Music

NOW Ensemble - Awake / Chiara String Quartet/Matmos - Jefferson Friedman Quartets

NOW Ensemble [Photo: Stephen Taylor]

The label New Amsterdam releases two albums from two different chamber music groups on the same day, showing us just how tricky and rewarding the classical subgenre can be.


NOW Ensemble

Awake

Label: New Amsterdam
US Release Date: 2011-04-26
UK Release Date: 2011-04-05
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Chiara String Quartet/Matmos

Jefferson Friedman: Quartets

Label: New Amsterdam
US Release Date: 2011-04-26
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image