Mapping the Bon Iver universe (the Bunnibeariberse?) can feel a daunting task, better left to string theorists, genetic anthropologists, and Pitchfork editors. But by listening to the Staves and yMusic’s collaboration The Way Is Read, your mind can begin to perceive a vibration, maybe even a vector—if not precisely a fixed point—upon which to begin a sonic investigation into what the hell is going on out there in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
When I reached them from Watford, UK and New York, respectively (and after some time spent googling how to activate the iPhone’s “merge calls” feature), the Staves’ Emily Staveley-Taylor and yMusic’s Rob Moose deliberated on how the project arose from their initial connection on a Bon Iver tour in 2012, when Moose and yMusic partner CJ Camerieri were playing violin and trumpet with Justin Vernon’s most high-profile project, and the Staves were singing in an opening slot. And then things really came together during a sweltering set at Vernon’s first Eaux Claires festival in 2015.
“It was in a tiny, boiling hot tent,” Staveley-Taylor remembers. “Did you end up going? yMusic were in there with a bunch of guests coming up and doing a song or a couple of songs, kind of tailored to each performer, and we had enjoyed it so much. It was our highlight of the festival, and then we got the official call from Justin [Vernon], Aaron [Dessner, from the National and festival co-curator] and Michael [Brown, festival designer] to do something at the next one and we were like, yes!”
In planning the second full Eaux Claires set, yMusic and the Staves—sisters Milly, Emily, and Jessica Staveley-Taylor—started sending what Moose calls “musical care packages” back and forth via email to see if anything would stick. yMusic had just completed their third album, somewhat confusingly entitled First, a collaboration with Son Lux composer Ryan Lott, an album of heady, intricate patterns where the yMusic sextet, soaked in classical rigor, attempts an effervescent take on the flow of a rock album, with a recognizable side A and side B and the familiar rising and falling movements of what the geeks call popular music.
“There’s a song called ‘All my Life,’” Moose says, “which is based on a piece of ours from First called ‘11.’ That was really a cool example of what this project could be: the first half is this virtuosic piece that we play, and then all of the sudden it switches scenes and this song emerged from their camp.” Moose explains that the song’s pattern is a complicated one, built around a loop that slightly switches tempo every 15 bars, and at the end of each pass a different instrument appears. But about midway through the version with the Staves, the sisters’ ethereal harmonies give the listener something more tangible to lock onto. “It’s so cool,” Moose says. “It’s almost like we’re the overture and then a song comes in. Going into it I would’ve never thought to group it that way.”
The Way Is Read is not all intricate minimalism in the vein of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, however. There are also delicate, organic treatments of folk songs, like “Sprig of Time” and “Courting is a Pleasure.” And the first song released to the internet, “Trouble on My Mind,” is somewhat sonically indebted to a Gershwin showtune.
“I know what you mean,” Staveley-Taylor says. “It’s probably the most ‘musical theater’ that we’ve ever sounded. I was thinking about that, actually, the whole album, the things that I love about musical theater, little melodic phrases that crop up again and again in different ways in different songs.”
Opera mavens refer to melodic phrases that crop up again and again as motifs, and there is indeed a binding theme that the motifs on this album allude to: many of the songs are somehow tied into His Dark Materials, a literary trilogy written by religious skeptic and fantasy writer Phillip Pullman.
Staveley-Taylor titters a bit nervously when I bring this up—her younger sister Millie ratted her out just before our interview. “You wouldn’t be able to tell necessarily if you listened to the album and didn’t know that.” But she lets down her guard long enough to go full geek: “The elements that we connect to in those books were the witches’ idea of being kind of ageless,” she says, “and the perspective being hundreds and hundreds of years old must give you, being able to look at human lives and their endeavors from that great of a height.” Staveley-Taylor says that the three sisters imagining themselves as magical witches from a fantasy novel helped them to get into character. “It really helped on tracks like ‘Take Me Home’ and ‘The Way Is Read,” she says. “It helped just to sing in a different way—where it’s not The Staves singing a Staves song, it’s how would we use our voices if we were witches singing this song about witches. Like they would sing it like this.”
