Stravinsky, reimagined, with Mr. Chair

The Madison-based ensemble performs November 11 at North Street Cabaret.

The members of Mr. Chair are, from left to right: Mike Koszewski, Ben Ferris, Mark Hetzler, and Jason Kutz. Photo by M.O.D. Media.

The members of Mr. Chair are, from left to right: Mike Koszewski, Ben Ferris, Mark Hetzler, and Jason Kutz. Photo by M.O.D. Media.

The Madison-based group Mr. Chair has been composing, arranging, and experimenting with essentially genreless music for about a year now, revolving around performance styles and aesthetics of classical music, jazz, and rock. The four members' versatile performance backgrounds, rooted in their jazz or classical education, also include an array of other genres and styles such as Latin musics, electronic music, and metal, among others. We talk more about the performers—pianist Jason Kutz, percussionist Mike Koszewski, trombonist Mark Hetzler, and bassist Ben Ferris—in our events calendar.

For their next performance on Saturday, November 11 at the North Street Cabaret, Mr. Chair will be playing some original works, as well as a "reimagination" of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's 1920 ballet, Pulcinella. Unlike some of Stravinsky's early ballets, such as the shockingly grotesque Rite Of Spring, Pulcinella takes a neoclassical stance on a number of Italian works from the 1700s by composers such as Giovanni Pergolesi, as well as a classic Commedia dell'arte play. The arrangement and aesthetic changes in Stravinsky's Pulcinella, itself a reimagination, started to sound familiar when we talked to the four members of Mr. Chair, as they discussed some of their own expansions, variations, and reinterpretations of Stravinsky's work.

Stravinsky's reworking of the relatively standard-structured Baroque pieces, compositionally speaking, is just one factor of the multi-faceted Pulcinella. As the piece includes text, choreography, as well as costume and set-design (reimagined by Pablo Picasso), a 21st century reinterpretation of Pulcinella could be boundless. Mr. Chair are still working out visuals and other performance antics for their version of Pulcinella, but for now, there is plenty to digest and discuss regarding the drastic changes in instrumentation and interpretation.

For one, Pulcinella is scored for an orchestra and three solo vocalists. That could be enough to dissuade anyone from trying to arrange the piece for a quartet, much less one that features a drummer. In fact, some members of Mr. Chair initially thought it couldn't or shouldn't be done. But, as Stravinsky added his own Stravinsky-isms and 20th century methods––albeit masked by standard Baroque and Classical structures and harmonies––Mr. Chair takes their own liberties beyond the instrumentation by using electronics, opening up sections for free improvisation, and giving drums a certain role that somehow appropriately fits Stravinsky's compositional style.  

We recently sat down with all four members of Mr. Chair to unfold the ways that classical, jazz, rock, and other genres can blend together not only in composition and arrangement, but also in the experiences and perceptions of audience members. Beyond Pulcinella, we also discussed the role of humor in performance, the bridges to be built between classical and other musics, and the role of the listener. These points lead to some bigger conversations on the connection between space, listener, performer, and performance that we hope to crack into more in future music coverage at Tone Madison. But for now, hearing Stravinsky saturated in electronics and pulsated by genre-bending grooves is enough to get us all started on building bridges and breaking barriers between adventurous tastes.

Tone Madison: What made you want to choose this particular piece and not another Stravinsky?

Jason Kutz: Ben and I both agreed that we love this piece. In fact, a long time ago, I did a project in [collaborative piano professor] Martha Fischer's class about this piece, and I just loved it. I learned about Pulcinella, learned about Stravinsky, about his Suite Italienne (a smaller work based on material from Pulcinella), and I talked with Mark and said that I wanted to play this piece. I suggested, "you should play the violin part" for Suite Italienne, and he gave me the music and he said, "you should just find a violinist to play this." Then I kept saying, "We should play Suite Italienne" and Ben was like, "Yeah, we should play Pulcinella!"

Mike Koszewski: And I think at the time, we had written a solid set of original music and we were looking for some sort of new creative direction and some new idea or goal to chase. I think we were all inspired by groups like The Bad Plus, who have done (Stravinsky's) The Rite Of Spring and recreated it for a modern sound. So we thought it would be really cool to take one of our favorite pieces of classical music and, while respecting the source material, inject our own unique sound and brand onto it and recreate it again, because Stravinsky's version of this piece is itself a reworking of further-back source music.

