Talking Heads: Ensemble Resonanz – Justin Caulley

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

These are exciting times for Ensemble Resonanz. Presenting themselves as an ensemble that functions as a group of soloists as well as a chamber orchestra, the Hamburg-based group are Ensemble in Residence at Germany’s flagship new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. From that base they have established themselves as a wide-reaching musical force, capable of interpreting the music of Haydn as naturally as their latest release with Bryce Dessner, composer and guitarist with The National.

Arcana spoke to one of the ensemble’s lynchpins, viola player Justin Caulley (above), to find out what makes him – and them – tick, and how they achieve their renowned intensity in concert and on record.

As always, we began at the start, and an upbringing that brings both Beethoven and Pearl Jam into the conversation. “I grew up mostly in Kansas”, says Caulley, “and my parents were amateur musicians. My father played piano and a bit of cello, while my mother played the piano. My upbringing was sprinkled with classical CDs that my dad would bring home. I especially remember Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 as well. I got started playing the violin in church, then moved to viola. My dad was the preacher there. I played in student concerts in country churches, but like every kid at the time I listened to a lot of rock and grunge music. I was pretty influenced by mixtapes my cousin would make for me, with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains on them. He was in south Seattle and introduced me to them, as well as bands like Sonic Youth.”

Deciding to pursue music further, Caulley made rapid progress in both his musical attributes and his discoveries. “Having grown up in the United States I was influenced by the idea of crossing genres, or category-less music making. When you grow up in a small town all music is not the same but categories exist as much. Beethoven 9 or Pearl Jam, it’s all there. I was also heavily influenced at the Eastman Rochester School of Music, where I studied. It was there that I first encountered minimal music, and especially quite a few Steve Reich pieces. I was lucky to work with him a couple of times, and with La Monte Young, on the Dream House. We played a version of his String Trio and worked with him on it. This all happened before I came to Europe in 2003, so before Ensemble Resonanz I had a good varied upbringing!”

We move on to discuss the ensemble’s new disc Tenebre, a collection of four pieces by Bryce Dessner. “One of the challenges was to encounter Bryce’s music in the realm outside of categories”, says Caulley, in reference to our earlier points. “He is impossible to put in a box, and the challenge is to approach music with fresh as opposed to tabular thinking. The pieces are great and easy to get to, but each needs its own universe.”

There is a very powerful presence on Aheym, the album’s opening track. Originally written for the Kronos Quartet, it has been expanded by Dessner for the bigger forces of Ensemble Resonanz. “It’s one of those pieces that has such an incredible explosion of ideas and energy”, Justin says enthusiastically. “It’s easy to grab on to. It gets you worked up and very suddenly there is a groove. Some of the changes from section to section in Tenebre itself were astonishing to play, too.”

From previous experience I note Bryce has a really positive presence, softly spoken but fiercely driven. Did that transfer to the recording studio? “I think that’s very well put”, responds Caulley. “Working with him was really nice, and it was interesting to get feedback from him. We were working on this other level outside of the nuts and bolts. What I noticed was this unbelievably broad wisdom outside of the music, in a practiced way but also inside of that practicality there is something bigger going on.”

Dessner was quoted in an interview as being quite taken aback by the intensity of Ensemble Resonanz’s playing, which is surely the ultimate reference for an ensemble. “We were ultimately flattered by that! One of the nice things working with him was us working towards a common goal, our wishes were similar. It was easy to stay intense, with us all in it together.”

Ensemble Resonanz have been recording, too. “I just came from a session of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 with Gianluca Cascioli, conducted by Riccardo Minasi. We also have a great tour of our version of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio) coming up, with quite a few concert dates before Christmas. After that we continue with our subscription concerts, with some Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya in January.”

He reflects on the opportunity to play in the Elbphilharmonie. “It’s great, really nice!” he enthuses. “It is totally larger than life, and even though we’ve toured most of our lives it’s not every day such a building opens up.” It must be rewarding moving between music by composers such as Haydn, Schoenberg, Eisler and Dessner, as the ensemble do. “It’s crazy, the breadth of stuff that we do. It’s always a great challenge, and the greatest luxury to have so many opportunities.”

There are moments of creative tension, but Caulley sees these as a sign of healthy artistic dialogue. “As in any group there is a dynamic that can have its moments of tension. One thing I’ve learned of value is the idea that any sort of tension can be resolved, and can also be used towards working for a goal. Where I grew up there was no tension at all, and it could get superficial. Now although sometimes tempers can flare the search for some sort of truth is important to people. They don’t want just to smile and nod and say that’s OK. If that’s tough, just lay it on the table!”

Ensemble Resonanz have a monthly club night, about which Caulley is most enthusiastic. “For me that’s one of the most inspiring things we do, and I’m on the planning committee so am heavily invested. We have our own space, and we do what we want. We don’t necessarily do the most crazy things but we can let our imaginations roll and see what’s possible.”

chamber müzik club night // resonanzraum Festival 2018 from Ensemble Resonanz on Vimeo.

Tenebre, the collaboration between Bryce Dessner and the Ensemble Resonanz, is out now – and can be purchased here

You can listen to Tenebre on Spotify below:

To illustrate the contrast in the repertoire the ensemble records, their previous release was Haydn’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross):