SONGS WITH (AND WITHOUT) WORDS Clogs

Indie
supergroup alert! Modern classical-pop ensemble overlaps with The National, My
Brightest Diamond and Sufjan Stevens! Headed to Big Ears Festival soon!

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland), the fifth full-length for
classically-influenced quartet Clogs, begins two voices, at first staccato and
spare, a little later lush with madrigal harmonies and finally oddly birdlike,
the main melodic line twittering and fluttering over complicated counterpoints.
This is “Cocodrillo,” and the singers are Clogs composer Padma Newsome and My
Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. It is the first of eight songs to feature
vocals.  That’s a departure in some ways
for this guitar, strings, bassoon and percussion ensemble which shares members
with indie rock’s The National, and yet, says guitarist Bryce Dessner, also a
continuation.

 

“As we’ve been working as Clogs there have been songs,” said
Dessner, in a recent phone interview. “You can hear some of the instrumental
pieces as songs, and actually, some of them maybe were songs where we removed
the singing, so it’s been there. We write songs.”

 

Clogs began in the late 1990s at Yale School of Music, as
Dessner, Newsome, Thomas Kozumplik and Rachel Elliott decided to explore their
shared love for 20th century classical music. “When we started the
band we were all interested in improvising,” said Dessner. “To a certain
extent, we kind of improvised our earliest stuff. We were kind of creating
music, all sitting in a room and kind of jamming for a while. I think for like
a year or two, we even defined what kind of sound we could make together.”

 

The first four albums contained one song each with vocals. In
the majority of tracks, the instruments switched off between rhythmic interplay
and melody, with the bassoon or violin most often taking the song-like lead. Yet
at the same time, the band’s principals were working with vocalists on other
projects – Newsome with community choirs in his native Australia and
Dessner and his brother Aaron composing an opera called “The Long Count” for
Shara Worden.

 

“We had made four records, primarily just the four of us
playing our instruments, and at a certain point, we felt like a record with
songs would be really interesting,” said Dessner. “It’s also a collaborative
record, where those songs were really written for those singers.”

 

Newsome composed the songs for The Creatures in the
Garden of Lady Walton
literally in the garden
of Lady Walton, after winning a Fromm Commission and a residency at
La Mortella, an estate on the island
of Ischia, a remarkable
setting. “The garden was an endless source of life for me,” wrote Newsome in
his notes to the album. “I swam in a pool, did yoga by the pool looking out to
the sea, but from some height, ate salami, grapes, olives, fruit and bread, and
looked at the gaudy clothes of the holiday makers.”   

 

Yet while the surroundings
may have been hedonistic and the resulting songs disarmingly beautiful, the
composing process was rigorous. “It’s difficult for me to explain, but I don’t
use different writing techniques for my rock arranging, composing, song
writing, or more acoustic settings, concert halls,” said Newsome, via email. “Even
when I write for a rock environment, I always try to write music and not
fluff.”

 

“My theory and
practice is that if you put intention in the music, whether obvious or not,
there is a sense of music being held or made, music with an inside life,” he
added. “There is a song on Lullaby for Sue, for example, the title song,
where the devices used were quite Modernist and complex, but it doesn’t
necessarily sound like it. It just sounds like a fun romp. But I think if you
sculpt something, it doesn’t matter what role the music has, then some feeling
comes through.”

 

Part of the
sensuality on this album comes from the addition of vocalists. Four
singers contribute to The Creatures in the Garden. Shara Worden is the
main vocalist, but the National’s Matt Berninger also makes an appearance, on
the haunting “Last Song,” as does Sufjan Stevens as part of a choir on “We Were
Here. Padma Newsome sings as well, and is particularly affecting on “Red Seas.”

 

Worden has been a
friend and admirer of Clogs for years, and jumped at the chance to collaborate
with them on The Creatures in the Garden. She first came into contact
with Newsome, she said, through a friend from university who performed his song
“These Walls Thy Heaven.” “When I heard it, I was completely entranced. I wrote
to Steve to ask for an introduction to Padma and then asked Padma if he would
give me composition lessons. I studied with him on and off for a few years and
only more recently have we performed as collaborators,” she said.

 

“Padma’s music has
something of the earth in it to me,” she explained. “I don’t know how to pin
point that exactly, but it sounds like there is some dirt in the music, like it
comes from a really organic and grounded place. It is as once brilliant and
full of feeling, harmonically gorgeous and transparent.” 

