Modern chamber ensembles like Flexible Music do for classical instrumentation what Iron Chefs do for secret ingredients: they memorably blend unlikely elements into classy finished products. In Flexible Music’s case, the New York quartet combines guitar, percussion, piano, and saxophone; since composers haven’t traditionally written pieces for such an ungainly ensemble, Flexible Music commissions most of their repertoire. They favour modern classical music squarely in the downtown NYC tradition of bucking tradition, blending atonality with gestures out of minimalism and soundtracks, and pushing complex syncopated rhythms right out front. FM’s facility with rhythm makes sense – they’re basically a rhythm section plus sax, schooled in pop music along with classical – though they’re also capable of moments bulging with lyrical beauty.
Mostly, though, their debut album fm is an exuberant notefest. (FM guitarist Daniel Lippel released fm in 2009 on his New Focus label; it’s receiving – ahem – new promotional focus thanks to the label’s deal with classical distribution giant Naxos.) The album opens with Louis Andriessen’s 1991 “Hout”, one of the few pieces written prior to this millennium for FM’s instrumentation. The Dutch composer wrote “Hout” as a nearly-strict canon, with saxophone leading the melodic charge and the other instruments following at 16th note intervals. The resulting piece sounds like a long, jazz-influenced melody getting dragged through a lake, sending out ripples of echoes that threaten to swamp the tune but never do. As a musical experiment, it’s cool; as a piece of music it’s something more, given Andriessen’s talent for mixing the instruments’ sonorities into indelible blends. Though the notes move constantly, with saxophonist Timothy Ruedeman’s fingers clacking away, the piece swells and breathes with a large-scale shape all its own.
Also wonderful is Orianna Webb’s 2004 “Sustenance Variations”, a study in violent group attacks alternating with mysterious sustained passages. At first the group attacks sound a little stiff and composed, reminiscent of orchestral stabs out of West Side Story. But later in the piece they turn shattering. Pianist Eric Huebner lulls you with a delicate music box melody, and then, out of nowhere, Lippel and percussionist Haruka Fujii start smacking their instruments around. The effect startles, and it achieves the grab-you-by-the-throat physicality that’s one of FM’s goals.
Another FM goal is premiering new works, and the other four pieces are recorded here for the first time. Nico Muhly’s 2002 “Flexible Music” (he named the band!) uses familiar gestures out of movie scores and video games to create an accessible tone poem that sort of evokes a hero’s quest in a hot air balloon. John Link’s 2006 “Around the Bend” has a cheerful mania. It veers between complex chirrupy rhythms and danceable grooves led by Fujii’s tambourine, stretching tonality to its breaking point before relapsing into minimalist breathers. Ryan Streber’s 2004 “Closing Time” is the thorniest work, a set of atonal studies featuring mournful electric guitar. And the closing piece, Vineet Shende’s 2005 “Throw Down Or Shut Up”, is the pandering encore of the bunch, full of funk references and grunting. FM paced the disc well, moving from the new standard “Hout” through progressive degrees of musical difficulty, before coming back to earth with “Sustenance” and “Throw Down”.
One quibble, though, about “Throw Down”. For all its James Brown allusions and slapped guitar strings, it’s just not funky. The musicians’ arch grunts sound more like Beavis and Butthead, and the rhythms are painfully square. In his liner notes, Lippel writes of the piece, “The balance between visceral and brainy ... is a bit of an FM hallmark. It’s like composers think we’re cool because we’re smart. Not too smart to grunt, apparently.” Musicians of all genres would do well to realize that James Brown was one of last century’s smartest musicians, up there with Stravinsky. That doesn’t mean you can’t imitate him. But simply copping a couple mannerisms reveals a shallow understanding of his chief innovation, a precise rhythmic pointillism that coalesces into free-floating grooves. Don’t condescend to the Godfather. (OK, I’m done.)
But let’s face it – any crowd-pleasing classical concert will have at least one moment that makes you cringe, and cringing is better than falling asleep. Throughout fm, the members of Flexible Music show that they can please crowds while wading into the harmonic thickets of modern composition, a trick they pull off with great dexterity.
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