The other deeply geeky element Staveley Taylor was interested in was the trance-like state the novel’s protagonist Lyra would enter when she read the “Alethiometer,” a kind of magical gauge that is used to discern the truth. yMusic’s trippy compositions served as the perfect backdrop for the Staves syncopated choral investigations. Staveley-Taylor admits the Dark Materials conceit was in many ways a device to quickly enter into a creative space in the short window of time the two bands had to come up with an entirely new piece for the festival. “We all know about ‘getting into the zone,’” Staveley-Taylor says. “Whether that’s the zone you have to get into to write, or to write a song, or to perform. To be truly in the moment.”
Moose says when things finally started coming together in the spring of 2016, the nine musicians only had two days in a studio in New York to rehearse what they had come up with going back and forth on the internet. “A lot of the combination stuff didn’t happen until we were together in the same room,” Moose says. “Just responding to the different camps coming together. And that was super unique for us, because we collaborate with so many bands and singers and things. [yMusic has worked with everybody from The Dirty Projectors to John Legend to Paul Simon.] But it’s always in a more notated way. And in this case it was different for us both because we were incorporating our own concert material—some of it was a group improvisation that was now codified.”
Turns out, entering into that trancelike creative performance zone was the reason Moose was always drawn to the world of popular music, and it was why he founded yMusic in the first place—he was always trying to find a space where the repertory world could cross into the more visceral live experience found at a rock club. “In the classical world, everything is notated and everyone is trained and there are all these conventions,” he says. “That might seem stuffy or overly complex from the outside, but makes sense in terms of bringing large groups of people together to play complex music and stuff like that.” He says back in his 20s, in the midst of rigorous study and rehearsal and performance, he was always tempted by the troubadour’s lifestyle, constantly wondering what kind of music could get him on the road. “So I think while seriously training and loving the classical repertoire, I always had my eye on some other performance experience,” he says. “If you’re playing in an orchestra where there’s a program and intermission, and conventions of when to clap and when not to, that’s one kind of experience, and that can be a beautiful thing. But I remember playing my early rock shows, being like, Wow, everybody is in this together in a way that’s different. Maybe this is fucked up to say, but I’ve never felt like if I’m sitting in Row M that I’m helping somebody play their concerto better, but certainly if you’re in the Bowery Ballroom or First Avenue there can be a sense of the crowd really inspiring your artist or pulling them along or taking them to a different place because of your collective energy. And that’s so cool.”
In many ways, this collaboration is a result of the performance energy of those first two Eaux Claires festival experiences: that sweaty tent and that warmly received afternoon mainstage set a year later. In many ways, Staveley-Taylor says, this collaboration and this album, The Way is Read—recorded the day after Eaux Claires 2016 at the Hive, the Eau Claire studio run by former Bon Iver sound engineer Brian Joseph—is a tribute to that crowd’s energy.
“I was thinking about what kind of 25,000-person festival would’ve put us and yMusic to perform a completely unique unknown, hadn’t heard it, piece on the main stage in the afternoon?” Here she answers her own rhetorical question by making a very self-effacing English pffffft. “I don’t know,” she says. “And what kind of audience… they were so responsive; they were amazing. It was that more than anything that kind of made us go, ‘We should record it, we should do this, this is great.’”
TBH, the Midwest—whether Minneapolis or Eau Claire or anywhere beyond a 90-minute radius of the Walker Art Center, actually—isn’t exactly known for its welcoming, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Like, we’re not the first place somebody from New York might think of when we mention the wildly enthusiastic reception of a midday set by a chamber pop/folk trio collab. But Staveley-Taylor says the audience of Eaux Claires embodies the ethos and the vibe of their spiritual leader, Justin Vernon.
“When they do that festival, they don’t treat the audience like idiots,” she says. They trust them to be responsive to music that maybe they haven’t heard before, and the audience fulfilled that promise. It’s a win-win situation, but it takes somebody brave to make that leap in the first place, and I think that’s what Justin is: he’s brave.”