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The undr quartet Turns Ten: An Interview

Formed in 1997, the undr quartet — James Coleman (theremin), Greg Kelley (trumpet), Vic Rawlings (cello, electronics), and Liz Tonne (voice) — are groundbreaking practitioners of low volume improvisation. Although they’ve been together for over a decade now, they’ve yet to release a full-length recording and their concerts remain rare, eagerly anticipated events. Their performances are marked by a sense of intimacy and sensitivity to the particularities of each performance space, with ambient noise, such as wheezing ventilation systems or electrical buzzes and hums often incorporated into the works themselves. I interviewed the quartet by email on the eve of a special 10th Anniversary concert at the Swedenborg Chapel in Harvard Square on January 24, 2008. We hope to have the undr quartet as guests in the studio later this year.

Could you tell me a bit about the formation of the quartet? How did the ensemble come together?

Greg Kelley: I had met James in late 1996 after playing my first ever solo set at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge. We ended up playing together in a group with bassist John Voigt, though after some conversations where we discovered a mutual interest in both Morton Feldman and Bernhard Gunter, plans for a different kind of playing situation for the two of us were discussed. James had been playing with Vic and Liz in a group called Saturnalia and suggested that we get together with Vic and see what happens. Vic thought this would be a good situation to bring Liz into and sometime around October or November of 1997, we got together at James’ place and played together for the first time and the results were pretty stunning for all of us I believe. I remember thinking, “This is the music I’ve been trying to play!”

James Coleman: While Greg and I were discussing Gunter & Feldman a lot, Vic & I were playing in Saturnalia. Vic approached me and said he wanted to do something with more “space” in it. I agreed and Vic told me he wanted Greg to be part of the project which I also enthusiastically embraced. There were two rehearsals as a trio at my loft in Charlestown. Vic suggested Liz as a 4th performer and joined us in the third rehearsal. I’ve been stealing Liz’ shit ever since. Liz wasn’t in Saturnalia until after the undr quartet was formed and performed publicly. Vic and Liz had worked together numerous times, most notably the rock group Mile Wide. So it’s my recollection that Vic actually instigated the group. I shared Greg’s feeling that it was really special from the very start.

Vic Rawlings: James and I had been talking for a while (a year or so) about wanting to play less and have more space in our playing — not something readily available in the bands we were in at the time, where the dominant idea was more energetic and active and “interesting” and genre-collage and fundamentally pow-pow-pow (Zorn, “jazz”, “freedom”, etc.). I remember James telling me he was hanging out with Greg, who I had seen play with Aardvark and had recently done a very satisfying pickup-type set with. I went over to James’ place in Charlestown and the three of us talked and played and talked and played— it sounded unlike anything I personally had ever heard and actually gave the venue for the type of approach we had been talking about. I remember being relieved that it could actually happen! This went on for a couple of nights and I suggested Liz come over, having already played with her for 8 or so years in various situations. Before she came over we identified as a trio — then it was obvious to all of us that we were a quartet.

Liz Tonne: Vic and I had been in Mile Wide and were still in Mile Wide at that time though it was changing/dying. We both struggled with volume in that band — Vic played mostly acoustic string instruments that needed to be amplified and I had to sing through various PA’s, relying on sound men and monitors to be able to hear myself. We had a side project, Ville, that was an antidote to the volume issue and allowed us to enjoy more stripped down, simple, though traditional, music. We were both looking outside Mile Wide for musical outlets. Vic started playing with Saturnalia and I was jamming with different people just to see where I could go with my singing. Vic had met Greg and James through Saturnalia and had started playing with them. I guess he asked if it would be OK for me to sit in with them. It seems they said yes. We first all got together at James’ loft space in Charlestown.

When and where was you first performance? What are your memories of it now?

GK: Our first performance was in January of 1998 at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge (in its first location on Norfolk &amp: Broadway, which subsequently burned down). Before and after the performance, I remember feeling both very excited and scared to death. I feel like we really pushed ourselves and took a lot of risks, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. There was a review at the time by another local musician who claimed that it was precious, exploited silence and made him want to throw a chair through the window of the gallery. I considered this a success.

JC: There was a very divided response. It was very enthusiastically received by many people, but there was also the “exploitation of silence” accusation that was also regarded as some kind of provokative young punk attitude, that we were sticking our finger up to jazz. That was never our intention. we just wanted to play quiet music. there was also an attitude among some people that the group was a failure because it was “bad jazz” — it wasn’t loud, dense and fast enough.

