The New York-based band Newspeak had time for me, so, I had time for them too!
Newspeak, the NY-based new music group is an exciting blend, or perhaps they were the missing element between, classical and rock, possibly in an even more organic connection than any prog-rock band has ever pretended to be in, but even if that weren’t the case, it is a superb ensemble featuring David T. Little (drums–also the band’s director, and a well-known composer in his own right), Eileen Mack (clarinets–also the band’s co-director), Mellissa “Melly” Hughes (voice, electronics), Taylor Levine (electric guitar), Caleb Burhans (violin, voice), Brian Snow (cello, bass), James Johnston (synthesizer) and Peter Wise (percussion).
The group is making its Bang On a Can marathon debut this Sunday at said marathon at the World Financial Center in NY (If you want to see them specifically, they’re on at 4 PM, but I suggest you see much more of the day’s music acts that are every bit as good–Still, Newspeak is not to be missed!).
David and Eileen spoke to me via skype.
CM: There’s very few groups that seem to be able to find whatever the missing link is between classical and rock, and it seems like you nailed whatever the connection is supposed to be.
David: That’s exactly what I think we’ve been trying to do, is to find, like you said, the missing link. I think a large percentage of the band had a similar experience where we grew up playing rock music. That was what I did for many years, and then I kind of found my way into composing, and so suddenly found myself in this classical music world. But, the first piece I heard that really got me excited was the Rite of Spring which was very metal in a lot of ways, so for me, it was a very natural thing to look for that balance, and then I think, just getting the right players together that had a similar experience–we all know how the blues goes, we all know how punk goes, and we just know those vocabularies, as well as knowing Stravinsky, and knowing Xenakis. It was very natural for me.
Eileen: I’m the clarinetist, so I’m probably the least rock-oriented of anyone, but I think having Caleb, is different from having a really great, strictly-classical violinist, and having Taylor is different from having any other guitarist, and that goes for a lot of the other players too.
David: The thing that I’ve really been thinking–We speak of 2007 as the definite starting point for this group, and that’s because this collection of people started making music in a room together. Newspeak did stuff before then, but it was a different collection of people, so it was a very different band. Since that time, there was just one personnel change, and that was percussionist Peter Wise in 2010, but other than that change, it’s been the same group. The way we think about the members of the group mattering, I think is not so unlike the way other bands think about the other members of the group mattering.
CM: So, it’s an equal-footing kind of ensemble–There’s no stars in the group, everybody has an equal part in it.
David: It’s funny, everyone’s sort of a star in their own way, that’s what I think is really exciting as the group has evolved. I don’t want to embarrass Eileen, but I feel like there’s all these amazing projects all around New York, and you look at who’s playing clarinet, and it’s always Eileen. Taylor Levine has become this singular guitarist, and he’s from Dither. Everybody in the group over the years has really come into their own as a really vital player in their own way, and then we can all get together and make music.
Eileen: It makes scheduling a pain in the ass!
David: Oh, scheduling is the worst! Scheduling is really hard, but you know, people make time and prioritize. We really enjoy playing together, which is really nice! We want to play together, do shows and make music together, so, when we need to make time, people find the time!
Newspeak performing at Make Music New York Fest on Cornelia Street, June 21, 2008
CM: It’s incredible to keep track of what everybody’s projects are, aside from their regular projects–Everybody that I know has so many things they’re involved in, that I often forget to bring them up if I’ve interviewed them. I neglected to ask Ashley Bathgate about Metropolis Ensemble when I interviewed her the first time because we were so busy talking about Bang On a Can and everything else she does.
Eileen: Ashley toured with us when we played Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads!
CM: That’s great! That never came up!
And of course, the marathon at Bang On a Can this year looks really promising!
David: We’re really excited to be on it! In a lot of ways, Bang On a Can has been a really important model for us organizationally, trying to put the band together, and all of us in the group have come through that world in one way or another, through Banglewood or some other related projects.
Eileen: At least for Pete and I, it’s a big anniversary for us, because we went to the very first Bang On a Can summer institute in 2002, so we’re coming up on 10 years association with BOAC.
CM: You guys will be playing two different sets?
David: We’re doing one set as a full band, right before the Michael Gordon Philharmonic, which is really exciting because I sort of grew up loving Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Not, so for me, it’s kind of like opening for Led Zeppelin in a way!
We’re doing sweet light crude, my piece, and Oscar Bettison’s piece in the 4 PM set, but the set before that around 3, Taylor Levine and Mellissa Hughes are going to play a piece by Ruby Fulton for ukelele, spoons and voice, and it’s very different from what Newspeak does.
CM: But it’s listed as Newspeak on the schedule, was that a typo?
David: Yeah, we went back and forth on how to list it, and in the program it’s just listing the players, but, the association with Ruby is great, because last year she got the grant from the Fromm Commission to write a piece for us that we’re going to premiere in November in DC. Ruby’s definitely part of our family, musically, so if that piece had been finished, we’d be playing it, but it isn’t, so this will be a teaser for the fall.
David T. Little: sweet light crude (music video)
CM: Will there be a second Newspeak CD?
Eileen: The next disc to come out will be David’s work Soldier Songs, which we’ve actually recorded the instrumentals for. Last Summer we did a performance in New Haven, The International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Then we went straight into the studio and we recorded all the instruments for that, and David Adam Moore is coming in this week to finish the vocals.
David: We’re hoping to release it next year!
And that’s a little different–there’s Newspeak the band, which is this group of 8 players that we talk about, and then this piece Soldier Songs is very much in that world, but it doesn’t use all of the same players–Melly is not in that piece, and Taylor isn’t in it–Kelli Kathman is playing the flute in it. It is still the same idea in a lot of ways, it’s a piece that engages in rock questions, and the world between notated music and rock music. As a composer, I started the band initially with Eileen, but my goal from a composer’s perspective was to be able to have a group of people who I could write the music for that I was imagining, and sort of find it with them. As a result, I’ve been able to do that, and I owe a lot of that to the players and the band, and so, I write a lot of opera now, and often, that’s the ensemble for the opera. I have an opera going up in September called Dog Days, and the ensemble is Newspeak in a slightly expanded version, and then Soldier Songs is Newspeak is a slightly reconfigured version, but the core of it is still the same spirit, and 90-95% are the same people.
Robert Davidson: Generation After Generation (Anti-Social Music Election Night Party, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC; 11/4/08)
Come out and see Newspeak at the Bang On a Can Marathon
Bang On a Can 2012 Marathon
Sunday, June 17th 12 PM-12 AM
Three World Financial Center
200 Vesey Street, 11th Floor
New York, New York 10281