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Lamont grads redefine classical music form

The Massif Trio released its most recent album this summer.

For singer Nathan Bird, becoming part of the Massif Trio — and performing with two guitars instead of a piano — took some getting used to.

“A lot of singers don’t get this kind of ensemble experience. When you’re performing with a piano, it’s just you and this envelope of sound that’s behind you. It’s a very comfortable place to perform,” he says. “It’s a little more scary to be a singer performing with a couple of guitars because it’s not as much sound, and it’s another person to be listening to and paying attention to. There’s a lot more of a dynamic ensemble intrigue to the performance process that I just fell in love with.”

Formed by guitarist Jonathan David Barlow (BM ’07, MM ’09) in 2008, the Massif Trio — which includes fellow Lamont grads Bird (MM ’10) and second guitarist Roger Harmon (MM ’07) — specializes in the German art song form known as Lieder. For the trio’s debut album, Barlow arranged works by Schumann, Schubert and Strauss — including Schumann’s famed Dichterliebe — for two guitars and voice. The unusual instrumentation has won Barlow and the trio a host of awards and accolades, including two “recital of distinction” awards from Lamont and a grant from Denver-based Allied Arts Inc. The group was described as “one of the best things we’ve heard in years” by John Dearman of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

“We actually had a really good reception at school, which is why we wanted to keep going after we got out,” Barlow says. “There are lots of ways to record these days, you can do it yourself, but I really wanted to work with a producer and I wanted real label experience. There are a couple of really famous guitarists, Jason Vieaux and David Leisner, who are on a label called Azica, which is our label now. I just sent them an email with our press kit and a live recording from one of our recitals, and they liked it and they wanted to work with us.”

The resulting album — available for download on iTunes and at — was recorded live at the recently remodeled Gartner Auditorium in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“We weren’t in isolation booths or anything; it was really capturing what we do live,” says Barlow, whose arrangements have been published by Clear Note Publications and by the Soundboard classical guitar journal. “They had to turn off all the fans and units to get perfect silence in the hall, and we just performed it on stage to an empty audience.”

Now that the album is out, trio members plan to tour, playing whatever venues will have them. Bird, who now lives in Minneapolis, says he is working all the connections he can, reaching out to German groups in the area, as well as the vocal and guitar departments of area music schools.

“One of the things I really admired about the Lamont School of Music was that the guitar department made me feel so welcome as a vocalist coming into their world to perform some of my music,” he says. “At the same time I think that the voice department did a great job making Jonathan and [our original second guitarist] feel really welcome in our space. We’re excited to pursue connecting voice and guitar departments at the universities around the country to share our music and encourage new pathways of collaboration in the music world.”

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