5BMF Artistic Director Michael Unterman sat down with Longleash for a deep dive into the ensemble’s origins, philosophies, and insights into the future of the piano trio.

The piano trio Longleash is something of a riddle: “an ensemble with a traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity” their bio says. They almost seem to court paradox: on the one hand, this is a new music ensemble named for a covert CIA operation; on the other, their identity might be most deeply shaped by a convent in rural Kentucky.

Starting with the basics, though: if new music is your core repertory, why form a piano trio? Why choose a format whose last prolific composer, Beethoven, wrote his final trio in 1811? And what of the age-old bugaboo of the piano trio’s balance problem: a 9-foot grand vs. a single violin and cello? The answers to these questions explain how Longleash has quietly carved out a largely-untapped niche for itself and, in the process, demonstrated why the piano trio is still very much a vital and essential form.

Sitting down with Pala Garcia and John Popham, the trio’s violinist and cellist, I raised that basic question: why resurrect this particular formation? Popham’s answer gently made something click; that, in contrast to the relative homogeneity of the string quartet, Longleash’s members were drawn to “the asymmetry of the piano trio.” It’s a compelling perspective in the context of contemporary music. Why, then, has there been relatively little new music written for piano trio in recent years? Turns out that assumption is incorrect, too.

“When Renate [Rohlfing, the trio’s pianist,] first approached us about starting a group,” said Popham, “I started investigating music beyond the traditional repertoire and was surprised to find so much music that had been written by composers I was really interested in. What I found was, with a lot of the pieces, they would be performed maybe just once and then abandoned; they weren’t being adopted into a trio’s standard repertoire. And that was interesting to me, that there are all these pieces that we would have the opportunity to resurrect. From the very beginning our interest was in having a more traditional chamber music model where we’d be able to give repeat performances, where we’d really live with these works.”

“There are a lot of interesting potentialities we’re exploring: resonance, and how the different instruments interact with each other. A lot of the work we’ve done with news pieces has been exploring modes of sound production that are unified among the three of us.”

The piano trio as a form embodies a compelling mix of characteristics: intimate and conversational, yet also powerful and symphonic. The medium is also an especially direct line to its composers, the piano so frequently being a composer’s main instrument. While it’s true that Haydn played violin, and Mozart and Beethoven played viola, the keyboard was the instrument they performed on in public. A pianist in a trio, then, can rightly feel themselves in the composer’s shoes.

For violinist Pala Garcia, historical context also enters into the question of the form’s pesky balance issue. “I think the piano trio establishes sonic space in a really different way. The balance issue is the first thing people talk about, but it’s interesting how tethered the history of the piano trio is to the technology of the piano and its evolution, from Haydn through Beethoven through Ravel to today: it kind of outlines the changing relationship, through these last couple centuries, of the string instruments with the piano, and that’s something a lot of the composers we’ve worked with have explored. There are a lot of interesting potentialities we’re exploring: resonance, and how the different instruments can interact with each other.

“A lot of the work we’ve done with new pieces has been exploring modes of sound production that are unified among the three of us. Or ways of producing sounds that are more individuated and differentiated. And so I think through contemporary music practice, exploring this spectrum of sounds, you find an overlap, too, that you wouldn’t necessarily think is there.”

This leads to some improbable connections with how the trio approaches its performances of the standard repertory. “We’ve been listening a lot recently to Isabel Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, and Alexander Melnikov” said Garcia, “and their recordings of Beethoven trios which they’ve made with fortepiano [a middle step between the harpsichord and today’s grand piano]. Really getting into that sound of the jangly-ness and the noisiness of that instrument and the difference in timbre from low to high register. It makes you realize how many layers of preexisting sonic images you have to filter out of your brain in order to get back to something that might be closer to what Beethoven was working with or imagining. Like how the resonance, not the noisiness of the fortepiano, but the after-resonance and blend with the string instruments is totally different. You realize, listening to those recordings, how cohesive some of those moments can be, sonically. It’s another thing to try to pursue.”

Longleash and Loretto

A simultaneous embrace of noise and blend; a trio of new music specialists looking to historical performance practice for inspiration; and a paradox that gets to the core of the trio’s identity: that of the “long leash” and Loretto.

Longleash is named for a CIA tactic employed during the Cold War through a top secret program in which the agency actually funded the creation of avant garde art in order to tout American openness in relief to Soviet control of cultural life. To preserve anonymity, and acknowledging that the artists probably wouldn’t want to be associated with funds from the CIA, the money was distributed with a “long leash,” funneled through established arts patrons and institutions. The trio’s name thus captures an ironic subversion while at the same time earnestly acknowledging the essential point that both the CIA and the artists in question would have agreed on: art’s power to open and change minds.

Longleash’s connection to the Congregation of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, though worlds apart, is built on a similar premise. The trio was first connected to the community, located about 50 miles southeast of Louisville, through a family connection. “We played a concert,” Popham recounted, “and then afterwards they invited us up to their residence and were serving us Manhattans and really nice cheese. They were so interested in what we were doing, about contemporary music and contemporary art, that we kind of walked away from that experience thinking we have to do something here.”

Soon after, the trio established an annual summer residency, The Loretto Project, a composition workshop that brings young composers to Loretto Community to workshop new works for piano trio and receive instruction from a composer-in-residence, a position that has been held by Anthony Cheung, Suzanne Farrin, Ted Hearne, Kate Soper, and Nils Vigeland. In 2018, The Pathways Initiative was added as an introductory workshop for high school-aged music students from backgrounds underrepresented in the field of composition.

Concerts take place in the Loretto Community chapel, which was renovated and simplified during the Second Vatican Council to reflect a new simplicity and minimalism. “They removed all the stained glass,” said Popham, “they didn’t want there to be barriers to the outside world. They wanted people to be able to see in and see out. The stained glass was a literal visual barrier.”

“Loretto is very independent minded in their ideology,” Garcia continued. “They’re really open about their progressive activism. A lot of members of that community have used the framework of the Catholic church to serve their communities, to do the social justice work they felt needed to be done.”

Popham also credits the trio’s time at Loretto as an inspiration for their programming. “One thing that is often on our minds is making sure the programs we present keep in mind the audiences we’re performing for, making sure the music we’re playing is not only art that we believe in, but something that will really resonate with the audience as well. In our week at Loretto we always present a concert at the Motherhouse for the community which is an interesting challenge, because we want to bring new music to that space, but we also want to tap into the interests and spiritual convictions that they have, the general vibe of the space and the people there. We end up with programs that we never would’ve come up with otherwise, and I think those are some of the most meaningful concerts we’ve done.”

“We’re all so taken by the community and the people we’ve met there. It’s not just that they’ve shaped our identity as a group, which they certainly have, but I think we all personally feel very changed knowing them, and very inspired.”

This exemplifies Longleash’s approach and attitude, one that manages to be both subversive and humble. Yet again a paradox, and a compelling asymmetry.

Learn more about Longleash at longleash.org

5BMF presents Longleash January 10 at Flushing Town Hall in Queens and January 12 at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.