I happened to see NYC-based new music trio janus performing at one of the Ecstatic Music Festival gigs last February. Having only previously known them from an interview a friend of mine did, it was a very special surprise to see such a beautiful performance of these edgy and colorful pieces by SO Percussion’s Jason Treuting and The Books’ Nick Zammuto (both of whom also performed at this show). Dressed as librarians (by their own kitschy admission “sexy librarians”), janus were setting up a motif for the rather studious theme of the two Treuting pieces “Pluck, Bow, Blow” and “12 Words” (By the way, you can still hear this performance in full on the link above, but even though I’m there, don’t try to pick me out).
The trio’s Beth Meyers and Amanda Baker took some time to talk to me.
CM: How and when did the janus trio get together?
BM: We first had the brain child for a group in 2001 when Amanda and I met at a party where we had mutual friends up in New Haven. We connected on the idea that we both wanted to play chamber music post graduation and we knew that it was a DIY situation. Amanda was in another group with my husband (then boyfriend) called “neither music” at the time so I was familiar with her sound. We thought it would be fun to put together the Debussy Trio with a harpist. After a few rehearsals, it was obvious something special was there so we started to piece together some shows and the idea of commissioning new pieces. The group was technically formed in January 2002 which was part of the reason for the name “janus”. Nuiko joined us 3 years later after I was lucky enough to work with her at the Aspen Music Festival. The rest is history in the making.
CM: How did the idea come about for the interspersing piece by Jason Treuting on the CD I Am Not?
BM: “i am not (blank)” is a 4 movement work by Jason Treuting written for janus in 2007. We asked Jason for a piece after he has finished his music for SO Percussion for the album Amid The Noise. Our debut album was recorded in 2 separate recording sessions, first in 2007 and finishing in 2009. In the initial session, we recorded a few other pieces slated for the album but as we grew and the music started to breathe it was obvious that it was going somewhere else. After much discussion and working with our label, New Amsterdam Records, we decided to commission composers who would write music specifically for the album to give it a seamless sound. The concept for the album grew mostly out of the music Jason had written and so it felt very natural to break up the movements and have them heard interspersed with other composers’ works. The underlying thread through the album is the trio sound.
Jason Treuting: I Am Not (blank) (Kennedy Center Millenium Stage, DC; 5/8/09)
CM: Is there a favorite composer you guys like to work with? (I would presume it’s Jason Treuting!)
BM: All of the composers are unique and bring something different to the table. It’s difficult to choose one! Since you brought him up, I’ll use Jason as an example. There’s something special about the way that he writes that allows us more freedom than other styles of composition. He has a strong voice within that style but we still end up asking ourselves more questions like “Do I like what this sounds like?” To be more specific, he writes in a way that asks the performer to make decisions based on what they hear and feel in the moment, for example “I am not (fill in the blank)”. If you were to compare his music to many of the other composers we work with, I’d say that it’s more important for him that we’re aware of form as a structure than any given note. This kind of immediate perspective is so rewarding as a performer because it brings you back to the moment and keeps your ego in check.
CM: Can you talk about the show with Treuting and Nick Zammuto at the Ecstatic Music Festival last month (Feb. 23rd)? The pieces on that program were a real treat! Particularly “Pluck, Bow, Blow” with the bowed harp and the epic “12 Words” performed with Treuting, Daisy Press and several others. It was an exceptional show!
BM: This show was really the creative vision of Jason Treuting and Nick Zammuto. Ecstatic is great at pairing two individual artists so the result is something very special and hard to duplicate. janus was able to work with both Nick and Jason separately leading up to the show. “Pluck, Bow, Blow” was something we had been talking about for a while but as it was being written, it began to embody the “words” theme. We might not have grabbed dictionaries and read definitions aloud had this premier been on a different show! But seeing as Words Music was on the second half, it was fitting to be in that world. Debussy was quoted as saying he wanted to write for something bowed, something plucked and something blown. Then the trio was born. Jason’s piece is a shout out to that idea on each of our instruments. But, as you heard, each movement asks all three of us to perform those tasks. So you hear all three of us bowing the harp or playing melodicas or plucking a banjo, viola and harp. It’s really fun having the opportunity to sustain a melodica or pluck one note in unison.
Jason and Nick had been talking for a few years now about a collaboration. It was a while back when I introduced Jason to The Books after discovering their amazing record “Lost and Safe”. It’s been a dream of mine to find a way to work with Nick and we were lucky to connect with him at a time when he’s writing a lot of music for ensembles like ours – I think Bang On A Can is premiering a piece of his coming up soon. The group of images he compiled is pretty insanely genius. Without giving it away to new listeners in this interview, I will say that there’s a sincerity in his writing and his singing that somehow makes us reverent within a barrage of crude gestures a la Dr. Seuss.
CM: Is it much more difficult to perform with more musicians or an expanded ensemble like the one that played “12 Words”?
BM: It’s not difficult at all but maybe the biggest challenge is trying to schedule a rehearsal! Once we’re all in the same room, the energy is pretty incredible. Those days when we were all working out Words together were very memorable. We went from being all crammed into Nuiko’s apartment in Bed Stuy to a much more expansive set up at the So Percussion studio in Greenpoint. It was a real treat for us to work with our friends, Grey, Jason, Eric, Daisy and Nick. Even adding just one of those voices brings our sound to an entirely different and exciting place. We’re looking forward to the next time we can present that project!
Caleb Burhans: Keymaster (Kennedy Center Millenium Stage, DC; 5/8/09)
CM: How many different things can each one of you play? Beth plays viola and banjo on the CD and I believe Amanda played banjo as well as flute at the Ecstatic concert.
AB: I think I can speak for all of us that we feel the most confident when we’re playing the instruments that we went to school for, but that being said, we like to experiment and dabble with other instruments. Beth came across a banjo because her brother plays and she started teaching herself how to play several years ago. I rescued my banjo from a dumpster, had it restored and have begun teaching myself to play. Both Beth and I take our turns bowing or plucking the harp in a few janus pieces and we all enjoy playing percussion. We like to incorporate all sorts of new sounds into the trio and that may mean that we sing, play banjo, play percussion instruments, melodica or even crumple paper.
Kajia Saariaho: New Gates (Kennedy Center Millenium Stage, DC; 5/8/09)
janus will be performing a program titled “Reflections”, featuring music by Debussy, Matt Giannotti and Danielle Eva Schwob among others
at 6:30 PM, Sunday, September 16
26 Bushwick Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Also, Niuko Wadden will be making a solo appearance on Friday, Sept. 14 at 6:30 PM at
Corbett vs. Dempsey
1120 N. Ashland Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
janus’ official website