Chamber music has steadily become slightly more hip these days. This classical subgenre once occupied by greying wigs from Prague is now becoming infiltrated by spring-hatched Juilliard grads that spend just as much time shopping at J. Crew and posing for photo shoots as they do practicing their instruments. Not that this is a bad thing—classical music will always place substance before style—but it does change how the style receives exposure. As the listening audience becomes younger, the more forgiving they are for the inclusion of “newer” classical music. In fact, they may even encourage it. Schubert and Schumann are cool, but what about the here and now? Do we have any classical music that speaks for us? It’s been there for a long time, but it’s just now getting some traction with the indie crowd.
NOW Ensemble and Chiara String Quartet, both signed to the New Amsterdam label, are two chamber groups who understand the allure of the new. In fact, the former’s new album Awake is made entirely of original material penned by individual group members. The latter ensemble’s new release highlights two string quartets from American composer Jefferson Friedman, a Juilliard alumnus who just recently became old enough to run for president. Even though both albums find compact ensembles wrestling with modern material that is at odds with 99 percent of what is popular nowadays, the impressions they create are very different.
The NOW Ensemble is one of those acts capable of concocting a style that is as challenging as it is emotionally compelling. Their sound is also far more bold and realized than what you might suspect from reading their roster; two of the seven members are credited as composers only while the remaining five cover clarinet, flute, guitar, piano and bass. When everything is weaved together, it ranges from intriguing to unstoppable. The first track alone, “Change”, is a dizzying talent show of everything NOW Ensemble does right, even if the overlapping syncopated patterns do sound dangerously close to Steve Reich. The best cut is saved for last, though. Weighing in at nine minutes, the title track boasts many gear-shifts and quite possibly even more compositional depth. Solemn, in-the-dark figures play leapfrog with woodwind flourishes that sound like they are ascending a mountain. It really does put to shame much of the modern classical music out there that exists purely to be modern.
And that leads me to the other release in question, Chiara’s Jefferson Friedman: Quartets. The lines of communication drawn from composer to listener that make Awake so damn good get obscured here, if not erased entirely. Friedman’s music is like a headless and limbless torso, and a rather nebulous one at that. Themes and variations are turned down while 16th (or is it 32nd?) note rushes get into the door. The harmony’s density doubles or triples beyond its own good, and before you know it, the human experience comes down with a bad case of frostbite. Chiara can’t be blamed for performing competently, but they can be blamed for giving musique concrete duo Matmos five minutes of album space to derail the established mood with a terribly distracting remix. They are in charge of two remixes, actually, and the second one is a far more appropriate fit for the collection considering how it sounds like Bruce Gilbert took a hammer to the tape. The first one breaks it down with the disco beats, and no matter how many times you listen to this CD, you are just not prepared for it when it arrives.
Now we see that chamber music can move in a variety of directions, even on one record label. As far as the future is concerned, this will lead to more good things than not as the subgenre becomes more palatable to an independently-minded music public. Neither group has their careers at stake with these two releases. And I really doubt anyone at New Amsterdam is banking on any crossover hits this year. But if an album like Awake is of any indication of future potential, we are in for some downright masterpieces.
Jefferson Friedman: Quartets