SHADOWS: Ensemble Pamplemousse
Funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation
Ensemble Pamplemousse’s engagement is supported by Mid Atlantic Arts through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
All premieres / Commissions of the Darmstadt Summer Course:
Natacha Diels: The bridge has no train tracks (Universal™ Love)
David Broome: A timid gesture of gratitude
Andrew Greenwald: jm, dr, bf, sss, & bh
Bryan Jacobs: 1 to 1 to 1 to 1
Weston Olencki: Charon guiding the weary ‘cross the Long River (or, how to care for a dying instrument)’
David Broome (Key instruments)
Laura Cocks (Flute, Recorder – Guest)
Natacha Diels (Recorder, Music box)
Andrew Greenwald (Percussion, Drums, Recorder) Bryan Jacobs (Auxiliary)
Marina Kifferstein (Violin, Recorder – Guest) Charlotte Mundy (Voice – Guest)
Weston Olencki (Trombone, Electronics)
ENSEMBLE PAMPLEMOUSSE ON SOUNDCLOUD
THERE’S ALWAYS A PILOT TO EACH PIECE…
Ensemble Pamplemousse in conversation with Peter Meanwell
Since the summer of 2020, we at IMD have been publishing a series of audio podcasts on music and related topics under the title “Darmstadt On Air”. For this podcast, Peter Meanwell interviewed Ensemble Pamplemousse (Natacha Diels, Bryan Jacobs, Andrew Greenwald, David Broome and Weston Olencki) when they were together in Philadelphia, preparing their project for the Darmstadt Summer Course 2021. You can listen to the full one hour podcast at: internationales-musikinstitut.de/ferienkurse/onair. Here are some transcribed excerpts from the conversation:
There are quite a lot of definitions of you on your website. It is both juicy and sweet and tender and tart, like the eponymous grapefruit of your name, but also aggregating sonic possibilities into shapes of resonance, clusters of glitz, skitters of hyper action and masses of absurdity. I just want to talk about this aggregation of sonic possibilities and how the mechanics of collaboration work in your ensemble. But I’d like to start by asking you what makes Pamplemousse special to be in as a group?
BJ I feel it’s a group that leaves a lot of room for all of us to try new things all the time. And that’s always really encouraged. We’re not expected to come with a type of music making that we’ve done in the past. And it has a lot of flexibility in terms of scoring, in terms of how rehearsals look, in terms of what we’ve done beforehand and what we come up with on the fly when we all get together. We all take different approaches every time. Sometimes we might have what looks like a more traditionally composed score. And we show up and we work through it as musicians do when they are working with the score. And sometimes we come with a few ideas. And it might be based on individual personalities here, since we’ve worked together for so long. And we may think: OK, I have an idea for what I want a keyboard or a situation to be like. But it’s Dave playing it and I know the things Dave likes to do and I know what he does better than I would do by myself at home. For me, it’s a unique space for that sort of collaboration and kind of the pacing of the creative process in relation to what traditional composition is.
ND We are working on that particular project [for Darmstadt] with three people from TAK Ensemble: Laura Cox, Marina Kifferstein and Charlotte Mundy. And they were saying that they really appreciated the ability to provide creative input on the compositions rather than their typical way of working in a chamber ensemble where there is a fixed idea of what the piece should sound like and how do we, as best as possible, achieve that perfect idea. I don’t think we’ve ever worked that way. It’s more like figuring out what it is that we’re trying to achieve and making it better as a group and fleshing out those ideas as a group.
Because you’re all composers and performers, is that right?
DB I think that’s a big part of the context for this group. You have the composer there and you’re playing with the composer and then you can complain about the piece because you’re friends with the person too. So there’s a certain intimacy that you can have with this feedback situation. When you’re griping about something or when you really enjoy something – I feel that all members take that feedback and work with it.
Do the pieces come to the group fully formed or do they emerge throughout a kind of collective compositional process? What’s the dynamic?
DB It’s different with each piece. I would say Andrew usually has a completed score and then we may edit that completed score. A lot of times Brian will have instruments that he has made [by himself] but then has no score at all. And he watches us play with the instruments and then finds a few things that he likes and then organizes it over a few rehearsals, a score that he creates based on how he sees us interacting with the instruments.
