Rachael Elliott, out in the world: Her solo debut, Polka the Elk, is another chapter in the artist’s peripatetic professional odyssey, even as it summarizes the odyssey to date. (Photo ©Saraphina)
Where In The World Is Rachael Elliott?
Teaching, touring, concertizing, recording--the Clogs bassoonist is all over the map, but in a good way. Her debut solo album, Polka the Elk, reflects her fascinating, and ongoing, journey.
By David McGee
Remember Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Like the popular geography teaching computer game from the mid-‘80s, a new game has been embraced by New Music fans, one also centered both on geography and a female protagonist. Namely, Where in the World is Rachael Elliott?
No sooner have you located the adventurous bassoonist teaching at the University of Vermont (where she’s been since 2005) than you’ll find her in another classroom about 45 minutes away, at Middlebury College. Pin her down there and off she goes to Durham, North Carolina, to teach at Duke University. When summer is upon the land, you’ll find her teaching at Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont. Blink and she’s gone again. Lo and behold there she is in a recording studio or on stage with the ever-progressive New Music ensemble Clogs, playing music that crosses multiple borders—jazz, classical, rock, electronic, whatcha got?—and has established the quartet as one of the most forward thinking aggregates in its field, blessed with two gifted composers among its four members, former Yale music school students all, as versatile and daring musically as they are skilled technically. No, wait! She’s gone again, and suddenly surfaces with her friend and fellow gifted bassoonist Lynn Hileman in that rarest of combinations, a bassoon duo, called Tuple.
When you can find the charming, self-effacing Ms. Elliott in one place, what you’ll hear is always bracing, forever challenging (in the playing and in the listening), virtuosic and emotionally robust, full of warm, human feelings, be they of loss, longing or jubilation (sometimes co-mingling in the same composition), offering tales told in woodwinds, strings, pianos and various percussion, with a narrative revealing itself in a piece’s flow, silences, shouts and shifting textures.
On multiple fronts, Rachael Elliott is always on a journey.
One of the stops on that journey recently took her to Lincoln Center’s Rose Studio, where she introduced yet another of the many destinations on this intriguing journey, her first solo CD, Polka the Elk, released in October on the Music Is Silence label co-owned by her Clogs bandmate, percussionist Thomas Kozumplik. Beyond the fact of the album itself representing another chapter in Ms. Elliott’s peripatetic professional odyssey, it also summarizes her odyssey to date.
Consider this: three of the five tracks (one a seven-part movement) are composed by pianist Padma Newsome, the native Australian who is on the one hand one of New Music’s visionary composers, and on the other doubles as Ms. Elliott’s Clogs compatriot. The final track, “Bed and Rest,” serene and soothing as the bassoon’s languid lines rise and fall like gentle waves breaking on the shore, while the piano maintains an insistent but discreet weaving counterpoint, is in fact a true Clogs track. Omitted from the band’s 2010 album, The Creatures In the Garden of Lady Walton, it found new life when but the other members (in addition to Mr. Newsome, Mr. Kozumplik and Ms. Elliott, the lineup includes Bryce Dessner, also a widely hailed young composer and a founding member of the popular mope-rock band, The National) agreed to donate it to the Polka the Elk cause. On Newsome’s slightly eerie “Polka the Elk,” twin bassoon lines, alternately thoughtful and meditative or jittery and anxious, are periodically interrupted or in conflict with various percussive elements popping somewhat comically in and out of the arrangement, never staying away so long as to give the humming bassoons a clear path to the end; the second bassoon is being played by Janet Polk, an acclaimed instructor who was Ms. Elliott’s teacher at the Yale School of Music. “À mon seul dèsir,” the album’s opening track, alternates between calm, relaxed passages and spiky outbursts of heated dialogue between the bassoon and Adrienne Kim’s impressionistic piano. The song was written by Tawnie Olson, a former Yale classmate of Ms. Elliott’s. On his own emotionally resonant seven-part piece “With Eyes Cast Down,” which takes the most abrupt and unexpected turns in a highly charged atmosphere, Padma Newsome makes another appearance, playing viola, piano and harpsichord. Fittingly, Ms. Elliott reserves one moment for herself, with a solo version of David Lang’s challenging “Press Release,” an exercise as physically demanding in its constant shifts from high to low notes as it is in the technical facility required to pull it off. Also a Yale grad, Lang is currently part of the Bang On a Can collective, to which Clogs has strong ties.
