5 Questions to TAK Ensemble for their 10th anniversary

TAK ensemble has reached a milestone; the 2022-23 season marks their 10th anniversary as one of the most prominent experimental ensembles in the United States. Over the past decade, TAK has released seven albums, premiered over 100 works, and held numerous residencies. TAK began their fall season with a yearlong residency at the University of Pennsylvania and culminated with the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s For jaimie branch, a co-commission between TAK and the New York Philharmonic. We talked with TAK about the ensemble’s evolution over the years, and what they’re looking forward to.

TAK was founded on the principles of “curiosity, change, and caring communication.” After a decade of working together, how have those words evolved?

We’re not sure these words have evolved so much as we’ve evolved in our continued understanding of them — and, hopefully, our embodiment of them. These words are not casual sentiments, but pillars — weight-bearing stones — that have historically underpinned community-making in new art across generations.

As we continue our work of growing into these values, we’ve expanded our comfort with the feelings of transformation within ourselves that make us more accountable to one another, in the ever-intertwined personal and musical. We hope to be ever more curious, more caring, more communicative — ever-evolving into these words.

How has your approach to performing with one another changed over time?

Deep and patient relationships are really important to TAK — between one another and with our collaborators, of course — but also with the repertoire we play and the music we make. The pieces we commission become part of our family as well, and the cumulative process of rehearsing, re-rehearsing, and re-re-rehearsing many of these works that we’ve played dozens of times continues to teach us and shape our shared vocabulary. As this shared vocabulary has grown, so too has our understanding about each other’s performance practices, instruments, and personalities, enabling us to become better readers of one another, on and off the score. Being more equipped to empathize with the particular challenges and strengths of our instruments, and ourselves as people, means we can collectively internalize new works quicker.

TAK Ensemble--Photo by David Bird

TAK Ensemble–Photo by David Bird

Part of developing a practice together has been a development of our rehearsal rapport, and we find it really generative to dip in and out of joking around. When we spend so many hours together obsessing over the alignment of some complex hocketed polyrhythm or the timbral blend of a frustratingly unstable sonority, we’ve found that keeping a sense of lightness and play in our process keeps us sane and allows us to be productive without losing the joy that brings us to the room. Jokes aside, we’ve all become more patient, more understanding, and more communicative both in and out of rehearsal. We’ve evolved, I hope, not only as music-makers, but also as friends — which, of course, when we look at it with eyes wide open, is really the same thing.

In December, you premiered For jaimie branch by Tyshawn Sorey. Can you talk about your experience working with the New York Philharmonic and Sorey in preparation and performance?

This is such an impactful piece, and the experience of premiering it was immense and humbling and beautiful. Playing through it in its entirety for the first time was extremely powerful; we all just kind of sat there in silence for a good minute after the double bar. We’re so grateful to Tyshawn for creating this stunning work, and for trusting us with it. We first worked with him back in 2014 for a duo subset he wrote for us entitled Ornations, which is featured on our 2019 album Oor.

Ornations is wildly intense in its virtuosic maximalism. It was a joy, and a very long process, to learn the piece, which is now part of our core repertoire. Since then, we’ve been talking with Tyshawn about “next time.” When the New York Philharmonic approached us about performing, we immediately thought of this dream collaboration with Tyshawn, and the Philharmonic was generous enough to support its commissioning — for which we are exceptionally grateful. Working with Tyshawn was, of course, beautiful. And working with him on such an immense and important elegy made every moment of work feel spiritual. Every moment of playing and rehearsal, every dynamic change or fine-tuning of pitch, felt like a way of honoring jaimie. There was a lot of love in the small room at UPenn where we rehearsed — a lot of love and a lot of presence.

Let’s get nostalgic: what is a memory you’ve made as an ensemble that you will never forget, for better or worse?

The NYC premiere of Love, Crystal and Stone was a special night. It was presented by our friends in Qubit on the second floor of a former parking garage, which had these big windows and surprisingly magical acoustics. We had a big, enthusiastic audience and the whole night felt fun and inspiring. — Charlotte Mundy (voice)

The group initially formed to play one concert at a church in Brooklyn, but after realizing that we all really liked working together, we set up a second show at a basement space in Harlem, where we played some really bombastic and fun rep that showcased all of our talents a little more. We loved playing together again, the audience was ecstatic, we brought the house down (the cops were called and the venue eventually got shut down) and it was very clear that the group had a future. — Ellery Trafford (percussion)

I think my memory has less to do with a given performance, and more with an indicator of the underlying ethos of TAK… possibly my first TAK memory. In July 2019, I flew out to NYC from San Diego to audition for TAK. I think I was a bit off-kilter from jet lag, adrenaline, and swirling thoughts involving what to me was a very high-stakes couple hours. The day after I auditioned, I got a FaceTime call from Laura while I was walking in Lower Manhattan… it turned out to be the entirety of TAK on the phone asking if I would marry them. I think I started crying on the street out of joy, and of course I said yes. — Madison Greenstone (clarinet)

Our trip to Greece as resident ensemble of the Delian Academy was a high point for me. We got to play some really awesome new pieces, and we built in enough down time to explore Athens and some of the islands together! — Marina Kifferstein (violin)

Thinking through TAK memories, there’s a lot of performances that have completely changed my life and the way I think about music, but a lot of the memories that come back with the most light are times that we’ve just been hanging out — we spend a lot of time together outside rehearsal, and I feel like it’s that continued context of love that’s the most intense memory. — Laura Cocks (flute)

What has you excited about TAK’s future?

We’re so excited and humbled to be celebrating our 10th birthday this coming May! It’s such a wild feeling to reflect on how long we’ve been building this family, and how intensely grateful we are for everyone who has become a part of it in the past decade. Many of the composers that we worked with for the first concert are still some of our closest collaborators. We’re celebrating 10 years with a two-day festival at The Clemente on the Lower East Side on May 5 and 6 (7-10 p.m., and 6-10 p.m.). We’ll be giving the world premiere of a new concert-length work by Michelle Lou and a special preview performance of a new collaboration with DM R and sharing each night with some of our favorite artists, including Phong Tran and Sour Spirit! We hope you’ll join us!

We’re also super excited for this coming semester at University of Pennsylvania, which marks our second semester there as the long-term Visiting Ensemble in Residence. We’ll continue working closely with the composition students at UPenn to develop new works to be premiered in April, as well as giving specialty classes, lectures, and holding open rehearsals. Working with students is such a cherished aspect of our work as an ensemble, and it’s incredibly gratifying to participate in a more expansive residency model that has, at its core, the development of longer-term relationships between composers and performers, and the space to really share in the developmental process.

We’re also immensely grateful and honored to be working with some incredible people for upcoming commissions that we’ll be premiering over the next few years. We really couldn’t be more excited to be embarking on these journeys with Michelle Lou, DM R (with Joy Guidry), Bryan Jacobs, Jessie Cox, Weston Olencki, Elaine Mitchener, Seth Cluett, and Natacha Diels.


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