Mark Hetzler: I think it's a testament to what these guys do musically. I was very much opposed to this initially because I thought of it as "sacred ground," musically speaking. And idiomatically speaking as well, I thought, "no way, there's no way this piece can fit onto our ensemble".... Ben proved me wrong immediately because he was the first to walk in with one of the movements from the ballet arranged for us and then we read it and I was like "okay...I'm going to keep my mouth shut and keep going with these guys."

Mike Koszewski: And we all have our classical groundings to lean on to know what is tasteful and what isn't. How far can you pull something away from its original sound and still be respectful of the source material, so that certainly helped.

Jason Kutz: We had already done a Satie piece, one of his Gymnopédies, and so we were already stepping into arranging classical music for our group, so when Ben and I were in agreement that we should do Pulcinella and he came in with a movement ready, Mark said, "I'm all in, I totally buy it, let's do it." And then, Mark just went to work and he arranged it all for our group, almost verbatim. So then we had this blank slate of the fundamental Pulcinella that we had to work with.

Tone Madison: So what makes Pulcinella "sacred ground" then, and not Satie or not something else that you would rework? Was there something about this specific piece that just seemed to weigh more?

Mark Hetzler: Yeah I thought of this as "sacred ground" just because I had played it a lot in orchestras and have heard the Suite Italienne a lot either with violin or cello and...I don't know if "sacred ground" is the right term, but I do a lot of arranging of pieces and it seemed to me like it was inaccessible. When you take a full orchestra score and you think about the intricacies and the subtle details, all the woodwinds, the brass, different string techniques, I thought we'd lose a lot. And that's just a sign of my lack of imagination, because these guys weren't thinking about replicating it at all...they were thinking about basically taking melodies and rhythms and harmonies and structures and just using them as like Jason said, a blank slate of source material that we could just go off of. And then the next thing you know, we've got a Latin groove, we've got a heavy metal section, we've got wide open experimental sections...and then there are moments where we are incredibly classical in our approach. But what's cool about this process is that it's opening us up as players to each other. Sometimes we scrap it, but sometimes we kind of end up meeting somewhere in the middle where all of our best qualities are coming to the fore. For me, it's been a very liberating process.

Tone Madison: When Ben mentioned to me that y'all were doing Pulcinella, I thought it was interesting to choose that piece, as Pulcinella is very neoclassical and it doesn't really scream "avant garde" or "controversial" or "groundbreaking" in that sort of outward sense like other Stravinsky pieces like Rite Of Spring. Did you find certain modern complexities within the piece once you dug into it, or was it even really about that for you?

Jason Kutz: I think that Stravinsky comes across in anything he does...his approach to rhythm—like Shostakovich as well—is that they are almost writing with what our sense of a drumset does today...but, at least in this piece, Stravinsky doesn't score percussion. But he's still making the strings and woodwinds do these really percussive things. Even in a classical or baroque style, you find these small hints of rhythmic interest where he adds a measure of ¾ or writes in elisions, so these melodies are layered on top of themselves by one beat. It makes these really amazing rhythmic effects, and I thought right away that this would be so perfect to have drums with it.

Mike Koszewski: Yeah, in particular, the way he'll change meter or phrase lengths, or where the perceived bar line ends up falling, are all kinds of ideas that a modern or contemporary percussionist or drummer would play around with or try to pull into their tool kit. It's been fun to try to pick out all these things that he was doing way ahead of his time that are now things that modern drummers like me try to place into a groove or into a tune.

Tone Madison: So maybe it felt like you already had those kind of tools from playing jazz or rock? Did it feel like, when going back to something classical that incorporated those compositional elements, those tools were already sort of there for you?

Jason Kutz: Yeah and I think that even in the source material that Stravinsky was working with—Pergolesi, Gallo—he added just a hint of modern sound. He used these really beautiful melodies but he would add just the seventh of the chord in there, which they wouldn't have done in the 1700s. Or he'd add a beat here or there. And we're sort of dropping beats and doing this mixed meter stuff in our other material too, while still sticking to standard harmony with the original music we've written, so Stravinsky's rearranging was right in line with the simple, classical approach as well as a new, jazz idiom.

