[This article originally appeared in a somewhat different form in Issue #6 of I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine in April of 2014.]
Cleveland-based Trepanning Trio is not a three-person neurosurgical team that will drill a burr hole into your skull to expose the dura mater. In fact, they are not a trio at all, but a flexible contemporary music ensemble that varies its size to fit the occasion. However, they do indeed make music that drills its way straight into your skull. The brainchild of bassist, composer, and bandleader David Mansbach, Trepanning has crafted its style around a core aesthetic of spontaneous creativity drawing on the deep musical reservoirs of the players. As Mansbach puts it, rather demurely, ”we make pretty instrumental music using classical, traditional, and handmade instruments.” The result is an intoxicating sound alchemy that has germinated over the past twenty years. Mansbach’s passionate quest for this musical soundscape exceeded his capabilities to realize on his own. With the help of other musicians and advancing technology, slowly that sound emerged. And as it evolved, it attracted more musicians who wanted to be a part of it. Today Trepanning Trio has fourteen members who regularly participate in rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions.
TREPANNING TRIO ORIGIN STORY
Trepanning Trio has its genesis in a song Mansbach wrote in 1994. A self-taught musician formally trained in visual arts, Mansbach’s mind teemed with musical ideas he tinkered with using an 8-track recorder. But his musical inadequacies hampered his progress. A breakthrough came in 1998 when violinist Peter Tyson Myers, a co-worker’s son, sought Mansbach’s assistance with his audition tape. In return, Myers offered to help Mansbach multi-track some of his early conceptions. “I couldn’t write out the parts I wanted Peter to play, so I sang, or whistled them, phrase by phrase,” Mansbach recalls. “Fortunately, Ty has a great ear (and a lot of patience) and he played them all back for me on his violin, usually in one take.”
That started Mansbach down a path of realizing his musical conceptions in a very painterly-fashion, constructing the whole from a broad palette of sound materials. By 2001, his Infinite Number of Sounds Recording Company co-founder Brent Gummow, had helped him convert his analog recording setup to a digital recording/editing suite. Mansbach used his new toys to expand the instrumentation and make more complex arrangements. In the early years, Mansbach says “you might hear 20 or more instruments playing on a completed track, but I typically only had three musicians playing the individual parts, hence the name Trepanning Trio.” When this group started making a few live appearances with Mansbach as a quartet, the alliterative Trepanning Trio moniker had already struck a chord, so they stuck with it. Some of these early experimental recordings were released on Trepanning Trio’s first album I am a Crooked Arrow.
The first incarnation of the present ensemble came in 2005, when Mansbach, percussionist Ron Tucker (of ensemble et al., and Mansbach’s former partner in the art-rock bands Ribcage Houdinis and Infinite Number of Sounds), percussionist Andrew Ludick, and bbob drake (a master of self-designed musical gadgets) started playing together. It was a very fertile time for development of the Trepanning sound. “We would fill a room with instruments—kidi drums, gankogui, mbira, double bass, vibraphone, pan tree, banjo, dulcimer, water jugs, harmonicas, stem glasses, melodicas—and improvise for hours.” They refined the most interesting ideas, recorded them, and these became the textural underpinnings for over a dozen songs.
Over the next several years, Mansbach attracted more musicians of diverse backgrounds, like Jeremy Bleich, David Badagnani, Kris Morron, Dan Wenninger, and Clayton Vaughn, to help further explore and develop these sketches with an avalanche of new sounds and ideas. “These folks played some instruments that I had never heard of, much less written for,” says Mansbach. “I scheduled dozens of recording sessions, mixing and matching different combinations of instruments. Some songs had over 100 tracks and I used a subtractive process to whittle each piece down and refine it into the form you hear on our recordings.”
All of this hard work came to the public earspace broadly in February, 2009, with the release of two albums, I am a Crooked Arrow, and The Man Killed the Bird…, on the Infinite Number of Sounds label. Most of the musicians who participated in the recordings, including Ron Tucker (who was in New york), Andy Ludick (who was in Kilkenny, Ireland), and Tyler Horter (from Cincinnati) gathered to perform at the CD release concert at Cleveland’s Beachland Tavern, the first time the completed songs had ever been performed live. That one-off performance took on a life of its own. To Mansbach’s surprise “musicians started contacting me to ask about joining the band. I invited most of them to rehearsals to see how they fit and many of them have become core members of the group.” As the band grew, the new members brought their own unique musical backgrounds, instruments, and ideas, adding further depth and complexities to the Trepanning sound and the compositional possibilities.
THAT TREPANNING SOUND
So what exactly is that Trepanning Trio sound? It’s complex, enigmatic, and multi-layered, with a meditative vibe. Mostly it lopes along at a casual tempo, in no hurry to get anywhere, leaving plenty of space for subtle nuance to emerge. It is rarely loud, yet it engulfs you. “We’re likely the quietest 14-member ensemble you will ever hear and that is one key to our music,” says Mansbach.
To our ears, the Trepanning sound combines elements of classical chamber music, post-minimalism, jam-band grooving, free jazz improvisation, Appalachian folk tunes, North African and Middle Eastern modal drones, influences of China, India, and Southeast Asia, and no doubt other forms and traditions we do not recognize. And that is another key to their sound, the great wealth of musical experience contributed by each member of the group. “More importantly, there is a humbling musical thoughtfulness in each our players,” according to Mansbach, “they are, above all else, good listeners.”
