On new albums by Ensemble Volcanic Ash and Janel & Anthony, cellist Janel Leppin weaves together intention and abstraction

It begins simply enough: a gentle cascade of finger-picked guitar notes high up on the fretboard, at once supporting and complemented by the long, fluid strokes of a bow across cello strings. There is a warmth and intimacy to the melodies, like a quilt being stitched around you in real time. Then the music transforms, as if by the flick of a wrist, from the close and intimate to the expansive and searching. Anthony Pirog articulates a melody lower on the guitar, deeper and cooler, while Janel Leppin’s now-reverberating, amplified cello resonates with a majesty as grand as the Northern Lights. 

The piece is “Rhizome,” the eighth track on Leppin and Pirog’s forthcoming double-album, New Moon in the Evil Age, their first release as “Janel and Anthony” in 12 years. The track goes on an awe-inspiring, atmospheric journey, offering a fitting tribute to the venue for which the track was named, where many such musical moments have transpired — and where each of them has played countless times, in a variety of scenarios.

This piece also exemplifies the approach Leppin and Pirog take to writing for their duo. “It’s usually kind of evoking a place or a feeling, and it’s usually very personal,” Leppin explained in a phone interview earlier this month. “The place where we’re at in our life gets drawn into the record.” 

New Moon is one of two records Leppin will be releasing this Friday, June 28, each of them a sign of her constant evolution as an artist. The other is To March Is to Love, the sophomore offering from the cellist’s Ensemble Volcanic Ash (EVA), which is now 11 years old. Both records will come out through Silver Spring-based Cuneiform Records.

On release day, Leppin (and Pirog) will perform material from each of the new records in a double-bill featuring both Janel and Anthony and EVA, at — where else? — Rhizome.

While both albums build on the respective strengths and established sounds of each group — intimate, enveloping, electro-acoustic duo music for Janel and Anthony and twisting, adventurous, avant-garde chamber music for Ensemble Volcanic Ash — each record also finds new frontiers in sound and composition.

For Janel and Anthony, New Moon showcases the duo’s recent exploration of vocal music and experimental electronica; in particular, the second disc of the two-LP album features tracks roughly in the vein of classic alternative rock bands like Portishead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Broadcast.


The duo has been tinkering with the compositions on this album for at least the last 15 years. Janel and Anthony first recorded “Boom Boom,” which features Leppin on koto, in 2009. The duo has slowly been introducing many of their other tunes, particularly the ones featuring vocals, during live shows over the ensuing years. “We’re just trying to expand based on our interests,” Pirog said.

Still, the duo felt some trepidation before recording the songs for the upcoming album, unsure of how a full set of such material would be received. Janel and Anthony had established a solid following between the mid-2000s, when they self-released their debut LP, and the early 2010s, when Cuneiform came out with their well-received second LP, Where Is Home.

“It wasn’t easy for us to have some sort of success with the instrumental music and then immediately want to start playing vocal music,” Pirog said. But by the time they had recorded the 19 tracks that make up the new album, they were convinced its two discs could indeed make a unified whole. “It sounded like a complete work that had momentum that built throughout,” he said.

“We thought it would turn people off,” Leppin said of the more vocals-driven side of the group. But, she added, “Over many years of working together in such a wide range of styles, I think the people who have gravitated to us are interested in all kinds of music … and it feels like a very natural progression, from one record to the other.”

Both New Moon and To March Is to Love bear the influence of Leppin’s work in other groups. Over the last 12 years, and throughout her artistic life, Leppin has sought new sounds and perspectives to learn and respectfully incorporate into her own craft. In the time between Janel and Anthony records, she worked in Seattle with the celebrated contemporary classical and creative composer Eyvind Kang, toured on cello and bass with the celebrated art-punk band Priests, made two albums with singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, played psychedelic cello for Sub Pop recording artists Rose Windows, and collaborated extensively with Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn

“Something’s happened in her playing where she’s really opened up,” Pirog observed. “She’s really stretching her improvisation. She sounds very strong, like something just occurred where it’s very open, it’s free — but it’s strong.”

Alcorn, who has known Leppin since 2008 and has made several albums with her, sees the emergence of a fully refined style.

“For musicians as artists, life in music is always a journey, especially in their younger years, though the timeline is rarely in a straight line,” Alcorn told CapitalBop in an email. “They’re exposed to, and fall in love with, all different kinds of music, in a way like other love affairs — they come and go, sometimes stay, but all contribute to a sort of melting pot in which a mature style eventually emerges.”

Leppin’s love affair with music, and the cello, began over 30 years ago when she was growing up in Fairfax County, Va. Drawn to the instrument’s sonorous, deep tones, Leppin first developed a nascent connection with the instrument in third grade, as she watched her twin sister practice.

