Tuesday , May 21 2024
Sandbox Percussion
Photo credit: Noah Stern Weber

Exclusive Interview: Ian Rosenbaum of Sandbox Percussion on ‘Seven Pillars’ and Developing the Next Generation of Artists

Sandbox Percussion is riding high after their 2021 album Seven Pillars received GRAMMY® nominations in two different categories (Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Contemporary Classical Composition). The busy quartet tours internationally and, like many musicians, the members also teach.

As faculty members and ensemble-in-residence at both the University of Missouri-Kansas City and The New School’s College of Performing Arts, they’ve created a curriculum tellingly described on their website as “with entrepreneurship and chamber music at its core.” Because when you’re an artist, musical or otherwise, promoting your career is as important as your talent and skill.

Most of their concerts have a corresponding educational session, and through in-person events and recorded videos they’ve reached hundreds of thousands of young people.

In addition to their career mentorship program, next month at The New School in New York the members of Sandbox Percussion – Ian Rosenbaum, Jonny Allen, Terry Sweeney, and Victor Caccese – are holding a weeklong seminar providing masterclasses and workshops to a select group of students. The program will teach “both the creative and administrative aspects of running a successful chamber music ensemble.”

Sandbox Percussion formed in 2011. The current four members have been together since 2013. Ian Rosenbaum spoke with Blogcritics about the group’s founding, educational programs, other projects, creative work during the pandemic and more.

What drew you to percussion as opposed to another type of instrument?

I began – like all of us in Sandbox! – on the drum set. I was that stereotypical child, sitting on the kitchen floor playing on pots and pans and making a whole lot of noise. I never looked back!

How did Sandbox Percussion get started? And why “sandbox”?

Sandbox started in 2011, as a bit of an extension of the work the four of us were involved with at the Yale School of Music. The percussion program there puts an intense focus on chamber music. We discovered that we really enjoyed that kind of music-making and started to look for a way to continue that work once we left school.

Sandbox Percussion
Photo credit: Kjell van Sice

We started as a group of friends. There were no concerts, nothing like that – we just met up a few times a month to learn music together. Little by little this grew organically – one concert the first year, maybe two the second year. Some of those early performances had fewer people in the audience than on stage!

What about the name?

When we started to think about a name, we were trying to find something that captured two sides to our personality – our group started with friendship, and fundamentally, we exist because we like playing music together. We wanted that to come across, but we also wanted to express the seriousness that we bring to our craft. The idea of a sandbox resonated with us – it’s playful, joyful, and fun – but there’s also a serious component to working in a sandbox. Just ask any kid who is building a sandcastle!

How many young people were selected for your Sandbox Percussion Seminar, and where did they come from?

This year, we have a wonderful group of 16 percussionists – ranging from undergraduates to folks out of school and in the professional world. They are joining us from all over the country for a week of rehearsal and performance.

Each student is placed in a chamber group with one member of Sandbox, and we do our best to show by example how we put together and interpret a piece of music.

We also invite a wide variety of guests from all kinds of artistic disciplines – not just percussion – to speak to the students about [the guests’] unique career paths, and the choices they made as they transitioned from school into the professional world.

When I research the careers of soloists I’m going to interview – most often pianists, violinists, and cellists – I very often find competitions have been key to their success. I realize your inaugural 2022–23 Creator Mentorship Program wasn’t a competition per se, but there were two winners. How does this program work, and how are the winners rewarded?

Over the past several years, we’ve realized that we do our best work with composers when we can set aside significant amounts of dedicated time to create and develop a new work with them.

Our collaboration with the great composer Andy Akiho – Seven Pillars – is the clearest example of this. That piece took many years to create – Andy had been thinking about it for something like six years, and we spent a good part of three years supporting him and workshopping with him as he constructed the piece.

We decided that we wanted to create a framework to do this kind of in-depth collaborative work, but with creators that we don’t know yet.

So, we put the word out, and invited anybody that was interested to apply. There was no application fee, no requirement of a certain college degree or experience. With the help of an outside panel, we chose and commissioned two amazing artists, Lila Meretzky and JaRon Brown, to work with us over the 2022/23 season.

