ALBUM REVIEW: First by yMusic & Son Lux

by Seth Tompkins

First, a collaboration between the chamber ensemble yMusic and Ryan Lott, the founder of Son Lux, is a unified expression of a narrow set of aesthetics. That is not to say that First lacks depth; on the contrary, First explores its chosen aesthetics comprehensively. The result is a release that listens like a concept album. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that yMusic’s stated goal for this project was to “build a record of chamber music which emulates the flow and structure of a rock album.” At that, they have succeeded.

Like other releases that are designed to work as wholes, First is best absorbed in one sitting. The expressive nuances and subtle aesthetic variations that fade in and out throughout the album are much more apparent when the music is taken as a whole. Of course, most of the tracks are quite effective on their own, too.

The compositional predilections of Ryan Lott are obvious in First.  In particular, the use of “repetitive structures,” background “pads” of sound, and the emergence of a noticeably more expressive lead line are frequent in First. Also present is the technique of juxtaposing highly active and fast accompaniment figures with bass lines and harmonic pads moving at a much slower speed on top of the same rhythmic framework. The difference here is that the overriding use of acoustic instruments by yMusic creates a different flavor of intimacy than that seen in the music of Son Lux. The two are certainly related, but also deliciously different.

 

There are a few moments when compositional elements not seen in Son Lux’s music make appearances on First. The most notable of these is the inclusion of contrapuntal writing in Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the slightly more “classical” flavor of yMusic’s setup inspired Lott to lean more on this technique largely associated with music of the past. Whatever the genesis, it works.

Ryan Lott’s love of acoustic instruments is obvious in the music of Son Lux. Furthermore, it seems that he has found a perfect partner with whom to explore that interest more deeply in yMusic. The players of yMusic execute Lott’s with remarkable facility and fearlessness. The woodwind technique on First deserves special praise, as does the trumpet playing. Many of the licks on this album are beyond tricky, but yMusic makes them seem like no big deal.  This attention to excellence and detail is absolutely necessary in order for Lott’s intricate musical designs to sparkle.

One particularly pleasing element of this project is how the first and last tracks (Eleven and Paris, respectively) encapsulate the release as a whole. While the last piece includes some of the familiar characteristics of the first, it is tempered with elements of the intervening tracks. This synthesis of ideas yields a satisfying conclusion that recalls the boldness of the opening while remaining informed by the complexity of the entire album.

Moments that are both simple and beautiful are rare in First, and most of them dissolve or morph into moments of increased emotional complexity. While these simple moments are cathartic, the real beauty here is in the complexity and tension that leads from one exhalation to the next.

Staff & Community Picks: July 29

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!



the_little_death_album_cover_1-1Religion + hormones + hip hop beats = nihilist pop opera.  The Little Death Vol. 1 is boppy, fun & sentimental.  Strong vocals from Mellissa Hughes and Matt Marks’ twisted take on the traditional “boy meets girl” story make this one of my favorite CDs in our music library.  I dare you not to dance to “I Don’t Have Any Fun.” – by Rachele Hales

 

 

 


71GJwJ+HBtL._SY355_If you enjoy Spanish and Latin American music, you’ll find a lot to love in “Andalusian Fantasy,” a collection of pieces written and performed by pianist Lionel Sainsbury. The compositions embrace the darker, more romantic side of traditional Latin music, incorporating a pleasantly crunchy chord just seldom enough to keep things melodic overall. Imagine if tango, Debussy, and Gershwin all met in one album, and you’ll get a sense for Sainsbury’s music. – by Jill Kimball

 

homepage_large.e22fb394I’ve been a huge Arcade Fire fan for years, and I was completely awestruck when this album came out.  The whole idea behind the works on this album – letting the human body dictate the tempi, is one of the most revolutionary concepts I’ve encountered in new music.  I can’t really think of many albums that represent Second Inversion SO WELL – the composer/genre/artist crossover, the musicians on the album – yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nadia Sirota, Nico Muhly, Aaron and Bryce Dessner – all are revolutionaries in the new music world and helping to create music that completely breaks the mold of classical, despite the instruments they’re playing. – by Maggie Stapleton

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: yMusic’s Balance Problems

by Maggie Molloy

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New York has long been one of the U.S.’s leading centers for new and experimental classical music, and who better to spearhead the city’s lively and eccentric music scene than innovative young musicians?

yMusic is quickly making a name for themselves as one of New York’s most imaginative young music ensembles. The sextet, which formed in 2008, is named for the stylish Millennial Generation from which its musicians hail. Each of its members has their own distinct personal style and musical flair, and together their music toes the line between the classical and pop music worlds.

The ensemble is composed of a string trio carefully balanced with flute, clarinet, and trumpet. yMusic features Rob Moose on violin, Nadia Sirota on viola, Clarice Jensen on cello, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, and CJ Camerieri on trumpet.

Though the group is full of virtuosic, classically-trained musicians, yMusic strives to make classical chamber music accessible to a wider range of audiences outside of the traditional concert hall.

In their new album, “Balance Problems,” the group takes on dazzling new compositions by Nico Muhly, Marcos Balter, Andrew Norman, Jeremy Turner, Timo Andres, Mark Dancigers, and Sufjan Stevens. The result is a series of carefully crafted sonic landscapes which blend imaginative musical textures of enormous depth and detail.

The album’s sound is heavily influenced by Son Lux (Ryan Lott), a fellow genre-bending New York-based musician who served as the producer and mixing engineer for “Balance Problems.” His extensive background in electronic and experimental music informed the mixing process, helping to expand yMusic’s sound while still preserving the integrity of their acoustic instruments.

“Balance Problems” starts off with the title track, a delicate but densely colorful piece composed by modernist Nico Muhly. The piece’s overlapping wind and brass motifs are carefully balanced against the constantly shifting, often pizzicato string backdrop.

Marcos Balter’s “Bladed Stance,” toys with various tempos on different instruments, creating depth through swelling woodwind melodies which whisper like wind, gradually rising and falling with each breath.

Of all the pieces, Andrew Norman’s two-part “Music in Circles” is perhaps the most familiar in structure. True to its title, the piece begins and ends with the same airy, ambient backdrop. If you listen closely, you can even hear someone breathing on the recording. The stark, simple atmosphere gradually gives way to growing depth and drama. The middle of the piece is rounded out with vibrant and colorful timbres, each instrument’s part swirling around each other to produce a brilliant, sparkling musical texture.

The more chaotic tracks on the album are balanced out by softer, gentler compositions such as Jeremy Turner’s “The Bear and the Squirrel.” The piece begins with a rich cello tone, embracing a bass-heavy sound with smooth, sweet strings and a muted trumpet melody. The lovely, dreamlike melodies give the piece a tranquil, lulling quality.

Sufjan Stevens ends the album with “The Human Plague,” a more heavily produced track which experiments with delayed and gated effects. All of the instruments play in sync for the first time on the album, dizzily repeating one rhythm until each voice gradually slows down and fades away into silence. The result is a modern, minimalist finale which seamlessly drives home the album’s theme of blending pop and classical.

As an album, “Balance Problems” is truly brought to life by yMusic’s youthful, imaginative energy and fearless commitment to creating innovative and expressive new music. The group’s extraordinary musicianship and unique ear for pop and avant-garde musical elements allows them to flawlessly tie together two very different musical worlds into one intricate but accessible classical music album.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

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As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

(music streaming for this album is no longer available)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.