Rachael Elliott and Adrienne Kim (piano) perform an instrumental version of Padma Newsome’s ‘Lantern,’ a section of the composer’s seven-part ‘With Eyes Cast Down’ as heard on Ms. Elliott’s solo album, Polka the Elk. March 24, 2011, at Duke University, where Ms. Elliott teaches bassoon.
What listeners do not get from the album’s liner copy the artist herself provided at the Rose Studio show, namely the narratives informing each composition. In fact, Tawnie Olson was there in person to introduce her “À mon seul dèsir," describing it as “tracing the arc of a marriage, from when you’re traveling along on parallel lines but not really communicating” before finding the common ground, the equilibrium in a relationship, a development signaled by the piece’s meditative closing passage. Newsome’s “With Eyes Cast Down,” the album’s showcase number, Ms. Elliott said, “is about the way we approach conflict. It was written in the aftermath of the start of the Iraq war.” Lang’s “Press Release” is not about a statement issued to the press by PR outlets (as Ms. Elliott herself once described it to an audience) but refers to the very act of playing the bassoon--“pressing the low notes down to get the high notes out,” she explained, “and there’s so much leaping from low to high you might hear two simultaneous melodies.”
As she revealed in an interview the day after the Rose Studio concert, narrative is the sine qua non necessary to pique Ms. Elliott's interest in a musical work.
“I think it helps give things meaning,” she explains. “As a performer you are trying to interpret notes, and if you play the notes accurately, and the dynamics given and the articulation given, you’re not necessarily really bringing it to life and making it exciting and interesting, for yourself or for other people. So as a performer you’re really trying to reach inside and tap into something emotional, just as an actor would. And you can hear it. Whatever one knows about acting or music, when you see a performer who’s just sort of reciting or just sort of playing accurately, you can tell. But if someone really is tapping into some inner part and is able to sing or tell a story through their instrument, voice or movement, you can sense it. I don’t know that I’m achieving that, but that’s the goal, that’s what we’re reaching toward, trying to tap into something inside and express something greater. For example, with Padma’s ‘Eyes Cast Down,’ knowing his piece is very abstract and a little difficult for listeners, if I can share that’s it about friendship but it’s also about war and his very strong feelings to do with conflict, it gives me something to hang on to and make sense of the extremely sparse first movement compared to the really war-like second movement. I guess it doesn’t really matter if that comes across in any literal way to listeners, but if they have a sense that there’s some meaning behind it, that’s good; that would be our goal.”
The artist in repose, suitcase at the ready, bassoon disassembled for travel: ‘If someone really is tapping into some inner part and is able to sing or tell a story through their instrument, voice or movement, you can sense it. I don’t know that I’m achieving that, but that’s the goal, that’s what we’re reaching toward, trying to tap into something inside and express something greater.’ (Photo ©Seraphina)
A native of Lyndon, Vermont, Ms. Elliott grew up on a small family farm, a lass smitten by music and horses. She took up saxophone as a fourth grader, played in bands--jazz bands, in fact--and orchestra all through high school, during which time she discarded the sax in favor of the bassoon after her high school music teacher advised, “saxophonists are a dime a dozen.” One problem: Ms. Elliott knew nothing about bassoon, neither how it looked nor how it sounded.
“I think my teacher sensed I wasn’t going to be a great jazz player, and she was right, because at the time I was terrified, completely terrified, of improvising. But I loved the saxophone. I tried a bit of flute, a bit of clarinet—she wanted me to at least have the basics of the other winds—but she kept saying, ‘You have to do bassoon. You have to try bassoon.’ And the high school had a bassoon. It had been sitting in the closet unused probably for two decades; it was unplayable. I begged my teacher to send it away, get a new one; it took about six months but I got it the last day of school my freshman year, and taught myself over that first summer all these bad habits, which Janet Polk had then to correct when I got to Yale. But once I saw the bassoon and heard the sound of it, I thought it was so cool.”
Studying with Frank Morelli and Ms. Polk during her college years both at Yale and at the Manhattan School of Music, Ms. Elliott, working diligently at her, raised her game to a high level. At Yale she also befriended the other three musicians who have been integral to her growth and development an artist, meaning Messrs. Newsome, Kozumplik and Dessner. From these friendships Clogs was born.
