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An Experimental Music Ensemble Won’t Just Fade Away

When John Cage and Morton Feldman, experimental composers of contrasting styles but compatible temperaments, met in the Carnegie Hall lobby on Jan. 26, 1950, it began a lasting association. Their chance encounter came full circle in 2001, when the vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara initiated “When Morty Met John,” a three-year cycle of Carnegie Hall concerts devoted to Cage, Feldman and their colleagues of the New York School, including Earle Brown and Christian Wolff.

Fittingly, those concerts produced their own serendipitous byproduct: Ne(x)tworks, an ensemble devoted to preserving and extending practices and philosophies fostered by Cage and Feldman, including graphic notation and chance operations.

The group, an unorthodox cadre of improvising composer-performers, included Ms. La Barbara and two of her “When Morty Met John” associates, the violinist Cornelius Dufallo and the violist Kenji Bunch, as well as the trombonist Christopher McIntyre and the pianist Stephen Gosling. The core lineup coalesced in 2006 with the arrival of Shelley Burgon, a harpist and sound artist, and Miguel Frasconi, a protean musician whose arsenal includes glass objects and electronics.

The fledgling band developed a tight bond early on with Issue Project Room, an East Village performance space opened in 2003 by Suzanne Fiol, a visual artist and upstart presenter, and followed her to three successive Brooklyn locations. The association continued after Fiol’s death in 2009.

By 2012, though, Ne(x)tworks had lost members to relocation, competition and career change. Rather than fading away without remark, the group is mounting a grand finale on Oct. 24, at Issue’s present home, which members of the ensemble christened in 2010 with a rapt account of Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2.

For this farewell concert — presented in conjunction with “Suzanne Fiol: Ten Years Alive,” an exhibition of Fiol’s visual art marking the 10th anniversary of her death — Ne(x)tworks rounded up former colleagues and longtime collaborators to play compositions by its members, Cage and other kindred spirits.

On a recent morning in a lounge at New York University, Mr. Dufallo, Mr. Frasconi, Ms. La Barbara and Mr. McIntyre gathered to reflect on the group’s life-span, its association with Fiol and Issue, and why the time has come to say goodbye. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Among new-music ensembles in New York, Ne(x)tworks was notable for its unusually disparate roster, its members representing different generations, backgrounds and practices. What brought you all together?

CORNELIUS DUFALLO I was in the Flux Quartet, and Joan was curating the “When Morty Met John” festival at Carnegie Hall. We collaborated on [Earle Brown’s] “Folio and Four Systems,” and that, for me, was an incredible moment. Fast forward a year or two: I was completing my doctoral thesis on indeterminacy in the violin repertoire. Writing about open scores and graphic notation, and thinking I really would like to play these pieces, I emailed Joan, saying, “What would you think about getting together to do something?”

How did you connect with Suzanne Fiol and Issue Project Room?

CHRISTOPHER McINTYRE I had already been there, when it was on Sixth Street. She knew of us — or members of us — and said, “Of course you can come and play here.”

JOAN LA BARBARA It was an office during the day, for a magazine called Issue, so we couldn’t start until the office stopped. I remember it as almost a garage space — there was no real entrance.

DUFALLO But it became our home, and Suzanne was like our mom. And the concerts were like parties. That was the vibe.

When it moved to Brooklyn, you followed.

LA BARBARA We’d lost our home, and then she showed up again: “I’ve found this great place on the Gowanus Canal.”

McINTYRE She was worried about people making the schlep, and how to deal with that: Maybe if there was a residency idea, some kind of regularity, and professionalizing the organization more than it had been? So she talked to us about, “Would you guys come and do this?” And I think we realized that we were better off when we had a kind of focused energy. This group has always been populated with people doing 100,000 other things.

LA BARBARA Which is one of the wonderful things about it. It brought so many different points of view and perspectives to it. There were no boundaries, no barriers.

McINTYRE Whatever practice you were a part of, you could bring it to the material, because it had an openness to it — specifically dealing with historical open forms, but what we made ourselves, as well. The last concert of the first Issue residency was an auspicious night; we had formed a real band at that point. And every year we had at least one concert that was only pieces by us. So I’m writing, “This is for Neil, this is for Joan, this is for Miguel” — that kind of Ellingtonian thing, where you’re writing for people, rather than a sort of generic ensemble.

Miguel, how did you find your way into this mix?

MIGUEL FRASCONI I joined in 2006, but I had heard Ne(x)tworks for years without realizing they were Ne(x)tworks. I went to their Earle Brown show, simply because it was Earle Brown.

DUFALLO When Miguel and Shelley joined, at that point I felt like we had a Ne(x)tworks sound that was new and different.

FRASCONI The classic Ne(x)tworks instrumentation I always thought of as a string quartet dreaming of itself, where the cello dreamed it was a trombone, the viola dreamed it was a harp, one of the violins was glass, and the other was Joan’s voice. And then Steve’s piano sort of held everything together.

You went through many seasons of substantial activity. But in recent years Ne(x)tworks seemed to fade from view, with members pursuing other projects. Why did you decide to end the group?

LA BARBARA I think it was a kind of frustration. We’d say, “We should do something,” so everybody would send in ideas. Then months would go by, and things didn’t happen.

FRASCONI We were talking about a final show, and Joan and I had some ideas about graphic scores. And then she said, “Let’s do something where we bring everybody back.”

Did Issue’s commemoration of Suzanne’s life play a part in your decision?

McINTYRE It feels correct to me.

LA BARBARA It just felt like it was time. And to bring back Neil — we tried to reach Kenji, to no avail — and just make a final whole out of it, to make that statement.

DUFALLO [To her] I was grateful that you contacted me. Obviously I wasn’t involved in this decision, but I appreciate it. It gives the whole thing a sense of closure. It makes me feel like, wow, you know what? We did what we set out to do, and I think we did it well.


Oct. 24 at Issue Project Room, Brooklyn; issueprojectroom.org.

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