Fruits of the Sandbox Percussion Creative Mentorship Program

In creating the budget and structure for this program, we prioritized time. There were no hard and fast deadlines, we could meet as often as we wanted to and needed to, and we made sure that we created an opportunity to be with each creator in person, even if they lived out of state.

We’re just putting the finishing touches on the pieces as we speak – we’re going to give the world-premiere performances of them at the opening concert of our seminar on June 4 at The New School, and then we’ll make audio and video recordings of the works over the summer.

Percussion chamber music is a very new art form compared to others in the Western classical tradition, and it’s vital that everyone involved in it spends a considerable amount of time engaging with young musicians.

Ian Rosenbaum

We plan to perform the pieces regularly, but we also hope that we can help to get this music out into the percussion community, so that others will play this music.

Why is education so important to Sandbox Percussion?

I think that all four of us can point to specific moments in our training when an inspirational figure emerged who shifted the trajectory of our lives. This could be a private teacher, an experience in a masterclass, or even just a memorable performance. These moments led to our choice to pursue music in general, and to pursue this specific and esoteric career path.

Percussion chamber music is a very new art form compared to others in the Western classical tradition, and it’s vital that everyone involved in it spends a considerable amount of time engaging with young musicians.

Education has been a significant part of what we do as an ensemble since we began, and will continue to be. Our new Creator Mentorship Program is one example of this. Back in 2016, we founded our annual Sandbox Percussion Seminar – a weeklong program where we invite percussionists from all over the country to rehearse and perform with us. As we travel around the world performing, nearly every performance event that we schedule has a corresponding educational or outreach event to go along with it – these could involve engaging with percussionists in the city that we’re in, speaking with prospective audience members about the music and instruments that they will see at our performance, or working with young composers on new percussion works.

A Kaleidoscope of Creativity

Your most recent album featured Seven Pillars, mentioned above, which the New York Times called “as pure as music gets.” But your concert performances include stage direction and lighting design; you commissioned films to go with each movement of the piece; and the guest artists at the upcoming seminar include a choreographer as well as a composer and a cellist. How important to the success of a chamber ensemble are these collaborations and extramusical aspects?

We’re artists with a very, very specific skillset – we’re experienced at the things that we do, but there is so much, musical and extramusical, which we have no background in. Our group was founded with the feeling that intense collaboration is a positive thing, and early on, we discovered that by bringing in collaborators with different skillsets – whether other instrumentalists, vocalists, filmmakers, lighting designers, choreographers, or many others – we can drastically increase the emotional effectiveness and potential audience-base of a piece of art.

We continually think about the question of how to enhance a piece of music – or whether a particular piece would be served well by that enhancement or not. We don’t add dance or lighting design to a performance just for the fun of it or the visual spectacle – we do it when we truly believe that we are able to illustrate some of the emotional aspects of the piece of music using a different art form.

Take our Seven Pillars Film Anthology as one example. The work is symphonic in scope – it’s just under 80 minutes long and is divided into 11 movements. It is a lot to keep track of – especially on a first listen! There are innumerable threads that connect the movements together – overlapping palindromic structures, a pattern of orchestration that grows and grows as the piece progresses, and many smaller harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic concepts that are introduced, developed, and matured throughout the piece. There is so much in the music that we want to tell our audience about!

But it’s hard to do that just musically – it would take an intense theoretical analysis of the work to unearth all of these hidden structures. So, we asked ourselves: How can we visually depict the structure of the work?

On top of everything, in Seven Pillars, the movements are organized in a palindrome: Pillars I and VII are linked, as are II and VI, and III and V. Pillar IV is the center of the entire thing.

As we considered the range of possibilities of what a video representation of this work could be, we thought of as many kinds of filmmaking – as many genres – as we could. We also did our best to expand our family of collaborators. We turned to some of the people that we had worked with for years, but we met many of the folks who joined us on this project for the very first time as we started to put this all together.

