Thought Catalog
September 27, 2016

Violist Stephanie Griffin: The Momentum Of Four Momenta

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Stephanie Griffin. Image: Ireland Howth
Stephanie Griffin. Image: Ireland Howth

‘A Few Violinists Later’

This week, members of the Momenta Quartet are in production with Momenta Festival II, opening Wednesday (September 28) and running through Sunday (October 2) at the Tenri Cultural Institute of New York.

Momenta is a quartet named for movement. Technically the plural of momentum, the “momenta” of this ensemble are its four artists: the violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki; cellist Michael Haas; and violist Stephanie Griffin.

momenta-quartet-cd-cover-similar-motionHere’s where it gets tricky for writers. There are four programs at the Tenri in this season of performances, and each is curated by a different…momenta? momentum? Wherever you come down on your Latin-derived pluralizations (I adhere to the traditional one medium, two media, myself), the music on tap is exhilarating and energizing, disturbing and expansive.

Momenta, as quartets go, is particularly given to the reachy, the ranging, and the kind of bracing, cerebral music that frees the writerly mind of daily-grind nonsense and puts you quickly in touch with that emotion you meant to worry about, that confusion you meant to revisit. One word for them fits the motion concept perfectly: restless.

As you can hear in their aptly titled 2015 release, Similar Motion, from Albany Records—it features Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion, of course, in a sharply muscular, sensitive rendition—these aren’t four people given to parlor play dates. Their treatment of Debussy’s landmark String Quartet is almost aching in its urgency at times. And they wield the Arthur Kampela A Knife All Blade with precisely the edginess required, its cringe-worthy dissonance exploring what can sound like the very limits of the strings in the opening Cadenza 1 movement.

Here are some short excerpts from the quartet’s performance of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, a good example in miniature of the kind of probing, tentative, challenging sounds the group likes to bring to the stage.

It was composer Matthew Greenbaum whose invitation to do some performances in 2004 led to Stephanie Griffin’s decision to form the quartet. And as we go over our exchange with her, we’ll drop in some tape of them playing various works.

It’s followed on Thursday by Alex Shiozaki’s curation of “An Interval of Infinity”; Saturday’s “At the Forest’s Edge” curated by Emilie-Anne Gendron; and Sunday’s “Dark Matter,” curated by Michael Haas and featuring the superb pianist Vicky Chow as guest artist.

We open our exchange with Griffin by asking about her choices of work for the Wednesday program this week, which includes vocal guests “Ubiet” Nyak Ina Raseuki and soprano Tony Arnold. And you really get a sense for the warm, gracious sense of humor required to keep a quartet going when Griffin cites the industry joke: “Esteemed string quartet seeks two violinists and a cellist.”

Violist Being Muse

Thought Catalog: It strikes me that in your curation of the September 28 evening, there’s a return to Momenta’s early work with both the Tony Prabowo piece (Pastoral, a “string quartet opera” from 2005) and the Michael Greenbaum work, right? Was this a specific goal for you, to connect with these works from the early years of the group?

Stephanie Griffin: I’ve actually wanted to program both the Greenbaum and Prabowo pieces again for quite a long time. It’s just very good luck that we are able to perform Prabowo’s string quartet opera, Pastoral, on September 28th.

The piece is conceived for string quartet with two highly contrasting female vocal parts. One of those parts is for a Western soprano, and could be performed by anyone who’s interested and willing to learn some Indonesian.

The other part, however, is very specific to Nyak Ina Raseuki (also known as “Ubiet”). Ubiet is more of an experimental singer, with a background in ethnomusicology, and she’s been working closely with Tony Prabowo since the early ’90s.

Stephanie Griffin. Image: provided by Momenta Quartet
Stephanie Griffin. Image: provided by Momenta Quartet

So, ideally, in order to perform this piece, we needed to have the means to bring her from Jakarta. Thankfully, the Freer and Sackler Galleries invited us to perform Pastoral on their Performing Indonesia Festival in Washington, DC. The Indonesian Embassy agreed to sponsor Ubiet, and since the performance date was close to our festival, we were able to swing this.