Mark Hetzler: By the way, the original ballet has 20 movements and we selected 10, yet our performance is about the same length as the full ballet because we've expanded it in many places...but when I went to look at the original source material, as Jason was saying, it was the incredibly minute, subtle changes that Stravinsky added...sevenths, dropping a beat, adding a beat rhythmically...it was so little that he did yet it was a big jump, and the experience of that music was dramatically different. You can go and listen to any of these pieces in their original form. They've been recorded maybe as a cello sonata or an original aria, but when you go and compare that to the Stravinsky version, it's striking. It's like he's dipped it into this Stravinsky tie-dye and he pulled it out and it's not the same any more.

Tone Madison: And I guess there are a lot of other non-Stravinsky factors as well. There are choreographed parts, a libretto, and then Picasso's set and costume design. Do y'all have any sort of reference to the visual or non-musical elements?

Jason Kutz: YES!

Tone Madison: Cool!

Jason Kutz: So much!

Mike Koszewski: Lamps!

Jason Kutz: Yeah! So, I'm way into that. I'm really pushing that we do a bunch of visual things to inspire us and to intrigue the audience. I've thrown out a few ideas like costumes...maybe not for us but for someone else that joins us. I've thrown out the ideas of balloons…. It's a ballet, so if we can incorporate a dancer at some moment in our performance in the future, I think that would be really cool. But yeah, I've always loved the idea of adding visuals. On our last show that we did of original music, we had a painting hanging in front of our performance. I don't think it detracts...it gives the audience something to look at.

Tone Madison: We talked about how Stravinsky reimagined the piece himself. What are some of the things that you're doing in the arranging process and in performance that are worth highlighting?

Mark Hetzler: Well, one of the first things we've done is include a variety of open-ended spots where we're not even playing any of the music and where we're freely improvising but we're doing it maybe based on an idea, a riff, or a harmony...so that expands it. I think what's so great about Pulcinella versus Stravinsky's other work is that since it's based on these old pieces of music, the formal structure is really simple. So, in many ways, it's really like playing a jazz standard or a rock tune—we've written our own chord changes so people can solo. We've added sections to areas where it seemed like Stravinsky had a certain idea that we wanted to follow to see how far it can go...so, I don't want to say that we've composed, but we've added a significant amount of our own personal creativity to the piece. There will definitely be moments in our performance where people would never imagine that we're playing Stravinsky, or a ballet, or classical music.

Mike Koszewski: We've added a lot of different feels and grooves, always trying to enhance the music without changing it too much. We want to give it a sort of new feel underneath...so, Latin jazz, neo-soul, rock, metal, death march…

Jason Kutz: ...Dixieland.

Mike Koszewski: Yeah, [laughs]. There's like a Dixieland moment. So we're taking popular styles of music and trying to insert them into Stravinsky. And that's sort of been the fun project for me...to be the drummer, the least classical instrument in the bunch, and make that a component. We didn't want people to sit down and have people ask, "Why is there this drummer at this chamber music concert?" We want people to sit down and think, "This is Mr. Chair, this is their sound, and their grooves that they like to explore within this source material." So, that's been my task, to fit into it and to have it be our sound and not just these chamber musicians plus drummer for some weird reason.

Mark Hetzler: Another thing to add to it is that we've always been talking about sense of humor. As you would imagine, an "instrumental group filled with angst trying to be serious and dark and brooding," it's like, alright enough of that. There are enough groups that do that, and sure we do some of that, as it's just sort of in our DNA, but this piece in particular has allowed us to be...ridiculous, quite frankly. I mean, moments of it are, I think, hilarious. And it's not serious, but we're playing it seriously.

Mike Koszewski: We're very serious about practicing and tightening it up to sound exactly like what we want it to sound like, but the content is not meant to be a super-serious study of the music, but to be ourselves.

Jason Kutz: I think Ben's arrangement of the Serenata movement, and then the Theme and Variations in the Gavotte...those are the perfect ideas of what we're going for in the piece.

Ben Ferris: In the Serenata, we basically just play what Stravinsky wrote, but with different instrumentation. This was the first movement that we did, and there's not really much stretching or major changes. And then we got to the Gavotte, which has two variations. So, that seemed like a place that if it's a variation, we'll have to vary something. So the Gavotte basically went off the deep end [laughs]….we changed the meter, I use an electronic harmonizer and arpeggiator on my bass in this section.

