Bearthoven Premieres New Work in Columbus

Feb 12, 2020

Judging by their instruments – piano, bass and drums – you might think they’re a standard jazz trio. But there’s nothing standard about the contemporary music trio Bearthoven.

Based in Brooklyn, Bearthoven has been making a name during the last seven years as an impassioned catalyst for the creation of new music. The trio returns to Columbus this month to give the world premiere of Mixed Tulips by Michael Gordon, composer and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based new music collective Bang on a Can and the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The free concert is Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Short North’s Garden Theater, on the New Music at Short North Stage series. The program will also feature a performance of Spectral Malsconcities by Ithaca, New York-based composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies.

Gordon’s Mixed Tulips is the result of the third and most recent commission for Bearthoven funded by the Johnstone Fund for New Music.

The earlier two commissions involved composers near the beginning of their careers  –  The Ringing World (2015) by Swedish composer Adrian Knight, and happy/angry music (2017) by Columbus native and Guggenheim Fellow Adam Roberts.

Michael Gordon, composer and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based new music collective Bang on a Can
Credit Peter Serling / Courtesy of Michael Gordon

Bearthoven's most recent commission gave them the opportunity to ask an established composer to write a piece for the trio.

“This kind of felt like the next logical step was to commission somebody a little more established,” Larson said.

The members of Bearthoven – percussionist and Columbus native Matt Evans, pianist Karl Larson and bass player Pat Swoboda – met each other and Gordon at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival almost a decade ago.

“(Gordon), along with Jack and Zoe Johnstone, has been our biggest champion, especially when we were just starting out,” Larson said, adding that the Johnstones, creators of the Johnstone Fund for New Music, have helped and encouraged Bearthoven with funding support for commissions of new musical works since the trio’s inception in 2013.

“They’re just amazing musicians,” said Zoe Johnstone. “There are no words to explain how great they are as a group. They play impossible things. And we’re overjoyed that Michael Gordon would write a piece for them. Michael knows them, and he knows what they’re capable of.”

Bearthoven performs the title cut from their most recent recording American Dreams:

Even though Bearthoven’s instrumentation is that of a standard jazz trio, Gordon’s Mixed Tulips is decidedly not jazz. Instead, it channels the blazing virtuosity of the great jazz players in a driving musical language with innovative electronic effects on every instrument.

I remember thinking, wow, that combination of instruments is so iconic in the jazz world,” Gordon said. “And I thought about the great jazz pianists that I had seen. And when I started working, I thought, I’m just going to let the pianist play and be a piano and let the bassist play and let the drummer be a drummer. So in a certain sense this is a very experimental, switched-on version of what someone might imagine that iconic trio to be like.”

Larson, says the unrelenting energy of Gordon’s Mixed Tulips and the rich coloristic textures of Hennies’ Spectral Malsconcities bring radically different sounds together on the same program.

“(Mixed Tulips) is very motoric, it’s rhythmically complex,” Larson said. “There’s not a lot of pauses physically or mentally, so it’s really kind of a tour de force.”

Continued Larson, “(Spectral Malsconcities) features all of us playing extended techniques on our instruments, so we’re approaching the instruments from this kind of different angle that creates a lot of really amazing, interesting sounds.”

Bearthoven’s Feb. 19 concert in Columbus – the trio’s fourth Columbus performance – marks the beginning of a tour that will also take the trio to Chicago and Bowling Green, Ohio, before a final performance at Le Poisson Rouge, the New York City nightclub noted for adventuresome musical programming.

Meanwhile, Larson says, Bearthoven continues its mission to inspire and enable composers to write new works for the trio.

“We’re just trying to commission a diverse body of work and continue to support composers in our community, regardless of what stage in their career they’re in now.”