“Padma, Thom and I were finishing up our Master’s, and Bryce actually did his undergraduate and Master’s there—he did an undergrad in history and guitar performance Master’s,” she says. “So we were all finishing up around the same time, and it was Padma’s idea to form a group. As a composer he’s always looking for people to play his music, obviously. Over the years in Australia he formed a number of sort of fusion, not quite classical, not quite rock, not quite jazz groups. He had a couple of groups that leaned more towards pop and jazz back in Australia, and while he was in the U.S. he was looking for players who would come together and both read music but also break it apart and improvise. Thom had more of a jazz background, I’d done a bit of jazz through high school, and a bit in college, improvisation, and Bryce had a really strong rock band—he’d grown up in rock bands in terms of writing his own music and knowing how to put bands together. We came at it from different angles, but the group coalesced and it’s been going for about eleven years now.”
Video for Clogs song ‘Lantern,’ by Padma Newsome, from the band’s 2006 album of the same name. A version of ‘Lantern’ sans vocal is part of Newsome’s seven-part epic ‘With Eyes Cast Down’ as heard on Rachael Elliott’s solo album, Polka the Elk.
Clogs alone was not going to pay the rent, and Ms. Elliott had already committed to a career in education, inspired by her teachers, Morelli and Polk, who instilled in her the importance of passing along one’s knowledge to those younger players following in your wake.
“Frank Morelli, especially, said quite explicitly, as a performer you spend fifteen or twenty years perfecting what you do. It’s like being in the trades. Part of your job, besides performing, is to pass that along. Because it’s not something you just pick up. It’s something we spend years working on and continue to work on, and to be able to share that with younger people along the way is such an exciting part of what you do. I started teaching a little bit in high school, towards the end, but after school I’ve always done a little bit of teaching, mixed with a little bit of performing, and cobbled together a freelancer’s lifestyle.”
In New Music circles, Clogs has always seemed to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, a product, perhaps, of having in its ranks not one but two composers with distinctive voices and an abundance of advanced compositional ideas. Working with these musicians, especially in the studio, paid off for Ms. Elliott when she began thinking of her solo project. It took awhile to get around to it--Clogs, after all, made their debut on album in 2001. But in 2009 a grant proposal she wrote produced some funding by way of an Ella Fountain Pearl Emerging Artists Grant from the Durham Arts Council, and she was off. Through the entire process, Clogs made its presence felt.
Clogs, with vocal by My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, ‘The Owl of Love,’ from the band’s most recent album, 2010’s The Creatures In the Garden of Lady Walton. Rachael Elliott on bassoon.
“I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to do a solo album without having had the experience of having been involved with producing a whole bunch of Clogs records,” she says emphatically, “because it’s such a huge process and I needed that much experience in order to even think I could undertake it. And it’s really different doing it on your own than doing it with Clogs, having a bigger label behind you and more people who are much more experienced. Padma was an enormous help on this. He donated dozens and dozens, scores probably, of hours listening, helping me edit. He actually recorded ‘Press Release’ with me down in North Carolina, he was the engineer for that one, then he was in the studio helping me mix. He was back in Australia when we did the mastering, but I was constantly sending audio back and forth to him. Then Thom, the percussionist, his label put it out. Thom also is a musical influence. It’s impossible to do it by myself.”
The songs all have interesting backstories. A sampling, in Q&A form:
Tawnie Olson's composition À mon seul dèsir, for bassoon and piano, performed by Rachael Elliott (bassoon) and Cynthia Huard (piano), from Ms. Elliott's album Polk the Elk, at the CD release concert at the University of Vermont, Sept. 3, 2011
“À mon seul dèsir,” by Tawnie Olson, which demands the pianist go into the instrument’s innards and plunk and pull its strings, wildly so:
“Tawnie was a composer studying while we were studying performance. So I knew her then. They have a composer’s reading orchestra and I may have played some of her orchestral music while there, although I’m not remembering specifically. I definitely didn’t do any of her chamber music at the time. But I just learned of that piece by her sending it to me and asking me if I could look it over and make sure that the bassoon part was playable. At the time I said, “Oh, yeah, sure, it’s playable.” Then I started trying to learn it, and (laughs) found it was much more difficult as I got more into it.
Yeah, it does have some spiky moments—
Yeeahhh! I love it when the pianist just goes totally crazy and reaches inside and starts plucking away. It’s hard, it is technically so difficult. Largely because each piano is different. Also, the architecture on the inside of each piano we’ve come across has been completely different. So half the concerts I’ve had to call up Tawnie on the afternoon of the evening we’re playing and go, “How do we do this?” It’s amazing how different each one is.
