The word that comes to mind is “rapture.”
Joseph Brent plays the mandolin swaying, eyes closed and brows arched, making the expression of someone catching a whiff of a sweet aroma. To stage right, Sara Caswell has an ear cocked toward her violin, as if conjuring the notes she’s about to play. When she does lay bow to string, a smile darts across her lips; she seems to be sharing a joke with her band mates. (As she later tells me, she is.) Between them, double bassist Andrew Ryan is serene, bobbing back and forth with the rhythm: the current that allows them to drift – flexibly, of course – through their music.
This is 9 Horses, a self-described improvisational chamber ensemble whose music moves breezily across a multitude of musical languages – classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, pop – picking up one genre here, dropping another stylistic lick there. Tonight, on a perfect summer evening in New York, they’re opening their debut set at the experimental music venue, (le) poisson rouge, with a movement from their “Perfectest Herald” suite, a number called “Listening to the Elliot Smith Discography in Reverse Order.” (“You should try it sometime,” Brent later urges me. “It gets a lot happier.”)
True to Brent’s interpretation, the piece has a sense of upward motion. Starting with a moody rumination on the bass, it gets a kick in its step when Brent joins in with a tango-like melody that is so tuneful and inevitable, it’s hard to imagine anyone actually composing it. When Caswell arrives on the same melody, she shifts the tone to something a little more playful, and then the piece seems to shed a protective layer as it moves through pensive, bittersweet improvisations and – surprise! – a fugue on the tango melody. By the time they reach the end of this 10-minute piece, I have been transported.
9 Horses first came to the attention of 21CM when they won the inaugural LAUNCH: Emerging Artists Competition. Over the past year, the 21CM team has gotten to know them even better, especially as we have collaborated on opportunities that the LAUNCH prize offered, including producing a music video (featured in this issue) and the aforementioned performance at (le) poisson rouge.
…they are perpetually amazed by the abundance and richness of art in the world – and by the fact that they might access it, might even create some of it themselves.
But any band can make a music video or play a gig. What sets a group apart is the quality of their performance, the sense of communicable life in the music they make. A writing teacher of mine once suggested that fiction sings when you feel that the author is as surprised by the developments in their story as the reader. That’s the feeling I get from 9 Horses – that they are perpetually amazed by the abundance and richness of art in the world – and by the fact that they might access it, might even create some of it themselves.
Of course, what also drew us to 9 Horses was their embodiment of “21st century musicianship,” from the kind of music they perform to the way they live their daily lives, both of which begin with a commitment to musical excellence.
Speaking to the group before their LPR performance, I can’t help but note that each of their instruments claims a deep history within a multitude of genres. Permutations of the violin-mandolin-bass trio is a bluegrass staple, but these instruments perform with equal comfort in many other idioms. When forming the group, I want to know, was that intentional?
Brent, the composer and creative backbone of the ensemble, responds with a firm “no.” He only had “musicians in mind, beginning with Sara.” 9 Horses grew out of that Brent-Caswell duo (you can listen to an EP of that project on Bandcamp), after which they added double bassist Shawn Conley, who later, upon leaving, recommended Andrew Ryan to take his place. (Conley is the bassist you’ll hear on the 9 Horses debut album, “Perfectest Herald.”) From there, other musicians drift in and out of the scene, including two that have joined for the LPR performance: Kevin Joaquin Garcia on drums and Justin Goldner, who adds pre-composed electronic soundscapes to the set. Brent insists that each addition comes from a desire to work with the musician and not, necessarily, their instrument. “I wanted not just any old drummer,” he says. “I wanted Kevin, because of the things that Kevin does.”
I find this musician-first attitude to be a triple threat. Not only does it ensure the highest quality of musicianship, it also loosens up any stylistic dogmatism. (With the addition of Garcia and Goldner, the music becomes notably pop-y, while album recordings of the same pieces feel more strictly bluegrass.) And, according to Caswell, it’s an approach that makes the group click. “When you know the skillset of someone you’re bringing in – and it’s also personality – you’re drafting what you write around that voice. As a player, that’s a thrill. You feel that [the composer] trusts you and wants to hear what you can contribute.”
From that foundation, however, it seems there are few rules governing 9 Horses’ aesthetic. They are, after all, improvisers. Brent explains that he “purposely leaves every tune about 10 percent unfinished” so that his band mates can fill in the rest. Ryan remembers that when he joined, “Joe and Sara made it pretty clear to me that we’re reading scores that look like classical music, but we read them as if they’re lead sheets – suggestions rather than ‘the truth.’”
This explains that smile of Caswell’s, and the ease that lets audiences melt into their performances. She says, “You’ll see us smiling throughout the show at various ornamentations. They’re deviations from the page. It’s that spontaneity that adds to the uniqueness of the performance – it’s not like, ‘Oh, I messed up!’”
At the same time, there’s an exquisite sense of architecture underlying each piece, and this, too, comes from that musician-first philosophy. Brent explains that he usually composes in reverse, first conceptualizing arrival moments: “When I’m writing a tune, [I think of] how they would write ‘I Love Lucy’ episodes. They would come up with an absurd situation for Lucy to end up in, and then they would write the episode to justify [it]. That’s exactly how I write. What’s the awesome thing I want to hear Sara do? Now I need to write a tune to justify creating that.”
Being polyglots on the level of 9 Horses is not only helpful for aspiring professional musicians; it’s non-negotiable.
From ‘I Love Lucy,’ we veer into a conversation about musical influences, which includes mentions of tUnE-yArDs, Brazilian composer Pixinguinha, trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis (whose playing inspired the piece “NaNo”) and even the soundtrack to the 1982 fantasy film, “The Secret of NIMH.” We talk about literary influences, like the Emerson poem that inspired the piece “the water understands” and Billy Collins, from whose work the group’s name originates. We discuss another of Brent’s composing techniques: intentionally trying to write in the voice of another composer (as in the piece “Fundicao Pixinguinha,” which Brent penned after binge-listening to Pixinguinha’s music and attempting a recreation). On this last topic, I feel entirely refreshed. Some artists might wring their hands over the pursuit of originality, but Brent accepts, and then embraces, impossibilities: both that of pure imitation and of escaping one’s own voice. If you want to make something new, it follows, just blend the two.
I’ll posit something: Being polyglots on the level of 9 Horses is not only helpful for aspiring professional musicians; it’s non-negotiable. When Andrew Ryan tells me that, as a younger musician, he considered a strictly classical career to be simply “not enough,” he means creatively – but it’s true in a practical sense, too. The individual careers of 9 Horses’ members are, splendidly, all over the place: All three belong or have belonged to other acts, including Kaia Kater, Regina Spektor and Kishi Bashi; they’re studio musicians; they’re appointed for solo work with national orchestras; they teach – Brent at Mannes and Caswell at Berklee. And certainly this, the sort of ultra dialed-in life that many aspiring musicians may feel they could only dream of, is all by necessity and a product of ambition and dedication, but it is also impossible without a deep, roving love for, well, everything. How do we encourage this among ourselves?
Perhaps the answer lies in another salient characteristic of the band: their ease. This is a joyful group, one that, when I press them, exhibits almost an absence of highly specific career goals; instead, there are project goals, goals that are part and parcel of their everyday music-making. There’s contentment here, which, paradoxically, might be the key to their success. When I ask Brent what he envisions for the future of 9 Horses, it’s a simple request: “All I want is a venue to perform the stuff that I hear and that I like. That’s all I care about.” Maybe it really doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
Want to book 9 Horses, or find out where they’re playing next? You can check them out here.