december 2011

Joe Brent: ‘The schizophrenic nature of the New York music scene really appeals to me. I don't know how classical players can keep playing the same repertoire year after year. That's not music, that's choreography.’ (Photo: Emily Raw)

Artists On The Verge 2012

Joe Brent, Part 1: The Classical Mandolinist

The versatile virtuoso impresses with skills and winning ways on record, on stage and in the classroom

[Note: Mandolin virtuoso Joe Brent is equally at home in classical and various forms of roots music, and even brings his instrumental mastery to the mainstream pop of Regina Spektor as a member of her touring band. Mr. Brent currently has two new albums out: the classical Joseph Brent, Mandolin plays Noctures and Caprices by David Loeb, and Solo, a four-song EP of tunes by Animal Collective, The Flaming Lips, and Dan Cho. Not the least of his accomplishments: he is the first and only mandolinist in the United States to hold a conservatory position as an instructor specifically of classical mandolin, at New York City’s Mannes College The New School for Music on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. To kick off our annual Artists On the Verge series, we’re chatting with Mr. Brent over the course of the next two issues. This month’s interview is focused on his classical work; next month we’ll take up the roots side of his artistry. For this interview we thank our friend Scott Tichenor, founder and editor of the invaluable Mandolin Café website, who granted us permission to reprint this Q&A from his November 20, 2011 issue.]

Joe Brent is not the one to ever give up on a good idea. Years ago, while attending Carlo Aonzo's Mandolin Workshop in New York, I sat next to a young man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else as a mandolinist. Not only could he play up a storm, but his contagious smile and good cheer spread all around the room.

By the second or third session, he introduced himself and asked me whether I would write something for him. Without any hesitation, I gladly agreed; knowing, however, that I had other projects stretching two, three years out, I cautiously qualified my offer with "eventually." So I put that good idea in the back burner. At next year's workshop, Joe reminded me; the year after, he reminded me again. The end result of his gentle persistence was my Antwerp Harbor, one of the works that are nearest and dearest to me.

Our paths crossed again at Mannes College of Music, where I worked at the time. Joe came in with every intention of pursuing a graduate program in interpretation. The faculty were mightily impressed by his mandolin playing, and quite smitten with his charming personality. The only trouble was...there was no mandolin program, no such degree, no such curriculum! What to do? Through the subtle powers of diplomatic suasion, they gradually came around to a momentous epiphany: if there was no mandolin program as of yet, why not start one?

And so it came to be. Joe is now the first and only mandolinist in the United States to hold a conservatory position as an instructor specifically of classical mandolin. History has been made, so to speak, and Joe has earned his place on the firmament both by his skills and his winning ways. The future looks bright. --Victor Kioulaphides, Composer

The Joe Brent Mandolin Mixtape

Tell to us about your approach to the music you've performed and recorded. You obviously have a passion for composing and a varied background in classical music, but you also are playing and recording some popular music, performing with a vocalist, a quartet and traveling extensively in the process. You seem to be a part of a new school of mandolinists willing and capable of traveling in different musical circles.

My background is definitely in classical music and jazz improvisation, but my concerts don't have a lot of classical or jazz music in them. My solo shows have a lot of original stuff, music that's been written for me by composers I like, or arrangements of music I like, usually by bands like Animal Collective, TV On the Radio, Secret Machines, The Flaming Lips, etc. I'm always working on new stuff. I have a quartet that plays my own music and arrangements, with bass, guitar, and clarinet, but we're all so busy working on our own projects that it's hard for us to play together as often as I'd like. I do a lot of recording. I also play with pop artists like Regina Spektor and Jewel, and a multitude of bands in the New York area.

There's a wonderful scene of musicians here that I'm a part of, to the point where a lot of bands are interchangeable, like on one night, me and two other guys might be playing behind one singer/songwriter, and the next night, the same guys will be with a different singer playing different songs in a totally different style. Sometimes even on different instruments. The trick is to find musicians versatile enough that you can do that, and luckily there are a lot of players like that here in New York.

The schizophrenic nature of the New York music scene really appeals to me. I don't know how classical players can keep playing the same repertoire year after year. That's not music, that's choreography. At that point, it's just a sequence of fingerings you've memorized, like dialing a telephone number, and then you sit back and wait for people to be impressed by how fast you can dial. That never impressed me. For me, virtuosity is the technical ability to make the music you hear in your head, whatever that music is. It's easy to think of Jimi Hendrix as a virtuoso, but would you say the same about a player like Marc Ribot? He hears things that nobody else hears. You can hear a few notes of his playing and know it's him. It might be a different conception of virtuosity, but the result is the same: the music they make (made) could only have been made by them. That's the kind of virtuosity I'm striving for. I can hear all this amazing music in my head, and all the technique, the hours of practice, all that hard work, it's all to make that music in my head come out into the world.

