The Meridian Arts Ensemble Takes “FIVE!” tm Back to the Future!

6_heads_photoThe Meridian Arts Ensemble has embraced the revolutionary and quintessentially American line of musical thought which stretches from before Duke Ellington, to Mingus and Zappa. They are intense and flavorful-a connoisseur’s choice for the ear. Establishing themselves as a classical brass quintet in the wake of the early successes of the Empire Brass Quintet, MAE has embraced both the tradition of classical music and their authentic reflective experiences of time and place. Having added percussion, at times, and the new ideal of beauty that is the electric guitar, they remain an authentic and varietal ensemble of great passion and determination. Come along as “FIVE!” tm gets lost in the haze of purple that is the Meridian Arts Ensemble..Enjoy!

1. Some brass quintets flirt with Rock, your groups commitment seems more like a marriage. What has the relationship yielded and what are the rewards of more than a superficial look at rock?
We have always felt a strong push to bring our recreational listening into the music we perform. The result has been a hugely productive relationship with the world of rock. It started with playing Frank Zappa’s music, moved from there to Captain Beefheart and Jimi Hendrix, and onward from there.

What it gave us was, first of all, a new world of styles to figure out. It gave us a new sound world, including use of electronics and use of chaos and mess (as opposed to clean blend). And it gave us access to new audiences. So, it was a stimulating relationship for the members of the ensemble, for the ensemble as a whole, and for our listeners.

2. How much do you keep your audience in mind when selecting literature? Are there some pieces which are only for recording?
We have evolved over time. I would say that, in the beginning, we would perform any piece if we thought it merited performance.

As we gained experience, we started understanding the limits of the elasticity of any given audience. We have always enjoyed pushing audiences past what they might have thought were their limits, but we learned that it is possible to push too far.

Some pieces are better for particular audiences. There are some pieces which we have recorded but not performed very much, but most of what we record is our active repertoire. At times, we performed pieces a million times but only recorded them belatedly.

I would say that the group always wants to provide a meaningful experience to its listeners, and in concert, that means creating a meaningful experience for that PARTICULAR group of listeners.

3. The group seems to have an incredibly relaxed, unforced, and fluid approach. Is it technique, or attitude?
It is both.

When we started, in the late 80s, we rehearsed like crazy, hours and hours every week. The result: we got to know each other as players (and people) extremely well. When we are playing as a group, there is a comfortable feeling that we can rely on each other. Much of our music is very hard, both the individual parts and keeping the band together. So we depend on that sense of reliance.

At the same time, we have always made sure to have fun together. At times where it has gotten less fun, we have made changes so that we didn’t feel like victims of circumstance. So, technique and attitude both.

4. How do you address note shape (the front AND the back of the note), when playing more rhythmic works?casual_photo
The MAE has a better group sense of rhythm than any ensemble I’ve ever played with. We listen closely to each other and imitate attacks and releases.

A lot of our matching each other comes from that listening, and much of the rest comes from our body language, which has developed over the course of our 25+ years. I would say that the listening and the body language account for 90% of how we evolve the shape of notes. The other 10% comes from talking, arguing, singing to each other. Sometimes it’s not really chamber music until you are arguing passionately.

I have learned over the years that my colleagues are always right. I may disagree with them, but their ideas are always good and true.

5. If the typical classical music ensemble embraces the voice, violin and perhaps the piano as an ideal of beauty, what do you think of? (Did the guitar sneak on your list, and how do you achieve distortion on brass?)
Always the voice for us.

The line of the voice, the precision of the drums.

The electric guitar is such an amazing instrument because it imitates the voice, in all its variety, so well. As for distortion, that’s an excellent question. In its early days, the MAE worked so hard at achieving perfect blend, intonation, and color that we had troubles (at the beginning), playing rock music; our approach was too clean, too organized, and too blended! We had to figure out how to make that music sound dirty and authentic.

Sometimes we used electronic effects, and sometimes we just figured out how to make the kind of sounds we needed. I couldn’t tell you exactly how to achieve distortion on brass.

You need a concept of the sound you want, and then it’s practice, practice!

formal6. The trombone tuba blend is exceptional and complimentary without sacrificing individual fulness. How do you conceive of that particular blend?
Those two guys are so talented, I couldn’t even begin to say how they do it. There is no conception – it’s just playing. Probably comes from playing Bach chorales together for 25 years.

7. What are your musical influences?
I’ll answer for myself: first the great composers-let’s start with Bach, Mozart, Strauss, Mahler; next, great horn players; then, performers in non-classical worlds such as Clifford Brown, Zappa-of course, Pink Floyd, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Salif Keita. (70s classic rock, broadly defined.)

And finally, my students, who teach me everything I need to know.


The sky’s the limit. I read a lot, as do most of the people in the group, so authors galore. Beyond that? Once you’re over 50, you are such a mish-mash that it’s hard to tease apart the pieces.

8. Where do you see the brass quintet genre in ten years?

Very hard to know. I see three strands from the past: let’s call them the early Empire strand, the Canadian strand, and the Ewazen strand. The first is the one we came out of: the hard hitting repertoire that the Empire BQ played in its early days, which itself comes from the groundwork laid by the NY Brass Quintet and the American Brass Quintet. The Canadian strand: music as entertainment or show, as performed by the Canadian Brass. That introduced the concept of brass chamber music to huge numbers of people. And finally, Ewazen (as a representation of a particular style), music that appeals to general audiences while maintaining its links to the classical world.

How these three strands will mix, match, combine, or evolve is anybody’s guess. I’m not going to pass judgment on what is good or bad, and I think all three strands have fed the development and recognition of the brass quintet as a performing entity.

9. What are your favorite MAE projects?
Rather than single out particular projects, I would say that my favorite thing about the MAE is:
1. That we always conceived of our work as projects.
2. That we always poured ourselves completely into every project.

So, a project could be huge, like increasing the repertoire, or contained, like recording a particular CD. In either case, it would get our full attention, concentration, devotion, and care.

Coming soon to “FIVE!” tm…..The Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet!

c. 2015 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved.
Interested in more “FIVE” tm interviews?
Canadian Brass 2014, Windsync 2014, Boston Brass 2015, Mnozil Brass 2015, Spanish Brass 2014, Dallas Brass 2014, Seraph 2014, Atlantic Brass Quintet 2015, Mirari Brass 2015, Axiom Brass 2015, Scott Hartmann of the Empire Brass 2015, Jeffrey Curnow of the Empire Brass 2015, Ron Barron and Ken Amis of the Empire Brass, Meridian Arts Ensemble 2015, Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet 2015, American Brass Quintet 2015

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