Violinist Rob Moose was a sophomore in college when he responded to a classified ad that read “Britten, Buckley, Boulez, Bjork.”
That single ad led him to songwriter Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and in the years that followed, to gigs with Antony and the Johnsons, The National and Bon Iver.
In 2007, Moose even found himself with the best seat in the house at the Kennedy Center auditorium – as he conducted Sufjan Stevens’ orchestral arrangements.
“Conducting is certainly more stressful than playing,” Moose said when I finally got a hold of him, as he prepared for soundcheck at Bon Iver concert in Las Vegas.
“In a way, it’s almost like being a public speaker. Nothing happens until you begin. And then there’s the sheer amount of energy and focus that’s required. You feel responsible for the whole performance in a way.”
“That can be beautiful,” he adds. “At the best you feel like you’re making the music and are in a real flow with all these musicians. At worst, it can feel like a vehicle going out of control – and you don’t have enough feet to hit all the brakes.”
Moose, who studied classical violin from a young age, seems to be making a habit of expanding his horizons these days. With Bon Iver, for instance, he’s signed on to play guitar for most of the tour. It’s an instrument he didn’t even begin to take seriously until he was already into his twenties and on a career track as a string performer.
“At a certain point, I didn’t just want to play for bands. I wanted to be in bands. Over the years I’ve begun seeking that out – trying to get a little closer to the center. It can be a little easier to do that on guitar.”
“I love all of the tones and sonic possibilities on the instrument,” says Moose. “It’s a lot different from violin, where moving the bow three centimeters or altering your vibrato is what changes the sound. Using pedals, there’s this whole color palette available to you on guitar. Just thousands and thousands of sounds.”
Outside of touring, playing and arranging on sessions is what keeps Moose busiest. It’s a skill he learned the way most kids learn guitar: By “listening to old records and figuring out the [musical] devices people were using.”
At this point, Moose says that he does at least half of his arranging live in the session, especially when budgets don’t allow for a full ensemble. Sometimes he even prefers those dates where he has to play all the parts himself. “It’s almost like being an actor,” he says, “taking on all these different personalities and roles for each voice in the string section.”
He’s gotten into a swing of it, both by himself and with Thomas Bartlett, the producer/arranger also known as Doveman. The two have recently created accompaniments for the likes of Julia Stone and Trixie Whitley. They’ve even given their string-company-of-two a name – “Crispi Tritone” – taken from an amusing street sign they stumbled across while working in Rome.
There’s also a second group that may help continue to put Moose on the map. In 2008, he helped found yMusic, an alternative chamber ensemble, which has commissioned work by Gabriel Kahane, Annie Clark (St Vincent), Judd Greenstein, and members of Arcade Fire. Their debut album, Beautiful Mechanical, was even named Time Out New York’s #1 Classical Record of 2011.
yMusic features unusual instrumentation – violin, viola, cello, trumpet, flute and clarinet or bass clarinet – but so far it’s worked for the bands they record and tour with. In a sense it’s ideally suited to accompany the sound of a full band.
“We didn’t think about instrumentation at first and just went for personality,” Moose says. “After the fact, a lot of people have told us it’s kind of like a greatest hits sampling of the orchestra. There’s no obvious bass. The bass clarinet can get down there and we have cello, too. It’s a bright, but really interesting sound we’ve all come to love.”
yMusic is now in the planning stages of a second album. Because of the unique instrumentation, there’s no existing repertoire, and they’ve had to start from scratch again, commissioning new works for their ensemble just as they did with Beautiful Mechanical.
I ask Moose if the idea is to court composers from both sides of the spectrum again, and perform works by pop and rock writers as well contemporary ‘classical’ composers. The answer is a clear “yes.”
Moose then considers his reply for a moment and adds: “But I think the whole concept of there being ‘sides’ is becoming more and more outdated.”
Click for more on Rob Moose and yMusic and to get in touch.