Naturally this piece had to go onto my curated program, since Tony Prabowo has been one of my main collaborators since 1998, and also happens to be the topic of my doctoral thesis from Juilliard. Just as an aside, Alex Shiozaki has also included the subject of his Juilliard doctoral thesis, Somei Satoh, on his program the following night. I’d originally come up with a totally different concept for my curated night, but in this business, flexibility is the name of the game.

I have always wanted to pair Pastoral with Janáček’s second string quartet, Intimate Letters, since both pieces deal with passionate, yet somehow unrequited, love. I decided to entitle the program “Written in Fire,” from a quote from one of Janáček’s letters to his muse, Kamila Stösslová.

“It’s been an odyssey–a violist’s Book of Job, or perhaps an 18th century French farce in which the violist plays the oblivious cuckold. But I have no regrets.”
Stephanie Griffin

It’s a bit of a stretch to include Matthew Greenbaum’s Castelnau in a program about passionate love. But it shares one very important quality with both the Prabowo and the Janáček: Love of the viola, and of violists, by extension.

In Janáček’s quartet, the viola—originally a viola d’amore, but I suppose he realized he was taking the analogy too far—represents his beloved Kamila. From violist representing muse, to violist being muse: Tony collaborated with me on numerous solo and multi-tracked viola pieces since 1998, and also included substantial parts for me in every piece he wrote through 2006.

Matthew’s quartet is dedicated to me, and he is such a wonderful friend that I think he also wrote it to encourage me to form a string quartet, which I’d been wanting to do already for a couple years. It worked. And in fact, Matthew is instrumental in the birth of Momenta. He created a unique residency for us through the composition department of Temple University, where he’s on the faculty. Momenta had this residency for 10 years. As an additional gift to me, Matthew featured the viola as a solo voice in his lyrical second movement.

‘A Violist’s Book Of Job’

TC: And while we’re on the subject of Momenta’s beginnings, have the quartet’s members remained the same since you founded it?

SG: Have you ever heard the viola joke: “Esteemed string quartet seeks two violinists and a cellist”?

Well, that viola joke actually happened to me! Not quite in that fashion, but I’m indeed the last original member standing.

One of our founding members left after the first year, because she won a Fulbright grant to study in Hungary. We found a new violinist right away and the group was stable from 2005 through 2008. Just at the point where things were beginning to take off, we lost both violinists. It was not planned that way. One of them left to spend more time pursuing her solo career and the other had been thinking of leaving already, in favor of a full-time teaching job.

“There are always multiple ways of interpreting and shaping individual phrases or the large-scale structure of the piece. That’s where the fun of having four brains comes in.”
Stephanie Griffin

I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, since our founding cellist, Joanne Lin, had been talking about becoming a veterinarian since I met her. But Joanne was still undecided, and I believe she might have even remained a cellist for longer to help me rebuild this group into which both of us had already invested so much love and energy.

It’s not easy to find two members at once! But a few violinists later, when everything seemed stable, Joanne stepped down to do her prerequisite courses for veterinary school. Emilie had played quartets with Michael at school, so he was a perfect choice. Long story short: Emilie, Michael and I have been playing together since 2009, but Alex just joined us earlier this year. (You can read about his perspective in a just-published interview at I Care if You Listen).

It’s been an odyssey–a violist’s Book of Job, or perhaps an 18th century French farce in which the violist plays the oblivious cuckold.

But I have no regrets. The quartet keeps getting better and better, and I wouldn’t have wished things to happen any other way.

‘The Fun Of Having Four Brains’

TC: There’s a great fluency between you. Your four voices, though distinctive, of course, seem to be unusually well related to each other. To turn that around, it sounds as if you all hear the work with the same ears, there’s a cohesion to your sound. That’s something quartets don’t always manage. What makes this the case, can you attribute it to one thing or another?

SGI’m glad to hear that it comes across that way. It does, indeed, feel very easy to play with Emilie, Alex and Michael.

I think it mainly stems from a common desire to make music together. Being a chamber musician is more about listening than actual playing—says the violist! All four of us listen very deeply to what the others are doing and find our own ways of responding. And everyone in the group is sensitive to our individual role from moment to moment within each piece.

