From Concert Halls to Rock Dives: An Interview with Padma Newsome of Clogs
A longstanding collaboration between classically trained musicians bears intricate, improvised fruit in Lantern.
Almost indescribably beautiful, constructed from shimmering, repetitive patterns of violin, guitar, percussion and bassoon, the music of Clogs defies categorization. Yes, the seeds of its songs may come from Schubert or a 16th century baroque composer for lute, but these are just the kernels of ideas. The music itself evolves from improvisation, a continuing musical collaboration between group members Padma Newsome, Bryce Dessner, Rachael Elliott ,and Thomas Kozumplik.
"Anybody can play," Newsome said of the band's creative process, speaking in a rapid-fire Aussie accent during a recent phone call. (It must be stated that Newsome is the sort of musician who becomes so engaged with what he is talking about that it's hard to keep up, and when words fail to convey what he's getting at, he is perfectly willing to sing a bar or two.) He added, "You get a bunch of ideas chucked down in front of you and in some way you can play it. The basic way that Clogs works is that myself, usually, and sometimes Bryce will bring in some ideas. The ideas are either completely written out or just a series of little ideas that may or may not work. Regardless of whether they're completely written out or they're in précis form, the band can kind of take hold of it individually and as a group."
The result is a music that defies style categorization, sometimes sounding wholly classical, other times taking on rock hues and still others seeming poised somewhere outside the whole continuum. Newsome said that fitting Clogs into style boundaries has never been important to him. "Just having Bryce in the band, who was originally a rock musician, means that there's going to be an influence in rock," he said. "But in the same way, there's a bassoonist as well, and there's always going to be that influence of beautiful, melodic lines."
He added that the labeling whole exercise seems beside the point anyway. "I think that the music that one comes up with ... is the only music that one can come up with. I'm so sick of having battles with styles ... I think that gets in the road in the end. I think we're just trying to find musical ideas with potential," he said. "We're not sitting in a Clogs rehearsal thinking about style. We're sitting in a Clogs rehearsal trying to find a way to play something that is attractive to us and we think may be attractive to others."
Newsome and Dessner are perhaps better known for their work with the National, though Clogs actually predates this band by a few years. This improvisatory experiment started while all four members were at Yale. Newsome was in the graduate school of music there, studying composition in the late 1990s; Dessner was studying guitar. "Toward the end of my time there, I had this idea. I dreamt an idea, really, woke up one morning wanting to form a band of improvising musicians. The idea was that they would have varied backgrounds in improvising, but all of them would have classical training so that they could just about play anything put in front of them," he said. He first enlisted Dessner, then bassoonist Rachael Elliott. Percussionist Thomas Kozumplik rounded out the four. "We didn't have much repertoire at first," Newsome said. "We had to thrash around with some old stuff of mine and some old stuff of Tom's and Bryce's and then eventually, we started to get enough material together that it was clear that the music had its own kind of style, it's own thing."
From these casual beginnings, Clogs gradually progressed towards something more structured and formal. The breakthrough, according to Newsome, came with the third album Stick Music which was issued on Brassland in 2004. "Stick Music was very much Bryce and my project," said Newsome. "Originally, we had a series of pieces that were to be done with varied friends and musicians that we knew, and but by Stick Music, the two of us were really inventing a lot of music and a lot of techniques together." Those techniques included some unusual uses of guitar -- bowing and playing the strings with sticks, for instance -- as well as the incorporation of certain non-western sounds and motifs. Lantern, Newsome explained, continues to explore those ideas with a broader palette of instruments.
The new record may also rock a little harder, though style-shy Newsome uses the term gingerly and with suspicion. "I think Lantern does have some slightly more rock influences ... even if that really means more electric guitar," he said. "Bryce and I have been touring a lot with the National. It's a good band and the drummer is really good, so for me that's a really strong influence, just hearing a really strong rock drummer." Yet though that influence may be there, it is filtered through a very sophisticated grounding in many types of classical music.
