Nathan Bontrager

Cello and viola da gamba

Entwyned performance

Tomorrow, November 7, I’ll be playing my first concert with Entwyned, a Baroque trio featuring Dr. Dee Hansen on traverso, Eric Hansen on archlute, and myself on bass viol.  Music begins at 3pm at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Milford, CT.  The program features a number of Partitas and Sonatas for the entire trio as well as works drawing from more popular sources (of the time).  I will be playing a few selections from the Manchester Gamba Book, a manuscript “discovered” in the early 1900’s which is notated almost entirely in tablature and features 22 different tunings for the instrument.  In this case I will be playing selections using standard viol tuning.  These works are meant to be played on the lyra viol, still a bass instrument but smaller than a standard bass viol.  I am fortunate and grateful to be playing on a beautiful lyra made by David Rubio and on loan to me from Martha McGuaghey.

More information about the Manchester Gamba Book can be found here:


Lyra viol after Richard Meares


Collaborative Ethics

Today I came across a fantastic piece of tape music by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, “Hibiki Hana Ma” (“Reverberation – Flower – Interval”).  With just one listen I can’t say whether I see the name as a reflection of a tripartite form although for an 18-minute electronic work it possesses a great sense of musical direction, not always a common occurrence in music of this kind.  Xenakis wrote this piece for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka and to truly appreciate its greatness it would be necessary to hear it on an 8-channel system as originally intended.

While listening I found myself wanting to respond to the various textures and gestures with improvisation.  Improvising with tape is nothing new, however, in my experience tape parts are designed with collaboration in mind.  Would it be disrespectful to a composer to take an extant tape piece and use it as material for improvisation?  Certainly an element of flattery exists in this yet one also senses an attitude which hears this not as a singular composition but an “interesting” background setting for live interpretation.

NTWNTF show and new audio

Thanks to those who came out to support Not the Wind Not the Flag and Broadcloth on Wednesday evening at Audubon Strings.  I really enjoyed NTWNTF’s performance, particularly the variety of sounds they were able to produce despite using a sparser instrumentation than normal judging from their myspace tracks:

It seemed to me that of the numerous sonic events happening that evening, two general categories dominated:  microtonal harmonies and consciously unstable rhythm.  Certainly microtonal harmonies were present in our second Broadcloth piece which specifically called for them and, in turn, likely influenced our improvising.  NTWNTF frequently used microtonal relationship as well but with quite different methods; bending drum heads with fingers, further exploiting the “out of tuneness” of the mbira with delay and other digital effects, and various guitar bending techniques.  “Consciously unstable rhythm” is my way of trying to describe the great space between straight-ahead, riff-based jamming and non-rhythmic cacophony where an ensemble can play with a general sense of pulse and, at times, subdivision without ever locking in to the same motive or stressing the same beats.  It is this kind of organic yet bounded playing that makes improvised music, for me, a very rich experience.  Thanks, NTWNTF, for adding to New Haven’s musical culture.

NTWNTF (hirsute version)

I have also added a new recording to the Media page.  This is a performance I did of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XVI for Cello on a T.E.M.P.O. concert at the University of Maryland a few years ago.  If you look a few posts back I wrote a bit about the piece and the cellist for whom it was written, Rohan de Saram.

Not the Wind Not the Flag and Broacloth

Tomorrow evening, October 20, Broadcloth will be sharing a show with an improvising duo from Toronto, Not the Wind Not the Flag (  Music begins at 8:00 and will be held at Audubon Strings, 63 Audubon St., New Haven.  Bring friends and drinks, there is a $12 suggested donation to help the touring folks continue on their way so give them your support!

Broadcloth digital release and calendar updates

While this website has remained inactive for some time, life and music remain forces in motion.  Broadcloth, an improvised chamber trio I play with, has had a number of performances and we now have a free digital release available here:

Detail of embroidered score for "In Stitches"

While you’re at it, check out the websites for the rest of the trio members:

Anne Rhodes (voice) –

Adam Matlock (accordion/recorders) –

Please download, listen, and let me (us) know what you think.

I’ve also updated the performance calendar to reflect upcoming events.  While being narcissistic enough to want to post record of performances in the interim period I’m also lazy enough to not want to go back and look things up.