 

That admiration is
mutual. Dessner, asked about how adding Worden’s vocals to Clogs’ sound changed
it, said, “Shara has such incredible range, and also stylistically, she
can kind of do anything. You can hear that on the record, for instance in
‘Cocodrillo,’ which is kind of a choral piece, a more medieval kind of sound,
whereas something like ‘On the Edge’ is veering more towards classical soprano.
And ‘We Were Here’ is more sort of folk style. There aren’t many limitations
with working with her, actually. She can make anything sound really great.”

 

 

For many of the
songs on The Creatures, Worden had to draw on her classical training,
rather than pop or folk traditions. “It would be impossible for me to sing the
required high G in a Clogs song, if I approached the music like a pop singer,”
she said. “The singing must be more connected, more ‘on the breath’, and with a
lighter quality than I usually use in pop.   Pop or rock or folk music is
based on speech tones, and therefore the range is more limited and the shape
inside of the mouth is also smaller. But as you get higher in the vocal
register, you have to accommodate for those higher notes in order for them to
be in tune and resonant, and how you approach a note is just as important as
the note itself.”

 

The songs are
difficult enough that Worden had some butterflies at a debut performance at the
Music Now festival in Cincinnati
in 2007. “I was so nervous about singing ‘Adages of Cleansing’ that during the
performance I got confused about what song was next and walked off the stage
just as ‘Adages’ was about to start,” she remembered. “Rachael [Elliott] came
side stage to get me and I of course panicked and then she taught me a very
important lesson and that is after you have made a mistake like that, take a
moment and a very big breath before you walk back on stage.”

 

Yet despite the
difficulty, it’s the transparent beauty of these songs that won Worden over. Asked
if she had a favorite, she said, “Of course I love all of them, but I find ‘The
Owl of Love’ a delight to sing and so meaningful in this time of history. The
owl, the observer of the world, is breathing in all of the bad air that we have
produced and he converts it, cleanses it and renews the world each night.” 

 

The main effect of working with singers was that Clogs songs
had to be more composed on The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton than on previous albums. In general, said Newsome, “I write a lot of music that has
improvisational potentials or improvisatory behavior in performance. This means
to me, that there might be some guidance as well as written notes, open spaces
in them, a bunch of melodic motifs that you might or might not use or imagine
as you improvise, and then with Clogs since timbre is such an important
component, there are the beautiful combinations to work/play with.”

 

“We often
open up places in the compositions where they fall apart or where there’s some
improvisation,” said Dessner. “But because we were working with singers who had
to kind of follow, we maybe had to be a little more premeditated about it. That
said, there are definitely parts in the album where stuff opens out and
changes.”

 

Newsome says that he preferred the term “development” rather than
“improvisation” to describe Clogs creative process. “The pieces are developed in
rehearsal and on stage. ‘On the Edge’ was pretty much all composed, written
down, but I know that piece didn’t really come into its own for me until Clogs
had opened up a window of freedom inside,” he said.

 

Clogs’ latest album will be difficult to perform, given the
many time commitments of its core members and guest artists. The full ensemble,
including all the guest vocalists, will be performing it at the Big Ears
Festival in Knoxville March 26-28, as well as
shows in Brooklyn and Minneapolis
(and possibly others, still to be confirmed). Meanwhile, the artists who
contributed are balancing full schedules. Dessner is working on a piece with
minimalist composer Steve Reich. Newsome has a concerto for piano and chamber orchestra in the
works as well as collaborations with cellist Zachary Miskin and composer Daniel
Helin. And then, there is the elephant in the room. Dessner was reached by
phone at a studio where the National was finishing up its next album, slated
for release on 4AD early in May.

 

Is it hard to find
time for Clogs, in the shadow of a much bigger, more commercial undertaking
like The National? Newsome replied, “You can’t fight a brontosaurus! Yes, time
is an issue for Clogs, which is one of the reasons why we don’t gig so much,
but the up side of this for me is seeing/hearing playing with these people who
have gone on and changed developed other worlds of music and then I have the
luxury of finding time on stage with them.

 

“I do think that
the various worlds share and mutate each other in subtle and obvious ways, and
I strongly believe in bringing forth new music from any of these worlds.”

    

 

Leave a Reply