I've studied Calace and Bach and I love classical music, and when I do play it, I put everything I have into it, and I'm fulfilled by it. You can't really say you understand the instrument until you have a thorough grounding in its technique, history and repertoire, and I make all my students study Calace and Bach and the major repertoire for the instrument. But I also put everything I have into the John Prine song I recorded last night, and was equally fulfilled by it. If I had to play the same Calace Prelude over and over again for a living, I'd just as soon get a job.

Joe Brent performing Bach’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, MWV 1059, with Carlo Alonzo’s Orchestre Pizzico Ligure, Sept. 15, 2007, at Teatro Chiabrera, Savona, Italy.

You graduated from Berklee College of Music in the late ‘90s. They didn't have a defined mandolin program at that time. What was that experience like?

I had a wonderful time at Berklee. When I went there, the string department was nothing like it is now, I think only 10 students. But Matt Glaser did a great job promoting it with the summer programs there and now it's grown into one of the biggest departments in the school. The good part about the string department when I was there was because there were so few of us, we all got very close. I was there with K Ishibashi, who was in Regina's band before me and now plays with Of Montreal, and we're still really good friends. Evan Price, formerly of the Turtle Island Quartet was there, as well as Ludvig Girdland, a great Swedish improvising violinist; Carrie Rodriguez, a fiddler who is doing really well as a singer-songwriter; Hanneke Cassel, one of the world's great Cape Breton fiddlers; Rushad Eggleston, a founding member of Crooked Still; and of course my dear friend Dan Cho, who played cello with Regina, Katy Perry, Coldplay, John Mayer and many others. We saw each other every day in classes, and because there were so few of us we were very popular with students who had recording projects or especially film scoring sessions, so we worked together just about every day as well. We formed really close bonds, and we continue to make music together occasionally, and I love rooting for them and seeing them succeed out in the music world. And because we were together so often, the bad times hit us all the harder as well. Ludvig was in a car accident a few years ago and is still having a difficult recovery, and Dan died tragically last year while out on tour with Regina. When all that happened, it was nice to have that Berklee community all over the world to close ranks and support each other.

The other great thing about Berklee, which is as true today as it was when I was there, is that it's a situation you can never replicate in the real world. There's 3,000+ students there, mostly international, and everyone's got their own thing, their own musical direction they're pursuing, so you can get swept up in it and experience all these different kinds of music in a way that you can never really do again once you're out in the real world. I like to tell prospective students that they should absolutely be learning more from their fellow students than they are in their classes or lessons. They should take advantage of having all these amazing musicians around them, and play Portuguese fado on Monday, jazz on Tuesday, Andalusian folk music on Wednesday, Japanese gagaku on Thursday...really soak all that up, and don't just live in the practice room. Teaching at a conservatory here in New York, I try to get my students to experience something akin to that, by pointing out all the amazing stuff that happens every day in this city, which you can't experience anywhere else. All of that should be part of a musician's education, and I definitely got it at Berklee.

On tour with pop star Regina Spektor. From left: Yoed Nir (cello), Regina Spektor, David Heilman (drums), Joseph Brent (mandolin, violin). Photo taken in the Jardín Japonés, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

What is your role at Mannes?

I teach mandolin at Mannes, a music conservatory in New York that's part of The New School, to students of the school proper, and through the Extension Division, which offers conservatory-level instruction to anyone, not just students enrolled at Mannes. Most of my students are through the extension school, in fact. And I have a Skype station, which enables me to teach students all over the world who want to study with me. I believe, in fact, that we were the first to offer Skype lessons to the mandolin community. I see lots of people are doing it now, and that's great! That can only improve the level of mandolin pedagogy available to talented students worldwide.

Your newest project, Joseph Brent Plays Nocturnes and Caprices by David Loeb, is an ambitious project of mostly solo material, and much of it quite challenging. What was it about his material that drew you to it?

David is a really fascinating guy. He lives part of the year in Japan, and has an equal grounding in Japanese idioms as he does in Western music, and you can hear a lot of that influence in his own music. It's spare, and definitely modern, but very accessible as well. It's not easy to play by any means, but he's like me, in that he's not a guy who's impressed by pyrotechnics. Where it does get technical, it's only once it's earned it by building up to it logically and organically.

