Audeze speaks with violinist and composer Josh Modney

Josh Modney is a NYC-based violinist and creative musician working at the nexus of composition, improvisation, and interpretation. A “new-music luminary” (The New York Times) hailed as "one of today's most intrepid experimentalists" (Bandcamp Daily), Josh has cultivated a holistic artistic practice as a composer, solo improviser, bandleader, writer, collaborator, and interpreter of adventurous contemporary music. A highly detailed relationship to sound production on the violin is foundational to Josh’s creative practice, with a particular interest in exploring the interactions of various tuning systems and in playing with listeners’ perception of what is notated and what is improvised. Josh’s work is rooted in relationships: with particular artistic collaborators, and with listeners who find that adventurous sound-making provides nourishment to a part of our emotional being that is otherwise difficult to access. Josh is the violinist and Executive Director of the composer-performer collective Wet Ink Ensemble, and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Josh is also associated with producer and arts supporter David Breskin.

 Josh Modney and his Audeze LCD-XC headphones

"...the LCD-XC offers amazing clarity that suits my needs perfectly." - Josh Modney
Here's our talk with Josh:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I am especially proud of my recent album, Near To Each (Carrier Records – 2022), a full-length series of compositions for quartet and my debut recording as a bandleader. The compositions blend improvised and precisely notated music (while often deliberately playing with our perception of the space between those two modes), and deal with the juxtaposition and overlapping of various musical elements (for example, three distinct approaches to intonation). This album grew out of relationships with three adventurous musicians whose work I’ve admired for years: Ingrid Laubrock (saxophones), Mariel Roberts  (cello), and Cory Smythe (piano). I’m really grateful to Ingrid, Mariel, and Cory, who brought so much virtuosity and collaborative energy to the project, and made tremendous creative contributions as improvisers.

My previous recorded work has been for solo violin (Engage – New Focus Recordings, 2018). Near To Each picks up where Engage left off, beginning with a short piece for violin which is then quickly deconstructed and merged with the rest of the band. In a way, I think of Near To Each as taking what I’ve developed as a solo improviser and extending it outward to a chamber ensemble, as if my violin practice looks like the “exploded view” in a technical schematic and the individual parts are then mapped onto and joined with other instruments and musical approaches.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Like many people in my field, I’m accustomed to shifting roles and wearing different hats. Depending on the project, I might be interpreting somebody else’s score, or working collaboratively with an artist on realizing their vision, or working with a group of musicians on creating something collectively. Sometimes I’m also in an ensemble management role - hiring musicians, organizing concerts, writing grant proposals - and sometimes I just show up with my violin and play. All of these activities are fulfilling and important to how I define my musicianship and feel connected to an artistic community. However, the role that has loomed much larger for me recently is that of composer/bandleader. It took me a long time to get to a place where I felt I had something to say as a composer. The gateway for me was to first cultivate a practice as an improviser and to develop a personal and idiosyncratic relationship with my instrument. I’ve been a performer most of my life, so for me improvisation, rather than notating music on paper, was a more accessible and intuitive way for me to find my voice creatively. I’m classically trained, and in classical music for at least the past century performance and composition have been treated as separate activities. I feel lucky to have found a community of adventurous musicians in NYC who taught me early in my career that “composition” encompasses both notation and improvisation, and that by developing my improvisational practice on the violin I was already working toward finding my compositional voice.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I started playing violin when I was four years old. I pursued a classical music path through college and conservatory, and also played fiddle music and studied the trumpet seriously for many years. As a kid I predominantly listened to classical and film music, and also had a few fiddle and jazz records. While I was still in grad school at Manhattan School of Music, I played my first concerts with the Wet Ink Ensemble, which is a composer-performer collective that I now co-direct. My first encounters with the music and musicians of Wet Ink awakened me to fresh artistic possibilities, and set me on a path that I’ve found continually rewarding and am still pursuing today.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

