Paul Simon‘s upcoming 14th solo album, In the Blue Light, features the iconic songwriter’s deep cuts reworked, rearranged and rethought. On three of its tracks, Simon appears alongside New York chamber ensemble yMusic, a sextet notable for blurring the lines between classical-minded indie rockers and accessible bouts of 21st-century composition. Now in their 10th year, yMusic perform as both composers and accompanists, comfortable with collaborators like Sufjan Stevens, Ben Folds, St. Vincent and Dirty Projectors as well as acclaimed young composers like Timo Andres, Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Perry.
Their highest-profile collaborator, of course, is Simon, who has taken them out on the road for Homeward Bound — the Farewell Tour, the group performing alone with him each night for 1983’s “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” and 1990’s “Can’t Run But.” Rolling Stone talked to yMusic brass player C.J. Camerieri and violist Nadia Sirota about their collaborations with Simon and their unique position with a life split between Carnegie Hall and arena shows.
How did you find out Paul Simon wanted to work with you?
C.J. Camerieri: Well, I joined Paul’s band about five years ago as sort of a trumpet, French horn, keyboard guy. … My first day of rehearsals we had just gotten a first round of mixes back for our second record [2014’s Balance Problems]. Paul and I had talked before that day of rehearsal a lot about classical music, and I knew he was really into, conceptually, what we did, but he had never heard the group before. So I just said to him at the end of the rehearsal, “Hey! Would you mind taking a listen to the first round of mixes we have and let me know what you think?” He said, “I’d love to.”
So, the next day he came into rehearsal with a ton of mix notes. He said, “First of all, I love the record, I love what you’re doing, I think it’s the most awesome music I’ve heard in a long time.” And then he said, “Feel free to only remember that part of what I’m saying, and disregard all of the following.” And then he had really, really specific mix notes. He had really, really specific and amazing ideas … all of which we took.
He came and saw us play, [it was a] collaborative project we did with Bill T. Jones a couple years ago, and he wanted to come back and meet everybody else in the group, and the first thing he said to everybody was, “We should find a way to do something together!” And we were all like, “Sure!” But, like, that’s probably not gonna happen.
yMusic has been involved with the Eaux Claire festival, which is run by Justin Vernon, since its inception. And it’s a festival that really puts new collaboration and new works at the forefront. … So I said to Justin Vernon, who runs it, “If I could get yMusic and Paul to do something, could we headline the festival?” … [T]he idea was we would take 10 Paul Simon songs that we love, and have his favorite 10 yMusic composers each write a unique arrangement for each one of those songs for the seven of us to perform. And the arrangers, well, because they weren’t arrangers, they were composers, they were tasked to make the arrangements really specific to their own compositional voice. … It was really, really fun, and Paul was like, “We should record a couple of these!”
When you and Paul were originally having conversations about classical music, what were the points you shared as far as interests?
Sirota: Paul’s a really interesting listener of music. I think you can probably hear that all throughout his career, he’s always kind of pulling influences from different places, or pulling collaborators from different locations. … One of the things that was really interesting for me to hear, is that in his most recent record, Stranger to Stranger, he used all these instruments that were created by Harry Partch, all these sort of microtonal instruments. So, he, obviously has a really out-there listening style and listening habit. … Honestly, like, I think the most voracious musicians of every genre are always listening to things … just kind of the best stuff from all of these places. So, it wasn’t like there was a huge learning curve, or even translation curve. I feel like all of the references we had were well within his wheelhouse.
When he would talk about Graceland, he would say the South African records he would hear reminded him of the Fifties doo-wop he grew up loving. A lot of these young composers are sort of playing with the traditions of American minimalism and repetition of that has a lot of similarities with pop music. Do you think that’s the appeal for him?
Sirota: You know, I’m not exactly sure that that is the perfect read on it. I actually think that it might have a little bit more to do with the fact that this younger generation of music composers – not even composers, just music listeners and music appreciators – with the Internet, we have so much more access to so many more different types of styles and genres. … And I think similarly, these composers that we work in, you know, a lot of them were in garage bands growing up, and a lot of them have incredibly catholic taste in terms of what they listen to, and I think they have that in common with Paul.
He is just such a crazy original, strange musical thinker. And that is obviously where he is exceptional. But any way I thought this collaboration might have gone going into it was completely turned upside down by the reality of it. He is just a very specific type of musician, it’s hard to explain.
Camerieri: Yeah, and I am very ambitious for yMusic, and we all are… but I never would have thought we’d do a song like “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” in arenas all over the world, playing for between 12,000 and 90,000 people a night. I mean that is a deeper cut song, with a sort of modernist, French surrealist arrangement, and Paul was like, “We should put that in the middle of the show. You guys will come down front, and the arenas will love it.” And we were like, “Will they?” And then he was right! … I think he’s trained his audiences over the past 60 years to have open ears, and to be ready for anything, including Brazilian drumming, African guitar playing, folk music, Brian Eno or contemporary classical music.
