Nathan Bontrager

Cello and viola da gamba

Tag: improvisation

Head feels like Peanut

“marge, can we keep him?”

is what you will say when you meet chris riggs.  chris is one of the most inventive guitarists i know and his approach to preparations has influenced a lot of my current composing.  we recorded a duo album a few years ago which chris just released on holy cheever church.

check it out by clicking below:


Scrimshaw Download

New Haven was lucky to have the guitarist, cellist, and composer, Benjamin Shirley (not to mention friend), live here for a number of years before he moved to Atlanta.  Last summer, as a farewell gesture of sorts, Ben composed a series of pieces for the Scrimshaw Ensemble (Ben – guitar, Carl Testa – bass, Adam Matlock – accordion, myself – cello) which were performed and recorded along with a series of duos with each ensemble member plus vocalist, Anne Rhodes.

Ben’s compositions, from my perspective, reflect his love of Brazilian music as well as his experience and knowledge of Anthony Braxton’s work, among other factors.  You can stream the release below or download by clicking through to the Bandcamp site.  If you like it, consider throwing a few dollars Ben’s way to support him.  And stay tuned for news of a June Broadcloth + Carl Testa tour which will likely include a reprisal of this material.

Duo in Berlin

One of my favorite moments from the European tour was a somewhat random and roundabout connection to a fantastic violinist/vocalist in Berlin, Simon Jakob Drees. Simon and I met through a referral from a German Klezmer bassist I met at a summer backyard jam session in Hamden, CT of all places. Simon and I had a great connection musically and I greatly appreciated his generous and humble spirit. He does very interesting work fusing improvisation and music therapy. You can learn more about him here:

Here’s a shot from a duo performance we did in Berlin at the Quiet Cue series.


Don’t forget, if you’re in CT, Dr. Caterwaul’s has two shows this week.  Wednesday at BAR with the David Wax Museum and Thursday at the Outer Space with Andru Bemis and Elisabeth Pixley-Fink.

New year, new shows

Performance calendar updated, January is a full month already!  It gets started this Wednesday at Audubon Strings in New Haven when Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps plays with Jakob Battick (Portland, ME) and the Book Slave (CT).  The Book Slave is great live and everything I’ve listened to from Jakob has been fantastic.  Dr. Caterwaul’s, despite its recent inception, is already expanding the genre palette.  Expect to hear everything from Chilean ballads to Thomas Mapfuno-inspired mbira tunes and more geographically similar blues numbers.

Wednesday, January 5th will be the first ever New Haven performance of Portland, ME’s nightfolk eccentrics Jakob Battick & Friends. After having become celebrated experimentalists on the diverse Portland scene the group has begun to make a point of traveling out into New England’s further reaches. Musically, Battick & his cohorts have come a long way through slowcore and shoegaze influences to begin creating their own nightmarish and atmospheric world out of dramatic and layered vocals both whispered and howled, and sharply composed layers of less-is-more instrumentation. On this, the ‘Prayers & Curses tour, the group will be playing brand new compositions scheduled for release on their next full-length, showcasing a newfound grace and maturity alongside their trademark intensity and spaciousness. A free release featuring polished home recordings of these new songs, entitled ‘Prayers & Curses Vol. 1,’ will be made available to all attendees for absoluely free.

Hosting them is Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps, featuring Brian Slattery on banjo and fiddle, Nathan Bontrager on Cello, and Adam Matlock on accordion. Everybody howls about murder or other types of death and occasionally something a bit more twisted. Doc C’s performs intuitive, flowing improvisations on folk music of various sources, getting at the jagged heart of your murder ballads, your sorrow ballads, your uplifting ballads with a sad ending, etc. CT.

The Book Slave is tense surrealist guitar harmonies and desperate screamed vocals. Dan and Joe Katz lock into angular harmonic movements channeling shoegaze, hardcore and post rock while maintaining a singular energy. Tonight they’ll play an acoustic set that shows the strength of their songwriting in a different light

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.