Is the purpose of that assault on the piano string to add a more percussive element to the composition at that point? Why do that?
Yes, I think that’s the height of the conflict. That moment when the two are in strong disagreement—or maybe she’s considering that the more jubilant part, I’m not sure, in terms of the way she’s conceiving of it. I hear it as a really jazzy little bit, it feels like it has a solid groove to it. To me that’s where the pianist is most out there and we bring it back to some sort of harmonious conclusion after that section.
Did you know the storyline of the song from the start?
I did. In the front of the score itself she writes a short program note. And on the front cover there’s a beautiful reproduction of the last tapestry of the “Lady and the Unicorn” series at the Musée de Cluny, that I think she takes part of the story of that as her inspiration. And she mentions the idea, that it’s a dedication to a friend of hers’ wedding, and that story she shared last night is included in that, the idea of a young couple, the sense that they start out not really communicating but feeling they’re getting along fine and then there’s an explosion and they resolve it by learning how to communicate and negotiate.
David Lang’s original ‘Press Release,’ written for bass clarinet. Rachael Elliott recast it for solo bassoon on Polka the Elk. ‘What I hear in this piece is the idea of taking little fragments of ideas, repeating them over and over and over again, until you’re mesmerized into a state, until all of a sudden he changes, makes a slight harmonic shift and takes you into another direction. Or maybe a third of the way through he takes you into the really smooth high stuff. So he alters textures throughout.’
“Press Release,” by David Lang:
As a member of the press when I saw that title I thought of a press release, of the kind I receive every day. But of course your introduction at the Rose Studio concert disabused me of that notion—it’s about pressing and releasing notes on the instrument.
Actually your response is exactly what I thought too, when I first saw the piece, before I had looked up the program notes, before I had started learning it. And that’s what I, ignorantly, told one of the first audiences I played it for. I said, “This piece reminds me of a press release—the churning deadline, the pressure to get it out on time.” I went on this riff about how the piece was insistent, non-stop, it’s rushing along to its furious conclusion and finally you get your press release done on time and you can relax. That was the initial metaphor I had in my mind too, until I read his program notes maybe a year later.
So there are some people out there who think it is about a press release.
Yeah. That works.
In explaining what it was about, you described it as being very virtuosic, all this leaping from low to high. What does “very virtuosic” mean to you as a musician?
It means it’s technically extremely demanding. It’s exploring the lowest and highest reaches of the instruments. I guess I don’t know an exact definition of virtuosity. Generally I think of it as meaning “very challenging.” And showing off the outer reaches of the instrument, as well as just in terms of endurance. It’s a long piece, and usually I run into one of two issues while doing it: the reed closes off over time and it’s harder to get the low notes and the high notes out; either you have dry mouth or your mouth gets a lot of spit in it as you go through. It’s very unladylike and unpleasant. Usually when I’m playing the piece I’m thinking, either I’m going to cough or I’m going to have to stop and rest my mouth for a moment. The actual technical challenges of playing that piece and articulating so frequently and for so long causes problems on the instrument—there are technical challenges in terms of the demands on the instrument. It’s a lot of leaping from high to low. I guess the physicality of the piece is very demanding, let alone trying to do something where you’re trying to make sense of it musically.
David Lang is part of the collective Bang on a Can. They all came out of Yale, along with Michael Gordon and Julia Lang, the three original composers of Bang on a Can. They are all enthralled with minimalism, so they’re writing in the post-minimalist style, sort of the next generation after Terry Riley and Steve Reich. So they have their own take on it. What I hear in this piece is the idea of taking little fragments of ideas, repeating them over and over and over again, until you’re mesmerized into a state, until all of a sudden he changes, makes a slight harmonic shift and takes you into another direction. Or maybe a third of the way through he takes you into the really smooth high stuff. So he changes, he alters textures throughout. I wouldn’t say those shifts in David Lang’s piece are very subtle; they’re pretty obvious when he makes a change, and then at the end he goes to the really slow, long, high stuff that winds to the conclusion. So they’re very obvious shifts, but even within each section those little fragments that he’s repeating are subtly shifting and changing as he goes along. It gives this sense of a very slow unfolding or evolution. I think one of the things about minimalism is that it tends to be small ideas extended for very long periods of time. I do think they’re aware that it’s physically challenging to performers.
