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A Quietus Interview

Harvard Commissions & Refuting Pretension: Clogs Interviewed
Laura Snapes , August 26th, 2010 10:29

Laura Snapes talks to modern composer Padma Newsome about The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton, horticulture and pretension

When Padma Newsome sent back his answers to my questions about Clogs' fifth album, The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton, it's no understatement to say that I only had about a 5% foggiest as to what he was talking about. My own musical ability extends to pawing out three chords on a guitar and the theme tune to an abhorrent children's cartoon on the piano, so trying to tally mentions of 16ths and isorhythms with my love of their startlingly beautiful new album was like being given a spaceship and the instructions of how to fly it; that's all well and good, thanks, but I'm still no closer to understanding how the chuff this thing works. As Yannis from Foals experienced when he interviewed Philip Glass for Drowned In Sound recently, it's hard to interview someone who works in a field that you can appreciate, but find utterly unfathomable, without coming across as a massively pretentious prang; when all your questions essentially translate to "So, how are you so great?", but trying to formulate them in a way whereby the interviewee won't rumble you as a total fraud.

But it doesn't take a scholarship to Julliard to realise that The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton is a work of true genius and beauty. Written in response to a brief from Harvard's Fromm Commission, it's set in La Mortella, a garden on the Italian island of Ischia built on the order of composer William Walton for his wife, Susana. Sufjan Stevens, The National's Matt Berninger, and Shara Worden all guest, their voices flitting through its ten tracks like birds of plumages showy and sombre calling from their branches inside its bright, lush baroque forestry. It's a magnificent translation of place to sound, and a considered development from the minimal improvisation of their previous four albums.

Trying to understand the brilliance behind the record, The Quietus talked to Clogs' lynchpin Padma Newsome about compositional efficiency, cross-genre collaboration, and that fateful P, pretension.

It's been five years since the last Clogs release, which I know is down to the individual projects that you all undertake. Can you talk about what you've been up to, and the point in time at which you decided to get the band back into the studio?

Padma Newsome: Once we had played the music, which was first performed at MusicNow 2007, we then had a sense of whether or not it worked, and from there we plotted to record as best we could given the distance and schedules. There were delays that weren't to do with Clogs but rather the engineering side of things, and in fact Clogs was extremely efficient in the studio. However, the music was recorded in three different studios and mixed in two, a bit of a long way round, but that was the way of it.

In the meantime, I have been working on my own music, currently a piano concerto, as well as collaborations with The National and Bryce Dessner, and Belgium singer songwriter, Daniel Hélin, both with new records in 2010. Thom has continued to record and perform with Loop 243, as well as set up his grass roots label Music Starts From Silence, and Rachael is currently recording a solo bassoon album, which will include a bassoon version of 'Press Release' by David Lang. I also have been involved in community music in my home-town, Mallacoota, recording music for the townsfolk as well as some choral conducting, and performing with singer songwriter Brent McLoed, and bass player, John Grunden.

Being a geographically disparate group, are you all able to get together and record at once? I read that you recorded part of the new record in the Sydney Opera House, which seems extremely prestigious – can anyone rent a space there to work, or do you have to have an affiliation with the establishment?

PN: We came to the Opera House via a recommendation in 2008, and the rates were quite competitive. We were playing at the Sydney Festival. The studio is quite lovely and reaches into all the venues. We could have tracked from the main stage, but by the time we were in Sydney, we were pretty much in mix mode, except for 'Last Song'. There was a huge concert bass drum, which we surreptitiously dragged into the studio for 'We Were Here' and which I beat on with my fingers.

Could you explain more about the original commission for The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton? Is the record the overall result of the commission, or a development on the piece you produced to fill the brief?

PN: The residency and commission come from an endowment out of Harvard, called the Fromm Commission. The residency was a collaborative relationship with Fromm and Lady Walton, who sadly died earlier this year. All the music was written at the island, with the exception of 'Last Song', and there is still about a half dozen unrecorded songs from that period. I also wrote a six bass clarinet piece, which has 'Cocodrillo' as an optional movement to be sung by the audience and performers. My sister Sue was the recipient and first player of that piece, which she has performed twice now with a bunch of her students. One time her boy, Jim, at that stage very young, decided to make his way onto the stage whilst another piece was being performed, and slightly off stage sang at the top of his voice, "Cocodrillo, cocodrillo".

With this record, was it important to break from your old sound to do something totally different? Or was the idea of the new sound just borne of the Italian commission?

PN: Being a modern composer, the concept of new sounds is something that becomes a middle part of one's view. Newness, though, is not something I seek - except of course, a new idea, or a new piece. In Creatures…, I had decided to use simple canons as the binding element between songs, so that each piece had some law applied to a melody or a chord pattern. For example, 'We Were Here' has a mirror canon offset by a 16th note, (see further explanations below) 'Cocodrillo' is a double chase, and 'Adages' utilizes Isorhythm, a medieval practice which utilizes an abstract relationship with duration (length of note) and pitch.

