Snark Horse is a constantly evolving group lead by Kate Gentile and Matt Mitchell. The band revolves around a body of small compositions, the conceit being that every composition is one measure long. This iteration of Snark Horse includes Gentile on drums and Mitchell on piano, as well as bassist Kim Cass and trumpeter Davy Lazar. We reached out to them all: Kim’s bass had just been damaged the night before, and Kate and Matt were scrambling to deal with a leaking roof, but everyone managed to take a few minutes and talk via phone about this unusual project.
Matt Mitchell: The deal with Snark Horse is that all the pieces are one bar. It started from an exercise that Kate and I began doing about five years ago. Well, it wasn’t so much an exercise as “I haven’t written in a while, and rather than setting a huge goal of writing a big-bang epic, lets just write a bar of music a day, if nothing else.” So we started to do that, and I realized after twelve or thirteen days that “Well, all these bars are kind of cool just by themselves,” and rather than try to expand them, we decided to just deal with them as-is. It’s not that radical a concept: The history of jazz is filled with one-bar vamps. But they’re kind of weird vamps. Rhythmically, they’re unusual. Sometimes we put a lot of counterpoint in them. Sometimes we write three lines, because we know different instruments are going to play them. Now, we’ve each written over thirty of them.
Kate Gentile: These tiny little compositions are an opportunity to explore material that might be too much to deal with if it were a long composition. Because it’s only one bar, no matter how hard it is, it’s never too hard to learn. We might write something really weird, but since we’re usually looping the material in some way, you hear it so many times that it starts to sound normal. The audience, through the repetition, essentially goes through the process that a musician playing the composition would have to go through, hearing it over and over to internalize it.
Davy Lazar: Matt and Kate’s music has this insane amount of granular detail. It’s all evident in their larger-form pieces, but in these tiny looping bars, it’s still that same hyper-detailed approach. There’s tons of self-reference within each bar, which is insane. Miles Okazaki wrote this essay about endurance and pacing, where he talks about Matt’s music, and says something like “Underneath a microscope, Matt’s music reveals all sorts of hidden worlds.” It’s true. There are all these layers that you can follow, and each one has its own little universe of information. Kate’s music is the same way. Any thread you follow is going to have a ton of information and reasoning behind it.
Kim Cass: One of the things that fascinates me about this music is the way it looks. They’re one bar pieces but they’re super unified. They’re eye candy. Now that they have a book of them, some of them are on the same page, and I love just flipping through it all. It’s not just the material, it’s the way it’s notated. You can get really deep within the single bar, and it’s a really cool exercise making it look a certain way. Matt’s use of lettering and title is totally linked in with the music itself, the sound of the composition. The way he can manipulate that one bar and fit that information in is really quite compelling visually. And it sounds great too. I spend a lot of time on notation, and I write music by hand, but the way Kate and Matt do it, even though it’s generated on the computer, gets so much out of that aesthetic.
The Development of Snark Horse
Kate Gentile: This has actually been one of the easiest projects either of us has done. Because the bars are largely written so that all the parts can be played on piano, Matt and I can play all the material. Our original thought was that whoever we play with can learn or not learn the bars to the degree that they want. Theoretically, someone could play with us like they were playing a free improv gig, and it would be cool, because the material is already covered by us. But every person we’ve played with has wanted to learn the material really well. That’s made it easy. Even in a typical rehearsal with someone new, in twenty minutes they can play the bars right away. Mat Maneri came over and played the bar exactly in one repeat. He played every possible part perfectly once, and then improvised with it. It’d take like two minutes per bar. That’s usually how it is for anyone.
Matt Mitchell: It might seem precious, or willfully strange, but think of other pieces in jazz history that are essentially one bar. A Love Supreme–which I’m a bit reluctant to mention, because I’m not comparing myself to Coltrane–is basically one bar, at least that first part, with the intro. There are plenty of other things that are essentially a single repeated bar, sometimes with a melody. There’s precedent in the overall basic approach: The difference is the content, the innards. Some of these bars have a decent amount of information in them, especially bars that have three layers of counterpoint, that you can use that to shape an improvisation or group improvisation. We don’t dictate how people improvise, we just assume they’ll do something interesting.
Interpretation, Form, Performance
Matt Mitchell: When we play these pieces, we vamp the bars, we improvise in and out of them, like one does in modern jazz [laughs]. Four or five years ago, we started inviting different friends to come play these bars with us. Our strategy is to give everyone the same part, which is basically a piano chart. Everyone has the freedom to pick out interior parts, play top lines, bottom lines, that kind of thing. We do quick rehearsals to make sure everyone can play the written stuff, and then we choose an order. We’ll say “Let’s start with this one, and move into this one.” A lot of times we’ll do pairs, start with one, end with one, and do four pairs in a set, which means we do eight bars per set, usually eight of mine and eight of Kate’s. But we also do threes, different groupings, six in a row continuously, but that’s as pre-determined as we get.
Davy Lazar: This music is a lot of fun [laughs]. I really enjoy playing and writing challenging stuff, especially on trumpet. I choose not to think about music in terms of “is it going to be playable?” It’s more fun to figure that out the hard way [laughs]. There are a lot of lines and layers in these bars that are really anti-trumpet material, and it’s a blast. It’s so much fun to get in and figure out how to make it work, and how I’m gonna get through two sets being the only horn player.
Kim Cass: If I feel like it, I can hack some of the upper lines, or if I want to stick down in the lower part of the line, they’re really written in a way where you can pick and choose, leave things out, jump around. I have the freedom to make it seem like I’m playing a longer piece than it is, because I’m jumping here, playing that there, doing another thing next time it comes around. Trying to make my own arrangement out of it by just using the one bar of material is a huge challenge. More often than not, I’m in the lower part of the bass clef, but I do try to jump up and catch things. A lot of the really meaty, cool stuff is in the middle part of the register. Matt’s got big hands, and the thumb sides of his hands are like a third and fourth voice, like tenor and alto. Those middle notes are usually where some of the coolest choices are.
Kate Gentile: We’ve been trying some different things. There was one point where we made an internal form with one bar: We’d play the first beat, then the first two beats, the first three, and eventually the whole bar. We’ve made forms by assembling bars in different ways. Play this bar three times, play this bar once, improvise, play a third bar. Matt and I were just talking about how we’re only just exploring the basic playing of the bars and improvising with them: We’re just scratching the surface. For now, we’ll usually pair or group them. We try to avoid a head-solo-head thing, so if we play one bar and then improvise, we’re not going back to it. It’s going to keep moving forward.
Snark Horse plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 19, 2019. The group features Matt Mitchell on piano, Davy Lazar on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Kate Gentile on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.