My biggest musical heroes are my colleagues and peers. For example, Cory, Ingrid, and Mariel, whose work I followed for years before we made Near To Each together! I’ve also drawn a lot of inspiration from artists with deeply developed solo practices like trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans. There are so many people I could name here who have had a significant impact on my experience of music, whether that be from following their work for many years or from witnessing a single performance that particularly resonated with me. There’s this positive feedback loop in the new music scene here in NYC where so many people are making interesting work and everybody learns from everybody. Perhaps the strongest way that this has manifested for me has been in the Wet Ink Ensemble. My fellow Wet Ink members Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, and Eric Wubbels blew my mind when I first heard their music in 2008, and I have been continually inspired by their work ever since. Part of Wet Ink’s ethos is “innovation through collaboration”, which means that as a member of the group, even though I was not composing in the early years, I was included in the creative process. Depending on the piece, we might spend months workshopping and finding material together that was tailored to each of us as performers. This “bespoke” approach to music-making has had a big influence on the ways in which I have chosen to move through life as an artist.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

In one of the tunes on Near To Each, I made an overcorrection in my revision process which messed up the pacing of the piece. We had premiered the set as a livestream for the International Contemporary Ensemble’s Tues@7 series, and I had about two weeks to revise the music before our studio recording session. I knew this one piece in particular needed revision, but I took it too far and was unhappy with the result after listening back to the studio version. At first I thought I might need to cut the piece from the album, but thanks to the beautifully pristine recording by engineer Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio, I had lots of options from different takes and it eventually dawned on me that I could make pretty significant compositional changes in post. After months of tinkering, including cutting chunks of material and tightening timing through micro-adjustments, I was able to make a final version of the piece that I’m really happy with. So, while I was disappointed and frustrated at first, this ended up being a great learning experience. It’s empowering to realize that a series of subtle changes can add up to something that’s much more successful than your original idea.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I play on a mid-1800s Mathias Neüner violin from the Mittenwald region of Germany. Sporting a distinctive lion’s head scroll, “Leo” has been my musical companion for my entire career and suits my playing and aesthetic preferences quite well. Lately, I’ve been incorporating a compact electronics setup into my solo violin work which includes a distortion pedal (controlled by a volume pedal), a DPA 4099 mic, and a small mixer. When I’m composing, I often record layered violin sounds using REAPER and load them into a Max patch which allows me to play them back on a MIDI keyboard.

I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to play a Stradivarius violin from the 1690s, generously loaned to me by Jonathan Solars Fine Violins for several performances with the International Contemporary Ensemble (including the premiere of a solo piece by George Lewis). Spending a week with the Strad was an awe-inspiring experience which more than lived up to the hype. As a performer of adventurous contemporary music, I never imagined I’d have the chance to play on such a rare historic instrument. It is an experience that I’ll never forget, and that I expect will enrich my creativity for years to come. I can only hope that I showed the Strad some new sounds that it hadn’t yet encountered in its long life!

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Find peers who share your artistic values, and work together to create opportunities to collaborate over the long term. Connect with people who make you feel like you’re a better artist and human when you’re around them, and who value your presence for the same reasons. The relationships that have opened the most doors in my artistic career have been not only filled with creative energy, but also are deep, sustainable, and founded in mutual admiration and respect. These things take time to develop, and it’s totally worth it.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I purchased my first pair of decent studio headphones when I was working on my debut solo album, Engage. I use headphones to listen back to fragments that I’ve recorded as part of my compositional process, and to listen to recording projects during the editing, mixing, and mastering phases.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

The LCD-XC has been an incredible upgrade to my setup. Hearing the details of complex violin sounds is integral to my compositional process, and the LCD-XC makes it possible for me to listen back to demo recordings and feel like I’m hearing the instrument right under my ear, as if I’m playing live. And when it comes to reviewing mixes and masters, the LCD-XC offers amazing clarity that suits my needs perfectly. I deal with a lot of high-frequency and overtone-rich sounds that are best appreciated with a relatively dry mix. The LCD-XC allows me to go deep into these types of sounds without feeling harshness or ear fatigue. Also, I work from home in NYC and it is not exactly quiet around here. The closed back of the LCD-XC provides great isolation so that I can focus on the music.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

I’m currently working on a new piece for septet, which is part of my next album of ensemble music. Along with my violin, pencil and paper, and computer, the LCD-XC is the piece of gear I reach for most. I use the LCD-XC to listen back to compositional fragments that I have recorded at home, and also to musical materials that colleagues have sent me during our workshop process for the piece.

Josh Modney's Audeze LCD-XC headphones