There are always multiple ways of interpreting this, and of shaping individual phrases or the large-scale structure of the piece. That’s where the fun of having four brains comes in. And sometimes the difficulty, too.

But we all watched Sesame Street as kids: Cooperation. That’s what it’s all about. Actually, if the whole world were modeled after a healthy and functional string quartet, we’d all be in such a better place.

“There’s no better way of remembering a tempo…
Emilie often uses ‘Staying Alive’ for tempo 104 and ‘Gangnam Style’ to pull out a perfect 132.”
Stephanie Griffin

TC: And hearing Tony Arnold and Ubiet in the Prabowo makes me want to ask whether working with two other voices—a fifth and sixth brain, as it were—presents any issues for the quartet. As good as these vocalists are, of course, it seems almost intrusive of the elegant synergy the four of you have together. Is there a difficulty to the adjustment when Momenta works with guests in a “string quartet opera” of this kind?

SG: Working with any guest artist always opens us up to the unexpected. We rehearse and perform together a lot, so we get very comfortable with each other’s body language. There’s a bit of a sixth sense that develops between the four members of any active band. With guest artists there is a period of adjustment as we learn to understand how they communicate, and most importantly, how they phrase and how they perceive rhythm and pitch. All of these aspects of music making are so personal.

In the case of Pastoral, the two vocalists are soloists, and the piece is designed for them to be different from us in many ways. I think we all love the adventure of what each of them will bring. And because we are unified as a quartet it makes it easier for us to adjust to whatever pushing and pulling they do and all the new information they present to us.

TC: I know you also perform with Argento and Continuum, or have in the past. And I know so many players who are members of more than one ensemble. Another violist working several outfits is Nadia Sirota, of course. Is this kind of multi-ensemble membership helpful artistically for you, or would your preference be to focus strictly on the Momenta work?

SG: I still perform with Argento and Continuum, and with a number of other groups. So do the other three members of Momenta. We all enjoy having variety in our lives, and personally, I discover new repertoire and come across new interpretive ideas and rehearsal techniques from working with a wide range of musicians.

As pertains to this program, I met Tony Prabowo through Continuum’s co-director Joel Sachs, when I was playing in his New Juilliard Ensemble, which really changed my life. And I met Matthew Greenbaum while performing one of his mixed ensemble pieces with the contemporary music group Parnassus. Everyone in Momenta has played with Argento at some point.

And from time to time, we’ll use one of Argento’s director Michel Galante’s rehearsal techniques. Some of my favorites are practicing difficult rhythmic passages in pizzicato and playing only short attacks at the peaks of crescendos in passages that involve interlocking swells. We also love the way he remembers tempos with a database of pop songs. There’s no better way of remembering a tempo, since, unlike classical music, when one listens to pop music, it’s almost always one interpretation: the original artist’s commercially released studio recording. Emilie often uses “Staying Alive” for tempo 104 and “Gangnam Style” to pull out a perfect 132.

Having said that, I think we all share a common goal of increasing Momenta’s activities, making it possible to do more Momenta and fewer things outside the group. But even when that day arrives, we’ll all continue participating in the outside projects that contribute to our personal vision and artistic satisfaction.

Stephanie Griffin. Image: Reuben Radding
Stephanie Griffin. Image: Reuben Radding

‘To Accept And Even Celebrate Differences’

TC: In an ensemble as democratic as Momenta is said to be, what can cause friction between the members?

SG: I know it seems implausible, given the saga I just recounted about all the member changes, but truly there’s been very little obvious friction in the group. Little disagreements arise here and there as in all relationships, but it’s nothing to write home, or even blog, about.

However, in answer to your question, the biggest challenge is finding four people with common aspirations who are at the right time of their lives to want to engage fully in what we do. Being a creative chamber musician is a calling. It’s not just a job. If it were just a job, there are many easier ways to make much more money out there. You have to do it out of love. Anyone who has even dated knows how hard it is to find two people that share a common vision and want to build something together. Now try four.

