical record through which we can attempt to understand this. This concept informs most aspects of how we interact with mainstream western classical music, and has been much debated by scholars and other commentators, but I am uncertain how aware most mainstream performers are that this is the view we largely adopt (I only came across this in reading works of Lydia Goehr whose Imaginary Museum of Musical Works forms much of the basis of this post), Kenneth Hamilton, and others. Thinking of music in terms of works gives us an objective measure through which to judge auditions and competitions, assess conservatory exams, and write CD reviews. It influences our presentation of music in concert and how performers view their role in relation to a composer’s score. It plays no small part in how record producers carry out their jobs, and how composers conceive of notation. It impacts the language we use to discuss music. The list goes on.

Why is this important? The idea of being true or faithful to a work (Werktreue), and viewing music in terms of works in general likely contributes in large part to what some critics deem as the standardization and sacralisation of western classical music. It is probable that our current interpretation of this ideal is far from what many canonic composers would have expected. It has unintentionally caused us to limit ourselves to a narrow range of expressive possibilities in performing works, and adhere to rigid notions of the acceptable manner in which to present music in concert.

During earlier eras, interest in music revolved around music of the present. By around 1800, interest in music from the past began to grow in conjunction with the development of a canon of transcendent masterpieces. The result was a shift in emphasis from performance to the idea of musical works. Works soon were viewed as fixed objects of fine art. The result was an increasing notational precision as composers conceived of their music as being “preservable in fixed and lasting works,” a view that also impacted performances. Within the field of musicology, there was a view that strict methodology and research could enable musicologists to determine what a composer had intended to say, and this could be communicated in musical scores; thus it became increasingly the case that the performer’s duty was to reproduce the composer’s text. The advent of recordings further enhanced the notion of music as an object, as the ephemeral nature of performance now became something fixed and repeatable.

What does this mean in terms of how we perform music today? To understand this more clearly, it is helpful to look more closely at earlier views of music.

Occasional music

When musicians worked for the court or church, composers wrote occasional music and borrowed freely from other compositions and composers. Music wasn’t necessarily composed to outlast one or a few performances. Music was appreciated because it served an occasion. Its longevity was not a concern. (This likely included the music of Bach.)


In earlier centuries, a figured bass and melodic outline sufficed, which was embellished by performers. Musicians did not perform with the idea of realising every facet of a pre-conceived work. Music was treated more pragmatically. Composers gave varying degrees of instruction, filled in by performers depending on the type of musical expression required. There were ways of performing which were considered unacceptable, but great variety amongst that which was considered admissible.

A lack of precision in notation did cause concern (there are records of Couperin complaining of this), but by 1800, notation became sufficiently well specified to differentiate composing through performance and composing prior performance. Despite this, composers in the 18th century did want performers to try to comply with their scores, but as long as scores were not sufficiently detailed, it was difficult to achieve this.


In addition to different views of the role of notation, the concept of a virtuoso was very different too. Bach was just as appreciated for improvising as he was for his other skills. Mozart and Clementi took part in an extemporization competition in 1781. In the 18th century, respect was given as much to composer performers who could improvise. The term virtuoso was used as much in reference to improvisations as it was to the performance of pre-meditated compositions. Even in the Romantic era, when the shift in view was underway, Kenneth Hamilton describes the fundamental facet of the Romantic attitude towards interpretation, in which nearly all pianists were composers as well as performers and their personalities as composers tended to seep into their playing and often turned what we would imagine now as acts of interpretation into acts of free recreation. He cites Busoni as one extreme example of the towering virtuoso and questing composer, for whom few pieces he played were unaffected by his sometimes extreme interventions. Later in the 19th century there were signs of increasing specialization and this tradition has been largely abandoned.

Differences in the culture of performances

Performances took place with several interruptions. This may have been because performers made mistakes, or had "false starts". Audiences might have been bored so music wasn’t played to the end. There were breaks or intervals in long pieces. Individual movements were performed, and pieces were rarely played from start to finish.


Musicians didn’t rehearse in the same way. The term rehearsal was often used interchangeably with the term for performance. Only later did the concept of rehearsal become distinguished from performances and viewed as necessary for adequate performance. Rehearsals were also uncommon because professional orchestras hardly existed.

Music of the Past

In the 1800’s there was an increasing interest in music of the past though the prevailing view was still that music of the present was the only music worth listening to. However, attitudes started to shift in 1850. Prominent musicians performed music of past masters. Liszt began a trend by including "historical pieces" in his concert programs. According to the tenets of Romanticism, there was a new sort of academic interest in music history; reconstructing the past was influenced by this. Past music was seen through the Romantic ideal of works, leading to the canonization of dead composers and formation of a musical repertoire of transcendent masterpieces. The former curator of the British Library Sound Archive Timothy Day writes that “…the Romantic, nineteenth-century metaphor of the composer as an agent who simply materializes a perfectly imagined, finished form born in a visionary moment has remained enormously influential throughout the twentieth century. It has remained a fundamental component of the way a great many people think about music…”

Thus, early music was reintroduced into modern repertoire as “timeless masterpieces”, meaning that composers and music now had precise notation, multiple performances, and lasting fame. This repertoire of Classics spread fast and music of the classical era was viewed in Romantic terms – as perfect works of absolute music.


By the 20th century and into the 21st, the Werktreue (the concept of being true or faithful to a work) became an idea which assumed a dominant role in classical music life.

When we compare early recordings to modern ones, one can observe the extremes to which the notion of accurate notation and compliant performance has been taken. Many people today deem performances on early recordings as more reflective of the individual performer and less of the composer’s intentions, but bear in mind those recordings were made at a time when the shift in terms of viewing music as “works” was well underway. Earlier performances might have been even more surprising to our sensibilities; they may have been what most of the composers we perform today would have expected.

Many commentators unfairly malign modern performances for being homogenized without fully addressing the underlying philosophical view responsible for our current performing culture. There are of course many other contributing factors (the disappearance of national schools of playing, the standardization of instruments, and more).

This discussion is fruitful because many musicians (myself until recently included) view perfect compliance with a fully specifying score as an unquestionable universal ideal, rather than just one view of music we have chosen to adopt. It is perhaps the case that the nature and degree of compliance is much more nuanced and varied than the current norms we adhere to, which could in turn lead to performances marked by a greater sense of freedom, variety and creativity. As Goehr eloquently asserts, “...without a doubt, the most important fact is that being true to music or a particular type of music does not necessarily mean being true to a work. This lesson by itself is of substantial philosophical and musical significance.”

Ultimately what early recordings (particularly those made by composers or musicians closely associated with them) can help us understand is that “the music” exists beyond what is suggested in notated scores – a plethora of instances of un-notated expressive devices (as well as notated instructions not observed) – far greater than what current norms allow. This ultimately challenges the notion of “the work” which is held by many today, is adopted by interpreters and producers of music of all sorts, and is dependent upon ideals of compliant performance.