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Surrender to the Situation, Part 2: Ensemble Virtuosity Photo, Video & Text By Ivan Weiss

Author's Note: This is the second installment of “Surrender to the Situation,” which interweaves a train journey from North Carolina to New York with footage from Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE installation and a pair of shows by Australian musician Oren Ambarchi in June of 2015. This article was originally included in "Big, Bent Ears: a serial in documentary uncertainty," published in 2016 in The Paris Review Daily.

Check out Part 1: Oren Ambarchi & Tyondai Braxton and Part 3: In Motion.

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AT TEN A.M. ON JUNE 2, I boarded the Carolinian 80 at Durham Station and spent the next twelve hours looking out windows, observing passengers, and having casual conversations. At some point in Southern Virginia, I put on Tyondai Braxton’s latest album, HIVE1, the music blending with the rundown towns, overgrown fields, and webs of power lines. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, the sun had set, and my excitement about taking a train had worn thin. Out the window a neon sign glowed, TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES. Around ten that night, we arrived in Manhattan.

The next day, I was worn out but ready for my shoot at the Kitchen, an experimental-art space on a quiet block of West Nineteenth Street, where I found Braxton rehearsing with Matt Smallcomb, Yuri Yamashita, and Chris Thompson—three conservatory-trained percussionists considered the core HIVE lineup. HIVE interweaves electronic sounds and acoustic performances; it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. “The most liberating thing I’ve learned from working on HIVE,” Braxton told me, “is that there’s no module that can be a substitute for human intuition.”

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MATT SMALLCOMB IS A SLIM, lively guy in his midthirties. His conversation style is far more free-form than his disciplined HIVE performance would suggest. His family hails from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “a coal-mining town,“ he explained. “My grandfather on my mom’s side was a miner. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a carpenter and also a drummer. My dad, my brother, my uncle—they’re all very good drummers. At our family parties, everybody would show up with their band. When I was six or seven, I sat in with my uncle’s band. I had to learn a Zeppelin tune on the spot—that was a big moment for me.”

I asked Smallcomb about his early inspirations.

“My uncle hipped me to this band Tower of Power, a horn band from California. There was a drummer in that group who was a big influence on my drumming. From him, I learned that it’s gotta feel good—if it doesn’t feel good, something’s wrong.”

Matt Smallcomb's Drum.

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Above D.C.

TAKARAZUKA IS A CITY of around two hundred thousand in southern Japan, about forty minutes from Osaka. Best known today for a popular all-female musical-theater company called the Takarazuka Revue, it is also where Yuri Yamashita grew up. She was a shy kid with a fraught relationship to music. “I started playing piano when I was probably three or four,” she said. “My mom forced me—I think she always wanted to play an instrument herself and didn’t have the opportunity. I didn’t enjoy piano. I would intentionally stay late at school to miss the lesson. I was listening a lot to J-pop. I remember going to friends’ houses and standing on top of tables and singing for their parents. I would copy everything the singer was doing.”

In junior high, Yamashita joined the wind ensemble, and music started to take hold of her. “The band director told us to write down which instrument we wanted to play. My first choice was upright bass, but the director said I wasn’t tall enough. My second choice was flute, but he said my jaw wasn’t shaped for that. He said it was a good shape for the clarinet, but there were like twenty clarinetists sitting right in front of the conductor, and I wanted to do something a bit rare, to stand out. It’s weird, because I was always shy, but something about picking an instrument was different.”

HIVE rehearsal, Saturday, June 6, at the Kitchen. From left: Yuri Yamashita, Chris Thompson, and Matt Smallcomb.

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CHRIS THOMPSON IS STOIC and contemplative, measuring every word with great care. He’s a striking contrast to Smallcomb, who is gregarious and sunny. The two are close friends and also play together in the experimental chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. I interviewed Thompson before the final HIVE performance on June 6, after two days of observing his seemingly effortless ability. It‘s hard to imagine a time he couldn’t play percussion.

Chris Thompson.

“I grew up in the Bay Area,” he told me. “My mother taught me piano when I was four years old, but it wasn’t until I was in high school and saw this activity called drum-and-bugle corps, which is like a marching band on steroids, that I was really inspired to be a musician. The thing that got to me, and the thing that gets to me in all the music I really love, is ensemble virtuosity, a sense of swallowing up the individual. You don’t see the individual as much as you see the interaction of the group.”

Thompson majored in music at UCLA. “I remember feeling like I was really behind. In fact, I was put into a remedial theory class because I had no knowledge of music theory whatsoever. The instructor came in the first day and said, You’re all here because you have no chance of being professional musicians. You should change your major, but if you’re really stubborn you can go home and draw a hundred treble clefs and come back tomorrow. I think I still have the piece of paper with the hundred treble clefs on it.

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Virginia sky.

“IN HIGH SCHOOL, when you auditioned for the jazz ensemble, they only heard you play,” Smallcomb recalled. “They didn’t know if you were reading the music or not. So during the first few rehearsals, I faked it. I recorded the pieces and listened over and over and over and learned them by ear. The next day, I went in, and they were like, Wow.

“And you know, if I had had a teacher where I was taking—I don’t know if you want to call them ‘real’ lessons, but something where I had to learn to read formally, I probably would have quit. The best thing I ever did was listen to music and just try to emulate my favorite drummers.

“But when I was going to school for classical music, I had to catch up. I had about a month to get through a lot of stuff and had a great teacher who kicked my butt, and I got my reading together. But I still learn by ear a lot faster. I can feel what I need to do. You can’t write out all those subtleties. I have to hear it, and then take it inside. I have to have the sound in my head, and then go for that.”

Percussion notation from “Greencrop.”