The Stone video posted

Many thanks to Kinan Faham, a cello student of mine and talented photographer/videographer, for filming Broadcloth’s performance last month at the Stone.  The entire set is posted on YouTube, follow this link for a video playlist:

While you’re at it, check out Kinan’s personal website:

Stay tuned for some upcoming performances and compositions in the works.

Bunraku and new audio

Ever since performing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza for solo cello I have been intrigued by pieces which call for the performer to approach the cello as if it were a different instrument.  In the case of the Berio Sequenza, the performer must master left hand pizzicato techniques which are accompanied by drumming patterns on the body of the instrument using the right hand fingers.  These percussive elements borrow from Kandyan drumming from Sri Lankan.  Berio wrote the Sequenza for Roham de Saram, himself Sri Lankan and a master of the Kandyan drum.

Rohan de Saram

I came across a repertoire list today with some interesting works for solo cello including one by Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi entitled Bunraku.  Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theater which features music played on the Shamisen.  Mayuzumi seeks to emulate the technique of the Shamisen on the cello through aggresive and resonant pizzicato techniques (the Shamisen is played with a very large plectrum).  I purchased a recording by cellist Wenn-Sinn Yang from a disc that features many of the most dominant works for solo cello from the 20th century (Crumb, Hindemith, the “Sacher” pieces).  I find Bunraku to be a welcome mix of tonal/folk and modern classical harmonies especially in contrast to the extremely atonal (and extremely wonderful) pieces that round out the album.

Speaking of mixing styles, I have also posted another recording of Broadcloth, this time from a recent performance at Audubon Strings in New Haven.  The piece begins with a free improvisation and moves to a section determined by the pitches of the open strings of the violin family.  You can listen to Broadcloth on the Media page and Bunraku via YouTube below.

Broadcloth at Audubon Strings

This Saturday, January 30, the new music and improv trio Broadcloth will be performing at Audubon Strings in downtown New Haven.  Broadcloth features Anne Rhodes on voice, Adam Matlock on accordion/recorders, and myself on cello.  We will also be joined by guitarist/composer Gabriel Bolaños and percussionist Stephen Zieminski.

Musical improvisation drives this ensemble, however, we make a distinct effort to maintain coherent levels of structure and thematic unity in many of our pieces.  One such piece, written by Anne, requires each of us to play from a freehand embroidered score.  Another, written specifically for this concert by Gabriel, features interaction between our acoustic instruments and an electronic audio track created by processing pre-recorded sounds from our instruments.  This piece should be a wild ride.

Considering that we are performing in a violin shop full of sympathetically vibrating stringed instruments, we have designed some of our pieces around the open strings of the violin and cello (C – G – D – A – E).  The effect should sound something like a Norwegian hardingfele (see picture below) crossed with a plate reverb effect.

I posted some audio from our last performance on the Media page.

Come one and all and please feel free to bring drinks as this is an informal venue.

Notice the sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard and through the middle of the bridge

Broadcloth Debut

Every second Saturday of the month, Neverending Books hosts the Uncertainty Music Series (  The Series is curated by bassist/clarinetist/composer Carl Testa and brings in a great mix of experimental performers and composers from New York and New England.

This Saturday, December 12, I will be playing with a newly formed improv trio consisting of myself, Anne Rhodes (, and Adam Matlock (  Please come support local music and check out the great selection of radical literature available at the bookstore as well.  All Uncertainty Music Series concerts are BYO so come with food and drink in hand!

Improvised Music in New Haven

Savvy readers of the Sunday Times may have been intrigued by this article:

I feel quite fortunate to have become involved with the New Haven Improvisers Collective ( early in my foray into the Connecticut music scene.  While musicians who discern the local music vibe primarily from Craigslist might think the only possibilities in the area are cover bands and metal (I have interest and respect for both, generally), this article highlights both the vibrancy of current avant-garde projects and the long-standing presence of the genre in Connecticut.  Much of that history involves the influence of Wesleyan University professor and “creative music” pioneer Anthony Braxton.  See this video for a taste of his compositions and the philosophies which inform them:

This video comes from a collection of recordings issued by New Haven’s own Firehouse 12 label.  Firehouse 12 is a local recording studio which doubles as a concert space.  This Saturday, November 7 you can get the live experience of the New Haven Improvisers Collective with a concert featuring two smaller ensembles formed out of the Collective:

(By the way, I am the cellist in the pictures in the Times article).