AG There are the individual scores and how they come together in rehearsals. But when we end up thinking about projects and putting together a concert, the scores become a smaller part of thinking about the larger, evening-length experience. And they become one meta score. There is the point of putting the pieces together, when we have to think through how we create one long evening of musical adventure, which actually takes each of the individual performers and composers to have to step back from thinking about their own pieces and think about how the pieces themselves all connect to create a consistent experience. In a weird way that ends up then circling back and influencing the way, at least for me, where I compose for Pamplemousse specifically. I don’t worry about how my piece is going to be successful or not successful. I think about how my piece is going to contribute to connecting to any of the multiple pieces or connective points that we might come up with together. It’s just a different way of envisioning the artistic process. That’s a lot more collectively communicative, a lot less about me as a composer and a lot more about me as a member of this micro community.
ND I do feel very differently about the way that I write for Pamplemousse versus other groups. It’s always such an amazing space that we end up in, where we can all contribute to the kind of generative thoughts of these pieces. I’m really interested in that we build together. For another ensemble, I would come with a very fixed and completed score.
When you look at a Pamplemousse concert program, there are still pieces by composers. So there’s no loss of agency?
BJ That depends on the presenting. Usually the pieces are played straight through and there’s no indication. It’s not always clear where one stops and another one starts. And it’s normal after concerts for audience members to ask us which piece we composed. I think we’ve always been interested in smearing it all together as a way of acknowledging that we’ve all contributed so much to all of these compositions and the whole project of Pamplemousse.
When I first met Pamplemousse I was impressed by this kind of holistic vision of the concert experience, that somehow the musical creation, the programing, the staging was all composed collectively. You all bring up an individual personality to the table. It gets absorbed within that kind of meta structure of the group that then outputs a concert, this composed experience for the audience.
And if anyone has seen your video album from a few years ago, there’s a very clear visual and kind of personality-driven idea behind that. And I’m just wondering what role does chemistry play in Pamplemousse between your personalities? How does that affect, drive, impede the creative process?
DB I definitely think that we’re trying to make some art that tickles the others. We’re trying to make something that’s like little winks across the room, where we’ve got this little dialogue going on and maybe I have it with Andrew for this one moment or with this video element. I’m always trying to perform for you guys in a way when I bring up a piece. I create it, bring it and then try to get you to play tennis with me in a way.
So there’s not that kind of eye-rolling of the musicians towards the composer?
BJ There is, it is just very vocal and not passive aggressive. We say it and then we often try to fix it. – Ok, occasionally, we’d say: Well…, live with it. This is the part you’re going to hate and that’s going to be the piece. But usually we do something to get a better solution.
Does that ever go wrong in a sense? It sounds like this is on the whole a positive process of refining or uplifting the music or the creation. But is there ever a risk that it flattens out wild tendencies or somehow the group then becomes a moderating influence rather than the freeing influence?
BJ It always makes it wackier, which I think is positive for a lot of our music. I think what we’re trying to do is to help each other to find new angles for a kind of music making that is stretching a bit.
AG I was thinking about this recently after I had read about theorizing ways for organizations to keep growing, not necessarily capitalistic growing, but the idea of growth. The sort of wisdom that seems to be most prevalent is that at the point at which the organization becomes distinctly about the personalities within, the only way for it to keep “growing” is to either take some of the personalities out. So, in other words, change leadership and change our personnel. And I was thinking about that when I was getting ready to go to do these Pamplemousse rehearsals. Does that mean that actually we’re this stagnant, boring thing because our organization is by default and fundamentally about the personalities within. And so there is this danger of a hermeticism when you’re making music where literally you’re trying not to impress each other, but to get each other to smile while doing the thing. And then precisely at that moment where I thought about the idea of getting each other to smile, doing the thing actually because it’s about that smile, I think it allows for a type of presentation to an audience that isn’t going to be hermetic. In other words, people will not necessarily understand the things that we’re getting off and on in performing this music because of how we understand each other. But hopefully they’ll see that we’re having a really, really good time.
