Momentary Quartet, the name of an ensemble consisting of piano, trumpet, horn, and trombone, is misleading; the group is likely to endure. The momentary aspect of the ensemble arises because its concerts are a matter of being in the moment for both performers and listeners.
Momentary Quartet improvises in performance. In its concerts members of the group respond spontaneously to one another’s musical moves. Spur-of-the-moment riffs, rather than a written score, are its musical foundation. Some listeners have been surprised to learn that the pieces the quartet plays grow from momentary inspiration, and not from a printed document.
The quartet presents a multimedia performance Saturday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. The players are Jane Buttars, piano; Patrick Whitehead, trumpet; Lin Foulk, horn; and Harold McKinney, trombone. Their inspirations for the event will come, not only from each other, but also from the movement of dancer Aurelle Sprout, the spoken words of poet Daniel Harris, and the projected images of photographer Irene Renzenbrink. A music creativity workshop takes place Sunday, October 30, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the church.
Pianist Buttars has said: “Though we are improvising, we create pieces in the best tradition of chamber music, with rhythmic and motivic conversations, silence, and imitation. Our styles range from classical to avant-garde to blues to world music.”
Interviewed at her Princeton home, Buttars explains that the members of Momentary Quartet met at workshops of Music for People (MFP). The organization, she says, “promotes self-expression through music improvisation. It is dedicated to the belief that all people are inherently musical, creative, and capable of authentic, spontaneous expression; it creates safe environments in which they can explore and develop their musical selves.”
“The four of us played at MFP in various shifting combinations,” she says, “and decided we wanted to play together because we have a magical chemistry that happens every time we meet. We live far away from each other. But when we sit down together, it’s electrical and in one minute we’re in the same zone. It’s an addictive connection.”
Trumpeter Patrick Whitehead is on the faculty of the Baltimore School for the Arts. Hornist Lin Foulk is associate professor of horn at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. And trombonist Harold McKinney is professor emeritus at Appalachian State University in Durham, North Carolina. The quartet first performed publicly as an ensemble in 2014.
“All my life as a classical pianist I played with string players,” Buttars says. “I never played chamber music with brass instruments before. We hit it off because of our personalities and our musicianship. It didn’t matter what instruments we play.” Music for People, the venue where the members of Momentary Quartet met, has the cheerful belief that any combination of people and instruments can make music together.
Buttars admits that playing with brass instruments held challenges for her. First, there was the question of volume since brasses tend to play louder than string instruments. “The brass players in Momentary Quartet are exceptionally skilled playing with mutes, and capable of handling a large range of volume,” she says. “Still, I had to adjust to their basic volume.”
“It was not just a matter of my playing louder,” she says. “That’s where register comes in. If I want the piano to be heard as its own element in the music, I have to choose a range very carefully. I have to use pitches where they’re not playing. I have to really listen and be aware of their register. It takes split-second reactions.”
Buttars keeps in condition for improvising on piano in public by maintaining her prowess at the instrument. Her approach is a blend of musical gymnastics and personal dedication. “I practice every day,” she says, “to make sure that my technique stays in condition. Otherwise, I don’t feel whole. It’s a spiritual thing.”
“I have a technical regimen,” she says, “focusing elements that I like to put into my pieces; you can’t always focus like that when you’re playing repertoire. I explore scales and modes, and check on octaves, for instance. And then I improvise. I might play staccato in my left hand and legato in my right hand. I fool around and try to find new sounds — that’s what we do when we perform.” Buttars can be heard alone improvising live on two CDs and on YouTube.
When the group assembles in one place for a concert, it rehearses by improvising together. “We follow whatever path appears. It’s all responding to impulses. We might listen to each other, and imitate, or we might listen and do something contrary,” she says. “We may hear something we really like and we try to make a mental note to use it in the concert.”
“Sometimes, in rehearsal, we use typical Music for People games that we learned in our training—games like using repeated melodic or rhythmic patterns, or a repeated bass line.”
To present coherent group performances in public requires finely tuned awareness. “We have to keep track of tempo and style,” Buttars says. “We have to remember what we played spontaneously early in a piece because we might want to repeat it later. It’s hard to remember what we did because we’re so focused on being in the moment.”