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YAMASHITA CAME TO NEW YORK in her twenties to study classical percussion at Mannes College of Music. “When I came to New York, I met a bunch of fashion designers from Parsons School of Design, and they took me to clubs. I’d never been to a club. I don’t think I’d ever had a drink. I was already twenty-four, but I didn’t do any of that in Japan. I don’t remember thinking, Oh, this is exciting. I tried to be a fun friend, but it was pretty clear—that was not my thing.

“After Mannes, I went to Julliard, and that was also an intense two years. Throughout all those years—from the wind ensemble in junior high to music in high school to college in Japan and then two schools in New York—it was very intense classical training. When I finished school in 2003, all of a sudden I was a freelance percussionist. That was a good time to ask myself, What do I really want to do? What kind of music do I want to play? Do I even want to keep playing music?

Detail from HIVE percussion pod.

“I had an opportunity to go to Brazil with my friend, and I loved it—the culture and the music. It made me think I should sing. I started imitating Brazilian singers. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I loved the sound. And I didn’t hear it as language, I just heard it as sound—percussive sound, almost. I would write it down in Japanese or English letters, with no idea what the singer was saying.”

Entering Trenton, N.J.

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“AT UCLA, I WAS TAKING classes on Western music history, classical music, twentieth-century music, and then I was going back to my dorm room and listening to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital and Aphex Twin and Future Sound of London—a lot of electronic music,” Thompson said. “It was a bit of a paradox.”

I asked what drew him to electronic music.

“My mother and I used to take really long car rides when I was about six years old, and she had a record by this guy named Ray Lynch. I think at the time he sold cassette tapes out of the back of his car in California. It’s New Age music, synthesizer, very simple stuff, and I heard it over and over. It’s almost like we weren’t really thinking about what we were listening to. It was just a tape that we put it in. But that kind of listening can have a profound effect when you’re a little kid. I think the sound of that record instilled in me an affinity for electronic sounds and electronic music.

“I know Matt grew up dissecting jazz records. For me, it was more about the emotional impact, being aware that this music was transforming the way I saw the world when I listened to it. I knew I wanted to continue to seek out that emotional experience.”

North Carolina passing by.

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“THERE WAS A TIME when I was kind of stubborn and ignorant, saying to myself, I’m going to drop everything, all the years of training, and just play Brazilian or Latin music because that’s what I really enjoy,” Yamashita said. “But then I understood the reality, and I’m actually very grateful I did all that training. Especially living in New York as a musician and percussionist, you take any gig you can. By doing it, you end up liking it. It opens yours eyes.”

I asked Smallcomb about his life as a freelance percussionist in New York and what he was working on, in addition to HIVE. “I’ve been practicing a lot the last few days, learning a new Broadway show to sub in, Something Rotten, and I was playing on Les Mis that week, too. And there’s an artist in town through a friend of mine who is in the studio, and we’re rehearsing to record that next week. Meanwhile, I’m practicing music for a couple Alarm Will Sound concerts at the Whitney. And I’m learning a part for drums for a production of West Side Story in Mexico. That’s right after the Whitney shows—literally the next day.”

What’s it like working with Tyondai Braxton?

“You don’t think there are people out there like that until you meet them,” Smallcomb said. “I’m really inspired by Ty. I grew up playing drum kit, playing jazz and in a hip-hop band, and studying with a symphony orchestra. And Ty is doing the same thing. He’s in a lot of worlds, and he’s really great in a lot of worlds. When he does his project, he’s bringing it all. I started thinking, Maybe it’s okay I’m doing all these things. I’m being me. That’s okay, right? I’m still not sure.”

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Yuri Yamashita.

I ASKED THOMPSON if Braxton had given him and the other percussionists any instructions about playing on the pods. “All Ty said was, You have to be seated, and we were like, Can’t you cut holes in the middle of the pods so we can stand? No, you have to be seated—that’s the point. But those instruments weren’t meant to be played while seated on the floor, and we’ve been trained to use the weight of our bodies in a certain way, so you have to retrain your body. I’m trying really hard not to fidget while I’m up there. There are legs falling asleep, lower-back pain. We’re human beings, after all.”

Yamashita said, “Musicians in jazz bands and rock bands, they often look at each other and groove together when they play. But Ty doesn’t want that—that I know. Be still. Don’t look around. Just play.”

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North of Philly.

“THE ONLY TIME Ty has ever really talked to us about the underlying meaning of a piece in HIVE was when he wrote ‘Boids,’” Thompson recalled. “He shared with us a YouTube video of starlings, masses of birds flying in huge flocks. They expand and contract and fly in beautiful formations. I think you can hear that in the piece.”

“I definitely hear nature in HIVE,” Yamashita said. “Some animals making sounds, a cricket, insects chewing—I hear that.”

“I’ve sort of made up stories about what each piece is referring to,” Thompson said, “but I’m scared to interpret it. I feel like the power is in letting people have their own interpretations. I love having the chance to come up with some kind of dream of what this is. The titles give you enough to start with. I mean ‘Boids’—as in, ‘Look at the boids.’”

Yamashita said, “I have to concentrate very hard during the show, but sometimes I glance around. I’ll see people in the center really grooving, really dancing. I’m wondering what they’re experiencing. It must go by very quickly for them. It’s forty-five minutes, fifty minutes, and it’s so much to see and so much to feel and so much to listen to. Sometimes I wish I could be on the other side.”

Check out the other two sections of “Surrender to the Situation” – Part 1: Oren Ambarchi & Tyondai Braxton and Part 3: In Motion.

Ivan Weiss is a documentary filmmaker and multimedia producer based in North Carolina. He teaches at Wake Forest University.

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Images by Ivan Weiss  © 2020