Padma Newsom's 'Polka the Elk,' for two bassoons and vibraphone, is the title track from Rachael Elliott's new album. This performance at the CD release concert at the University of Vermont, Sept. 3, 2011, features Ms. Elliott and Janet Polk (her teacher at the Yale School of Music) on bassoons and Bill Solomon on vibraphone/percussion
“Polka the Elk,” by Padma Newsome (note: at the Rose Studio show Thomas Kozumplik explained to the audience how some Padma Newsome song titles are best understood as acronyms. For instance, “Polka the Elk” is named after Janet Polk and Rachael Elliott, teacher and student. The “Bed and Rest” album closer is for Bryce and Rachel, who were roommates for a time and occasionally at odds from having to not only make music but to manage the band’s business. “Bed and Rest” seems to recreate the period of serenity after, as Mr. Kozumplik said, “they had driven each other crazy.”
Was “Polka the Elk” always going to be the title track?
(laughs) I don’t remember, it was so long ago! I think finding a title, for me, is really difficult. It took me forever and I went back and forth and back and forth. Finally we settled on Polka the Elk because we liked the piece so much and it’s so fun. But I think Padma sometimes gets titles from poems, sometimes he gets them from a dream or feelings he has about a project. This one I think he thought our names were pretty funny. I don’t know if this image of an animal came to him before the title or how he conceived of it. It was in a time when he was writing very complex counterpoint and he was really into systems. He had things like retrograde and palindromes happening in it--actually there’s some palindromes in “With Eyes Cast Down” as well--the third movement is a big palindrome. He was really in the midst of exploring all sorts of compositional techniques. He was very interested in Messiaen’s music at that point and coming up with interesting mathematical systems in order to generate harmonies. It’s very interesting, intricate music to analyze, and actually quite complex to put together. But then once you get it, it has this really sort of floating sense of groove, although there’s rarely any downbeats--it’s not a groove in the traditional jazz sense but it’s got a great flow to it.”
Also on the Rachael Elliott agenda: a Tuple project, and a new Clogs album in development.
The two-bassoon Tuple, with Lynn Hileman, is building its repertoire. Ms. Elliott lauds Sofia Gubaidalunia’s duo sonata for two bassoons from 1977 as “a fantastic piece and such an icon for bassoonists that we can’t not do it, even though it’s three or four years old now. The other pieces are more recent. We’re more or less active depending on our other lives. Lynn is a full professor in West Virginia, I’m doing all this other traveling and various projects, so we get together for at least one tour a year. Some years it’s been more. Right now we’re in the process of trying to commission a couple more pieces. Padma has a piece for two bassoons--we’re asking him to arrange it for two bassoons. It has a little bit larger ensemble, but he has a bassoon duo that we’re asking him to expand from what he’s already written--and we’re hoping to get Bryce to write a piece for us, but we need to round up some more money for him. So we’re trying to gather more music. We’ve found about eight pieces we really love, but for the group to really thrive we need some more music. But Lynn is fantastic and I’ve learned so much from her. We went to Yale together and were in the same class, graduated in 2000. I guess we’re out of repertoire because we’re raiding the bass clarinet repertoire now. Mark Mellits wrote a bass duo called ‘Black’ for Skwonk in San Francisco and they have an incredible recording of it. And we have our version, the bassoon version, up online too. There’s some terrific pieces out there for the duo.
Tuple (Rachael Elliott, left, and Lynn Hileman) perform Mark Melitts’s ‘Black’ for two bassoons.
And the forthcoming Clogs album?
“I wouldn’t say forthcoming just yet,” she cautions with a laugh. “Padma thinks we have two albums of music already. The project we’ve been doing this year, the Clogs-plus-choir project, we really want to record. Padma and Bryce both wrote beautiful pieces. Padma’s is a three-movement work based on some ideas from when he was on tour with The National for the past three years. Both pieces are beautiful poems, beautiful music for choir, plus Clogs. I think that’s the next thing we hope to record.
“Another thing that’s on the backburner, someting we’re hoping to be in a residency and performing next summer, is a new opera, a little chamber opera that Padma’s writing for soprano, mezzo and baritone plus Clogs and a little expanded ensemble. We’re aiming to do that starting mid-June this coming summer. That will be neat; it’ll be wild.”