Had you been to Ischia before? You can get an idea of how lush and exotic it is from listening to your record – how did you enjoy being there? How does it compare to Mallacoota? Can you tell me about the piece of music you wrote about the coastline with Daniel Hélin?

PN: Yes, it is an exotic garden and only lush due to their water works. A beautiful rill runs the gamut of the lower garden, arboretums, and careful, delicate introduction of introduced species from all over the world. Lady Walton was a keen gardener, especially devoted to her garden after William died, and she had great collaborators. Mallacoota is the name of the town where I live on the Victorian coast, and it is also the name of Daniel's album. The record is not about Mallacoota, but his own song writing, laconic, humorous, little morality tales, tales about life.

Are you a keen horticulturalist at all?

PN: I used to work in a big park garden in New South Wales, so I was busy in the garden for some years in the 80s, but mostly at that time I learnt all that I have now forgotten from a friend and co-worker, Yogamurti. I do know that when I asked Lady Walton what animal she was, her answer was "corisia", which is an Argentinean prickly tree depicted in the album artwork.

Were you aware of the story of William and Susana Walton before you accepted the commission?

PN: Somewhat aware – but primarily from a composerly and violist perspective. William wrote a famous viola concerto, there are not many, so is held in high esteem especially for that contribution, amongst other great pieces.

It seems as though the garden inspired the record pretty directly – how did you translate the beautiful sights around you into sounds? Was it a synaesthetic experience at all? I love how the names of the animals at the start of 'Cocodrillo' almost become animal cries in themselves.

PN: I think there is garden imagery in a bunch of songs, and of course there were birdcalls and animal sounds in 'Cocodrillo'. 'Adages' has always felt like a night forest scene to me, and there is talk all through the album of our garden and how we relate to it. A lot of the texts were written in a different time, earlier, a large bunch of ideas, small poems, which I had on my Palm Pilot, I also had a whole lot of drawings called Leaf Art with many contributions from friends.

When did the decision to include vocals come in? Was there any particular reason that you had mostly avoided it before, aside from the odd whisper?

PN: I have always written songs, but for many years Clogs had been concentrating on our language and performance behaviour, which had improvisation as a raison d'être. There was a lot to discover with Clogs - because of the quality of players (present company excluded), and the available textures, there always seemed to be something else around the corner. There was enough variation in content and style to stay that way. After I had written the songs, I did not wish to impose them on Clogs, but discovered that they were interested in playing and recording the music, and moved forward from there.

At what stage did you get the other collaborators on board? Considering that Clogs come from perhaps more of an academic musical background than some of the people you worked with, did that throw up any problems, or comic moments?

PN: There are a bunch of ways of communicating outside of written scores, and we have worked with quite an array of musicians - most with some literacy - but if you translate "academic" to mean communication technique, then it just differs with different groups. Comic, well, that's mostly embarrassment when I have written something almost impossible to play, and yes, it's sometimes fun trying to get music onto these odder instruments, like theorbo or gambas. The timing of the collaborations was simply about when we were recording. I had always imagined Shara in this music, and Sufjan, my sister, the brass players, we were lucky to have them on board, and knew them through previous collaborations. The Havels, Matt Berninger and Luca Tarantino were distance collaborations, but we had performed the music with the Havels. Bryce's brother Aaron was always supportive of the music, and was an ear and musician on a bunch of the tracks.

Have you got any more collaborative projects in the pipeline?

PN: This year I've worked or am working on The National's album, High Violet, Daniel Hélin's album, Mallacoota, the solo cello album of cellist, Zachary Miskin, the solo bassoon album of Rachael Elliot, who is in Clogs, the recordings of Bren McLoed, a singer songwriter recording in Mallacoota, and with The Brooklyn Youth Chorus on new songs for Clogs and children's chorus, to be performed at Merkin Hall, March 12th 2011.

In a past interview, I read you saying, "Sometimes these days, I'm trying more and more to get rid of frills and redundancies and writing with as much economy as possible." Does that apply to Creatures... – which is obviously a very lavish record – or do you mean as an approach to the compositional style?

PN: Yes, this is a good question, scoring and material. Songs like 'The Owl of Love' are actually very simple, a chord chart and melodies, but we have some interesting friends, like the Havels, and Luca - and since half of this chart is borrowed from "la folia", a 16th century tune, we were easily able to incorporate their contributions, and I especially loved what I call Luca Tarantino's "con fuoco" variation in 'The Owl of Love', which sounds very natural on the theorbo, and an innate behaviour which he brought to the record. I hope the record is not too complex, and I think how I might relate now to the topic of economy, is that I will allow the simplest ideas forward. 'We Were Here' starts with the most basic material. C, a min., F, G on acoustic guitar, and then I lay an upside version of this chart over itself, a min6, C, e min, d min6. This is offset by a 16th note and some melodies are sung over it.

How much of the operatic influence did Shara bring to the album? Were the singing parts written before she came in? This might be a stupid question, but did being on an Italian island have any influence over the decision to include that style of music?