"We've been attracted to some of the techniques of rhythms and repetition, I guess, but in an improvisational way, not in a tightly held kind of way, formal fashion," said Newsome. And also Clogs' work is often compared to the work of contemporary composers including Steve Reich, Newsome says that similar use of repetition and variation can be found much earlier. During the last year, for instance, Newsome says he has been immersed in the later Beethoven quartets, particularly, the String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131. "In the Scherzo, he starts this with the lick with the second fiddle and the viola and the cello, and he repeats it maybe 50 times, over and over again, like this engine that's frantically spinning," said Newsome. "I've been thinking about all these composers and improvising, and all of these people were manic improvisers, fabulous improvisers."
Newsome also drew a song title and a melody from Schubert's "Death and the Maiden", a melody which the composer himself liked so much that he used it twice, once in a lieder and once in a string quartet. "I was just imagining in my mind, Schubert, like, late at night, drunk, saying 'This is such a beautiful tune,' and playing it over and over again," said Newsome. "And so we took little themes from that, and improvised on them."
Clogs are not a band that shies away from technical problems. The track "2:3:5" pits three separate time signatures against each other in a one-bar measure; the fact that the rhythm is fluid and melodic makes its trickiness all the more impressive. And, to top it off, there's the fact that the song was essentially composed in an off-highway rest area. "Bryce and I were on one of these endless rock tours in one of the trillion roadside stops, in the middle of France somewhere," said Newsome. "He comes up to me and says, 'I wonder what two, three, and five would sound like as a rhythm together.' I went away and I thought about it, and we went on a walk, and we walked one rhythm and clapped one rhythm, and it ended up being a really easy rhythm." Those without the mathematical wherewithal to calculate it themselves can hear the rhythm in the guitar lick on the track.
Yet while Clogs' music is precise and intellectually sophisticated, Newsome said that he hopes it also resonates at a more visceral level. "I don't like to be clever for its own sake," he said. "Sometimes these days, I'm getting more and more and more, trying to get rid of frills and redundancies and writing with as much economy as possible. It's good, I think, for people not to have too many mysteries in the music sometimes." He said that the title track of Lantern, the only cut with vocals, is quite simply a song about his hometown of Mallacoota in Australia. "Gabo Island is an island outside Mallacoota, which has a lighthouse on it," he explained. "It's very, very simple imagery of a boat ... but I hope that it's emotional music. I hope that it's not too perplexing."
Newsome and Dessner can claim the musical world's version of dual citizenship, showing up one night in tuxes at Symphony Space in New York City to play at New Horizons in Chamber Music, a few evenings later at a beer-sticky rock club with the National. "We're all pretty comfortable in most kinds of venues, like club venues, alternative rock venues, and we're also pretty comfortable in a concert hall," said Newsome. "Concert halls are more rarified. They both have their challenges, I think."
Indeed, many of the shows they play borrow elements from both high and low musical traditions. For instance, in January, Dessner, and Newsome participated in The New York Guitar Festival's Nebraska project, honoring Bruce Springsteen's darkest and, in some ways, most intriguing album. "That was a great time," said Newsome. "It was a little scary because the songs had these three harmonica solos which I had to transcribe for violin and I didn't know it until the day before ... and Bruce Springsteen was there. But that was fun." Then, at a later performance, the pair of them formed a trio with David Cossins from the Bang on a Can Allstars.
When I spoke to Newsome, Clogs were in residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with Boston's the Books, working on half a dozen collaborative pieces. The Books, whose solo work relies heavily on samples and multimedia, were drawing the organic instrumentation of Clogs into their material, becoming more live and less taped as the work progressed. A recent tour with Belle Orchestre offered another chance at synergy. "Bryce and I and Rachel and Tom, we just love collaborating. It's our raison d'être, really. So to find some people who are comfortable to collaborate is really special," said Newsome.
British fans can catch Clogs' collaboration with the Books in a joint UK tour in late January and early February. For complete dates, check the band's web site at www.clogsmusic.com.