The Oblivion Project
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The Oblivion Project

Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States | SELF

Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States | SELF
Band Latin World


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"Oblivion Project Live"

By Anne Erickson | For the Lansing State Journal

Ask Derek Snyder what draws him to the music of Astor Piazzolla and he doesn't hesitate.
"Piazzolla's music is direct and full of life," said Snyder, who is the principal cellist and artistic director for the Phoenix Ensemble. "With his music, he's wearing it all on his sleeve. It's very accessible music, and it also has a lot of depth."
Piazzolla's career spans several decades and an opus of more than 1,000 works, right up until his death in 1992. Known for his tango pieces, Piazzolla, by many, is referred to as "the re-inventor of the tango," said Snyder.
Snyder's fascination with Piazzolla led him to spearhead a musical project based on the Argentinean composer's works. That project, the Phoenix Ensemble's "Tango Oblivion Project," reaches the Creole Gallery Friday.
Snyder and violinist Gabe Bolkosky have been with the Phoenix Ensemble since its inception nearly seven years ago.
The Ann Arbor-based string group serves two functions: First, it's a resource for musicians in the artist community. Local musicians come to the group with specific projects and they use the ensemble's musicians to carry out those ideas. And, second, the ensemble's own musicians are able to create musical projects and perform with their comrades.
The latter was the case with Friday's concert, since the project was Snyder's creation.
"The ensemble is something that musicians have created specifically as an outlet for their projects," Snyder said. "We create the types of projects that we want to be involved with, and we're directly responsible for that. That's the most rewarding part of it."
At Friday's show, expect a plethora of Piazzolla's works. Also anticipate a unique combination of instruments: classical instruments, such as cello, flute and violin mixed with jazz instruments, like percussion, bass and bandoneon (a cousin of the accordion, with a warmer, darker sound).
When Snyder isn't performing with the Phoenix Ensemble, he can be found teaching up-and-coming cellists.
Any advice for young players?
"The most important thing for learning anything is being in an environment that is nurturing," Snyder said. "The more you can get out to hear cellists play, the better. ... I would encourage cellists to listen to as many different performers and different styles as possible."
- first printed 9/22/05
- Lansing State Journal

"Ann Arbor ensemble throws Creole into tango oblivion"

Ann Arbor ensemble throws Creole into tango oblivion

It’s more of a dress-tease than a striptease. The dark, churning tango music of Astor Piazzolla starts with a skeletal rhythm, inhumanly stiff with tradition. With every bar, vivid musical colors drape the skeleton layer by layer, until the bones nearly unhinge and the dance crumbles into chaos.

The Oblivion Project, named after one of Piazzolla’s tangos, is the most successful among many musical detours taken by the Phoenix Ensemble, a classical-improvisational ensemble from Ann Arbor. The group sticks to music that really turns them on, heeding conductor Leonard Bernstein’s famous dictum: "If it doesn’t give me an orgasm, I’m not interested."

For the past couple of years, the ensemble has been dancing with the devil: the intense "nuevo tango" music of Argentinian master Piazzolla, who occupied the same composer-musician-innovator role in tango that Duke Ellington filled in the jazz world.

Piazzolla, who died in 1992, single-handedly snatched tango up from its stylized dance roots, stamping the genre with his own complex, brooding personality.

The desperate spiritual and intellectual angst of his music fulfilled a potential always latent in the genre, which at its best embodies the art of swirling down the drain of mortality with high style and unblinking love of life.

The last time the Phoenix Ensemble appeared at Lansing’s Creole Gallery, its string-based sounds folded right into the lyrical, emotional jazz of Traverse City composer Jeff Haas. They nailed Haas’ tricky melodies and harmonies like philharmonic veterans and improvised like midnight bar warriors.

This time around, they’ve added the quintessential tango instrument the bandoneon to their ensemble, fortified by the piano bombs and runs of Tad Weed and throbbing bass of John Holkeboer. Haas’ live-wire percussionist, Alex Trajano, returns with the group as well, lighting a match to this highly combustible mix.

