Wet Ink at 20 by Kurt Gottschalk

On Monday April 1st 2019, the Wet Ink Ensemble celebrates 20 years of adventurous music making in NYC and around the world with a concert celebrating the work of the ensemble’s four acclaimed composer members—Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, and Eric Wubbels. The concert will feature a retrospective look at “classics” of Wet Ink‘s repertoire, including Alex Mincek’s From Nowhere to Nowhere and Kate Soper’s Door, and new sounds including Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary iii for solo cello featuring Mariel Roberts and the world premiere of a new work for Wet Ink‘s core septet of composer-performers by Eric Wubbels.

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The composer/performer collective has been the norm in most musical currents ever since the Beatles set the standard of a self-contained unit. Since then, rock, R’n’B, and jazz bands more often than not write the music they play. Somehow, though, contemporary composition (in its various iterations) has been slow to catch up. There are plenty of performing composers, but what we’ve come to think of as a “band” (as opposed to an ensemble) is still a rarity in the concert hall. 

A certain level of rock band fanaticism can be excused, then, when it comes to the Wet Ink Ensemble. Collective noun aside, they are—under any common understanding—a band, no secret to those who’ve been paying attention for at least some of the last twenty years. With a lineup that includes voice, drums, saxophone, and electronics (along with the more expected flute, piano, and violin) and with most of the members contributing compositions to their book, the Wet Ink Ensemble has become one of the most exciting names in New York’s crowded concert calendar.

The band, in fact, sprung into being (a number of permutations ago) alongside the decidedly rockier band Zs. Saxophonists Alex Mincek and Sam Hillmer met at the Manhattan School of Music and in 1998 began playing and organizing concerts together—with Mincek’s Wet Ink Ensemble and Hillmer’s Zs often sharing both bills and members. But it took twelve years for the Wet Ink core membership to coalesce. (The collective also operates a large ensemble for bigger commissions.) Soprano Kate Soper and pianist Eric Wubbels joined the Wet Ink fold in 2005. Soper remembers one of her early performances with the ensemble, where Wubbels played Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari and she sang Beat Furrer’s Aria.

“I was so nervous my lips were shaking. The concert was at the old Roulette on Greene Street, where we used to play a lot. This was one of those venues that feels packed with twenty people, with folding chairs and big pillars crowding the audience and a small table for merch and beer. We ended with the Feldman, and I remember leaning on the wall behind the piano (there weren’t enough seats for the performers), listening to Eric play and being suspended in a kind of sentimental awe—doubtless amplified by post-performance endorphins—a feeling that what we were doing, as a group, was special, and that I was happy and vaguely amazed to be a part of it.”

A day in the life of a concert at the Greene Street location where Roulette held shows from 2004–2011.

Listening from the stage gives the members of the ensemble a unique vantage to hear what they’re part of, and Soper isn’t the only one to appreciate that privileged position. 

“I turned pages for the premiere of the children of fire come looking for fire, a violin and piano duo Eric wrote for himself and Josh,” said former Zs drummer Ian Antonio, who joined Wet Ink in 1999. “I sat in the typical page-turner’s place to the left of the pianist and had a pretty good view of the full score. Eric and Josh’s performance was mind-bogglingly precise, raw yet polished, powerfully emotive, and I was perfectly stationed to watch them do it while wrapped inside the piano’s resonance. It’s not an uncommon experience, working with all of the members of the Wet Ink band, but I especially remember thinking after their performance how lucky I was to work with a collection of such humble and hardworking virtuosos.”

Individual awe at the group of which they’re part seems to run strong among the members of the ensemble. Violinist Josh Modney played his first concert with the group in 2008.

“I don’t remember much about the experience of performing on that first concert, except for the feelings of awe, terror, and elation that came with playing chamber music alongside such extraordinary musicians,” he said. 

“But I do distinctly remember one of the pieces I didn’t play on as a turning point in my relationship to music: Eric Wubbels and Erin Lesser’s performance of Wubbels’s Shiverer. There were so many things about that performance that defied expectations. The playing was impeccably tight. The sounds coming from the flute and piano, and the blend between both, were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Listening to Eric and Erin’s performance was an ecstatic experience. I had listened to and performed plenty of contemporary music at that point, but hadn’t encountered composers and performers who could wield their technical virtuosity and expressive beings to push into this other zone, a high-country of the spirit. The performance provided a moment of clarity for me, revealing not only that making contemporary music on this level was possible, but that this was the kind of music I wanted to make, and these were the people I wanted to make it with.”

At the time of Modney’s first Wet Ink concert, Lesser—who attended the Manhattan School with Mincek and Hillmer—had already been playing with the group for seven years. 

