Released on July 2, 2001
LISTEN TO "I'M VERY SAD" OFF THOM'S NIGHT OUT:
Clogs are a quartet of classical musicians hailing from Australia and the United States. Featuring viola, classical guitar, bassoon, and percussion, they scrawl the folk sounds of India and the Jewish Diaspora atop lessons learned from minimalism, ambient music, and rock. The New Yorker writes that, "fans of Sigur Ros, the Rachel's, and other post-rock ensembles who know how to listen in respectful silence will have no trouble appreciating the softly evocative compositions." Philadelphia City Paper says "few new CDs in any genre will do as much to challenge the way you listen to music."
CONVERSATION: Padma Newsome & Alec Hanley Bemis (Sunday, May 10, 2001)
Q: What is the relevance of genre or tradition in your music? How do you define your music vis-a-vis classical music or ethnic music or folk music?
A: I actually don't define these things. I'm more likely to question their use than to define them. That doesn't mean that I'm critical of other people who use the words, but if someone uses the word folk I'm more likely to ask "Well, what do you mean by that?" They'll generally describe a tradition outside of their own?or a minor tradition inside their own that they consider to be folk.
Over a period of however many years I've been writing, I've listened to many kinds of music and been informed by many kinds of music and, for me, they exist on a kind of subconscious level. When I'm in the process of writing I kind of smell them, and will brush up against them and will either reject them or accept them? Or accept for a moment and then bounce off them.
More specifically I think this is what has happened with Clogs in the area of classical versus rock. We're certainly aware of these things and will avoid or accept them according to how we feel. The polarity has existed sometimes tangibly, sometimes really intangibly. Bryce [Dessner, Clogs' guitarist?ed.] has been the arbiter or the person I've looked to. I think about him and his playing and the tradition of him in the rock arena. I think, well, what am I not using? What are we not using that's really interesting, that he's really good at?
Q: What interests you most about rock?
A: Well, I look to the more "primitive" avant-garde in classical music as the same kind of people, people who produce the same effect as contemporary rock, 70s rock, and early 70s rock produced.
On the other hand, I don't consider the average classical transformation of rock music to be successful: ostenados for the cello, giving some kind of rock beat to the bass clarinet? This stuff doesn't interest me. My mind's not stimulated by that kind of transformation. It's not translating the actual subject matter.
Q: Do you think you're translating the subject matter of rock even more now than you did on Thom's Night Out?
A: I think "Mysteries of Life" is getting it. The record is somewhat more refined, aesthetically a little lighter than some of the music we now perform. I think we're getting to the heart of a tougher expression at times.
Q: You avoid the title "classical music" and talk about having commonalities with the classical avant-garde of the early 20th century. Do you have a negative view of what classical music represents to people now?
A: What people? That's a very broad question.
Q: Well, both! Does it bother you what "classical music" means both to people in the academy or to the person in the street who has little or no experience with what's currently happening in classical music?
A: Right? The other side of that question is "What are you doing about it?" But I'm not really one of those people. In the postmodern classical era, a common thread has been to try and write music that is reaching a greater audience. But it doesn't really worry me if my music is accessible or not accessible. I'm more concerned with the expressional natures of it. I don't like slogans, "We're reaching out" kind of slogans. People use them when they need them and that's not the kind of thing we're trying to achieve. We're just trying to play music and write music that we enjoy and we hope other people enjoy as well. That's always been my approach.
It's not that I don't think about other people. Sometimes I like people to not have to think or worry about the music too much. I don't want them to go away from a concert going, "What the hell was that about?" Not always. Not always?
After a concert, if I get a negative response or a neutral response or multiple neutral responses about a piece, I will think about that piece and try to consider what's not happening. But the issue has less to do with whether I'm hitting the right style, and more to do with whether I'm hitting the right emotion and the right feeling.
Q: But it sounds like you also don't want your audience to go away and just say "Oh, that was pleasant."
A: Well, pleasant for me is always? I have to place it within a certain context. Why would I offer something that was tranquil? I offer it because I'm trying to give someone respite or because I really like the sound of a melody. It's usually one of those two things.
Respite and its opposite come in an attempt to express something. I guess that's? You know I really respect the idea and value the idea of emotional expression in music. And I don't mean just? I mean as many emotions as I can feel. I don't mean just the straightforward ones. I mean complex ones as well.
Q: What do you think of taking your music to the audiences you'll be taking it to on this tour rather than taking it through standard, classical music channels? It's a wide range of venues ? from punk clubs to rock clubs to hippie-leaning folk clubs to a hip-hop and electronic radio station.
A: Well, the tour is just as much a part of your dream as it is part of my dream. This kind of tour is the first of its nature that I've really done. Ever. Mostly I've toured with orchestras where you really know what the audience is going to be like.
Q: Does it interest you, though? And what is your approach to it if it's not where you're coming from?
A: It certainly is where I'm coming from. Where I'm coming from has been informed by where Bryce is coming from and from where you're coming from. That's not what you want for your paper, I know, but I'm willing to go along with what you think is the right thing. More than willing?I'm into it!