The bandoneon is a bit of a curiosity, a squeezebox variant largely unfamiliar in northern latitudes. But nobody is going to mistake Julien Labro’s instrument for an accordion: Harshly put, it’s like comparing a mosquito to a hornet. Phoenix Ensemble’s artistic director and cellist, Derek Snyder, doesn’t put things harshly, though. "It’s such a wonderful instrument," he says. "It’s so much darker and warmer than the accordion." Its penetrating hymenopteran burr suggests an inner obsession bordering on madness, especially in Piazzolla’s music. Folded inside the strings, flute and rhythm section of the Phoenix Ensemble, it buzzes, seeks and sucks some nameless, elusive nectar, heavy stinger held in reserve.

Snyder’s instrument, the cello, is also inclined to darkness, so it’s natural that he would feel a strong affinity for Piazzolla’s music. "He had things pulling in different directions," Snyder says of Piazzolla, "and it makes his music very deep and fun to explore. It’s never all sweetness. There ’s always something a little more sinister mixed in."

Another service Piazzolla did for tango was to refute the charge that it’s a robotic and monotonous form of music. "We do ten to twelve pieces on a program, and you’re not gonna confuse any one with any other," he says. "There’s a huge range."
The "Tango Oblivion" series, the most popular in the Phoenix Ensemble’s seven-year history, indeed paints with a broad palette of moods and styles. There are straight-to-Hell tangos of tremendous hypnotic force, floating jazz-fusion-like space walks, and even a tender major-key romance featuring Saeran St. Christopher on flute. "When he does write sweet music,"
Snyder says, "It’s genuine. It relates to, ‘you can only understand happiness if you’ve understood the other side’”..

It took several years for the Phoenix Ensemble to evolve into a tight band of musical adventurers. For the first three years, it was a more conventional orchestra, founded by Snyder and his colleague, violinist Gabe Bolkosky. When the group’s original leader stepped down, Bolkosky and Snyder took over, turning the group into a chamber-sized unit. This lighter, more flexible force has already accomplished mission after mission, many of them in exotic musical latitudes. The Piazzolla project is the fruit of Snyder’s own obsession. "There’s pretty much every emotion one could feel in his music," Snyder says. The music also stimulates Snyder as an arranger and musician. "Percussion, electric guitar and bass aren’t traditionally things you get together with violin and cello," he says, "and it makes the orchestrational possibilities so much bigger."

After two years of doing Piazzolla nights in Ann Arbor, the Phoenix group finds itself in a sweet spot where technical mastery overlaps with first-blush excitement. Snyder says the Phoenix is more than ready to take this show on the road. "When we do two shows in one night, as we are at the Creole, I love to hear how the performances change," he says. "We have great improvisers. It never comes out the same way twice."

-First printed 9/21/05
- Lansing City Pulse

"Oblivion Project comes to Petoskey"

Oblivion Project
Rick Coates

Every generation has had its share of musical innovators, rebels and those that expanded the melodic boundaries of their time. Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla was one such dissenter in his day. As a composer Piazzolla would create an opus of more than1,000 pieces from the late 1930s until his death in 1992 that explored the music of the tango versus the dances that resulted from this style of music.

Controversial in his day and discounted by traditionalist Piazzolla’s work is celebrated worldwide by musicians and conductors. One such group paying tribute is the Ann Arbor based Phoenix Ensemble. The eight-piece company of talented musicians will present the Oblivion Project at the Crooked Tree Arts Center Ross Stoakes Theatre January 13 and 14.

The Phoenix Ensemble was established in 1998 in Ann Arbor to serve as a creative resource for local musicians. The Ensemble has two objectives. The first is to entertain proposed musical projects by area musicians that would incorporate members of the Ensemble. In addition the Ensemble’s own musicians are able to create musical projects utilizing members as well as guest musicians.


The concept of the Oblivion Project (the title of one of Piazzolla’s works) came to the group from artistic director Derek Snyder.

“As an undergraduate in 1990 I attended a recital of Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango,” and the piece immediately captivated me,” said Snyder. “I knew nothing of Piazzolla at the time but I knew I had to play this work. That performance started a passion and over the next decade the passion continued to grow as his music and recordings became available. Since then I’ve read everything I can find about Piazzolla and have located a lot of his arrangements.”