Jason Kutz: Yeah it's...dirty.

Mike Koszewski: Yeah it's like a really slow [sings rhythm]...indulgent, but comedic.

Ben Ferris: Yeah that came from a bassoon part, which of course, Stravinsky with his bassoon stuff, was always very engaging, arpeggiating with the bassoon. In fact I think he uses two bassoons because they need a chance to take a breath.

Mike Koszewski: And then Mark, in that same place don't you use some spacey effect on your trombone?

Mark Hetzler: Yeah, it seems like every time we rehearse, we say, "Well let's try this let's try that" and then it seems like we always end up with some of the wildest outcomes and we all sort of nod in agreement and say, "Keep it!"

Mike Koszewski: Yeah, I can't count the number of times where we do something and then when we're done we all just roll over laughing because it's such a silly idea...but then half the time we keep it because it's...good!

Jason Kutz: Someone who has heard us perform this said that by the time we did this long drum roll right into the opening melody, he just burst out laughing. I was like, "Thank you very much!" But then we offer something that's heartfelt too. It's not just humor...but it's still tongue-in-cheek.

Mike Koszewski: Tongue-in-cheek but still very genuine. We're trying to make good music, but we're not taking ourselves too seriously.

Mark Hetzler: And like Mike said, in the span of 45 minutes, the audience has been through so many styles and sounds and textures...it's kind of like it's changing too quickly for anyone to get bored with it. Nothing ever really returns either, it just sort of keeps on going.

Tone Madison: I guess it's also appropriate to have humor in this performance as well since the piece is pulled from Commedia dell'arte...are y'all thinking about those specifics, the stock characters involved in it?

Jason Kutz: We haven't implemented that so far, but that's another thing about the theatrics that we might involve...we're going to have Buzz Kemper at our show and he's going to do some voice over stuff for another piece that we do. It's a poem that he wrote, that he recites over a piece. I could see him doing small segments or introducing the piece, or having him offer some comedic take based on the text or the idea that somehow incorporates the text of the poem, the Italian Commedia dell'arte, or whatever...it's not set.

Tone Madison: Right on. And it doesn't surprise me either that you four specifically would be adding comedic elements. I'm thinking specifically with Mike and Lovely Socialite and Mark with Sinister Resonance to a certain degree. You're having these different projects mixing classical with jazz and rock, and also humor and character, that probably naturally connected you all to play music together?

Jason Kutz: Probably naturally...and I think the connection in general happened naturally. A lot of us have played together before…

Mike Koszewski: Yeah, Ben and I go way way back, he's my bass player in town.

Jason Kutz: And I think we're really all in tune with each other. We push ourselves well and all fall into the same love for whatever we're doing. And whatever the possibilities are, we all sort of seem to be all right there together. That helps right at the start. We just enjoy all these different things together.

Mark Hetzler: And I'm really struck with how busy everyone is but still has the ability to find the time to get together and we're always extremely passionate. If you're incredibly busy but still capable of finding time to dedicate to something that you really believe in….it would just take one of us to make that not happen and somehow that hasn't happened yet. We just continue to explore musically and it's been really fun.

Mike Koszewski: I don't think we've even formally defined a concept or a sound for our band yet. A year later and we're still figuring that out….but I think when you don't have boundaries, it's just the best setup to explore.

Jason Kutz: I think Saturday will be the perfect display of what we are.

Mike Koszewski: Yeah, the first half of the show features our originals and then we do Pulcinella.

Tone Madison: Yeah, I mean your project goes way beyond this piece. What kind of stuff are you incorporating in your originals? Will it seem like a stark difference from Pulcinella?

Mike Koszewski: I think people will definitely hear how our sound in the first half translates into our take on Pulcinella. I don't think we could do anything else.

Mark Hetzler: Yeah, it's hard to say...sometimes we'll play a concert and I'm racking my brain about the experience from the listener's perspective...what was great? What wasn't so great? What should we tweak to sound better? Something that I may not like might be the thing that really got it for the audience...so, for me it's hard to tell what it is about ourselves musically or personality-wise that defines us...and I don't know if I could put that into words.

