When you pose a question to the six musicians of Boston-based band Bent Knee, you’re likely as not to get seven or more responses. So when they were asked to describe their style on Monday evening in an interview at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, the air filled with colliding words.
“Loud. Soft. Medium,” Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, the band’s affable drummer, began his take. “Bent Knee.”
You might call it art rock, they at last agreed. “Just because there’s artists we like that fit into that category,” said Chris Baum, a thoughtful violinist.
“But it feels weeeeeird,” said Jessica Kion, bassist.
Baum continued, “Genre’s a retrospective thing, and perhaps years later someone will decide . . .”
“We’re schnoobleblobbers,” Kion interjected, giggling.
“BAD MUSIC!” shouted guitarist Ben Levin, shooting up in his chair, his springy curls bouncing. “This goes into the category of music that didn’t satisfy the A.I.!”
“Music that didn’t satisfy the A.I.,” or artificial intelligence algorithms. The Stave Sessions, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, doesn’t have an official description on its website, so it might as well adopt that as its philosophy. The yearly new-music series draws from the experimental ends of pop, jazz, classical, and various global traditions. On March 20-24, it takes over Berklee College of Music’s club venue at 160 Massachusetts Ave. This year’s performers include Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Competition winner Jazzmeia Horn; hammered dulcimer-wielding Brooklyn band House of Waters; fearless weaver of styles Shara Nova fronting her band My Brightest Diamond; hip-hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj; intrepid new music flutist Claire Chase; and the aforementioned coalescence of viciously talented Berklee graduates that is Bent Knee.
“Humans are getting more complex, and our listening is getting more broad. It’s a challenge of how we talk about music,” said Nova via phone from her Detroit home. Nova, who trained as an opera singer, carved out her own musical path through “years of agony,” she said. “I loved classical music and I loved writing songs, and those always seemed like separate ways of being in music.” Her mental breakthrough came after moving to New York, where she found artists such as Antony and the Johnsons (now Anohni), who proved that it was possible to “have all the things that I loved in one art form.”
To date, she has released multiple studio albums with My Brightest Diamond, and she has collaborated with a slew of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, and Son Lux. On the more classical side, composers including Sarah Kirkland Snider and David Lang have composed for her otherworldly voice, and she has composed the chamber opera “You Us We All.” Recently, she was one of five female composers who collaborated to create “The Blue Hour,” an evening-length song cycle co-commissioned by A Far Cry.
My Brightest Diamond’s Friday evening Stave Sessions performance will feature music from its as-yet-untitled upcoming album. A grant allowed Nova to spend more time developing the work and selecting songs, she explained, and this album is an homage to her adopted city of Detroit. “I’ve been in the cave writing, and writing, and writing,” said Nova. As influences, she listed artists including Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, the White Stripes, and Carl Craig.
“For this album, I thought I really need to focus on form and rhythm, so it’s much more dancey than anything I’ve done,” she said.
Bent Knee is also introducing another side of its sound to Boston with its Stave Sessions performance. Listeners know the band for its labyrinthine rhythms, punchy riffs, and lead singer Courtney Swain’s electrifying, elastic wail. At Stave Sessions, Bent Knee isn’t departing from that foundation, but building on it. Saturday night will see the Boston premiere of “Paper Earth,” a new piece written by the band for itself and percussion ensemble. Earlier this month, the piece premiered at the Apples & Olives Festival in Zurich; they’ll also take it to New York for an outing at the Ecstatic Music Festival.
“I just started hearing their name pop up. I was incredibly impressed by their creativity, their openness, their precision, and what seemed to be their spirit of collective music making, which turned out to be incredibly accurate once I got to know them personally,” said Judd Greenstein, a composer and a curator of both Apples and Olives and Ecstatic Music. “It just seemed like a band that first of all, was already doing incredible work, but might be interested in augmenting their sound and trying something new.”
Greenstein played musical matchmaker, setting up Bent Knee with Boston Conservatory at Berklee professor Samuel Solomon. Levin and Kion mostly wrote the lyrics for “Paper Earth.” The whole band worked on the percussion orchestrations, and Solomon “helped us big time to make them good,” said Levin.
“It was fun for me already, as a drummer, to think of what if there were 10 of me or more of me,” said Wallace-Ailsworth. After a brief detour into discussing what would actually happen if there were 10 Wallace-Ailsworths, Baum joked that the project was “why I haven’t slept in nine months.”
As the band prepared to rehearse “Paper Earth” with the Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble in a large practice space at the conservatory’s Ipswich Street building, sound designer Vince Welch bent over his laptop as Swain warmed up. A bouquet of delayed vocals sprayed from the speakers. Levin circled his long arms to loosen them up.
The band couldn’t agree on what kind of piece “Paper Earth” was. When asked, out came another verbal jumble. It was a song cycle! A suite! A tone poem! A “poem poem!”
“It’s a bunch of songs that have a lot of connected tissue,” said Kion.
“It’s the world’s worst Garth Brooks cover band,” offered Ailsworth-Wallace.
The most apt word to describe “Paper Earth” would have been odyssey. A half-hour journey through gathering storms of unison drumming, dusty interludes, and bursts of polyrhythms, with Swain’s voice haunting the upper register. It teemed with color and creativity.
Good luck classifying it, robots.