“We’ve never verbalized this, but…as long as one person is excited about a project, we take it on. That makes Momenta a vehicle for all of us to explore our own individual passions.”
Stephanie Griffin

But for me, the solution is to accept and even celebrate differences. As long as all four people are really excited about the general concept behind Momenta, and want to be creative about playing, programming and making a living, then it’s all good. There’s no way we are all going to love all the same things equally. And for me that is exciting. I want to play with people who can open me up to and make me love new things.

We’ve never verbalized this, but I think everyone agrees with me about this one policy: as long as one person is excited about a project, we take it on. That makes Momenta a vehicle for all of us to explore our own individual passions, and is also the impetus behind our eclectic programming. It’s also the guiding philosophy behind the Momenta Festival, where each member curates one out of four nights.

TC: And with so many successes for the group, what’s something that remains elusive, a goal not yet achieved or a break that you and your associates would love to have but hasn’t materialized yet?

SG: Momenta has grown over time in an organic, grassroots way. I am proud of what we have accomplished and excited about the potential that lies ahead. It’s already starting, but I think we would all love to be considered for more of the major concert series and festivals. I am confident in the quality of what we have to offer and believe that our outside-the-box programming ideas would be a real gift to those presenters. It’s something we know, and it’s time for them to find out.

TC: In terms of your own work, where does your set of musical sensibilities come from? You’re from Canada, I believe? Is this career what you always had in mind? You seem almost as much a musicologist to me as an instrumentalist, which is wonderful, but has an exploratory stance always been with you?

SG: I have never faltered on the idea of being a violist. In fact, I started in the Vancouver public school string program and on the day of the orientation I came home with a permission slip and told my parents that I was going to be a violist and that all they had to do was sign the dotted line. I never had a specific idea as to the nature of what my particular career would entail. But it had to be the viola!

Early on, I developed an interest in both improvisation and multiculturalism. Improvisation certainly started right away because I practiced for hours and hours for a whole year before having private lessons. What was I doing? I wish some fly had made a recording from that wall.

My first foray into official improvisation was playing in an Irish band as a teenager. And in my second year of college I went to the Aspen music festival and met a singer and djembe player, Saphyre, with whom I improvised on the streets.

“Does that make me like a musicologist? In a way all of these activities are ‘research,’ I guess. It’s like doing field work, but the field was Vancouver and now it is New York City.”
Stephanie Griffin

Being from Vancouver, I also grew up in a primarily Asian city.

During the summer holidays before moving to New York City, I met the late Harry Hiro-o Aoki. He came from a highly educated and artistic Japanese Canadian family, was interned during World War II, and ended up working for B.C. Hydro for most of his adult life while playing the harmonica and eventually the double bass on the side. When he retired, he made it his mission to facilitate cross-cultural music projects.

Through him I had the opportunity to improvise with Klezmer clarinetists, Hungarian cimbalom players, African drummers, Persian santur players, and various instrumentalists from China and Japan. Then I came to New York and fell in love with the downtown scene, and particularly free jazz. By now, I am equally active as an improviser and classical musician. It’s a great life.

Does that make me like a musicologist? In a way all of these activities are “research,” I guess. It’s like doing field work, but the field was Vancouver and now it is New York City. My exploratory stance has always been there and will always continue – and there is no better place than New York City to satisfy my curiosity.

“There’s a real art to making a compelling program….If you were running an upscale restaurant you would not hire a famous chef, and then just let anyone come up with the menu.”
Stephanie Griffin

TC: And lastly, the quartet seems to be so deeply engaged in the curation of the upcoming Tenri performances, almost as if curation plays an equivalent role in value to all of you as performance itself. How consciously have you and your colleagues cultivated this curatorial intelligence?

SG: We have indeed consciously cultivated this curatorial vision. It’s as important as playing. If you look at the act of bringing music to audiences from the micro level to the macro level, it starts with learning the fundamentals of music and the techniques to play an instrument.

That’s the point of departure for learning how to express oneself musically through those techniques.

General musicality is then applied to specific compositions, and then the act of putting those pieces together into an interesting program creates the “product” that our audience comes to enjoy.

There’s a real art to making a compelling program. A good analogy might be found in the restaurant business.

If you were running an upscale restaurant you would not hire a famous chef, and then just let anyone come up with the menu.

In food as in music, one’s appreciation is enhanced by the context in which each element is presented.TC mark

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