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David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg: collective convergence for a personal itinerary

With Breath and Hammer II, clarinetist/composer David Krakauer and pianist/composer Kathleen Tagg premier an eclectic musical journey, newly conceptualized for the “audience-in-round configuration” of Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal.

Photo Breath and Hammer II at Boulez Saal: courtesy of Kathleen Tagg and David Krakauer.

Set up for the performance on March 7th and 8th, 2019

“We are excited to perform a greatly expanded version of our Breath and Hammer program that evolved in increments since 2015. It incorporates our arrangements of an array of composers we greatly admire, as diverse as New York-based visionary John Zorn, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, and Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez with our own original compositions, influenced by interlocking drumming patterns, romantic symphonic music, minimalism and klezmer. Intermingling such seemingly disparate musical influences have transformed into something, we believe, entirely new,” explains Krakauer over dinner in New York, sharing that part of his eminent journey with klezmer music was a musical way home to his Jewish roots. But the Grammy-award nominee defies musical boundaries.

Whether he performs Eastern European Jewish Klezmer, new world electronics with his band Ancestral Groove, or Beethoven with the Emerson Quartet, his spiritual soul is tangible.

“When I reflect on the most spiritually potent moments of my life, they are bound together in my consciousness with the most human, earthy physicality: the sound of communal breath, the flicker of a candle, the sensation of breaking into a sweat,” he confesses in his introduction to Dreams and Prayers, a chamber music recording with A Far Cry ensemble.

In April, Krakauer and Tagg will share the stage with a host of international artists, including Evgeny Kissin, in a celebration of Yiddish music and culture titled: From Shtetl to Stage, as part of Carnegie Hall’s vast Migrations series. Krakauer has been hugely influential in the advance of klezmer into the contemporary realm.

“In our mutual journey Breath and Hammer, Kathleen and I explore our instruments intensely. Since much of the piano playing is done inside the instrument, it becomes more about strumming and the percussive elements, and the clarinet makes use of some unorthodox techniques. For example, when it comes to vibrating – which you are never supposed to do, at least not at the conservatory – I do it. It’s a shimmer into my own, personal sound.” Krakauer has also developed mastery with a circular breathing technique widely used in folk and world music, taking in or releasing air through the nose, enabling him to sustain long passages without stopping for breath. “I also use different mouthpieces…rounder ones for classical music, which makes for a less raw delivery,” he explains. “But all in all, my classical playing definitely influences my non-classical voice and vice-versa,” he says.

Photo: JIll Steinberg at National Sawdust

I had the opportunity to see a mesmerizing collaboration at their 2016 launch of Breath and Hammer live at National Sawdust. I was impressed with the original combination of artistry and experimentation, great musicianship, and uninhibited spirituality in a quest to redefine the sounds and roles of their instruments.

In 2016 the clarinet/piano and real-life duo had joined forces with Los Angeles-based video artist Jessie Gilbert, who designed a portable video system for their shows, incorporating three interactive cameras. “As we focused so intensely on our instruments and the techniques we use, we decided to add video, thereby bringing the process of creating our sound-world visually, in real-time to the audience,” says Krakauer.

Over the past year, brainstorming with the Boulez Saal team (technical advising and audio engineering by Jay Eigenmann) and Jesse Gilbert in preparation for their venture in Berlin this March resulted in a special solution to accommodate live projection in Frank Gehry’s uniquely reconfigurable hall.

The star architect of the cubist Walt Disney Hall created a modular 360-degree space in an oval elliptical shape, evocative of the conceptual unity the Berlin Barenboim-Zaid Akademie aspires to promote. Located within the majestic building of the former depot of the State Opera, the Akademie and the Pierre Boulez Saal concert hall indeed unite many viewpoints and conceptions under one roof, and according to Dr. Carsten Siebert, Chancellor of the Academy, they all lead to the enigmatic and highly energetic engagement of one mutual denominator – Daniel Barenboim.

Photo: Ilona Oltuski, Pierre Boulez Saal Berlin

Inspired by the political and philosophical dialogue between Palestinian Edward Said and Israeli Daniel Barenboim, their foundation and Barenboim’s politics-defying West-Eastern Divan initiative-turned-Arab/Israeli musical collaboration, found its new academic home in the heart of Berlin.