VR: I remember going into it knowing that it would be a challenge all around. Within the quartet we had the challenge of presenting the still sound we had been able to find in private in a performance space that was much more about jazzy, active stuff. The audience would be met with something they had no means of expecting. While performing that first show did have the feeling of being transgressive, it is absolutely true that we weren’t setting out to purposefully offend anyone or anything — the decision to go in the direction we chose was out of a much more fundamental and personally genuine aesthetic interest. That said, I personally admit to being pleased that some people found it offensive — what’s a better endorsement that you’re doing something?

LT: Our first performance was at Shoe’s Shoebox series in his old place on Beacon Street. Awesome space — good food. Lots of different kinds of people came to those shows through connections with Shoe. I don’t remember that much about it except that Bhob said I seemed to have transported myself out of there in a sort of Asian philosophical way or some such comment that I really can’t reproduce.

In what ways has the quartet changed over the last 10 years?

GK: I would say after 10 years, we have a much better understanding of how to work together and a much better habit of calculating the risks we take. For our 1st performance, we played two fairly extended sets, which is something we haven’t done since. There’s an intense concentration on the part of both the performers and the listeners and two sets can be kind of grueling. As a whole I feel like we’ve gotten a lot more focused and a lot more economical.

JC: Our earlier performances had very central passages that had a striking tonal center. I think that’s much more diminished now. Like greg said, we’re more economical now, we’re less dense. I think in the last five years our sensitivity to the performance space has made us be more explicit about the role of environmental sound in performances, that environmental sound is sometimes a fifth member of the group. The last 20 seconds or so of the quartet’s performance at my CD release party was just the sound of the gallery’s radiator. What was regarded by some as a really long passage of silence at our performance in last year’s Cross Pollenisation festival was actually the quartet making room for just the peculiar air conditioning and electrical hum going on in the room to be heard alone.

VR: It has changed a lot. Mr. Kelley and Mr. Coleman have said it well.

LT: We know each other all very well musically after all this time. There is a deep sense of trust between the musicians. I think all of our playing has changed significantly over time, however, a relational foundation of trust allows us to relax more deeply into listening.

To what do you attribute the quartet’s longevity?

GK: For me personally, this is a group that’s very close to my heart and unique amongst everything I do. And at this point, it’s a group that doesn’t play too often (maybe 3 times a year, sometimes less), so it’s always a welcome and special occasion.

JC: The quartet is very close to my heart. What we arrived at was always what I wanted to do as a musician, so I regard it as a primary project, as well as the BSC which we all play in. Keeping it to two or three performances a year keeps it special, allows it room to grow, rather than beating it to death with too many performances and recordings.

VR: I consider this my home — I feel comfortable here. I absolutely concur that doing it less has kept it fresh and allowed it time to breathe between shows. It is a special event when it happens.

LT: We have grown individually as musicians in various directions but come together in a place of mutual respect in the undr quartet inspired by each players’ explorations outside the group.

Do you have any plans to release a recording? What has kept you from releasing any recordings in the past (other than the pieces on James’ solo CD and the pieces on the lowercase comp)?

GK: It’s been difficult to reconcile our live performances with recordings. We went into the studio at one point but what came out was much different than what we usually do. It seems like there’s a lot that happens in a live situation that is lost in an audio only setting. Maybe a DVD would be better? I don’t know.

JC: While all live music performances are collective listening experiences for everyone at the concert, it’s very particular and peculiar to this group to be a shared sense of time and place on the occasion of a performance for all that are present. A CD could never capture that really. But a CD could happen someday.

VR: We’ve just never had a recording that we all saw as a fitting document of what happens live in the room. We all are interested in having something to put out, so it’s not some sort of manifesto against recording. This band is just difficult to put into a microphone.

LT: We have made a couple of attempts with studio and staged recording. Nothing has really captured the experience of a live performance. I think if we got a good live recording one of these days we would try to put it out.

What are your plans for the undr quartet after the 10th anniversary concert?

GK: Keep following our usual path. Maybe we’ll release a recording eventually, but the live situation is still the emphasis, for me at least.

JC: Keeping it live is how it feels for me these days. Just keep playing a few times a year and…listening to each other.

VR: Kelley/Coleman said it here, too. The plan is to do more of what we have done — allow it to develop as it will and keep finding great spaces to play in. Anybody got a good sounding room?

LT: I don’t think we have any plans. Beautiful. Makes me want to continue being in the undr quartet.

—Susanna Bolle


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