For genre-defying quartet Clogs, its purpose will always be about performing music for people to enjoy and hopefully like. The bandmates (Bryce Dessner, guitar; Rachael Elliott, bassoon; Thomas Kozumplik, percussion; Padma Newsome, viola) met while each attended Yale School of Music many years ago, and the four musicians have continued to create music ever since.
The band’s fifth album, The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (2010), feature vocals–a rare departure from its predominantly instrumental works–and the result is a beautiful arrangement of reflective harmonies that grow into something so unexpectedly pleasant.
Last year, NPR recognized Creatures as one of the best genre-defying albums of 2010. Do you prefer “genre-defying” to other terms such as “oddly constructed” or “classical-indie hybrid” or “avant-garde chamber” that have been used to describe your music?
Your official bio lacks such definitive distinctions and simply describes your music. How do you feel about these attempts to label to your music?
I don’t attempt to write in any style, or attempt to avoid a style. Style is not usually in dialogue in my music on purpose. It’s just a result of the musical idea meeting the outside world. This is not to say that I never think/feel about style. There are many thoughts and feelings running past my brain, and out again, as a piece comes into being.
I believe in most cases that a person’s style is going to be something at the center of what they do most easily. The music that comes most easily off our fingers, and the music that rings well in our ears. If there is an answer to your question, then it is one of the great mysteries of music: why we like what we like. Or “what is style?”
I do like “genre defying,” since I am the mildest of political animals, so to defy a genre seems gutsy to me, if not a bit out of character. Hybrid might relay some information, but in my mind has the idea of disparate entities coming together in a conglomerate, jutting out in relief, as it were.
I think the great value of any of this is the intrinsic nature of the outcome and how we respond to it. I prefer people to be sitting back and enjoying the sonic journey than to be pondering the vagaries of style, asking, “Why I am here?” or “What frog am I?”
In reality, all my energy goes into finding ideas and their relatives.
In a previous interview, you confessed that you “don’t think [you] probably will ever be popular.” I guess that’s a relative term because I would think you are on a musical high right now. Pitchfork and NPR love you. You’re even on the lucky Pandora Radio collection. How do you feel about all the buzz around your music?
In reality, a “popular” musician is a working musician.
I still maintain that I am not popular, which I am quite comfortable with. I do like the positive responses, reviews, and the nice things audiences say about the music, but I am very, very, bad at entrepreneurial behavior–reaching out. So of all the musicians I work with, I would say that I am one of the least buzzed. The reality is that even though I enjoy touring, I have a shorter fuse than most, and like to come home to simple living, writing and recording. It does feel good to play in front of enthusiastic audiences, but it is hard for me to keep the connection going for long tours.
I often have people telling me how different the classical world is from the rock world, or visa versa. Six months into a tour when you are playing the same 20 songs night after night, reproducing with fidelity a record of some success, it reminds me a lot of playing with a Symphony Orchestra, first rehearsal of one, when the 1812 Overture is put in front of me.
We do seem to equate numbers with success, and if we don’t then we are grasping at straws such as “well, I will be known when I am gone,” which is a common martyr-like mantra amongst composers.
For me, there is a conscious drawing back from the rapidity of travel: from last minute music development, business components becoming influential in creative decisions, tiredness, repetition of repertoire, and the theatre of puppetry in live performances. All of these kinds of things contribute. It is a conscious decision with cultural repercussions, towards more self-reliance, the time to process all the change, process the experiences and maybe even to put them back into the music.
What is more gratifying, getting more exposure for making “your music” or exposing people to musical styles and sounds that are not so mainstream, even by indie standards?
It is the special sonic events or beauty in the music that I love and try to bring to people. I do think that beauty–beauty in sadness, uplifting beauty–is an end unto itself. Music is still a foreign lover to me. I am always loving the unexpected. I don’t consider the music that I write to be mine, or even that I write it. I find it; through doodling, finding is liking. I then try and give it a life.
For me, musical, performative beauty is an end unto itself.
Creatures was more lyrical than your previous works. Why so? Is that something that we will see on future albums?
I am not sure what lyrical means actually; if we are talking melodies and beauty, well perhaps that makes sense. It could be simply to do with writing for voice, which is a special case with Creatures with all its songs. There is physical reality, a necessity, which comes with the voice. Beauty is a biological beast, except possibly when it comes to Webern.
Is accessibility to the audiences something that comes up during the composition process?
A composer trained in the latter part of the 20th century might think about affect and effect. I have eaten a lot of music over the last 44 years. Sometimes a musical idea I find speaks or resonates to other music and sometimes not. I learn through performance and recording whether it resonates with other people.
There are a bunch of paradigms lying around within these questions of style and accessibility for me. One is a strong influence from Modernity, that is, “the thing I do now is the newest, the next best thing, at the cutting edge of the now/future.”
I am not criticizing this paradigm, just pointing it out. The other is to do with self-awareness. Any kind of casual self-awareness is not a bad thing, and it’s a kind of reverse snobbery to put extreme self-awareness as a negative. The nature of these negative and positive paradigms is always shifting.
I am often thinking about how something might sound to others. The reason and idea behind that is simply that I might be restricted by my own view of things, and I could just get it wrong. A fear for me is to make something that I like the sound of–am attracted to, and love–an essential ingredient of a working musical idea, only to find that others find it banal and boring.
You worked with Shara Worden, Matt Berninger, and Sufjan Stevens on Creatures. Considering how methodical and focused your writing and composition process can be, was it difficult to work with other musicians? And can we expect more collaborations in the future?
I love collaboration.
The primary music ally for Creatures outside of Clogs was/is Shara Worden. It is for her voice that I wrote “Adages Of Cleansing,” and it is her realizations of the songs that are closest to my heart. Sufjan is easy to play with and I loved the introduction of the banjo into “We Were Here.”
Matt and Aaron Dessner were mellow collaborateurs–able to work by distance. Other recent collaborations include Daniel Helin (Mallacoota, 2010), Zachary Miskin (For Your Safety, 2010), Rachael Elliott (Polka The Elk, 2011), and FastNet Films (Colony, Documentary).