Snyder believes that Piazzolla’s interest in expanding the boundaries of the tango, while controversial at the time has created a new appreciation for the music.
“Piazzolla was interested in writing tango music that made people listen rather than dance. He wrote music that was much more experimental in terms of orchestration and harmony then traditional tango music” said Snyder. “His music was often vehemently criticized by fans of traditional tango music. Piazzolla’s humanity and personality are present in each of his compositions resulting in deep expressions of an assortment of human emotions such as passion, suffering, humor, joy, love, intensity and spirituality happening simultaneously in virtually every composition. It is why so many including myself are drawn to his works. Piazzolla was a complex man—always playing jokes on people around him but at the same time bitter that his music wasn’t more recognized during his lifetime.”


In an interview just before his death Piazzolla commented on his body of work “For me the tango was always meant to be for the ear not for the feet,” said Piazzolla. “I paid dearly for this in my day. Once while giving a radio interview a tango singer
busted into the station and pointed a pistol at my head. Latin cab drivers that recognized me in New York wouldn’t pick me up. Tango traditionalists saw me as taking something away from them, but what they didn’t realize was that the tango as they knew it was dying.”

Piazzolla’s works are rooted in the sounds produced by the bandoneón, which looks something like a large square concertina and is often referred to as the “tango accordion.” Snyder felt that it was necessary to have a bandoneón player in their ensemble in order to have an authentic interpretation of Piazzolla’s works. But finding one would not be easy, because at the time of the Piazzolla’s death in 1992 there were not any known bandoneón players performing the composer’s works.

“A friend mentioned that a bandoneón player, Peter Soave, was appearing with the Plymouth Symphony, and I went to hear the concert,” said Snyder. “It was instantly clear that he was an incredibly dynamic musician, and we knew what a beautiful addition he would be to our Piazzolla project. We tracked Peter down, and he agreed to join the show.”


Soave, a child prodigy of the accordion, took first place in the four major international competitions as a teenager in England, Germany, Italy, and East Germany, an unheard-of feat for a virtuoso of any instrument. As an adult he took an interest in Piazzolla’s compositions and began mastering the bandoneón. Soave said there is so much to Piazzolla that one never will truly master his works

“People think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard Piazzolla.’ No, you haven’t heard Piazzolla. ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve played Piazzolla.’ No, you haven’t played Piazzolla,” said Soave. That’s myself included. The more you dig into his music, the more you’re gonna learn.”

Soave and Snyder see one of the appeals to Piazzolla’s works is the diversity in each piece. Traditional tango composition often sounded alike; this is not the case with Piazzolla.

“We do 10 to 12 pieces and there is no confusing them,” said Snyder. “Traditional tango is often monotonous and robotic in its approach, there is a definite range with Piazzolla.”

The Phoenix Ensemble will perform the Oblivion Project on January 13 & 14 at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, both performances start at 8 pm and advance tickets are suggested. All seats are reserved and additional information or to purchase tickets call (231) 347-4337.

- First printed January, 2006
- Northern Michigan Express


The Oblivion Project - Live In Traverse City, 4/05

More recordings available at



Since 2002, The Oblivion Project has paid tribute to the Nuevo Tango music of Astor Piazzolla. Formed as an offshoot of the renowned Phoenix Ensemble, the group has thrilled audiences across the Midwest with its energetic performances of Piazzolla’s well known and lesser-known works. To the traditional tango quintet of bandoneon (Julien Labro), violin (Gabe Bolkosky), cello (Derek Snyder), piano (Tad Weed), and bass (John Holkeboer) the group adds percussionist Alex Trajano. In addition to straight tribute performances of classic concert pieces like Adios Nonino, and Concierto Para Quintetto, the group places a greater emphasis on rhythm and improvisation in more open-ended, jazzier works such as Vayamos Al Diablo, and Escualo.

The Oblivion Project has been called "a tight band of musical adventurers," and their program described as "a broad palette of moods and styles: straight-to-Hell tangos of tremendous hypnotic force, floating jazz-fusion-like space walks, and even tender major-key romance."

Internationally renowned bandoneonist and tango composer Paolo Russo says: “YES! YES! YES! Finally a project with Piazzolla's music - with a strong character, taste, power, rhythmic definition. Modern, original, very well played, with great feeling."