The superb contemporary music ensemble Yarn/Wire—percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, and pianist/keyboardists Ning Yu and Laura Berger—is known as much for its willingness to transgress the limits of musical convention as it is for its performance prowess. Both qualities are on display with a pair of simultaneously released albums of very different kinds of new music, one of fully notated compositions within an expansive notion of modern small ensemble chamber music, and the other an unnotated exploration of extended techniques and unconventional instrumentation.
The album of traditionally notated work is Tonband, a set containing one composition each by German composer Enno Poppe and Swiss composer Wolfgang Heiniger, and one composition by both together. The first composition on the album, Poppe’s knottily acoustic, two-movement Feld (2007/2017), has the most conventionally Modern sound of the three. This is particularly true of the second movement, an expanding field of sound developed out of dissonant piano stabs and accumulating fragmentary rhythmic cells underscored by snare drum. The centerpiece is the title work, Poppe and Heiniger’s collaboration from 2008/2012. Tonband is an absorbing thirty-minute-long, two-movement electroacoustic composition involving a complex system of live electronics in which signals from contact-mic’d percussion are fed to the pianists, here playing electronic keyboards, who manipulate pitches and timbres and fabricate melodies shaped by the percussionists’ sounds and gestures. As might be expected, the result is a soundworld that stretches the timbral imagination, but even during the more extreme passages of sonic distortion, the percussionists’ gestures are still discernible beneath the clangorous surface. Heiniger’s Neumond (2018) at an economical nine minutes long is the shortest composition on the album; it is also the most “electronic”-sounding of the three. Both pianists play MIDI keyboards while the percussionists, in addition to playing a battery of wood, membrane, and metal instruments, sing wordlessly along.
Into the Vanishing Point, a 2019 work by composer Annea Lockwood, is the Yarn/Wire track on the album Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point. A very different proposition from the work on Tonband. the piece is the result of a collaborative process in which Lockwood set out a general structure and then, through playing, listening and discussing, the ensemble together with the composer shaped the sonic details. And these details make for a sound that is very sparse indeed. Through a combination of unconventional instruments and conventional instruments unconventionally played, Yarn/Wire create a porous texture of largely unpitched sounds that, as the title has it, are poised just at the point of vanishing. The other composition on Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point is Becoming Air (2018), a technically demanding solo work for trumpeter Nate Wooley.