“She chose it first and I just quietly watched her,” Leppin said. “I just thought, ‘This is the coolest thing.'”

Leppin became a lifelong student of the music, both at home and abroad. After pursuing classical studies at George Mason University, she spent time studying Hindustani classical music traditions with a cellist in India and the Netherlands. She then returned home to the D.C. area, availing herself of the wealth of knowledge possessed by the musical masters in Northern Virginia’s immigrant communities, absorbing lessons in Persian classical music from Dr. Nader Majd of the Center for Persian Classical Music and the Japanese koto with the Washington Toho Koto Society led by Kyoko Okamoto.

Leppin does not claim mastery over any of these styles, but rather incorporates her understandings of them into her own music. Each of these non-Western musical traditions helps inform her approach as a soloist and improviser. With the koto, Leppin took inspiration from the different scales used on the instrument, and the tonal possibilities that came with them. The koto’s “tuning system and the scales that are being used are beautiful to me,” Leppin said. “That’s something I wasn’t finding in any book.” 

With Persian music, she drew from its more ruminative approach to soloing, which emphasizes finding an established thought, and repeating and developing a specific melodic phrase or handful of notes in solos.

“It kind of just brought me to the idea of, like, sitting on a sequence or an idea and playing with those few notes and really just meditating on that thought,” Leppin said. “There’s something called a gusheh, and they refer to these ‘corners’ in the music where they stay on four notes, basically, and different combinations. You can find that in my improvisation fairly often.”

In the Hindustani tradition, Leppin found a system that emphasized and praised the emotional intentionality of the performer rather than a “correct” way of playing. “I used to be rather uncomfortable onstage and concerned about perfection. I think Indian classical music kind of taught me to let go of that, because it is about the feeling. If you’re worried about something, people are going to sense that, and that is going to be their feeling in the music.” As a result, Leppin said, she tries to “go full throttle, swing for the fences, and give my full body and soul in the music when I’m playing.” 

That intentionality takes center stage in Leppin’s Ensemble Volcanic Ash, a group originally inspired by the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. EVA’s self-titled debut album, released in 2022, showcased Leppin’s love of Alice Coltrane’s and Julius Hemphill’s lush tapestries of sound. It also featured one of Leppin’s stunning fiber art pieces on the cover, as does To March; in recent years she has been exploring the literal act of weaving, which in turn has influenced her music as well. (In late 2023, she presented her weavings in a solo exhibition at the McLean Project for the Arts, also titled “To March Is to Love.”) But as our country — along with large swathes of the democratic world — moves in illiberal and autocratic political directions, EVA’s music has transformed from dreamy, harmony-drenched effervescence to something more lean, focused and charged. 

Where the first album’s tracks had meditative titles like “Her Hand Is His Score” and “She Had Synesthesia,” To March’s are more pointed, referencing dispiriting headlines and dangerous encounters, with compositions like “Tennessee’s a Drag,” “A Man Followed Me Home” and “Oh Johnny Dear.” If Janel and Anthony draw on past memories and present moments as the basis of their music, Leppin thinks of EVA’s new compositions as “moments for the future.”

“I don’t see how our country is going to continue in any positive direction without a lot of righteous action by a lot of people,” Leppin explained. “That’s my call to action.” 

The music itself reflects this sharpened focus and political seriousness. “I wanted tighter harmonies and … very succinct melodies, and a lot of open space,” she said. “The harmony behind people playing is very, very wide open, so people can explore that.” The group’s expressive potential shines on the record’s two-part title track, which features a slow build into a collective free improvisation that sounds like divinely ordered chaos.


Such a tapestry of sound is only possible thanks to the tight communication between the band’s veteran members, which, in addition to Leppin and Pirog, include bassist Luke Stewart (also a co-founder of CapitalBop), tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes and drummer Larry Ferguson. The group developed the final shape of each piece live in a series of concerts that took place during EVA’s extended Rhizome residency in 2023 and early ’24. Leppin used that time to refine the members’ understanding of the charts, so that the band could fully explore where the music could take them with each performance. “For EVA, I bring completed works to my residency dates and then we work on them from there, because I don’t want there to be a lot of ambiguity,” she said. “That can get uncomfortable onstage, and I want the ambiguity to be more about: ‘Where can this go?’ I don’t want it to be like: ‘What does this chart mean?’”

During Ensemble Volcanic Ash’s first performance, at Bohemian Caverns, as part of the 2013 Washington Women in Jazz Festival, Leppin introduced her piece “One of These Days” by saying: “This goes to the people trying to stop us.” The momentum and force of To March shows that Leppin has no intention of being stopped, or even slowed down. 



About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music, NPR.org, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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