Interview: Clarinetist Rachel Yoder Discusses Minimalism and “ex mus”

Besides teaching and performing clarinet in a variety of radical projects, traditional orchestras, and quintets that are somewhere in between, local overachiever Rachel Yoder is also director of communications at UNT’s College of Music. I asked Yoder some questions about the new “ex mus” concert series at CentralTrak, in which Rachel will be participating. The inaugural event kicks off  this evening at 8 p.m., with a variety of musicians taking different approaches to the minimal work of contemporary composer Anatassis Phillippakopoulous. The series lists a mission statement of approaching “music as sound design rather than as melodic entertainment.” Which is great, because I have just about had it with melodic entertainment. I spoke with Yoder by phone earlier today:

FrontRow: You mentioned pieces inspired by Feldman and Rothko in your initial correspondence regarding this event. What about this evening do you feel shares similarities with that work? Is there a particular visual artist who inspires you musically?

Rachel Yoder: I think I’m inspired a lot by modern art. Because I enjoy playing modern music, of all types. I would say that Anastassis’ music, to me, that it reminds me of Rothko, and musically, when I listen to it, it makes me feel in a similar way to listening to a Feldman piece. Just because it’s very quiet. It’s very long and static. It puts you in this meditative place where you start listening to music in a completely different way.

To me, it’s the same feeling I get from looking at a Rothko painting. Where, initially, it doesn’t look like there’s much there. But because there’s not much there, you start finding new things that are there, that you didn’t even realize. Does that make sense?

FR: Yes. You  mentioned the word “meditation” when you contacted me, and you said it again just now. What do you find yourself focusing on, or meditating on, as you play? Is it completely on the music since you’re an academic? Or does your mind wander?

RY: In this piece, and in the pieces that I’m playing tonight, you can’t really just focus on the music or on the notes. One of the pieces is about seven phrases, and each phrase has five whole notes. And that’s it. And they’re very long. There’s just not as much to think about as in a normal piece, where the notes are going by more quickly.

I think your mind does wander. I think with any performance, time seems to go by at a different rate when you’re on stage. As opposed to when you’re in the audience. So a lot of what I’m thinking about during this piece is the sense of time, and just trying to listen to the sound as it’s going by. I try to experience it fully so that I’m not rushing ahead or waiting too long. So I’m thinking more about timing and listening to it as it’s happening. Rather than planning out what I’m going to do next, or thinking about the notes, or things like that.

FR: In the promotional video for the event, there is a statement made in regard to taking the experimental music out of house shows and bars in Denton and bringing it to Dallas. Is that something you have thought about? Or is region unimportant to you? Do you think the idea of region, even between Dallas and Denton, has an impact on sound and style? 

RY: I think it definitely does. This series is being organized by students who are in the intermedia program at UNT. There is a lot of cross-pollination going on between the experimental music that’s going on at house shows, and things like that in Denton, and between some of the intermedia artists. There are a lot of people who do both. I think it’s pretty unique. And if there’s stuff going on like that in Dallas, I’m not sure.

In general, I would say that I personally have always had an interest in blurring that line between genres, and experimenting with different genres and different venues. It gets really interesting, because sometimes experimental music is viewed as being really academic, or you have to be a musician to understand, or you have to be a music student to understand. With this concert, I think that people who are into new age music would like it. I think people who are into guitars would like it, because there is an interesting-sounding guitar quartet. I think people who are into contemporary art would like it. I think it appeals to a lot of different people, and people who might not enjoy going to hear the DSO play Mozart. Or even Bartok, even something 20th Century. They might enjoy something like this, which is so different.

FR: So when I was planning Rock Lottery with the rest of the committee, I selected you in particular since I feel your talents and background are especially unique. When playing your instrument outside of say, tonight’s event, do you feel your own inclination or style is to play minimally or reactively? Or are you more aggressive in another setting? 

RY: I try to be a chameleon when I’m playing the music of others. I’m extremely open-minded. I will try anything musically that is presented to me by a composer. I’ll take on aggressive qualities if I’m playing something aggressive. Or a tranquil and meditative quality when I’m playing something like tonight.

And Greg (Dixon, Yoder’s husband) and I, with Odd Partials, have been doing a lot of improvisation. When it’s improvisation, it varies, but I would say that I like working with melodies but combining melodic content with extended techniques. Just reacting to the electronics, just trying to listen and be open and let the music go where it sounds like it could go.

FR: Finally, take us in another direction: What music or composer would you consider to be the opposite of minimalism? Do you enjoy the other extreme? 

I would say the opposite of minimalism would be the “New Complexity School”; like Brian Ferneyhough, and composers like that. That school that tries to write music that is so complex that it’s really impossible to play it accurately as it’s notated and it sometimes takes years to learn a piece. I would say that I’m not quite as interested in that type of music because I don’t feel the musical result is worth it. But they can have weird parallels. Because there is so much going on, it doesn’t have the same experience as a normal piece, because it’s almost too much information to process as a listener and as a performer. And the minimalist music is too little. So it does force you to listen in different ways, which I think is really interesting.

Image: From l-r, Greg Dixon and Rachel Yoder, who make up the improvisational duo, Odd Partials. Via.


  • DickSully

    Is that a made up Greek name. That sounds like a made up Greek name. And, yes, I’ll be co-opting “melodic entertainment” with impunity now.

  • Christopher Mosley

    It’s a real name. He was born in France, but he’s part of the Greek Composers Union. “Melodic entertainment” is killer. Sounds like a column.