Notes and Inventions: An Interview With Sarah Bernstein

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One of my favorite things about a new Sarah Bernstein album or project is that I know I’ll be surprised. The violinist, composer, and improviser knows how to harness certain moments and weave them into enticing sonic webs. Her solo albums are always a trip. Her duo with Kid Millions is all-time good, and with VEER Quartet, she’s changing perceptions around what is possible with a string quartet. Bernstein is a unique, positive force.

VEER Quartet’s debut is out now via New Focus, and Bernstein can be reached via her website.

I always love hearing about people’s early experiences with music and sound, so what are some of your earliest memories related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

My first instrument was piano. And the first piano I remember was a piece of paper in kindergarten with notes printed on it, along with an intro music lesson where we sang the notes and touched the paper keys. I was into it. After that, I began piano lessons, but since my family didn’t have a piano, I practiced at a neighbor’s house. The neighbors often weren’t home when I went to practice. One time, it was just me alone at their house playing piano, and an earthquake hit. I was about five years old, this was in San Francisco, so I went and stood in the doorway, as we had learned in school to do.

Formative things that have stuck with me? The atmosphere of music, the aura.

Did you always want to be a musician?

Not necessarily. I did always have a sense of belonging in music. In the beginning, music for me was about participation and about being moved by listening or playing. But later, around my late teens, I wanted to understand music more completely, to be able to hear everything and uncover the inner workings. Starting jazz improvisation study was a part of that. It demanded more knowledge, and I felt like the violin and music generally needed all of my attention, needed me to focus. Around the same time, I had a sense that I wanted to be an artist, to create my own expression, which was a separate goal, but I figured music would be the vehicle.

And, of course, beyond all the music you write and play, you are also a poet. As excited as I was about the collaborative albums with Kid Millions for various reasons, the vocal elements have always been the thing that grabbed me the hardest on those. How long have you been writing, and has that aspect of your creative practice always intersected with the sonic side of things? I admit the combination of the two is one of my first thoughts when I think about your work, so it’s hard to imagine the two unlinked…

The aspects are actually somewhat mentally unlinked for me – music and words – they are different parts of self. Linking them is not so hard, but it is not a given. I have to remember to do it. I’ve been writing and performing poetry and singing lyrics since forever, but it became a consistent part of my work ten-plus years ago with my bands Unearthish and Iron Dog. And now with Kid Millions duo and my solo project Exolinger. For me, there are life layers that music can’t express; only words can, so it is important. And the performance part is also very distinct from instrumental music. I am actually quite obsessed with this question, and I have a large-scale poem-piece that both asks and answers it called “The Plot.” I performed it around NYC for several years and recorded it on my solo album Exolinger (2020, 577 Records).

But, focusing more on the music side of things, the first Veer Quartet album has just been released on New Focus, and it’s tremendous. Can you tell me a little about how the ensemble first came together and what was the impetus for the project?

Being a performer and a composer, I’ve always written music to play with friends and colleagues, and some of that has taken the form of “chamber music,” acoustic music for small groups of instrumentalists to be played in living room-type settings. Musicians in my circle are generally improvisers, so it is normal to mix improvisation with composition. I was invited some years ago to present my chamber works as an evening-length concert in Brooklyn, and I assembled various ensembles for the night. I decided to include a string quartet, as a way to focus specifically on string improvisation, and I was inspired by the results. Afterwards, I continued to perform and develop my music for string quartet with different musicians, and though it was always rewarding, it didn’t coalesce into a sustainable ensemble until I began playing with Sana Nagano, Leonor Falcon, and Nick Jozwiak in 2018. With the four of us, the group feeling was immediately strong, and the music flowed easily. So at that point, VEER Quartet formally became a band, played a bunch of concerts, and recorded the album. Sana, Leonor, and Nick are brilliant musicians and improvisers with deep skills in all aspects of string playing and music-making, including being able to navigate the collective and the soloistic aspects of playing in a string quartet that is also an avant-jazz ensemble.

I’m curious about the approach of the quartet. Your website describes it as an ‘improvising string quartet,’ but the new album, to my ears, seems to lean more into composition compared to improvisation. When you all play together, how much does the setting – live compared to making a record – influence or dictate the approach?

There is a ton of improvisation in all the pieces on the album, with the exception of the last piece, which is mainly through-composed. The compositions do wield a lot of power over the improvisations because they set up musical scenarios in an exacting way. Listeners have told me they aren’t always sure where the improv begins, and they are curious to know. A good way to figure it out would be to come to concerts and get very familiar with the pieces, then you would start to hear how each live performance is different and why. Checking out the written scores would be another way. The scores include directions for the improvisation as part of the compositions. But to your question about playing live compared to making a record, we basically do take the same approach in the studio as in a concert. In either scenario, every performance is quite unique. The final recording captures just one of many performances.

Photo by Gretchen Robinette

Maybe a bit more specifically, with the record, how did it come together? Did you have pieces specifically written that became jumping-off points for the recordings, or was there a more collective approach with elements of composition and improvisation interwoven?

The pieces are all my compositions, and these compositions are fairly intricately written, with sections of through-composed notes as well as sections that direct the improvisation. The compositions create elaborate frames, backgrounds, and sonic structures for the improvisations to exist in. The improvisations then expand the compositions by adding spontaneous thought, creation, and expression. I’ve written a variety of improvisation approaches into the compositions; some pieces call for individual musicians to “solo,” as they would in a jazz setting, and some call for group interplay, utilizing both “free” and prescribed concepts.

I think one of the most exciting aspects of Veer Quartet to me is how it doesn’t really sound like any other string quartet I’ve heard. Stylistically, it covers a lot of ground and ends up in this kind of unique, singular place. How much of that was an intentional direction on your part, or was it also something that came about based on everyone’s involvement and input?

Everyone in the group is an incredible improviser with a broad expression pallet. And even though we are all very individualistic solo artists and quite different from each other, there is a lot of overlap in our musical backgrounds and influences. We’re four performers/composers who most frequently play amplified music, front our own bands, etc., but here we are instead, playing as an acoustic string quartet. That’s definitely going to bring a different sound to the string ensemble format. My composition is also a big component, for sure. It is like a guide in creating our ensemble sound. I think my writing makes perfect sense to the others because of our shared roots in jazz and experimental music, among other experiences. What we have in common is exciting to us and feeds the energy of the group.

What’s up next for Veer Quartet?

Our record release show is Oct 31 at Zürcher Gallery in Soho, NYC. After that, on the agenda is to record our second album, which will include six new compositions of mine. Some of the new pieces will feature guest musicians with the quartet. Other composers have also reached out to us recently to perform their work, so that is another direction we may be headed in the future.

And I can’t get out of this interview without asking about the duo with Kid Millions, one of my favorite projects in recent years. What’s happening with the project, and is there anything new on the horizon?

Yes there is! We have a new album ready for release. It was recorded live at the Forest Park bandshell in Queens last year. We’re finalizing the details now and hope to see it out next spring.

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