“My first performances with the band took me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I was not expected to be in concert dress for shows. We were not playing in concert halls, but in venues like the Bowery Poetry Club and the Friend’s Seminary Meeting House. The music could be anything from graphic or open notation scores to new complexity. A few times, I remember showing up and being handed music, hot off the presses, to perform with instructions like ‘play as loud as possible’ or ‘I want it so soft you don’t even know if you’re making sound.’ Sometimes there was little or no rehearsal, but there was always a respect for the ability to go for it and make it happen. 

“These are all skills and ideas I take for granted now, and that have become ubiquitous, but at the time it seemed risky and new to me,” she added. “I was inspired to learn new techniques and was ready to engage with whatever was put in front of me—all the while receiving nothing but encouragement from my colleagues.”

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the dynamic Wet Ink has forged is the dedicated electronics and live processing. That’s the often-just-offstage role of Sam Pluta, who met Mincek and Wubbels at the Darmstadt Festival in 2006 and immediately “knew then that I wanted to make music with these people.

“I distinctly remember a concert where Alex, Eric, and Eliot Gattegno performed Alex’s piece Perpetuum Mobile,” Pluta recalled of that Darmstadt meeting. “The piece was aggressive, blocky, and sonically pyrotechnic. I could see the disdain on the faces of the Europeans in the crowd. Once in New York, I met Kate Soper, Erin Lesser, and Ian Antonio. Eventually, I joined Wet Ink. Josh joined a couple of years later, and the current septet formation has been in existence ever since.”

While watching each other at work has aided in establishing the Wet Ink aesthetic, audience members can play a part as well—especially when they’re jazz legends. Mincek remembers a concert in the early 2000s that “had a huge impact on my view of what Wet Ink was.

“Sam [Hillmer] and I performed a really tough duo for two saxophones which I had recently written,” he said. “We played well and were really excited—even though the audience was quite small, as it usually was—so we headed over to the bar in the venue to have a beer and debrief. I spotted an older gentleman a few seats away. He looked very familiar to me, but I couldn’t place his face.

“I asked Sam, ‘Who is that? Do we know him somehow?’

“Sam says to me, ‘Ummm…I think that’s Ornette Coleman!’

“We sheepishly approached the fellow and politely asked, ‘Good evening, sir. Pardon us, but are you Ornette Coleman?’

‘I am.’

“We spent the next few minutes expressing how much we respected his music and his playing, and how much of an inspiration he had been for us, how much happiness we had both drawn from his music. He thanked us for the kind words and then started talking to us in detail about our own performance! He was so enthusiastic and encouraging. He asked us questions. He offered advice and solicited advice. He talked to us both as a mentor and like a peer. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life!

“There is a special intimacy that is made possible between the performers, audience, and one’s own developing aesthetic when playing obscure music in out-of-the-way environments,” Mincek added. “We were nobodies, playing odd music we believed in, for just handfuls of folks, but Ornette was in the house, and he was really listening and digging it!”

What Wet Ink has built over the last twenty years might be seen as a perpetual motion machine, where the composers are the players, the performers are their own audience, feeding and sustaining each other. The musicians develop the work and the work develops the musicians.

“When I think back over the seventeen years I’ve been going to Wet Ink shows, even before I was in the group, what sticks out to me are specific pieces and performances,” said Wubbels, “several amazing early pieces of Alex’s; Zs playing Charlie Looker’s Nobody Wants to be Had at the Bowery Poetry Club; Sam’s Machine Language followed by Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion and an insane percussion sextet by Victor Adán; Mathias Spahlinger’s Aussageverweigerung / Gegendarstellung; Braxton’s Composition 227 (with a big rowdy group including Steve Lehman, Peter Evans, and Sarah Schoenbeck); opening for Evan Parker Electroacoustic Ensemble at Roulette; Kate and Erin doing an early version of Kate’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say at a weird little on-campus club venue at UCSD.

“I think an ensemble’s role in shaping a scene can be about a lot of different kinds of things,” Wubbels concluded. “In the case of Wet Ink, I’m proud that the significance of the group really does seem to be a function of the actual music that we’ve made together, in specific pieces and specific performances. There’s a reality and a concreteness to that that’s quite satisfying.” •

Wet Ink: 20th Anniversary Bash takes place at Roulette on Monday, April 1st at 8pm, opening our Spring 2019 season.

About the Contributor:

Kurt Gottschalk writes about contemporary composition and improvisation for DownBeat, The New York City Jazz Record, The Wire, Time Out New York, and other publications and has produced and hosted the Minitature Minotaurs radio program on WFMU for the last ten years.