Sunday, March 30, 2014

yMusic plays Duke Ph.D. Composers at Motorco Music Hall

6:29 PM
This week Durham was graced with the presence of "six hip virtuosi" (as they were deemed by Time Out NY)--a handful of musicians on the razor's edge of the newfangled classical music/popular music merge. yMusic is a sextet from New York, they comprise a nontraditional orchestration of string trio, flute, clarinet, and trumpet, and they not only play living classical composers; they've actually "inspired an expanding repertoire of work" both by these composers and by musicians important in the indie rock scene. And they all have really cute hipster hair.
yMusic, left to right: Hideaki Aomori, Clarice Jensen, CJ Camerieri, Rob Moose, Alex Sopp, Nadia Sirota; photo by Ilya Nikhamin via HuffPo
In other words, though the adjectives "new" and "young" and "hip" and "sexy" are often thrown around while yMusic is discussed, the group has little in common with the legion of doddering arts administrators tearing their hair out these days
trying to figure out how they can market their own seasons using these words, importing young audience-blood into the concert hall. yMusic are actually a new kind of musicians, and the pieces written for them by their collaborators are actually a new kind of music--though they & their rep all fit quite nicely into the classical chamber music tradition.

It wasn't just this week, actually--yMusic have been popping down every few months, all school year long, as part of a special residency with the composition program at Duke. The fruit of their long collaboration with Ph.D. candidates in the program came on Tuesday night, when they performed the students' works at Motorco Music Hall as part of Duke Performances. It was a seriously, deeply exciting evening of music.

I am the worst: I was late to this one too (but in my defense you guys it was actually literally unavoidable because I was teaching in Raleigh until 7:45 and the concert was at 8). Sadly, I missed out on most of X by Ben Daniels. These are the notes I was able to take before it ended:
     - pointillism??
     - [unintelligible]

Oops. I'm looking for more of Daniels' music to link to, but have still found just the one marimba quartet above--hopefully I'll be able to right this injustice in a future post.

It was composer Vladimir Smirnov's idea to create a "cloud of sound" or "cloud textures" in his piece, Ccluadd (which is explained in the program as "a misspelled anagram for 'cloud'"). In the first movement, melancholy, floating figures in the strings contrast with fluttery, angular flute motives; in the second, one spiraling, foreground melody is traded among voices while the rest accompany, making for a less-vaporous texture. The third returns to tonally-ambiguous cloud world, where we're treated to gorgeous warm playing in the strings. I'm pretty confident in saying that even if it weren't for the title and program blurb, this would have reminded me of Debussy's Nuages in a wonderful way.

Jamie Keesecker's Chrysalides features yMusic plus electronic sounds. It weaves:
     - otherworldly, sliding chromatic motives in the flute,
     - dramatic tremolando, sensitive piani, and bracing-yet-graceful flashes of dissonance in the  strings,
     - bouncy upbeat jazz stylings from the trumpet and clarinet,
     - and a sampling of electronic percussion that would be at home in a Lykke Li song
together into a delightful whole teeming with lyricism and eclectic energy. (click here to read my interview with Jamie Keesecker.)

yMusic violist Nadia Sirota noted from the stage that Gortista, the title of Justin Tierney's piece, "sounds like many words, but means absolutely nothing." But the word was well-conceived--its vaguely fat, vaguely revolutionary, strongly colorful associations were borne out by the music. The ensemble spilled out a vivid, rhythmically jagged, metrically shifting flood of sound, with flaring, flowering melodies in the winds and trumpet standing out against the angular motion of the strings. Instead of traditional cadences, Tierney used sudden silences to periodically offset the ever-tightening harmonic tension. The effect was dramatic and likable, though apparently disorienting to the audience--one abrupt palate-cleansing silence near, but not at, the end of the piece drew inopportune applause from a lone spectator.

The most cerebral piece presented was L'air sans notes by Sid Richardson. The first movement began with a nicely moody solo on the clarinet. The first movement seemed largely atonal and at first arhythmic before pulling into homorhythm towards the end. Through the second movement, which vacillates between atonality and vice-like harmonic tension, rhythm continued to feature as an organizing force. I was fascinated by the array of sophisticated techniques used here, including the instrumentalists' vocalizing on eerie dissonant chords in the second movement, but I didn't find clarity about what Richardson was going for until I went back and listened to this piece on the concert from WUNC.

D. Edward Davis's karst takes its title from the name of a geographical formation. "Imagine," Sirota said, "material that seems solid, with lots of pockets of nothingness inside it." Chunks of sound alternated with equally-spaced chunks of silence in which the "pockets" of subterranean nothingness could be heard quite literally. While playing, the ensemble rumbled softly along with an ominous, oscillating minor second. A dark mood was enhanced by Davis' prerecorded electronic sound choices, including low hums, deep earthquake-like rumbles, and the kind of vague, ominous murmurings that echoing tunnels and caves can create out of tiny noises like dripping water. About 80% of the way through the piece I noticed that I was extremely physically tense: I was subconsciously preparing for some sort of volcanic eruption. Instead, though, the piece faded away as it had faded into being, bringing our visit to this empty, lightless, anxiously vibrating world to a close. (click here to read my interview with Eddie Davis. click here to listen to karst.)

The charming Liftoff by Scott Lee closed out the program. In the same WUNC interview (which I actually caught a bit of while driving to the show), Lee explains that the piece was inspired by the slow-climbing, slightly-arcing space shuttle launches he watched as a child in Florida. This image is beautifully captured in the minimalist first movement, which takes a winsome, accessible melody and slowly adds rhythmic accents and chromatic countermelodies to create a soaring whole. The second movement featured whirling, Irish-jig-type motives in the strings, a strong rhythmic bounce, and some fun hemiola. I had a big smile on my face throughout this piece and now imagine Lee, even though I know nothing else about his music, as a kind of 21st-c. Copland by way of John Adams.

The Duke Ph.D. candidates whose work was exhibited Tuesday have distinct, mature, developed, diverse voices and styles, and it was a joy to hear pieces that were not only smart and modern but also beautiful and moving. Both the music itself and the fact that Duke brought in artists like yMusic to collaborate with students are exciting. They're proof that a major Durham institution is actively supporting musical innovation, as well as the interaction of our musical community here in town with fish from the big pond of the New York classical music world. Duke Performances was already on my radar as a source of unique entertainment, but it aligns so nicely with what I'm hoping to write about on this blog--I'll be watching its programming really closely from now on, so if you're hoping to read more about it, stay tuned!

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.