On February 11, cellist and composer Brent Arnold will join Minneapolis-based Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy in dialogue about her Liquid Music commission “Let the Crows Come” (the talk also features dancer-choreographers Alanna Morris-Van Tassel and Berit Ahlgren). Liquid Music’s Nick Lanser interviewed Brent in anticipation of the work-in-progress conversation (with live music by Arnold) hosted by TU Dance Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands.
Nick Lanser: Tell us about your musical background and upbringing. How did you come to the cello?
Brent Arnold: In a very unorthodox way! I don't come from a musical family, and my first instrument was the guitar... I grew up with rock music and was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, that was my thing. But in my late teens, as my interests were expanding out into jazz and classical music and world musics and experimental stuff, guitar started to seem like the boring and safe choice, somehow! Around then I borrowed a friend's cello, and got obsessed. It's not an instrument that lends itself to casual learning, so I sort of created my own curriculum, which included seeking out teachers who could give me technique while being open to my other explorations. In one of my very first lessons I brought in a Miles Davis song and said "how would I play this?" Of course, he'd never really considered such a question.
NL: You compose for a variety of different musical genres and this project will likely find you collaborating with Carnatic ensemble. Is this familiar or new territory to you?
BA: I've never formally studied Indian music, which is such a deep and rich subject of inquiry. But I've been listening to it and learning from it for years, and I've drawn a lot of inspiration from the concepts, strategies and philosophies. I've also collaborated quite a bit in the last few years with an incredible tabla player, Aditya Kalyanpur. He comes from the Northern, Hindustani music tradition, so now I'm learning more about the Carnatic side. And I've found it so easy to work with Roopa and Arun, they are just incredible musicians and chill people, and that really helps.
NL: In addition to your solo work, you are a co-founder of the Ghost Quartet and have collaborated with a diverse range of musicians. What projects have especially stood out, and what makes “Let the Crows Come” unique?
BA: Well I've worked with so many artists, in all kinds of disciplines, and all of that informs what I do now. I'd say these last several years working with Ghost Quartet have been a revelation for me... it's quite a special thing, four musicians playing songs which become a theater piece with all sorts of recurring characters and interlocking stories and themes. Dave Malloy, the composer, has such a free and yet productive way of working, and the other collaborators, Gelsey Bell and Brittain Ashford... we each get to bring our unique selves, and we get to cover so much ground, musically.
For Let the Crows Come, I'm integrating my solo cello & electronics with new compositions for a very eclectic mixed ensemble—with these great musicians from an Indian music background, and with Jace [Clayton], who comes from DJing and synthesis and so forth. For quite a few years I've been creating this body of solo work, with unusual cello techniques and live electronic manipulation of the cello, so I have a sort of repertoire with that. And I'm creating compositions based on those explorations, which integrate these fantastic players coming from totally different directions. I love composing with specific, unique, and idiosyncratic musicians in mind. It's challenging and also inspiring.
NL: The February 11 work-in-progress conversation at the Parkway Theater is part of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Tapestry festival, which is centered around the question “How do I recognize my home?”. What role has music played in recognizing your home? How has this idea come through in your collaboration—thus far—with Ashwini Ramaswamy and Jace Clayton?
BA: Interesting question! I grew up moving around a lot, and I think of myself as pretty comfortable not being rooted in any certain place. And in this case, it might be more about creating a home wherever you are. The collaboration with Ashwini is brand new, and Jace and I have worked together off and on for many years. It's a bit like finding yourself in a new place with some familiar elements and making it into a home, for the moment. Like asking "what if I lived here? Where would I go in the morning for my coffee? What would these people or this particular architecture make me think about?"
NL: Is composing for dance a new experience for you? How does the process of creation shift when in service to movement / in collaboration with a choreographer?
BA: I had great experiences composing for dance back when I lived in Seattle. Jarrad Powell, a brilliant professor of mine at Cornish College of the Arts, started a composer/choreographer lab in conjunction with the dance department, and that led to many interesting projects and relationships. But since I've been in New York, I haven't done nearly as much with dance, which is something I should remedy. Dance is so mysterious to me, and so abstract, but when it grabs you it is so powerful. Jarrad told me something I've never forgotten, which is that it's great to work with dancers because they care more deeply about music than anyone else. It's so true! They will come to know your music in ways even you don't. For a composer, that's exciting and humbling.
NL: Liquid Music encourages its audience to be ever-seeking of new music experiences. What music or performance gripped you in 2018?
BA: Off the top of my head... the jazz pianist Myra Melford's album The Other Side of Air was a beautiful one, it got me excited about that format of music again. And, in a totally different direction, Tierra Whack's, umm, creation... I'm not sure whether to call it an album or... we need a new term! She created this 15-minute video, a musical and cinematic artwork, made of one-minute pop/rap songs and videos. It's so audacious and I love that.