I'm also very interested to see how people will respond. The big challenge for us is having a well-rounded performance package, and various types of performances. We can't think we'll just pull out set A ? which is a certain set ? for every show. We need a sense of what the audience is about and then we can choose to pull out set A or pull out set B. And we'll have to do this over and over again. I think this is quite a challenging thing for a musician and it's really, in my mind, an issue of professionalism, that one can put on a particular kind of performance or a particular standard of performance. I mean this is a big challenge for me. But because we're also improvisers we have to accept the familiar and break away from the familiar.
Q: Do you have to do that constantly, is that what improvisation means ? "breaking away" ? or do you ever come to a point where you don't have to break away any more?
A: There are two parts of it. Accepting the familiar and breaking away. Improvisation is both of those. Improvisation is language-based but it's this world where the language is constantly developing. So as the performances go on the language builds, becomes stable, becomes static. When the act of performing the lick that you've performed three times in a row, when there's no extra-musical energy, when it's just running itself?at that point you're required to crack it.
Q: I want to get back to the word "avant-garde." Does that word have any relevance anymore?
A: Well, it seems to have relevance. The problem with it in the classical area is that it was the dominant way of approaching music. It's been the case since the turn of the century, with little lulls and a little break off. I actually consider the postmodern movement to be an avant-garde movement because its foremost goal was to shake up the pre-existing, institutional way of writing and thinking about music. Because, of course, it was totally rigid and out of control in the university scene in the 60s? That sort of modernist approach went totally crazy so it had to be shaken up.
But I would like to think that, at times, I'm asking people to listen to my music in a way that they're not used to listening to. Some of it is a bit retro. I'm asking them to actually listen to the melodies. I really believe strongly that the first moments of listening to a piece defines the piece itself, defines the way we listen to it, and the way we experience it. It sets up the context and defines the language of a piece.
Because our listening experience is so varied at this moment in our culture, because there's so many different kinds of music to listen to, instead of placing a piece within a broad context ? "Is it trendy or is not trendy?" ? you're better off just listening to it, taking it for what it is. Try and get out of it what it's actually asking us to get out of it. Maybe you'll enjoy it, maybe you won't.
I've had a little problem with my classical music actually, in that it's not trendy at all. It doesn't do anything out there or weird. It doesn't question many pre-existent forms or styles or notations or sounds. And even though I believe strongly in it, I believe in the music, I love a lot of music that I write, I don't want to try and pretend that it's out there and weird?and therefore interesting.
Q: There are other things that make it interesting though.
A: Sure. Subject matter.
Q: I want to get into that. You talk about emotion's role in your music. Is it pure emotion or is there other subject matter? Can instrumental music even have subject manner? It doesn't have to, it's not an essay after all?
A: I think music can emote. How we translate that is subjective. But the intent behind a lot of my music is emotional, emotive. And much of my music in the last year and a half has been dominated by the idea of love and relationships and the bad side of that. And I'm fine with that, I'm happy about that. I'm happy to be somewhat autobiographical in an abstract fashion. Or at least as a starting point to the making of the music. I like the power, the potency, of straightforward expression. And I'm not saying the emotions are straightforward. I'm not saying the ideas are straightforward.
Q: To wrap up, if this tour is an experiment, how have your recent experiences with playing with Clogs in less-than-traditional venues felt? I'd ask you to counter this with how you felt after the recent premiere of one of your compositions at Carnegie Hall?
A: Well, I thought that was a dud gig just for starters! I haven't heard that piece played the way I want to yet so I'm not going to? My inclination is to say it was a dud piece but I'm not going to pass judgment on it until I hear that fourth movement done justice and then I'll make a decision about it. I mean you know that piece is completely dominated by emotion. That's what it's all about. But that's another question?
To get back to your question, a lot of the context of new music and the performance of new music is in the premiere mode. So much new music is premiered and that's it. The audience is startled and excited ? if they are ? because of the newness of the piece. So there's that sense of the avant-garde about new music and its performance these days.
I like a piece once it's been done four or five times. I like to see how the audience is experiencing it the second and third time and,actually, I think that's what my more traditional composing requires. It takes a little while to digest it. It takes a while to get where the central parts of the music is, the kind of epiphanal moments.
I've done improvised gigging of original music before. I used to do it in Australia, but with Clogs the standard is higher at the moment ? of the music-making and of the audience. I've experienced a larger audience coming back to the gigs. And it's interesting to get their response. I mean they're telling me, they're telling me about it, they're saying, "Yes, we'd like to hear the same tunes a number of times," but they're also listening carefully. "I'm Very Sad," for example. We've played that numerous times to the same audience and it's only when we really play it well that they get right into it, when we're really inside the music. It's very simple music in which we have to play everything just right, be really expressional in our phrasing, come in right together, play perfectly in tune. Then people really love it, which is really interesting. Whereas some other pieces, like "Mysteries of Life," in which people love to hear unexpected little turns of events.
Getting back to your original question about genre, if you could imagine being in my subconscious mind, there are these rough edges. I can only feel them. I can't see them. The edges are style. And there's a whole bunch of them in this little space. As you're writing and as you're playing you're bumping up against them and you're kind of touching them. And sometimes you're kind of like a semi-permeable membrane for a while. And sometimes you'll sort of chase it and you'll back off? This is all happening on a sub-conscious level. You're not saying, "This is the such-and-such style and I will do this." It's not happening on that level at all.