He approached me after talking to a student of mine who was a composition major studying with him, and mentioned that he had a set of solo mandolin caprices he had written awhile back for a Japanese player that had never actually been played, so I premiered them here on my faculty recital two years ago. It was a bit of a hit, so we decided to turn it into a CD-length project involving more caprices, but also duets with a few other instruments.

We agreed that it was better to work with individual players we admired, rather than writing for an instrumental combination and then trying to find someone who could hack the part. Miranda Cuckson was the first name we discussed. We are both big fans of her playing--she's unquestionably my favorite violinist in New York. She's completely fearless as a musician, and nobody plays with as much soul or dedication.

Next, I mentioned my friend Oren Fader, a guitar professor at the Manhattan School of Music with whom I've worked many times, and who I've always loved as a musician and all-around great guy.

Finally, to round out the textures, David suggested a wind duet, and I knew it had to be Josh Rubin, who I've known for many years through the International Contemporary Ensemble. Everything fell into place beautifully, David wrote some extraordinary music for us, and Miranda, Oren, and Josh play amazingly. I couldn't be more proud of what we were able to accomplish together.

Joe Brent and Alon Sariel play compositions by Michel Corrette (1707-1795), Providence, RI, Feb. 4, 2009.

You're working in an area of lower Manhattan where a short cab ride might easily take you to a Chris Thile, Andy Statman or Aaron Weinstein performance. Yet, in what I've been able to pick up from musicians in the city, most of you haven't met. Is that correct?

Not really. I know Aaron a little, from running in some similar scenes, and better now that we did the CMSA convention together last month. He's hilarious, and a terrific musician. I've seen Andy a few times at Banjo Jim's and Jalopy, which are venues in NYC we both play at a lot. I've also been a great admirer of his playing since our mutual friend Matt Glaser hipped me to him while I was at Berklee. I don't really know Chris personally all that well, though of course I know his music and we also run in a lot of the same extended circles. I'll never forget the time I played some Punch Brothers for Alon Sariel in my car, and he gushed, "That's what a mandolin is supposed to sound like!" New York is like that though.

Here, you can have a very close friend that you may only see once every few weeks, or even months. One of my best friends in the world lives 20 blocks away, but he's a guitarist in a Broadway show and I'm out playing my own stuff all over the place, so our correspondence is oftentimes limited to snarky text messages, or chop busting when his football team loses. Everybody's got their own thing, and especially amongst musicians like us who are out of town pretty frequently, there's just so much going on that you tend to form lots of interconnecting relationships and friendships, rather than just a few close ones. I'd love to get to know all of those guys better.

There are so many great players out there I haven't met yet that I'd really love to. I'm a massive fan of Sierra Hull, Hamilton de Holanda, Sarah Jarosz, and Adam Steffey (my all-time favorite mandolinist!), but I haven't met any of them yet although they all come through New York from time to time. Just in the past few years, I hung out with (among many others) Paulo Sá in Rio de Janeiro, Caterina Lichtenberg in Düsseldorf, and Keizo Ishibashi in Baltimore, and it was our love of the mandolin that brought us all together. How cool is that!? Maybe it's easier to meet up with players that way than to take a cab ride.

With the Loeb project now published are you looking ahead at a new recording?

Always. Just finished recording albums with Justin King, Adam Rhodes, Rory Sullivan, and Bryan Dunn, and I have recording projects coming up with Kelli Rae Powell and Danica Dora. With Bryan, we did the full-length album, and then as a present to his Kickstarter donors we also recorded bluegrass versions of six ‘80s tunes and put it on an EP. I just released my own EP of the rock band arrangements, including an Animal Collective tune, two Flaming Lips tunes, and one by my friend Dan Cho. I'd love to record with the quartet sometime in the next year or two; we do a version of Piazzolla's Suite Troileana that'll knock your socks off. Professor Loeb actually just finished a mandolin concerto for me, that will get premiered sometime next year and perhaps we'll record that as well. There's a bunch of new stuff I'm writing that's in the pipeline. I can't wait to finish it so I can work it into the program on recitals.

Next month: Joe Brent on his roots and progressive music projects.

Joseph Brent, Mandolin plays Noctures and Caprices by David Loeb is available at the Joe Brent website

Interview from November 20, 2011 reprinted courtesy Mandolin Café. The site was launched November 18, 1995 and is owned and maintained by Scott Tichenor. Its features include a Forum (for the discussion of all things madolin related); a News section; downloadable MP3s; "the most comprehensive list of mandolin family builders on the internet with 886 listings"; listings of mandolin workshops, camps and clinics; listings of mandolin-centric Social Groups; mandolin classified; and related resources.

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