Even after a decade of clapping in airline seats, bouncing buckshot off drums, and performing alongside digitally-zombified voices, Line Upon Line Percussion is showing no signs of being any less surprising.
“I would say in that for first time in our ten years we probably feel more comfortable with the ‘experimental’ tag than ever before?” Line Upon Line artistic director, Matt Teodori, says questioningly. “But maybe not a hundred percent.”
For three nights on Dec. 6–8, Austin’s premiere percussion chameleons are revisiting some of the most fantastical and demanding pieces that they’ve performed in their ten-year history, as well as presenting a world-premiere piece from 2018-19 Rome Prize winner, Michelle Lou.
Although Line Upon Line is busy both with new projects and old challenges, Teodori says that their 10th anniversary hasn’t arrived without a degree of reflective discussion.
“I think there is a sense of looking back and feeling like some of the questions we’re asking ourselves now are bigger than what we were asking in the very beginning,” he says.
One of the shifting priorities for the ensemble is their aim to become a resource for the musical community. This coming January, the ensemble will present their 2nd annual Winter Composer Festival in which they will host composers and workshop their music, as well as present world-premiere works over the course of eight days. Also, for the first time, Line Upon Line this season host another group’s performance in its entirety in the upcoming show LUL Presents: TAK.
Teodori says that this expansion of Line Upon Line as a resource to encourage and prop-up fellow artists is a natural evolution of their years together as an ensemble, as well as a maturity of their goals.
“Early on with the ensemble, we thought a lot like, ‘this is really important to us, we really believe strongly in this, and we really want to make people more aware of this type of music,’” he says. “Which is fine, but also a little bit internal.”
“I guess once you hit ten, and you feel like, ‘we’ve committed our lives to this,’ and you start to maybe think a little bit about how this does feel a little bit selfish — and how can we do good with Line Upon Line?”
The trio formed in 2009, as Teodori, Cullen Faulk and Adam Bedell all were graduating out of the University of Texas percussion ensemble.
“The sad reality of percussion ensemble is that for most people, the last time you do it is when you’re in college — there aren’t a lot of percussion ensemble jobs,” Teodori says. “We wanted to find a way to keep playing together, so that meant starting to organize outside of school. It’s like any other band in the sense you’re just enjoying time together, so you need to find a way to keep making that time.”
In the beginning, the group’s repertoire was comparatively more traditional, leaning on the modern percussion standards of composers such as Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage. However now, with a decade under its belt, Line Upon Line has expanded further into extended instrumental and performance techniques, almost going past the percussion vanishing point.
“A lot of what we’re doing now stretches our comfort zones, sort of to the point of breaking,” says Teodori. “It can feel hard to identify as a percussion ensemble at points anymore when we have pieces that have no sound — we now have plays, literally theatre pieces that composers have written for us that have soundscapes, but we ourselves are doing no percussion playing.”
While the gradual shift into more experimental modes of performance has given Line Upon Line a singular performance voice in the Austin new music community, Teodori says that it’s more reflective of the composers the ensemble has collaborated with than a deliberate choice of methodology for the ensemble.
“Early on, we sort of give the composer maybe too much information,” Teodori says of the group’s interactions with composers. “We try to be more like, ‘why don’t you just think of something that you’d like us to do?’ I think one of the results of that is that we’re not doing as much traditional playing as we used to, and we’re not in a place where we feel like we need to do a ton of that.”
“There might be a point in our lives where we do feel as if, wow, we’ve kind of lost all semblance of everything! But for right now it’s still a really fun adventure to ask composers, how can you use the three of us to do what you’d like to do?”
The pieces to be featured in “Ten” are exemplary of the creative adaptiveness that Line Upon Line has grown to be known for.
First on the program is Constantin Basica’s “Fugue for Bells, Beans and Bugs” (2017). An almost ritualistic dance of steps, claps, and nonsensical speech, Basica’s piece engages in play in a bizarrely musical manor. The three performers — armed with only their bodies, a table of the titular objects, and surrealist backing of audio and video projected behind them — act out a childlike scene that’s both head-scratching and eerily riveting.
“I had been to a Line Upon Line concert at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) the year before and I knew they are amazing performers who enjoy experimental projects,” says Basica. “I wanted to write something unconventionally virtuosic and wacky for them. As the idea developed, it turned into a more rigorous endeavor with an absurd plot, but I kept the initial feeling of playfulness.”
Aaron Cassidy’s “A republic of spaces” (2018) dives deep into the structurally allusive and variable concept of an everyday form — foam. “It’s one of these really hyper-detailed pieces where every second matters,” says Teodori. “Aaron is very nuanced about the sound.”
With materials and objects that are in some macro-or-micro way shaped by bubbles, Line Upon Line will produce finely executed sonic waves using cardboard, styrofoam, porcelain saucers, and much more.
“What I find most interesting about foam — let’s take something simple/everyday like soap bubbles — is that foams are, in a sense, not really things but are instead states,” says Cassidy, an American who is based in England. “Relations between things in particular states, and those states are impermanent and unstable.”
The delicacy and precision required to perform the piece is in stride with the poetry of the composition’s inspiration, as Cassidy’s relays that there is a “sense that many of the sounds are quite fragile — quite a lot of the fluttering, bowed styrofoam and cardboard, in particular — and getting them to ’speak’ requires a kind of control that keeps them hovering between two states. It’s probably that element that’s the hardest for the performers!”
In “[198 Words]” (2018) by New York-based Andrew Greenwald, Line Upon Line and guest performers reinvigorate previously material crafted for them in Greenwald’s previous entry in his Words series, “99 Words” (2014), but this with additional improvised drum and electronics parts.
For “99 Words,” Greenwald fed a program the minute and ghostly sound of percussionist Toshi Makihara’s “Solo365 Project” in its entirety — a 365-day solo snare drum piece performed with bare hands. Greenwald then extracted short excerpts of the randomized sounds to be transcribed and reinterpreted for performance by with Line Upon Line as a form of “data-sonification.”
The Words series as a whole was composed by Greenwald with goals of systematic exhaustion in mind. “It was a process where I would take a given set of materials that was very limited and use algorithms to dispose of the material in different ways to meet different challenges that I would set for each situation for each composition,” he says.
Closing out the performance will be the world premiere of Michelle Lou’s “Molt 1.” Currently based in Santa Cruz, California, Lou is a composer, performer, and sound artist, and is most recently a 2018-19 Rome Prize winner in musical composition at the American Academy in Rome.
This new piece that will dive heavily into electronic soundscapes, feeding even the acoustically-niche sounds of socket wrenches and cell phone vibrators thought loops, bitcrushing pedals, and other digital apparatuses.
At ten years young, with the ensemble still developing connections with communities and artists both at home in Texas and around the world, Teodori acknowledges that it’s still difficult to surmise and quantify Line Upon Line’s now decade-spanning career, but the difference is certainly palpable, particularly when working with composers.
“I don’t know if there’s any direct thread from the beginning to now, but I would say that it has felt like we’re a long ways away from where we started, and I think that comes from just continually trying to work with people that we feel will give us a new challenge,” says Teodori.
“Just trying to be that blank slate and say ‘here are our abilities, you can draw on those, or you can choose to teach us something new.’”