On paper, the union of '80s synths and chamber strings may sound like a laughable or even nightmarish listen. But Loving the Chambered Nautilus takes both of them and produces New Amsterdam's strongest release of the year thus far.
With an ever-growing amount of art music being released into the world, a pertinent question immediately springs up: what does it take, exactly, to make a 21st century classic? During the three periods of art music – Baroque, Classical, and Romantic – it was easier to pinpoint who the premier composers were, and, as a result, even today we're able to identify the essentials. But now, with a broad base of genres and greater ability to distribute music, the proliferation of art music is unlike anything history has ever seen. Sure, we do have composers with noteworthy stature – Philip Glass and Steve Reich come to mind – but those two's emphasis on minimalism involves them not always in the tradition of art music writ large but rather one of its variants. If I told a casual fan of Glass that I loved his Metamorphosis suite for solo piano, it'd be a lot different than saying to a casual fan of classical that Moonlight Sonata is a masterpiece. There's a strange difficulty in creating a contemporary standard, even in the case of the genre's highly regarded musicians.
Now, I'm no expert on art music, so I say what I'm about to say with some trepidation. But if there exists a canon of contemporary classical, I'd venture to say that William Brittelle's "Future Shock", a piece for string quartet and synthesizer in three parts, ought to be on it. Some might take this suggestion as extreme not just because I, a small voice amidst a massive ocean of critical opinion, am making it; at a conceptual level, "Future Shock" sounds like the subject of parody or ridicule. The piece features two sonics that some would consider diametrically opposed: intimate chamber strings and ‘80s synth and drum programming. Attempts to unify modern genres with basic classical arrangements have happened before, many of them put out by the New Amsterdam label, where Loving the Chambered Nautilus finds its home. These experiments are often tenuously executed, usually because the composer's skill leans too far in one direction. Even in the best-case scenarios, such as the Metropole Orchestra of Holland's collaborations with Elvis Costello and Steve Vai, moments tend to happen where the orchestra gives way to some extended guitar work that clashes with the main arrangements.
Where Loving the Chambered Nautilus masterfully finds its balance is in the skill of Brittelle himself, who excels both at synthesizer music and string arrangements (which are played here by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or ACME). A young composer from Brooklyn, Brittelle has already made quite a splash with his small but potent discography. Television Landscape, his 2010 release for the label, was a true beauty. It took traditional song structures and re-interpreted them with a classically-minded composer's ear, producing tracks that both ground Brittelle as a true contemporary visionary and demonstrated his sophistication as an honest-to-God composer. Television Landscape wasn't a "classical" album by any metric, but its brand of art rock deserves just as much pomp and circumstance as an orchestral piece ought to.
"Future Shock" is the best thing here, both in its three-movement and cello iterations. The former is the most successful of the two; over the course of its 15-minute run, it tracks several different genres and moods, despite the overt "eightiesness" of the synth textures. The first movement begins in a bit of sprightly string interplay, only to drop into a low bass drum beat halfway through. There are some interesting sonic choices made that threaten to derail the mood; while synthesizers and strings aren't natural enemies, the occasional video game synth that bleeps its way through the back-and-forth of the violins could have been done away with. Fortunately, these intermittent sounds instead add a playful quality to the proceedings. Things take a turn for the dreamy in the second movement, where texture comes to the forefront. The notes and melodies are more drawn out, a nice respite from the punch packed by the opening movement. This reverie doesn't last long, however; with the third movement, Brittelle and ACME are at their most propulsive, turning out a Liquid Tension Experiment-styled prog jam that concludes this small chamber piece with gusto.
The other pieces here, while good, take a backseat to the thrill of "Future Shock," though they provide excellent contrasts to it. The brief "Acid Rain on the Mirrordome" is a lovely ambient interlude reminiscent of early No-Man, a welcome breather after the powerful third movement of "Future Shock." And, in a move that's both hilarious and somehow brilliant, Brittelle concludes Loving the Chambered Nautilus with the title track, a near-troll moment that rivals Bon Iver's "Beth/Rest" in unadulterated ‘80s cheese. The song somehow manages to mix a kitschy falsetto vocal (that at times sounds like Justin Vernon), layers of synth, strings, and a banjo into a fitting conclusion to this sonic mishmash. Even if you aren't keen to synthesizer music, or to modern classical at the edge of its form, you have to give Brittelle props for the sheer audacity of this project. But make no mistake: this isn't a case of admirable ambition unable to live up to its lofty standards. Loving the Chambered Nautilus surmounts a lofty conceptual obstacle and becomes New Amsterdam's strongest release of 2012, as well as growing proof that the so-called "indie classical" movement is truly making strides.