Only under the auspices of Yellow Barn

Monday, May 28, 2012

Michael Miller writes for The Berkshire Review:

As I expected, the performance of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile was unique, but only after being there and experiencing it can I appreciate just how this could only have happened in Putney, Vermont, under the auspices of Yellow Barn. I heard the work for the first and only time until now in February 2011 in Alice Tully Hall, played by one of the world’s great ensembles, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, who commissioned the work and premiered it in Brussels in 1991. There was something special in this New York performance, because the acoustics of the new Alice Tully Hall permitted them for the first time to play the work without amplification. Since the work is written for six percussionists surrounding the audience, most halls require a modicum of amplification to enable everyone in the hall to hear more or less the same thing. The work is immensely complex, and I consumed my dollop of free champagne after the concert wondering if any other group could even attempt to perform the work.

The answer is “yes, and very well,” as James Beauton, Greg Beyer, Amy Garapic, Doug Perkins, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshinaga demonstrated most impressively.

The performance at Putney was a great success in itself, but the circumstances added something marvellous to the event. The masterful performance in Alice Tully Hall was a high-profile concert at Lincoln Center. Yellow Barn’s was — at least intended to be — an open-air concert in rural Vermont. Bad weather reports convinced the organizers to move it to the rain venue, the Greenwood School gym. It turned out to be a lovely evening, and it was a disappointment not to sit under the stars for this astral music, but there were advantages. For one thing, the gym, which is less than a quarter the size of Alice Tully Hall, required no amplification for the percussion instruments; for another, the crickets and tree frogs were in full chorus that night and would most definitely have made their contribution.

This performance was somewhat more careful and by no means as loud as the one at Tully. My hearing was perfectly normal at the end of it — not a trace of deafness. I felt the nature of pulsars as time-keepers came through especially well. Pulsars keep their own time, which is entirely alien to ours. In fact the experience becomes something like what a dialogue with a visitor from another world might be like. On the other hand, the wood blocks and other exotic-sounding instruments evoked the rituals of “primitive” peoples — what Grisey himself described as “shamanistic conjuring.” (A student of religions might call this mediation.) In this second encounter with the work, I experienced the music of the pulsars themselves as an epiphany. The percussion music that preceded it might well have been a calling of the phenomena, and the music that followed as a petition or attempt to interact with them.

The space was splendidly decorated with a beautiful colored banner and a ring, and the spinning cymbal, which marks the conclusion of the work, stood at the center of the space and the audience, not at center front stage — a great advantage.

Bravo to Seth Knopp and all concerned for organizing a musical event at which the ears, the intellect, and the spirit were equally rewarded.

Yellow Barn's Big Bang

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jonathan Potter writes for the Brattleboro Reformer:

Tom Geballe has been an astronomer for 40 years.

Now he’s become a star.

Geballe flew in earlier this week from Hilo, Hawaii, where he works at the Gemini Observatory, to take part in a unique collaboration with a percussion ensemble as part of Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency program. Geballe has been cast as the narrator in a rare performance of Gerard Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile."

Inspired by the 1967 discovery of pulsars and the strange signals these remnants of supernova explosions were emitting, "Le Noir de l’Etoile," composed in 1989-90 features six percussionists, recordings of those pulsar signals and a narrator who introduces the piece.

Enter Geballe, who met Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp three years when Knopp’s group, The Peabody Trio, performed in Hilo for a concert society Geballe heads in his spare time.

The two hit it off, and Knopp was so eager to see the equipment at the observatory, Geballe agreed to take him up at 4 a.m. for a spectacular view of the sunrise over Hilo. Knopp called it "one of the greatest experiences of my life."

When Yellow Barn decided to team with percussionists Eduardo Leandro and Doug Perkins on "Le Noir de l’Etoile" for his residency program, Knopp thought of involving Geballe, both because his sonorous bass voice would be good for the narrator part and because, well, who else was he going to call when he needed an astronomer?

Geballe presented a talk Tuesday night at the Putney Public Library titled "Why is it dark at night?" He is also spending time this week working with students at The Greenwood School, which partners with Yellow Barn on the residency program.

On Tuesday afternoon, Geballe gave a talk on galaxies to all the students there, generating a lively discussion and many thoughtful and engaging questions from the students. One student asked Geballe about the likelihood of life existing somewhere else in the universe.

