Live From Columbia Features the Experimental Virtuosos Yarn/Wire in Concert

Emily Johnson
November 30, 2021

The Live From Columbia series continues to turn out beautiful virtual performances from Morningside Campus, the latest installment of which featured the fascinating percussion and piano quartet Yarn/Wire, on November 9, 2021.

The word that comes up repeatedly in reference to Yarn/Wire is ‘adventurous,’ and it’s hard to think of something more apt. The quartet makes focused use of traditional instruments, electronic elements, and found objects, deftly working all manner of devices to discover new, unexpected resonances. 

November 9 was the world premiere of Zeno Baldi’s Laminar Flow (2020-21), paired with Thomas Meadowcroft’s Walkman Antiquarian (2013,) both textural pieces which showcased Yarn/Wire’s experimental dexterity.

It was the kind of performance that was just as compelling to watch as to listen to. The four artists were arranged on the Lantern stage in a tight round, each with their own rig, curls of wires in the center. Multiple cameras provided close-up footage of each artist for the virtual audience, the kind of access that wouldn’t have been possible in an in-person concert—consolations of the digital format.

Percussionists Sae Hashimoto and Russell Greenberg had an array of drums between them. Hashimoto stood behind a sort of chime set made up of suspended metal water bottles, and Greenberg had at various times cymbals, and a turntable, depending on the piece being performed. Laura Barger sat at an electronic keyboard, a laptop at her side. 

Pianist Julia Den Boer, the group’s guest artist for the 2021-2022 season, had perhaps the most traditional set up, seated at a grand piano, though she would occasionally stand to press transducers into the piano’s exposed soundboard.

In the event chat window, Lara Pellegrinelli from the Miller Theatre provided amazingly informative program notes about the composers, the stories and ideas behind the development of both pieces, and the techniques in play— thoughtful contextualization in case any audience member felt out to sea watching percussionist Russell Greenberg drag a chain across a turntable piled with crumpled paper.

Laminar Flow (2020-21), from contemporary Italian composer and sound artist Zeno Baldi, sounds spacey and wide. Invented partly during pandemic isolation, Baldi was able to experiment heavily with electronics. Huge, slow waves of resonance are undergirded with tremulous chime-like percussion from Hashimoto. Greenberg strafed a cymbal with a handheld transducer—it reminded me of a stethoscope— to achieve searing treble streaks of sound. 

The piece divides the quartet into mirrored pairs: two playing traditional acoustic instruments (Den Boer on piano, and Hashimoto on percussion which includes the water bottles, bells, an aluminum tube, a finger cymbal, Japanese handbells and windchimes,) and the other two playing with electronic instrumentation. According to the show notes, “The keyboard played by the other pianist (Barger) renders its output through audio transducers that the percussionist (Greenberg) applies to cymbals and a small bass drum, creating resonance on the instruments and feedback with contact microphones.”

The result was a soundscape of yawning whines, sharp, curving resonances, and blares of feedback. Gentle clusters of dissonant notes came from the piano. 

The second piece was written by Berlin-based Australian composer Thomas Meadowcroft. The composer was interested in writing scores without knowing what the result would be. 

Meadowcroft copied selections of his father’s 1970s classic pop record collection onto cassette tapes during visits home. ​“These recordings were sent through a series of gating devices and tape machines in the studio, prior to performance,” he writes in his composer’s note. “The samples are distributed to five speakers spread across the ensemble, informing the individual players when and what to play live.”

The result is a piece that engages deeply with nostalgia, modulated through new technology. 

Walkman Antiquarian begins with traditional piano—minor chords—moving into drumline percussion accented by gentle chimes. Like Baldi, Meadowcroft also incorporates found or unconventional objects. The percussionists used speaker parts, plastic beads, a metal mixing bowl, as well as the aforementioned crumpled paper and chains. The composition had a dreamy quality: fluttering, gently clattering, like techno Debussy.

It made for mesmerizing viewing. Artists as resourceful and daring as Yarn/Wire make experimental music fascinating and accessible, inviting the audience to be led by their intuition.