March 30, 2020
On May 8, Grammy-nominated, genre-bending, classical, klezmer and world music clarinetist David Krakauer and innovative composer, arranger, pianist and producer Kathleen Tagg release Breath & Hammer on their own Table Pounding Records. An electro-acoustic performance piece showcasing the innovative and idiosyncratic approaches to their respective instruments, Breath & Hammer features both original compositions and highly personal arrangements of music by some of their close friends and collaborators, in a texture that seamlessly integrates loops, samples and live performance.
Breath & Hammer represents a confluence of many streams: the strong foundations of both performers as classical concert musicians, Krakauer’s years as a klezmer innovator, composer, band leader and avant-garde experimentalist, and Tagg’s multi-faceted career creating and performing for the stage and theater, as well as her skills as an arranger and producer. The Wall Street Journal has declared that “David Krakauer is such an overwhelmingly expressive clarinetist who moves so seamlessly between different genres that for a minute you’d almost think that there’s no appreciable difference between jazz, klezmer and formal classical music,” but the description is apt for both partners, and hints at the guiding principle of every project they undertake: to foster human connection through music that transcends stylistic and cultural boundaries. The intense synergy of the project also comes from the duo’s personal backgrounds and experiences. Krakauer was born and raised in the cultural hotbed of New York City. This vibrant environment formed and shaped his incredibly eclectic artistic sensibility. Tagg grew up in apartheid South Africa, where she was forbidden to have any meaningful communication with her neighbors down the road from a different race category, but subsequently she came of age during the transition to democracy and Nelson Mandela’s exhortation for all South Africans to learn each other’s languages. This experience had a profound effect on her both as a person and as a musician/creator, and together with her nearly two decades in New York, has shaped her worldview.
As with all her previous albums, Tagg produced Breath & Hammer, which Krakauer describes as “a medieval tapestry the size of an apartment, made up of fingernail-sized samples.” The global cast of composers who contributed music to the project include saxophonist John Zorn, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, accordionist Rob Curto, and accordionist and klezmer specialist Emil Kroitor, in addition to Krakauer and Tagg themselves. The album was created with thousands of Krakauer and Tagg’s own recorded clarinet and piano sounds, woven together with live extended techniques to create a large scale quasi-orchestral landscape. No other instruments or samples are used, and many of the pieces are made up of 40 or more layers of prepared “piano orchestra” and clarinet. The listener is taken on a journey that is global yet somehow very personally connected to the two creators. Their own pieces reflect on cultural heritage; Curto’s Brazilian forró tune was cast over a “drum circle” (all made of piano samples) inspired by Nigerian traditional musicians as a nod to the ties between the music of Brazil and West Africa; Rodriguez’s piece is a danzón from his collection of imaginary Cuban Jewish music; Azmeh created a haunting evocation of the feeling of home and belonging; the two Zorn pieces are from his magnum opus “The Book of Angels”; and Kroitor contributed a poignant ode to his homeland of Moldava.
In live performance, Breath & Hammer’s extended techniques, loops and samples are amplified by a multi-camera, immersive video feed designed by Los Angeles-based video artist Jesse Gilbert, allowing the audience to see the pair’s unique and unorthodox playing styles at close quarters and in real time.
A greatly expanded video design, projected onto a translucent hexagon of scrims surrounding the performers, was created for the in-the-round performance space of Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal and premiered along with newly composed spatialized surround-sound interludes last spring as Breath & Hammer II: The Ties That Bind Us. A video teaser for Breath & Hammer II can be seen here.
CUE magazine says of Breath & Hammer:
“The Tagg-Krakauer duo … presented one of the most remarkable concerts I have ever attended anywhere in the world. Each work on the programme was arranged or composed by either Tagg or Krakauer and this added a personal dimension to their performance, as creation and recreation elided in an astonishing display of indescribably stunning, mesmerising musicianship. … This was a phenomenal performance.”
Q & A with Kathleen Tagg About Breath & Hammer
Q: When did you first start employing extended techniques in your playing?
A: Contemporary classical music has used extended techniques for years and years. In the early 2000s, for about 10 years, I was heavily involved in playing a lot of contemporary music in New York with a lot of different groups, and there I encountered many different techniques. It’s not a new phenomenon. You see it in the music of Henry Cowell a hundred years ago. But for the past eight years or so, I have really been trying to find my own voice with the use of extended techniques, from the kinds of sounds I make, to how I produce them and most importantly for me: the context in which they are used in both through-composed and improvised sections. I am rather obsessed with sound color and experiment a lot to really find specific sounds.
Q: How did you choose repertoire for this project? It looks like you pull from composers across the musical spectrum.
A: All the composers are people we know, close friends or colleagues in New York who come from all around the world. What we get from them is a lead sheet, and for some people that means three lines with nothing but melodies, for some of them it means chord structures, sometimes suggestions of the outline of a bassline. Some have tempo indications or approximations. We then pull it out into these pieces that are much longer: we figure out how we want to set it in terms of form, what parts we want to blow up and extend, and what the sound and setting is going to be. Each piece is really different. And these are people who we tremendously admire, respect and love. We just approached them and asked if we could take one of their pieces and recast it and rearrange it or find a new way to cover it, and they all said yes. It was a really wonderful process thinking about putting together this program and then going about it one step at a time.
Q: Your piano parts and extended techniques are so complex, I’m curious about the process of taking these pieces and arranging them for that unique soundscape.
A: I work very much in terms of orchestral instruments and imagined orchestral instruments. I make full huge orchestral scores for my piano parts, coming up with string parts, violins, cellos, even instruments like French horn. Then, depending on the piece, I’ll also think of imaginary instruments like, say, celestial angel shimmers. Things that sound possibly electronic, but that might fit in well with an orchestra. And I’ll often have very complex multi-layered percussion. Then I go and find these very specific sounds on the piano – sort of backwards from how most people work. Of course as I work, I find unexpected sounds and cool and interesting sounds that I put into my bank of possibilities, but generally I start out hunting for very specific types of sounds, and then refine them to find exactly what I want. David and I will then go and workshop it, and David will always come up with great riffs, great ideas and will always take the material in a new direction. We’ll look at the structure, see what works, what doesn’t work; and subsequently add additional material in. So it’s always a two-way street; it really goes back and forth.
Q: How did you first come up with the concept behind Breath & Hammer?
A: David and I were trying to think of something that we could do together, and we kept coming back to this idea of New York songs and really looking at New York as a place where you had the whole world coming through. We knew these incredible people from around the world but all as personal connections. These were just our friends. And they allowed us to have access to their music, but then to cast it in a way that makes sense to us. I think that’s the key. We’re not trying to sound like them, but to make something very much our own that still honors the original. What is incredible about each of these people is that they gave their blessings to us.
High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.
In light of the public health and safety measures currently in place, all upcoming tour dates are subject to postponement. Cancellations, make-up dates and other updates will be announced here.
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© 21C Media Group, March 2020