New York Chamber Ensemble Yarn/Wire Headlines Four Days of Cutting-Edge Classical Music at UT

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The catalog of Western chamber music stretches back to the Middle Ages, but the vast majority of it is written for a handful of familiar formats: piano trios, string quartets, a few dozen combinations of strings, piano, brass, and woodwinds. The possibilities expanded during the 20th century, with novel contributions from Bartók, Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, and others. But two pianos and two percussionists?

“There’s just not that much out there,” says pianist Laura Barger, one of the founding members of the New York contemporary music ensemble Yarn/Wire. “You could probably do two or three concerts with music that was written before 2006.”

Barger and her colleagues in Yarn/Wire—pianist Ning Yu and percussionists Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio—met in the early 2000s, as graduate students at Stony Brook University in Long Island. They had all played together in some capacity before starting Yarn/Wire, but never all together. Greenberg was especially interested in the small body of available music written specifically for two pianists and two percussionists—pieces by Luciano Berio, Bartók, George Crumb, Alvin Lucier, Steve Reich, and Frederic Rzewski, among others.

“When we very first got together, our main focus was to dig into work that already existed for our instrumentation, which is kind of strange,” Barger says. “There aren’t that many works that are written for two pianos and two percussionists, but they do exist. Like any students, it was about getting your hands around the repertoire that already exists. Once we had done that, playing together was something that really appealed to us. We enjoyed playing together.”

But in order to turn their friendship into a professional partnership, Barger and the other members of what would become Yarn/Wire would have to have music to play. One option would have been to adapt existing music to their unorthodox format. Another would have been to change the lineup, adding or subtracting players and instruments to meet the demands of the traditional chamber repertoire.

But Barger and her friends chose a different path: They established the group as an incubator of new music, helping to build a new library of piano and percussion music. What began as a practical challenge has grown into a creative mission—a decade later, Yarn/Wire is defined as much by its commitment to sponsoring new music and supporting young composers as it is by its piano-percussion setup.

“Every year, the bulk of our season is premiering new works, or playing works that we’ve recently commissioned or premiered and trying to get those out into the world as much as possible,” Barger says.

Artistic challenges are built into Yarn/Wire—its existence is essentially predicated on an aesthetic dare. So it’s no surprise that the group looks for music that departs from or butts up against our usual assumptions. Melody and rhythm aren’t nearly as important to the group as sounds and patterns that explore or defy what we think melody and rhythm are.

“It sounds so trite to say we just look for good music, because what does that even mean?” Barger says. “I think we look for things that are interesting and have something to say. A lot of times it’s very creative music, composers who are thinking differently about either the instruments we play—maybe they’re trying different things with electronics and technology, maybe they’re thinking about the entire performance experience itself, how that can be changed or adjusted or varied.

“We really look for music that is a performative experience. We’re interested in things that are a little more creative and reimagining the concert experience in some way.”

Barger, who grew up in Chattanooga and earned her undergraduate music degree at the University of Tennessee, returns to Knoxville for UT’s Contemporary Music Festival, where she and the other members of Yarn/Wire will perform music by the Austin, Texas, composer Travis Weller. The festival will also include the UT Contemporary Music Ensemble and the UT Electroacoustic Ensemble, performing music by Berio, Brian Simlachik, John Zorn, and Mark Applebaum.

Yarn/Wire performs at the UT Contemporary Music Festival, which runs from Oct. 19-22 on campus and at the Emporium Center (100 S. Gay St.). 

Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at

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