Tone Madison: And I guess that brings me to the question of having this performance on a Saturday night at North Street Cabaret. For someone who doesn't know Stravinsky or Pulcinella and is coming to this performance, what do you expect for listeners? And what do you want them to get out of it?

Mark Hetzler: I hope they find beauty.

Jason Kutz: Yeah, I like that. That's always a driving force for making music for me. Make something beautiful, give listeners something by which to feel comfortable.

Mike Koszewski: I just want them to feel happy that they spent their Saturday night that way, that there was something they heard that was special.

Mark Hetzler: For me, I don't think it matters whether they know the piece or not. I think the goal for the experience is pretty much the same.

Jason Kutz: I don't expect much from a listener. If they come to listen, I just want them to be open, open to hearing what we do.

Tone Madison: Ben, you're a former student of Richard Davis. Since Richard Davis worked under Stravinsky, was there any sort of connection that you made with Richard Davis and his experience?

Ben Ferris: I got to play the Pulcinella Suite before and talked to Richard Davis about it...the standout story he said was that he claims that Stravinsky touched him on the shoulder after he played a bass solo, that we actually exclude from our performance...he said he never washed that shoulder again.

Tone Madison: Well, what else would each of you like to do in the future as far as expanding audiences for classical music in Madison, and playing classical(ish) music at nonclassical venues? Have you found it to be a challenge to mix different audiences? What barriers do you try to break down?

Mike Koszewski: There's a lot of pomp and circumstance to a classical concert...that I think if there were more groups that were trying to set up performances that didn't carry all that pretense and expected etiquette and what not, more people could feel comfortable going and would feel like they ought to go. I think it's absurd that people can't necessarily clap in the middle of a classical music performance for something they like. I mean, why not? I don't think that necessarily should happen everywhere, but if we offered a conduit for classical music where people could make some rowdy noise in the middle of us playing, that's great, and based on the way that they've experienced music in the past, that can then bring that behavior to an experience with classical music. So, I think that our adaptation helps bridge popular music concert going culture with a classical music experience. So I think that's something we can see more of.

Ben Ferris: For me, I think a lot of it is just knowing how to listen to this stuff. I teach elementary school and do a lot of explaining, "This is what to listen for," and a lot of times the listener gets more out of that...explaining through a piece, talking through a piece what we should listen for. There's a big investment in listening to classical music, of knowing what to listen for to make it enjoyable for a listener. I think that projects like this, in a way, sort of explain some things to listen to because we're putting some things in a more modern context that we're more familiar with.

Jason Kutz: Another piece that we play, which I think describes how we can accomplish this task in getting people more interested in classical music or vis versa, is a piece that Mark wrote. It's essentially a trombone concerto. It was written as a piece for trombone and two pianos and then he orchestrated it for full orchestra. And it features a quartet in the concerto. So, it's a piece for trombone soloist, with orchestra that, in a movement or two, features a quartet—drummer, bassist, pianist, and trombonist.

Tone Madison: So, your quartet.

Jason Kutz: Possibly. We performed the entire concerto as our group. And this sort of sparked some interest in thinking...what if we had a concerto for us? For quartet with orchestra, and not just some crappy arrangement of added strings, but really thought out arranging that is essentially a quartet concerto. And I think that would get rid of the sense of clapping in the middle of a performance because you're going to feel compelled to clap! It's almost a jazz concert in that moment. And at the same time, it's like contemporary music like a rock or jazz band that you might expect. But also our love of classical music comes through, surrounding that. And I think this is, if and when this idea comes to fruition, something that could really help bridge that gap.

Mike Koszewski: I mean, in the 1700s or 1800s, I don't think crowds had any problem expressing their pleasure or displeasure in the middle of a performance, whether it was cheering or throwing tomatoes. But somewhere in the 1900s, this etiquette was built. You don't clap between movements, you're completely silent...not that there isn't music where that helps the energy and intensity of the performance, but I just don't think most people are wired that way, so the more sorts of gateways there are to mix their current concert going experience and comfort zone with classical music. The more of that the better.

Jason Kutz: I think that it comes down to the material that we play. No matter what venue we're going to play, we're always going to be pushing ourselves in these ways of classical music, jazz, rock. We always want to blend these barriers and push ourselves and keep trying new things. And no matter where people see us doing that, I think they're going to start thinking harder about what these genres mean, what they're used to listening to, and how.