NOW ENSEMBLE Awake
CROWELL Waiting in the Rain for Snow
FRIAR Velvet Hammer
MAZZOLI Magic With Everyday Objects
New Amsterdam Records NWAM0029
Formed in 2002 by a group of
then students at the Yale School
of Music, the NOW Ensemble launched the New York-based New Amsterdam Records label three years ago in fine fashion with their well-received, semi-eponymous debut offering, Now.
Their sophomore offering,
Awake, delivers a more-of-the-same compendium of new chamber works that intelligently builds on the scintillating (if not always immediately digestible) blend of what Time Out New York described as the “formal elegance of chamber music with a pop-honed concision and rhythmic vitality.”
Don’t be frightened by that mention of “pop” music. And banish any suspicion that this might be a project whose ambition lies in the deadening doldrums of ‘crossover’ – that most exposed of all refuges for contemporary classical musicians who lack the confidence to deal with the here and, fittingly enough, for this eight-piece ensemble, the now. Indeed, that two members of the octet are composers – Judd Greenstein (who co-founded New Amsterdam Records) and Patrick Burke – says much, and reassuringly so, about where the creative centre of gravity for the project lies.
It’s Greenstein’s Change that opens the program in elegantly ebullient mood, a solo flute’s dancing clarion call refrain supported, taken up by, and joyfully elaborated upon by the ensemble with improvisatory vitality and wit.
Burke’s atmospheric Awake gives the disc its title and concludes it in no less esoteric fashion. Javanese gamelan is the cuckoo in the nest here, but it sings with a beguiling beauty not usually associated with the avian interloper, albeit as momentum builds, it acquires a frenetically strident signature that is much more characteristic.
Sean Friar’s Velvet Hammer makes much play with a notion that, on paper at least, might appall, by imagining the consequences of giving ensemble members access to the effects pedal much loved by electric guitarists. What results is an animated piece punctuated by moments of multi-hued repose.
Taking the concept underlying the album to its most extreme expression, Mizzy Mazzoli’s Magic with Everyday Objects is a piece,
in the composer’s words, “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. Dismantling even as it builds, it’s a helter-skelter ride of sliding chords that tumble uncontrollably out of tune, and tangled, turbulent melodies that repeat themselves to the point of hopeless confusion, threaded together by an almost ridiculously sentimental piano line. It’s by no means easy listening, but its edge-of-oblivion intensity burns with a dark, scorching flame.
There’s something appropriately liquescent about David Crowell’s Waiting in the Rain for Snow. A meditation on the crystallization of rain or ice into snow, it’s a hymnal to a hidden process, the sense of transformation etched and sculpted by intricate, repeated figures in guitar and piano overlaid and compounded by shifting, drifting patterns in woodwinds.
Completing the eclectic program is Mark Dancigers’ Burst, which makes free use of electric guitar and idioms drawn from “African popular music – circular rhythms and pentatonic melodies” laced through conventional ensemble writing “influenced by Mozart-esque counterpoint”. There’s an obvious challenge in the music’s mix of old, new and the exotic, and one that is rewarded by repeated listening as its interweaving of superficially contrary elements coalesce into something fresh and vibrant.
The same could be said of the NOW Ensemble’s intelligently questing approach to programming, and to the articulate and committed performances of all involved.