Pillars I and VII are performance films – we wanted to show a little bit of us playing but didn’t want to rely only on that kind of video for the entire 80 minutes. Pillars II and VI are animations – both were made jointly by two incredibly talented filmmakers (Maggie Royce and Deborah Johnson) who had never met each other before this project.

Pillars III and V are collaborations with the director David Michalek, choreographers Francesca Harper and Reggie Gray, the filmmaker Michael Joseph McQuilken, a magnificent group of dancers, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. And Pillar IV is kind of a short horror movie, conceived of and created by Alexandra Kotcheff.

We spent weeks and weeks curating the kinds of films that we would include, and the kinds of collaborators that we would work with. But once we made those decisions, we set our collaborators free to make whatever they were inspired to make. In the end, this Anthology is one way to experience Seven Pillars – the album is another, and our live performance is yet another.

Time on Their Hands

How have things changed for you, both as performers and as educators, since the pandemic?

The pandemic was devastating for us – like it was for every arts organization, and truly, for humanity. The four of us chose to lean into the work that we do with Sandbox even more than we had before. All our concerts and events were canceled – including two sold-out world-premiere performances of Seven Pillars! – but, with the support of our very generous board of directors and community, we were able to spend all of our time creating. It was kind of our way to stave off the despair that was all around us.

During this period, we finished creating and recording Seven Pillars, we recorded two future albums, produced countless livestreamed events, and started to grow the framework for our Creator Mentorship Program. We continued to hold our Sandbox Percussion Seminar virtually and did the best that we could to create engaging content and programming that students and audience members could participate in remotely.

This is the optimistic side of my personality speaking, but we did the best that we could to use the unexpected time. In a normal year, our schedules are hectic – much of our lives involve traveling here and there, meeting deadline after deadline – sometimes, it doesn’t feel like an atmosphere conducive to stretching our creative legs and creating. We were suddenly presented with a seemingly limitless amount of unstructured time – and many of our projects, like Seven Pillars, were a direct result of that freedom.

Our Creator Mentorship Program is one example of something that grew out of what we learned from the pandemic. We enjoyed the freedom of time, and the artistic results that that freedom provided – and we now strive to build that into our lives in a few small ways.

I went to high school with a talented percussionist who went on to become not only a professional orchestral timpanist but a conductor. Together or individually, do you perform with larger ensembles, or in other formats besides Sandbox Percussion?

Yes! From our inception, creating space for the four of us to do things other than play with Sandbox has been an important thing.

It’s important artistically – as much as we enjoy playing with each other, we find it healthy to go off and work with other musicians and artists from time to time.

It’s also important for the growth of our organization – so many of the collaborators and endeavors that Sandbox is involved with began as relationships between just one of us and another person or entity.

Even though performing and working administratively for Sandbox occupies a vast majority of our time – 80% or more of our year – we are all involved with lots of other things, from solo projects to other chamber music and other interdisciplinary collaborations. It’s a difficult scheduling juggling act to get right, but it’s important enough to us that that effort is worth it.

You have a number of performances remaining in the current season. Besides Seven Pillars, what works and projects will you be bringing your audiences?

I’m writing to you now from Lexington, Kentucky, where tonight Sandbox will be performing a beautiful concerto by Viet Cuong, “Re(new)al,” with the Lexington Philharmonic and the wonderful conductor Mélisse Brunet. We’ve been very fortunate to perform this piece with a group of orchestras all over the country over the past several years.

This summer, we’ll continue our tour of Seven Pillars, including performances at the Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts on June 30, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble on July 28, and at Bravo! Vail on August 2. That trip to Vail also includes a performance of an incredible work of George Crumb’s, “Unto The Hills,” with vocalist Susanna Phillips and pianist Gloria Chien. We’re also making our first visit to the Encore Chamber Music Institute in Cleveland on June 16.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, we’re going to spend a week at the beautiful Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, laying the groundwork for a collaboration with the outstanding Gandini Jugglers.

It’s a busy summer, but we feel so fortunate that we get to spend our time involved in projects like these.

For more on Sandbox Percussion, visit their website, their YouTube channel, a New York Times feature on Seven Pillars, and their Events page for details on the June 4 seminar concert and beyond.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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