"My opinion is yes, there must be life elsewhere," Geballe answered. "It’s just a question of chemistry and time."

Which brings us back to "Le Noir de l’Etoile," and the work going elsewhere at the Greenwood School campus, where the gymnasium has been taken over by six percussionists and a whole warehouse full of drums, cymbals, gongs, bells, sticks, mallets, brushes and other noisy devices.

Putting together a piece this big, with each percussionist playing so many instruments with such precision required is, indeed, an exercise in chemistry and time for a group assembled by Perkins and Greg Beyer (filling in for Leandro, who had to withdraw for personal reasons) and four auditioned musicians.

Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile" is a big undertaking, an hour-long, expressive piece for six percussionists grouped around an audience.

The week-long residence will culminate in a free performance on Friday, outside on the Greenwood School soccer field beginning at 8:16 p.m. (sunset). The audience will sit in the middle of the field (bring blankets or folding chairs) and the percussionists will surround them. The effect should be spectacular.

Read the full article

Music with pulsar obligato

Monday, May 21, 2012

Michael Miller writes for The Berkshire Review:

This roughly hour-long work for six percussion players encircling the audience was Grisey’s response to his discovery of the sound of pulsars. Neither Grisey, although he taught at Berkeley  for four years, nor the largely European movement to which he belonged for a while, Spectralism, is very well known in the United States. Last year’s American tour by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in which they played Le Noir de l’Étoile (for a review of their Lincoln Center performance, click here) and the New York Philharmonic residency of Grisey’s pupil, Magnus Lindberg, have done something to correct that. Susanna Mälkki recently conducted Grisey’s 1977 work, Modulations, with the San Francisco Symphony, reviewed here by Steven Kruger.

By the time Grisey came to write Le Noir de l’Étoile, on commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1989-90, he had moved beyond Spectralism, which was a highly rigorous method for composing music from the nature of sound itself and the way it is received by human perception. For him “music is made with sounds, not with notes.”  In 1986, Grisey began to focus on unpredictability and volatility in music, and the organization of his works became less readily apparent, fractured as they were by abrupt changes and outbursts. In this work he turned to the nature of recently discovered entities in space, pulsars, which exist far outside our solar system, following processes alien to the regularity of the cycles we have come to depend on for life on our planet.

Read the full article

In Vermont, open air drumming

Sunday, May 20, 2012
Jeremy Eichler writes for The Boston Globe:

Is there music in the night sky?

Of course thinkers from Pythagoras to Johannes Kepler have pondered “the music of the spheres,” and composers from Gustav Holst to Mark-Anthony Turnage have on occasion waxed astronomical in their own works.

But none have addressed the question quite as literally as the French spectralist Gerard Grisey, whose hourlong percussion work of 1989-90, “Le Noir de l’Etoile,” would seem to settle the matter once and for all. Conceived for six percussionists, tape, and live electronics, the piece takes as its inspiration and musical DNA the captured sounds of two actual pulsars, rhythmically beating from distant corners of the universe.

And at sunset on May 25, the sounds of those pulsars will be returned to the night sky once more, as a group of percussionists in residence at Yellow Barn will mount a rare outdoor performance of Grisey’s bracing masterwork in an open field part way up a mountain in Putney, Vt. The musicians will perform on six platforms encircling the audience.

“There are a few pieces out there that go beyond drumming,” said Eduardo Leandro, a percussionist who has served on the Yellow Barn faculty and first proposed doing the Grisey outdoors. Leandro regards “Le Noir de l’Etoile” as a landmark 20th-century percussion score on par with iconic works by Varese, Xenakis, and Reich. “These pieces have an artistic and aesthetic core that remind you of the reason why percussion exists.”

Related materials for the Grisey residency

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Our Artist Residencies are as much an opportunity for Yellow Barn’s audience, staff, and the Putney community to explore new ideas as they are for the resident artists themselves.

As I am sure it is for many, the planetarium was always one of my favorite places to visit as a child. Looking forward to Yellow Barn's upcoming residency devoted to the preparation and performance of Gerard Grisey's Le Noir de l'Etoile, I put together a group of pieces that like Le Noir de l'Etoile draw inspiration from and give new meaning to natural wonders. In addition, I asked a friend who turned his love of astronomy into real knowledge, to recommend several books (and a few videos) that might take us into that universe soon to be explored by Yellow Barn's six percussionists and Tom Geballe of the Gemini Observatory.