You guys have certainly played with a wide a varying list of musicians, but the arena thing is definitely different.
Sirota: C.J.’s gotten far more experience on this type of a tour than I do, so I was probably even more bowled over by the size of these spaces, and the fact that you’re, like, in a backstage environment that is decidedly designed for hockey players [laughs]. The flute player in yMusic, Alex Sopp, and I share a dressing room, which often … has a lot of urinals and communal showers, so that’s like a very new experience for us.
Camerieri: There’s a great moment at the end of “Rene and George Magritte With Their Dog After the War” where the photograph that the song was based on comes up on the screen behind us. And the first couple of shows, the audience saw the photograph — the song was pretty much over even though yMusic still had a couple of things to play — and so they would applaud. And they would sort of clap over the end of the arrangement, but we loved the end of the arrangement and it really sort of ties the whole song together, so we were like, “How can we get them not to applaud? How can we control 15,000 people with like really soft viola, cello, flute 16th notes?” Taking the same sort of feeling, where you don’t want people to clap between a movement, so you hold the tension, and you keep your instrument up, and you stay, like, really musically intense. It’s amazing to do that on a Jumbotron for 15,000 people, and get them not to clap.
Sirota: Yeah, so fun.
Camerieri: Yeah, it’s really, really fun, and when it works, Paul will look over and smile and be like, “You guys did it!” And, when it doesn’t work, it was because they really loved it.
It’s funny that you’re going from arena to arena, with the goal of making people not clap.
Sirota: I know!
Camerieri: Yeah! Totally. We want them to hear the last little note, because the last note is so good!
Sirota: To be honest though, I think we went into this feeling like, probably what was gonna happen was a bunch of people were gonna be talking, people would pee during our set, they would sort of treat that like an intermission, and come back when the band starts slammin’ again. And truth be told, that’s the absolute opposite of what happened. I mean, I’m blown away by that experience.
What was your relationship with popular music growing up?
Camerieri: I never listened to pop music, until I went to Juilliard. I grew up only listening to jazz music, just playing jazz and studying jazz. And, yeah, I had no relationship with pop music until I went to Juilliard, and then it was like, I threw myself into classical music, and popular music, but I was 18 or so. … Nadia, you had some Graceland on the stereo growing up, right?
Sirota: Definitely listened to Graceland growing up. Both of my parents were in the classical music world, and I grew up not just in the classical musical world, but in the new music world, with a dad who was a composer, and all my parents’ friends were classical musicians. So, I didn’t have the most robust non-classical music education, until we moved to Connecticut when I was nine and got cable. And then I think when I was around 10 or 11, I started sneaking MTV on the, like, jump button on my remote control, with PBS on the other channel. So, that when my parents came into the room, they wouldn’t notice that I was watching. like, whatever music video. And it wasn’t that they had banned it, I just felt like it was something that should bring me guilt, so I, like, self-policed it. The Graceland album and some Simon & Garfunkel was pervasive in my household … because of my older brother, who was a big fan.
The indie-rock all-stars that you guys have collaborated with, when you bond with these people are the conversations more about classical music, or more about rock records?
Camerieri: We never, ever, ever, in my conversations, classify anything as anything. … It’s very, very fluid. Like touring with Bon Iver on the tour bus, it would be Kendrick Lamar one second, and then a Steve Reich piece, and then a Thomas Adès piece, and then a Paul Simon song.
Sirota: Interesting musicians are interesting musicians. I just remember this one time that I was at the composer Nico Muhly’s house, and [Arcade Fire’s] Richard Reed Parry was there, and he was like, “Oh, man, have you guys heard this composer Arnold Dreyblatt?” Which I hadn’t. And he is just this super-out composer who writes microtonal, like, post-minimal dance music or something [laughs]. Richie, to me, is somebody who is just a musical omnivore, and is constantly finding new stuff, and listening to new stuff, and finding new records, and, like, funneling it to me, and definitely I find him to be the source for a lot of new stuff that I listen to, no matter where it comes from. … I think that kind of cultural omnivore-ism is maybe the baseline for all these relationships.
Camerieri: Yeah, we have friends that play mostly rock & roll, and folk music. A few of them have a matching Steve Reich tattoo. And, like, that’s not weird in our world.
Do you think that Paul is serious, that this is going to be the end of his touring?
Camerieri: Uh, yeah. I think that he is excited to pursue other things, and let his curiosity take him many, many different places. I don’t think it’s the last we’ll ever hear of him, but as far as doing a tour, absolutely, I take him at his word. … I think that he wants to sort of go out on top, and on this amazing tour. But who knows? I certainly would love it if he continued making music.