Yevgeniy Sharlat was busy in 2013 facing the greatest challenge a composer can endure — raising two toddlers.
“They took over our lives, of course,” says the Russian-born Austinite. “I played their instruments a lot, both out of curiosity… and also because I had nothing better to do!”
“Spare the Rod!” is the newest album release from Sharlat, in collaboration with the New York-based NOW Ensemble and released on New Amsterdam Records. Inspired by several music box exhibitions by multimedia artist Yuliya Lanina (Sharlat’s wife), and the musical play of their own twin daughters, Sharlat’s newest record imagines a musical expression devoid of ego and severity, as well as a childhood unburdened by the cruelty of abuse. Taking its name from the corporeal-punishment adage, “Spare the Rod!” is Sharlat’s sonic impression of what childhood would be like if the rod truly was spared.
“I wanted to exclude all that and just kind show childhood for what it is,” he says. “Exploration of the world, and seeing it through kids’ eyes.”
When NOW Ensemble approached Sharlat to compose a piece for the group in 2013, he was working on compositions for music box in Lanina’s installations. Her series “Tales We Tell,” which dealt with the undercurrent of child abuse in fairy tales, became particularly inspiring to Sharlat, whose outlook on child endangerment had never felt more personal since the recent arrival of his two daughters.
“Having kids and — imagining what it would be like to actually hit these people — that really touched a nerve in me that made me want to explore this further,” says Sharlat, an associate professor of composition at UT’s Butler School of Music.
While working with Lanina on her installations and pondering what form his NOW ensemble piece would take, the only steady source musical exposure he had at the time was with his kids and their arsenal of kazoos, recorders, and other toy instruments. These combined circumstances led to a work that is refreshingly instinctive — three-movements of professional play.
Related reading: “Studio Visit: Yuliya Lanina”
“I feel like my method as a composer comes out of play,” Sharlat says in considering play as a compositional tool. “And I think that’s true of most composers today, because we don’t really follow certain presets the way composing used to be where you sort of seriously study composition and follow certain things and deadlines.”
It’s for this reason that the first movement of “Spare the Rod!”, entitled “Rise,” is almost jarring in its clarity. As a music box begins clicking away, marking the time like a clock, cellular instances of curiously-tonal joy begin sounding, just as chaotic and comforting as days in the playpen used to be. As pop-adjacent melodies begin forming, the clashing high registers of flute and electric guitar stir into soothing and cathartic clarinet lines.
While Sharlat’s wide diction as a composer has been exemplified in previous commissions with the likes of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, the Caramoor Festival, and the Kronos Quartet, the challenge of “Spare the Rod!” was actually in restricting himself to the basics of musical play.
“I wanted it to be whole-heartedly tonal in a very unabashed way,” says Sharlat. “In other words, the kind of music that my own daughters respond to positively.”
The second movement , “Play,” captures more than just childish harmony, however. Listeners immediately bombarded by an all-out kazoo and woodwind assault, setting off memories of the gleeful musical anarchy that could only be traced back to our collective memory of American public education’s plastic monolith: the recorder.
“At some point I sent NOW Ensemble an email with trepidation asking if they would be willing to play a recorder and they responded ‘okay,’” Sharlat recalls. “And then in the next message ‘how about four recorders?’ and they said ‘…sure.’”
The chaos of recorders in the second movement gradually descends into accidental expertise, exhibiting a maturity, and even grace to the instrument that you almost-certainly never heard in grade school.
The instrumental make-up of NOW Ensemble already defies traditional ensemble presets, usually making use of only flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano. For “Spare the Rod!” Sharlat had NOW expand even further into becoming kazoo and recorder aficionados, all while swapping between regular instruments.
In live performances for “Spare the Rod!” NOW guitarist Mark Dancigers has to switch between electric guitar, operating two music boxes, playing kazoo, and utilizing extended recorder techniques that allow him to play three notes at once. (The album was recorded in UT’s Jessen Auditorium in 2017, produced and engineered by Jesse Lewis.)
“They had to put up with a lot from me,” muses Sharlat, “because I spent all this time trying to figure that stuff out playing music with my girls!”
The third and final movement, “Dream,” is life set in slow motion. The winds search for melody in circles, tiring themselves out like children in the process, giving way to a wave of slumber. Single electric guitar plucks, bass draws, and piano strikes have never sounded bigger. As the movement reaches its apex, all the material pools together like a busy mind slowly sinking into sleep — it’s messy, sincere, scary, and magical.
“Spare the Rod!” is a child’s day in a vacuum, isolated from the traumas that too many children experience around the world, as well as from the play-less, often uninspired days of adulthood, and listeners will be surprised to feel their instincts of play resurge instantly, no matter how much time has passed.
“My daughters, who are now eight, were two when I started thinking about this piece, so it has been a while, they are the ones playing with these music boxes and different toys and different types of yulia’s installation,” Sharlat says about the “Spare the Rod!” music video — made by Lanina and videographer Cassie Coker.
“There was kind of a wake up moment when I realized ‘oh, these are the actual children playing their roles!”
Yevginy Sharlat’s “Spare the Rod!” is available at nowensemble.bandcamp.com/album/spare-the-rod