PN: The songs came first, and naturally Shara was the first person I thought of, as well as Sufjan. And then for 'Last Song', Matt, which was a bit of an after-thought. Shara is unique in that she has rocker skills and classical skills. Her voice is not actually operatic – if it were, she would have had to loose some of those other natural voice types she possesses. An opera singer must become a different beast altogether, really having to project a massive voice type. Early on, Shara decided not to take that path, and we are all the benefit because of it. She traverses styles. You can't really sing songs like 'On the Edge' or 'Adages' without some of those classical skills, leaping into the upper register, for example, but we are really looking for a natural sound throughout.

Is it fair to say that Creatures... is a more formal album in terms of technique – unlike say, Stick Music – as well as composition? The experimentation seems to be in finding a whole new bright and colourful sound for Clogs as a band, rather than using specific techniques to meditate on the intricacies of individual sounds.

PN: The song format meant that it needed to be more firmly set, to allow us easier collaborations with the singers, but there is always a sense of opening out/up, somewhere in most of the pieces. Your other questions pertain to orchestration I believe, which is often about what other instruments are available or practical. Mostly for this album, I did already know what I would like as extra instruments, and brought them into the studio to play.

How does Clogs function as a band? Stick Music was mostly written by yourself and Bryce, and you composed Creatures… on your own – do these compositions ever get adapted once they're brought to the band? Can anyone bring a project to the table, or do the other members tend to reserve their own ideas for solo work?

PN: All the music gets adapted somewhat. On the records I have started putting "developed by Clogs". The reason why this is essential is that I believe that most composers are only half a musician, at best, and the real interface begets better decisions. I am somewhat adaptive with my own music, but I usually make sure that the essential elements are in there before I come to the collaborative stage.

How did you all meet when you were at Yale? Were you older students, studying after having taken a first degree?

PN: I had quite a lucid dream about Clogs, called in the dream, "Loose Fitting Clogs" but pared down in the real world. There were specific ideas about what kind of musicians to look for, and this was not hard to find since Yale had such a varied grad school.

How would you describe your relationships to each other's work? You had less involvement with the new National record than on their past work, with Bryce doing most of the orchestral arrangements – didn't you use to teach him in some capacity?

PN: We are all learning from each other, I feel.

One of the major themes in reviews of your new album have remarked on its ability to blend genres, which I'm aware that you think is a reductive way to look at complex music. Can you explain more about the difficulties you have with those kind of categorisations?

PN: These perturbations don't effect or worry me. I don't change my music writing style to suit different genres, the music just gets used different ways.

Similarly, it's been written about in terms of being a crossover or breakout album thanks to Matt Berninger, Sufjan Stevens and Shara Worden's presence – for a band on their fifth album in a decade, does that get on your nerves at all? Does the growing awareness of you as a band ever put certain pressures on your sound?

PN: No pressure on sound or style really. I feel quite welcomed and accepted to write how I like.

I read that you're not happy with the culture of rock – what do you mean by that? Are you happy with the culture of classical?

PN: My troubles with rock are its hierarchical economic behaviour. This is certainly extant in classical music, but perhaps in the latter's case, comes from its non-popularism; in other words, there is not a lot of money to go around. Countries with state or private benefactor culture are only able to fund a small amount of the music made.

When musicians that people have pigeonholed as indie – like Sufjan Stevens – release classical compositions, as he did with The BQE, they often find themselves accused of pretentiousness. Have you ever got the impression that some listeners are still prejudiced against classical music, seeing it as lofty and stuffy?

PN: The word pretentious is an interesting one for me. It presupposes that we are pretending to be something that we are not, certainly not something that you would normally say to a friend, or even a passing stranger. People should be able to experiment I feel, it's a natural creative behaviour. I do think we develop tastes for some music and some we don't like so much.

I was reading articles about classical concert halls cutting their prices to pull in a younger audience, who are apparently the "holy grail" according to one piece. What do you think of the effort to expand the appeal of classical music to a younger crowd? Through bands like you, The Knife, Nico Muhly and so on, there seems to be a growing appreciation for the genre amongst younger listeners.

PN: Ever since I have been making music, the issue of money, pop culture, accessibility, rarefied culture has been present. Many a grant application gets tailored to suit a particular view of where classical music should or could be going. Grant bodies, and decision-making bodies shift and change. I saw a great documentary about water boats on the Mississippi, and one captain was an amateur banjo player, and I can't remember the words exactly, but he was intimating that the music we do best, make best, is where our sense of style comes from.

What do you think of the recent wave of bands joining up with the LA Philharmonic, and similar orchestras, to recontextualise their "indie rock" songs with an orchestral backing?

PN: There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about such cross-overs. I like to think of it as scoring opportunities, and a lot of fun. Unfortunately it is quite expensive, so every experiment needs to be well received and pretty much a hit straight away. I think it less effective when every song is accompanied by full orchestra.