—Seth Knopp


Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Winterreise (1827)
Thomas Quasthoff, baritone, and Daniel Barenboim, piano
This great song cycle sets 24 poems of Wilhelm Muller. It is one of the most heart-wrenching works Schubert wrote and was completed in the last year of his life. It uses the natural world as emotional metaphor as well as word painting.
The baritone, Thomas Quasthoff, has serious birth defects from thalidomide poisoning, which shortened his arms and legs, and he has just retired at the age of 52. His story is quite incredible and would be one that speaks of great courage (and enormous talent).
After almost 40 years, I have decided to retire from concert life. My health no longer allows me to live up to the high standard that I have always set for my art and myself. I owe a lot to this wonderful profession and leave without a trace of bitterness.
On the contrary, I am looking forward to the new challenges that will now enter my life. I would like to thank all my fellow musicians and colleagues, with whom I stood together on stage, all the organizers, and my audience for their loyalty. —Thomas Quasthoff
John Luther Adams (b. 1953) Earth and the Great Weather (1990-93)
Earth and the Great Weather is a 75-minute musical evocation of Alaskan peoples, wildlife, and weather. Subtitled “A Sonic Geography of the Arctic”, Adams’s writing is based on the aural mood unique to each place and each moment. Innovatively tuned strings, percussion interludes, and voices are woven with the sounds of loons, cranes, wind, waves, thunder, and glacial cracking (all recorded by Adams himself).
Gustav Holst (1874–1934) The Planets (1914-16)
CD: James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
DVD: Houston Symphony and Music Director Hans Graf
Produced by celebrated filmmaker Duncan Copp, The Planets - An HD Odyssey marries the latest images returned from planetary spacecraft with Holst's music to provide a mesmerizing spectacle. Disc one contains the film accompanied by a newly recorded soundtrack by the Houston Symphony and the women of the Houston Symphony Chorus. Disc two contains a documentary with an in- depth interview with Music Director Hans Graf and interviews with leading planetary scientists.


H. A. Rey The Stars - A New Way to See Them
From the author of Curious George comes a book of art and writing designed to bring science to a general audience. Containing star charts, a guide to the constellations, and details about seasons and the movement of the objects we see in the sky, this classic book makes evident H. A. Rey's passion for astronomy.
Chet Raymo 365 Starry Nights
Divided into 365 concise, illustrated essays, it focuses on the aesthetic as well as the scientific aspects of stargazing each night of the year. It offers the most up-to-date information available, with hundreds of charts, drawings, and maps. This simple yet substantial text is full of critical information and helpful hints on how to observe the stars; describe their position; and calculate their age, brightness, and distance.
Michael Benson Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes
To create Beyond, author Michael Benson spent years compiling and digitally processing 295 of the greatest photographs taken by the space crafts that have been exploring the solar system for almost half a century. The images, many revealing iconic landmarks, are of a quality to rival the greatest landscape photography on Earth. The text is eloquent and informative, with contributions by legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and award-winning critic Laurence Weschler, as well as essays by the author.


Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe (BBC TV)
(with accompanying books)
Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe introduce us to the planets and moons beyond our world, finding the biggest, most bizarre, and most powerful natural phenomena. Using the latest scientific imagery along with cutting edge CGI and some of the most spectacular and extreme locations on Earth, Brian Cox explores how these previously unseen phenomena have dramatically expanded our horizons with new discoveries about the planets, their moons, and how they came to be the way they are.
Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking (Discovery Channel)
(also his book A Brief History of Time)
With profound imagination, internationally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God—where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected.
Website for the Gemini Observatory
Visit the Gemini Observatory website for videos, podcasts, a visual tour on the World Wide Telescope, and other images. 

Images from the Crumb Madrigals Project

Monday, March 26, 2012

After devoting a week to developing a multi-media presentation, Yellow Barn's Crumb Madrigals artist residency culminated on March 24, 2012 with a public performance and discussion at Next Stage in Putney, VT. During their week in Putney the artists shared their work with community members in a lecture-demonstration at the Putney Public Library and with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students from Putney Central School and the Grammar School.


Left: Soprano Mary Bonhag and percussionist Greg Beyer discuss Crumb's Madrigals and their project at the Putney Public Library.
Right: Ensemble members talk with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students from the Putney Central School and the Grammar School.