It's like cooking. You have a bunch of herbs besides you and you smell one, you smell another, you smell another, and you put in what you think is going to work, get rid of what you don't think is going to work. The decision making is happening on a very subconscious level, something akin to taste or smell. And taste and smell and maturity is not something you can just kind of, you can't just suddenly have it. You are just what you are.
Anyhow, just rambling.
Village Voice (New York, NY) by Richard Gehr: ...in the smart and pretty romantic-minimalist-improv tradition that began somewhere around Erik Satie and extends through the Penguin Cafe Orchestra to the Tin Hat Trio.
The New Yorker (New York, NY): Clogs The music handily eludes classification, but fans of Sigur Ros, the Rachel's, and other post-rock ensembles who know how to listen in respectful silence to a live performance will have no trouble appreciating the softly evocative compositions.
Philadelphia City Paper (Philadelphia, PA) by Andrew Ervin: "The biggest drawback to Thom's Night Out is that it won't fit logically anywhere in your music collection. A case could be made for including it with your world-music stuff or with your classical discs or even with the rock CDs-somewhere between Camper Van Beethoven and Costello, Elvis. The four-piece ensemble uses Western classical instruments to play pop-structured songs that can sound like klezmer music, traditional Indian melodies or even medieval monody. Padma Newsome plays the violin and viola and also composed most of the tunes. Thomas Kozumplik plays all manner of percussion, including steel drums, and Bryce Dessner plays classical guitar while Rachael Elliott fills out the ensemble on bassoon. Sound like an odd combination? It is, but the honed chops and unique harmonic sensibility somehow hold it all together. Fans of rock's slo-mo movement will feel right at home, and so will their parents. It is overall refreshing in its originality and bravado; few new CDs in any genre will do as much to challenge the way you listen to music."
Cincinnati City Beat (Cincinnati, OH): "The Clogs, who recently releases Thom's Night Out on the new artist-operated Brassland label out of New York, are a great Neo-Classical quartet whose crafty arrangements and dynamic style brings to mind a mix of Kronos Quartet, Rachel's and Tortoise."
Montreal Mirror (Montreal, Quebec, CANADA) by Boss Sambosa: Smooth and thin-sounding strings weep in and out of hollow guitar pops and deep, minimal bassoon-based soundscapes-rich, concise, repetitive and slightly experimental. These guys refresh classical music with their subtle touch, their accessible grooves, and a tiny klezmer edge...a phenomenal live experience for those with sensitive ears and quiet tongues. 9 out of 10 rating
SF Weekly (San Francisco, CA): While his [Padma Newsome's] works for bassoon, saxophone, guitar, percussion, and his own instruments bear the casual, loose-limbed shamble of Western improvisation, they are largely grounded in the classic folk musics of India and the Jewish Diaspora. At once familiar and alien, comical and disquieting, soothing and overwrought, the Clogs' music walks a fine line between radiance and darkness that is rarely achieved outside Hindu culture--and even more rarely in a nightclub setting.
Privy Magazine (New York, NY): The Clogs, besides being a popular shoe-style, are a quartet of classical musicians that collectively hail from Australia and the U.S. A fan though hardly a connoisseur of classical music, I was pleased to discover that besides being purveyors of serious and exquisite musicianship, the Clogs are also quite aurally accessible to your average indie/modern rock fan. Particularly for those of us going ga-ga over the latest prog-rock experimental eclecticism as heard in the last two Radiohead LPs and Sigur Ros... Finally, I found track six, "Four Blue Poles", to be my favorite. It is an epic of sound, so much so that I find it difficult to imagine someone listening to it and not mentally conjuring some adventure through the woods of medireview Britain or some such elaborate plotline. I figure music must be pretty bloody if you find yourself creating stories as you listen. rating: 4.5/5
Blue Dog Press (Buffalo, NY): "Clogs...grab form by the cojones and manipulate it to fit their own personal vision of aesthetics, meaning they're real weird, real creative, real esoteric, real good."
Voir Hour (Montreal, Quebec, CANADA): "The buzz is swelling around this Aussie-American quartet that captures the basics of conservative avant-instro."
Willamette Week (Portland, OR): "Atypical as all get out, this could shape up to be a quietly mesmerizing night."
Philadelphia City Paper (Philadelphia, PA) by Brian Howard: "Clogs, a loosely configured foursome of classically-trained musicians, compose music in pretty much the same manner everyone who plays instrumental, neo-classical post rock-from Tortoise to Rachel's to Japancakes-says they do. They compose songs, which then evolve through repetition and experimentation. Which isn't to say Clogs aren't better at it... The improvisation-touched compositions on their upcoming Thom's Night Out (Brassland) can move, as on "Mysteries of Life," from epic string swells to rhythmic, rock-inflected passages or combine classic structures with ethnic folk devices as on "Four Blue Poles." The tracks are thematic, for sure, but actually feel touched by caprice, unafraid to take a stylistic turn, right or wrong (but mostly spot-on)."