As a composer, Mansbach does not structure his works as complete schematics of every note to play throughout the piece. “My songs are quite simple,” he says. “I provide the musicians with the basic theme and a palette of colors. They make the paintings. I only write enough for the musicians to find their voices in the space and keep them out of each other’s way.” Once the players find that niche, they are free to play whatever they want, making each realization of a piece unique. “It isn’t my compositions that make Trepanning Trio interesting to listen to, it is the compelling complexity of hearing the spontaneous expression of creative minds exploring a maze of sound using an extraordinary assortment of musical instruments.”
The Trepanning sound and their performance aesthetic are tightly connected to Mansbach’s training as a visual artist. “I have carried those lessons about working with the strengths of a medium to bring out its beauty into our music,” he says, Just as you can create medium-specific beauty with graphite, oils, clay, watercolor, or glass, you can bring that same thinking to making beautiful sounds. “It is a great joy for us to work with exotic and hand-made instruments, discovering their unique textures and tones.”
THE TREPANNING PLAYERS
Mansbach’s delight in discovery of uniqueness is not limited to the array of instruments. The eighteen or so musicians who have contributed significantly over the years are the very thread from which the Trepanning Trio tapestry is woven. “These amazing musicians are each unique,” says Mansbach, “not only in their choice of instruments, but in the way they respond to new material and ideas, and their ability to bring fresh improvisational elements to each interpretation.” A profile of four current members reveals a snapshot of the resources the ensemble draws upon.
David Badagnani holds an Masters degree in ethnomusicology from Kent State University where he also pursued doctoral studies, and he taught courses there from 1994 to 2010. He plays reed instruments—english horn, oboe, Chinese sheng—plus violin and various sizes of viola da gamba. He is a true internationalist, playing music from locations as far flung as Asia, Africa, Australia, and old-time America. When asked to describe the music of the Trepanning Trio, he says, “to me it often has the thoughtful introspective feeling of Renaissance consort music.”
Since 2008, Badagnani is co-founder/director of the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble. In addition to the sheng, he plays the Chinese suona, houguan, xun, yueqin, and yehu; the Vietnamese kèn; and he is a throat singer. According to Mansbach, “David can play any instrument, from any culture, in any key. And he can tell you about the people who play the instruments, what they like to eat, and how to cook it. I could study the music of this planet for 300 years and not ever know what David knows now.”
Chris Auerbach-Brown, a conservatory-trained composer and Media Program Manager at Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, plays alto saxophone, melodica, musical saw, udu, and does throat singing and vocal harmonizing. As a working composer, he is a vital asset to the ensemble when they have new material to master and new parts need to be written out. “Chris AB has an unrivaled gift for melody,” Mansbach says. But, as a player, his formal training invigorates Auerbach-Brown by taking him out of his comfort zone. “I’ve been forced to open up my musical worldview considerably as a result,” he says, “often at rehearsal, I’ll be handed an instrument to try on the spot and I love the challenge of making music on an instrument I’m not accustomed to playing.”
Auerbach-Brown teaches music theory and composition at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, electronic music technology at Lakeland Community College, and courses on the connections between contemporary music and sound art with the visual arts at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Peggy Latkovich has a Master’s in ethnomusicology from Kent State University and a passionate interest in ancient and non-Western music. Trained as a pianist, she plays accordion, glockenspiel, banjo, hang, various and sundry percussion, and, when there is one available, acoustic piano. “Dave has a strict no-electronic-instrument-unless-you-made-it-yourself policy, so I don’t bring my other keyboards to gigs,” Latkovich says, “but I do bring along my toy piano, which I picked out of someone’s garbage. Who would throw out a mint condition toy piano? Some parent at the end of his/her rope, I guess.”
Latkovich plays in two English country dance bands (Toad in the Hole and Musidora). She is also studying composition with Auerbach-Brown and Trepanning Trio is working some of her latest creations into the repertoire.
Brad Bolton is a self-taught musician and recording engineer who can, and does, play just about anything—guitar, godbass, turkey-baster whistle, musical saw, a blue ukulele, and a suitcase full of animal calls and squeak toys. The godbass, which Bolton made by hand, is one long string supported on a steel plate, played by bowing or plucking the string and striking the plate. “I can produce a surprising variety of sounds from deep low notes to high pitched whale-like calls,” he says. But it’s not just Bolton’s playing that matters to the group. According to Mansbach, “In large part, it is Brad’s spirit and humor that makes Trepanning Trio special. He’s been on stage with Simon and Garfunkel, the Diamonds, the Drifters, and The Ink Spots.” Bolton is also mastering live recordings for Trepanning Trio’s upcoming releases.
Following up their third CD, Auspicious Threes (2012), Trepanning Trio is about to release a new album, Naked as Needles, that showcases their music in new ways. Dawn in an Open Field Part 1, featuring bbob drake, (handmade electronic and acoustic instruments), Brad Bolton (godbass, animal calls, pigglesworth, etc.), David Mansbach (bouble bass, pan tree), Jeff Schuler (violin), and Peggy Latkovich (accordion, glockenspiel), is illustrative of the change in perspective.
Unlike the previous releases, which were meticulously crafted in the studio using the sculptural, experimental processes they’ve developed over the last twenty years, Dawn in an Open Field and all the new tracks are live recordings of truly free improvisation. According to Mansbach, “the spirit of the music is the same as what you have heard live and on our previous recordings. It still has that pretty Trepanning sound, it’s still (mostly) quiet. The difference is that what you hear is unedited, spontaneous interaction.” Naked as Needles was released on the Infinite Number of Sounds label on April 8, 2014.
[Photos by Larry Dunn, other than Naked as Needles cover shot courtesy of Infinite Number of Sounds]
Arlene and Larry Dunn are pure amateurs of contemporary music who live in Oberlin, Ohio. They write about music for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN and the International Contemporary Ensemble’s ICEblog. Follow them on Twitter at @ICEfansArleneLD.