On the other side, Buttars points out the advantage of improvising in a group. “When more than one person is involved, that’s the fun part,” she says. “You get more than one energy.” Buttars has improvised in public performances as a vocalist, dancer, and pianist.
She credits improvisation with reviving her as a classical musician. “Improvisation saved me when I was burned out,” she says. “Classically trained musicians learn to play the right notes. That creates a lot of pressure and tension. Improvisation is liberating and can break that cycle. By creating their own music, classical musicians can find connections to a composer and give them new perspective on written music that they perform.”
Burdened by the demands of classical music making, Buttars quit music and became a database manager at a public library. “I’m a compulsive list-maker,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a musician anymore. But then my fingers got itchy. I couldn’t go back to written music because I had so much baggage: teachers who yelled at me, pressure to prepare music for concerts. I started fooling around at the piano, but I didn’t know how to manage without a score.”
Eventually, Buttars found her way to MFP. Based in Goshen, Connecticut, the nonprofit organization offers improvisation workshops in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland for musicians at all levels. Buttars attended MFP’s four-year program and became an MFP facilitator. Facilitators lead workshops where participants explore their own means of musical expression; they work in universities, corporate settings, and as private individuals. Buttars is now secretary of the MFP board.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Buttars grew up there in the 1950s. Her father was an engineer and inventor. Her mother, a homemaker who sang and played piano, raised four children. Jane was the youngest.
“Dance was my first musical experience,” Buttars says. “That’s where I first heard Chopin.” Today she is grateful that her mother enrolled her in ballet at an early age. “It’s where I learned control of my body and sensitivity to how you move.” That sort of awareness plays a major role in Buttars’ approach to the piano.
At seven Buttars began piano lessons. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where she studied with Menahem Pressler. After a Fulbright year in Munich, Germany, she returned to the United States and taught at Elmhurst College in Illinois.
Buttars’ doctoral studies at the University of Colorado took five years. She received the degree in 1984 after tracking down the relationship between the succession of pianos Beethoven used and his compositions. In the seven recitals she gave during her doctoral studies, she performed on the keyboard instruments that evolved during Beethoven’s lifetime.
After teaching for a year at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Buttars moved to Princeton. Here, she established a private studio where her burnout in the conventional world of teaching piano developed over a period of half a dozen years. From 1992 to 1997 she was a database manager at the Princeton Public Library.
During that period Buttars began her cello studies and started the four-year training to become an MFP facilitator. As an MFP trainee, fearful of arousing excessive expectations for herself, she presented herself as a beginning cellist, and never mentioned her advanced music degrees.
As an MFP facilitator, Buttars now leads workshops in music through an entity she calls “Music from the Inside.”
In addition, she teaches adults privately. “Some people don’t want to improvise,” she notes. “If they don’t, I use a more traditional approach.”
Buttars can be heard improvising live on two CDs: “Tympanum” with David Darling (www.CDBaby.com/DavidDarlingJaneButtars) and as a solo pianist on “Keys to the Inside” (www.CDBaby.com/Buttars). Both pieces are also available on YouTube.
Poet Daniel Harris, emeritus professor of English and Jewish studies at Rutgers, is Buttars’ husband. A published award-winner, he maintains an online presence at www.danielharrispoet.net. He participates in Momentary Quartet’s October 29 program, reading his poems. The quartet will hear them for the first time at the concert.
Buttars’ shares her personal notes for the Momentary Quartet concert. Though the performance is spontaneous, it is encased in a pre-planned overall scheme that specifies the number of minutes for a pre-intermission segment, an intermission, and a post-intermission segment.
The plan lists some possible MFP maneuvers, such as a descending bass. But it is devoid of details. The concert opens with each member of the quartet starting a five-minute piece; there are no further instructions. Guest artists will join Momentary Quartet without having rehearsed with the ensemble. And time has been set aside for audience requests.
Momentary Quartet, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton. Jane Buttars, piano; Patrick Whitehead, trumpet; Lin Foulk, horn; and Harold McKinney, trombone. Fundraiser concert for the Music Ministry of NJ. Saturday, October 29, 7:30 p.m. $15.
Momentary Quartet Music Creativity Workshop, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. Sunday, October 30, 1 to 3 p.m. $10. 609-683-1269 or www.momentaryquartet.wordpress.com.