And because we’re having a really good time and we’re doing it precisely because we keep having a really good time. To me it gives an OK to a situation where it is distinctly about ourselves enjoying what we do within our micro community. And this can be a hallucination for me. But I do genuinely think that it usurps a lot of the worry that I have, because somehow it does make sense that an organization needs to change, to grow. But in this case: Is growth about changing or getting better? Or is growth actually about really doubling down on who we are as a micro community and just showing that to the world and enjoying it? Is that enough? Is it enough just to be joyful?
Joy as the overriding principle isn’t something you read about in many new music ensembles or groups. If you read the history of collaborative ensembles, like Scratch Orchestra or AMM or Musica Elettronica Viva, they all have rules. Are there any rules within Pamplemousse, apart from the joy?
ND There’s a lot of unspoken rules within the rehearsal process that I’m not sure that we could really articulate, but on a more practical or like shallower level. We do often come up with rules for our concerts or like ways of trying to slim down our tech set up or something. And maybe the rule that always comes out of that is that we never follow those rules that we set up, which isn’t really that sounds very cheesy, but it’s not really like that. It’s just like we end up coming up with these other ideas and following those ideas, regardless of the initial thing that we set up. And that comes back to your other question about whether working in a collaborative place can dilute things. And I think the reason that it doesn’t do that is because of what you have said before. We’re all very strong personalities. And if people say stuff that whoever is piloting the piece doesn’t agree with, that’s taken into consideration. There’s still always a pilot to each piece. And I think that’s how we continue to make stuff that we feel happy about.
I like this phrase to pilot a piece rather than to compose it. That somehow decenters the leadership or the creative ownership. […] How isolated is that solo working process before you meet as a group and refine the works, develop the works?
WO It’s always different for different things, maybe more these days. It’s a particular combination – I’ve been with the group for over five years now. I’m speaking from my personal experience. I can’t always have to run by and say: Hey, can you do this thing on the drums? OK, and who’s more comfortable with movement? Who would be more game for certain things than other people? And rather than having to ask every single person and clarify everything, you make some assumptions around the group. I usually get stuck playing notes a lot. So it’s a thing of saying sometimes: This thing is in progress. What do you think? But very often in other times it’s very flexible. This project in particular looks like this: We have this and we started doing this with some things, I like the preparation period where we rehearse and then have weeks or in this case months in between the actual performance or recording or tour or whatever. And then it gives you time for much more unfinished materials or just kind of an intention or clarifying idea. And then time to process what the rehearsal period was like, make other changes, talk in that period, and then show up and start to do things like discussed. But how do we get through a concert? This question will sometimes happen, even after soundcheck…
One of the driving forces of ensembles with collective identities has also been a social political one. If you think of, let’s say, Anthony Braxton’s Sonic Genome Project, it also has this almost utopian model for an ideal democracy in terms of how it’s established and in terms of the relationships of the musicians to each other. Is there any sense of an anti-hierarchical or a political agenda within the way that you work or even why you established Pamplemousse?
BG From that basic thing that we have inherited, we’ve taken those approaches – the anti-hierarchical ones. As for some of us, probably for a lot of us, our reactions to having gone through academia and the way things are structured there, but also from traditions that we inherited from artists you have mentioned, some of them have been our teachers and some of them are just from our musical background. And that’s been the vibe and a certain amount of music making. I think we’ve all appreciated that approach – also because we have been in different institutional, more classical, traditional music settings. And I think all of us have complicated feelings about that: the traditional approach to classical music.
ND I think there’s a lot of things to the “hierarchy conversation” that we can talk about. One aspect of that is the composer-performer hierarchy. And I think that the reason why we don’t do the thing where the composer has the last or the ultimate say over the creation of the pieces, is because we all come from different backgrounds and we like that method of creation that is more fluid.
So in part it’s a reaction to the kind of experience of being a performer and being told what to do. And then in part, as you said, Bryan, it’s also the complex emotions around the hierarchies of classical music as an institution.
BG I think that’s a big, big deal for us and why we do this all. Most of us have found a strong affinity to free jazz communities. The history therein has inspired our sound world so much.
WO Actually a big part of that is coming from a very rigorous performance education, through a conservative classical system, that this just feels like people making music together and not like making music in a chamber ensemble. It’s not trying to constantly self-define itself. You play in a band with people and you just play and you like to make stuff together. And it’s not more defined than this. It’s actually maybe less defined, there’s less self-importance.