The Akademie’s concert hall was dedicated to music theoretician and composer Pierre Boulez, an admired mentor of Barenboim. Frank Gehry was brought on board pro bono, after Barenboim was introduced to him through Ernest Fleishman, the executive director of the LA Philharmonic, during a mutual visit at Yale University.

In its third year now, the hall's reputation has already established itself as an internationally acclaimed performance hub, with selected life-streamed and on-demand-broadcasts by ARTE and other media outlets.

Original sketch by Frank Gehry to Pierre Boulez’s avantgarde concept “Le Salle modulable"

The new hall’s leadership certainly calls for a wide diversity of projects for the new hall’s artistic planning. Daniel Barenboim, Founder and Ole Bækhøj, Director say, “since its opening in March of 2017, programs for the new hall have been dedicated to the spirit of discovery, a sense of openness, and an innovative take on tradition.”

Like fitting a square peg into a round opening, tackling the projection for Breath and Hammer II was a challenge to overcome for the hall, which has been famously constructed with acoustic and spatial elasticity in an “audience-in-round configuration,” according to Jesse Gilbert. Well-distributed, high quality sound production in different instrumental settings and flexible seating configurations enhance accessibility from every custom-upholstered seat in the house; another pro bono collaboration by acclaimed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota.

The collaborative solution for the project’s visuals was finally found in a hexagonal structure, enclosing the performers and thus allowing the projection surface equal visibility from all parts of the hall. “This will be the first time Jesse joins our performance, and with that, the scope of the project and the complexity of the visuals have greatly expanded,” says Krakauer. Gilbert explains, “Through the use of live cameras and my original audio-reactive visual instrument, SpectraIGL, the audience will be invited to form a more immediate and intimate relationship with the performers and their creative process as it unfolds.”

The aim to allow for an immersive presentation that envelops audiences in an array of sounds and images goes hand in hand with the examination of spatial and acoustic suppleness in presentations that have become increasingly intertwined with visuals elements. Scrim, emerging from the world of theatrical effects, has since made its entrance into fine art installation and live music performance, merging the audible with projections beyond the one-dimensional screen.

The visually-enhanced “what you see is what you hear” experience has recently gained clout within the spectrum of contemporary yield. Composers’ accounts trace the bend of history, but their essential countenance remains definingly individual. As an example, in a recent aesthetic documentation of Spider’s Canvas/Arachnodrone, part of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Sounding Series, Evan Ziporyn and his collaborators explored sonification through a visualized platform, enclosing the performers of electronic instrumentation and computerized visual/sound navigation within a scrim-covered cube structure, giving artistic countenance to the sonic biome of a spiderweb.

Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Spider's Canvas/Arachnodrone

MIT Boston

Compared to this merging of varying arts and science disciplines, Breath and Hammer II stays within the realm of the inner workings of its own genre’s aesthetics, incorporating an immersive video feed focusing on close-up visuals of the artists’ craft while musically presenting an eclectic blend of genres, in an electro-acoustical context.

In Breath and Hammer II, Krakauer and the similarly wide-ranging South-African composer/pianist Kathleen Tag transfigure their shared artistic values and differences into a celebration of their creative process with a personal sound palette. “We have each brought everything of who we are and what we have worked on over many years, into the mix,” explains Kathleen Tagg. “In recasting each of the compositions given to us by our composer friends, we found a way to transform the material in a way that reflected our own personal sound world without literally copying the devices of any particular genre…For this performance, we have created a brand new set of ‘tape piece’ interludes that act as bridges between the different pieces of the performance. The interludes, with their sound that ‘travels’ spatially within the hall, represent that influence coming to us from the outside – from traditions that are not our own, but that we are fortunate to have been exposed to through our friends and their music.”

The sound design for this performance utilizes two distinct layers. While the main pieces come directly from the central stage, the interludes, or “tape pieces” as Tagg calls them, travel on a journey through a surround-sound speaker configuration that acts as a sonic representation of musical offerings from one piece to the next. “These also nod to the ties that connect us one to the other, no matter how far apart we may seem,” says Tagg.



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